VII. MICHELANGELO: THE LAST PHASE: 1534–64

Through all these years Michelangelo had survived as an unruly ghost from another age. He was fifty-nine when Clement died, but no one seemed to think that he had earned the right to rest. Paul III and Francesco Maria of Urbino fought over his living body. The Duke, as executor for Julius II, clamored for completion of his uncle’s tomb, and flourished a contract long since signed by Angelo. But the imperious pontiff would not hear of it. “For thirty years,” said Paul to Buonarroti, “I have wanted you to enter my service; and now that I am Pope will you disappoint me? That contract shall be torn up, and I’ll have you work for me, come what may.”55 The Duke protested, but finally settled for a much smaller mausoleum than Julius had dreamed of. The knowledge that the tomb was an abortion shared in darkening the Titan’s later years.

In 1535 the triumphant Pope issued a brief appointing Michelangelo chief architect, sculptor, and painter at the Vatican, and proclaiming his eminence in each field. The artist was made a member of the papal household, and was given a life pension of 1200 crowns ($15,000?) a year. Clement VII, shortly before his death, had asked him to paint a fresco of The Last Judgment behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel. Paul proposed that this commission should now be carried out. Michael was reluctant; he wanted to carve, not paint; he was happier with hammer and chisel than with the brush. The very size of the wall to be painted—sixty-six by thirty-three feet—might have given him pause. Nevertheless in September, 1535, aged sixty, he began his most famous picture.

Perhaps the repeated frustrations of his life—the maimed mausoleum of Julius, the destruction of his statue of that pope at Bologna, the unfinished façade of San Lorenzo, the unfinished Medici tombs—had accumulated in him a bitterness that poured itself into this consummation of divine wrath. Memories of Savonarola may have come back to him across forty years—those dire prophecies of doom, those denunciations of human wickedness, clerical corruption, Medicean tyranny, intellectual pride, and pagan joys, those blasts of hell-fire searing the soul of Florence; now the dead martyr would speak again, from the most intimate altar in Christendom. The somber artist whom Leonardo had called learned in Dante would soak himself anew in the brine of the Inferno, and put its horrors on the wall where for generations to come future popes might have that inescapable judgment before them as they read the Mass. And meanwhile, in this citadel of a religion that had till lately scorned and maligned the human body, he would be a sculptor even with the brush, and would paint that body in a hundred conditions and attitudes, in the contortions and grimaces of agony, in the drowsy then excited resurrection of the dead, in inflated angels blowing the fateful summons, in a Christ still showing His wounds, yet strong enough, with His titanic shoulders and Herculean arms, to hurl into hell those who had thought themselves superior to the commandments of God.

The sculptor in him ruined the painting. This stern puritan, who day by day became more religious, insisted on carving in color massive and muscular bodies, until the angels that art and poetry had conceived as happy children, gracious youths, or lithesome girls, became in his hands athletes racing through the skies, and damned and saved alike were worthy of salvation if only because they were made in the image and likeness of God, and even Christ Himself, in His majestic anger, became an incarnation of the Adam of the Sistine ceiling, a god made in the image and likeness of man. There is too much flesh here, there are too many arms and legs, biceps and swelling calves, to lift the spirit to contemplate the wages of sin. Even the lecherous Aretino thought these pullulating nudes were a bit out of place. Everyone knows how Paul III’s master of ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, complained that such a celebration of the human form would more fitly adorn a wineshop than the chapel of the popes; how Michelangelo avenged himself by painting Biagio among the damned; and how Paul, when Biagio begged him to order the erasure of the portrait, replied with excellent humor and theology that not even a pope can release a soul from hell.56 Yielding to protests like Biagio’s, Paul IV bade Daniele da Volterra paint breeches on the more glaring parts; whereupon Rome called the poor artist il Braghettone, the breeches tailor. The noblest figure in the dark panorama is completely clothed—Mary, whose raiment is the Master’s last triumph in the painting of drapery, and whose look of horror and mercy is the one redeeming element in this apotheosis of human ferocity.

