The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti
by John Addington Symonds
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There is something ignoble in the task of recording rivalries and jealousies between artists and men of letters. Genius, however, like all things that are merely ours and mortal, shuffles along the path of life, half flying on the wings of inspiration, half hobbling on the feet of interest the crutches of commissions. Michelangelo, although he made the David and the Sistine, had also to make money. He was entangled with shrewd men of business, and crafty spendthrifts, ambitious intriguers, folk who used undoubted talents, each in its kind excellent and pure, for baser purposes of gain or getting on. The art-life of Rome seethed with such blood-poison; and it would be sentimental to neglect what entered so deeply and so painfully into the daily experience of our hero. Raffaello, kneaded of softer and more facile clay than Michelangelo, throve in this environment, and was somehow able—so it seems—to turn its venom to sweet uses. I like to think of the two peers, moving like stars on widely separated orbits, with radically diverse temperaments, proclivities, and habits, through the turbid atmosphere enveloping but not obscuring their lucidity. Each, in his own way, as it seems to me, contrived to keep himself unspotted by the world; and if they did not understand one another and make friends, this was due to the different conceptions they were framed to take of life the one being the exact antipodes to the other.


Postponing descriptive or aesthetic criticism of the Sistine frescoes, I shall proceed with the narration of their gradual completion. We have few documents to guide us through the period of time which elapsed between the first uncovering of Michelangelo's work on the roof of the Sistine (November 1, 1509) and its ultimate accomplishment (October 1512). His domestic correspondence is abundant, and will be used in its proper place; but nothing transpires from those pages of affection, anger, and financial negotiation to throw light upon the working of the master's mind while he was busied in creating the sibyls and prophets, the episodes and idyls, which carried his great Bible of the Fate of Man downwards through the vaulting to a point at which the Last Judgment had to be presented as a crowning climax. For, the anxious student of his mind and life-work, nothing is more desolating than the impassive silence he maintains about his doings as an artist. He might have told us all we want to know, and never shall know here about them. But while he revealed his personal temperament and his passions with singular frankness, he locked up the secret of his art, and said nothing.

Eventually we must endeavour to grasp Michelangelo's work in the Sistine as a whole, although it was carried out at distant epochs of his life. For this reason I have thrown these sentences forward, in order to embrace a wide span of his artistic energy (from May 10, 1508, to perhaps December 1541). There is, to my mind, a unity of conception between the history depicted on the vault, the prophets and forecomers on the pendentives, the types selected for the spandrels, and the final spectacle of the day of doom. Living, as he needs must do, under the category of time, Michelangelo was unable to execute his stupendous picture-book of human destiny in one sustained manner. Years passed over him of thwarted endeavour and distracted energies—years of quarrying and sculpturing, of engineering and obeying the vagaries of successive Popes. Therefore, when he came at last to paint the Last Judgment, he was a worn man, exhausted in services of many divers sorts. And, what is most perplexing to the reconstructive critic, nothing in his correspondence remains to indicate the stages of his labour. The letters tell plenty about domestic anxieties, annoyances in his poor craftsman's household, purchases of farms, indignant remonstrances with stupid brethren; but we find in them, as I have said, no clue to guide us through that mental labyrinth in which the supreme artist was continually walking, and at the end of which he left to us the Sistine as it now is.


The old reckoning of the time consumed by Michelangelo in painting the roof of the Sistine, and the traditions concerning his mode of work there, are clearly fabulous. Condivi says: "He finished the whole in twenty months, without having any assistance whatsoever, not even of a man to grind his colours." From a letter of September 7, 1510, we learn that the scaffolding was going to be put up again, and that he was preparing to work upon the lower portion of the vaulting. Nearly two years elapse before we hear of it again. He writes to Buonarroto on the 24th of July 1512: "I am suffering greater hardships than ever man endured, ill, and with overwhelming labour; still I put up with all in order to reach the desired end." Another letter on the 21st of August shows that he expects to complete his work at the end of September; and at last, in October, he writes to his father: "I have finished the chapel I was painting. The Pope is very well satisfied." On the calculation that he began the first part on May 10, 1508, and finished the whole in October 1512, four years and a half were employed upon the work. A considerable part of this time was of course taken up with the preparation of Cartoons; and the nature of fresco-painting rendered the winter months not always fit for active labour. The climate of Rome is not so mild but that wet plaster might often freeze and crack during December, January, and February. Besides, with all his superhuman energy, Michelangelo could not have painted straight on daily without rest or stop. It seems, too, that the master was often in need of money, and that he made two journeys to the Pope to beg for supplies. In the letter to Fattucci he says: "When the vault was nearly finished, the Pope was again at Bologna; whereupon, I went twice to get the necessary funds, and obtained nothing, and lost all that time until I came back to Rome. When I reached Rome, I began to make Cartoons—that is, for the ends and sides of the said chapel, hoping to get money at last and to complete the work. I never could extract a farthing; and when I complained one day to Messer Bernardo da Bibbiena and to Atalante, representing that I could not stop longer in Rome, and that I should be forced to go away with God's grace, Messer Bernardo told Atalante he must bear this in mind, for that he wished me to have money, whatever happened." When we consider, then, the magnitude of the undertaking, the arduous nature of the preparatory studies, and the waste of time in journeys and through other hindrances, four and a half years are not too long a period for a man working so much alone as Michelangelo was wont to do.

We have reason to believe that, after all, the frescoes of the Sistine were not finished in their details. "It is true," continues Condivi, "that I have heard him say he was not suffered to complete the work according to his wish. The Pope, in his impatience, asked him one day when he would be ready with the Chapel, and he answered: 'When I shall be able.' To which his Holiness replied in a rage: 'You want to make me hurl you from that scaffold!' Michelangelo heard and remembered, muttering: 'That you shall not do to me.' So he went straightway, and had the scaffolding taken down. The frescoes were exposed to view on All Saints' day, to the great satisfaction of the Pope, who went that day to service there, while all Rome flocked together to admire them. What Michelangelo felt forced to leave undone was the retouching of certain parts with ultramarine upon dry ground, and also some gilding, to give the whole a richer effect. Giulio, when his heat cooled down, wanted Michelangelo to make these last additions; but he, considering the trouble it would be to build up all that scaffolding afresh, observed that what was missing mattered little. 'You ought at least to touch it up with gold,' replied the Pope; and Michelangelo, with that familiarity he used toward his Holiness, said carelessly: 'I have not observed that men wore gold.' The Pope rejoined: 'It will look poor.' Buonarroti added: 'Those who are painted there were poor men.' So the matter turned into pleasantry, and the frescoes have remained in their present state." Condivi goes on to state that Michelangelo received 3000 ducats for all his expenses, and that he spent as much as twenty or twenty-five ducats on colours alone. Upon the difficult question of the moneys earned by the great artist in his life-work, I shall have to speak hereafter, though I doubt whether any really satisfactory account can now be given of them.


Michelangelo's letters to his family in Florence throw a light at once vivid and painful over the circumstances of his life during these years of sustained creative energy. He was uncomfortable in his bachelor's home, and always in difficulties with his servants. "I am living here in discontent, not thoroughly well, and undergoing great fatigue, without money, and with no one to look after me." Again, when one of his brothers proposed to visit him in Rome, he writes: "I hear that Gismondo means to come hither on his affairs. Tell him not to count on me for anything; not because I do not love him as a brother, but because I am not in the position to assist him. I am bound to care for myself first, and I cannot provide myself with necessaries. I live here in great distress and the utmost bodily fatigue, have no friends, and seek none. I have not even time enough to eat what I require. Therefore let no additional burdens be put upon me, for I could not bear another ounce." In the autumn of 1509 he corresponded with his father about the severe illness of an assistant workman whom he kept, and also about a boy he wanted sent from Florence. "I should be glad if you could hear of some lad at Florence, the son of good parents and poor, used to hardships, who would be willing to come and live with me here, to do the work of the house, buy what I want, and go around on messages; in his leisure time he could learn. Should such a boy be found, please let me know; because there are only rogues here, and I am in great need of some one." All through his life, Michelangelo adopted the plan of keeping a young fellow to act as general servant, and at the same time to help in art-work. Three of these servants are interwoven with the chief events of his later years, Pietro Urbano, Antonio Mini, and Francesco d'Amadore, called Urbino, the last of whom became his faithful and attached friend till death parted them. Women about the house he could not bear. Of the serving-maids at Rome he says: "They are all strumpets and swine." Well, it seems that Lodovico found a boy, and sent him off to Rome. What followed is related in the next letter. "As regards the boy you sent me, that rascal of a muleteer cheated me out of a ducat for his journey. He swore that the bargain had been made for two broad golden ducats, whereas all the lads who come here with the muleteers pay only ten carlins. I was more angry at this than if I had lost twenty-five ducats, because I saw that his father had resolved to send him on mule-back like a gentleman. Oh, I had never such good luck, not I! Then both the father and the lad promised that he would do everything, attend to the mule, and sleep upon the ground, if it was wanted. And now I am obliged to look after him. As if I needed more worries than the one I have had ever since I arrived here! My apprentice, whom I left in Rome, has been ill from the day on which I returned until now. It is true that he is getting better; but he lay for about a month in peril of his life, despaired of by the doctors, and I never went to bed. There are other annoyances of my own; and now I have the nuisance of this lad, who says that he does not want to waste time, that he wants to study, and so on. At Florence he said he would be satisfied with two or three hours a day. Now the whole day is not enough for him, but he must needs be drawing all the night. It is all the fault of what his father tells him. If I complained, he would say that I did not want him to learn. I really require some one to take care of the house; and if the boy had no mind for this sort of work, they ought not to have put me to expense. But they are good-for-nothing, and are working toward a certain end of their own. Enough, I beg you to relieve me of the boy; he has bored me so that I cannot bear it any longer. The muleteer has been so well paid that he can very well take him back to Florence. Besides, he is a friend of the father. Tell the father to send for him home. I shall not pay another farthing. I have no money. I will have patience till he sends; and if he does not send, I will turn the boy out of doors. I did so already on the second day of his arrival, and other times also, and the father does not believe it.

