How can that be, lady, which all men learn
By long experience? Shapes that seem alive,
Wrought in hard mountain marble, will survive
Their maker, whom the years to dust return!
Thus to effect, cause yields. Art hath her turn,
And triumphs over Nature. I, who strive with sculpture,
Know this well: her wonders live
In spite of time and death, those tyrants stern.
So I can give long life to both of us
In either way, by color or by stone,
Making the semblance of thy face and mine.
Centuries hence when both are buried,
Thus thy beauty and my sadness shall be shown,
And men shall say, "For her 'twas wise to pine."
—Sonnets of Michelangelo
"Call me by my pet name," wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in one of those incomparable sonnets of which the Portuguese never heard. And the task yet remains for some psychologist to tell us why, when we wish to bestow the highest honor, coupled with familiar affection, we call the individual by a given name.
Young men and maidens will understand my allusion; and I hope this book will not suffer the dire fate of falling into the hands of any one who has forgotten the days of his youth.
In addressing the one we truly revere, we drop all prefix and titles. Soldiers marching under the banner of a beloved leader ever have for him a name of their own. What honor and trust were once compressed into the diminutive, "Little Corporal" or Kipling's "Bobs"; or, to come down to something even more familiar to us, say, "Old Abe" and "Little Phil"!
The earth is a vast graveyard where untold millions of men lie buried, but out of the myriads who pass into forgetfulness every decade, the race holds a few names embalmed in undying amber.
Lovers of art, the round world over, carry in their minds one character, so harmoniously developed on every side of his nature that we say twenty centuries have never produced his equal. We call him "Leonardo"—the one ideal man. Leonardo da Vinci was painter, poet, sculptor, architect, mathematician, politician, musician, man of science, and courtier. His disposition was so joyous, his manner so captivating, his form and countenance so beautiful, that wherever he went all things were his. And he was so well ballasted with brains, and so acute in judgment, that flattery spoiled him not. His untiring industry and transcendent talent brought him large sums of money, and he spent them like a king. So potent was his personality that wherever he made his home there naturally grew up around him a Court of Learning, and his pupils and followers were counted by the score. To the last of his long life he carried with him the bright, expectant animation of youth; and to all who knew him he was "Leonardo—the only Leonardo."
But great as was Leonardo, we call the time in which he lived, the age of Michelangelo.
When Leonardo was forty, and at the very height of his power, Michel Agnola Buonarroti, aged twenty, liberated from the block a marble Cupid that was so exquisite in its proportions that it passed for an antique, and men who looked upon it exclaimed, "Phidias!"
Michel Agnola became Michelangelo, that is to say, "Michel the Angel," in a day. The name thrown at him by an unknown admirer stuck, and in his later years when all the world called him "Angelo" he cast off the name his parents had given him and accepted the affectionate pet name that clung like the love of woman.
Michelangelo was born in a shabby little village but a few miles from Florence. In another village near by was born Leonardo. "Great men never come singly," says Emerson. And yet Angelo and Leonardo exercised no influence upon each other that we can trace. The younger man never came under the spell of the older one, but moved straight on to his destiny, showing not the slightest arc in his orbit in deference to the great luminary of his time.
The handsome Leonardo was social: he loved women, and music, and festivals, and gorgeous attire, and magnificent equipage. His life was full of color and sweeping, joyous, rainbow tints.
Michelangelo was homely in feature, and the aspect of his countenance was mutilated by a crashing blow from a rival student's mallet that flattened his nose to his face. Torrigiano lives in history for this act alone, thus proving that there are more ways than one to gain immortality.
Angelo was proud, self-centered, independent, and he sometimes lashed the critics into a buzzing, bluebottle fury by his sarcastic speech. "He affronted polite society, conformed to no one's dictates, lived like an ascetic and worked like a packmule," says a contemporary.
Vasari, who among his many other accomplishments seems to have been the Boswell of his time, compares Leonardo and Michelangelo. He says, "Angelo can do everything that Leonardo can, although he does it differently." Further, he adds, "Angelo is painter, sculptor, engineer, architect and poet." "But," adds this versatile Italian Samuel Pepys, somewhat sorrowfully, "he is not a gentleman."
It is to be regretted that Signor Vasari did not follow up his remarks with his definition of the term "gentleman."