After six years of labor the picture was unveiled for the Christmas celebration of 1541. A Rome now entering upon a religious reaction against the Renaissance accepted The Last Judgment as good theology and great art. Vasari pronounced it the most wonderful of all paintings. Artists admired the anatomy, and were not offended by the muscular exaggerations, the bizarre attitudes, the carnal excess; on the contrary many painters imitated these mannerisms of the Master, and formed the mannerist school that began the decadence of Italian art. Even laymen marveled at the foreshortenings—which gave parts of the picture the semblance of relief—and the acute sense of perspective that had made the lower figures two meters in height, the middle figures three, the upper figures four. We who view the fresco today cannot judge it fairly; it has been injured by Daniele’s tailoring, a further draping of some figures in 1762, and the dust and candle smoke and natural darkening of four centuries.

After some months of rest Michelangelo began (1542) work on two frescoes in the chapel that Antonio da Sangallo had built in the Vatican for Paul III. One represented the martyrdom of St. Peter, the other the conversion of St. Paul. Here again the aging artist lost himself in violent exaggerations of the human form. He was seventy-five when he completed these pictures, and he told Vasari that he painted them against his will, and with great effort and fatigue.57

He did not feel too old for sculpture; indeed, he said, the hammer and chisel kept him in health. Even during the painting of The Last Judgment he had sought refuge and consolation now and then with the marbles in his studio. In 1539 he carved his stern and powerful Brutus (in the Bargello), worthy of the greatest Roman portrait sculpture. Perhaps he meant it to sanction the recent tyrannicide of Alessandro de’ Medici in Florence, and to serve as a reminder to future despots. Eleven years later, in a tenderer mood, he carved the Pietà that stands behind the high altar of the Florentine cathedral. He hoped to make this his own sepulchral monument, and he worked on it feverishly, often continuing his labor on it at night by the light of a candle fixed in his cap. But an over furious blow of the hammer so injured the statue that he abandoned it as irrevocably spoiled. His servant Antonio Mini begged it as a gift, received it, and sold it to a Florentine. It is an astonishing product for a man of seventy-five years. The body of the dead Christ is represented without exaggeration; the figure of Mary, unfinished, is tenderness petrified; and the noble face of the hooded Nicodemus could well portray, as some have thought, Michelangelo himself, who now so often meditated on the Passion of Christ.

His religion was essentially medieval, darkened with mysticism, prophecy, and the thought of death and hell; he did not share the skepticism of Leonardo or the blithe indifference of Raphael; his favorite books were the Bible and Dante. Toward the end of his life his poetry turned more and more on religion:

Now hath my life across a stormy sea,

Like a frail bark, reached that wide port where all

Are bidden, ere the final judgment fall,

Of good and evil deeds to pay the fee.

Now know I well how that fond phantasy,

Which made my soul the worshiper and thrall

Of earthly art, is vain; how criminal

Is that which all men seek so willingly.

These amorous thoughts which were so lightly dressed—

What are they when the double death is nigh?

The one I know for sure, the other dread.

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 are spread.58

The old poet reproached himself for having composed in past years some sonnets to love. But these were apparently poetic exercises rather than passions of the flesh. The sincerest sonnets in Michelangelo’s Rime are addressed to an elderly widow or a handsome youth. Tommaso Cavalieri was a Roman noble who played at painting. He came to Angelo (c. 1532) for instruction, and bewitched his teacher with the beauty of his face and form, the grace of his carriage and manners. Michael fell in love with him, and wrote to him sonnets of such frank admiration that some have been led to place Michelangelo with Leonardo among the famous homosexuals of history.58a Such fond expressions of man to man were common in the Renaissance, even among assiduous heterosexuals; their extreme language was part of the poetic and epistolary ritual of the time; we can draw no conclusions from them. We note, however, that—outside of poetry—Michelangelo seems to have been indifferent to women until he met Vittoria Colonna.

