The value of Michelangelo's poetry is rather psychological than purely literary. He never claimed to be more than an amateur, writing to amuse himself. His style is obscure, crabbed, ungrammatical. Expression only finds a smooth and flowing outlet when the man's nature is profoundly stirred by some powerful emotion, as in the sonnets to Cavalieri, or the sonnets on the deaths of Vittoria Colonna and Urbino, or the sonnets on the thought of his own death. For the most part, it is clear that he found great difficulty in mastering his thoughts and images. This we discover from the innumerable variants of the same madrigal or sonnet which he made, and his habit of returning to them at intervals long after their composition. A good fourth of the Codex Vaticanus consists of repetitions and rifacimenti. He was also wont to submit what he wrote to the judgment of his friends, requesting them to alter and improve. He often had recourse to Luigi del Riccio's assistance in such matters. I may here adduce an inedited letter from two friends in Rome, Giovanni Francesco Bini and Giovanni Francesco Stella, who returned a poem they had handled in this manner: "We have done our best to alter some things in your sonnet, but not to set it all to rights, since there was not much wanting. Now that it is changed or put in order, according as the kindness of your nature wished, the result will be more due to your own judgment than to ours, since you have the true conception of the subject in your mind. We shall be greatly pleased if you find yourself as well served as we earnestly desire that you should command us." It was the custom of amateur poets to have recourse to literary craftsmen before they ventured to circulate their compositions. An amusing instance of this will be found in Professor Biagi's monograph upon Tullia d'Aragona, all of whose verses passed through the crucible of Benedetto Varchi's revision.
The thoughts and images out of which Michelangelo's poetry is woven are characteristically abstract and arid. He borrows no illustrations from external nature. The beauty of the world and all that lives in it might have been non-existent so far as he was concerned. Nor do his octave stanzas in praise of rural life form an exception to this statement; for these are imitated from Poliziano, so far as they attempt pictures of the country, and their chief poetical feature is the masque of vices belonging to human nature in the city. His stock-in-trade consists of a few Platonic notions and a few Petrarchan antitheses. In the very large number of compositions which are devoted to love, this one idea predominates: that physical beauty is a direct beam sent from the eternal source of all reality, in order to elevate the lover's soul and lead him on the upward path toward heaven. Carnal passion he regards with the aversion of an ascetic. It is impossible to say for certain to whom these mystical love-poems were addressed. Whether a man or a woman is in the case (for both were probably the objects of his aesthetical admiration), the tone of feeling, the language, and the philosophy do not vary. He uses the same imagery, the same conceits, the same abstract ideas for both sexes, and adapts the leading motive which he had invented for a person of one sex to a person of the other when it suits his purpose. In our absolute incapacity to fix any amative connection upon Michelangelo, or to link his name with that of any contemporary beauty, we arrive at the conclusion, strange as this may be, that the greater part of his love-poetry is a scholastic exercise upon emotions transmuted into metaphysical and mystical conceptions. Only two pieces in the long series break this monotony by a touch of realism. They are divided by a period of more than thirty years. The first seems to date from an early epoch of his life:—
What joy hath yon glad wreath of flowers that is Around her golden hair so deftly twined, Each blossom pressing forward from behind, As though to be the first her brows to kiss! The livelong day her dress hath perfect bliss, That now reveals her breast, now seems to bind: And that fair woven net of gold refined Rests on her cheek and throat in happiness! Yet still more blissful seems to me the band, Gilt at the tips, so sweetly doth it ring, And clasp the bosom that it serves to lace: Yea, and the belt, to such as understand, Bound round her waist, saith: Here I'd ever cling! What would my arms do in that girdle's place?
The second can be ascribed with probability to the year 1534 or 1535. It is written upon the back of a rather singular letter addressed to him by a certain Pierantonio, when both men were in Rome together:—
Kind to the world, but to itself unkind, A worm is born, that, dying noiselessly, Despoils itself to clothe fair limbs, and be In its true worth alone by death divined. Would I might die for my dear lord to find Raiment in my outworn mortality; That, changing like the snake, I might be free To cast the slough wherein I dwell confined! Nay, were it mine, that shaggy fleece that stays, Woven and wrought into a vestment fair, Around yon breast so beauteous in such bliss! All through the day thou'd have me! Would I were The shoes that bear that burden! when the ways Were wet with rain, thy feet I then should kiss!
I have already alluded to the fact that we can trace two widely different styles of writing in Michelangelo's poetry. Some of his sonnets, like the two just quoted, and those we can refer with certainty to the Cavalieri series, together with occasional compositions upon the deaths of Cecchino and Urbino, seem to come straight from the heart, and their manuscripts offer few variants to the editor. Others, of a different quality, where he is dealing with Platonic subtleties or Petrarchan conceits, have been twisted into so many forms, and tortured by such frequent re-handlings, that it is difficult now to settle a final text. The Codex Vaticanus is peculiarly rich in examples of these compositions. Madrigal lvii. and Sonnet lx., for example, recur with wearisome reiteration. These laboured and scholastic exercises, unlike the more spontaneous utterances of his feelings, are worked up into different forms, and the same conceits are not seldom used for various persons and on divers occasions.
One of the great difficulties under which a critic labours in discussing these personal poems is that their chronology cannot be ascertained in the majority of instances. Another is that we are continually hampered by the false traditions invented by Michelangelo the younger. Books like Lannan Rolland's "Michel-Ange et Vittoria Colonna" have no value whatsoever, because they are based upon that unlucky grand-nephew's deliberately corrupted text. Even Wadsworth's translations, fine as they are, have lost a large portion of their interest since the publication of the autographs by Cesare Guasti in 1863. It is certain that the younger Michelangelo meant well to his illustrious ancestor. He was anxious to give his rugged compositions the elegance and suavity of academical versification. He wished also to defend his character from the imputation of immorality. Therefore he rearranged the order of stanzas in the longer poems, pieced fragments together, changed whole lines, ideas, images, amplified and mutilated, altered phrases which seemed to him suspicious. Only one who has examined the manuscripts of the Buonarroti Archives knows what pains he bestowed upon this ungrateful and disastrous task. But the net result of his meddlesome benevolence is that now for nearly three centuries the greatest genius of the Italian Renaissance has worn a mask concealing the real nature of his emotion, and that a false legend concerning his relations to Vittoria Colonna has become inextricably interwoven with the story of his life.
The extraordinary importance attached by Michelangelo in old age to the passions of his youth is almost sufficient to justify those psychological investigators who regard him as the subject of a nervous disorder. It does not seem to be accounted for by anything known to us regarding his stern and solitary life, his aloofness from the vulgar, and his self-dedication to study. In addition to the splendid devotional sonnets addressed to Vasari, which will appear in their proper place, I may corroborate these remarks by the translation of a set of three madrigals bearing on the topic.
_Ah me, ah me! how have I been betrayed By my swift-flitting years, and by the glass, Which yet tells truth to those who firmly gaze! Thus happens it when one too long delays, As I have done, nor feels time fleet and, fade:— One morn he finds himself grown old, alas! To gird my loins, repent, my path repass, Sound counsel take, I cannot, now death's near; Foe to myself, each tear, Each sigh, is idly to the light wind sent, For there's no loss to equal time ill-spent.
Ah me, ah me! I wander telling o'er Past years, and yet in all I cannot view One day that might be rightly reckoned mine. Delusive hopes and vain desires entwine My soul that loves, weeps, burns, and sighs full sore. Too well I know and prove that this is true, Since of man's passions none to me are new. Far from the truth my steps have gone astray, In peril now I stay, For, lo! the brief span of my life is o'er. Yet, were it lengthened, I should love once more.
Ah me! I wander tired, and know not whither: I fear to sight my goal, the years gone by Point it too plain; nor will closed eyes avail. Now Time hath changed and gnawed this mortal veil, Death and the soul in conflict strive together About my future fate that looms so nigh. Unless my judgment greatly goes awry, Which God in mercy grant, I can but see Eternal penalty Waiting my wasted will, my misused mind, And know not, Lord, where health and hope to find._
After reading these lamentations, it is well to remember that Michelangelo at times indulged a sense of humour. As examples of his lighter vein, we might allude to the sonnet on the Sistine and the capitolo in answer to Francesco Berni, written in the name of Fra Sebastiano. Sometimes his satire becomes malignant, as in the sonnet against the people of Pistoja, which breathes the spirit of Dantesque invective. Sometimes the fierceness of it is turned against himself, as in the capitolo upon old age and its infirmities. The grotesqueness of this lurid descant on senility and death is marked by something rather Teutonic than Italian, a "Danse Macabre" intensity of loathing; and it winds up with the bitter reflections, peculiar to him in his latest years, upon the vanity of art. "My much-prized art, on which I relied and which brought me fame, has now reduced me to this. I am poor and old, the slave of others. To the dogs I must go, unless I die quickly."