Leonardo was more of a painter than a sculptor. His pictures are full of rollicking mirth, and the smile on the faces of his women is handed down by imitation even to this day. The joyous freedom of animal life beckons from every Leonardo canvas; and the backgrounds fade off into fleecy clouds and shadowy, dreamy, opiate odor of violets.
Michelangelo, however, is true to his own life as Leonardo was to his—for at the last the artist only reproduces himself. He never painted a laugh, for life to him was serious and full of sober purpose. We can not call his work somber—it does not depress—for it carries with it a poise and a strength that is sufficient unto itself. It is all heroic, and there is in it a subtle quality that exorcises fear and bids care begone.
No man ever portrayed the human figure with the same fidelity that Angelo has. The naked Adam, when the finger of the Almighty touched him into life, gives one a thrill of health to look upon, even after these four hundred years have struggled to obliterate the lines.
His figures of women shocked the artistic sense of his time, for instead of the Greek idealization of beauty he carved the swelling muscles and revealed the articulations of form as no artist before him had ever dared. His women are never young, foolish, timid girls—they are Amazons; and his men are the kind that lead nations out of captivity. The soft, the pretty, the yielding, were far from him. There is never a suggestion of taint or double meaning; all is frank, open, generous, honest and fearless. His figures are nude, but never naked.
He began his artistic work when fourteen years old, and he lived to be eighty-nine; and his years did not outlast his zeal and zest. He was above the medium size, an athlete in his lean and sinewy strength, and the whipcord quality of his body mirrored the silken strength of his will.
In his old age the King arose when Michelangelo entered the Council-Chamber, and would not sit until he was seated at the right hand of the throne; the Pope would not allow him to kneel before him; when he walked through the streets of Rome the people removed their hats as he passed; and today we who gaze upon his work in the Eternal City stand uncovered.
Michelangelo was the firstborn in a large family. Simone Buonarroti, his father, belonged to an ebbtide branch of the nobility that had lost everything but the memory of great ancestors turned to dust. This father had ambitions for his boy; ambitions in the line of the army or a snug office under the wing of the State, where he might, by following closely the beck and nod of the prince in power, become a magistrate or a keeper of customs.
But no boy ever disappointed a proud father more.
When great men in gilt and gold braid, with scarlet sashes across their breasts, and dangling swords that clicked and clanged on the stone pavement, strode by, rusty, dusty little Michel refused to take off his cap and wish them "Long life and God's favor," as his father ordered. Instead, he hid behind his mother's gown and made faces. His father used to say he was about as homely as he could be without making faces, and if he didn't watch out he would get his face crooked some day and couldn't get it back.
Simone Buonarroti had qualities very Micawber-like mixed in his clay, and the way he cringed and crawled may have had something to do with setting the son on the other tack.
The mother was only nineteen when Michel was born, and although the moralists talk much about woman's vanity and extravagance, the theory gets no backing from this quarter. She was a plain woman in appearance, quiet and self-contained, with no nerves to speak of, a sturdy, physical endowment, and commonsense enough for two. When scarcely out of dresses the boy began to draw pictures. He drew with charcoal on the walls, or with a stick in the sand, and shaped curious things out of mud in the gutters.
It was an age of creative art, and most of the work being in the churches the common people had their part in it. In fact, the common people were the artists. And when Simone Buonarroti found his twelve-year-old boy haunting the churches to watch the workmen, and also discovered that he was consorting with the youths who studied drawing in the atelier of Ghirlandajo, he was displeased.
Painters, to this erstwhile nobleman, were simply men in blue blouses who worked for low wages on high scaffolds, and occasionally spattered color on the good clothes of ladies and gentlemen who were beneath. He didn't really hate painters, he simply waived them; and to his mind there was no difference between an artisan and an artist.
The mother, however, took a secret pride in her boy's drawings, as mothers always do in a son's accomplishments. Doubtless she knew something of the art of decoration, too, for she had brothers who worked as day laborers on high scaffolds. Yet she didn't say much about it, for women then didn't have so much to say about anything as now.
But I can imagine that this good woman, as she went daily to church to pray, the year before her first child was born, watched the work of the men on the scaffolds, and observed that day by day the pictures grew; and as she looked, the sun streamed through stained windows and revealed to her the miracles of form and color, and the impressions of "The Annunciation," "Mary's Visit to Elizabeth" and "The Babe in the Manger" filled her wondering soul with thoughts and feelings too great for speech. To his mother was Michelangelo indebted for his leaning toward art. His father opposed such a plebeian bent vigorously:
"Bah! to love beautiful things is all right, but to wish to devote all of one's time to making them, just for others—ouch! it hurts me to think of it!"