His friendship with her began about 1542, when she was fifty and he was sixty-seven. A woman of fifty can easily stir the embers of a sexagenarian, but Vittoria had no mind for it; she felt herself still bound to the Marquis of Pescara, now seventeen years dead. “Our friendship is stable,” she wrote to Michelangelo, “and our affection very sure; it is tied with a Christian knot.”59 She sent him 143 sonnets, good but negligible; he replied in sonnets warm with admiration and devotion, but tarnished with literary conceits. When they met they talked about art and religion, and perhaps she confessed to him her sympathy with the men who were trying to reform the Church. Her influence upon him was profound; all the finest spiritual elements of life seemed gathered up in her piety, kindness, and fidelity. Something of his pessimism cleared away when she walked and talked with him; and he prayed that he might never again be the man he had been before they met. He was with her when she died (1547). For a long time thereafter he remained “downstricken as if deranged,” and he reproached himself for not having kissed her face as well as her hand in those last moments.60

It was shortly before her death that he assumed his last and greatest responsibility in art. When Antonio da Sangallo passed away (1546), Paul III asked Michelangelo to undertake the completion of St. Peter’s. The weary artist protested again that he was a sculptor, not an architect; perhaps he had not forgotten his failure with the façade of San Lorenzo. The Pope insisted, and Angelo yielded with “infinite regret”; but, Vasari adds, “I believe His Holiness was inspired by God.” For this culminating task of his career the artist refused additional remuneration, though the Pope repeatedly pressed it upon him. He set to work with an energy hardly to be expected of a man in his seventy-second year.

As if St. Peter’s were not burden enough he took upon himself in the same year two other major enterprises. To the Palazzo Farnese he added a third story, a cornice acclaimed by all for its beauty, and the two upper tiers of a court that Vasari judged the finestcortile in Europe. He designed a spacious flight of steps to the top of the Capitoline hill, and placed on the summit the ancient equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. Later, aged eighty-eight, he began to erect at the farther end of this plateau the Palazzo del Senatore, with its lordly double staircase; and he drew up plans for the Palazzo dei Conservatori at one side of the Senate Hall, and the Museo Capitolino at the other. Even he could not live long enough to carry out all these plans, but the structures were completed on his designs by Tommaso Cavalieri, Vignola, and Giacomo della Porta.

When Paul III died (1549) some doubt arose whether his successor, Julius III, would continue Angelo as architect-in-chief at St. Peter’s. Michael had rejected Antonio da Sangallo’s plan as making for so dark a church that (he said) it would have been dangerous to public morals.61 The dead man’s friends persuaded two cardinals to warn the Pope that Buonarroti was spoiling the edifice. Julius supported Angelo; but under a later pontiff, Paul IV (for popes came and went in quick succession in Michelangelo’s life), the Sangallo faction returned to the attack, alleging that the artist, now eighty-one, was in his second childhood, was tearing down more than he built up, and was planning quite impossible things at San Pietro. Time and again Michael thought of resigning and accepting the repeated invitations of Duke Cosimo to resume residence in Florence; but he had conceived the dome, and would not leave his post until that conception was on the way to realization. In 1557, after years of thought on the problem, he constructed in clay a small model for the massive cupola, whose width and weight were the perilous ponderables of the enterprise. Another year was spent in making a large model in wood, and drawing up plans for construction and support. The dome was to be 138 feet in diameter and 151 feet in its own height, with its apex 334 feet from the ground; it was to rest on a corniced base upheld by four gigantic arches at the transept crossing of the church. A “lantern” or open-faced smaller cupola was to rise sixty-nine feet above the main dome, and a cross was to reach thirty-two feet higher still as the pinnacle of the whole majestic edifice, 435 feet in total height. The comparable dome that Brunellesco had raised over the cathedral of Florence, and whose beauty Michelangelo modestly pronounced unsurpassable, measured 138½ feet in width, 133 in its own height, 300 from ground to apex, 351 with its lantern. These two domes were the most audacious undertakings in the history of Renaissance architecture.

