The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti
by John Addington Symonds
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I may take this occasion for dealing summarily with the Entombment in the National Gallery. The picture, which is half finished, has no pedigree. It was bought out of the collection of Cardinal Fesch, and pronounced to be a Michelangelo by the Munich painter Cornelius. Good judges have adopted this attribution, and to differ from them requires some hardihood. Still it is painful to believe that at any period of his life Michelangelo could have produced a composition so discordant, so unsatisfactory in some anatomical details, so feelingless and ugly. It bears indubitable traces of his influence; that is apparent in the figure of the dead Christ. But this colossal nude, with the massive chest and attenuated legs, reminds us of his manner in old age; whereas the rest of the picture shows no trace of that manner. I am inclined to think that the Entombment was the production of a second-rate craftsman, working upon some design made by Michelangelo at the advanced period when the Passion of our Lord occupied his thoughts in Rome. Even so, the spirit of the drawing must have been imperfectly assimilated; and, what is more puzzling, the composition does not recall the style of Michelangelo's old age. The colouring, so far as we can understand it, rather suggests Pontormo.


Michelangelo's good friend, Jacopo Gallo, was again helpful to him in the last and greatest work which he produced during this Roman residence. The Cardinal Jean de la Groslaye de Villiers Francois, Abbot of S. Denys, and commonly called by Italians the Cardinal di San Dionigi, wished to have a specimen of the young sculptor's handiwork. Accordingly articles were drawn up to the following effect on August 26, 1498: "Let it be known and manifest to whoso shall read the ensuing document, that the most Rev. Cardinal of S. Dionigi has thus agreed with the master Michelangelo, sculptor of Florence, to wit, that the said master shall make a Pieta of marble at his own cost; that is to say, a Virgin Mary clothed, with the dead Christ in her arms, of the size of a proper man, for the price of 450 golden ducats of the Papal mint, within the term of one year from the day of the commencement of the work." Next follow clauses regarding the payment of the money, whereby the Cardinal agrees to disburse sums in advance. The contract concludes with a guarantee and surety given by Jacopo Gallo. "And I, Jacopo Gallo, pledge my word to his most Rev. Lordship that the said Michelangelo will finish the said work within one year, and that it shall be the finest work in marble which Rome to-day can show, and that no master of our days shall be able to produce a better. And, in like manner, on the other side, I pledge my word to the said Michelangelo that the most Rev. Card. will disburse the payments according to the articles above engrossed. To witness which, I, Jacopo Gallo, have made this present writing with my own hand, according to the date of year, month, and day as above."

The Pieta raised Michelangelo at once to the highest place among the artists of his time, and it still remains unrivalled for the union of sublime aesthetic beauty with profound religious feeling. The mother of the dead Christ is seated on a stone at the foot of the cross, supporting the body of her son upon her knees, gazing sadly at his wounded side, and gently lifting her left hand, as though to say, "Behold and see!" She has the small head and heroic torso used by Michelangelo to suggest immense physical force. We feel that such a woman has no difficulty in holding a man's corpse upon her ample lap and in her powerful arms. Her face, which differs from the female type he afterwards preferred, resembles that of a young woman. For this he was rebuked by critics who thought that her age should correspond more naturally to that of her adult son. Condivi reports that Michelangelo explained his meaning in the following words: "Do you not know that chaste women maintain their freshness far longer than the unchaste? How much more would this be the case with a virgin, into whose breast there never crept the least lascivious desire which could affect the body? Nay, I will go further, and hazard the belief that this unsullied bloom of youth, besides being maintained in her by natural causes, may have been miraculously wrought to convince the world of the virginity and perpetual purity of the Mother. This was not necessary for the Son. On the contrary, in order to prove that the Son of God took upon himself, as in very truth he did take, a human body, and became subject to all that an ordinary man is subject to, with the exception of sin; the human nature of Christ, instead of being superseded by the divine, was left to the operation of natural laws, so that his person revealed the exact age to which he had attained. You need not, therefore, marvel if, having regard to these considerations, I made the most Holy Virgin, Mother of God, much younger relatively to her Son than women of her years usually appear, and left the Son such as his time of life demanded." "This reasoning," adds Condivi, "was worthy of some learned theologian, and would have been little short of marvellous in most men, but not in him, whom God and Nature fashioned, not merely to be peerless in his handiwork, but also capable of the divinest concepts, as innumerable discourses and writings which we have of his make clearly manifest."

The Christ is also somewhat youthful, and modelled with the utmost delicacy; suggesting no lack of strength, but subordinating the idea of physical power to that of a refined and spiritual nature. Nothing can be more lovely than the hands, the feet, the arms, relaxed in slumber. Death becomes immortally beautiful in that recumbent figure, from which the insults of the scourge, the cross, the brutal lance have been erased. Michelangelo did not seek to excite pity or to stir devotion by having recourse to those mediaeval ideas which were so passionately expressed in S. Bernard's hymn to the Crucified. The aesthetic tone of his dead Christ is rather that of some sweet solemn strain of cathedral music, some motive from a mass of Palestrina or a Passion of Sebastian Bach. Almost involuntarily there rises to the memory that line composed by Bion for the genius of earthly loveliness bewailed by everlasting beauty—

E'en as a corpse he is fair, fair corpse as fallen aslumber.

It is said that certain Lombards passing by and admiring the Pieta ascribed it to Christoforo Solari of Milan, surnamed Il Gobbo. Michelangelo, having happened to overhear them, shut himself up in the chapel, and engraved the belt upon the Madonna's breast with his own name. This he never did with any other of his works.

This masterpiece of highest art combined with pure religious feeling was placed in the old Basilica of S. Peter's, in a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Fever, Madonna della Febbre. Here, on the night of August 19, 1503, it witnessed one of those horrid spectacles which in Italy at that period so often intervened to interrupt the rhythm of romance and beauty and artistic melody. The dead body of Roderigo Borgia, Alexander VI., lay in state from noon onwards in front of the high altar; but since "it was the most repulsive, monstrous, and deformed corpse which had ever yet been seen, without any form or figure of humanity, shame compelled them to partly cover it." "Late in the evening it was transferred to the chapel of Our Lady of the Fever, and deposited in a corner by six hinds or porters and two carpenters, who had made the coffin too narrow and too short. Joking and jeering, they stripped the tiara and the robes of office from the body, wrapped it up in an old carpet, and then with force of fists and feet rammed it down into the box, without torches, without a ministering priest, without a single person to attend and bear a consecrated candle." Of such sort was the vigil kept by this solemn statue, so dignified in grief and sweet in death, at the ignoble obsequies of him who, occupying the loftiest throne of Christendom, incarnated the least erected spirit of his age. The ivory-smooth white corpse of Christ in marble, set over against that festering corpse of his Vicar on earth, "black as a piece of cloth or the blackest mulberry," what a hideous contrast!


It may not be inappropriate to discuss the question of the Bruges Madonna here. This is a marble statue, well placed in a chapel of Notre Dame, relieved against a black marble niche, with excellent illumination from the side. The style is undoubtedly Michelangelesque, the execution careful, the surface-finish exquisite, and the type of the Madonna extremely similar to that of the Pieta at S. Peter's. She is seated in an attitude of almost haughty dignity, with the left foot raised upon a block of stone. The expression of her features is marked by something of sternness, which seems inherent in the model. Between her knees stands, half reclining, half as though wishing to step downwards from the throne, her infant Son. One arm rests upon his mother's knee; the right hand is thrown round to clasp her left. This attitude gives grace of rhythm to the lines of his nude body. True to the realism which controlled Michelangelo at the commencement of his art career, the head of Christ, who is but a child, slightly overloads his slender figure. Physically he resembles the Infant Christ of our National Gallery picture, but has more of charm and sweetness. All these indications point to a genuine product of Michelangelo's first Roman manner; and the position of the statue in a chapel ornamented by the Bruges family of Mouscron renders the attribution almost certain. However, we have only two authentic records of the work among the documents at our disposal. Condivi, describing the period of Michelangelo's residence in Florence (1501-1504), says: "He also cast in bronze a Madonna with the Infant Christ, which certain Flemish merchants of the house of Mouscron, a most noble family in their own land, bought for two hundred ducats, and sent to Flanders." A letter addressed under date August 4, 1506, by Giovanni Balducci in Rome to Michelangelo at Florence, proves that some statue which was destined for Flanders remained among the sculptor's property at Florence. Balducci uses the feminine gender in writing about this work, which justifies us in thinking that it may have been a Madonna. He says that he has found a trustworthy agent to convey it to Viareggio, and to ship it thence to Bruges, where it will be delivered into the hands of the heir of John and Alexander Mouscron and Co., "as being their property." This statue, in all probability, is the "Madonna in marble" about which Michelangelo wrote to his father from Rome on the 31st of January 1507, and which he begged his father to keep hidden in their dwelling. It is difficult to reconcile Condivi's statement with Balducci's letter. The former says that the Madonna bought by the Mouscron family was cast in bronze at Florence. The Madonna in the Mouscron Chapel at Notre Dame is a marble. I think we may assume that the Bruges Madonna is the piece which Michelangelo executed for the Mouscron brothers, and that Condivi was wrong in believing it to have been cast in bronze. That the statue was sent some time after the order had been given, appears from the fact that Balducci consigned it to the heir of John and Alexander, "as being their property;" but it cannot be certain at what exact date it was begun and finished.