A proper conclusion to this chapter may be borrowed from the peroration of Varchi's discourse upon the philosophical love-poetry of Michelangelo. This time he chooses for his text the second of those sonnets (No. lii.) which caused the poet's grand-nephew so much perplexity, inducing him to alter the word amici in the last line into animi. It runs as follows:—
_I saw no mortal beauty with these eyes When perfect peace in thy fair eyes I found; But far within, where all is holy ground, My soul felt Love, her comrade of the skies: For she was born with God in Paradise; Else should we still to transient love be bound; But, finding these so false, we pass beyond Unto the Love of loves that never dies. Nay, things that die cannot assuage the thirst Of souls undying; nor Eternity Serves Time, where all must fade that flourisheth _Sense is not love, but lawlessness accurst: This kills the soul; while our love lifts on high Our friends on earth—higher in heaven through death._
"From this sonnet," says Varchi, "I think that any man possessed of judgment will be able to discern to what extent this angel, or rather archangel, in addition to his three first and most noble professions of architecture, sculpture, and painting, wherein without dispute he not only eclipses all the moderns, but even surpasses the ancients, proves himself also excellent, nay singular, in poetry, and in the true art of loving; the which art is neither less fair nor less difficult, albeit it be more necessary and more profitable than the other four. Whereof no one ought to wonder: for this reason; that, over and above what is manifest to everybody, namely that nature, desirous of exhibiting her utmost power, chose to fashion a complete man, and (as the Latins say) one furnished in all proper parts; he, in addition to the gifts of nature, of such sort and so liberally scattered, added such study and a diligence so great that, even had he been by birth most rugged, he might through these means have become consummate in all virtue: and supposing he were born, I do not say in Florence and of a very noble family, in the time too of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who recognised, willed, knew, and had the power to elevate so vast a genius; but in Scythia, of any stock or stem you like, under some commonplace barbarian chief, a fellow not disdainful merely, but furiously hostile to all intellectual ability; still, in all circumstances, under any star, he would have been Michelangelo, that is to say, the unique painter, the singular sculptor, the most perfect architect, the most excellent poet, and a lover of the most divinest. For the which reasons I (it is now many years ago), holding his name not only in admiration, but also in veneration, before I knew that he was architect already, made a sonnet; with which (although it be as much below the supreme greatness of his worth as it is unworthy of your most refined and chastened ears) I mean to close this present conference; reserving the discussion on the arts (in obedience to our Consul's orders) for another lecture.
Illustrious sculptor, 'twas enough and more, Not with the chisel-and bruised bronze alone, But also with brush, colour, pencil, tone, To rival, nay, surpass that fame of yore. But now, transcending what those laurels bore Of pride and beauty for our age and zone. You climb of poetry the third high throne, Singing love's strife and-peace, love's sweet and sore. O wise, and dear to God, old man well born, Who in so many, so fair ways, make fair This world, how shall your dues be dully paid? Doomed by eternal charters to adorn Nature and art, yourself their mirror are, None, first before, nor second after, made."
In the above translation of Varchi's peroration I have endeavoured to sustain those long-winded periods of which he was so perfect and professed a master. We must remember that he actually read this dissertation before the Florentine Academy on the second Sunday in Lent, in the year 1546, when Michelangelo was still alive and hearty. He afterwards sent it to the press; and the studied trumpet-tones of eulogy, conferring upon Michelangelo the quintuple crown of pre-eminence in painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry, and loving, sounded from Venice down to Naples. The style of the oration may strike us as rococo now, but the accent of praise and appreciation is surely genuine. Varchi's enthusiastic comment on the sonnets xxx, xxxi, and lii, published to men of letters, taste, and learning in Florence and all Italy, is the strongest vindication of their innocence against editors and scholars who in various ways have attempted to disfigure or to misconstrue them.
The correspondence which I used in the eleventh chapter, while describing Michelangelo's difficulties regarding the final contract with the Duke of Urbino, proves that he had not begun to paint the frescoes of the Cappella Paolina in October 1542. They were carried on with interruptions during the next seven years. These pictures, the last on which his talents were employed, are two large subjects: the Conversion of S. Paul, and the Martyrdom of S. Peter. They have suffered from smoke and other injuries of time even more than the frescoes of the Sistine, and can now be scarcely appreciated owing to discoloration. Nevertheless, at no period, even when fresh from the master's hand, can they have been typical of his style. It is true that contemporaries were not of this opinion. Condivi calls both of them "stupendous not only in the general exposition of the histories but also in the details of each figure." It is also true that the technical finish of these large compositions shows a perfect mastery of painting, and that the great designer has not lost his power of dealing at will with the human body. But the frigidity of old age had fallen on his feeling and imagination. The faces of his saints and angels here are more inexpressive than those of the Last Judgment. The type of form has become still more rigidly schematic. All those figures in violent attitudes have been invented in the artist's brain without reference to nature; and the activity of movement which he means to suggest, is frozen, petrified, suspended. The suppleness, the elasticity, the sympathy with which Michelangelo handled the nude, when he began to paint in the Sistine Chapel, have disappeared. We cannot refrain from regretting that seven years of his energetic old age should have been devoted to work so obviously indicative of decaying faculties.
The Cappella Paolina ran a risk of destruction by fire during the course of his operations there. Michelangelo wrote to Del Riccio in 1545, reminding him that part of the roof had been consumed, and that it would be necessary to cover it in roughly at once, since the rain was damaging the frescoes and weakening the walls. When they were finished, Paul III. appointed an official guardian with a fixed salary, whose sole business it should be "to clean the frescoes well and keep them in a state of cleanliness, free from dust and other impurities, as also from the smoke of candles lighted in both chapels during divine service." This man had charge of the Sistine as well as the Pauline Chapel; but his office does not seem to have been continued after the death of the Farnese. The first guardian nominated was Buonarroti's favourite servant Urbino.
Vasari, after describing these frescoes in some detail, but without his customary enthusiasm, goes on to observe: "Michelangelo attended only, as I have elsewhere said, to the perfection of art. There are no landscapes, nor trees, nor houses; nor again do we find in his work that variety of movement and prettiness which may be noticed in the pictures of other men. He always neglected such decoration, being unwilling to lower his lofty genius to these details." This is indeed true of the arid desert of the Pauline frescoes. Then he adds: "They were his last productions in painting. He was seventy-five years old when he carried them to completion; and, as he informed me, he did so with great effort and fatigue—painting, after a certain age, and especially fresco-painting, not being in truth fit work for old men."
The first of two acute illnesses, which showed that Michelangelo's constitution was beginning to give way, happened in the summer of 1544. On this occasion Luigi del Riccio took him into his own apartments at the Casa Strozzi; and here he nursed him with such personal devotion that the old man afterwards regarded Del Riccio as the saviour of his life. We learn this from the following pathetic sonnet:—
It happens that the sweet unfathomed sea Of seeming courtesy sometimes doth hide Offence to life and honour. This descried, I hold less dear the health restored to me. He who lends wings of hope, while secretly He spreads a traitorous snare by the wayside, Hath dulled the flame of love, and mortified Friendship where friendship burns most fervently. Keep then, my dear Luigi, clear and fare, That ancient love to which my life I owe, That neither wind nor storm its calm may mar. For wrath and pain our gratitude obscure; And if the truest truth of love I know, One pang outweighs a thousand pleasures far.
Ruberto Strozzi, who was then in France, wrote anxiously inquiring after his health. In reply, Michelangelo sent Strozzi a singular message by Luigi del Riccio, to the effect that "if the king of France restored Florence to liberty, he was ready to make his statue on horseback out of bronze at his own cost, and set it up in the Piazza." This throws some light upon a passage in a letter addressed subsequently to Lionardo Buonarroti, when the tyrannous law, termed "La Polverina," enacted against malcontents by the Duke Cosimo de' Medici, was disturbing the minds of Florentine citizens. Michelangelo then wrote as follows: "I am glad that you gave me news of the edict; because, if I have been careful up to this date in my conversation with exiles, I shall take more precautions for the future. As to my having been laid up with an illness in the house of the Strozzi, I do not hold that I was in their house, but in the apartment of Messer Luigi del Riccio, who was my intimate friend; and after the death of Bartolommeo Angelini, I found no one better able to transact my affairs, or more faithfully, than he did. When he died, I ceased to frequent the house, as all Rome can bear me witness; as they can also with regard to the general tenor of my life, inasmuch as I am always alone, go little around, and talk to no one, least of all to Florentines. When I am saluted on the open street, I cannot do less than respond with fair words and pass upon my way. Had I knowledge of the exiles, who they are, I would not reply to them in any manner. As I have said, I shall henceforward protect myself with diligence, the more that I have so much else to think about that I find it difficult to live."
