VI. MICHELANGELO AND LEO X

Julius II had left funds to his executors for the completion, on a smaller scale, of the tomb that Michelangelo had designed for him. The artist worked at this task through the first three years of Leo’s pontificate, and received from the executors, in those years, 6100 ducats ($76,250?). Most of what remains of the monument was probably produced in this period, along with the Christ Risen of Santa Maria sopra Minerva—a handsome naked athlete whom later taste clothed in a loincloth of bronze. A letter written by Michelangelo in May, 1518, tells how Signorelli came to his studio and borrowed eighty giulii ($800?), which he never returned, and adds: “He found me working on a marble statue four cubits in height, which has the hands bound behind the back.”57 This was presumably one of the Prigioni or Captivi intended to represent the cities or arts made captive by the warrior Pope. A statue in the Louvre fits the description: a muscular figure wearing only a loincloth, and with arms so tightly bound at the back that the cords eat into the flesh. Near it is a finer Captive, naked except for a narrow band about the breast; here the musculature is not exaggerated; the body is a symphony of health and beauty; this is Greek perfection. Four unfinished Schiavi or Slaves in the Florence Academy were apparently intended as caryatids to support the superstructure of the tomb. The aborted tomb is now in Julius’ church of San Pietro in Vincoli: a magnificent massive throne, pillars elegantly carved, and a seated Moses —an ill-proportioned monster of beard and horns and wrathful brow, holding the Tables of the Law. If we choose to believe an improbable story in Vasari, Jews could be seen on any Saturday entering the Christian church “to worship this figure, not as a work of the human hand, but as something divine.”58 On Moses’ left is a Leah, on his right a splendid Rachel— statues that Michael called “the Active and the Contemplative Life.” The remaining figures of the tomb were indifferently carved by his aides: above the Moses a Madonna, and at her feet the half-recumbent effigy of Julius II, crowned with the papal tiara. The whole monument is a torso, the painfully interrupted work of scattered years from 1506 to 1545, confused, enormous, incongruous, and absurd.

While these figures were being chiseled out, Leo—perhaps during a stay in Florence—conceived the idea of finishing the church of San Lorenzo there. This was the shrine of the Medici, containing the tombs of Cosimo, Lorenzo, and many other members of the family. Brunellesco had built the church, but had left the façade unfinished. Leo asked Raphael, Giuliano da Sangallo, Baccio d’Agnolo, Andrea and Iacopo Sansovino to submit plans for completing the front. Michelangelo, apparently of his own accord, sent in a plan of his own, which Leo accepted as the best; hence the Pope cannot be blamed, as so many have blamed him, for diverting Michael from Julius’ tomb. Leo sent him to Florence, whence he went to Carrara to quarry tons of marble. Back in Florence, he hired assistants for the work, quarreled with them, sent them packing, and brooded inactively in his uncongenial role as architect. Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, Leo’s cousin, appropriated some of the idle marble for work on the cathedral; Michael fumed, but still dallied. At last (1520) Leo freed him from the contract, and required no accounting of the funds that had been advanced to the artist. When Sebastiano del Piombo asked the Pope to give Angelo further assignments, Leo excused himself. He recognized Michelangelo’s supremacy in art, but, he said, “he is an alarming man, as you yourself see, and there is no getting on with him.” Sebastiano reported the conversation to his friend, adding: “I told His Holiness that your alarming ways did no man any harm, and that it was only your devotion to the great work to which you have given yourself that made you seem terrible to others.”59

What was this famous terribilità? It was, first of all, energy, a wild consuming force that tortured Michelangelo’s body, but sustained it, for eighty-nine years; and second, a power of will that kept that energy harnessed and directed to one purpose—art—ignoring almost everything else. Now energy directed by a unifying will is almost the definition of genius. The energy that looked upon formless stone as a challenge, and clawed and hammered and chiseled it con furia till it took on a revealing significance, was the same force that swept angrily over the distracting trivialities of life, took no thought of clothing or cleanliness or superficial courtesies, and advanced to its end, if not blindly yet with blinders, over broken promises, broken friendships, broken health, at last over a broken spirit, leaving the body and mind shattered, but the work done—the greatest painting, the greatest sculpture, and some of the greatest architecture, of the time. “If God assist me,” he said, “I shall produce the finest thing that Italy has ever seen.”60