While Michelangelo was acquiring immediate celebrity and immortal fame by these three statues, so different in kind and hitherto unrivalled in artistic excellence, his family lived somewhat wretchedly at Florence. Lodovico had lost his small post at the Customs after the expulsion of the Medici; and three sons, younger than the sculptor, were now growing up. Buonarroto, born in 1477, had been put to the cloth-trade, and was serving under the Strozzi in their warehouse at the Porta Rossa. Giovan-Simone, two years younger (he was born in 1479), after leading a vagabond life for some while, joined Buonarroto in a cloth-business provided for them by Michelangelo. He was a worthless fellow, and gave his eldest brother much trouble. Sigismondo, born in 1481, took to soldiering; but at the age of forty he settled down upon the paternal farm at Settignano, and annoyed his brother by sinking into the condition of a common peasant.

The constant affection felt for these not very worthy relatives by Michelangelo is one of the finest traits in his character. They were continually writing begging letters, grumbling and complaining. He supplied them with funds, stinting himself in order to maintain them decently and to satisfy their wishes. But the more he gave, the more they demanded; and on one or two occasions, as we shall see in the course of this biography, their rapacity and ingratitude roused his bitterest indignation. Nevertheless, he did not swerve from the path of filial and brotherly kindness which his generous nature and steady will had traced. He remained the guardian of their interests, the custodian of their honour, and the builder of their fortunes to the end of his long life. The correspondence with his father and these brothers and a nephew, Lionardo, was published in full for the first time in 1875. It enables us to comprehend the true nature of the man better than any biographical notice; and I mean to draw largely upon this source, so as gradually, by successive stipplings, as it were, to present a miniature portrait of one who was both admirable in private life and incomparable as an artist.

This correspondence opens in the year 1497. From a letter addressed to Lodovico under the date August 19, we learn that Buonarroto had just arrived in Rome, and informed his brother of certain pecuniary difficulties under which the family was labouring. Michelangelo gave advice, and promised to send all the money he could bring together. "Although, as I have told you, I am out of pocket myself, I will do my best to get money, in order that you may not have to borrow from the Monte, as Buonarroto says is possible. Do not wonder if I have sometimes written irritable letters; for I often suffer great distress of mind and temper, owing to matters which must happen to one who is away from home.... In spite of all this, I will send you what you ask for, even should I have to sell myself into slavery." Buonarroto must have paid a second visit to Rome; for we possess a letter from Lodovico to Michelangelo, under date December 19, 1500, which throws important light upon the latter's habits and designs. The old man begins by saying how happy he is to observe the love which Michelangelo bears his brothers. Then he speaks about the cloth-business which Michelangelo intends to purchase for them. Afterwards, he proceeds as follows: "Buonarroto tells me that you live at Rome with great economy, or rather penuriousness. Now economy is good, but penuriousness is evil, seeing that it is a vice displeasing to God and men, and moreover injurious both to soul and body. So long as you are young, you will be able for a time to endure these hardships; but when the vigour of youth fails, then diseases and infirmities make their appearance; for these are caused by personal discomforts, mean living, and penurious habits. As I said, economy is good; but, above all things, shun stinginess. Live discreetly well, and see you have what is needful. Whatever happens, do not expose yourself to physical hardships; for in your profession, if you were once to fall ill (which God forbid), you would be a ruined man. Above all things, take care of your head, and keep it moderately warm, and see that you never wash: have yourself rubbed down, but do not wash." This sordid way of life became habitual with Michelangelo. When he was dwelling at Bologna in 1506, he wrote home to his brother Buonarroto: "With regard to Giovan-Simone's proposed visit, I do not advise him to come yet awhile, for I am lodged here in one wretched room, and have bought a single bed, in which we all four of us (i.e., himself and his three workmen) sleep." And again: "I am impatient to get away from this place, for my mode of life here is so wretched, that if you only knew what it is, you would be miserable." The summer was intensely hot at Bologna, and the plague broke out. In these circumstances it seems miraculous that the four sculptors in one bed escaped contagion. Michelangelo's parsimonious habits were not occasioned by poverty or avarice. He accumulated large sums of money by his labour, spent it freely on his family, and exercised bountiful charity for the welfare of his soul. We ought rather to ascribe them to some constitutional peculiarity, affecting his whole temperament, and tinging his experience with despondency and gloom. An absolute insensibility to merely decorative details, to the loveliness of jewels, stuffs, and natural objects, to flowers and trees and pleasant landscapes, to everything, in short, which delighted the Italians of that period, is a main characteristic of his art. This abstraction and aridity, this ascetic devotion of his genius to pure ideal form, this almost mathematical conception of beauty, may be ascribed, I think, to the same psychological qualities which determined the dreary conditions of his home-life. He was no niggard either of money or of ideas; nay, even profligate of both. But melancholy made him miserly in all that concerned personal enjoyment; and he ought to have been born under that leaden planet Saturn rather than Mercury and Venus in the house of Jove. Condivi sums up his daily habits thus: "He has always been extremely temperate in living, using food more because it was necessary than for any pleasure he took in it; especially when he was engaged upon some great work; for then he usually confined himself to a piece of bread, which he ate in the middle of his labour. However, for some time past, he has been living with more regard to health, his advanced age putting this constraint upon his natural inclination. Often have I heard him say: 'Ascanio, rich as I may have been, I have always lived like a poor man.' And this abstemiousness in food he has practised in sleep also; for sleep, according to his own account, rarely suits his constitution, since he continually suffers from pains in the head during slumber, and any excessive amount of sleep deranges his stomach. While he was in full vigour, he generally went to bed with his clothes on, even to the tall boots, which he has always worn, because of a chronic tendency to cramp, as well as for other reasons. At certain seasons he has kept these boots on for such a length of time, that when he drew them off the skin came away together with the leather, like that of a sloughing snake. He was never stingy of cash, nor did he accumulate money, being content with just enough to keep him decently; wherefore, though innumerable lords and rich folk have made him splendid offers for some specimen of his craft, he rarely complied, and then, for the most part, more out of kindness and friendship than with any expectation of gain." In spite of all this, or rather because of his temperance in food and sleep and sexual pleasure, together with his manual industry, he preserved excellent health into old age.

I have thought it worth while to introduce this general review of Michelangelo's habits, without omitting some details which may seem repulsive to the modern reader, at an early period of his biography, because we ought to carry with us through the vicissitudes of his long career and many labours an accurate conception of our hero's personality. For this reason it may not be unprofitable to repeat what Condivi says about his physical appearance in the last years of his life. "Michelangelo is of a good complexion; more muscular and bony than fat or fleshy in his person: healthy above all things, as well by reason of his natural constitution as of the exercise he takes, and habitual continence in food and sexual indulgence. Nevertheless, he was a weakly child, and has suffered two illnesses in manhood. His countenance always showed a good and wholesome colour. Of stature he is as follows: height middling; broad in the shoulders; the rest of the body somewhat slender in proportion. The shape of his face is oval, the space above the ears being one sixth higher than a semicircle. Consequently the temples project beyond the ears, and the ears beyond the cheeks, and these beyond the rest; so that the skull, in relation to the whole head, must be called large. The forehead, seen in front, is square; the nose, a little flattened—not by nature, but because, when he was a young boy, Torrigiano de' Torrigiani, a brutal and insolent fellow, smashed in the cartilage with his fist. Michelangelo was carried home half dead on this occasion; and Torrigiano, having been exiled from Florence for his violence, came to a bad end. The nose, however, being what it is, bears a proper proportion to the forehead and the rest of the face. The lips are thin, but the lower is slightly thicker than the upper; so that, seen in profile, it projects a little. The chin is well in harmony with the features I have described. The forehead, in a side-view, almost hangs over the nose; and this looks hardly less than broken, were it not for a trifling proturberance in the middle. The eyebrows are not thick with hair; the eyes may even be called small, of a colour like horn, but speckled and stained with spots of bluish yellow. The ears in good proportion; hair of the head black, as also the beard, except that both are now grizzled by old age; the beard double-forked, about five inches long, and not very bushy, as may partly be observed in his portrait."