This letter of 1548, taken in connection with the circumstances of Michelangelo's illness in 1544, his exchange of messages with Ruberto degli Strozzi, his gift of the two Captives to that gentleman, and his presence in the house of the Strozzi during his recovery, shows the delicacy of the political situation at Florence under Cosimo's rule. Slight indications of a reactionary spirit in the aged artist exposed his family to peril. Living in Rome, Michelangelo risked nothing with the Florentine government. But "La Polverina" attacked the heirs of exiles in their property and persons. It was therefore of importance to establish his non-complicity in revolutionary intrigues. Luckily for himself and his nephew, he could make out a good case and defend his conduct. Though Buonarroti's sympathies and sentiments inclined him to prefer a republic in his native city, and though he threw his weight into that scale at the crisis of the siege, he did not forget his early obligations to the House of Medici. Clement VII. accepted his allegiance when the siege was over, and set him immediately to work at the tasks he wished him to perform. What is more, the Pope took pains and trouble to settle the differences between him and the Duke of Urbino. The man had been no conspirator. The architect and sculptor was coveted by every pope and prince in Italy. Still there remained a discord between his political instincts, however prudently and privately indulged, and his sense of personal loyalty to the family at whose board he sat in youth, and to whom he owed his advancement in life. Accordingly, we shall find that, though the Duke of Tuscany made advances to win him back to Florence, Michelangelo always preferred to live and die on neutral ground in Rome. Like the wise man that he was, he seems to have felt through these troublous times that his own duty, the service laid on him by God and nature, was to keep his force and mental faculties for art; obliging old patrons in all kindly offices, suppressing republican aspirations—in one word, "sticking to his last," and steering clear of shoals on which the main raft of his life might founder.
From this digression, which was needful to explain his attitude toward Florence and part of his psychology, I return to the incidents of Michelangelo's illness at Rome in 1544. Lionardo, having news of his uncle's danger, came post-haste to Rome. This was his simple duty, as a loving relative. But the old man, rendered suspicious by previous transactions with his family, did not take the action in its proper light. We have a letter, indorsed by Lionardo in Rome as received upon the 11th of July, to this effect: "Lionardo, I have been ill; and you, at the instance of Ser Giovan Francesco (probably Fattucci), have come to make me dead, and to see what I have left. Is there not enough of mine at Florence to content you? You cannot deny that you are the image of your father, who turned me out of my own house in Florence. Know that I have made a will of such tenor that you need not trouble your head about what I possess at Rome. Go then with God, and do not present yourself before me; and do not write to me again, and act like the priest in the fable."
The correspondence between uncle and nephew during the next months proves that this furious letter wrought no diminution of mutual regard and affection. Before the end of the year he must have recovered, for we find him writing to Del Riccio: "I am well again now, and hope to live yet some years, seeing that God has placed my health under the care of Maestro Baccio Rontini and the trebbian wine of the Ulivieri." This letter is referred to January 1545, and on the 9th of that month he dictated a letter to his friend Del Riccio, in which he tells Lionardo Buonarroti: "I do not feel well, and cannot write. Nevertheless I have recovered from my illness, and suffer no pain now." We have reason to think that Michelangelo fell gravely ill again toward the close of 1545. News came to Florence that he was dying; and Lionardo, not intimidated by his experience on the last occasion, set out to visit him. His ricordo of the journey was as follows: "I note how on the 15th of January 1545 (Flor. style, i.e. 1546) I went to Rome by post to see Michelangelo, who was ill, and returned to-day, the 26th."
It is not quite easy to separate the records of these two acute illnesses of Michelangelo, falling between the summer of 1544 and the early spring of 1546. Still, there is no doubt that they signalised his passage from robust old age into a period of physical decline. Much of life survived in the hero yet; he had still to mould S. Peter's after his own mind, and to invent the cupola. Intellectually he suffered no diminution, but he became subject to a chronic disease of the bladder, and adopted habits suited to decaying faculty.
We have seen that Michelangelo regarded Luigi del Riccio as his most trusty friend and adviser. The letters which he wrote to him during these years turn mainly upon business or poetical compositions. Some, however, throw light upon the private life of both men, and on the nature of their intimacy. I will select a few for special comment here. The following has no date; but it is interesting, because we may connect the feeling expressed in it with one of Michelangelo's familiar sonnets. "Dear Messer Luigi, since I know you are as great a master of ceremonies as I am unfit for that trade, I beg you to help me in a little matter. Monsignor di Todi (Federigo Cesi, afterwards Cardinal of S. Pancrazio) has made me a present, which Urbino will describe to you. I think you are a friend of his lordship: will you then thank him in my name, when you find a suitable occasion, and do so with those compliments which come easily to you, and to me are very hard? Make me too your debtor for some tartlet."
The sonnet is No. ix of Signor Guasti's edition. I have translated it thus:—
The sugar, candles, and the saddled mule, Together with your cask of malvoisie, So far exceed all my necessity That Michael and not I my debt must rule. In such a glassy calm the breezes fool My sinking sails, so that amid the sea My bark hath missed her way, and seems to be A wisp of straw whirled on a weltering pool. To yield thee gift for gift and grace for grace, For food and drink and carriage to and fro, For all my need in every time and place, O my dear lord, matched with the much I owe, All that I am were no real recompense: Paying a debt is not munificence.
In the chapter upon Michelangelo's poetry I dwelt at length upon Luigi del Riccio's passionate affection for his cousin, Cecchino dei Bracci. This youth died at the age of sixteen, on January 8, 1545. Michelangelo undertook to design "the modest sepulchre of marble" erected to his memory by Del Riccio in the church of Araceli. He also began to write sonnets, madrigals, and epitaphs, which were sent from day to day. One of his letters gives an explanation of the eighth epitaph: "Our dead friend speaks and says: if the heavens robbed all beauty from all other men on earth to make me only, as indeed they made me, beautiful; and if by the divine decree I must return at doomsday to the shape I bore in life, it follows that I cannot give back the beauty robbed from others and bestowed on me, but that I must remain for ever more beautiful than the rest, and they be ugly. This is just the opposite of the conceit you expressed to me yesterday; the one is a fable, the other is the truth."
Some time in 1545 Luigi went to Lyons on a visit to Ruberto Strozzi and Giuliano de' Medici. This seems to have happened toward the end of the year; for we possess a letter indorsed by him, "sent to Lyons, and returned upon the 22nd of December." This document contains several interesting details. "All your friends are extremely grieved to hear about your illness, the more so that we cannot help you; especially Messer Donato (Giannotti) and myself. However, we hope that it may turn out to be no serious affair, God willing. In another letter I told you that, if you stayed away long, I meant to come to see you. This I repeat; for now that I have lost the Piacenza ferry, and cannot live at Rome without income, I would rather spend the little that I have in hostelries, than crawl about here, cramped up like a penniless cripple. So, if nothing happens, I have a mind to go to S. James of Compostella after Easter; and if you have not returned, I should like to travel through any place where I shall hear that you are staying. Urbino has spoken to Messer Aurelio, and will speak again. From what he tells me, I think that you will get the site you wanted for the tomb of Cecchino. It is nearly finished, and will turn out handsome."
Michelangelo's project of going upon pilgrimage to Galicia shows that his health was then good. But we know that he soon afterwards had another serious illness; and the scheme was abandoned.
This long and close friendship with Luigi comes to a sudden termination in one of those stormy outbursts of petulant rage which form a special feature of Michelangelo's psychology. Some angry words passed between them about an engraving, possibly of the Last Judgment, which Buonarroti wanted to destroy, while Del Riccio refused to obliterate the plate:—
"Messer Luigi,—You seem to think I shall reply according to your wishes, when the case is quite the contrary. You give me what I have refused, and refuse me what I begged. And it is not ignorance which makes you send it me through Ercole, when you are ashamed to give it me yourself. One who saved my life has certainly the power to disgrace me; but I do not know which is the heavier to bear, disgrace or death. Therefore I beg and entreat you, by the true friendship which exists between us, to spoil that print (stampa), and to burn the copies that are already printed off. And if you choose to buy and sell me, do not so to others. If you hack me into a thousand pieces, I will do the same, not indeed to yourself, but to what belongs to you.
"Not painter, nor sculptor, nor architect, but what you will, but not a drunkard, as you said at your house."
Unfortunately, this is the last of the Del Riccio's letters. It is very probable that the irascible artist speedily recovered his usual tone, and returned to amity with his old friend. But Del Riccio departed this life toward the close of this year, 1546.
Before resuming the narrative of Michelangelo's art-work at this period, I must refer to the correspondence which passed between him and King Francis I. The King wrote an epistle in the spring of 1546, requesting some fine monument from the illustrious master's hand. Michelangelo replied upon the 26th of April, in language of simple and respectful dignity, fine, as coming from an aged artist to a monarch on the eve of death:—
"Sacred Majesty,—I know not which is greater, the favour, or the astonishment it stirs in me, that your Majesty should have deigned to write to a man of my sort, and still more to ask him for things of his which are all unworthy of the name of your Majesty. But be they what they may, I beg your Majesty to know that for a long while since I have desired to serve you; but not having had an opportunity, owing to your not being in Italy, I have been unable to do so. Now I am old, and have been occupied these many months with the affairs of Pope Paul. But if some space of time is still granted to me after these engagements, I will do my utmost to fulfil the desire which, as I have said above, has long inspired me: that is, to make for your Majesty one work in marble, one in bronze, and one in painting. And if death prevents my carrying out this wish, should it be possible to make statues or pictures in the other world, I shall not fail to do so there, where there is no more growing old. And I pray God that He grant your Majesty a long and a happy life."
Francis died in 1547; and we do not know that any of Michelangelo's works passed directly into his hands, with the exception of the Leda, purchased through the agency of Luigi Alamanni, and the two Captives, presented by Ruberto Strozzi.