"P.S.—If you talk to the father of the lad, put the matter to him nicely: as that he is a good boy, but too refined, and not fit for my service, and say that he had better send for him home."

The repentant postscript is eminently characteristic of Michelangelo. He used to write in haste, apparently just as the thoughts came. Afterwards he read his letter over, and softened its contents down, if he did not, as sometimes happened, feel that his meaning required enforcement; in that case he added a stinging tail to the epigram. How little he could manage the people in his employ is clear from the last notice we possess about the unlucky lad from Florence. "I wrote about the boy, to say that his father ought to send for him, and that I would not disburse more money. This I now confirm. The driver is paid to take him back. At Florence he will do well enough, learning his trade and dwelling with his parents. Here he is not worth a farthing, and makes me toil like a beast of burden; and my other apprentice has not left his bed. It is true that I have not got him in the house; for when I was so tired out that I could not bear it, I sent him to the room of a brother of his. I have no money."

These household difficulties were a trifle, however, compared with the annoyances caused by the stupidity of his father and the greediness of his brothers. While living like a poor man in Rome, he kept continually thinking of their welfare. The letters of this period are full of references to the purchase of land, the transmission of cash when it was to be had, and the establishment of Buonarroto in a draper's business. They, on their part, were never satisfied, and repaid his kindness with ingratitude. The following letter to Giovan Simone shows how terrible Michelangelo could be when he detected baseness in a brother:—

"Giovan Simone,—It is said that when one does good to a good man, he makes him become better, but that a bad man becomes worse. It is now many years that I have been endeavouring with words and deeds of kindness to bring you to live honestly and in peace with your father and the rest of us. You grow continually worse. I do not say that you are a scoundrel; but you are of such sort that you have ceased to give satisfaction to me or anybody. I could read you a long lesson on your ways of living; but they would be idle words, like all the rest that I have wasted. To cut the matter short, I will tell you as a fact beyond all question that you have nothing in the world: what you spend and your house-room, I give you, and have given you these many years, for the love of God, believing you to be my brother like the rest. Now, I am sure that you are not my brother, else you would not threaten my father. Nay, you are a beast; and as a beast I mean to treat you. Know that he who sees his father threatened or roughly handled is bound to risk his own life in this cause. Let that suffice. I repeat that you have nothing in the world; and if I hear the least thing about your ways of going on, I will come to Florence by the post, and show you how far wrong you are, and teach you to waste your substance, and set fire to houses and farms you have not earned. Indeed you are not where you think yourself to be. If I come, I will open your eyes to what will make you weep hot tears, and recognise on what false grounds you base your arrogance.

"I have something else to say to you, which I have said before. If you will endeavour to live rightly, and to honour and revere your father, I am willing to help you like the rest, and will put it shortly within your power to open a good shop. If you act otherwise, I shall come and settle your affairs in such a way that you will recognise what you are better than you ever did, and will know what you have to call your own, and will have it shown to you in every place where you may go. No more. What I lack in words I will supply with deeds.

"Michelangelo in Rome.

"I cannot refrain from adding a couple of lines. It is as follows. I have gone these twelve years past drudging about through Italy, borne every shame, suffered every hardship, worn my body out in every toil, put my life to a thousand hazards, and all with the sole purpose of helping the fortunes of my family. Now that I have begun to raise it up a little, you only, you alone, choose to destroy and bring to ruin in one hour what it has cost me so many years and such labour to build up. By Christ's body this shall not be; for I am the man to put to the rout ten thousand of your sort, whenever it be needed. Be wise in time, then, and do not try the patience of one who has other things to vex him."

Even Buonarroto, who was the best of the brothers and dearest to his heart, hurt him by his graspingness and want of truth. He had been staying at Rome on a visit, and when he returned to Florence it appears that he bragged about his wealth, as if the sums expended on the Buonarroti farms were not part of Michelangelo's earnings. The consequence was that he received a stinging rebuke from his elder brother. "The said Michele told me you mentioned to him having spent about sixty ducats at Settignano. I remember your saying here too at table that you had disbursed a large sum out of your own pocket. I pretended not to understand, and did not feel the least surprise, because I know you. I should like to hear from your ingratitude out of what money you gained them. If you had enough sense to know the truth, you would not say: 'I spent so and so much of my own;' also you would not have come here to push your affairs with me, seeing how I have always acted toward you in the past, but would have rather said: 'Michelangelo remembers what he wrote to us, and if he does not now do what he promised, he must be prevented by something of which we are ignorant,' and then have kept your peace; because it is not well to spur the horse that runs as fast as he is able, and more than he is able. But you have never known me, and do not know me. God pardon you; for it is He who granted me the grace to bear what I do bear and have borne, in order that you might be helped. Well, you will know me when you have lost me."

Michelangelo's angry moods rapidly cooled down. At the bottom of his heart lay a deep and abiding love for his family. There is something caressing in the tone with which he replies to grumbling letters from his father. "Do not vex yourself. God did not make us to abandon us." "If you want me, I will take the post, and be with you in two days. Men are worth more than money." His warm affection transpires even more clearly in the two following documents:

"I should like you to be thoroughly convinced that all the labours I have ever undergone have not been more for myself than for your sake. What I have bought, I bought to be yours so long as you live. If you had not been here, I should have bought nothing. Therefore, if you wish to let the house and farm, do so at your pleasure. This income, together with what I shall give you, will enable you to live like a lord." At a time when Lodovico was much exercised in his mind and spirits by a lawsuit, his son writes to comfort the old man. "Do not be discomfited, nor give yourself an ounce of sadness. Remember that losing money is not losing one's life. I will more than make up to you what you must lose. Yet do not attach too much value to worldly goods, for they are by nature untrustworthy. Thank God that this trial, if it was bound to come, came at a time when you have more resources than you had in years past. Look to preserving your life and health, but let your fortunes go to ruin rather than suffer hardships; for I would sooner have you alive and poor; if you were dead, I should not care for all the gold in the world. If those chatterboxes or any one else reprove you, let them talk, for they are men without intelligence and without affection."

References to public events are singularly scanty in this correspondence. Much as Michelangelo felt the woes of Italy—and we know he did so by his poems—he talked but little, doing his work daily like a wise man all through the dust and din stirred up by Julius and the League of Cambrai. The lights and shadows of Italian experience at that time are intensely dramatic. We must not altogether forget the vicissitudes of war, plague, and foreign invasion, which exhausted the country, while its greatest men continued to produce immortal masterpieces. Aldo Manuzio was quietly printing his complete edition of Plato, and Michelangelo was transferring the noble figure of a prophet or a sibyl to the plaster of the Sistine, while young Gaston de Foix was dying at the point of victory upon the bloody shores of the Ronco. Sometimes, however, the disasters of his country touched Michelangelo so nearly that he had to write or speak about them. After the battle of Ravenna, on the 11th of April 1512, Raimondo de Cardona and his Spanish troops brought back the Medici to Florence. On their way, the little town of Prato was sacked with a barbarity which sent a shudder through the whole peninsula. The Cardinal Giovanni de' Medici, who entered Florence on the 14th of September, established his nephews as despots in the city, and intimidated the burghers by what looked likely to be a reign of terror. These facts account for the uneasy tone of a letter written by Michelangelo to Buonarroto. Prato had been taken by assault upon the 30th of August, and was now prostrate after those hideous days of torment, massacre, and outrage indescribable which followed. In these circumstances Michelangelo advises his family to "escape into a place of safety, abandoning their household gear and property; for life is far more worth than money." If they are in need of cash, they may draw upon his credit with the Spedalingo of S. Maria Novella. The constitutional liability to panic which must be recognised in Michelangelo emerges at the close of the letter. "As to public events, do not meddle with them either by deed or word. Act as though the plague were raging. Be the first to fly." The Buonarroti did not take his advice, but remained at Florence, enduring agonies of terror. It was a time when disaffection toward the Medicean princes exposed men to risking life and limb. Rumours reached Lodovico that his son had talked imprudently at Rome. He wrote to inquire what truth there was in the report, and Michelangelo replied: "With regard to the Medici, I have never spoken a single word against them, except in the way that everybody talks—as, for instance, about the sack of Prato; for if the stones could have cried out, I think they would have spoken. There have been many other things said since then, to which, when I heard them, I have answered: 'If they are really acting in this way, they are doing wrong;' not that I believed the reports; and God grant they are not true. About a month ago, some one who makes a show of friendship for me spoke very evilly about their deeds. I rebuked him, told him that it was not well to talk so, and begged him not to do so again to me. However, I should like Buonarroto quietly to find out how the rumour arose of my having calumniated the Medici; for if it is some one who pretends to be my friend, I ought to be upon my guard."