We have no contemporary account of Michelangelo in early manhood; but the tenor of his life was so even, and, unlike Cellini, he moved so constantly upon the same lines and within the same sphere of patient self-reserve, that it is not difficult to reconstruct the young and vigorous sculptor out of this detailed description by his loving friend and servant in old age. Few men, notably few artists, have preserved that continuity of moral, intellectual, and physical development in one unbroken course which is the specific characterisation of Michelangelo. As years advanced, his pulses beat less quickly and his body shrank. But the man did not alter. With the same lapse of years, his style grew drier and more abstract, but it did not alter in quality or depart from its ideal. He seems to me in these respects to be like Milton: wholly unlike the plastic and assimilative genius of a Raphael.



Michelangelo returned to Florence in the spring of 1501. Condivi says that domestic affairs compelled him to leave Rome, and the correspondence with his father makes this not improbable. He brought a heightened reputation back to his native city. The Bacchus and the Madonna della Febbre had placed him in advance of any sculptor of his time. Indeed, in these first years of the sixteenth century he may be said to have been the only Tuscan sculptor of commanding eminence. Ghiberti, Della Quercia, Brunelleschi, Donatello, all had joined the majority before his birth. The second group of distinguished craftsmen—Verocchio, Luca della Robbia, Rossellino, Da Maiano, Civitali, Desiderio da Settignano—expired at the commencement of the century. It seemed as though a gap in the ranks of plastic artists had purposely been made for the entrance of a predominant and tyrannous personality. Jacopo Tatti, called Sansovino, was the only man who might have disputed the place of preeminence with Michelangelo, and Sansovino chose Venice for the theatre of his life-labours. In these circumstances, it is not singular that commissions speedily began to overtax the busy sculptor's power of execution. I do not mean to assert that the Italians, in the year 1501, were conscious of Michelangelo's unrivalled qualities, or sensitive to the corresponding limitations which rendered these qualities eventually baneful to the evolution of the arts; but they could not help feeling that in this young man of twenty-six they possessed a first-rate craftsman, and one who had no peer among contemporaries.

The first order of this year came from the Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini, who was afterwards elected Pope in 1503, and who died after reigning three weeks with the title of Pius III. He wished to decorate the Piccolomini Chapel in the Duomo of Siena with fifteen statues of male saints. A contract was signed on June 5, by which Michelangelo agreed to complete these figures within the space of three years. One of them, a S. Francis, had been already begun by Piero Torrigiano; and this, we have some reason to believe, was finished by the master's hand. Accounts differ about his share in the remaining fourteen statues; but the matter is of no great moment, seeing that the style of the work is conventional, and the scale of the figures disagreeably squat and dumpy. It seems almost impossible that these ecclesiastical and tame pieces should have been produced at the same time as the David by the same hand. Neither Vasari nor Condivi speaks about them, although it is certain that Michelangelo was held bound to his contract during several years. Upon the death of Pius III., he renewed it with the Pope's heirs, Jacopo and Andrea Piccolomini, by a deed dated September 15, 1504; and in 1537 Anton Maria Piccolomini, to whom the inheritance succeeded, considered himself Michelangelo's creditor for the sum of a hundred crowns, which had been paid beforehand for work not finished by the sculptor.

A far more important commission was intrusted to Michelangelo in August of the same year, 1501. Condivi, after mentioning his return to Florence, tells the history of the colossal David in these words: "Here he stayed some time, and made the statue which stands in front of the great door of the Palace of the Signory, and is called the Giant by all people. It came about in this way. The Board of Works at S. Maria del Fiore owned a piece of marble nine cubits in height, which had been brought from Carrara some hundred years before by a sculptor insufficiently acquainted with his art. This was evident, inasmuch as, wishing to convey it more conveniently and with less labour, he had it blocked out in the quarry, but in such a manner that neither he nor any one else was capable of extracting a statue from the block, either of the same size, or even on a much smaller scale. The marble being, then, useless for any good purpose, Andrea del Monte San Savino thought that he might get possession of it from the Board, and begged them to make him a present of it, promising that he would add certain pieces of stone and carve a statue from it. Before they made up their minds to give it, they sent for Michelangelo; then, after explaining the wishes and the views of Andrea, and considering his own opinion that it would be possible to extract a good thing from the block, they finally offered it to him. Michelangelo accepted, added no pieces, and got the statue out so exactly, that, as any one may see, in the top of the head and at the base some vestiges of the rough surface of the marble still remain. He did the same in other works, as, for instance, in the Contemplative Life upon the tomb of Julius; indeed, it is a sign left by masters on their work, proving them to be absolute in their art. But in the David it was much more remarkable, for this reason, that the difficulty of the task was not overcome by adding pieces; and also he had to contend with an ill-shaped marble. As he used to say himself, it is impossible, or at least extraordinarily difficult in statuary to set right the faults of the blocking out. He received for this work 400 ducats, and carried it out in eighteen months."

The sculptor who had spoiled this block of marble is called "Maestro Simone" by Vasari; but the abundant documents in our possession, by aid of which we are enabled to trace the whole history of Michelangelo's David with minuteness, show that Vasari was misinformed. The real culprit was Agostino di Antonio di Duccio, or Guccio, who had succeeded with another colossal statue for the Duomo. He is honourably known in the history of Tuscan sculpture by his reliefs upon the facade of the Duomo at Modena, describing episodes in the life of S. Gemignano, by the romantically charming reliefs in marble, with terracotta settings, on the Oratory of S. Bernardino at Perugia, and by a large amount of excellent surface-work in stone upon the chapels of S. Francesco at Rimini. We gather from one of the contracts with Agostino that the marble was originally blocked out for some prophet. But Michelangelo resolved to make a David; and two wax models, now preserved in the Museo Buonarroti, neither of which corresponds exactly with the statue as it exists, show that he felt able to extract a colossal figure in various attitudes from the damaged block. In the first contract signed between the Consuls of the Arte della Lana, the Operai del Duomo, and the sculptor, dated August 16, 1501, the terms are thus settled: "That the worthy master Michelangelo, son of Lodovico Buonarroti, citizen of Florence, has been chosen to fashion, complete, and finish to perfection that male statue called the Giant, of nine cubits in height, now existing in the workshop of the cathedral, blocked out aforetime by Master Agostino of Florence, and badly blocked; and that the work shall be completed within the term of the next ensuing two years, dating from September, at a salary of six golden florins per month; and that what is needful for the accomplishment of this task, as workmen, timbers, &c., which he may require, shall be supplied him by the Operai; and when the statue is finished, the Consuls and Operai who shall be in office shall estimate whether he deserve a larger recompense, and this shall be left to their consciences."


Michelangelo began to work on Monday morning, September 13, in a wooden shed erected for the purpose, not far from the cathedral. On the 28th of February 1502, the statue, which is now called for the first time "the Giant, or David," was brought so far forward that the judges declared it to be half finished, and decided that the sculptor should be paid in all 400 golden florins, including the stipulated salary. He seems to have laboured assiduously during the next two years, for by a minute of the 25th of January 1504 the David is said to be almost entirely finished. On this date a solemn council of the most important artists resident in Florence was convened at the Opera del Duomo to consider where it should be placed.