The mother was lenient and said, "But if our child can not be anything more than a painter—why, we must be content, and God willing, let us hope he will be a good one."
Ghirlandajo's was practically a school where, for a consideration, boys were taught the secrets of fresco. The master always had contracts of his own on hand and by using 'prentice talent made both ends meet. Young Michel made it his lounging-place and when he strayed from home his mother always knew where to find him.
The master looked upon him as a possible pupil, and instead of ordering him away, smiled indulgently and gave him tasks of mixing colors and making simple lines. And the boy showed such zest and comprehension that in a short time he could draw freehand with a confidence that set the brightest scholar in the background. Such a pupil, so alert, so willing, so anxious, is the joy of a teacher's heart. Ghirlandajo must have him—he would inspire the whole school!
So the master went to the father, but the father demurred, and his scruples were only overcome when Ghirlandajo offered to reverse the rule, and pay the father the sum that parents usually paid the master. A cash payment down caused pater to capitulate, and the boy went to work—aged fourteen.
The terms of his apprenticeship called for three years, but after he had been at work a year, the ability of the youth made such an impression on the master that he took him to Lorenzo, Lorenzo the Magnificent, who then ruled over Florence.
Lorenzo had him draw a few sketches, and he was admitted to the Academy. This "Academy" was situated in the palace of Lorenzo, and in the gardens was a rich collection of antique marbles: busts, columns, and valuable fragments that had come down from the days when Pericles did for Athens what Lorenzo was then doing for Florence. The march of commerce has overrun the garden, but in the Uffizi Gallery are to be seen today most of the curios that Lorenzo collected.
By introducing the lad to Lorenzo, Ghirlandajo lost his best helper, but so unselfish was this excellent master that he seemed quite willing to forego his own profit that the boy might have the best possible advantages. And I never think of Ghirlandajo without mentally lifting my hat.
At the Academy, Michelangelo ceased to paint and draw, and devoted all his energies to modeling in clay. So intent was his application that in a few weeks he had mastered technicalities that took others years to comprehend.
One day the father came and found the boy in a blouse at work with mallet and chisel on a block of marble. "And is it a stone-mason you want to make of my heir and firstborn?" asked the fond father.
It was explained that there were stone-masons and stone-masons. A stone-mason of transcendent skill is a sculptor, just as a painter who can produce a beautiful picture is an artist.
Simone Buonarroti acknowledged he had never looked at it just in that way, but still he would not allow his son to remain at the trade unless—unless he himself had an office under the government.
Lorenzo gave him the desired office, and took the young stone-mason as one of the Medici family, and there the boy lived in the Palace, and Lorenzo acted toward him as though he were his son.
The favor with which he was treated excited the envy of some of the other pupils, and thus it was that in sudden wrath Torrigiano struck him that murderous blow with the mallet. Torrigiano paid for his fierce temper, not only by expulsion from the Academy, but by banishment from Florence.
Michelangelo was the brightest of the hundred young men who worked and studied at the Medici palace.
But when this head scholar was eighteen Lorenzo died. The son of Lorenzo continued his father's work in a feeble way, for Piero de Medici was a good example of the fact that great men seldom reproduce themselves after the flesh. Piero had about as much comprehension of the beautiful as the elder Buonarroti. He thought that all these young men who were being educated at the Academy would eventually be valuable adjuncts to the State, and as such it was a good scheme to give each a trade—besides, it kept them off the street; and then the work was amusing, a diversion to the nobility when time hung heavy.
Once there came a heavy snowstorm, and snow being an unusual thing in Florence, Piero called a lot of his friends together in the gardens, and summoning Michelangelo, ordered him to make a snow image for the amusement of the guests, just as Piero at other times had a dog jump through a hoop.
"What shall it be?" asked Michelangelo.
"Oh, anything you please," replied Piero; "only don't keep us waiting here in the cold all day!"
Young Angelo cast one proud look of contempt toward the group and set to work making a statue. In ten minutes he had formed a satyr that bore such a close resemblance to Piero that the guests roared with laughter. "That will do," called Piero; "like Deity, you make things in your own image." Some of the company tossed silver coin at the young man, but he let the money lie where it fell.
Michel at this time was applying himself to the study of anatomy, and giving his attention to literature under the tutorship of the famous poet and scholar, Poliziano, who resided at the court.
