John Addington Symonds.

The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti online

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more that I have so much else to think about that I find it difficult
to live."

This letter of 1548, taken in connection with the circumstances of
Michelangelo's illness in 1544, his exchange of messages with Ruberto
degli Strozzi, his gift of the two Captives to that gentleman, and his
presence in the house of the Strozzi during his recovery, shows the
delicacy of the political situation at Florence under Cosimo's rule.
Slight indications of a reactionary spirit in the aged artist exposed
his family to peril. Living in Rome, Michelangelo risked nothing with
the Florentine government. But "La Polverina" attacked the heirs of
exiles in their property and persons. It was therefore of importance
to establish his non-complicity in revolutionary intrigues. Luckily
for himself and his nephew, he could make out a good case and defend
his conduct. Though Buonarroti's sympathies and sentiments inclined
him to prefer a republic in his native city, and though he threw his
weight into that scale at the crisis of the siege, he did not forget
his early obligations to the House of Medici. Clement VII. accepted
his allegiance when the siege was over, and set him immediately to
work at the tasks he wished him to perform. What is more, the Pope
took pains and trouble to settle the differences between him and the
Duke of Urbino. The man had been no conspirator. The architect and
sculptor was coveted by every pope and prince in Italy. Still there
remained a discord between his political instincts, however prudently
and privately indulged, and his sense of personal loyalty to the
family at whose board he sat in youth, and to whom he owed his
advancement in life. Accordingly, we shall find that, though the Duke
of Tuscany made advances to win him back to Florence, Michelangelo
always preferred to live and die on neutral ground in Rome. Like the
wise man that he was, he seems to have felt through these troublous
times that his own duty, the service laid on him by God and nature,
was to keep his force and mental faculties for art; obliging old
patrons in all kindly offices, suppressing republican aspirations - in
one word, "sticking to his last," and steering clear of shoals on
which the main raft of his life might founder.

From this digression, which was needful to explain his attitude toward
Florence and part of his psychology, I return to the incidents of
Michelangelo's illness at Rome in 1544. Lionardo, having news of his
uncle's danger, came post-haste to Rome. This was his simple duty, as
a loving relative. But the old man, rendered suspicious by previous
transactions with his family, did not take the action in its proper
light. We have a letter, indorsed by Lionardo in Rome as received upon
the 11th of July, to this effect: "Lionardo, I have been ill; and you,
at the instance of Ser Giovan Francesco (probably Fattucci), have come
to make me dead, and to see what I have left. Is there not enough of
mine at Florence to content you? You cannot deny that you are the
image of your father, who turned me out of my own house in Florence.
Know that I have made a will of such tenor that you need not trouble
your head about what I possess at Rome. Go then with God, and do not
present yourself before me; and do not write to me again, and act like
the priest in the fable."

The correspondence between uncle and nephew during the next months
proves that this furious letter wrought no diminution of mutual regard
and affection. Before the end of the year he must have recovered, for
we find him writing to Del Riccio: "I am well again now, and hope to
live yet some years, seeing that God has placed my health under the
care of Maestro Baccio Rontini and the trebbian wine of the Ulivieri."
This letter is referred to January 1545, and on the 9th of that month
he dictated a letter to his friend Del Riccio, in which he tells
Lionardo Buonarroti: "I do not feel well, and cannot write.
Nevertheless I have recovered from my illness, and suffer no pain
now." We have reason to think that Michelangelo fell gravely ill again
toward the close of 1545. News came to Florence that he was dying; and
Lionardo, not intimidated by his experience on the last occasion, set
out to visit him. His _ricordo_ of the journey was as follows: "I note
how on the 15th of January 1545 (Flor. style, _i.e._ 1546) I went to
Rome by post to see Michelangelo, who was ill, and returned to-day,
the 26th."

It is not quite easy to separate the records of these two acute
illnesses of Michelangelo, falling between the summer of 1544 and the
early spring of 1546. Still, there is no doubt that they signalised
his passage from robust old age into a period of physical decline.
Much of life survived in the hero yet; he had still to mould S.
Peter's after his own mind, and to invent the cupola. Intellectually
he suffered no diminution, but he became subject to a chronic disease
of the bladder, and adopted habits suited to decaying faculty.