We possess full minutes of this meeting, and they are so curious that I shall not hesitate to give a somewhat detailed account of the proceedings. Messer Francesco Filarete, the chief herald of the Signory, and himself an architect of some pretensions, opened the discussion in a short speech to this effect: "I have turned over in my mind those suggestions which my judgment could afford me. You have two places where the statue may be set up: the first, that where the Judith stands; the second, in the middle of the courtyard where the David is. The first might be selected, because the Judith is an omen of evil, and no fit object where it stands, we having the cross and lily for our ensign; besides, it is not proper that the woman should kill the male; and, above all, this statue was erected under an evil constellation, since you have gone continually from bad to worse since then. Pisa has been lost too. The David of the courtyard is imperfect in the right leg; and so I should counsel you to put the Giant in one of these places, but I give the preference myself to that of the Judith." The herald, it will be perceived, took for granted that Michelangelo's David would be erected in the immediate neighbourhood of the Palazzo Vecchio. The next speaker, Francesco Monciatto, a wood-carver, advanced the view that it ought to be placed in front of the Duomo, where the Colossus was originally meant to be put up. He was immediately followed, and his resolution was seconded, by no less personages than the painters Cosimo Rosselli and Sandro Botticelli. Then Giuliano da San Gallo, the illustrious architect, submitted a third opinion to the meeting. He began his speech by observing that he agreed with those who wished to choose the steps of the Duomo, but due consideration caused him to alter his mind. "The imperfection of the marble, which is softened by exposure to the air, rendered the durability of the statue doubtful. He therefore voted for the middle of the Loggia dei Lanzi, where the David would be under cover." Messer Angelo di Lorenzo Manfidi, second herald of the Signory, rose to state a professional objection. "The David, if erected under the middle arch of the Loggia, would break the order of the ceremonies practised there by the Signory and other magistrates. He therefore proposed that the arch facing the Palazzo (where Donatello's Judith is now) should be chosen." The three succeeding speakers, people of no great importance, gave their votes in favour of the chief herald's resolution. Others followed San Gallo, among whom was the illustrious Lionardo da Vinci. He thought the statue could be placed under the middle arch of the Loggia without hindrance to ceremonies of state. Salvestro, a jeweller, and Filippino Lippi, the painter, were of opinion that the neighbourhood of the Palazzo should be adopted, but that the precise spot should be left to the sculptor's choice. Gallieno, an embroiderer, and David Ghirlandajo, the painter, suggested a new place—namely, where the lion or Marzocco stood on the Piazza. Antonio da San Gallo, the architect, and Michelangelo, the goldsmith, father of Baccio Bandinelli, supported Giuliano da San Gallo's motion. Then Giovanni Piffero—that is, the father of Benvenuto Cellini—brought the discussion back to the courtyard of the palace. He thought that in the Loggia the statue would be only partly seen, and that it would run risks of injury from scoundrels. Giovanni delle Corniole, the incomparable gem-cutter, who has left us the best portrait of Savonarola, voted with the two San Galli, "because he hears the stone is soft." Piero di Cosimo, the painter, and teacher of Andrea del Sarto, wound up the speeches with a strong recommendation that the choice of the exact spot should be left to Michelangelo Buonarroti. This was eventually decided on, and he elected to have his David set up in the place preferred by the chief herald—that is to say, upon the steps of the Palazzo Vecchio, on the right side of the entrance.

The next thing was to get the mighty mass of sculptured marble safely moved from the Duomo to the Palazzo. On the 1st of April, Simone del Pollajuolo, called Il Cronaca, was commissioned to make the necessary preparations; but later on, upon the 30th, we find Antonio da San Gallo, Baccio d'Agnolo, Bernardo della Ciecha, and Michelangelo associated with him in the work of transportation. An enclosure of stout beams and planks was made and placed on movable rollers. In the middle of this the statue hung suspended, with a certain liberty of swaying to the shocks and lurches of the vehicle. More than forty men were employed upon the windlasses which drew it slowly forward. In a contemporary record we possess a full account of the transit: "On the 14th of May 1504, the marble Giant was taken from the Opera. It came out at 24 o'clock, and they broke the wall above the gateway enough to let it pass. That night some stones were thrown at the Colossus with intent to harm it. Watch had to be kept at night; and it made way very slowly, bound as it was upright, suspended in the air with enormous beams and intricate machinery of ropes. It took four days to reach the Piazza, arriving on the 18th at the hour of 12. More than forty men were employed to make it go; and there were fourteen rollers joined beneath it, which were changed from hand to hand. Afterwards, they worked until the 8th of June 1504 to place it on the platform (ringhiero) where the Judith used to stand. The Judith was removed and set upon the ground within the palace. The said Giant was the work of Michelangelo Buonarroti."

Where the masters of Florence placed it, under the direction of its maker, Michelangelo's great white David stood for more than three centuries uncovered, open to all injuries of frost and rain, and to the violence of citizens, until, for the better preservation of this masterpiece of modern art, it was removed in 1873 to a hall of the Accademia delle Belle Arti. On the whole, it has suffered very little. Weather has slightly worn away the extremities of the left foot; and in 1527, during a popular tumult, the left arm was broken by a huge stone cast by the assailants of the palace. Giorgio Vasari tells us how, together with his friend Cecchino Salviati, he collected the scattered pieces, and brought them to the house of Michelangelo Salviati, the father of Cecchino. They were subsequently put together by the care of the Grand Duke Cosimo, and restored to the statue in the year 1543.


In the David Michelangelo first displayed that quality of terribilita, of spirit-quailing, awe-inspiring force, for which he afterwards became so famous. The statue imposes, not merely by its size and majesty and might, but by something vehement in the conception. He was, however, far from having yet adopted those systematic proportions for the human body which later on gave an air of monotonous impressiveness to all his figures. On the contrary, this young giant strongly recalls the model; still more strongly indeed than the Bacchus did. Wishing perhaps to adhere strictly to the Biblical story, Michelangelo studied a lad whose frame was not developed. The David, to state the matter frankly, is a colossal hobbledehoy. His body, in breadth of the thorax, depth of the abdomen, and general stoutness, has not grown up to the scale of the enormous hands and feet and heavy head. We feel that he wants at least two years to become a fully developed man, passing from adolescence to the maturity of strength and beauty. This close observance of the imperfections of the model at a certain stage of physical growth is very remarkable, and not altogether pleasing in a statue more than nine feet high. Both Donatello and Verocchio had treated their Davids in the same realistic manner, but they were working on a small scale and in bronze. I insist upon this point, because students of Michelangelo have been apt to overlook his extreme sincerity and naturalism in the first stages of his career.

Having acknowledged that the head of David is too massive and the extremities too largely formed for ideal beauty, hypercriticism can hardly find fault with the modelling and execution of each part. The attitude selected is one of great dignity and vigour. The heroic boy, quite certain of victory, is excited by the coming contest. His brows are violently contracted, the nostrils tense and quivering, the eyes fixed keenly on the distant Philistine. His larynx rises visibly, and the sinews of his left thigh tighten, as though the whole spirit of the man were braced for a supreme endeavour. In his right hand, kept at a just middle point between the hip and knee, he holds the piece of wood on which his sling is hung. The sling runs round his back, and the centre of it, where the stone bulges, is held with the left hand, poised upon the left shoulder, ready to be loosed. We feel that the next movement will involve the right hand straining to its full extent the sling, dragging the stone away, and whirling it into the air; when, after it has sped to strike Goliath in the forehead, the whole lithe body of the lad will have described a curve, and recovered its perpendicular position on the two firm legs. Michelangelo invariably chose some decisive moment; in the action he had to represent; and though he was working here under difficulties, owing to the limitations of the damaged block at his disposal, he contrived to suggest the imminence of swift and sudden energy which shall disturb the equilibrium of his young giant's pose. Critics of this statue, deceived by its superficial resemblance to some Greek athletes at rest, have neglected the candid realism of the momentary act foreshadowed. They do not understand the meaning of the sling. Even Heath Wilson, for instance, writes: "The massive shoulders are thrown back, the right arm is pendent, and the right hand grasps resolutely the stone with which the adversary is to be slain." This entirely falsifies the sculptor's motive, misses the meaning of the sling, renders the broad strap behind the back superfluous, and changes into mere plastic symbolism what Michelangelo intended to be a moment caught from palpitating life.

It has often been remarked that David's head is modelled upon the type of Donatello's S. George at Orsanmichele. The observation is just; and it suggests a comment on the habit Michelangelo early formed of treating the face idealistically, however much he took from study of his models. Vasari, for example, says that he avoided portraiture, and composed his faces by combining several individuals. We shall see a new ideal type of the male head emerge in a group of statues, among which the most distinguished is Giuliano de' Medici at San Lorenzo. We have already seen a female type created in the Madonnas of S. Peter's and Notre Dame at Bruges. But this is not the place to discuss Michelangelo's theory of form in general. That must be reserved until we enter the Sistine Chapel, in order to survey the central and the crowning product of his genius in its prime.

We have every reason to believe that Michelangelo carved his David with no guidance but drawings and a small wax model about eighteen inches in height. The inconvenience of this method, which left the sculptor to wreak his fury on the marble with mallet and chisel, can be readily conceived. In a famous passage, disinterred by M. Mariette from a French scholar of the sixteenth century, we have this account of the fiery master's system: "I am able to affirm that I have seen Michelangelo, at the age of more than sixty years, and not the strongest for his time of life, knock off more chips from an extremely hard marble in one quarter of an hour than three young stone-cutters could have done in three or four—a thing quite incredible to one who has not seen it. He put such impetuosity and fury into his work that I thought the whole must fly to pieces; hurling to the ground at one blow great fragments three or four inches thick, shaving the line so closely that if he had overpassed it by a hair's-breadth he ran the risk of losing all, since one cannot mend a marble afterwards or repair mistakes, as one does with figures of clay and stucco." It is said that, owing to this violent way of attacking his marble, Michelangelo sometimes bit too deep into the stone, and had to abandon a promising piece of sculpture. This is one of the ways of accounting for his numerous unfinished statues. Accordingly a myth has sprung up representing the great master as working in solitude upon huge blocks, with nothing but a sketch in wax before him. Fact is always more interesting than fiction; and, while I am upon the topic of his method, I will introduce what Cellini has left written on this subject. In his treatise on the Art of Sculpture, Cellini lays down the rule that sculptors in stone ought first to make a little model two palms high, and after this to form another as large as the statue will have to be. He illustrates this by a critique of his illustrious predecessors. "Albeit many able artists rush boldly on the stone with the fierce force of mallet and chisel, relying on the little model and a good design, yet the result is never found by them to be so satisfactory as when they fashion the model on a large scale. This is proved by our Donatello, who was a Titan in the art, and afterwards by the stupendous Michelangelo, who worked in both ways. Discovering latterly that the small models fell far short of what his excellent genius demanded, he adopted the habit of making most careful models exactly of the same size as the marble statue was to be. This we have seen with our own eyes in the Sacristy of S. Lorenzo. Next, when a man is satisfied with his full-sized model, he must take charcoal, and sketch out the main view of his figure on the marble in such wise that it shall be distinctly traced; for he who has not previously settled his design may sometimes find himself deceived by the chiselling irons. Michelangelo's method in this matter was the best. He used first to sketch in the principal aspect; and then to begin work by removing the surface stone upon that side, just as if he intended to fashion a figure in half-relief; and thus he went on gradually uncovering the rounded form."

