It is one of the credits in Clement’s account that through all his own misfortunes he bore with kindly patience the moods and revolts of Michelangelo, plied him with commissions, and accorded him all the privileges of genius. “When Buonarroti comes to see me,” he said, “I always take a seat and bid him be seated, feeling sure that he will do so without leave.”57 Even before becoming pope he proposed (1519) what proved to be the artist’s culminating sculptural assignment: to add to the church of San Lorenzo in Florence a “New Sacristy” as a mausoleum for famous Medici, to design their tombs, and to adorn these with appropriate statuary. Confident in the Titan’s versatility, Clement also asked him to draw up architectural plans for the Laurentian Library, strong and spacious enough to safely house the literary collections of the Medici family. The stately stairway and pillared vestibule of this Biblioteca Laurenziana were completed (1526–7) under Angelo’s supervision; the remainder of the building was later put up by Vasari and others from Buonarroti’s designs.
The Nuova Sagrestia was hardly an architectural masterpiece. It was planned as a simple quadrangle, divided with pilasters and surmounted by a modest dome; its prime function was to receive statuary in the recesses left in the walls. This “Medici Chapel” was finished in 1524; and in 1525 Angelo began work on the tombs. Clement wrote to him in the latter year a gently impatient letter:
Thou knowest that popes have no long life; and we cannot yearn more than we do to behold the chapel with the tombs of our kinsmen, or at any rate to hear that it is finished. And likewise as regards the Library. Wherefore we recommend both to thy diligence. Meanwhile we will betake us (in accord with your words) to a wholesome patience, praying God that He may put it into thy heart to push the whole enterprise forward together. Fear not that either commissions or rewards shall fail thee while we live. Farewell, with God’s blessing and ours.—Giulio.58
There were to be six tombs: for Lorenzo the Magnificent, his assassinated brother Giuliano, Leo X, Clement VII, the younger Giuliano “too good to govern a state” (d. 1516), and the younger Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino (d. 1519). Only the tombs of the last two were completed, and even these not quite. Nevertheless they are the apogee of Renaissance sculpture, as the Sistine Chapel is the summit of Renaissance painting, and St. Peter’s dome is the architectural pinnacle of the Renaissance. The tombs show the dead men in the prime of life, with no attempt to reproduce their real forms or features: Giuliano in the garb of a Roman commander, Lorenzo as il Penseroso the thinker. When some incautious observer remarked this lack of realism, Michelangelo answered with words that revealed his sublime confidence in his artistic immortality: “Who will care, a thousand years hence, whether these are their features or not?”59 Reclining on the sarcophagus of Giuliano are two nude figures: at the right a man allegedly symbolizing Day, at the left a woman supposedly representing Night. Similar recumbent figures on the tomb of Lorenzo have been named Twilight and Dawn. These interpretations are hypothetical, perhaps fanciful; probably the sculptor’s aim was merely to carve again his secret fetish, the human body, in all the splendor of male strength and all the comely contours of the female form. As usual, he succeeded better with the male; the unfinished figure of Twilight, slowly surrendering an active and exhausting day to night, matches the noblest gods of the Parthenon.
War intervened upon art. When Rome fell to the Landsknechte (1527), Clement could no longer play patron, and Michelangelo’s papal pension of fifty crowns ($625) a month ceased. Meanwhile Florence enjoyed two years of republican liberty. When Clement made up with Charles, and a German-Spanish army was despatched to overthrow the republic and reinstall the Medici, Florence appointed Angelo (April 6, 1529) to a Committee of Nine—Nove di Milizia—for the defense of the city. The Medicean artist became, by the hazard of circumstance, the anti-Medicean engineer feverishly engaged in designing and building forts and walls.
But as these works proceeded, Michelangelo became more and more convinced that the city could not be successfully defended. What single town, divided as Florence then was in heart and loyalties, could withstand the artillery and excommunications of Empire and papacy combined? On September 21, 1529, in a mood of panic, he fled from Florence, hoping to escape to France and its amiable King. Finding his way blocked by German-held terrain, he took temporary refuge in Ferrara, then in Venice. Thence he sent a message to his friend Battista della Palla, art agent of Francis I in Florence: Would he join Angelo in flight to France?60 Battista refused to leave the post that had been assigned to him in the defense of the city; instead he wrote to Angelo a stirring appeal to return to his duty, warning him that otherwise the government would confiscate his property, leaving his impecunious relatives destitute. About November 20 the artist was back at his work on the Florentine fortifications.