The absorbing tasks imposed upon Buonarroti's energies by Paul III., which are mentioned in this epistle to the French king, were not merely the frescoes of the Cappella Paolina, but also various architectural and engineering schemes of some importance. It is clear, I think, that at this period of his hale old age, Michelangelo preferred to use what still survived in him of vigour and creative genius for things requiring calculation, or the exercise of meditative fancy. The time had gone by when he could wield the brush and chisel with effective force. He was tired of expressing his sense of beauty and the deep thoughts of his brain in sculptured marble or on frescoed surfaces. He had exhausted the human form as a symbol of artistic utterance. But the extraordinary richness of his vein enabled him still to deal with abstract mathematical proportions in the art of building, and with rhythms in the art of writing. His best work, both as architect and poet, belongs to the period when he had lost power as sculptor and painter. This fact is psychologically interesting. Up to the age of seventy, he had been working in the plastic and the concrete. The language he had learned, and used with overwhelming mastery, was man: physical mankind, converted into spiritual vehicle by art. His grasp upon this region failed him now. Perhaps there was not the old sympathy with lovely shapes. Perhaps he knew that he had played on every gamut of that lyre. Emerging from the sphere of the sensuous, where ideas take plastic embodiment, he grappled in this final stage of his career with harmonical ratios and direct verbal expression, where ideas are disengaged from figurative form. The men and women, loved by him so long, so wonderfully wrought into imperishable shapes, "nurslings of immortality," recede. In their room arise, above the horizon of his intellect, the cupola of S. Peter's and a few imperishable poems, which will live as long as Italian claims a place among the languages. There is no comparison to be instituted between his actual achievements as a builder and a versifier. The whole tenor of his life made him more competent to deal with architecture than with literature. Nevertheless, it is significant that the versatile genius of the man was henceforth restricted to these two channels of expression, and that in both of them his last twenty years of existence produced bloom and fruit of unexpected rarity.
After writing this paragraph, and before I engage in the narrative of what is certainly the final manifestation of Michelangelo's genius as a creative artist, I ought perhaps to pause, and to give some account of those survivals from his plastic impulse, which occupied the old man's energies for several years. They were entirely the outcome of religious feeling; and it is curious to notice that he never approached so nearly to true Christian sentiment as in the fragmentary designs which we may still abundantly collect from this late autumn of his artist's life. There are countless drawings for some great picture of the Crucifixion, which was never finished: exquisite in delicacy of touch, sublime in conception, dignified in breadth and grand repose of style. Condivi tells us that some of these were made for the Marchioness of Pescara. But Michelangelo must have gone on producing them long after her death. With these phantoms of stupendous works to be, the Museums of Europe abound. We cannot bring them together, or condense them into a single centralised conception. Their interest consists in their divergence and variety, showing the continuous poring of the master's mind upon a theme he could not definitely grasp. For those who love his work, and are in sympathy with his manner, these drawings, mostly in chalk, and very finely handled, have a supreme interest. They show him, in one sense, at his highest and his best, not only as a man of tender feeling, but also as a mighty draughtsman. Their incompleteness testifies to something pathetic—the humility of the imperious man before a theme he found to be beyond the reach of human faculty.
The tone, the Stimmung, of these designs corresponds so exactly to the sonnets of the same late period, that I feel impelled at this point to make his poetry take up the tale. But, as I cannot bring the cloud of witnesses of all those drawings into this small book, so am I unwilling to load its pages with poems which may be found elsewhere. Those who care to learn the heart of Michelangelo, when he felt near to God and face to face with death, will easily find access to the originals.
Concerning the Deposition from the Cross, which now stands behind the high altar of the Florentine Duomo, Condivi writes as follows: "At the present time he has in hand a work in marble, which he carries on for his pleasure, as being one who, teeming with conceptions, must needs give birth each day to some of them. It is a group of four figures larger than life. A Christ taken from the cross, sustained in death by his Mother, who is represented in an attitude of marvellous pathos, leaning up against the corpse with breast, with arms, and lifted knee. Nicodemus from above assists her, standing erect and firmly planted, propping the dead Christ with a sturdy effort; while one of the Maries, on the left side, though plunged in sorrow, does all she can to assist the afflicted Mother, failing under the attempt to raise her Son. It would be quite impossible to describe the beauty of style displayed in this group, or the sublime emotions expressed in those woe-stricken countenances. I am confident that the Pieta is one of his rarest and most difficult masterpieces; particularly because the figures are kept apart distinctly, nor does the drapery of the one intermingle with that of the others."
This panegyric is by no means pitched too high. Justice has hardly been done in recent times to the noble conception, the intense feeling, and the broad manner of this Deposition. That may be due in part to the dull twilight in which the group is plunged, depriving all its lines of salience and relief. It is also true that in certain respects the composition is fairly open to adverse criticism. The torso of Christ overweighs the total scheme; and his legs are unnaturally attenuated. The kneeling woman on the left side is slender, and appears too small in proportion to the other figures; though, if she stood erect, it is probable that her height would be sufficient.
The best way to study Michelangelo's last work in marble is to take the admirable photograph produced under artificial illumination by Alinari. No sympathetic mind will fail to feel that we are in immediate contact with the sculptor's very soul, at the close of his life, when all his thoughts were weaned from earthly beauty, and he cried—
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 were spread.
As a French critic has observed: "It is the most intimately personal and the most pathetic of his works. The idea of penitence exhales from it. The marble preaches the sufferings of the Passion; it makes us listen to an act of bitter contrition and an act of sorrowing love."
Michelangelo is said to have designed the Pieta for his own monument. In the person of Nicodemus, it is he who sustains his dead Lord in the gloom of the sombre Duomo. His old sad face, surrounded by the heavy cowl, looks down for ever with a tenderness beyond expression, repeating mutely through the years how much of anguish and of blood divine the redemption of man's soul hath cost.
The history of this great poem in marble, abandoned by its maker in some mood of deep dejection, is not without interest. We are told that the stone selected was a capital from one of the eight huge columns of the Temple of Peace. Besides being hard and difficult to handle, the material betrayed flaws in working. This circumstance annoyed the master; also, as he informed Vasari, Urbino kept continually urging him to finish it. One of his reasons for attacking the block had been to keep himself in health by exercise. Accordingly he hewed away with fury, and bit so deep into the marble that he injured one of the Madonna's elbows. When this happened, it was his invariable practice to abandon the piece he had begun upon, feeling that an incomplete performance was preferable to a lame conclusion. In his old age he suffered from sleeplessness; and it was his habit to rise from bed and work upon the Pieta, wearing a thick paper cap, in which he placed a lighted candle made of goat's tallow. This method of chiselling by the light of one candle must have complicated the technical difficulties of his labour. But what we may perhaps surmise to have been his final motive for the rejection of the work, was a sense of his inability, with diminished powers of execution, and a still more vivid sense of the importance of the motive, to accomplish what the brain conceived. The hand failed. The imagination of the subject grew more intimate and energetic. Losing patience then at last, he took a hammer and began to break the group up. Indeed, the right arm of the Mary shows a fracture. The left arm of the Christ is mutilated in several places. One of the nipples has been repaired, and the hand of the Madonna resting on the breast above it is cracked across. It would have been difficult to reduce the whole huge block to fragments; and when the work of destruction had advanced so far, Michelangelo's servant Antonio, the successor to Urbino, begged the remnants from his master. Tiberio Calcagni was a good friend of Buonarroti's at this time. He heard that Francesco Bandini, a Florentine settled in exile at Rome, earnestly desired some relic of the master's work. Accordingly, Calgagni, with Michelangelo's consent, bought the broken marble from Antonio for 200 crowns, pieced it together, and began to mend it. Fortunately, he does not seem to have elaborated the surface in any important particular; for both the finished and unfinished parts bear indubitable marks of Michelangelo's own handling. After the death of Calcagni and Bandini, the Pieta remained for some time in the garden of Antonio, Bandini's heir, at Montecavallo. It was transferred to Florence, and placed among the marbles used in erecting the new Medicean Chapel, until at last, in 1722, the Grand Duke Cosimo III. finally set it up behind the altar of the Duomo.
Vasari adds that Michelangelo began another Pieta in marble on a much smaller scale. It is possible that this may have been the unfinished group of two figures (a dead Christ sustained by a bending man), of which there is a cast in the Accademia at Florence. In some respects the composition of this fragment bears a strong resemblance to the puzzling Deposition from the Cross in our National Gallery. The trailing languor of the dead Christ's limbs is almost identical in the marble and the painting.
While speaking of these several Pietas, I must not forget the medallion in high relief of the Madonna clasping her dead Son, which adorns the Albergo dei Poveri at Genoa. It is ascribed to Michelangelo, was early believed to be his, and is still accepted without hesitation by competent judges. In spite of its strongly marked Michelangelesque mannerism, both as regards feeling, facial type, and design, I cannot regard the bas-relief, in its present condition at least, as a genuine work, but rather as the production of some imitator, or the rifacimento of a restorer. A similar impression may here be recorded regarding the noble portrait-bust in marble of Pope Paul III. at Naples. This too has been attributed to Michelangelo. But there is no external evidence to support the tradition, while the internal evidence from style and technical manipulation weighs strongly against it. The medallions introduced upon the heavily embroidered cope are not in his style. The treatment of the adolescent female form in particular indicates a different temperament. Were the ascription made to Benvenuto Cellini, we might have more easily accepted it. But Cellini would certainly have enlarged upon so important a piece of sculpture in his Memoirs. If then we are left to mere conjecture, it would be convenient to suggest Guglielmo della Porta, who executed the Farnese monument in S. Peter's.
