1. Youth: 1475–1505
We have left to the last Julius’ favorite painter and sculptor, a man rivaling him in temper and terribilità, in power and depth of spirit—the greatest and saddest artist in the records of mankind.
Michelangelo’s father was Lodovico di Lionardo Buonarroti Simoni, podesta or mayor of the little town of Caprese, on the road from Florence to Arezzo. Lodovico claimed distant kinship with the counts of Canossa, one of whom was pleased to acknowledge the relation; Michael always prided himself on having a liter or two of noble blood; but ruthless research has proved him mistaken.22
Born at Caprese on March 6, 1475, and named, like Raphael, after an archangel, Michelangelo was the second of four brothers. He was put out to nurse near a marble quarry at Settignano, so that he breathed the dust of sculpture from his birth; he remarked later that he had sucked in chisels and hammers with his nurse’s milk.23 When he was six months old the family moved to Florence. He received some schooling there, enough to enable him, in after years, to write good Italian verse. He learned no Latin, and never fell so completely under the hypnosis of antiquity as did many artists of the time; he was Hebraic not classic, Protestant in spirit rather than Catholic.
He preferred drawing to writing—which is a corruption of drawing. His father mourned the preference, but finally yielded to it, and apprenticed Michael, aged thirteen, to Domenico Ghirlandaio, then the most popular painter in Florence. The contract bound the youth to stay with Domenico three years “to learn the art of painting”; he was to receive six florins the first year, eight the second, ten the third, and presumably shelter and food. The boy supplemented Ghirlandaio’s instruction by keeping his eyes open as he wandered through Florence, seeing in everything some object for art. “Thus,” reports his friend Condivi, “he used to frequent the fish market and study the shape and hues of fishes’ fins, the color of their eyes, and so for every part belonging to them; all which details he reproduced with the utmost diligence in his painting.”24
He had been with Ghirlandaio hardly a year when a combination of nature and chance turned him to sculpture. Like many other art students he had free access to the gardens in which the Medici had disposed their collections of antique statuary and architecture. He must have copied some of these marbles with especial interest and skill, for when Lorenzo, wishing to develop a school of sculpture in Florence, asked Ghirlandaio to send him some students of promise in that direction, Domenico gave him Francesco Granacci and Michelangelo Buonarroti. The boy’s father hesitated to let him make the change from one art to the other; he feared that his son would be put to cutting stone; and indeed Michael was so used for a time, blocking out marble for the Laurentian Library. But soon the boy was carving statues. All the world knows the story of Michael’s marble faun: how he chiseled a stray piece into the figure of an old faun; how Lorenzo, passing, remarked that so old a faun would hardly have so complete a set of teeth; and how Michael remedied the fault at one blow by knocking a tooth out of the upper jaw. Pleased with the boy’s product and aptitude, Lorenzo took him into his home and treated him as his son. For two years (1490–2) the young artist lived in the Palazzo Medici, regularly ate at the same table with Lorenzo, Politian, Pico, Ficino, and Pulci, heard the most enlightened talk about politics, literature, philosophy and art. Lorenzo assigned him a good room, and allowed him five ducats ($62.50?) a month for his personal expenses. Whatever works of art Michael might produce remained his own, to dispose of as he wished.
These years in the Medici Palace might have been a period of pleasant growth had it not been for Pietro Torrigiano. Pietro one day took offense at Michael’s banter, and (so he told Cellini), “clenching my fist, I gave him such a blow on the nose that I felt bone and cartilage go down like biscuit beneath my knuckles; and this mark of mine he will carry to the grave.”25 It was so: Michelangelo for the next seventy-four years showed a nose broken at the bridge. It did not sweeten his temper.
In those same years Savonarola was preaching his fiery gospel of puritan reform. Michael went often to hear him, and never forgot those sermons, or the cold thrill that ran through his youthful blood as the prior’s angry cry, announcing the doom of corrupt Italy, pierced the stillness of the crowded cathedral. When Savonarola died, something of his spirit lingered in Michelangelo: a horror of the moral decay about him, a fierce resentment of despotism, a somber presentiment of doom. Those memories and fears shared in forming his character, in guiding his chisel and his brush; lying on his back under the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he remembered Savonarola; painting The Last Judgment, he resurrected him, and hurled the friar’s fulminations down the centuries.