The Buonarroti family, though well affected toward Savonarola, were connected by many ties of interest and old association with the Medici, and were not powerful enough to be the mark of violent political persecution. Nevertheless, a fine was laid upon them by the newly restored Government. This drew forth the following epistle from Michelangelo:—

"Dearest Father,—Your last informs me how things are going on at Florence, though I already knew something. We must have patience, commit ourselves to God, and repent of our sins; for these trials are solely due to them, and more particularly to pride and ingratitude. I never conversed with a people more ungrateful and puffed up than the Florentines. Therefore, if judgment comes, it is but right and reasonable. As for the sixty ducats you tell me you are fined, I think this a scurvy trick, and am exceedingly annoyed. However, we must have patience as long as it pleases God. I will write and enclose two lines to Giuliano de' Medici. Read them, and if you like to present them to him, do so; you will see whether they are likely to be of any use. If not, consider whether we can sell our property and go to live elsewhere.... Look to your life and health; and if you cannot share the honours of the land like other burghers, be contented that bread does not fail you, and live well with Christ, and poorly, as I do here; for I live in a sordid way, regarding neither life nor honours—that is, the world—and suffer the greatest hardships and innumerable anxieties and dreads. It is now about fifteen years since I had a single hour of well-being, and all that I have done has been to help you, and you have never recognised this nor believed it. God pardon us all! I am ready to go on doing the same so long as I live, if only I am able."

We have reason to believe that the petition to Giuliano proved effectual, for in his next letter he congratulates his father upon their being restored to favour. In the same communication he mentions a young Spanish painter whom he knew in Rome, and whom he believes to be ill at Florence. This was probably the Alonso Berughetta who made a copy of the Cartoon for the Battle of Pisa. In July 1508 Michelangelo wrote twice about a Spaniard who wanted leave to study the Cartoon; first begging Buonarroto to procure the keys for him, and afterwards saying that he is glad to hear that the permission was refused. It does not appear certain whether this was the same Alonso; but it is interesting to find that Michelangelo disliked his Cartoon being copied. We also learn from these letters that the Battle of Pisa then remained in the Sala del Papa.


I will conclude this chapter by translating a sonnet addressed to Giovanni da Pistoja, in which Michelangelo humorously describes the discomforts he endured while engaged upon the Sistine. Condivi tells us that from painting so long in a strained attitude, gazing up at the vault, he lost for some time the power of reading except when he lifted the paper above his head and raised his eyes. Vasari corroborates the narrative from his own experience in the vast halls of the Medicean palace.

I've grown a goitre by dwelling in this den— As cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy, Or in what other land they hap to be— Which drives the belly close beneath the chin: My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in, Fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly Grows like a harp: a rich embroidery Bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin. My loins into my paunch like levers grind: My buttock like a crupper bears my weight; My feet unguided wander to and fro; In front my skin grows loose and long; behind, By bending it becomes more taut and strait; Crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bow: Whence false and quaint, I know, Must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye; For ill can aim the gun that bends awry. Come then, Giovanni, try To succour my dead pictures and my fame, Since foul I fare and painting is my shame.



The Sistine Chapel was built in 1473 by Baccio Pontelli, a Florentine architect, for Pope Sixtus IV. It is a simple barn-like chamber, 132 feet in length, 44 in breadth, and 68 in height from the pavement. The ceiling consists of one expansive flattened vault, the central portion of which offers a large plane surface, well adapted to fresco decoration. The building is lighted by twelve windows, six upon each side of its length. These are placed high up, their rounded arches running parallel with the first spring of the vaulting. The ends of the chapel are closed by flat walls, against the western of which is raised the altar.

When Michelangelo was called to paint here, he found both sides of the building, just below the windows, decorated in fresco by Perugino, Cosimo Rosselli, Sandro Botticelli, Luca Signorelli, and Domenico Ghirlandajo. These masters had depicted, in a series of twelve subjects, the history of Moses and the life of Jesus. Above the lines of fresco, in the spaces between the windows and along the eastern end at the same height, Botticelli painted a row of twenty-eight Popes. The spaces below the frescoed histories, down to the seats which ran along the pavement, were blank, waiting for the tapestries which Raffaello afterwards supplied from cartoons now in possession of the English Crown. At the west end, above the altar, shone three decorative frescoes by Perugino, representing the Assumption of the Virgin, between the finding of Moses and the Nativity. The two last of these pictures opened respectively the history of Moses and the life of Christ, so that the Old and New Testaments were equally illustrated upon the Chapel walls. At the opposite, or eastern end, Ghirlandajo painted the Resurrection, and there was a corresponding picture of Michael contending with Satan for the body of Moses.

Such was the aspect of the Sistine Chapel when Michelangelo began his great work. Perugino's three frescoes on the west wall were afterwards demolished to make room for his Last Judgment. The two frescoes on the east wall are now poor pictures by very inferior masters; but the twelve Scripture histories and Botticelli's twenty-eight Popes remain from the last years of the fifteenth century.

Taken in their aggregate, the wall-paintings I have described afforded a fair sample of Umbrian and Tuscan art in its middle or quattrocento age of evolution. It remained for Buonarroti to cover the vault and the whole western end with masterpieces displaying what Vasari called the "modern" style in its most sublime and imposing manifestation. At the same time he closed the cycle of the figurative arts, and rendered any further progress on the same lines impossible. The growth which began with Niccolo of Pisa and with Cimabue, which advanced through Giotto and his school, Perugino and Pinturicchio, Piero della Francesca and Signorelli, Fra Angelico and Benozzo Gozzoli, the Ghirlandajo brothers, the Lippi and Botticelli, effloresced in Michelangelo, leaving nothing for aftercomers but manneristic imitation.


Michelangelo, instinctively and on principle, reacted against the decorative methods of the fifteenth century. If he had to paint a biblical or mythological subject, he avoided landscapes, trees, flowers, birds, beasts, and subordinate groups of figures. He eschewed the arabesques, the labyrinths of foliage and fruit enclosing pictured panels, the candelabra and gay bands of variegated patterns, which enabled a quattrocento painter, like Gozzoli or Pinturicchio, to produce brilliant and harmonious general effects at a small expenditure of intellectual energy. Where the human body struck the keynote of the music in a work of art, he judged that such simple adjuncts and naive concessions to the pleasure of the eye should be avoided. An architectural foundation for the plastic forms to rest on, as plain in structure and as grandiose in line as could be fashioned, must suffice. These principles he put immediately to the test in his first decorative undertaking. For the vault of the Sistine he designed a mighty architectural framework in the form of a hypaethral temple, suspended in the air on jutting pilasters, with bold cornices, projecting brackets, and ribbed arches flung across the void of heaven. Since the whole of this ideal building was painted upon plaster, its inconsequence, want of support, and disconnection from the ground-plan of the chapel do not strike the mind. It is felt to be a mere basis for the display of pictorial art, the theatre for a thousand shapes of dignity and beauty.

I have called this imaginary temple hypaethral, because the master left nine openings in the flattened surface of the central vault. They are unequal in size, five being short parallelograms, and four being spaces of the same shape but twice their length. Through these the eye is supposed to pierce the roof and discover the unfettered region of the heavens. But here again Michelangelo betrayed the inconsequence of his invention. He filled the spaces in question with nine dominant paintings, representing the history of the Creation, the Fall, and the Deluge. Taking our position at the west end of the chapel and looking upwards, we see in the first compartment God dividing light from darkness; in the second, creating the sun and the moon and the solid earth; in the third, animating the ocean with His brooding influence; in the fourth, creating Adam; in the fifth, creating Eve. The sixth represents the temptation of our first parents and their expulsion from Paradise. The seventh shows Noah's sacrifice before entering the ark; the eighth depicts the Deluge, and the ninth the drunkenness of Noah. It is clear that, between the architectural conception of a roof opening on the skies and these pictures of events which happened upon earth, there is no logical connection. Indeed, Michelangelo's new system of decoration bordered dangerously upon the barocco style, and contained within itself the germs of a vicious mannerism.