So filled was the young man's mind with his work that he was blind to the discontent arising in the State. To the young, governments and institutions are imperishable. Piero by his selfish whims had been digging the grave of the Medici. From sovereignty they were flung into exile. The palace was sacked, the beautiful gardens destroyed, and Michelangelo, being regarded as one of the family, was obliged to flee for his life. He arrived in Bologna penniless and friendless, and applied to a sculptor for work. "What can you do?" the old sculptor asked. For answer, Michelangelo silently took a crayon and sketched a human hand on the wall. Marvelous were the lines! The master put his arms around the boy and kissed his cheek.
This new-found friend took him into his house, and placed him at his own table. Michelangelo was led into the library and workrooms, and told that all was his to use as he liked.
The two years he remained at Bologna were a great benefit to the young man. The close contact with cultured minds, and the encouragement he received, spurred his spirit to increased endeavor. It was here that he began that exquisite statue of a Cupid that passed for an antique, and found its way into the cabinet of the Duchess of Mantua.
Before long the discovery was made that the work was done by a young man only a little past twenty, and Cardinal San Giorgio sent a message inviting him to Rome.
Rome had long been the Mecca of the boy's ambitions, and he joyously accepted the invitation. At Rome he was lodged in the Vatican, and surrounded by that world of the beautiful, he went seriously about his life's work. The Church must have the credit for being the mother of modern art. Not only did she furnish the incentive, but she supplied the means. She gave security from the eternal grind of material wants and offered men undying fame as reward for noble effort.
The letter of religion was nothing to Michelangelo, but the eternal spirit of truth that broods over and beyond all forms and ceremonies touched his soul. His heart was filled with the poetry of pagan times. The gods of ancient Greece on high Olympus for him still sang and feasted, still lived and loved.
But to the art of the Church he devoted his time and talents. He considered himself a priest and servant to the cause of Christ.
Established at Rome in the palace of the Pope, Michelangelo felt secure. He knew his power. He knew he could do work that would for generations move men to tears, and in his prophetic soul was a feeling that his name would be inseparably linked with Rome. His wanderings and buffetings were things of the past—he was necessary to the Church, and his position was now secure and safe. The favor of princes lasts but for a day, but the Church is eternal. The Church should be his bride; to her and to her alone would he give his passionate soul. Thus mused Michelangelo, aged twenty-two. His first work at Rome was a statue of Bacchus, done it seems for an exercise to give Cardinal Giorgio a taste of his quality, just as he had drawn the human hand on the wall for his Bologna protector; for this fine and lofty pride in his power was a thing that clung to Michelangelo from rosy youth to hoary age.
The "Bacchus," which is now in the National Museum at Florence, added to his reputation; and the little world of art, whose orbit was the Vatican, anxiously awaited a more serious attempt, just as we crane our necks when the great violinist about to play awakens expectation by a few preliminary flourishes.
His first great work at Rome was the "Pieta." We see it today in Saint Peter's at the first chapel to the right as we enter, in a long row of commonplace marbles, in all its splendid beauty and strength. It represents the Mother of Christ, supporting in her arms the dead body just after it was lowered from the cross. In most of Michelangelo's work there is a heroic quality in the figures and a muscular strength that in a degree detracts from the spirit of sympathy that might otherwise come over us. It is admiration that seizes us, not sympathy. But this early work is the flower of Michelangelo's genius, round and full and complete. The later work may be different, but it is not better.
When this group was unveiled in Fourteen Hundred Ninety-eight it was the sensation of the year. Old and young, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, flocked to see it, and the impression it made was most profound. If the Catholic Church has figured on the influence of statuary and painting on the superstitious, as has been tauntingly said, she has reckoned well. The story of steadfast love and loyalty is masterly told in that first great work of Michelangelo. The artist himself often mingled with the crowds that surrounded his speaking marble, and the people who knelt before it assured him by their reverence that his hand had wrought well. And once he heard two able doctors disputing as to who the artist was. They were lavish in their praise, and one insisted that the work was done by the great sculptor at Bologna, and he named the master who had befriended Michelangelo. The artist stood by and heard the argument put forth that no mere youth could conceive such a work, much less execute it.
That night he stole into the church and by the wan light of a lantern carved his name deep on the girdle of the Virgin, and there do we read it today. The pride of the artist, however, afterward took another turn, for he never thereafter placed his name on a piece. "My work is unlike any other—no lover of the beautiful can mistake it," he proudly said.