In 1492 Lorenzo died, and Michael returned to his father’s house. He continued his sculpture and painting, and now added a strange experience to his education. The prior of the hospital of Santo Spirito allowed him, in a private room, to dissect corpses. Michael performed so many dissections that his stomach revolted, and for a time he could hardly hold any food or drink. But he learned anatomy. He had an absurd chance to show his knowledge when Piero de’ Medici asked him to mold a gigantic snow man in the court of the palace. Michael complied, and Piero persuaded him to live again in the Casa Medici (January, 1494).
Late in 1494 Michelangelo, in one of his many hectic moves, fled through the winter snow of the Apennines to Bologna. One story says that he was warned of Piero’s coming fall by the dream of a friend; perhaps his own judgment predicted that event; in any case Florence might not then be safe for one so favored by the Medici. At Bologna he studied carefully the reliefs by Iacopo della Quercia on the façade of San Petronio. He was engaged to finish the tomb of St. Dominic, and carved for it a graceful Kneeling Angel;then the organized sculptors of Bologna sent him warning that if he, a foreigner and interloper, continued to take work out of their hands, they would dispose of him by one or another of the many devices open to Renaissance initiative. Meanwhile Savonarola had taken charge of Florence, and virtue was in the air. Michael returned (1495).
He found a patron in Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, of the collateral branch of the Medici. For him he carved a Sleeping Cupid, which had a strange history. Lorenzo suggested that he treat the surface to make it look like an antique; Michael complied; Lorenzo sent it to Rome, where it was sold for thirty ducats to a dealer who sold it for two hundred to Raffaello Riario, Cardinal di San Giorgio. The Cardinal discovered the cheat, sent back the Cupid, recovered his ducats. It was later sold to Caesar Borgia, who gave it to Guidobaldo of Urbino; Caesar reclaimed it on taking that city, and sent it to Isabella d’Este, who described it as “without a peer among the works of modern times.”26 Its later history is unknown.
With all his versatile ability Michael found it hard to earn a living by art in a city where there were almost as many artists as citizens. An agent of Riario invited him to Rome, assuring him that the Cardinal would give him employment, and that Rome was full of wealthy patrons. So in 1496 Michelangelo moved hopefully to the capital, and received a place in the household of the Cardinal. Riario did not prove generous; but Iacopo Gallo, a banker, commissioned Michael to carve a Bacchus and a Cupid. One is in the Bargello at Florence, the other in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The Bacchus is an unpleasant representation of the young god of wine in a state of bibbling intoxication; the head is too small for the body, as may be fitting in a toper; but the body is well designed, and smooth with an androgynous softness of texture. The Cupid is a crouching youth, more like an athlete than a god of love; possibly Michelangelo did not name it so incongruously; as sculpture it is excellent. Here, almost at the outset, the artist distinguished his work by showing the figure in a moment and attitude of action. The Greek preference for repose in art was alien to him, except in the Pietà; so—with the same exception—was the Greek flair for universality—for depicting general types; Michelangelo chose rather to portray an individual imaginary in conception, realistic in detail. He did not imitate the antique, except in costumes; his work was characteristically his own, no renaissance, but a unique creation.