Vasari, speaking of four rough-hewn Captives, possibly the figures now in a grotto of the Boboli Gardens, says: They are well adapted for teaching a beginner how to extract statues from the marble without injury to the stone. The safe method which they illustrate may be described as follows. You first take a model in wax or some other hard material, and place it lying in a vessel full of water. The water, by its nature, presents a level surface; so that, if you gradually lift the model, the higher parts are first exposed, while the lower parts remain submerged; and, proceeding thus, the whole round shape at length appears above the water. Precisely in the same way ought statues to be hewn out from the marble with the chisel; first uncovering the highest surfaces, and proceeding to disclose the lowest. This method was followed by Michelangelo while blocking out the Captives, and therefore his Excellency the Duke was fain to have them used as models by the students in his Academy. It need hardly be remarked that the ingenious process of "pointing the marble" by means of the "pointing machine" and "scale-stones," which is at present universally in use among sculptors, had not been invented in the sixteenth century.


I cannot omit a rather childish story which Vasari tells about the David. After it had been placed upon its pedestal before the palace, and while the scaffolding was still there, Piero Soderini, who loved and admired Michelangelo, told him that he thought the nose too large. The sculptor immediately ran up the ladder till he reached a point upon the level of the giant's shoulder. He then took his hammer and chisel, and, having concealed some dust of marble in the hollow of his hand, pretended to work off a portion from the surface of the nose. In reality he left it as he found it; but Soderini, seeing the marble dust fall scattering through the air, thought that his hint had been taken. When, therefore, Michelangelo called down to him, "Look at it now!" Soderini shouted up in reply, "I am far more pleased with it; you have given life to the statue."

At this time Piero Soderini, a man of excellent parts and sterling character, though not gifted with that mixture of audacity and cunning which impressed the Renaissance imagination, was Gonfalonier of the Republic. He had been elected to the supreme magistracy for life, and was practically Doge of Florence. His friendship proved on more than one occasion of some service to Michelangelo; and while the gigantic David was in progress he gave the sculptor a new commission, the history of which must now engage us. The Florentine envoys to France had already written in June 1501 from Lyons, saying that Pierre de Rohan, Marechal de Gie, who stood high in favour at the court of Louis XII., greatly desired a copy of the bronze David by Donatello in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio. He appeared willing to pay for it, but the envoys thought that he expected to have it as a present. The French alliance was a matter of the highest importance to Florence, and at this time the Republic was heavily indebted to the French crown. Soderini, therefore, decided to comply with the Marshal's request, and on the 12th of August 1502 Michelangelo undertook to model a David of two cubits and a quarter within six months. In the bronze-casting he was assisted by a special master, Benedetto da Rovezzano. During the next two years a brisk correspondence was kept up between the envoys and the Signory about the statue, showing the Marshal's impatience. Meanwhile De Rohan became Duke of Nemours in 1503 by his marriage with a sister of Louis d'Armagnac, and shortly afterwards he fell into disgrace. Nothing more was to be expected from him at the court of Blois. But the statue was in progress, and the question arose to whom it should be given. The choice of the Signory fell on Florimond Robertet, secretary of finance, whose favour would be useful to the Florentines in their pecuniary transactions with the King. A long letter from the envoy, Francesco Pandolfini, in September 1505, shows that Robertet's mind had been sounded on the subject; and we gather from a minute of the Signory, dated November 6, 1508, that at last the bronze David, weighing about 800 pounds, had been "packed in the name of God" and sent to Signa on its way to Leghorn. Robertet received it in due course, and placed it in the courtyard of his chateau of Bury, near Blois. Here it remained for more than a century, when it was removed to the chateau of Villeroy. There it disappeared. We possess, however, a fine pen-and-ink drawing by the hand of Michelangelo, which may well have been a design for this second David. The muscular and naked youth, not a mere lad like the colossal statue, stands firmly posed upon his left leg with the trunk thrown boldly back. His right foot rests on the gigantic head of Goliath, and his left hand, twisted back upon the buttock, holds what seems meant for the sling. We see here what Michelangelo's conception of an ideal David would have been when working under conditions more favourable than the damaged block afforded. On the margin of the page the following words may be clearly traced: "Davicte cholla fromba e io chollarcho Michelagniolo,"—David with the sling, and I with the bow.

Meanwhile Michelangelo received a still more important commission on the 24th of April 1503. The Consuls of the Arte della Lana and the Operai of the Duomo ordered twelve Apostles, each 4-1/4 cubits high, to be carved out of Carrara marble and placed inside the church. The sculptor undertook to furnish one each year, the Board of Works defraying all expenses, supplying the costs of Michelangelo's living and his assistants, and paying him two golden florins a month. Besides this, they had a house built for him in the Borgo Pinti after Il Cronaca's design. He occupied this house free of charges while he was in Florence, until it became manifest that the contract of 1503 would never be carried out. Later on, in March 1508, the tenement was let on lease to him and his heirs. But he only held it a few months; for on the 15th of June the lease was cancelled, and the house transferred to Sigismondo Martelli.

The only trace surviving of these twelve Apostles is the huge blocked-out S. Matteo, now in the courtyard of the Accademia. Vasari writes of it as follows: "He also began a statue in marble of S. Matteo, which, though it is but roughly hewn, shows perfection of design, and teaches sculptors how to extract figures from the stone without exposing them to injury, always gaining ground by removing the superfluous material, and being able to withdraw or change in case of need." This stupendous sketch or shadow of a mighty form is indeed instructive for those who would understand Michelangelo's method. It fully illustrates the passages quoted above from Cellini and Vasari, showing how a design of the chief view of the statue must have been chalked upon the marble, and how the unfinished figure gradually emerged into relief. Were we to place it in a horizontal position on the ground, that portion of a rounded form which has been disengaged from the block would emerge just in the same way as a model from a bath of water not quite deep enough to cover it. At the same time we learn to appreciate the observations of Vigenere while we study the titanic chisel-marks, grooved deeply in the body of the stone, and carried to the length of three or four inches. The direction of these strokes proves that Michelangelo worked equally with both hands, and the way in which they are hatched and crossed upon the marble reminds one of the pen-drawing of a bold draughtsman. The mere surface-handling of the stone has remarkable affinity in linear effect to a pair of the master's pen-designs for a naked man, now in the Louvre. On paper he seems to hew with the pen, on marble to sketch with the chisel. The saint appears literally to be growing out of his stone prison, as though he were alive and enclosed there waiting to be liberated. This recalls Michelangelo's fixed opinion regarding sculpture, which he defined as the art "that works by force of taking away." In his writings we often find the idea expressed that a statue, instead of being a human thought invested with external reality by stone, is more truly to be regarded as something which the sculptor seeks and finds inside his marble—a kind of marvellous discovery. Thus he says in one of his poems: "Lady, in hard and craggy stone the mere removal of the surface gives being to a figure, which ever grows the more the stone is hewn away." And again—

The best of artists hath no thought to show Which the rough stone in its superfluous shell Doth not include: to break the marble spell Is all the hand that serves the brain can do.

S. Matthew seems to palpitate with life while we scrutinise the amorphous block; and yet there is little there more tangible than some such form as fancy loves to image in the clouds.

To conclude what I have said in this section about Michelangelo's method of working on the marble, I must confirm what I have stated about his using both left and right hand while chiselling. Raffaello da Montelupo, who was well acquainted with him personally, informs us of the fact: "Here I may mention that I am in the habit of drawing with my left hand, and that once, at Rome, while I was sketching the Arch of Trajan from the Colosseum, Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo, both of whom were naturally left-handed (although they did not work with the left hand excepting when they wished to use great strength), stopped to see me, and expressed great wonder, no sculptor or painter ever having done so before me, as far as I know."