It would be captious and unjust to push this criticism home. The architectural setting provided for the figures and the pictures of the Sistine vault is so obviously conventional, every point of vantage has been so skilfully appropriated to plastic uses, every square inch of the ideal building becomes so naturally, and without confusion, a pedestal for the human form, that we are lost in wonder at the synthetic imagination which here for the first time combined the arts of architecture, sculpture, and painting in a single organism. Each part of the immense composition, down to the smallest detail, is necessary to the total effect. We are in the presence of a most complicated yet mathematically ordered scheme, which owes life and animation to one master-thought. In spite of its complexity and scientific precision, the vault of the Sistine does not strike the mind as being artificial or worked out by calculation, but as being predestined to existence, inevitable, a cosmos instinct with vitality.

On the pendentives between the spaces of the windows, running up to the ends of each of the five lesser pictures, Michelangelo placed alternate prophets and sibyls upon firm projecting consoles. Five sibyls and five prophets run along the side-walls of the chapel. The end-walls sustain each of them a prophet. These twelve figures are introduced as heralds and pioneers of Christ the Saviour, whose presence on the earth is demanded by the fall of man and the renewal of sin after the Deluge. In the lunettes above the windows and the arched recesses or spandrels over them are depicted scenes setting forth the genealogy of Christ and of His Mother. At each of the four corner-spandrels of the ceiling, Michelangelo painted, in spaces of a very peculiar shape and on a surface of embarrassing inequality, one magnificent subject symbolical of man's redemption. The first is the raising of the Brazen Serpent in the wilderness; the second, the punishment of Haman; the third, the victory of David over Goliath; the fourth, Judith with the head of Holofernes.

Thus, with a profound knowledge of the Bible, and with an intense feeling for religious symbolism, Michelangelo unrolled the history of the creation of the world and man, the entrance of sin into the human heart, the punishment of sin by water, and the reappearance of sin in Noah's family. Having done this, he intimated, by means of four special mercies granted to the Jewish people—types and symbols of God's indulgence—that a Saviour would arise to redeem the erring human race. In confirmation of this promise, he called twelve potent witnesses, seven of the Hebrew prophets and five of the Pagan sibyls. He made appeal to history, and set around the thrones on which these witnesses are seated scenes detached from the actual lives of our Lord's human ancestors.

The intellectual power of this conception is at least equal to the majesty and sublime strength of its artistic presentation. An awful sense of coming doom and merited damnation hangs in the thunderous canopy of the Sistine vault, tempered by a solemn and sober expectation of the Saviour. It is much to be regretted that Christ, the Desired of all Nations, the Redeemer and Atoner, appears nowhere adequately represented in the Chapel. When Michelangelo resumed his work there, it was to portray him as an angered Hercules, hurling curses upon helpless victims. The August rhetoric of the ceiling loses its effective value when we can nowhere point to Christ's life and work on earth; when there is no picture of the Nativity, none of the Crucifixion, none of the Resurrection; and when the feeble panels of a Perugino and a Cosimo Rosselli are crushed into insignificance by the terrible Last Judgment. In spite of Buonarroti's great creative strength, and injuriously to his real feeling as a Christian, the piecemeal production which governs all large art undertakings results here in a maimed and one-sided rendering of what theologians call the Scheme of Salvation.


So much has been written about the pictorial beauty, the sublime imagination, the dramatic energy, the profound significance, the exact science, the shy graces, the terrible force, and finally the vivid powers of characterisation displayed in these frescoes, that I feel it would be impertinent to attempt a new discourse upon a theme so time-worn. I must content myself with referring to what I have already published, which will, I hope, be sufficient to demonstrate that I do not avoid the task for want of enthusiasm. The study of much rhetorical criticism makes me feel strongly that, in front of certain masterpieces, silence is best, or, in lieu of silence, some simple pregnant sayings, capable of rousing folk to independent observation.

These convictions need not prevent me, however, from fixing attention upon a subordinate matter, but one which has the most important bearing upon Michelangelo's genius. After designing the architectural theatre which I have attempted to describe, and filling its main spaces with the vast religious drama he unrolled symbolically in a series of primeval scenes, statuesque figures, and countless minor groups contributing to one intellectual conception, he proceeded to charge the interspaces—all that is usually left for facile decorative details—with an army of passionately felt and wonderfully executed nudes, forms of youths and children, naked or half draped, in every conceivable posture and with every possible variety of facial type and expression. On pedestals, cornices, medallions, tympanums, in the angles made by arches, wherever a vacant plane or unused curve was found, he set these vivid transcripts from humanity in action. We need not stop to inquire what he intended by that host of plastic shapes evoked from his imagination. The triumphant leaders of the crew, the twenty lads who sit upon their consoles, sustaining medallions by ribands which they lift, have been variously and inconclusively interpreted. In the long row of Michelangelo's creations, those young men are perhaps the most significant—athletic adolescents, with faces of feminine delicacy and poignant fascination. But it serves no purpose to inquire what they symbolise. If we did so, we should have to go further, and ask, What do the bronze figures below them, twisted into the boldest attitudes the human frame can take, or the twinned children on the pedestals, signify? In this region, the region of pure plastic play, when art drops the wand of the interpreter and allows physical beauty to be a law unto itself, Michelangelo demonstrated that no decorative element in the hand of a really supreme master is equal to the nude.

Previous artists, with a strong instinct for plastic as opposed to merely picturesque effect, had worked upon the same line. Donatello revelled in the rhythmic dance and stationary grace of children. Luca Signorelli initiated the plan of treating complex ornament by means of the mere human body; and for this reason, in order to define the position of Michelangelo in Italian art-history, I shall devote the next section of this chapter to Luca's work at Orvieto. But Buonarroti in the Sistine carried their suggestions to completion. The result is a mapped-out chart of living figures—a vast pattern, each detail of which is a masterpiece of modelling. After we have grasped the intellectual content of the whole, the message it was meant to inculcate, the spiritual meaning present to the maker's mind, we discover that, in the sphere of artistic accomplishment, as distinct from intellectual suggestion, one rhythm of purely figurative beauty has been carried throughout—from God creating Adam to the boy who waves his torch above the censer of the Erythrean sibyl.


Of all previous painters, only Luca Signorelli deserves to be called the forerunner of Michelangelo, and his Chapel of S. Brizio in the Cathedral at Orvieto in some remarkable respects anticipates the Sistine. This eminent master was commissioned in 1499 to finish its decoration, a small portion of which had been begun by Fra Angelico. He completed the whole Chapel within the space of two years; so that the young Michelangelo, upon one of his journeys to or from Rome, may probably have seen the frescoes in their glory. Although no visit to Orvieto is recorded by his biographers, the fame of these masterpieces by a man whose work at Florence had already influenced his youthful genius must certainly have attracted him to a city which lay on the direct route from Tuscany to the Campagna.

The four walls of the Chapel of S. Brizio are covered with paintings setting forth events immediately preceding and following the day of judgment. A succession of panels, differing in size and shape, represent the preaching of Antichrist, the destruction of the world by fire, the resurrection of the body, the condemnation of the lost, the reception of saved souls into bliss, and the final states of heaven and hell. These main subjects occupy the upper spaces of each wall, while below them are placed portraits of poets, surrounded by rich and fanciful arabesques, including various episodes from Dante and antique mythology. Obeying the spirit of the fifteenth century, Signorelli did not aim at what may be termed an architectural effect in his decoration of this building. Each panel of the whole is treated separately, and with very unequal energy, the artist seeming to exert his strength chiefly in those details which made demands on his profound knowledge of the human form and his enthusiasm for the nude. The men and women of the Resurrection, the sublime angels of Heaven and of the Judgment, the discoloured and degraded fiends of Hell, the magnificently foreshortened clothed figures of the Fulminati, the portraits in the preaching of Antichrist, reveal Luca's specific quality as a painter, at once impressively imaginative and crudely realistic. There is something in his way of regarding the world and of reproducing its aspects which dominates our fancy, does violence to our sense of harmony and beauty, leaves us broken and bewildered, resentful and at the same moment enthralled. He is a power which has to be reckoned with; and the reason for speaking about him at length here is that, in this characteristic blending of intense vision with impassioned realistic effort after truth to fact, this fascination mingled with repulsion, he anticipated Michelangelo. Deep at the root of all Buonarroti's artistic qualities lie these contradictions. Studying Signorelli, we study a parallel psychological problem. The chief difference between the two masters lies in the command of aesthetic synthesis, the constructive sense of harmony, which belonged to the younger, but which might, we feel, have been granted in like measure to the elder, had Luca been born, as Michelangelo was, to complete the evolution of Italian figurative art, instead of marking one of its most important intermediate moments.