We have seen that Michelangelo regarded Luigi del Riccio as his most
trusty friend and adviser. The letters which he wrote to him during
these years turn mainly upon business or poetical compositions. Some,
however, throw light upon the private life of both men, and on the
nature of their intimacy. I will select a few for special comment
here. The following has no date; but it is interesting, because we may
connect the feeling expressed in it with one of Michelangelo's
familiar sonnets. "Dear Messer Luigi, since I know you are as great a
master of ceremonies as I am unfit for that trade, I beg you to help
me in a little matter. Monsignor di Todi (Federigo Cesi, afterwards
Cardinal of S. Pancrazio) has made me a present, which Urbino will
describe to you. I think you are a friend of his lordship: will you
then thank him in my name, when you find a suitable occasion, and do
so with those compliments which come easily to you, and to me are very
hard? Make me too your debtor for some tartlet."

The sonnet is No. ix of Signor Guasti's edition. I have translated it
thus: -

_The sugar, candles, and the saddled mule,
Together with your cask of malvoisie,
So far exceed all my necessity
That Michael and not I my debt must rule.
In such a glassy calm the breezes fool
My sinking sails, so that amid the sea
My bark hath missed her way, and seems to be
A wisp of straw whirled on a weltering pool.
To yield thee gift for gift and grace for grace,
For food and drink and carriage to and fro,
For all my need in every time and place,
O my dear lord, matched with the much I owe,
All that I am were no real recompense:
Paying a debt is not munificence._

In the chapter upon Michelangelo's poetry I dwelt at length upon Luigi
del Riccio's passionate affection for his cousin, Cecchino dei Bracci.
This youth died at the age of sixteen, on January 8, 1545.
Michelangelo undertook to design "the modest sepulchre of marble"
erected to his memory by Del Riccio in the church of Araceli. He also
began to write sonnets, madrigals, and epitaphs, which were sent from
day to day. One of his letters gives an explanation of the eighth
epitaph: "Our dead friend speaks and says: if the heavens robbed all
beauty from all other men on earth to make me only, as indeed they
made me, beautiful; and if by the divine decree I must return at
doomsday to the shape I bore in life, it follows that I cannot give
back the beauty robbed from others and bestowed on me, but that I must
remain for ever more beautiful than the rest, and they be ugly. This
is just the opposite of the conceit you expressed to me yesterday; the
one is a fable, the other is the truth."

Some time in 1545 Luigi went to Lyons on a visit to Ruberto Strozzi
and Giuliano de' Medici. This seems to have happened toward the end of
the year; for we possess a letter indorsed by him, "sent to Lyons, and
returned upon the 22nd of December." This document contains several
interesting details. "All your friends are extremely grieved to hear
about your illness, the more so that we cannot help you; especially
Messer Donato (Giannotti) and myself. However, we hope that it may
turn out to be no serious affair, God willing. In another letter I
told you that, if you stayed away long, I meant to come to see you.
This I repeat; for now that I have lost the Piacenza ferry, and cannot
live at Rome without income, I would rather spend the little that I
have in hostelries, than crawl about here, cramped up like a penniless
cripple. So, if nothing happens, I have a mind to go to S. James of
Compostella after Easter; and if you have not returned, I should like
to travel through any place where I shall hear that you are staying.
Urbino has spoken to Messer Aurelio, and will speak again. From what
he tells me, I think that you will get the site you wanted for the
tomb of Cecchino. It is nearly finished, and will turn out handsome."

Michelangelo's project of going upon pilgrimage to Galicia shows that
his health was then good. But we know that he soon afterwards had
another serious illness; and the scheme was abandoned.

This long and close friendship with Luigi comes to a sudden
termination in one of those stormy outbursts of petulant rage which
form a special feature of Michelangelo's psychology. Some angry words
passed between them about an engraving, possibly of the Last Judgment,
which Buonarroti wanted to destroy, while Del Riccio refused to
obliterate the plate: -

"Messer Luigi, - You seem to think I shall reply according to your
wishes, when the case is quite the contrary. You give me what I have
refused, and refuse me what I begged. And it is not ignorance which
makes you send it me through Ercole, when you are ashamed to give it
me yourself. One who saved my life has certainly the power to
disgrace me; but I do not know which is the heavier to bear, disgrace
or death. Therefore I beg and entreat you, by the true friendship
which exists between us, to spoil that print (_stampa_), and to burn
the copies that are already printed off. And if you choose to buy and
sell me, do not so to others. If you hack me into a thousand pieces, I
will do the same, not indeed to yourself, but to what belongs to you.