The greatest product of this first stay in Rome was the Pietà that is now one of the glories of St. Peter’s. The contract for it was signed by Cardinal Jean de Villiers, French ambassador at the papal court (1498); the fee was to be 450 ducats ($5,625?); the time allowed, one year; and Michael’s banker friend added his own generous guarantees:
I, Iacopo Gallo, pledge my word to his most reverend Lordship that the said Michelangelo will finish the said work within one year, and that it shall be the finest work in marble which Rome today can show, and that no master of our day shall be able to produce a better. And in like manner… I pledge my word to the said Michelangelo that the most reverend Cardinal will disburse the payments according to the articles above engrossed.27
There are some blemishes in this glorious group of the Virgin Mother holding her dead Son in her lap: the drapery seems excessive, the Virgin’s head is small for her body, her left hand is extended in an inappropriate gesture; her face is that of a young woman clearly younger than her Son. To this last complaint Michelangelo, as reported by Condivi, made answer:
Do you not know that chaste women maintain their freshness far longer than the unchaste? How much more would this be the case with a virgin into whose breast there never crept the least lascivious desire which would affect the body! Nay, I will go further, and hazard the belief that this unsullied bloom of youth, besides being maintained in her by natural causes, may have been miraculously wrought to convince the world of the virginity and perpetual purity of the Mother.28
It is a pleasant and forgivable fancy. The spectator is soon reconciled to that gentle face, untorn by agony, calm in her grief and love, the bereaved mother resigned to the will of God, and consoled by holding for some final moments the dear body here cleansed of its wounds, freed from its indignities, resting in the lap of the woman that bore it, and beautiful even in death. All the essence and tragedy and redemption of life are in this simple group: the stream of births by which woman carries on the race; the certainty of death as the penalty for every birth; and the love that ennobles our mortality with kindness, and challenges every death with new birth. Francis I was right when he pronounced this the finest achievement of Michelangelo.29 In all the history of sculpture no man has ever surpassed it, except, perhaps, the unknown Greek who carved the Demeter of the British Museum.
The success of the Pietà brought Michelangelo not only fame, which he humanly enjoyed, but money, which his relatives were ready to enjoy with him. His father had lost, with the fall of the Medici, the little sinecure that Lorenzo the Magnificent had given him; Michael’s older brother had entered a monastery; the two younger brothers were improvident, and Michael became now the main support of the family. He complained of this necessity, but gave generously.
Probably because the disordered finances of his relatives called him, he returned to Florence in 1501. A unique assignment came to him in August of that year. The Operai or Board of Works at the cathedral owned a block of Carrara marble thirteen and a half feet high, but so inegularly shaped that it had lain unused for a hundred years. The Board asked Michelangelo could a statue be chiseled out of it. He agreed to try; and on August 16 the Operai del Duomo and the Arte della Lana (the Wool Guild) signed the contract:
That the worthy master Michelangelo… has been chosen to fashion, complete, and finish to perfection that male statue called Il gigante, of nine cubits in height… that the work shall be completed within two years dating from September, at a salary of six golden florins per month; that what is needed for the accomplishment of this task, as workmen, timbers, etc., shall be supplied him by the Operai; and when the statue is finished the Guild consuls and the Operai… shall estimate whether he deserve a larger recompense, and this shall be left to their consciences.30
The sculptor toiled on the refractory material for two and a half years; with heroic labor he drew from it, using every inch of its height, his David. On January 25, 1504, the Operai assembled a council of the leading artists in Florence to consider where Il gigante, as they called the David, should be placed: Cosimo Roselli, Sandro Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Giuliano and Antonio da Sangallo, Filippino Lippi, David Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Giovanni Piffero (father of Cellini), and Piero di Cosimo. They could not agree, and finally they left the matter to Michelangelo; he asked that the statue be placed on the platform of the Palazzo Vecchio. The Signory consented; but the task of moving The Giant from the workshop near the cathedral to the Palazzo took forty men four days; a gateway had to be heightened by breaking a wall above it before the colossus could pass; and twenty-one additional days were spent in raising it into place. For 369 years it stood on the open and uncovered porch of the Palazzo, subject to weather, urchins, and revolution. For in a sense it was a radical pronunciamento, symbol of the proud restored republic, stern threat to usurpers. The Medici, returning to power in 1513, left it untouched; but in the uprising that again deposed them (1527) a bench thrown from a window of the Palace broke the statue’s left arm. Francesco Salviati and Giorgio Vasari, then lads of sixteen, gathered and preserved the pieces, and a later Medici, Duke Cosimo, had these fragments put together and replaced. In 1873, after the statue had suffered erosion from the weather, David was laboriously transferred to the Accademia delle Belle Arti, where it occupies the place of honor as the most popular figure in Florence.