The decorative methods and instincts of the two men were closely similar. Both scorned any element of interest or beauty which was not strictly plastic—the human body supported by architecture or by rough indications of the world we live in. Signorelli invented an intricate design for arabesque pilasters, one on each side of the door leading from his chapel into the Cathedral. They are painted en grisaille, and are composed exclusively of nudes, mostly male, perched or grouped in a marvellous variety of attitudes upon an ascending series of slender-stemmed vases, which build up gigantic candelabra by their aggregation. The naked form is treated with audacious freedom. It appears to be elastic in the hands of the modeller. Some dead bodies carried on the backs of brawny porters are even awful by the contrast of their wet-clay limpness with the muscular energy of brutal life beneath them. Satyrs giving drink to one another, fauns whispering in the ears of stalwart women, centaurs trotting with corpses flung across their cruppers, combatants trampling in frenzy upon prostrate enemies, men sunk in self-abandonment to sloth or sorrow—such are the details of these incomparable columns, where our sense of the grotesque and vehement is immediately corrected by a perception of rare energy in the artist who could play thus with his plastic puppets.

We have here certainly the preludings to Michelangelo's serener, more monumental work in the Sistine Chapel. The leading motive is the same in both great masterpieces. It consists in the use of the simple body, if possible the nude body, for the expression of thought and emotion, the telling of a tale, the delectation of the eye by ornamental details. It consists also in the subordination of the female to the male nude as the symbolic unit of artistic utterance. Buonarroti is greater than Signorelli chiefly through that larger and truer perception of aesthetic unity which seems to be the final outcome of a long series of artistic effort. The arabesques, for instance, with which Luca wreathed his portraits of the poets, are monstrous, bizarre, in doubtful taste. Michelangelo, with a finer instinct for harmony, a deeper grasp on his own dominant ideal, excluded this element of quattrocento decoration from his scheme. Raffaello, with the graceful tact essential to the style, developed its crude rudiments into the choice forms of fanciful delightfulness which charm us in the Loggie. Signorelli loved violence. A large proportion of the circular pictures painted en grisaille on these walls represent scenes of massacre, assassination, torture, ruthless outrage. One of them, extremely spirited in design, shows a group of three executioners hurling men with millstones round their necks into a raging river from the bridge which spans it. The first victim flounders half merged in the flood; a second plunges head foremost through the air; the third stands bent upon the parapet, his shoulders pressed down by the varlets on each side, at the very point of being flung to death by drowning. In another of these pictures a man seated upon the ground is being tortured by the breaking of his teeth, while a furious fellow holds a club suspended over him, in act to shatter his thigh-bones. Naked soldiers wrestle in mad conflict, whirl staves above their heads, fling stones, displaying their coarse muscles with a kind of frenzy. Even the classical subjects suffer from extreme dramatic energy of treatment. Ceres, seeking her daughter through the plains of Sicily, dashes frantically on a car of dragons, her hair dishevelled to the winds, her cheeks gashed by her own crooked fingers. Eurydice struggles in the clutch of bestial devils; Pluto, like a mediaeval Satan, frowns above the scene of fiendish riot; the violin of Orpheus thrills faintly through the infernal tumult. Gazing on the spasms and convulsions of these grim subjects, we are inclined to credit a legend preserved at Orvieto to the effect that the painter depicted his own unfaithful mistress in the naked woman who is being borne on a demon's back through the air to hell.

No one who has studied Michelangelo impartially will deny that in this preference for the violent he came near to Signorelli. We feel it in his choice of attitude, the strain he puts upon the lines of plastic composition, the stormy energy of his conception and expression. It is what we call his terribilita. But here again that dominating sense of harmony, that instinct for the necessity of subordinating each artistic element to one strain of architectonic music, which I have already indicated as the leading note of difference between him and the painter of Cortona, intervened to elevate his terribleness into the region of sublimity. The violence of Michelangelo, unlike that of Luca, lay not so much in the choice of savage subjects (cruelty, ferocity, extreme physical and mental torment) as in a forceful, passionate, tempestuous way of handling all the themes he treated. The angels of the Judgment, sustaining the symbols of Christ's Passion, wrestle and bend their agitated limbs like athletes. Christ emerges from the sepulchre, not in victorious tranquillity, but with the clash and clangour of an irresistible energy set free. Even in the Crucifixion, one leg has been wrenched away from the nail which pierced its foot, and writhes round the knee of the other still left riven to the cross. The loves of Leda and the Swan, of Ixion and Juno, are spasms of voluptuous pain; the sleep of the Night is troubled with fantastic dreams, and the Dawn starts into consciousness with a shudder of prophetic anguish. There is not a hand, a torso, a simple nude, sketched by this extraordinary master, which does not vibrate with nervous tension, as though the fingers that grasped the pen were clenched and the eyes that viewed the model glowed beneath knit brows. Michelangelo, in fact, saw nothing, felt nothing, interpreted nothing, on exactly the same lines as any one who had preceded or who followed him. His imperious personality he stamped upon the smallest trifle of his work.

Luca's frescoes at Orvieto, when compared with Michelangelo's in the Sistine, mark the transition from the art of the fourteenth, through the art of the fifteenth, to that of the sixteenth century, with broad and trenchant force. They are what Marlowe's dramas were to Shakespeare's. They retain much of the mediaeval tradition both as regards form and sentiment. We feel this distinctly in the treatment of Dante, whose genius seems to have exerted at least as strong an influence over Signorelli's imagination as over that of Michelangelo. The episodes from the Divine Comedy are painted in a rude Gothic spirit. The spirits of Hell seem borrowed from grotesque bas-reliefs of the Pisan school. The draped, winged, and armed angels of Heaven are posed with a ceremonious research of suavity or grandeur. These and other features of his work carry us back to the period of Giotto and Niccolo Pisano. But the true force of the man, what made him a commanding master of the middle period, what distinguished him from all his fellows of the quattrocento, is the passionate delight he took in pure humanity—the nude, the body studied under all its aspects and with no repugnance for its coarseness—man in his crudity made the sole sufficient object for figurative art, anatomy regarded as the crowning and supreme end of scientific exploration. It is this in his work which carries us on toward the next age, and justifies our calling Luca "the morning-star of Michelangelo."

It would be wrong to ascribe too much to the immediate influence of the elder over the younger artist—at any rate in so far as the frescoes of the Chapel of S. Brizio may have determined the creation of the Sistine. Yet Vasari left on record that "even Michelangelo followed the manner of Signorelli, as any one may see." Undoubtedly, Buonarroti, while an inmate of Lorenzo de' Medici's palace at Florence, felt the power of Luca's Madonna with the naked figures in the background; the leading motive of which he transcended in his Doni Holy Family. Probably at an early period he had before his eyes the bold nudities, uncompromising designs, and awkward composition of Luca's so-called School of Pan. In like manner, we may be sure that during his first visit to Rome he was attracted by Signorelli's solemn fresco of Moses in the Sistine. These things were sufficient to establish a link of connection between the painter of Cortona and the Florentine sculptor. And when Michelangelo visited the Chapel of S. Brizio, after he had fixed and formed his style (exhibiting his innate force of genius in the Pieta, the Bacchus, the Cupid, the David, the statue of Julius, the Cartoon for the Battle of Pisa), that early bond of sympathy must have been renewed and enforced. They were men of a like temperament, and governed by kindred aesthetic instincts. Michelangelo brought to its perfection that system of working wholly through the human form which Signorelli initiated. He shared his violence, his terribilita, his almost brutal candour. In the fated evolution of Italian art, describing its parabola of vital energy, Michelangelo softened, sublimed, and harmonised his predecessor's qualities. He did this by abandoning Luca's naivetes and crudities; exchanging his savage transcripts from coarse life for profoundly studied idealisations of form; subordinating his rough and casual design to schemes of balanced composition, based on architectural relations; penetrating the whole accomplished work, as he intended it should be, with a solemn and severe strain of unifying intellectual melody.

Viewed in this light, the vault of the Sistine and the later fresco of the Last Judgment may be taken as the final outcome of all previous Italian art upon a single line of creative energy, and that line the one anticipated by Luca Signorelli. In like manner, the Stanze and Loggie of the Vatican were the final outcome of the same process upon another line, suggested by Perugino and Fra Bartolommeo.

Michelangelo adapted to his own uses and bent to his own genius motives originated by the Pisani, Giotto, Giacopo della Quercia, Donatello, Masaccio, while working in the spirit of Signorelli. He fused and recast the antecedent materials of design in sculpture and painting, producing a quintessence of art beyond which it was impossible to advance without breaking the rhythm, so intensely strung, and without contradicting too violently the parent inspiration. He strained the chord of rhythm to its very utmost, and made incalculable demands upon the religious inspiration of its predecessors. His mighty talent was equal to the task of transfusion and remodelling which the exhibition of the supreme style demanded. But after him there remained nothing for successors except mechanical imitation, soulless rehandling of themes he had exhausted by reducing them to his imperious imagination in a crucible of fiery intensity.