If Vasari can be trusted, it was during this residence at Florence, when his hands were so fully occupied, that Michelangelo found time to carve the two tondi, Madonnas in relief enclosed in circular spaces, which we still possess. One of them, made for Taddeo Taddei, is now at Burlington House, having been acquired by the Royal Academy through the medium of Sir George Beaumont. This ranks among the best things belonging to that Corporation. The other, made for Bartolommeo Pitti, will be found in the Palazzo del Bargello at Florence. Of the two, that of our Royal Academy is the more ambitious in design, combining singular grace and dignity in the Madonna with action playfully suggested in the infant Christ and little S. John. That of the Bargello is simpler, more tranquil, and more stately. The one recalls the motive of the Bruges Madonna, the other almost anticipates the Delphic Sibyl. We might fancifully call them a pair of native pearls or uncut gems, lovely by reason even of their sketchiness. Whether by intention, as some critics have supposed, or for want of time to finish, as I am inclined to believe, these two reliefs are left in a state of incompleteness which is highly suggestive. Taking the Royal Academy group first, the absolute roughness of the groundwork supplies an admirable background to the figures, which seem to emerge from it as though the whole of them were there, ready to be disentangled. The most important portions of the composition—Madonna's head and throat, the drapery of her powerful breast, on which the child Christ reclines, and the naked body of the boy—are wrought to a point which only demands finish. Yet parts of these two figures remain undetermined. Christ's feet are still imprisoned in the clinging marble; His left arm and hand are only indicated, and His right hand is resting on a mass of broken stone, which hides a portion of His mother's drapery, but leaves the position of her hand uncertain. The infant S. John, upright upon his feet, balancing the chief group, is hazily subordinate. The whole of his form looms blurred through the veil of stone, and what his two hands and arms are doing with the hidden right arm and hand of the Virgin may hardly be conjectured. It is clear that on this side of the composition the marble was to have been more deeply cut, and that we have the highest surfaces of the relief brought into prominence at those points where, as I have said, little is wanting but the finish of the graver and the file. The Bargello group is simpler and more intelligible. Its composition by masses being quite apparent, we can easily construct the incomplete figure of S. John in the background. What results from the study of these two circular sketches in marble is that, although Michelangelo believed all sculpture to be imperfect in so far as it approached the style of painting, yet he did not disdain to labour in stone with various planes of relief which should produce the effect of chiaroscuro. Furthermore, they illustrate what Cellini and Vasari have already taught us about his method. He refused to work by piecemeal, but began by disengaging the first, the second, then the third surfaces, following a model and a drawing which controlled the cutting. Whether he preferred to leave off when his idea was sufficiently indicated, or whether his numerous engagements prevented him from excavating the lowest surfaces, and lastly polishing the whole, is a question which must for ever remain undecided. Considering the exquisite elaboration given to the Pieta of the Vatican, the Madonna at Bruges, the Bacchus and the David, the Moses and parts of the Medicean monuments, I incline to think that, with time enough at his disposal, he would have carried out these rounds in all their details. A criticism he made on Donatello, recorded for us by Condivi, to the effect that this great master's works lost their proper effect on close inspection through a want of finish, confirms my opinion. Still there is no doubt that he must have been pleased, as all true lovers of art are with the picturesque effect—an effect as of things half seen in dreams or emergent from primeval substances—which the imperfection of the craftsman's labour leaves upon the memory.

At this time Michelangelo's mind seems to have been much occupied with circular compositions. He painted a large Holy Family of this shape for his friend Angelo Doni, which may, I think, be reckoned the only easel-picture attributable with absolute certainty to his hand. Condivi simply says that he received seventy ducats for this fine work. Vasari adds one of his prattling stories to the effect that Doni thought forty sufficient; whereupon Michelangelo took the picture back, and said he would not let it go for less than a hundred: Doni then offered the original sum of seventy, but Michelangelo replied that if he was bent on bargaining he should not pay less than 140. Be this as it may, one of the most characteristic products of the master's genius came now into existence. The Madonna is seated in a kneeling position on the ground; she throws herself vigorously backward, lifting the little Christ upon her right arm, and presenting him to a bald-headed old man, S. Joseph, who seems about to take him in his arms. This group, which forms a tall pyramid, is balanced on both sides by naked figures of young men reclining against a wall at some distance, while a remarkably ugly little S. John can be discerned in one corner. There is something very powerful and original in the composition of this sacred picture, which, as in the case of all Michelangelo's early work, develops the previous traditions of Tuscan art on lines which no one but himself could have discovered. The central figure of the Madonna, too, has always seemed to me a thing of marvellous beauty, and of stupendous power in the strained attitude and nobly modelled arms. It has often been asked what the male nudes have got to do with the subject. Probably Michelangelo intended in this episode to surpass a Madonna by Luca Signorelli, with whose genius he obviously was in sympathy, and who felt, like him, the supreme beauty of the naked adolescent form. Signorelli had painted a circular Madonna with two nudes in the landscape distance for Lorenzo de' Medici. The picture is hung now in the gallery of the Uffizi. It is enough perhaps to remark that Michelangelo needed these figures for his scheme, and for filling the space at his disposal. He was either unable or unwilling to compose a background of trees, meadows, and pastoral folk in the manner of his predecessors. Nothing but the infinite variety of human forms upon a barren stage of stone or arid earth would suit his haughty sense of beauty. The nine persons who make up the picture are all carefully studied from the life, and bear a strong Tuscan stamp. S. John is literally ignoble, and Christ is a commonplace child. The Virgin Mother is a magnificent contadina in the plenitude of adult womanhood. Those, however, who follow Mr. Ruskin in blaming Michelangelo for carelessness about the human face and head, should not fail to notice what sublime dignity and grace he has communicated to his model here. In technical execution the Doni Madonna is faithful to old Florentine usage, but lifeless and unsympathetic. We are disagreeably reminded by every portion of the surface that Lionardo's subtle play of tones and modulated shades, those sfumature, as Italians call them, which transfer the mystic charm of nature to the canvas, were as yet unknown to the great draughtsman. There is more of atmosphere, of colour suggestion, and of chiaroscuro in the marble tondi described above. Moreover, in spite of very careful modelling, Michelangelo has failed to make us feel the successive planes of his composition. The whole seems flat, and each distance, instead of being graduated, starts forward to the eye. He required, at this period of his career, the relief of sculpture in order to express the roundness of the human form and the relative depth of objects placed in a receding order. If anything were needed to make us believe the story of his saying to Pope Julius II. that sculpture and not painting was his trade, this superb design, so deficient in the essential qualities of painting proper, would suffice. Men infinitely inferior to himself in genius and sense of form, a Perugino, a Francia, a Fra Bartolommeo, an Albertinelli, possessed more of the magic which evokes pictorial beauty. Nevertheless, with all its aridity, rigidity, and almost repulsive hardness of colour, the Doni Madonna ranks among the great pictures of the world. Once seen it will never be forgotten: it tyrannises and dominates the imagination by its titanic power of drawing. No one, except perhaps Lionardo, could draw like that, and Lionardo would not have allowed his linear scheme to impose itself so remorselessly upon the mind.


Just at this point of his development, Michelangelo was brought into competition with Lionardo da Vinci, the only living rival worthy of his genius. During the year 1503 Piero Soderini determined to adorn the hall of the Great Council in the Palazzo Vecchio with huge mural frescoes, which should represent scenes in Florentine history. Documents regarding the commencement of these works and the contracts made with the respective artists are unfortunately wanting. But it appears that Da Vinci received a commission for one of the long walls in the autumn of that year. We have items of expenditure on record which show that the Municipality of Florence assigned him the Sala del Papa at S. Maria Novella before February 1504, and were preparing the necessary furniture for the construction of his Cartoon. It seems that he was hard at work upon the 1st of April, receiving fifteen golden florins a month for his labour. The subject which he chose to treat was the battle of Anghiari in 1440, when the Florentine mercenaries entirely routed the troops of Filippo Maria Visconti, led by Niccolo Piccinino, one of the greatest generals of his age. In August 1504 Soderini commissioned Michelangelo to prepare Cartoons for the opposite wall of the great Sala, and assigned to him a workshop in the Hospital of the Dyers at S. Onofrio. A minute of expenditure, under date October 31, 1504, shows that the paper for the Cartoon had been already provided; and Michelangelo continued to work upon it until his call to Rome at the beginning of 1505. Lionardo's battle-piece consisted of two groups on horseback engaged in a fierce struggle for a standard. Michelangelo determined to select a subject which should enable him to display all his power as the supreme draughtsman of the nude. He chose an episode from the war with Pisa, when, on the 28th of July 1364, a band of 400 Florentine soldiers were surprised bathing by Sir John Hawkwood and his English riders. It goes by the name of the Battle of Pisa, though the event really took place at Cascina on the Arno, some six miles above that city.