It was a tour de force, and as such can hardly be overpraised; the mechanical difficulties were brilliantly overcome. Esthetically one may pick a few flaws: the right hand is too large, the neck too long, the left leg overlong below the knee, the left buttock does not swell as any proper buttock should. Piero Soderini, head of the republic, thought the nose excessive; Vasari tells the story—perhaps a legend—how Michelangelo, hiding some marble dust in his hand, mounted a ladder, pretended to chisel off a bit of the nose while leaving it intact, and let the marble dust fall from his hand before the Gonfalonier, who then pronounced the statue much improved. The total effect of the work silences criticism: the splendid frame, not yet swollen with the muscles of Michelangelo’s later heroes, the finished texture of the flesh, the strong yet refined features, the nostrils tense with excitement, the frown of anger and the look of resolution subtly tinged with diffidence as the youth faces the fearsome Goliath and prepares to fill and cast his sling—these share in making the David, with one exception,* the most famous statue in the world. Vasari thought it “surpassed all other statues ancient and modern, Latin or Greek.”31
The Duomo Board paid Michelangelo a total of 400 florins for the David. Allowing for the depreciation of currency between 1400 and 1500, we may equate this roughly at $5000 in the money of 1952; it seems a rather small sum for thirty months’ work; presumably he accepted other commissions during that time. Indeed the Board and Guild themselves, while David was in process, engaged him to carve statues, six and a half feet high, of the twelve Apostles, to be placed in the cathedral. He was allowed twelve years for the work, was to be paid two florins a month, and a house was to be built for his free occupancy. Of these statues the sole survivor is a St. Matthew, only half emerged from the block of stone, like some figure by Rodin. Looking at it in the Florence Academy, we understand better what Michelangelo meant when he defined sculpture as the art “that works by force of taking away”; and again, in one of his poems: “In hard and craggy stone the mere removal of the surface gives being to a figure, which ever grows the more the stone is hewn away.”32 He often spoke of himself as searching to find the figure concealed in the stone, knocking the surface away as if seeking a miner buried in fallen rock.
About 1505 he carved for a Flemish merchant the Madonna that sits in the church of Notre Dame at Bruges. It has been highly praised, but it is one of the artist’s poorer works—the drapery simple and dignified, the head of the Child quite out of proportion to the body, the face of the Virgin pouting and mournful as if she felt that it was all a mistake. Still stranger is the homely Virgin in the Madonna painted (1505) for Angelo Doni. In truth Michelangelo did not care much for beauty; he was interested in bodies, preferably male, and represented them sometimes with all the defects of their seen forms, sometimes in a way to convey some sermon or idea, but seldom with a view to catching beauty and imprisoning it in lasting stone. In this Doni Madonna he offends good taste by placing a row of naked youths on a parapet behind the Virgin. Not that he was paganizing; he was apparently a sincere, even a puritan, Christian; but here, as in The Last Judgment, his fascination with the human body triumphed over his piety. He was deeply interested, too, in the anatomy of position, in what happens to limbs, extremities, frame, and muscles when the body changes its pose. So here the Virgin leans backward, apparently to receive the Child over her shoulder from St. Joseph. It is excellent sculpture, but lifeless and almost colorless painting. Michelangelo was to protest, time and again, that painting was not his forte.
Therefore he must have felt no great pleasure when Soderini invited him (1504) to paint a mural in the Hall of the Great Council of the Palazzo Vecchio, while his bête noire, Leonardo da Vinci, was to paint an opposite wall. He disliked Leonardo for a hundred reasons—for his aristocratic manners, his costly and pretentious dress, his retinue of pretty youths, perhaps for his greater success and fame, till then, as a painter. Angelo was not sure that he, a sculptor, could rival Leonardo in painting; it was courageous of him to try. For his preliminary cartoon he set up a panel of linen-backed paper 288 square feet in area. He had made some progress on this sketch when a summons came to him from Rome: Julius needed the best sculptor to be found in Italy. The Signory fumed, but let Michelangelo go (1505). Perhaps he was not sorry to leave the pencil and the brush, and return to the laborious art that he loved.
2. Michelangelo and Julius II: 1505–13
He must have seen at once that he would be miserable with Julius, they were so much alike. Both had temper and temperament: the Pope imperious and fiery, the artist somber and proud. Both were Titans in spirit and aim, acknowledging no superior, admitting no compromise, passing from one grandiose project to another, stamping their personalities on their time, and laboring with such mad energy that when both were dead all Italy seemed exhausted and empty.