While still a Cardinal, Paul III. began to rebuild the old palace of the Farnesi on the Tiber shore. It closes one end of the great open space called the Campo di Fiore, and stands opposite to the Villa Farnesina, on the right bank of the river. Antonio da Sangallo was the architect employed upon this work, which advanced slowly until Alessandro Farnese's elevation to the Papacy. He then determined to push the building forward, and to complete it on a scale of magnificence befitting the supreme Pontiff. Sangallo had carried the walls up to the second story. The third remained to be accomplished, and the cornice had to be constructed. Paul was not satisfied with Sangallo's design, and referred it to Michelangelo for criticism —possibly in 1544. The result was a report, which we still possess, in which Buonarroti, basing his opinion on principles derived from Vitruvius, severely blames Sangallo's plan under six separate heads. He does not leave a single merit, as regards either harmony of proportion, or purity of style, or elegance of composition, or practical convenience, or decorative beauty, or distribution of parts. He calls the cornice barbarous, confused, bastard in style, discordant with the rest of the building, and so ill suited to the palace as, if carried out, to threaten the walls with destruction. This document has considerable interest, partly as illustrating Michelangelo's views on architecture in general, and displaying a pedantry of which he was never elsewhere guilty, partly as explaining the bitter hostility aroused against him in Sangallo and the whole tribe of that great architect's adherents. We do not, unfortunately, possess the design upon which the report was made. But, even granting that it must have been defective, Michelangelo, who professed that architecture was not his art, might, one thinks, have spared his rival such extremity of adverse criticism. It exposed him to the taunts of rivals and ill-wishers; justified them in calling him presumptuous, and gave them a plausible excuse when they accused him of jealousy. What made it worse was, that his own large building, the Laurentian Library, glaringly exhibits all the defects he discovered in Sangallo's cornice.
I find it difficult to resist the impression that Michelangelo was responsible, to a large extent, for the ill-will of those artists whom Vasari calls "la setta Sangallesca." His life became embittered by their animosity, and his industry as Papal architect continued to be hampered for many years by their intrigues. But he alone was to blame at the beginning, not so much for expressing an honest opinion, as for doing so with insulting severity.
That Michelangelo may have been right in his condemnation of Sangallo's cornice is of course possible. Paul himself was dissatisfied, and eventually threw that portion of the building open to competition. Perino del Vaga, Sebastiano del Piombo, and the young Giorgio Vasari are said to have furnished designs. Michelangelo did so also; and his plan was not only accepted, but eventually carried out. Nevertheless Sangallo, one of the most illustrious professional architects then alive, could not but have felt deeply wounded by the treatment he received. It was natural for his followers to exclaim that Buonarroti had contrived to oust their aged master, and to get a valuable commission into his own grasp, by the discourteous exercise of his commanding prestige in the world of art.
In order to be just to Michelangelo, we must remember that he was always singularly modest in regard to his own performances, and severe in self-criticism. Neither in his letters nor in his poems does a single word of self-complacency escape his pen. He sincerely felt himself to be an unprofitable servant: that was part of his constitutional depression. We know, too, that he allowed strong temporary feelings to control his utterance. The cruel criticism of Sangallo may therefore have been quite devoid of malice; and if it was as well founded as the criticism of that builder's plan for S. Peter's, then Michelangelo stands acquitted. Sangallo's model exists; it is so large that you can walk inside it, and compare your own impressions with the following judgment:—
"It cannot be denied that Bramante's talent as an architect was equal to that of any one from the times of the ancients until now. He laid the first plan of S. Peter, not confused, but clear and simple, full of light and detached from surrounding buildings, so that it interfered with no part of the palace. It was considered a very fine design, and indeed any one can see now that it is so. All the architects who departed from Bramante's scheme, as Sangallo has done, have departed from the truth; and those who have unprejudiced eyes can observe this in his model. Sangallo's ring of chapels takes light from the interior as Bramante planned it; and not only this, but he has provided no other means of lighting, and there are so many hiding-places, above and below, all dark, which lend themselves to innumerable knaveries, that the church would become a secret den for harbouring bandits, false coiners, for debauching nuns, and doing all sorts of rascality; and when it was shut up at night, twenty-five men would be needed to search the building for rogues hidden there, and it would be difficult enough to find them. There is, besides, another inconvenience: the interior circle of buildings added to Bramante's plan would necessitate the destruction of the Paoline Chapel, the offices of the Piombo and the Ruota, and more besides. I do not think that even the Sistine would escape."
After this Michelangelo adds that to remove the out-works and foundations begun upon Sangallo's plan would not cost 100,000 crowns, as the sect alleged, but only 16,000, The material would be infinitely useful, the foundations important for the building, and the whole fabric would profit in something like 200,000 crowns and 300 years of time. "This is my dispassionate opinion; and I say this in truth, for to gain a victory here would be my own incalculable loss." Michelangelo means that, at the time when he wrote the letter in question, it was still in doubt whether Sangallo's design should be carried out or his own adopted; and, as usual, he looked forward with dread to undertaking a colossal architectural task.
Returning to the Palazzo Farnese, it only remains to be said that Michelangelo lived to complete the edifice. His genius was responsible for the inharmonious window above the main entrance. According to Vasari, he not only finished the exterior from the second story upwards, but designed the whole of the central courtyard above the first story, "making it the finest thing of its sort in Europe." The interior, with the halls painted by Annibale Caracci, owed its disposition into chambers and galleries to his invention. The cornice has always been reckoned among his indubitable successes, combining as it does salience and audacity with a grand heroic air of grace. It has been criticised for disproportionate projection; and Michelangelo seems to have felt uneasy on this score, since he caused a wooden model of the right size to be made and placed upon the wall, in order to judge of its effect.
Taken as a whole, the Palazzo Farnese remains the most splendid of the noble Roman houses, surpassing all the rest in pomp and pride, though falling short of Peruzzi's Palazzo Massimo in beauty.
The catastrophe of 1527, when Rome was taken by assault on the side of the Borgo without effective resistance being possible, rendered the fortification of the city absolutely necessary. Paul III determined to secure a position of such vital importance to the Vatican by bastions. Accordingly he convened a diet of notables, including his architect-in-chief, Antonio da Sangallo. He also wished to profit by Michelangelo's experience, remembering the stout resistance offered to the Prince of Orange by his outworks at S. Miniato. Vasari tells an anecdote regarding this meeting which illustrates the mutual bad feeling of the two illustrious artists. "After much discussion, the opinion of Buonarroti was requested. He had conceived views widely differing on those of Sangallo and several others, and these he expressed frankly. Whereupon Sangallo told him that sculpture and painting were his trade, not fortification. He replied that about them he knew but little, whereas the anxious thought he had given to city defences, the time he had spent, and the experience he had practically gained in constructing them, made him superior in that art to Sangallo and all the masters of his family. He proceeded to point out before all present numerous errors in the works. Heated words passed on both sides, and the Pope had to reduce the men to silence. Before long he brought a plan for the fortification of the whole Borgo, which opened the eyes of those in power to the scheme which was finally adopted. Owing to changes he suggested, the great gate of Santo Spirito, designed by Sangallo and nearly finished, was left incomplete."
It is not clear what changes were introduced into Sangallo's scheme. They certainly involved drawing the line of defence much closer to the city than he intended. This approved itself to Pier Luigi Farnese, then Duke of Castro, who presided over the meetings of the military committee. It was customary in carrying out the works of fortification to associate a practical engineer with the architect who provided designs; and one of these men, Gian Francesco Montemellino, a trusted servant of the Farnesi, strongly supported the alteration. That Michelangelo agreed with Montemellino, and felt that they could work together, appears from a letter addressed to the Castellano of S. Angelo. It seems to have been written soon after the dispute recorded by Vasari. In it he states, that although he differs in many respects from the persons who had hitherto controlled the works, yet he thinks it better not to abandon them altogether, but to correct them, alter the superintendence, and put Montemellino at the head of the direction. This would prevent the Pope from becoming disgusted with such frequent changes. "If affairs took the course he indicated, he was ready to offer his assistance, not in the capacity of colleague, but as a servant to command in all things." Nothing is here said openly about Sangallo, who remained architect-in-chief until his death. Still the covert wish expressed that the superintendence might be altered, shows a spirit of hostility against him; and a new plan for the lines must soon have been adopted. A despatch written to the Duke of Parma in September 1545 informs him that the old works were being abandoned, with the exception of the grand Doric gateway of S. Spirito. This is described at some length in another despatch of January 1546. Later on, in 1557, we find Michelangelo working as architect-in-chief with Jacopo Meleghino under his direction, but the fortifications were eventually carried through by a more competent engineer, one Jacopo Fusto Castriotto of Urbino.