According to Vasari he found time, even in those excited months, to continue work secretly on the tombs of the Medici, and also to paint, for Alfonso of Ferrara, the least characteristic of his works, Leda and the Swan. It was a strange product for a man so slightly sexual and so generally puritan; and perhaps it came from a temporarily disordered mind. It showed the swan copulating with Leda. Alfonso was something of a lecher between wars, but apparently he had not chosen the subject. The messenger whom he sent to secure the promised work expressed disappointment when he saw it, saying, “This is a mere trifle,” and made no effort to secure it for the Duke. Angelo gave the picture to his servant Antonio Mini, who took it with him to France, where it passed into the collection of the omnivorous Francis I. It remained at Fontainebleau until the reign of Louis XIII, when a high official ordered it destroyed because of its indecency. How far this order was carried out, and what was the later history of this original, is unknown. A copy remains in the vaults of the London National Gallery.61
When Florence fell to the returning Medici, Battista della Palla and other republican leaders were put to death. Michelangelo hid himself for two months in the house of a friend, expecting at any moment a like fate. But Clement thought him worth more alive than dead. The Pope wrote to his ruling relatives in Florence bidding them seek out the artist, treat him with courtesy, and offer him the renewal of his pension if he would resume work on the tombs. Michael agreed. But again, as with the mausoleum of Julius, the mind of pontiff and artist had conceived more than the hand could execute, and the Pope could not live long enough to see the enterprise through. When Clement died (1534) Michelangelo, fearful that Alessandro de’ Medici would do him harm now that his protector was gone, took the first opportunity to slip off to Rome.
A profound and somber sadness marks the tombs, and the solemn Madonna de’ Medici that Angelo also carved for the Sacristy. Historians fond of democracy (and exaggerating its scope in Florence) have generally assumed that the recumbent figures symbolize a city mourning its forced surrender to tyranny. But this interpretation is probably fanciful: after all, they had been designed while the Medici ruled Florence reasonably well; they had been carved for a Medici Pope unfailingly kind to Angelo, and by an artist indebted to Medici from his youth; it is not clear that he intended to condemn the family whose tombs he was preparing; and his representations of Giuliano and Lorenzo have nothing derogatory about them. No, these figures express something deeper than the love of liberty by the rich few to rule the poor unhindered by a Medici house usually popular with the people. They express rather Michelangelo’s weariness with life, the fatigue of a man all nerves and titanic uncompassable dreams, who found himself buffeted by a thousand tribulations, harassed in almost every enterprise by the dull recalcitrance of matter, the obtuseness of power, and the called-in loans of borrowed time. Angelo had enjoyed but few of life’s delights: he had no friends on a par with his mind; woman seemed to him only a smooth anatomy threatening peace; and even his most majestic triumphs were the issue of exhausting toil and pain, the unfinishable symphonies of melancholy meditation and inescapable defeat.
But when Florence had fallen to her worst tyrants, and terror ruled where once Lorenzo had governed happily, the artist who had carved a criticism of life, and no mere theory of government, in the marbles of the Medici shrine, felt that those melancholy figures expressed, as well, the glory gone of the city that had nursed the Renaissance. On the unveiling of the statue of Night the poet Gianbattista Strozzi wrote a quatrain of literary exposition:
The Night thous seest here, posed gracefully
In act of slumber, was by an angel wrought
Out of this stone. Sleeping, with life she’s fraught.
Wake her, incredulous wight; she’ll speak to thee.
Michelangelo pardoned the complimentary pun on his name, but rejected the interpretation. He gave his own in four lines that are the most revealing in his poetry:
Caro m’è il sonno, e più l’esser di sasso
Mentre che ‘l danno e la vergogna dura.
Non veder, non sentir m’è gran ventura;
Però non mì destar; deh! parla basso.—
Dear is my sleep, but more to be mere stone,
So long as ruin and dishonor reign.
To see naught, to feel naught, is my great gain;
Then wake me not; speak in an undertone.62