Julius, following the example long since set by the cardinals, wanted for his bones a mausoleum whose size and splendor should proclaim his greatness even to distant and forgetful posterity. He looked with envy upon the beautiful tomb that Andrea Sansovino had just carved for Cardinal Ascanio Sforza in Santa Maria del Popolo. Michael proposed a colossal monument twenty-seven feet in length and eighteen in width. Forty statues would adorn it: some symbolizing the redeemed Papal States; some personifying Painting, Architecture, Sculpture, Poetry, Philosophy, Theology—all made captive by the irresistible Pope; others depicting his major predecessors, as, for example, Moses; two would picture angels—one weeping at Julius’ removal from the earth, the other smiling at his entrance into heaven. At the top would be a handsome sarcophagus for the mortal papal remains. Along the surfaces of the monument would run bronze reliefs recounting the achievements of the Pope in war, government, and art. All this was to stand in the tribune of St. Peter’s. It was a design that would use many tons of marble, many thousands of ducats, many years of the sculptor’s life. Julius approved, gave Angelo two thousand ducats for the purchase of marble, and sent him off to Carrara instructed to pick the finest veins. While there Michael noted a hill overlooking the sea, and conceived the idea of carving the mount into a colossal human figure, which, lighted at the top, would serve as a beacon to distant mariners; but Julius’ tomb called him back to Rome. When the marble that he had bought arrived, and was piled up in a square by his lodgings near St. Peter’s, people marveled at its quantity and cost, and Julius rejoiced.
The drama became tragedy. Bramante, desiring money for the new St. Peter’s, looked askance at this titanic project; moreover he feared that Michelangelo would replace him as the Pope’s favorite artist; he used his influence to divert papal funds and passion from the proposed tomb. For his part Julius was planning war upon Perugia and Bologna (1506), and found Mars an expensive god; the tomb should wait for peace. Meanwhile Angelo had received no salary, had spent on marble all that Julius had advanced him, had paid out of his own pocket to furnish the house that the Pope had provided for him. He went to the Vatican on Holy Saturday, 1506, to ask for money; he was told to return on Monday; he did, and was told to return on Tuesday; like rebuffs met him on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday; on Friday he was turned away with the blunt statement that the Pope did not wish to see him. He went home and wrote a letter to Julius:
Most Blessed Father: I have been turned out of the Palace today by your orders; wherefore I give you notice that from this time forward, if you want me, you must look for me elsewhere than at Rome.33
He gave instructions for the sale of the furniture he had bought, and took horse toward Florence. At Poggibonsi he was overtaken by couriers bearing a letter from the Pope, which commanded him to return at once to Rome. If we may accept his own account (and he was an unusually honest man) he sent back a reply that he would come only when the Pope agreed to fulfill the conditions of their understanding for the tomb. He continued to Florence.
Now he resumed work on the immense cartoon for The Battle of Pisa. He chose as his subject no actual warfare, but the moment when the soldiers, who had been swimming in the Arno, were suddenly called to action. Michael was not concerned with battles; he wanted to study and portray the nude male form in every position; here was his chance. He showed some men emerging from the river, others running to their weapons, others struggling to pull up stockings on wet legs, others leaping or riding on horseback, others hurriedly adjusting their armor, some running stark naked to the fight. There was no landscape background; Michelangelo never cared for landscape, or for anything in nature except the human form. When the cartoon was finished it was put alongside Leonardo’s in the Hall of the Pope in Santa Maria Novella. There the rival sketches became a school for a hundred artists—Andrea del Sarto, Alonso Berruguete, Raphael, Iacopo Sansovino, Perino del Vaga, and a hundred more. Cellini, who copied Michelangelo’s cartoon about 1513, described it with youthful enthusiasm as “so splendid in action that nothing survives of ancient or modern art which touches the same point of lofty excellence. Though the divine Michel Agnolo in later life finished that great [Sistine] Chapel, he never rose halfway to the same pitch of power.”34
We cannot say as much. The picture was never painted, the cartoon is lost, and only minor fragments survive of the many copies made. While Angelo was working on the sketch Pope Julius sent message after message to the Florentine Signory, commanding them to send him back to Rome. Soderini, loving the artist and fearing for his safety in Rome, temporized. After the third letter from the Pope he begged Angelo to obey, saying that his obstinacy endangered the peaceful relations between Florence and the papacy. Michael demanded a safe-conduct, to be signed by the Cardinal of Volterra. During the delay Julius captured Bologna (November, 1506). Now he sent to Florence a peremptory order that Michelangelo should come to Bologna for an important commission. Armed with a letter from Soderini to Julius, which begged the Pope to “show him love and treat him gently,” Michael went once more over the snows of the Apennines. Julius received him with a heavy frown, ordered from the room a bishop who presumed to rebuke the artist for disobedience, gave Angelo a grumbling