He was the least prepossessing figure in an age brilliant with proud beauty of person and splendor of dress. Middle height, broad shoulders, slim frame, large head, high brow, ears protruding beyond the cheeks, temples bulging out beyond the ears, drawn and somber face, crushed nose, sharp, small eyes, grizzly hair and beard—this was Michelangelo in his prime. He wore old clothing, and clung to it till it became almost part of his flesh; and he seems to have obeyed half of his father’s advice: “See that you do not wash. Have yourself rubbed down, but do not wash.”61 Though rich, he lived like a poor man, not only frugally but penuriously. He ate whatever he found at hand, sometimes dining on a crust of bread. At Bologna he and his three workmen occupied one room, slept in one bed. “While he was in full vigor,” says Condivi, “he usually went to bed with his clothes on, even to the tall boots, which he has always worn because of a chronic tendency to cramp.… At certain seasons he has kept these boots on for such a length of time that when he drew them off, the skin came away together with the leather.”62 As Vasari puts it, “he had no mind to undress merely that he might have to dress again.”63

While he prided himself on his supposed noble lineage, he preferred the poor to the rich, the simple to the intellectual, the toil of a worker to the leisure and luxuries of wealth. He gave most of his earnings to maintain his shiftless relatives. He liked solitude; he found it intolerable to make small talk with third-rate minds; wherever he was, he followed his own train of thought. He cared little for beautiful women, and saved a fortune by continence. When a priest expressed regret that Michelangelo had not married and begotten children, he replied: “I have only too much of a wife in my art, and she has given me trouble enough. As to my children, they are the works that I shall leave; and if they are not worth much, they will at least live for some time.”64 He could not bear women about the house. He preferred males both for companionship and for art. He painted women, but always in their maternal maturity, not in the bright charm of their youth; it is remarkable that both he and Leonardo were apparently insensitive to the physical beauty of woman, who has seemed to most artists the very embodiment and fountainhead of beauty. There is no evidence that he was homosexual; apparently all the energy that might have gone into sex was in his case used up in work. At Carrara he spent the day, from early morn, in the saddle, directing the stonecutters and road makers; and the evening in his cabin by lamplight, studying plans, calculating costs, projecting the morrow’s tasks. He had periods of apparent sluggishness, and then suddenly the fever of creation would possess him again, and everything else would be ignored, even the sack of Rome.

Absorbed in work, he gave himself little time for friendship, though he had devoted friends. “Rarely did any friend or other person eat at his table.”65 He was content with the company of his faithful servant Francesco degli Amadori, who for twenty-five years took care of him, and for many years shared his bed. Michael’s gifts made Francesco a rich man, and the artist was heartbroken at his death (1555). For others he had a bad temper and a sharp tongue, criticized rudely, took offense readily, suspected everybody. He called Perugino a fool, and expressed his opinion about Francia’s paintings by telling Francia’s handsome son that his father made better forms by night than by day.66 He was jealous of Raphael’s success and popularity. Though the two artists respected each other, their supporters divided into feuding cabals; and Iacopo Sansovino sent Michael a letter of violent abuse, saying, “May the day be cursed on which you ever said any good about anybody on earth.”67 There were a few such days. Seeing Titian’s portrait of Duke Alfonso of Ferrara, Michael remarked that he had not thought that art could perform so much, and that only Titian deserved the name of painter.68 His bitter temper and somber mood were his lifelong tragedy. At times he was melancholy to the edge of madness; and in his old age the fear of hell so obsessed him that he thought of his art as a sin, and he dowered poor girls to propitiate an angry God.69 A neurotic sensitivity brought him almost daily misery. As early as 1508 he wrote to his father: “It is now about fifteen years since I had a single hour of well-being.”70 He would not have many more, though he had still fifty-eight years to live.

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