Pius IV succeeded Paul IV in 1569. Once again the enemies of the aging Titan sought to replace him. Worn out with a long war of dispute and recrimination, he submitted his resignation (1560). The Pope refused to accept it, and Michelangelo continued as chief architect of St. Peter’s till his death. Then it became clear that his critics had not been wholly in the wrong. Just as in sculpture he often attacked the marble block with no other preparation than an idea in his head, so in architecture he seldom put his plans upon paper, rarely confided them even to his friends, but merely made blueprints for each part of the edifice as the time approached to build it. When he died he left no definite plans or models for any portion except the dome. Consequently his successors were free to adopt their own ideas. They changed his—and Bramante’s—basic conception of a Greek cross to a Latin cross by elongating the eastern arm of the church, and fronting it with a high façade that made the cupola invisible on that side except from a quarter of a mile away. The only part of the building that is Angelo’s is the cupola, which was erected from his plans, with no substantial change, by Giacomo della Porta in 1588. It is unquestionably the noblest architectural sight in Rome. Rising in stately curves from drum to lantern, it crowns with majesty the immense pile beneath, and gives to classic columns, pilasters, architraves, and pediments a comprehensive unity rivaling in splendor any known structure of the ancient world. Here again Christianity sought a reconciliation with antiquity: the temple of the worship of Christ placed the dome of the Pantheon (142 feet wide by 142 feet in total height) upon the Basilica of Constantine as Bramante had vowed to do, and dared to raise classic columns to a lofty stature unparalleled in the records of antiquity.

Michelangelo continued to work till his eighty-ninth year. In 1563, at the request of Pius IV, he transformed a part of the Baths of Diocletian into the church and convent of Santa Maria degli Angeli. He designed the Porta Pia, one of the city gates. He made for the Florentines in Rome a model for a church; Vasari, perhaps too enthusiastic about his old teacher and friend, pronounced the proposed building “as beautiful as ever man beheld”;62 but Florentine funds in Rome ran short, and the edifice was never built.

At last the Titan’s incredible energy failed. About his seventy-third year he had begun to suffer from the stone. He seems to have found some palliative in medicine or mineral waters, but, he said, “I put more faith in prayers than in medicines.” Twelve years later he wrote to a nephew: “As regards my condition, I am ill with all the troubles that are wont to afflict old men. The stone prevents me from passing water. My loins and back are so stiff that I often cannot climb upstairs.”63 Yet till his ninetieth year he went out in all weathers.

He took the approach of death with religious resignation and philosophical good humor. “I am so old,” he remarked to Vasari, “that death often pulls me by the cape and bids me go with him.”64 A famous bronze relief by Daniele da Volterra shows a face lined with pain and haggard with age. In February, 1564, he grew weaker day by day, and spent most of the time sleeping in his old armchair. He made no will, but merely “left his soul to God, his body to the earth, and his goods to his nearest relations.”65 He died on February 18, 1564, aged eighty-nine. His body was taken to Florence and was buried in the church of Santa Croce, with ceremonies that lasted several days. Vasari devotedly designed for him a sumptuous tomb.

It was the judgment of some contemporaries, and has been the judgment of time, that despite a multitude of defects he was the greatest artist who ever lived. He exemplified fully the definition given by Ruskin of “the greatest artist”—as he “who has embodied, in the sum of his works, the greatest number of the greatest ideas”—i.e., ideas that “exercise and exalt the highest faculties of the mind.”66 He was, to begin with, a master draftsman whose drawings were among the most treasured gifts and thefts of his friends. We can see some of these drawings today in the Casa Buonarroti at Florence or in the Cabinet des Dessins of the Louvre: sketches for the façade of San Lorenzo, or for The Last Judgment, a lovely study for a sibyl, a St. Anne almost as subtly conceived as Leonardo’s, and the strange drawing he made of Vittoria Colonna dead, with mystic countenance and wasted breasts. In one of the conversations reported by Francisco de Hollanda he reduced all arts to design:

The science of design, or of fine drawing.… is the source and very essence of painting, sculpture, architecture, and of every form of representation, as well too as of all the sciences. He who has made himself a master in this art possesses a great treasure…. All the works of the human brain and hand are either design itself or a branch of that art.67