Antonio da Sangallo died on October 3, 1546, at Terni, while engaged in engineering works intended to drain the Lake Velino. Michelangelo immediately succeeded to the offices and employments he had held at Rome. Of these, the most important was the post of architect-in-chief at S. Peter's. Paul III. conferred it upon him for life by a brief dated January 1, 1547. He is there named "commissary, prefect, surveyor of the works, and architect, with full authority to change the model, form, and structure of the church at pleasure, and to dismiss and remove the working-men and foremen employed upon the same." The Pope intended to attach a special stipend to the onerous charge, but Michelangelo declined this honorarium, declaring that he meant to labour without recompense, for the love of God and the reverence he felt for the Prince of the Apostles. Although he might have had money for the asking, and sums were actually sent as presents by his Papal master, he persisted in this resolution, working steadily at S. Peter's without pay, until death gave him rest.
Michelangelo's career as servant to a Pope began with the design of that tomb which led Julius II. to destroy the old S. Peter's. He was now entering, after forty-two years, upon the last stage of his long life. Before the end came, he gave final form to the main features of the great basilica, raising the dome which dominates the Roman landscape like a stationary cloud upon the sky-line. What had happened to the edifice in the interval between 1505 and 1547 must be briefly narrated, although it is not within the scope of this work to give a complete history of the building.
Bramante's original design had been to construct the church in the form of a Greek cross, with four large semi-circular apses. The four angles made by the projecting arms of the cross were to be filled in with a complex but well-ordered scheme of shrines and chapels, so that externally the edifice would have presented the aspect of a square. The central piers, at the point of junction between the arms of the cross, supported a broad shallow dome, modelled upon that of the Pantheon. Similar domes of lesser dimensions crowned the out-buildings. He began by erecting the piers which were intended to support the central dome; but working hastily and without due regard to solid strength, Bramante made these piers too weak to sustain the ponderous mass they had to carry. How he would have rectified this error cannot be conjectured. Death cut his labours short in 1514, and only a small portion of his work remains embedded at the present day within the mightier masses raised beneath Buonarroti's cupola.
Leo X. commissioned Raffaello da Urbino to continue his kinsman's work, and appointed Antonio da Sangallo to assist him in the month of January 1517. Whether it was judged impossible to carry out Bramante's project of the central dome, or for some other reason unknown to us, Raffaello altered the plan so essentially as to design a basilica upon the conventional ground-plan of such churches. He abandoned the Greek cross, and adopted the Latin form by adding an elongated nave. The central piers were left in their places; the three terminal apses of the choir and transepts were strengthened, simplified, reduced to commonplace. Bramante's ground-plan is lucid, luminous, and exquisitely ordered in its intricacy. The true creation of a builder-poet's brain, it illustrates Leo Battista Alberti's definition of the charm of architecture, tutta quella musica, that melody and music of a graceful edifice. We are able to understand what Michelangelo meant when he remarked that all subsequent designers, by departing from it, had gone wrong. Raffaello's plan, if carried out, would have been monotonous and tame inside and out.
After the death of Raffaello in 1520, Baldassare Peruzzi was appointed to be Sangallo's colleague. This genial architect, in whose style all the graces were combined with dignity and strength, prepared a new design at Leo's request. Vasari, referring to this period of Peruzzi's life, says: "The Pope, thinking Bramante's scheme too large and not likely to be in keeping, obtained a new model from Baldassare; magnificent and truly full of fine invention, also so wisely constructed that certain portions have been adopted by subsequent builders." He reverted to Bramante's main conception of the Greek cross, but altered the details in so many important points, both by thickening the piers and walls, and also by complicating the internal disposition of the chapels, that the effect would have been quite different. The ground-plan, which is all I know of Peruzzi's project, has always seemed to me by far the most beautiful and interesting of those laid down for S. Peter's. It is richer, more imaginative and suggestive, than Bramante's. The style of Bramante, in spite of its serene simplicity, had something which might be described as shallow clearness. In comparison with Peruzzi's style, it is what Gluck's melody is to Mozart's. The course of public events prevented this scheme from being carried out. First came the pontificate of Adrian VI., so sluggish in art-industry; then the pontificate of Clement VII., so disastrous for Italy and Rome. Many years elapsed before art and literature recovered from the terror and the torpor of 1527. Peruzzi indeed returned to his office at S. Peter's in 1535, but his death followed in 1537, when Antonio da Sangallo remained master of the situation.
Sangallo had the good sense to preserve many of Peruzzi's constructive features, especially in the apses of the choir and transepts; but he added a vast vestibule, which gave the church a length equal to that of Raffaello's plan. Externally, he designed a lofty central cupola and two flanking spires, curiously combining the Gothic spirit with Classical elements of style. In order to fill in the huge spaces of this edifice, he superimposed tiers of orders one above the other. Church, cupola, and spires are built up by a succession of Vitruvian temples, ascending from the ground into the air. The total impression produced by the mass, as we behold it now in the great wooden model at S. Peter's, is one of bewildering complexity. Of architectural repose it possesses little, except what belongs to a very original and vast conception on a colossal scale. The extent of the structure is frittered by its multiplicity of parts. Internally, as Michelangelo pointed out, the church would have been dark, inconvenient, and dangerous to public morals.
Whatever we may think of Michelangelo's failings as an architect, there is no doubt that at this period of his life he aimed at something broad and heroic in style. He sought to attain grandeur by greatness in the masses and by economy of the constituent parts. His method of securing amplitude was exactly opposite to that of Sangallo, who relied upon the multiplication rather than the simplification of details. A kind of organic unity was what Michelangelo desired. For this reason, he employed in the construction of S. Peter's those stupendous orders which out-soar the columns of Baalbec, and those grandiose curves which make the cupola majestic. A letter written to the Cardinal Ridolfo Pio of Carpi contains this explanation of his principles. The last two sentences are highly significant:—
"Most Reverend Monsignor,—If a plan has divers parts, those which are of one type in respect to quality and quantity have to be decorated in the same way and the same fashion. The like is true of their counterparts. But when the plan changes form entirely, it is not only allowable, but necessary, to change the decorative appurtenances, as also with their counterparts. The intermediate parts are always free, left to their own bent. The nose, which stands in the middle of the forehead, is not bound to correspond with either of the eyes; but one hand must balance the other, and one eye be like its fellow. Therefore it may be assumed as certain that the members of an architectural structure follow the laws exemplified in the human body. He who has not been or is not a good master of the nude, and especially of anatomy, cannot understand the principles of architecture."
It followed that Michelangelo's first object, when he became Papal architect-in-chief, was to introduce order into the anarchy of previous plans, and to return, so far as this was now possible, to Bramante's simpler scheme. He adopted the Greek cross, and substituted a stately portico for the long vestibule invented by Sangallo. It was not, however, in his nature, nor did the changed taste of the times permit him to reproduce Bramante's manner. So far as S. Peter's bears the mark of Michelangelo at all, it represents his own peculiar genius. "The Pope," says Vasari, "approved his model, which reduced the cathedral to smaller dimensions, but also to a more essential greatness. He discovered that four principal piers, erected by Bramante and left standing by Antonio da Sangallo, which had to bear the weight of the tribune, were feeble. These he fortified in part, constructing two winding staircases at the side, with gently sloping steps, up which beasts of burden ascend with building material, and one can ride on horseback to the level above the arches. He carried the first cornice, made of travertine, round the arches: a wonderful piece of work, full of grace, and very different from the others; nor could anything be better done in its kind. He began the two great apses of the transept; and whereas Bramante Raffaello, and Peruzzi had designed eight tabernacles toward the Campo Santo, which arrangement Sangallo adhered to, he reduced them to three, with three chapels inside. Suffice it to say that he began at once to work with diligence and accuracy at all points where the edifice required alteration; to the end that its main features might be fixed, and that no one might be able to change what he had planned." Vasari adds that this was the provision of a wise and prudent mind. So it was; but it did not prevent Michelangelo's successors from defeating his intentions in almost every detail, except the general effect of the cupola. This will appear in the sequel.
Antonio da Sangallo had controlled the building of S. Peter's for nearly thirty years before Michelangelo succeeded to his office. During that long space of time he formed a body of architects and workmen who were attached to his person and interested in the execution of his plans. There is good reason to believe that in Sangallo's days, as earlier in Bramante's, much money of the Church had been misappropriated by a gang of fraudulent and mutually indulgent craftsmen. It was not to be expected that these people should tamely submit to the intruder who put their master's cherished model on the shelf, and set about, in his high-handed way, to refashion the whole building from the bottom to the top. During Sangallo's lifetime no love had been lost between him and Buonarroti, and after his death it is probable that the latter dealt severely with the creatures of his predecessor. The Pope had given him unlimited powers of appointing and dismissing subordinates, controlling operations, and regulating expenditure. He was a man who abhorred jobs and corruption. A letter written near the close of his life, when he was dealing only with persons nominated by himself, proves this. He addressed the Superintendents of the Fabric of S. Peter's as follows: "You know that I told Balduccio not to send his lime unless it were good. He has sent bad quality, and does not seem to think he will be forced to take it back; which proves that he is in collusion with the person who accepted it. This gives great encouragement to the men I have dismissed for similar transactions. One who accepts bad goods needed for the fabric, when I have forbidden them, is doing nothing else but making friends of people whom I have turned into enemies against myself. I believe there will be a new conspiracy. Promises, fees, presents, corrupt justice. Therefore I beg you from this time forward, by the authority I hold from the Pope, not to accept anything which is not suitable, even though it comes to you from heaven. I must not be made to appear, what I am not, partial in my dealings." This fiery despatch, indicating not only Michelangelo's probity, but also his attention to minute details at the advanced age of eighty-six, makes it evident that he must have been a stern overseer in the first years of his office, terrible to the "sect of Sangallo," who were bent, on their part, to discredit him.