No critic with a just sense of phraseology would call Michelangelo a colourist in the same way as Titian and Rubens were colourists. Still it cannot be denied with justice that the painter of the Sistine had a keen perception of what his art required in this region, and of how to attain it. He planned a comprehensive architectural scheme, which served as setting and support for multitudes of draped and undraped human figures. The colouring is kept deliberately low and subordinate to the two main features of the design—architecture, and the plastic forms of men and women. Flesh-tints, varying from the strong red tone of Jonah's athletic manhood, through the glowing browns of the seated Genii, to the delicate carnations of Adam and the paler hues of Eve; orange and bronze in draperies, medallions, decorative nudes, russets like the tints of dead leaves; lilacs, cold greens, blue used sparingly; all these colours are dominated and brought into harmony by the greys of the architectural setting. It may indeed be said that the different qualities of flesh-tints, the architectural greys, and a dull bronzed yellow strike the chord of the composition. Reds are conspicuous by their absence in any positive hue. There is no vermilion, no pure scarlet or crimson, but a mixed tint verging upon lake. The yellows are brought near to orange, tawny, bronze, except in the hair of youthful personages, a large majority of whom are blonde. The only colour which starts out staringly is ultramarine, owing of course to this mineral material resisting time and change more perfectly than the pigments with which it is associated. The whole scheme leaves a grave harmonious impression on the mind, thoroughly in keeping with the sublimity of the thoughts expressed. No words can describe the beauty of the flesh-painting, especially in the figures of the Genii, or the technical delicacy with which the modelling of limbs, the modulation from one tone to another, have been carried from silvery transparent shades up to the strongest accents.


Mr. Ruskin has said, and very justly said, that "the highest art can do no more than rightly represent the human form." This is what the Italians of the Renaissance meant when, through the mouths of Ghiberti, Buonarroti, and Cellini, they proclaimed that the perfect drawing of a fine nude, "un bel corpo ignudo," was the final test of mastery in plastic art. Mr. Ruskin develops his text in sentences which have peculiar value from his lips. "This is the simple test, then, of a perfect school—that it has represented the human form so that it is impossible to conceive of its being better done. And that, I repeat, has been accomplished twice only: once in Athens, once in Florence. And so narrow is the excellence even of these two exclusive schools, that it cannot be said of either of them that they represented the entire human form. The Greeks perfectly drew and perfectly moulded the body and limbs, but there is, so far as I am aware, no instance of their representing the face as well as any great Italian. On the other hand, the Italian painted and carved the face insuperably; but I believe there is no instance of his having perfectly represented the body, which, by command of his religion, it became his pride to despise and his safety to mortify."

We need not pause to consider whether the Italian's inferiority to the Greek's in the plastic modelling of human bodies was due to the artist's own religious sentiment. That seems a far-fetched explanation for the shortcomings of men so frankly realistic and so scientifically earnest as the masters of the Cinque Cento were. Michelangelo's magnificent cartoon of Leda and the Swan, if it falls short of some similar subject in some gabinetto segreto of antique fresco, does assuredly not do so because the draughtsman's hand faltered in pious dread or pious aspiration. Nevertheless, Ruskin is right in telling us that no Italian modelled a female nude equal to the Aphrodite of Melos, or a male nude equal to the Apoxyomenos of the Braccio Nuovo. He is also right in pointing out that no Greek sculptor approached the beauty of facial form and expression which we recognise in Raffaello's Madonna di San Sisto, in Sodoma's S. Sebastian, in Guercino's Christ at the Corsini Palace, in scores of early Florentine sepulchral monuments and pictures, in Umbrian saints and sweet strange portrait-fancies by Da Vinci.

The fact seems to be that Greek and Italian plastic art followed different lines of development, owing to the difference of dominant ideas in the races, and to the difference of social custom. Religion naturally played a foremost part in the art-evolution of both epochs. The anthropomorphic Greek mythology encouraged sculptors to concentrate their attention upon what Hegel called "the sensuous manifestation of the idea," while Greek habits rendered them familiar with the body frankly exhibited. Mediaeval religion withdrew Italian sculptors and painters from the problems of purely physical form, and obliged them to study the expression of sentiments and aspirations which could only be rendered by emphasising psychical qualities revealed through physiognomy. At the same time, modern habits of life removed the naked body from their ken.

We may go further, and observe that the conditions under which Greek art flourished developed what the Germans call "Allgemeinheit," a tendency to generalise, which was inimical to strongly marked facial expression or characterisation. The conditions of Italian art, on the other hand, favoured an opposite tendency—to particularise, to enforce detail, to emphasise the artist's own ideal or the model's quality. When the type of a Greek deity had been fixed, each successive master varied this within the closest limits possible. For centuries the type remained fundamentally unaltered, undergoing subtle transformations, due partly to the artist's temperament, and partly to changes in the temper of society. Consequently those aspects of the human form which are capable of most successful generalisation, the body and the limbs, exerted a kind of conventional tyranny over Greek art. And Greek artists applied to the face the same rules of generalisation which were applicable to the body.

The Greek god or goddess was a sensuous manifestation of the idea, a particle of universal godhood incarnate in a special fleshly form, corresponding to the particular psychological attributes of the deity whom the sculptor had to represent. No deviation from the generalised type was possible. The Christian God, on the contrary, is a spirit; and all the emanations from this spirit, whether direct, as in the person of Christ, or derived, as in the persons of the saints, owe their sensuous form and substance to the exigencies of mortal existence, which these persons temporarily and phenomenally obeyed. Since, then, the sensuous manifestation has now become merely symbolic, and is no longer an indispensable investiture of the idea, it may be altered at will in Christian art without irreverence. The utmost capacity of the artist is now exerted, not in enforcing or refining a generalised type, but in discovering some new facial expression which shall reveal psychological quality in a particular being. Doing so, he inevitably insists upon the face; and having formed a face expressive of some defined quality, he can hardly give to the body that generalised beauty which belongs to a Greek nymph or athlete.

What we mean by the differences between Classic and Romantic art lies in the distinctions I am drawing. Classicism sacrifices character to breadth. Romanticism sacrifices breadth to character. Classic art deals more triumphantly with the body, because the body gains by being broadly treated. Romantic art deals more triumphantly with the face, because the features lose by being broadly treated.

This brings me back to Mr. Ruskin, who, in another of his treatises, condemns Michelangelo for a want of variety, beauty, feeling, in his heads and faces. Were this the case, Michelangelo would have little claim to rank as one of the world's chief artists. We have admitted that the Italians did not produce such perfectly beautiful bodes and limbs as the Greeks did, and have agreed that the Greeks produced less perfectly beautiful faces than the Italians. Suppose, then, that Michelangelo failed in his heads and faces, he, being an Italian, and therefore confessedly inferior to the Greeks in his bodies and limbs, must, by the force of logic, emerge less meritorious than we thought him.


To many of my readers the foregoing section will appear superfluous, polemical, sophistic—three bad things. I wrote it, and I let it stand, however, because it serves as preface to what I have to say in general about Michelangelo's ideal of form. He was essentially a Romantic as opposed to a Classic artist. That is to say, he sought invariably for character—character in type, character in attitude, character in every action of each muscle, character in each extravagance of pose. He applied the Romantic principle to the body and the limbs, exactly to that region of the human form which the Greeks had conquered as their province. He did so with consummate science and complete mastery of physiological law. What is more, he compelled the body to become expressive, not, as the Greeks had done, of broad general conceptions, but of the most intimate and poignant personal emotions. This was his main originality. At the same time, being a Romantic, he deliberately renounced the main tradition of that manner. He refused to study portraiture, as Vasari tells us, and as we see so plainly in the statues of the Dukes at Florence. He generalised his faces, composing an ideal cast of features out of several types. In the rendering of the face and head, then, he chose to be a Classic, while in the treatment of the body he was vehemently modern. In all his work which is not meant to be dramatic—that is, excluding the damned souls in the Last Judgment, the bust of Brutus, and some keen psychological designs—character is sacrificed to a studied ideal of form, so far as the face is concerned. That he did this wilfully, on principle, is certain. The proof remains in the twenty heads of those incomparable genii of the Sistine, each one of whom possesses a beauty and a quality peculiar to himself alone. They show that, if he had so chosen, he could have played upon the human countenance with the same facility as on the human body, varying its expressiveness ad infinitum.

Why Michelangelo preferred to generalise the face and to particularise the body remains a secret buried in the abysmal deeps of his personality. In his studies from the model, unlike Lionardo, he almost always left the features vague, while working out the trunk and limbs with strenuous passion. He never seems to have been caught and fascinated by the problem offered by the eyes and features of a male or female. He places masks or splendid commonplaces upon frames palpitant and vibrant with vitality in pleasure or in anguish.