We have every reason to regard the composition of this Cartoon as the central point in Michelangelo's life as an artist. It was the watershed, so to speak, which divided his earlier from his later manner; and if we attach any value to the critical judgment of his enthusiastic admirer, Cellini, even the roof of the Sistine fell short of its perfection. Important, however, as it certainly is in the history of his development, I must defer speaking of it in detail until the end of the next chapter. For some reason or other, unknown to us, he left his work unfinished early in 1505, and went, at the Pope's invitation, to Rome. When he returned, in the ensuing year, to Florence, he resumed and completed the design. Some notion of its size may be derived from what we know about the material supplied for Lionardo's Cartoon. This, say Crowe and Cavalcaselle, "was made up of one ream and twenty-nine quires, or about 288 square feet of royal folio paper, the mere pasting of which necessitated a consumption of eighty-eight pounds of flour, the mere lining of which required three pieces of Florentine linen."

Condivi, summing up his notes of this period spent by Michelangelo at Florence, says: "He stayed there some time without working to much purpose in his craft, having taken to the study of poets and rhetoricians in the vulgar tongue, and to the composition of sonnets for his pleasure." It is difficult to imagine how Michelangelo, with all his engagements, found the leisure to pursue these literary amusements. But Condivi's biography is the sole authentic source which we possess for the great master's own recollections of his past life. It is, therefore, not improbable that in the sentence I have quoted we may find some explanation of the want of finish observable in his productions at this point. Michelangelo was, to a large extent, a dreamer; and this single phrase throws light upon the expanse of time, the barren spaces, in his long laborious life. The poems we now possess by his pen are clearly the wreck of a vast multitude; and most of those accessible in manuscript and print belong to a later stage of his development. Still the fact remains that in early manhood he formed the habit of conversing with writers of Italian and of fashioning his own thoughts into rhyme. His was a nature capable indeed of vehement and fiery activity, but by constitution somewhat saturnine and sluggish, only energetic when powerfully stimulated; a meditative man, glad enough to be inert when not spurred forward on the path of strenuous achievement. And so, it seems, the literary bent took hold upon him as a relief from labour, as an excuse for temporary inaction. In his own art, the art of design, whether this assumed the form of sculpture or of painting or of architecture, he did nothing except at the highest pressure. All his accomplished work shows signs of the intensest cerebration. But he tried at times to slumber, sunk in a wise passiveness. Then he communed with the poets, the prophets, and the prose-writers of his country. We can well imagine, therefore, that, tired with the labours of the chisel or the brush, he gladly gave himself to composition, leaving half finished on his easel things which had for him their adequate accomplishment.

I think it necessary to make these suggestions, because, in my opinion, Michelangelo's inner life and his literary proclivities have been hitherto too much neglected in the scheme of his psychology. Dazzled by the splendour of his work, critics are content to skip spaces of months and years, during which the creative genius of the man smouldered. It is, as I shall try to show, in those intervals, dimly revealed to us by what remains of his poems and his correspondence, that the secret of this man, at once so tardy and so energetic; has to be discovered.

A great master of a different temperament, less solitary, less saturnine, less sluggish, would have formed a school, as Raffaello did. Michelangelo formed no school, and was incapable of confiding the execution of his designs to any subordinates. This is also a point of the highest importance to insist upon. Had he been other than he was—a gregarious man, contented with the a peu pres in art—he might have sent out all those twelve Apostles for the Duomo from his workshop. Raffaello would have done so; indeed, the work which bears his name in Rome could not have existed except under these conditions. Now nothing is left to us of the twelve Apostles except a rough-hewn sketch of S. Matthew. Michelangelo was unwilling or unable to organise a band of craftsmen fairly interpretative of his manner. When his own hand failed, or when he lost the passion for his labour, he left the thing unfinished. And much of this incompleteness in his life-work seems to me due to his being what I called a dreamer. He lacked the merely business faculty, the power of utilising hands and brains. He could not bring his genius into open market, and stamp inferior productions with his countersign. Willingly he retired into the solitude of his own self, to commune with great poets and to meditate upon high thoughts, while he indulged the emotions arising from forms of strength and beauty presented to his gaze upon the pathway of experience.



Among the many nephews whom Sixtus IV. had raised to eminence, the most distinguished was Giuliano della Rovere, Cardinal of S. Pietro in Vincoli, and Bishop of Ostia. This man possessed a fiery temper, indomitable energy, and the combative instinct which takes delight in fighting for its own sake. Nature intended him for a warrior; and, though circumstances made him chief of the Church, he discharged his duties as a Pontiff in the spirit of a general and a conqueror. When Julius II. was elected in November 1503, it became at once apparent that he intended to complete what his hated predecessors, the Borgias, had begun, by reducing to his sway all the provinces over which the See of Rome had any claims, and creating a central power in Italy. Unlike the Borgias, however, he entertained no plan of raising his own family to sovereignty at the expense of the Papal power. The Della Roveres were to be contented with their Duchy of Urbino, which came to them by inheritance from the Montefeltri. Julius dreamed of Italy for the Italians, united under the hegemony of the Supreme Pontiff, who from Rome extended his spiritual authority and political influence over the whole of Western Europe. It does not enter into the scheme of this book to relate the series of wars and alliances in which this belligerent Pope involved his country, and the final failure of his policy, so far as the liberation of Italy from the barbarians was concerned. Suffice it to say, that at the close of his stormy reign he had reduced the States of the Church to more or less complete obedience, bequeathing to his successors an ecclesiastical kingdom which the enfeebled condition of the peninsula at large enabled them to keep intact.

There was nothing petty or mean in Julius II.; his very faults bore a grandiose and heroic aspect. Turbulent, impatient, inordinate in his ambition, reckless in his choice of means, prolific of immense projects, for which a lifetime would have been too short, he filled the ten years of his pontificate with a din of incoherent deeds and vast schemes half accomplished. Such was the man who called Michelangelo to Rome at the commencement of 1505. Why the sculptor was willing to leave his Cartoon unfinished, and to break his engagement with the Operai del Duomo, remains a mystery. It is said that the illustrious architect, Giuliano da San Gallo, who had worked for Julius while he was cardinal, and was now his principal adviser upon matters of art, suggested to the Pope that Buonarroti could serve him admirably in his ambitious enterprises for the embellishment of the Eternal City. We do not know for certain whether Julius, when he summoned Michelangelo from Florence, had formed the design of engaging him upon a definite piece of work. The first weeks of his residence in Rome are said to have been spent in inactivity, until at last Julius proposed to erect a huge monument of marble for his own tomb.

Thus began the second and longest period of Michelangelo's art-industry. Henceforth he was destined to labour for a series of Popes, following their whims with distracted energies and a lamentable waste of time. The incompleteness which marks so much of his performance was due to the rapid succession of these imperious masters, each in turn careless about the schemes of his predecessor, and bent on using the artist's genius for his own profit. It is true that nowhere but in Rome could Michelangelo have received commissions on so vast a scale. Nevertheless we cannot but regret the fate which drove him to consume years of hampered industry upon what Condivi calls "the tragedy of Julius's tomb," upon quarrying and road-making for Leo X., upon the abortive plans at S. Lorenzo, and upon architectural and engineering works, which were not strictly within his province. At first it seemed as though fortune was about to smile on him. In Julius he found a patron who could understand and appreciate his powers. Between the two men there existed a strong bond of sympathy due to community of temperament. Both aimed at colossal achievements in their respective fields of action. The imagination of both was fired by large and simple rather than luxurious and subtle thoughts. Both were uomini terribili, to use a phrase denoting vigour of character and energy of genius, made formidable by an abrupt, uncompromising spirit. Both worked with what the Italians call fury, with the impetuosity of daemonic natures; and both left the impress of their individuality stamped indelibly upon their age. Julius, in all things grandiose, resolved to signalise his reign by great buildings, great sculpture, great pictorial schemes. There was nothing of the dilettante and collector about him. He wanted creation at a rapid rate and in enormous quantities. To indulge this craving, he gathered round him a band of demigods and Titans, led by Bramante, Raffaello, Michelangelo, and enjoyed the spectacle of a new world of art arising at his bidding through their industry of brain and hand.