The sect began to plot and form conspiracies, feeling the violent old man's bit and bridle on their mouths, and seeing the firm seat he took upon the saddle. For some reason, which is not apparent, they had the Superintendents of the Fabric (a committee, including cardinals, appointed by the Pope) on their side. Probably these officials, accustomed to Sangallo and the previous course of things, disliked to be stirred up and sent about their business by the masterful new-comer. Michelangelo's support lay, as we shall see, in the four Popes who followed Paul III. They, with the doubtful exception of Marcellus II., accepted him on trust as a thoroughly honest servant, and the only artist capable of conducting the great work to its conclusion. In the last resort, when he was driven to bay, he offered to resign, and was invariably coaxed back by the final arbiter. The disinterested spirit in which he fulfilled his duties, accepting no pay while he gave his time and energy to their performance, stood him in good stead. Nothing speaks better for his perfect probity than that his enemies were unable to bring the slightest charge of peculation or of partiality against him. Michelangelo's conduct of affairs at S. Peter's reflects a splendid light upon the tenor of his life, and confutes those detractors who have accused him of avarice.
The duel between Michelangelo and the sect opened in 1547. A letter written by a friend in Florence on the 14th of May proves that his antagonists had then good hopes of crushing him. Giovan Francesco Ughi begins by saying that he has been silent because he had nothing special to report. "But now Jacopo del Conte has come here with the wife of Nanni di Baccio Bigio, alleging that he has brought her because Nanni is so occupied at S. Peter's. Among other things, he says that Nanni means to make a model for the building which will knock yours to nothing. He declares that what you are about is mad and babyish. He means to fling it all down, since he has quite as much credit with the Pope as you have. You throw oceans of money away and work by night, so that nobody may see what you are doing. You follow in the footsteps of a Spaniard, having no knowledge of your own about the art of building, and he less than nothing. Nanni stays there in your despite: you did everything to get him removed; but the Pope keeps him, being convinced that nothing good can be done without him." After this Ughi goes on to relate how Michelangelo's enemies are spreading all kinds of reports against his honour and good fame, criticising the cornice of the Palazzo Farnese, and hoping that its weight will drag the walls down. At the end he adds, that although he knows one ought not to write about such matters, yet the man's "insolence and blackguardly shamelessness of speech" compel him to put his friend on his guard against such calumnies.
After the receipt of this letter, Michelangelo sent it to one of the Superintendents of the Fabric, on whose sympathy he could reckon, with the following indorsement in his own handwriting: "Messer Bartolommeo (Ferrantino), please read this letter, and take thought who the two rascals are who, lying thus about what I did at the Palazzo Farnese, are now lying in the matter of the information they are laying before the deputies of S. Peter's. It comes upon me in return for the kindness I have shown them. But what else can one expect from a couple of the basest scoundrelly villains?"
Nanni di Baccio Bigio had, as it seems, good friends at court in Rome. He was an open enemy of Michelangelo, who, nevertheless, found it difficult to shake him off. In the history of S. Peter's the man's name will frequently occur.
Three years elapsed. Paul III. died, and Michelangelo wrote to his nephew Lionardo on the occasion: "It is true that I have suffered great sorrow, and not less loss, by the Pope's death. I received benefits from his Holiness, and hoped for more and better. God willed it so, and we must have patience. His passage from this life was beautiful, in full possession of his faculties up to the last word. God have mercy on his soul." The Cardinal Giovan Maria Ciocchi, of Monte San Savino, was elected to succeed Paul, and took the title of Julius III. This change of masters was duly noted by Michelangelo in a letter to his "dearest friend," Giovan Francesco Fattucci at Florence. It breathes so pleasant and comradely a spirit, that I will translate more than bears immediately on the present topic: "Dear friend, although we have not exchanged letters for many months past, still our long and excellent friendship has not been forgotten. I wish you well, as I have always done, and love you with all my heart, for your own sake, and for the numberless pleasant things in life you have afforded me. As regards old age, which weighs upon us both alike, I should be glad to know how yours affects you; mine, I must say, does not make me very happy. I beg you, then, to write me something about this. You know, doubtless, that we have a new Pope, and who he is. All Rome is delighted, God be thanked; and everybody expects the greatest good from his reign, especially for the poor, his generosity being so notorious."
Michelangelo had good reason to rejoice over this event, for Julius III. felt a real attachment to his person, and thoroughly appreciated both his character and his genius. Nevertheless, the enemies he had in Rome now made a strong effort to dislodge Buonarroti from his official position at S. Peter's. It was probably about this time that the Superintendents of the Fabric drew up a memorial expressive of their grievances against him. We possess a document in Latin setting forth a statement of accounts in rough. "From the year 1540, when expenditures began to be made regularly and in order, from the very commencement as it were, up to the year 1547, when Michelangelo, at his own will and pleasure, undertook partly to build and partly to destroy, 162,624 ducats were expended. Since the latter date on to the present, during which time the deputies have served like the pipe at the organ, knowing nothing, nor what, nor how moneys were spent, but only at the orders of the said Michelangelo, such being the will of Paul III. of blessed memory, and also of the reigning Pontiff, 136,881 ducats have been paid out, as can be seen from our books. With regard to the edifice, what it is going to be, the deputies can make no statement, all things being hidden from them, as though they were outsiders. They have only been able to protest at several times, and do now again protest, for the easement of their conscience, that they do not like the ways used by Michelangelo, especially in what he keeps on pulling down. The demolition has been, and to-day is so great, that all who witness it are moved to an extremity of pity. Nevertheless, if his Holiness be satisfied, we, his deputies, shall have no reason to complain." It is clear that Michelangelo was carrying on with a high hand at S. Peter's. Although the date of this document is uncertain, I think it may be taken in connection with a general meeting called by Julius III., the incidents of which are recorded by Vasari. Michelangelo must have demonstrated his integrity, for he came out of the affair victorious, and obtained from the Pope a brief confirming him in his office of architect-in-chief, with even fuller powers than had been granted by Paul III.
Vasari at this epoch becomes one of our most reliable authorities regarding the life of Michelangelo. He corresponded and conversed with him continuously, and enjoyed the master's confidence. We may therefore accept the following narrative as accurate: "It was some little while before the beginning of 1551, when Vasari, on his return from Florence to Rome, found that the sect of Sangallo were plotting against Michelangelo; they induced the Pope to hold a meeting in S. Peter's, where all the overseers and workmen connected with the building should attend, and his Holiness should be persuaded by false insinuations that Michelangelo had spoiled the fabric. He had already walled in the apse of the King where the three chapels are, and carried out the three upper windows. But it was not known what he meant to do with the vault. They then, misled by their shallow judgment, made Cardinal Salviati the elder, and Marcello Cervini, who was afterwards Pope, believe that S. Peter's would be badly lighted. When all were assembled, the Pope told Michelangelo that the deputies were of opinion the apse would have but little light. He answered: 'I should like to hear these deputies speak.' The Cardinal Marcello rejoined: 'Here we are.' Michelangelo then remarked: 'My lord, above these three windows there will be other three in the vault, which is to be built of travertine.' 'You never told us anything about this,' said the Cardinal. Michelangelo responded: 'I am not, nor do I mean to be obliged to tell your lordship or anybody what I ought or wish to do. It is your business to provide money, and to see that it is not stolen. As regards the plans of the building, you have to leave those to me.' Then he turned to the Pope and said: 'Holy Father, behold what gains are mine! Unless the hardships I endure prove beneficial to my soul, I am losing time and labour.' The Pope, who loved him, laid his hands upon his shoulders and exclaimed: 'You are gaining both for soul and body, have no fear!' Michelangelo's spirited self-defence increased the Pope's love, and he ordered him to repair next day with Vasari to the Vigna Giulia, where they held long discourses upon art." It is here that Vasari relates how Julius III. was in the habit of seating Michelangelo by his side while they talked together.
Julius then maintained the cause of Michelangelo against the deputies. It was during his pontificate that a piece of engineering work committed to Buonarroti's charge by Paul III. fell into the hands of Nanni di Baccio Bigio. The old bridge of Santa Maria had long shown signs of giving way, and materials had been collected for rebuilding it. Nanni's friends managed to transfer the execution of this work to him from Michelangelo. The man laid bad foundations, and Buonarroti riding over the new bridge one day with Vasari, cried out: "George, the bridge is quivering beneath us; let us spur on, before it gives way with us upon it." Eventually, the bridge did fall to pieces, at the time of a great inundation. Its ruins have long been known as the Ponte Rotto.