He worked away with untiring industry and the Church paid him well. But many of his pieces have been carried from Rome, and as they were not signed and scores of imitations sprang up, it can not always be determined now what is his work and what not. He toiled alone, and allowed no 'prentice hand to use the chisel, and unlike the sculptors of our day, did not work from a clay model, but fell upon the block direct. "I caught sight of Michelangelo at work, but could not approach for the shower of chips," writes a visitor at Rome in the year Fifteen Hundred One.
Perfect peace is what Michelangelo expected to find in the palace of the Pope. Later he came to know that life is unrest, and its passage at best a zigzag course, that only straightens to a direct line when viewed across the years. If a man does better work than his fellows he must pay the penalty. Personality is an offense.
In Rome there was a small army of painters and sculptors, each eager and anxious for the sole favor of the powers. They quibbled, quarreled, bribed, cajoled, and even fair women used their influence with cardinals and bishops in favor of this artist or that.
Michelangelo was never a favorite in society; simpering beauty peeked at him from behind feather fans and made jokes concerning his appearance. Yet Walter Pater thought he found evidence that at this time Michelangelo was beloved by a woman, and that the artist reproduced her face and form, and indirectly pictured her in poems. In feature she was as plain as he; but her mind matched his, and was of a cast too high and excellent to allow him to swerve from his high ideals. Yet the love ended unhappily, and in some mysterious way gave a tinge of melancholy and a secret spring of sorrow to the whole long life of the artist.
Jealous competitors made their influence felt. Michelangelo found his work relegated to corners and his supplies cut short.
At this time an invitation came from Florence for him to come and make use of a gigantic block of marble that had lain there at the city gate, blackening in the dirt, for a century.
The Florence that had banished him, now begged him to come back.
"Those who once leave Florence always sigh to return," says Dante. He returned, and at once began work on the "David." The result was the heroic statue that stood for three hundred years at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, only a hundred feet from where Savonarola was hanged and burned. The "David" is now in the Belle d' Arte, and if the custodian will allow you to climb up on a ladder you will see that the top of the head shows the rough unfinished slab, just as it was taken from the quarry. Any one but a master would have finished the work.
This magnificent statue took nearly two years to complete. As a study of growing youth, boldly recognizing all that is awkward and immature, it has never ceased to cause wordy warfare to reign in the camp of the critics. "The feet, hands and head are all too large," the Athenians say. But linger around the "old swimmin'-hole" any summer day, and you will see tough, bony, muscular boys that might have served as a model for the "David."
The heads of statues made by the Greeks are small in proportion to the body. The "Gladiator" wears a Number Six hat, and the "Discobolus" one size smaller; yet the figures represent men weighing one hundred eighty pounds each. The Greeks aimed to satisfy the eye, and as the man is usually seen clothed, they reduced the size of the head when they showed the nude figure.
But Michelangelo was true to Nature, and the severest criticism ever brought against him is that he is absolutely loyal to truth. He was the first man ever to paint or model the slim, slender form of a child that has left its round baby shape behind and is shooting up like a lily-stalk. A nude, hardy boy six years old reveals ankle-bones, kneecap, sharp hips, ribs, collar-bone and shoulder-blade with startling fidelity. And why, being Nature's work, it is any less lovely than a condition of soft, cushioned adipose, we must let the critics tell, but Michelangelo thought it wasn't.
From Fourteen Hundred Ninety-six, when Michelangelo first arrived in Rome, to Fifteen Hundred Four, he worked at nothing but sculpture. But now a change came over his restless spirit, for an invitation had come from the Gonfaloniere of Florence to decorate one of the rooms of the Town Hall, in competition with Leonardo da Vinci—the only Leonardo.
He painted that strong composition showing Florentine soldiers bathing in the Arno. The scene depicts the surprise of the warriors as a trumpet sounds, calling them to battle with the enemy that is near at hand. The subject was chosen because it gave opportunity for exploiting the artist's marvelous knowledge of anatomy. Thirty figures are shown in various attitudes. Nearly all are nude, and as they scramble up the bank, buckling on their armor as they rush forward, eager for the fight, we see the wild, splendid swell of muscle and warm, tense, pulsing flesh. As an example of Michelangelo's consummate knowledge of form it was believed to be his finest work.