"Michelangelo Buonarroti.

"Not painter, nor sculptor, nor architect, but what you will, but not
a drunkard, as you said at your house."

Unfortunately, this is the last of the Del Riccio's letters. It is
very probable that the irascible artist speedily recovered his usual
tone, and returned to amity with his old friend. But Del Riccio
departed this life toward the close of this year, 1546.

Before resuming the narrative of Michelangelo's art-work at this
period, I must refer to the correspondence which passed between him
and King Francis I. The King wrote an epistle in the spring of 1546,
requesting some fine monument from the illustrious master's hand.
Michelangelo replied upon the 26th of April, in language of simple and
respectful dignity, fine, as coming from an aged artist to a monarch
on the eve of death: -

"Sacred Majesty, - I know not which is greater, the favour, or the
astonishment it stirs in me, that your Majesty should have deigned to
write to a man of my sort, and still more to ask him for things of his
which are all unworthy of the name of your Majesty. But be they what
they may, I beg your Majesty to know that for a long while since I
have desired to serve you; but not having had an opportunity, owing to
your not being in Italy, I have been unable to do so. Now I am old,
and have been occupied these many months with the affairs of Pope
Paul. But if some space of time is still granted to me after these
engagements, I will do my utmost to fulfil the desire which, as I have
said above, has long inspired me: that is, to make for your Majesty
one work in marble, one in bronze, and one in painting. And if death
prevents my carrying out this wish, should it be possible to make
statues or pictures in the other world, I shall not fail to do so
there, where there is no more growing old. And I pray God that He
grant your Majesty a long and a happy life."

Francis died in 1547; and we do not know that any of Michelangelo's
works passed directly into his hands, with the exception of the Leda,
purchased through the agency of Luigi Alamanni, and the two Captives,
presented by Ruberto Strozzi.


The absorbing tasks imposed upon Buonarroti's energies by Paul III.,
which are mentioned in this epistle to the French king, were not
merely the frescoes of the Cappella Paolina, but also various
architectural and engineering schemes of some importance. It is clear,
I think, that at this period of his hale old age, Michelangelo
preferred to use what still survived in him of vigour and creative
genius for things requiring calculation, or the exercise of meditative
fancy. The time had gone by when he could wield the brush and chisel
with effective force. He was tired of expressing his sense of beauty
and the deep thoughts of his brain in sculptured marble or on frescoed
surfaces. He had exhausted the human form as a symbol of artistic
utterance. But the extraordinary richness of his vein enabled him
still to deal with abstract mathematical proportions in the art of
building, and with rhythms in the art of writing. His best work, both
as architect and poet, belongs to the period when he had lost power as
sculptor and painter. This fact is psychologically interesting. Up to
the age of seventy, he had been working in the plastic and the
concrete. The language he had learned, and used with overwhelming
mastery, was man: physical mankind, converted into spiritual vehicle
by art. His grasp upon this region failed him now. Perhaps there was
not the old sympathy with lovely shapes. Perhaps he knew that he had
played on every gamut of that lyre. Emerging from the sphere of the
sensuous, where ideas take plastic embodiment, he grappled in this
final stage of his career with harmonical ratios and direct verbal
expression, where ideas are disengaged from figurative form. The men
and women, loved by him so long, so wonderfully wrought into
imperishable shapes, "nurslings of immortality," recede. In their room
arise, above the horizon of his intellect, the cupola of S. Peter's
and a few imperishable poems, which will live as long as Italian
claims a place among the languages. There is no comparison to be
instituted between his actual achievements as a builder and a
versifier. The whole tenor of his life made him more competent to deal
with architecture than with literature. Nevertheless, it is
significant that the versatile genius of the man was henceforth
restricted to these two channels of expression, and that in both of
them his last twenty years of existence produced bloom and fruit of
unexpected rarity.