In order to guard against an apparent contradiction, I must submit that, when Michelangelo particularised the body and the limbs, he strove to make them the symbols of some definite passion or emotion. He seems to have been more anxious about the suggestions afforded by their pose and muscular employment than he was about the expression of the features. But we shall presently discover that, so far as pure physical type is concerned, he early began to generalise the structure of the body, passing finally into what may not unjustly be called a mannerism of form.

These points may be still further illustrated by what a competent critic has recently written upon Michelangelo's treatment of form. "No one," says Professor Bruecke, "ever knew so well as Michelangelo Buonarroti how to produce powerful and strangely harmonious effects by means of figures in themselves open to criticism, simply by his mode of placing and ordering them, and of distributing their lines. For him a figure existed only in his particular representation of it; how it would have looked in any other position was a matter of no concern to him." We may even go further, and maintain that Michelangelo was sometimes wilfully indifferent to the physical capacities of the human body in his passionate research of attitudes which present picturesque and novel beauty. The ancients worked on quite a different method. They created standard types which, in every conceivable posture, would exhibit the grace and symmetry belonging to well-proportioned frames. Michelangelo looked to the effect of a particular posture. He may have been seduced by his habit of modelling figures in clay instead of going invariably to the living subject, and so may have handled nature with unwarrantable freedom. Anyhow, we have here another demonstration of his romanticism.


The true test of the highest art is that it should rightly represent the human form. Agreed upon this point, it remains for us to consider in what way Michelangelo conceived and represented the human form. If we can discover his ideal, his principles, his leading instincts in this decisive matter, we shall unlock, so far as that is possible, the secret of his personality as man and artist. The psychological quality of every great master must eventually be determined by his mode of dealing with the phenomena of sex.

In Pheidias we find a large impartiality. His men and women are cast in the same mould of grandeur, inspired with equal strength and sweetness, antiphonal notes in dual harmony. Praxiteles leans to the female, Lysippus to the male; and so, through all the gamut of the figurative craftsmen, we discover more or less affinity for man or woman. One is swayed by woman and her gracefulness, the other by man and his vigour. Few have realised the Pheidian perfection of doing equal justice.

Michelangelo emerges as a mighty master who was dominated by the vision of male beauty, and who saw the female mainly through the fascination of the other sex. The defect of his art is due to a certain constitutional callousness, a want of sensuous or imaginative sensibility for what is specifically feminine.

Not a single woman carved or painted by the hand of Michelangelo has the charm of early youth or the grace of virginity. The Eve of the Sistine, the Madonna of S. Peter's, the Night and Dawn of the Medicean Sacristy, are female in the anatomy of their large and grandly modelled forms, but not feminine in their sentiment. This proposition requires no proof. It is only needful to recall a Madonna by Raphael, a Diana by Correggio, a Leda by Lionardo, a Venus by Titian, a S. Agnes by Tintoretto. We find ourselves immediately in a different region—the region of artists who loved, admired, and comprehended what is feminine in the beauty and the temperament of women. Michelangelo neither loved, nor admired, nor yielded to the female sex. Therefore he could not deal plastically with what is best and loveliest in the female form. His plastic ideal of the woman is masculine. He builds a colossal frame of muscle, bone, and flesh, studied with supreme anatomical science. He gives to Eve the full pelvis and enormous haunches of an adult matron. It might here be urged that he chose to symbolise the fecundity of her who was destined to be the mother of the human race. But if this was his meaning, why did he not make Adam a corresponding symbol of fatherhood? Adam is an adolescent man, colossal in proportions, but beardless, hairless; the attributes of sex in him are developed, but not matured by use. The Night, for whom no symbolism of maternity was needed, is a woman who has passed through many pregnancies. Those deeply delved wrinkles on the vast and flaccid abdomen sufficiently indicate this. Yet when we turn to Michelangelo's sonnets on Night, we find that he habitually thought of her as a mysterious and shadowy being, whose influence, though potent for the soul, disappeared before the frailest of all creatures bearing light. The Dawn, again, in her deep lassitude, has nothing of vernal freshness. Built upon the same type as the Night, she looks like Messalina dragging herself from heavy slumber, for once satiated as well as tired, stricken for once with the conscience of disgust. When he chose to depict the acts of passion or of sensual pleasure, a similar want of sympathy with what is feminine in womanhood leaves an even more discordant impression on the mind. I would base the proof of this remark upon the marble Leda of the Bargello Museum, and an old engraving of Ixion clasping the phantom of Juno under the form of a cloud. In neither case do we possess Michelangelo's own handiwork; he must not, therefore, be credited with the revolting expression, as of a drunken profligate, upon the face of Leda. Yet in both cases he is indubitably responsible for the general design, and for the brawny carnality of the repulsive woman. I find it difficult to resist the conclusion that Michelangelo felt himself compelled to treat women as though they were another and less graceful sort of males. The sentiment of woman, what really distinguishes the sex, whether voluptuously or passionately or poetically apprehended, emerges in no eminent instance of his work. There is a Cartoon at Naples for a Bacchante, which Bronzino transferred to canvas and coloured. This design illustrates the point on which I am insisting. An athletic circus-rider of mature years, with abnormally developed muscles, might have posed as model for this female votary of Dionysus. Before he made this drawing, Michelangelo had not seen those frescoes of the dancing Bacchantes from Pompeii; nor had he perhaps seen the Maenads on Greek bas-reliefs tossing wild tresses backwards, swaying virginal lithe bodies to the music of the tambourine. We must not, therefore, compare his concept with those masterpieces of the later classical imagination. Still, many of his contemporaries, vastly inferior to him in penetrative insight, a Giovanni da Udine, a Perino del Vaga, a Primaticcio, not to speak of Raffaello or of Lionardo, felt what the charm of youthful womanhood upon the revel might be. He remained insensible to the melody of purely feminine lines; and the only reason why his transcripts from the female form are not gross like those of Flemish painters, repulsive like Rembrandt's, fleshly like Rubens's, disagreeable like the drawings made by criminals in prisons, is that they have little womanly about them.

Lest these assertions should appear too dogmatic, I will indicate the series of works in which I recognise Michelangelo's sympathy with genuine female quality. All the domestic groups, composed of women and children, which fill the lunettes and groinings between the windows in the Sistine Chapel, have a charming twilight sentiment of family life or maternal affection. They are among the loveliest and most tranquil of his conceptions. The Madonna above the tomb of Julius II. cannot be accused of masculinity, nor the ecstatic figure of the Rachel beneath it. Both of these statues represent what Goethe called "das ewig Weibliche" under a truly felt and natural aspect. The Delphian and Erythrean Sibyls are superb in their majesty. Again, in those numerous designs for Crucifixions, Depositions from the Cross, and Pietas, which occupied so much of Michelangelo's attention during his old age, we find an intense and pathetic sympathy with the sorrows of Mary, expressed with noble dignity and a pious sense of godhead in the human mother. It will be remarked that throughout the cases I have reserved as exceptions, it is not woman in her plastic beauty and her radiant charm that Michelangelo has rendered, but woman in her tranquil or her saddened and sorrow-stricken moods. What he did not comprehend and could not represent was woman in her girlishness, her youthful joy, her physical attractiveness, her magic of seduction.

Michelangelo's women suggest demonic primitive beings, composite and undetermined products of the human race in evolution, before the specific qualities of sex have been eliminated from a general predominating mass of masculinity. At their best, they carry us into the realm of Lucretian imagination. He could not have incarnated in plastic form Shakespeare's Juliet and Imogen, Dante's Francesca da Rimini, Tasso's Erminia and Clorinda; but he might have supplied a superb illustration to the opening lines of the Lucretian epic, where Mars lies in the bed of Venus, and the goddess spreads her ample limbs above her Roman lover. He might have evoked images tallying the vision of primal passion in the fourth book of that poem. As I have elsewhere said, writing about Lucretius: "There is something almost tragic in these sighs and pantings and pleasure-throes, these incomplete fruitions of souls pent within their frames of flesh. We seem to see a race of men and women such as never lived, except perhaps in Rome or in the thought of Michelangelo, meeting in leonine embracements that yield pain, whereof the climax is, at best, relief from rage and respite for a moment from consuming fire. There is a life elemental rather than human in those mighty limbs; and the passion that twists them on the marriage-bed has in it the stress of storms, the rampings and roarings of leopards at play. Take this single line:—

et Venus in silvis jungebat corpora amantum.

What a picture of primeval breadth and vastness! The forest is the world, and the bodies of the lovers are things natural and unashamed, and Venus is the tyrannous instinct that controls the blood in spring."