But it did not last long; the jealous Bandinelli made a strong bid for fame by destroying it. And thus do Bandinelli and Torrigiano go clattering down the corridors of time hand in hand. Yet we know what the picture was, for various men who saw it recorded their impressions; but although many of the younger artists of Italy flocked to Florence to see it, and many copied it, only one copy has come down to us—the one in the collection of the Earl of Leicester, at Holkham.
So even beautiful Florence could not treat her gifted son with impartiality, and when a call came from Pope Julius the Second, who had been elected in Fifteen Hundred Three, to return to Rome, the summons was promptly obeyed.
Julius was one of the most active and vigorous rulers the earth has known. He had positive ideas on many subjects and like Napoleon "could do the thinking for a world."
The first work he laid out for Michelangelo was a tomb, three stories high, with walls eighteen feet thick at the base, surrounded with numerous bas-reliefs and thirty heroic statues. It was to be a monument on the order of those worked out by the great Rameses, only incorporating the talent of Greece with that of ancient and modern Rome.
Michelangelo spent nearly a year at the Carrara quarries, getting out materials and making plans for forwarding the scheme. But gradually it came over him that the question of economy, which was deeply rooted in the mind of Julius, forbade the completion of such a gigantic and costly work. Had Julius given Michelangelo "carte-blanche" orders on the treasury, and not meddled with the plans, this surpassing piece of architecture might have found form. But the fiery Julius, aged seventy-four, was influenced by the architect Bramante to demand from Michelangelo a bill of expense and definite explanation as to details.
Very shortly after, Michelangelo quit work and sent a note to the Pope to the effect that the tomb was in the mountain of Carrara, with many beautiful statues, and if he wanted them he had better look for some one to get them out. As for himself, his address was Florence.
The Pope sent couriers after him, one after another until five had been dispatched, but neither pleading, bribes nor threats could induce him to return.
As the scientist constructs the extinct animal from a thigh-bone, so we can guess the grandeur of what the tomb might have been from the single sample that has come down to us. The one piece of work that was completed for this tomb is the statue of "Moses." If the reputation of Michelangelo rested upon nothing else than this statue, it would be sufficient for undying fame. The "Moses" probably is better known than any other piece of Michelangelo's work. Copies of it exist in all important galleries; there are casts of it in fifty different museums in America, and pictures of it are numberless. There it stands in the otherwise obscure church of Saint Pietro in Vincolo today, one hand grasping the flowing beard, and the other sustaining the tables of the law—majesty, strength, wisdom beaming in every line. As Mr. Symonds has said, "It reveals the power of Pope Julius and Michelangelo fused into a Jove."
And so the messengers and messages were in vain, and even when the Pope sent an order to the Gonfaloniere Soderini, the actual ruler of Florence, to return the artist on pain of displeasure, the matter still rested—Michelangelo said he was neither culprit nor slave, and would live where he wished.
At length the matter got so serious that it threatened the political peace of Florence, and in the goodly company of cardinals, bishops and chief citizens, Michelangelo was induced to go to Bologna and make peace with the Pope.
His first task now was a bronze statue of Julius, made, it is stated, as a partial reproduction of the "Moses." Descriptions of it declare it was even finer than the "Moses," but alas! it only endured four years, for a mob evolved it into a cannon to shoot stones, and at the same time ousted Julius from Bologna.
Michelangelo very naturally seconded the anathematization of the Bolognese by Julius, not so much for the insult to the Pope as for the wretched lack of taste they had shown in destroying a work of art. Had they left the beautiful statue there on its pedestal, Bologna would now on that account alone be a place of pilgrimage. The cannon they made is lost and forgotten—buried deep in the sand by its own weight—for Mein Herr Krupp can make cannon; but, woe betide us! who can make a statue such as Michelangelo made?
Michelangelo now followed the Pope to Rome and began a work that none other dare attempt, but which today excites the jealous admiration of every artist soul who views it—the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Ghirlandajo, Perugino, Botticelli and Luca Signorelli had worked on the walls with good effect, but to lie on one's back and paint overhead so as to bring out a masterly effect when viewed from seventy feet below was something they dare not attempt. Michelangelo put up his scaffolds, drew designs, and employed the best fresco artists in Italy to fill in the color. But as they used their brushes he saw that the designs became enfeebled under their attempts—they did not grasp the conception—and in wrath he discharged them all. He then obliterated all they had done, and shutting out the ceiling from every one but himself, worked alone. Often for days he would not leave the building, for fear some one would meddle with the work. He drew up food by a string and slept on the scaffold without changing his clothes.