After writing this paragraph, and before I engage in the narrative of
what is certainly the final manifestation of Michelangelo's genius as
a creative artist, I ought perhaps to pause, and to give some account
of those survivals from his plastic impulse, which occupied the old
man's energies for several years. They were entirely the outcome of
religious feeling; and it is curious to notice that he never
approached so nearly to true Christian sentiment as in the fragmentary
designs which we may still abundantly collect from this late autumn of
his artist's life. There are countless drawings for some great picture
of the Crucifixion, which was never finished: exquisite in delicacy of
touch, sublime in conception, dignified in breadth and grand repose of
style. Condivi tells us that some of these were made for the
Marchioness of Pescara. But Michelangelo must have gone on producing
them long after her death. With these phantoms of stupendous works to
be, the Museums of Europe abound. We cannot bring them together, or
condense them into a single centralised conception. Their interest
consists in their divergence and variety, showing the continuous
poring of the master's mind upon a theme he could not definitely
grasp. For those who love his work, and are in sympathy with his
manner, these drawings, mostly in chalk, and very finely handled, have
a supreme interest. They show him, in one sense, at his highest and
his best, not only as a man of tender feeling, but also as a mighty
draughtsman. Their incompleteness testifies to something pathetic - the
humility of the imperious man before a theme he found to be beyond the
reach of human faculty.

The tone, the _Stimmung_, of these designs corresponds so exactly to
the sonnets of the same late period, that I feel impelled at this
point to make his poetry take up the tale. But, as I cannot bring the
cloud of witnesses of all those drawings into this small book, so am I
unwilling to load its pages with poems which may be found elsewhere.
Those who care to learn the heart of Michelangelo, when he felt near
to God and face to face with death, will easily find access to the

Concerning the Deposition from the Cross, which now stands behind the
high altar of the Florentine Duomo, Condivi writes as follows: "At the
present time he has in hand a work in marble, which he carries on for
his pleasure, as being one who, teeming with conceptions, must needs
give birth each day to some of them. It is a group of four figures
larger than life. A Christ taken from the cross, sustained in death by
his Mother, who is represented in an attitude of marvellous pathos,
leaning up against the corpse with breast, with arms, and lifted knee.
Nicodemus from above assists her, standing erect and firmly planted,
propping the dead Christ with a sturdy effort; while one of the
Maries, on the left side, though plunged in sorrow, does all she can
to assist the afflicted Mother, failing under the attempt to raise her
Son. It would be quite impossible to describe the beauty of style
displayed in this group, or the sublime emotions expressed in those
woe-stricken countenances. I am confident that the Pietà is one of his
rarest and most difficult masterpieces; particularly because the
figures are kept apart distinctly, nor does the drapery of the one
intermingle with that of the others."

This panegyric is by no means pitched too high. Justice has hardly
been done in recent times to the noble conception, the intense
feeling, and the broad manner of this Deposition. That may be due in
part to the dull twilight in which the group is plunged, depriving all
its lines of salience and relief. It is also true that in certain
respects the composition is fairly open to adverse criticism. The
torso of Christ overweighs the total scheme; and his legs are
unnaturally attenuated. The kneeling woman on the left side is
slender, and appears too small in proportion to the other figures;
though, if she stood erect, it is probable that her height would be

The best way to study Michelangelo's last work in marble is to take
the admirable photograph produced under artificial illumination by
Alinari. No sympathetic mind will fail to feel that we are in
immediate contact with the sculptor's very soul, at the close of his
life, when all his thoughts were weaned from earthly beauty, and he
cried -

Painting nor sculpture now can lull to rest
My soul, that turns to his great love on high,
Whose arms to clasp us on the cross were spread.

As a French critic has observed: "It is the most intimately personal
and the most pathetic of his works. The idea of penitence exhales from
it. The marble preaches the sufferings of the Passion; it makes us
listen to an act of bitter contrition and an act of sorrowing love."

Michelangelo is said to have designed the Pietà for his own monument.
In the person of Nicodemus, it is he who sustains his dead Lord in the
gloom of the sombre Duomo. His old sad face, surrounded by the heavy
cowl, looks down for ever with a tenderness beyond expression,
repeating mutely through the years how much of anguish and of blood
divine the redemption of man's soul hath cost.