What followed upon Michelangelo's arrival in Rome may be told in Condivi's words: "Having reached Rome, many months elapsed before Julius decided on what great work he would employ him. At last it occurred to him to use his genius in the construction of his own tomb. The design furnished by Michelangelo pleased the Pope so much that he sent him off immediately to Carrara, with commission to quarry as much marble as was needful for that undertaking. Two thousand ducats were put to his credit with Alamanni Salviati at Florence for expenses. He remained more than eight months among those mountains, with two servants and a horse, but without any salary except his keep. One day, while inspecting the locality, the fancy took him to convert a hill which commands the sea-shore into a Colossus, visible by mariners afar. The shape of the huge rock, which lent itself admirably to such a purpose, attracted him; and he was further moved to emulate the ancients, who, sojourning in the place peradventure with the same object as himself, in order to while away the time, or for some other motive, have left certain unfinished and rough-hewn monuments, which give a good specimen of their craft. And assuredly he would have carried out this scheme, if time enough had been at his disposal, or if the special purpose of his visit to Carrara had permitted. I one day heard him lament bitterly that he had not done so. Well, then, after quarrying and selecting the blocks which he deemed sufficient, he had them brought to the sea, and left a man of his to ship them off. He returned to Rome, and having stopped some days in Florence on the way, when he arrived there, he found that part of the marble had already reached the Ripa. There he had them disembarked, and carried to the Piazza of S. Peter's behind S. Caterina, where he kept his lodging, close to the corridor connecting the Palace with the Castle of S. Angelo. The quantity of stone was enormous, so that, when it was all spread out upon the square, it stirred amazement in the minds of most folk, but joy in the Pope's. Julius indeed began to heap favours upon Michelangelo; for when he had begun to work, the Pope used frequently to betake himself to his house, conversing there with him about the tomb, and about other works which he proposed to carry out in concert with one of his brothers. In order to arrive more conveniently at Michelangelo's lodgings, he had a drawbridge thrown across from the corridor, by which he might gain privy access."

The date of Michelangelo's return to Rome is fixed approximately by a contract signed at Carrara between him and two shipowners of Lavagna. This deed is dated November 12, 1505. It shows that thirty-four cartloads of marble were then ready for shipment, together with two figures weighing fifteen cartloads more. We have a right to assume that Michelangelo left Carrara soon after completing this transaction. Allowing, then, for the journey and the halt at Florence, he probably reached Rome in the last week of that month.


The first act in the tragedy of the sepulchre had now begun, and Michelangelo was embarked upon one of the mightiest undertakings which a sovereign of the stamp of Julius ever intrusted to a sculptor of his titanic energy. In order to form a conception of the magnitude of the enterprise, I am forced to enter into a discussion regarding the real nature of the monument. This offers innumerable difficulties, for we only possess imperfect notices regarding the original design, and two doubtful drawings belonging to an uncertain period. Still it is impossible to understand those changes in the Basilica of S. Peter's which were occasioned by the project of Julius, or to comprehend the immense annoyances to which the tomb exposed Michelangelo, without grappling with its details. Condivi's text must serve for guide. This, in fact, is the sole source of any positive value. He describes the tomb, as he believed it to have been first planned, in the following paragraph:—

"To give some notion of the monument, I will say that it was intended to have four faces: two of eighteen cubits, serving for the sides, and two of twelve for the ends, so that the whole formed one great square and a half. Surrounding it externally were niches to be filled with statues, and between each pair of niches stood terminal figures, to the front of which were attached on certain consoles projecting from the wall another set of statues bound like prisoners. These represented the Liberal Arts, and likewise Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, each with characteristic emblems, rendering their identification easy. The intention was to show that all the talents had been taken captive by death, together with Pope Julius, since never would they find another patron to cherish and encourage them as he had done. Above these figures ran a cornice, giving unity to the whole work. Upon the flat surface formed by this cornice were to be four large statues, one of which, that is, the Moses, now exists at S. Pietro ad Vincula. And so, arriving at the summit, the tomb ended in a level space, whereon were two angels who supported a sarcophagus. One of them appeared to smile, rejoicing that the soul of the Pope had been received among the blessed spirits; the other seemed to weep, as sorrowing that the world had been robbed of such a man. From one of the ends, that is, by the one which was at the head of the monument, access was given to a little chamber like a chapel, enclosed within the monument, in the midst of which was a marble chest, wherein the corpse of the Pope was meant to be deposited. The whole would have been executed with stupendous finish. In short, the sepulchre included more than forty statues, not counting the histories in half-reliefs, made of bronze, all of them pertinent to the general scheme and representative of the mighty Pontiff's actions."

Vasari's account differs in some minor details from Condivi's, but it is of no authoritative value. Not having appeared in the edition of 1550, we may regard it as a rechauffee of Condivi, with the usual sauce provided by the Aretine's imagination. The only addition I can discover which throws light upon Condivi's narrative is that the statues in the niches were meant to represent provinces conquered by Julius. This is important, because it leads us to conjecture that Vasari knew a drawing now preserved in the Uffizi, and sought, by its means, to add something to his predecessor's description. The drawing will occupy our attention shortly; but it may here be remarked that in 1505, the date of the first project, Julius was only entering upon his conquests. It would have been a gross act of flattery on the part of the sculptor, a flying in the face of Nemesis on the part of his patron, to design a sepulchre anticipating length of life and luck sufficient for these triumphs.

What then Condivi tells us about the first scheme is, that it was intended to stand isolated in the tribune of S. Peter's; that it formed a rectangle of a square and half a square; that the podium was adorned with statues in niches flanked by projecting dadoes supporting captive arts, ten in number; that at each corner of the platform above the podium a seated statue was placed, one of which we may safely identify with the Moses; and that above this, surmounting the whole monument by tiers, arose a second mass, culminating in a sarcophagus supported by two angels. He further adds that the tomb was entered at its extreme end by a door, which led to a little chamber where lay the body of the Pope, and that bronze bas-reliefs formed a prominent feature of the total scheme. He reckons that more than forty statues would have been required to complete the whole design, although he has only mentioned twenty-two of the most prominent.

More than this we do not know about the first project. We have no contracts and no sketches that can be referred to the date 1505. Much confusion has been introduced into the matter under consideration by the attempt to reconcile Condivi's description with the drawing I have just alluded to. Heath Wilson even used that drawing to impugn Condivi's accuracy with regard to the number of the captives, and the seated figures on the platform. The drawing in question, as we shall presently see, is of great importance for the subsequent history of the monument; and I believe that it to some extent preserves the general aspect which the tomb, as first designed, was intended to present. Two points about it, however, prevent our taking it as a true guide to Michelangelo's original conception. One is that it is clearly only part of a larger scheme of composition. The other is that it shows a sarcophagus, not supported by angels, but posed upon the platform. Moreover, it corresponds to the declaration appended in 1513 by Michelangelo to the first extant document we possess about the tomb.

Julius died in February 1513, leaving, it is said, to his executors directions that his sepulchre should not be carried out upon the first colossal plan. If he did so, they seem at the beginning of their trust to have disregarded his intentions. Michelangelo expressly states in one of his letters that the Cardinal of Agen wished to proceed with the tomb, but on a larger scale. A deed dated May 6, 1513, was signed, at the end of which Michelangelo specified the details of the new design. It differed from the former in many important respects, but most of all in the fact that now the structure was to be attached to the wall of the church. I cannot do better than translate Michelangelo's specifications. They run as follows: "Let it be known to all men that I, Michelangelo, sculptor of Florence, undertake to execute the sepulchre of Pope Julius in marble, on the commission of the Cardinal of Agens and the Datary (Pucci), who, after his death, have been appointed to complete this work, for the sum of 16,500 golden ducats of the Camera; and the composition of the said sepulchre is to be in the form ensuing: A rectangle visible from three of its sides, the fourth of which is attached to the wall and cannot be seen. The front face, that is, the head of this rectangle, shall be twenty palms in breadth and fourteen in height, the other two, running up against the wall, shall be thirty-five palms long and likewise fourteen palms in height. Each of these three sides shall contain two tabernacles, resting on a basement which shall run round the said space, and shall be adorned with pilasters, architrave, frieze, and cornice, as appears in the little wooden model. In each of the said six tabernacles will be placed two figures about one palm taller than life (i.e., 6-3/4 feet), twelve in all; and in front of each pilaster which flanks a tabernacle shall stand a figure of similar size, twelve in all. On the platform above the said rectangular structure stands a sarcophagus with four feet, as may be seen in the model, upon which will be Pope Julius sustained by two angels at his head, with two at his feet; making five figures on the sarcophagus, all larger than life, that is, about twice the size. Round about the said sarcophagus will be placed six dadoes or pedestals, on which six figures of the same dimensions will sit. Furthermore, from the platform, where it joins the wall, springs a little chapel about thirty-five palms high (26 feet 3 inches), which shall contain five figures larger than all the rest, as being farther from the eye. Moreover, there shall be three histories, either of bronze or of marble, as may please the said executors, introduced on each face of the tomb between one tabernacle and another." All this Michelangelo undertook to execute in seven years for the stipulated sum.

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