pardon, and a characteristic assignment. “I wish you to make my statue on a large scale in bronze. I mean to place it on the façade of San Petronio.”35 Michael was glad to get back to sculpture, though not confident of his ability to cast successfully a sitting figure fourteen feet in height. Julius provided a thousand ducats for the work; Angelo reported later that he had spent all but four ducats on materials, so that he had for himself only that reward for two years of labor in Bologna. The task was as heartbreaking as that which Cellini described for casting the Loggia Perseus. “I work night and day,” the sculptor wrote to his brother Buonarroto; “if I had to begin the whole thing over again I do not think I could survive it.”36 In February, 1508, the statue was raised to its place above the main portal of the cathedral. In March Michael returned to Florence, probably praying that he might never see Julius again. Three years later, as we have seen, the statue was melted into cannon.
Almost at once the Pope sent for him. Angelo went back to Rome, and was chagrined to find that Julius wanted him not to carve the great tomb but to paint the ceiling of the chapel of Sixtus IV. He hesitated to face the problems of perspective and foreshortening in painting a ceiling sixty-eight feet above the floor; he protested again that he was a sculptor, not a painter; in vain he recommended Raphael as a better man for the work. Julius commanded and coaxed, pledging a fee of 3000 ducats ($37,500?); Michael feared the Pope and needed the money. Still murmuring, “This is not my trade,” he undertook the arduous and uncongenial task. He sent to Florence for five assistants trained in design; tore down the clumsy scaffolding that Bramante had raised, erected his own, and set to work measuring and charting the ten thousand square feet of the ceiling, planning the general design, making cartoons for each separate space, including spandrels, pendentives, and lunettes; in all there were to be 343 figures. Many preliminary studies were made, some from living models. When the final form of a cartoon was finished it was carried carefully up the scaffolding and was applied, face outward, to the freshly plastered surface of its corresponding place; the lines of the composition were then pricked through the drawing into the plaster, the cartoon was removed, and the sculptor began to paint.
For over four years—from May, 1508, to October, 1512—Angelo worked on the Sistine ceiling. Not continuously; there were interruptions of uncertain length, as when he went to Bologna to besiege Julius for more funds. And not alone: he had helpers to grind the colors, prepare the plaster, perhaps to draw or paint some minor features; parts of the frescoes reveal inferior hands. But the five artists whom he had summoned to Rome were soon dismissed; Angelo’s style of conception, design, and coloring was so different from theirs and the traditions of Florence that he found them more hindrance than aid. Besides, he did not know how to get along with others, and it was one of his consolations, up there on the scaffold, that he was alone; there he could think, in pain but in peace; there he could exemplify Leonardo’s saying: “If you are alone you will be wholly your own.” To the technical difficulties Julius added himself by his impatience to have the great work completed and displayed. Picture the old Pope mounting the frail frame, drawn up to the platform by the artist, expressing admiration, always asking, “When will it be finished?” The reply was a lesson in integrity: “When I shall have done all that I believe required to satisfy art.”37 To which Julius retorted angrily: “Do you want me to hurl you from this scaffold?”38 Yielding later to the papal impatience, Angelo took down the scaffolding before all final touches had been applied. Then Julius thought that a little gold should be added here and there, but the weary artist persuaded him that gold trimmings would hardly become the Prophets or the Apostles. When for the last time Michael descended from the scaffold he was exhausted, emaciated, prematurely old. A story says that his eyes, long accustomed to the subdued illumination of the chapel, could hardly bear the light of the sun;39 and another story that he found it now easier to read by looking upward than by holding the page beneath his eyes.40
The original plan of Julius for the ceiling had been merely a series of Apostles; Michelangelo prevailed upon him to allow an ampler and nobler scheme. He divided the convex vault into over a hundred panels by picturing columns and moldings between them; and he enhanced the tridimensional illusion with lusty youthful figures upholding the cornices or seated on capitals. In the major panels, running along the crest of the ceiling, Angelo painted episodes from Genesis: the initial act of creation separates light from darkness; the sun, moon, and planets come into being at the command of the Creator—a majestic figure stern of face, powerful of body, with beard and robes flying in the air; the Almighty, even finer in form and feature than in the previous panel, extends His right arm to create Adam, while with the left arm He holds a very pretty angel—this panel is Michelangelo’s pictorial masterpiece; God, now a much older and patriarchal deity, evokes Eve from Adam’s rib; Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree, and are expelled from Eden; Noah and his sons prepare a sacrificial offering to God; the flood rises; Noah celebrates with too much wine. All in these panels is Old Testament, all is Hebraic; Michelangelo belongs to the prophets pronouncing doom, not to the evangelists expounding the gospel of love.