As a painter he remained a draftsman, far less interested in color than in line, seeking above all to draw an expressive form, to fix in art some human attitude, or to convey through a design a philosophy of life. The hand was that of Pheidias or Apelles, the voice was Jeremiah’s or Dante’s. On one of his passages between Florence and Rome he must have stopped at Orvieto and studied the nudes that Signorelli had painted there; these, and the frescoes of Giotto and Masaccio, gave some hints to a style that was nevertheless unlike anything else that history has preserved. Far beyond and above the others, even beyond Leonardo, Raphael, and Titian, he brought to his art, and brought out in his art, nobility. He did not dally with decoration or triviality; he cared nothing for prettiness, landscapes, architectural backgrounds, arabesques; he let his subject stand out stark and unadorned. His mind was caught by a high vision, to which he gave form, as well as the hand could, in the shape of sibyls, prophets, saints, heroes, and gods. His art used the human body as its medium, but those human forms were to him the tortured embodiments of his hopes and terrors, his confused philosophy, and his smoldering religious faith.

Sculpture was his favorite and characteristic art because it is the preeminent art of form. He never colored his statues, feeling that form was enough; even bronze had too much color for him, and he confined his sculpture to marble.68 Whatever he painted or built was sculptural, even to St. Peter’s dome. He failed as an architect (barring that sublime cupola) because he could hardly conceive a building except in terms and proportions of the human body, and could barely suffer it to be more than a receptacle of statuary; he wanted to cover all surfaces, instead of making surfaces an element of form. Sculpture was a fever with him; the marble, he thought, obdurately hid a secret, which he was resolved to extricate; but the secret was in himself, and was too intimate for full revelation. Donatello helped him a little, della Quercia more, the Greeks less, in the struggle to give the inner vision outward form. He agreed with the Greeks in devoting most of his art to the body, leaving the faces generalized and almost stereotyped, as in the female figures on the Medici tombs; but he never achieved—his temper would not let him care for—the unimpassioned repose of Greek statuary before the Hellenistic age. He had no use for a form that did not express feeling. He lacked the classic restraint and sense of proportion; he made shoulders too broad for the head, trunks too mighty for the limbs, and limbs knotted with muscles, as if all men and gods were wrestlers taut with strife. It must be admitted that in these dramatic exaggerations of effort and emotion the art of the mannerists and the baroque was born.

Michelangelo did not found a school as Raphael did, but he trained some distinguished artists, and wielded pervasive influence. One pupil, Guglielmo della Porta, designed for Paul III, in St. Peter’s, a mausoleum that could almost bear comparison with the tombs of the Medici. But generally the successors of Angelo in sculpture and painting imitated his excesses without redeeming them with his depth of thought and feeling and his technical mastery. Usually a supreme artist is the culmination of a tradition, method, style, and historical mood; his very superiority fulfills and exhausts a line of development, so that after him must come a period of helpless imitation and decline. Then slowly a new mood and tradition grow; a new conception, ideal, or technique struggles through a hundred bizarre experiments to find another discipline, some original and freshly revealing form.

The last word must be one of humility. We middling mortals, even while presuming to sit in judgment upon the gods, must not fail to recognize their divinity. We need not be ashamed to worship heroes, if our sense of discrimination is not left outside their shrines. We honor Michelangelo because through a long and tortured life he continued to create, and produced in each main field a masterpiece. We see these works torn, so to speak, out of his flesh and blood, out of his mind and heart, leaving him for a time weakened with birth. We see them taking form through a hundred thousand strokes of hammer and chisel, pencil and brush; one after another, like an immortal population, they take their place among the lasting shapes of beauty or significance. We cannot know what God is, nor understand a universe so mingled of apparent evil and good, of suffering and loveliness, destruction and sublimity; but in the presence of a mother tending her child, or of a genius giving order to chaos, meaning to matter, nobility to form or thought, we feel as close as we shall ever be to the life and mind and law that constitute the unintelligible intelligence of the world.

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