On the death of Julius III. in 1555, Cardinal Cervini was made Pope, with the title of Marcellus II. This event revived the hopes of the sect, who once more began to machinate against Michelangelo. The Duke of Tuscany at this time was exceedingly anxious that he should take up his final abode at Florence; and Buonarroti, feeling he had now no strong support in Rome, seems to have entertained these proposals with alacrity. The death of Marcellus after a few weeks, and the election of Paul IV., who besought the great architect not to desert S. Peter's, made him change his mind. Several letters written to Vasari and the Grand Duke in this and the next two years show that his heart was set on finishing S. Peter's, however much he wished to please his friends and longed to end his days in peace at home. "I was set to work upon S. Peter's against my will, and I have served now eight years gratis, and with the utmost injury and discomfort to myself. Now that the fabric has been pushed forward and there is money to spend, and I am just upon the point of vaulting in the cupola, my departure from Rome would be the ruin of the edifice, and for me a great disgrace throughout all Christendom, and to my soul a grievous sin. Pray ask his lordship to give me leave of absence till S. Peter's has reached a point at which it cannot be altered in its main features. Should I leave Rome earlier, I should be the cause of a great ruin, a great disgrace, and a great sin." To the Duke he writes in 1557 that his special reasons for not wishing to abandon S. Peter's were, first, that the work would fall into the hands of thieves and rogues; secondly, that it might probably be suspended altogether; thirdly, that he owned property in Rome to the amount of several thousand crowns, which, if he left without permission, would be lost; fourthly, that he was suffering from several ailments. He also observed that the work had just reached its most critical stage (i.e., the erection of the cupola), and that to desert it at the present moment would be a great disgrace.
The vaulting of the cupola had now indeed become the main preoccupation of Michelangelo's life. Early in 1557 a serious illness threatened his health, and several friends, including the Cardinal of Carpi, Donato Giannotti, Tommaso Cavalieri, Francesco Bandini, and Lottino, persuaded him that he ought to construct a large model, so that the execution of this most important feature of the edifice might not be impeded in the event of his death. It appears certain that up to this date no models of his on anything like a large intelligible scale had been provided for S. Peter's; and the only extant model attributable to Michelangelo's own period is that of the cupola. This may help to account for the fact that, while the cupola was finished much as he intended, the rest of his scheme suffered a thorough and injurious remodelling.
He wrote to his nephew Lionardo on the 13th of February 1557 about the impossibility of meeting the Grand Duke's wishes and leaving Rome. "I told his Lordship that I was obliged to attend to S. Peter's until I could leave the work there at such a point that my plans would not be subsequently altered. This point has not been reached; and in addition, I am now obliged to construct a large wooden model for the cupola and lantern, in order that I may secure its being finished as it was meant to be. The whole of Rome, and especially the Cardinal of Carpi, puts great pressure on me to do this. Accordingly, I reckon that I shall have to remain here not less than a year; and so much time I beg the Duke to allow me for the love of Christ and S. Peter, so that I may not come home to Florence with a pricking conscience, but a mind easy about Rome." The model took about a year to make. It was executed by a French master named Jean.
All this while Michelangelo's enemies, headed by Nanni di Baccio Bigio, continued to calumniate and backbite. In the end they poisoned the mind of his old friend the Cardinal of Carpi. We gather this from a haughty letter written on the 13th of February 1560: "Messer Francesco Bandini informed me yesterday that your most illustrious and reverend lordship told him that the building of S. Peter's could not possibly go on worse than it is doing. This has grieved me deeply, partly because you have not been informed of the truth, and also because I, as my duty is, desire more than all men living that it should proceed well. Unless I am much deceived, I think I can assure you that it could not possibly go on better than it now is doing. It may, however, happen that my own interests and old age expose me to self-deception, and consequently expose the fabric of S. Peter's to harm or injury against my will. I therefore intend to ask permission on the first occasion from his Holiness to resign my office. Or rather, to save time, I wish to request your most illustrious and reverend lordship by these present to relieve me of the annoyance to which I have been subject seventeen years, at the orders of the Popes, working without remuneration. It is easy enough to see what has been accomplished by my industry during this period. I conclude by repeating my request that you will accept my resignation. You could not confer on me a more distinguished favour."
Giovanni Angelo Medici, of an obscure Milanese family, had succeeded to Paul IV. in 1559. Pius IV. felt a true admiration for Michelangelo. He confirmed the aged artist in his office by a brief which granted him the fullest authority in life, and strictly forbade any departure from his designs for S. Peter's after death. Notwithstanding this powerful support, Nanni di Baccio Bigio kept trying to eject him from his post. He wrote to the Grand Duke in 1562, arguing that Buonarroti was in his dotage, and begging Cosimo to use his influence to obtain the place for himself. In reply the Grand Duke told Nanni that he could not think of doing such a thing during Michelangelo's lifetime, but that after his death he would render what aid was in his power. An incident happened in 1563 which enabled Nanni to give his enemy some real annoyance. Michelangelo was now so old that he felt obliged to leave the personal superintendence of the operations at S. Peter's to a clerk of the works. The man employed at this time was a certain Cesare da Castel Durante, who was murdered in August under the following circumstances, communicated by Tiberio Calcagni to Lionardo Buonarroti on the 14th of that month: "I have only further to speak about the death of Cesare, clerk of the works, who was found by the cook of the Bishop of Forli with his wife. The man gave Cesare thirteen stabs with his poignard, and four to his wife. The old man (i.e., Michelangelo) is in much distress, seeing that he wished to give the post to that Pier Luigi, and has been unable to do so owing to the refusal of the deputies." This Pier Luigi, surnamed Gaeta, had been working since November 1561 as subordinate to Cesare; and we have a letter from Michelangelo to the deputies recommending him very warmly in that capacity. He was also the house-servant and personal attendant of the old master, running errands for him and transacting ordinary business, like Pietro Urbano and Stefano in former years. The deputies would not consent to nominate Pier Luigi as clerk of the works. They judged him to be too young, and were, moreover, persuaded that Michelangelo's men injured the work at S. Peter's. Accordingly they appointed Nanni di Baccio Bigio, and sent in a report, inspired by him, which severely blamed Buonarroti. Pius IV., after the receipt of this report, had an interview with Michelangelo, which ended in his sending his own relative, Gabrio Serbelloni, to inspect the works at S. Peter's. It was decided that Nanni had been calumniating the great old man. Accordingly he was dismissed with indignity. Immediately after the death of Michelangelo, however, Nanni renewed his applications to the Grand Duke. He claimed nothing less than the post of architect-in-chief. His petition was sent to Florence under cover of a despatch from the Duke's envoy, Averardo Serristori. The ambassador related the events of Michelangelo's death, and supported Nanni as "a worthy man, your vassal and true servant."
Down to the last days of his life, Michelangelo was thus worried with the jealousies excited by his superintendence of the building at S. Peter's; and when he passed to the majority, he had not secured his heart's desire, to wit, that the fabric should be forced to retain the form he had designed for it. This was his own fault. Popes might issue briefs to the effect that his plans should be followed; but when it was discovered that, during his lifetime, he kept the builders in ignorance of his intentions, and that he left no working models fit for use, except in the case of the cupola, a free course was opened for every kind of innovation. So it came to pass that subsequent architects changed the essential features of his design by adding what might be called a nave, or, in other words, by substituting the Latin for the Greek cross in the ground-plan. He intended to front the mass of the edifice with a majestic colonnade, giving externally to one limb of the Greek cross a rectangular salience corresponding to its three semicircular apses. From this decastyle colonnade projected a tetrastyle portico, which introduced the people ascending from a flight of steps to a gigantic portal. The portal opened on the church, and all the glory of the dome was visible when they approached the sanctuary. Externally, according to his conception, the cupola dominated and crowned the edifice when viewed from a moderate or a greater distance. The cupola was the integral and vital feature of the structure. By producing one limb of the cross into a nave, destroying the colonnade and portico, and erecting a huge facade of barocco design, his followers threw the interior effect of the cupola into a subordinate position, and externally crushed it out of view, except at a great distance. In like manner they dealt with every particular of his plan. As an old writer has remarked: "The cross which Michelangelo made Greek is now Latin; and if it be thus with the essential form, judge ye of the details!" It was not exactly their fault, but rather that of the master, who chose to work by drawings and small clay models, from which no accurate conception of his thought could be derived by lesser craftsmen.
We cannot, therefore, regard S. Peter's in its present state as the creation of Buonarroti's genius. As a building, it is open to criticism at every point. In spite of its richness and overwhelming size, no architect of merit gives it approbation. It is vast without being really great, magnificent without touching the heart, proudly but not harmoniously ordered. The one redeeming feature in the structure is the cupola; and that is the one thing which Michelangelo bequeathed to the intelligence of his successors. The curve which it describes finds no phrase of language to express its grace. It is neither ellipse nor parabola nor section of the circle, but an inspiration of creative fancy. It outsoars in vital force, in elegance of form, the dome of the Pantheon and the dome of Brunelleschi, upon which it was actually modelled. As a French architect, adverse to Michelangelo, has remarked: "This portion is simple, noble, grand. It is an unparalleled idea, and the author of this marvellous cupola had the right to be proud of the thought which controlled his pencil when he traced it." An English critic, no less adverse to the Italian style, is forced to admit that architecture "has seldom produced a more magnificent object" than the cupola, "if its bad connection with the building is overlooked." He also adds that, internally, "the sublime concave" of this immense dome is the one redeeming feature of S. Peter's.