In the spandrels of alternate arches Angelo painted magnificent figures of Daniel, Isaiah, Zecharia, Joel, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Jonah. In the other spandrels he pictured the pagan oracles that were believed to have foretold Christ: the graceful Libyan Sibyl, holding an open book of the future; the dark, unhappy, powerful Cumaean Sibyl; the studious Persian; the Delphic and Erythrean Sibyls; these too are such paintings as rival the sculptures of Pheidias; indeed, all these figures suggest sculpture; and Michelangelo, conscripted into an alien art, transforms it into his own. In the large triangle at one end of the ceiling, and in two others at the other end, the artist still stayed in the Old Testament, with the raising of the brazen serpent in the wilderness, the victory of David over Goliath, the hanging of Haman, the beheading of Holofernes by Judith. Finally, as if by concession and afterthought, in the lunettes and arched recesses above the windows, Angelo painted scenes expounding the genealogy of Mary and Christ.
No one of these pictures quite equals Raphael’s School of Athens in conception, drawing, color, and technique; but taken all together, they constitute the greatest achievement of any man in the history of painting. The total effect of repeated and careful contemplation is far greater than in the case of the Stanze. There we feel a happy perfection of artistry, and an urbane union of pagan and Christian thought. Here we do not merely perceive technical accomplishment—in the perspective, the foreshortenings, the unrivaled variety of attitudes; we feel the sweep and breath of genius, almost as creative as in the wind-swept figure of the Almighty raising Adam out of the earth.
Here again Michelangelo has given his ruling passion free rein; and though the place was the chapel of the popes, the theme and object of his art was the human body. Like the Greeks, he cared less for the face and its expression than for the whole physical frame. On the Sistine ceiling are half a hundred male, a few female, nudes. There are no landscapes, no vegetation except in picturing the creation of plants, no decorative arabesques; as in Signorelli’s frescoes at Orvieto, the body of man becomes the sole means of decoration as well as of representation. Signorelli was the one painter, as Iacopo della Quercia was the one sculptor, from whom Michelangelo cared to learn. Every little space left free in the ceiling by the general pictorial plan is occupied by a nude figure, not so much beautiful as athletic and strong. There is no sexual suggestion in them, only the persistent display of the human body as the highest embodiment of energy, vitality, life. Though some timid souls protested against this profusion of nudity in the house of God, Julius made no recorded objection; he was a man as broad as his hatreds, and he recognized great art when he saw it. Perhaps he understood that he had immortalized himself not by the wars that he had won, but by giving the strange and incalculable divinity fretting in Angelo freedom to disport itself on the papal chapel vault.
Julius died four months after the completion of the Sistine ceiling. Michelangelo was then nearing his thirty-eighth birthday. He had placed himself at the head of all Italian sculptors by his David and Pietà; by this ceiling he had equaled or surpassed Raphael in painting; there seemed no other world left for him to conquer. Surely even he hardly dreamed that he had over half a century yet to live, that his most famous painting, his most mature sculpture, were yet to be done. He mourned the passing of the great Pope, and wondered whether Leo would have as sure an instinct as Julius for the noble in art. He retired to his lodgings, and bided his time.