After a year of intense application, no one but the artist had viewed the work. The Pope now demanded that he should be allowed to see it. A part of the scaffolding was struck, and the delight of the old Pope was unbounded. This was in Fifteen Hundred Nine, but the completed work was not shown to the public until All Souls' Day, Fifteen Hundred Twelve.
The guides at the Vatican tell us this ceiling was painted in twenty-two months, but the letters of Michelangelo, recently published, show that he worked on it over four years.
It contains over three hundred figures, all larger than life, and some are fifteen feet long. A complete description of the work Michelangelo did in this private chapel of the Pope would require a book, and in fact several books have been written with this ceiling as a subject. The technical obstacles to overcome in painting scenes and figures on an overhead surface can only be appreciated by those who have tried it. We can better appreciate the difficulties when we think that, in order even to view the decorations with satisfaction, large mirrors must be used, or one must lie prone on his back. In the ability to foreshorten and give harmonious perspective—supplying the effect of motion, distance, upright movement, coming toward you or moving away—all was worked out in this historic chapel in a way that has excited the wondering admiration of artists for three hundred years.
When the scaffolding was at last removed, the artist thought for a time he had done his last work. The unnatural positions he had been obliged to take had so strained the muscles of his neck that on the street he had often to look straight up at the sky to rest himself, and things on a straight line in front he could not distinguish. Eyes, muscles, hands, refused to act normally.
"My life is there on the ceiling of the Chapel of Sixtus," he said.
He was then thirty-nine years old.
Fifty eventful years of life and work were yet before him.
When Pope Julius died, in Fifteen Hundred Thirteen, Leo the Tenth, a son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, was called to take his place. We might suppose that Leo would have remembered with pride the fact that it was his father who gave Michelangelo his first start in life, and have treated the great artist in the way Lorenzo would, were he then alive. But the retiring, abstemious habits of Michelangelo did not appeal to Leo. The handsome and gracious Raphael was his favorite, and at the expense of Michelangelo, Raphael was petted, feted and advanced. Hence arose that envious rivalry between these two great men, which reveals each in a light far from pleasant—just as if Rome were not big enough for both. The pontificate of Leo the Tenth lasted just ten years. On account of the lack of encouragement Michelangelo received, it seems the most fruitless season of his whole life.
Clement the Seventh, another member of the Medici family, succeeded Leo. Clement was too sensible of Michelangelo's merit to allow him to rust out his powers in petty tasks. He conceived the idea of erecting a chapel to be attached to the church of San Lorenzo, at Florence, to be the final resting-place of the great members of the Medici family. Michelangelo planned and built the chapel and for it wrought six great pieces of art. These are the statues of Lorenzo de Medici, father of Catherine de Medici (who was such a large, black blot on the page of history); a statue of Giuliano de Medici (whose name lives now principally because Michelangelo made this statue); and the four colossal reclining figures known as "Night," "Morning," "Dawn" and "Twilight." This chapel is now open to the public, and no visitor at Florence should miss seeing it.
The statue of Lorenzo must ever rank as one of the world's masterpieces. The Italians call it "Il Pensiero." The sullen strength of the attitude gives one a vague ominous impulse to get away. Some one has said that it fulfils Milton's conception of Satan brooding over his plans for the ruin of mankind.
In Fifteen Hundred Twenty-seven, while Michelangelo was working on the chapel, Florence was attacked and sacked by the Constable de Bourbon. The Medici family was again expelled, and from the leisurely decoration of a church in honor of the gentle Christ, the artist was called upon to build barricades to protect his native city. His ingenuity as an engineer was as consummate as his exquisite idea of harmony, and for nine months the city was defended.
Through treachery the enemy was then allowed to enter and Michelangelo fled. Riots and wars seem as natural as thunderstorms to the Latin people; but after a year the clouds rolled by, Michelangelo was pardoned, and went back to his work of beautifying the chapel of San Lorenzo.
In Fifteen Hundred Thirty-four, Pope Clement was succeeded by Paul the Third. Paul was seventy years old, but the vigor of his mind was very much like that of the great Julius. His first desire was to complete the decoration of the Sistine Chapel, so that the entire interior should match the magnificence of the ceiling, and to the task he summoned Michelangelo.