The history of this great poem in marble, abandoned by its maker in
some mood of deep dejection, is not without interest. We are told that
the stone selected was a capital from one of the eight huge columns of
the Temple of Peace. Besides being hard and difficult to handle, the
material betrayed flaws in working. This circumstance annoyed the
master; also, as he informed Vasari, Urbino kept continually urging
him to finish it. One of his reasons for attacking the block had been
to keep himself in health by exercise. Accordingly he hewed away with
fury, and bit so deep into the marble that he injured one of the
Madonna's elbows. When this happened, it was his invariable practice
to abandon the piece he had begun upon, feeling that an incomplete
performance was preferable to a lame conclusion. In his old age he
suffered from sleeplessness; and it was his habit to rise from bed and
work upon the Pietà, wearing a thick paper cap, in which he placed a
lighted candle made of goat's tallow. This method of chiselling by the
light of one candle must have complicated the technical difficulties
of his labour. But what we may perhaps surmise to have been his final
motive for the rejection of the work, was a sense of his inability,
with diminished powers of execution, and a still more vivid sense of
the importance of the motive, to accomplish what the brain conceived.
The hand failed. The imagination of the subject grew more intimate and
energetic. Losing patience then at last, he took a hammer and began to
break the group up. Indeed, the right arm of the Mary shows a
fracture. The left arm of the Christ is mutilated in several places.
One of the nipples has been repaired, and the hand of the Madonna
resting on the breast above it is cracked across. It would have been
difficult to reduce the whole huge block to fragments; and when the
work of destruction had advanced so far, Michelangelo's servant
Antonio, the successor to Urbino, begged the remnants from his master.
Tiberio Calcagni was a good friend of Buonarroti's at this time. He
heard that Francesco Bandini, a Florentine settled in exile at Rome,
earnestly desired some relic of the master's work. Accordingly,
Calgagni, with Michelangelo's consent, bought the broken marble from
Antonio for 200 crowns, pieced it together, and began to mend it.
Fortunately, he does not seem to have elaborated the surface in any
important particular; for both the finished and unfinished parts bear
indubitable marks of Michelangelo's own handling. After the death of
Calcagni and Bandini, the Pietà remained for some time in the garden
of Antonio, Bandini's heir, at Montecavallo. It was transferred to
Florence, and placed among the marbles used in erecting the new
Medicean Chapel, until at last, in 1722, the Grand Duke Cosimo III.
finally set it up behind the altar of the Duomo.

Vasari adds that Michelangelo began another Pietà in marble on a much
smaller scale. It is possible that this may have been the unfinished
group of two figures (a dead Christ sustained by a bending man), of
which there is a cast in the Accademia at Florence. In some respects
the composition of this fragment bears a strong resemblance to the
puzzling Deposition from the Cross in our National Gallery. The
trailing languor of the dead Christ's limbs is almost identical in the
marble and the painting.

While speaking of these several Pietàs, I must not forget the
medallion in high relief of the Madonna clasping her dead Son, which
adorns the Albergo dei Poveri at Genoa. It is ascribed to
Michelangelo, was early believed to be his, and is still accepted
without hesitation by competent judges. In spite of its strongly
marked Michelangelesque mannerism, both as regards feeling, facial
type, and design, I cannot regard the bas-relief, in its present
condition at least, as a genuine work, but rather as the production of
some imitator, or the _rifacimento_ of a restorer. A similar
impression may here be recorded regarding the noble portrait-bust in
marble of Pope Paul III. at Naples. This too has been attributed to
Michelangelo. But there is no external evidence to support the
tradition, while the internal evidence from style and technical
manipulation weighs strongly against it. The medallions introduced
upon the heavily embroidered cope are not in his style. The treatment
of the adolescent female form in particular indicates a different
temperament. Were the ascription made to Benvenuto Cellini, we might
have more easily accepted it. But Cellini would certainly have
enlarged upon so important a piece of sculpture in his Memoirs. If

Online LibraryJohn Addington SymondsThe Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti → online text (page 35 of 45)