The great artist hesitated. The ceiling was his supreme work as a painter, and he knew down deep in his heart that he could not hope to surpass it, and the risk of not equaling it was too great for him to run. The matter was too delicately personal to explain—only an artist could understand.
Michelangelo made excuses to the Pope and declared he had forgotten how to use a brush, that his eyesight was bad, and that the only thing he could do was to carve.
But Paul was not to be turned aside, and reluctantly Michelangelo went back to the Sistine, that he had left over twenty years before.
Then it was that he painted "The Last Judgment" on the wall of the upper end of the chapel. Hamerton calls this the grandest picture ever executed, at the same time acknowledging its faults in taste. But it must be explained that the design was the conception of Julius, endorsed by Pope Paul, and it surely mirrors the spiritual qualities (or lack of them) in these men better than any biography possibly could.
The merciful Redeemer is shown as a muscular athlete, full of anger and the spirit of revenge—proud, haughty, fierce. The condemned are ranged before him—a confused mass of naked figures, suspended in all attitudes of agony and terrible foreboding. The "saved" are ranged on one side, and do not seem to be of much better intellectual and spiritual quality than the damned; very naturally they are quite pleased to think that it is the others who are damned, and not they. The entire conception reveals that masterly ability to portray the human figure in every attitude of fear or passion. A hundred years after the picture was painted, some dignitary took it into his head that portions of the work were too "daring"; and a painter was set at work robing the figures. His fussy attempts are quite apparent.
Michelangelo's next work was to decorate the Paolina Chapel. As in his last work on the Sistine, he was constantly interrupted and advised and criticized. As he worked, cardinals, bishops and young artists watched and suggested, but still the "Conversion of Saint Paul" and the "Crucifixion of Saint Peter," in the Paolina, must ever rank as masterly art.
The frescoes in the Paolina Chapel occupied seven years and ended the great artist's career as a painter. He was seventy-three years old.
Pope Paul then made him Chief Architect of Saint Peter's. Michelangelo knew the difficulties to be encountered—the bickerings, jealousies and criticisms that were inseparable from the work—and was only moved to accept the place on Pope Paul's declaration that no one else could do as well, and that it was the will of God. Michelangelo looked upon the performance as a duty and accepted the task, refusing to take any recompense for his services. He continued to discharge the duties of the office under the direction of Popes Paul, Pius the Fourth and Pius the Fifth. In all he worked under the pontificates of seven different popes.
The dome of Saint Peter's, soaring to the skies, is his finest monument. The self-sustaining, airy quality in this stupendous structure hushes the beholder into silence; and yet that same quality of poise, strength and sufficiency marks all of the work of this colossus, whether it be painting, architecture or sculpture. America has paid tribute to Michelangelo's genius by reproducing the dome of Saint Peter's over the Capitol at Washington.
Michelangelo died at Rome, aged eighty-nine, working and planning to the last. His sturdy frame showed health in every part, and he ceased to breathe just as a clock runs down. His remains were secretly taken to Florence and buried in the church of Santa Croce. A fine bust marks the spot, but the visitor can not help feeling a regret that the dust of this marvelous man does not rest beneath the zenith of the dome of Saint Peter's at Rome.
Sitting calmly in this quiet corner, and with closed eyes, viewing Michelangelo's life as a whole, the impression is one of heroic strength, battling with fierce passions, and becoming victor over them by working them up into art. The mold of the man was masculine, and the subdued sorrow that flavors his whole career never degenerates into sickly sentimentality or repining.
The sonnets of Michelangelo, recently given to the world, were written when he was nearly seventy years old. Several of the sonnets are directly addressed to Vittoria Colonna, and no doubt she inspired the whole volume. A writer of the time has mentioned his accidentally finding Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna seated side by side in the dim twilight of a deserted church, "talking soft and low." Deserted churches have ever been favorite trysting-places for lovers; and one is glad for this little glimpse of quiet and peace in the tossing, troubled life-journey of this tireless man. In fact, the few years of warm friendship with Vittoria Colonna is a charmed and temperate space, without which the struggle and unrest would be so ceaseless as to be appalling. Sweet, gentle and helpful was their mutual friendship. At this period of Michelangelo's life we know that the vehemence of his emotions subsided, and tranquility and peace were his for the rest of his life, such as he had never known before.
The woman who stepped out of high society and won the love of this stern yet gentle old man must have been of a mental and spiritual quality to command our highest praise. The world loves Vittoria Colonna because she loved Michelangelo, and led him away from strife and rivalry and toil.