What makes Michelangelo's crudity in his plastic treatment of the female form the more remarkable is that in his poetry he seems to feel the influence of women mystically. I shall have to discuss this topic in another place. It is enough here to say that, with very few exceptions, we remain in doubt whether he is addressing a woman at all. There are none of those spontaneous utterances by which a man involuntarily expresses the outgoings of his heart to a beloved object, the throb of irresistible emotion, the physical ache, the sense of wanting, the joys and pains, the hopes and fears, the ecstasies and disappointments, which belong to genuine passion. The woman is, for him, an allegory, something he has not approached and handled. Of her personality we learn nothing. Of her bodily presentment, the eyes alone are mentioned; and the eyes are treated as the path to Paradise for souls which seek emancipation from the flesh. Raffaello's few and far inferior sonnets vibrate with an intense and potent sensibility to this woman or to that.

Michelangelo's "donna" might just as well be a man; and indeed the poems he addressed to men, though they have nothing sensual about them, reveal a finer touch in the emotion of the writer. It is difficult to connect this vaporous incorporeal "donna" of the poems with those brawny colossal adult females of the statues, unless we suppose that Michelangelo remained callous both to the physical attractions and the emotional distinction of woman as she actually is.

I have tried to demonstrate that, plastically, he did not understand women, and could not reproduce their form in art with sympathetic feeling for its values of grace, suavity, virginity, and frailty. He imported masculine qualities into every female theme he handled. The case is different when we turn to his treatment of the male figure. It would be impossible to adduce a single instance, out of the many hundreds of examples furnished by his work, in which a note of femininity has been added to the masculine type. He did not think enough of women to reverse the process, and create hermaphroditic beings like the Apollino of Praxiteles or the S. Sebastian of Sodoma. His boys and youths and adult men remain, in the truest and the purest sense of the word, virile. Yet with what infinite variety, with what a deep intelligence of its resources, with what inexhaustible riches of enthusiasm and science, he played upon the lyre of the male nude! How far more fit for purposes of art he felt the man to be than the woman is demonstrated, not only by his approaching woman from the masculine side, but also by his close attention to none but male qualities in men. I need not insist or enlarge upon this point. The fact is apparent to every one with eyes to see. It would be futile to expound Michelangelo's fertility in dealing with the motives of the male figure as minutely as I judged it necessary to explain the poverty of his inspiration through the female. But it ought to be repeated that, over the whole gamut of the scale, from the grace of boyhood, through the multiform delightfulness of adolescence into the firm force of early manhood, and the sterner virtues of adult age, one severe and virile spirit controls his fashioning of plastic forms. He even exaggerates what is masculine in the male, as he caricatures the female by ascribing impossible virility to her. But the exaggeration follows here a line of mental and moral rectitude. It is the expression of his peculiar sensibility to physical structure.


When we study the evolution of Michelangelo's ideal of form, we find at the beginning of his life a very short period in which he followed the traditions of Donatello and imitated Greek work. The seated Madonna in bas-relief and the Giovannino belong to this first stage. So does the bas-relief of the Centaurs. It soon becomes evident, however, that Michelangelo was not destined to remain a continuator of Donatello's manner or a disciple of the classics. The next period, which includes the Madonna della Febbre, the Bruges Madonna, the Bacchus, the Cupid, and the David, is marked by an intense search after the truth of Nature. Both Madonnas might be criticised for unreality, owing to the enormous development of the thorax and something artificial in the type of face. But all the male figures seem to have been studied from the model. There is an individuality about the character of each, a naturalism, an aiming after realistic expression, which separate this group from previous and subsequent works by Buonarroti. Traces of Donatello's influence survive in the treatment of the long large hands of David, the cast of features selected for that statue, and the working of the feet. Indeed it may be said that Donatello continued through life to affect the genius of Michelangelo by a kind of sympathy, although the elder master's naivete was soon discarded by the younger.

The second period culminated in the Cartoon for the Battle of Pisa. This design appears to have fixed the style now known to us as Michelangelesque, and the loss of it is therefore irreparable. It exercised the consummate science which he had acquired, his complete mastery over the male nude. It defined his firm resolve to treat linear design from the point of view of sculpture rather than of painting proper. It settled his determination to work exclusively through and by the human figure, rejecting all subordinate elements of decoration. Had we possessed this epoch-making masterpiece, we should probably have known Michelangelo's genius in its flower-period of early ripeness, when anatomical learning was still combined with a sustained dependence upon Nature. The transition from the second to the third stage in this development of form-ideal remains imperfectly explained, because the bathers in the Arno were necessary to account for the difference between the realistic David and the methodically studied genii of the Sistine.

The vault of the Sistine shows Michelangelo's third manner in perfection. He has developed what may be called a scheme of the human form. The apparently small head, the enormous breadth of shoulder, the thorax overweighing the whole figure, the finely modelled legs, the large and powerful extremities, which characterise his style henceforward, culminate in Adam, repeat themselves throughout the genii, govern the prophets. But Nature has not been neglected. Nothing is more remarkable in that vast decorative mass of figures than the variety of types selected, the beauty and animation of the faces, the extraordinary richness, elasticity, and freshness of the attitudes presented to the eye. Every period of life has been treated with impartial justice, and both sexes are adequately handled. The Delphian, Erythrean, and Libyan Sibyls display a sublime sense of facial beauty. The Eve of the Temptation has even something of positively feminine charm. This is probably due to the fact that Michelangelo here studied expression and felt the necessity of dramatic characterisation in this part of his work. He struck each chord of what may be called the poetry of figurative art, from the epic cantos of Creation, Fall, and Deluge, through the tragic odes uttered by prophets and sibyls down to the lyric notes of the genii, and the sweet idyllic strains of the groups in the lunettes and spandrels.

It cannot be said that even here Michelangelo felt the female nude as sympathetically as he felt the male. The women in the picture of the Deluge are colossal creatures, scarcely distinguishable from the men except by their huge bosoms. His personal sense of beauty finds fullest expression in the genii. The variations on one theme of youthful loveliness and grace are inexhaustible; the changes rung on attitude, and face, and feature are endless. The type, as I have said, has already become schematic. It is adolescent, but the adolescence is neither that of the Greek athlete nor that of the nude model. Indeed, it is hardly natural; nor yet is it ideal in the Greek sense of that term. The physical gracefulness of a slim ephebus was never seized by Michelangelo. His Ganymede displays a massive trunk and brawny thighs. Compare this with the Ganymede of Titian. Compare the Cupid at South Kensington with the Praxitelean Genius of the Vatican—the Adonis and the Bacchus of the Bargello with Hellenic statues. The bulk and force of maturity are combined with the smoothness of boyhood and with a delicacy of face that borders on the feminine.

It is an arid region, the region of this mighty master's spirit. There are no heavens and no earth or sea in it; no living creatures, forests, flowers; no bright colours, brilliant lights, or cavernous darks. In clear grey twilight appear a multitude of naked forms, both male and female, yet neither male nor female of the actual world; rather the brood of an inventive intellect, teeming with preoccupations of abiding thoughts and moods of feeling, which become for it incarnate in these stupendous figures. It is as though Michelangelo worked from the image in his brain outwards to a physical presentment supplied by his vast knowledge of life, creating forms proper to his own specific concept.

Nowhere else in plastic art does the mental world peculiar to the master press in so immediately, without modification and without mitigation, upon our sentient imagination. I sometimes dream that the inhabitants of the moon may be like Michelangelo's men and women, as I feel sure its landscape resembles his conception of the material universe.

What I have called Michelangelo's third manner, the purest manifestation of which is to be found in the vault of the Sistine, sustained itself for a period of many years. The surviving fragments of sculpture for the tomb of Julius, especially the Captives of the Louvre and the statues in the Sacristy at S. Lorenzo, belong to this stage. A close and intimate rapport with Nature can be perceived in all the work he designed and executed during the pontificates of Leo and Clement. The artist was at his fullest both of mental energy and physical vigour. What he wrought now bears witness to his plenitude of manhood. Therefore, although the type fixed for the Sistine prevailed—I mean that generalisation of the human form in certain wilfully selected proportions, conceived to be ideally beautiful or necessary for the grand style in vast architectonic schemes of decoration—still it is used with an exquisite sensitiveness to the pose and structure of the natural body, a delicate tact in the definition of muscle and articulation, an acute feeling for the qualities of flesh and texture. None of the creations of this period, moreover, are devoid of intense animating emotions and ideas.

Unluckily, during all the years which intervened between the Sistine vault and the Last Judgment, Michelangelo was employed upon architectural problems and engineering projects, which occupied his genius in regions far removed from that of figurative art. It may, therefore, be asserted, that although he did not retrograde from want of practice, he had no opportunity of advancing further by the concentration of his genius on design. This accounts, I think, for the change in his manner which we notice when he began to paint in Rome under Pope Paul III. The fourth stage in his development of form is reached now. He has lost nothing of his vigour, nothing of his science. But he has drifted away from Nature. All the innumerable figures of the Last Judgment, in all their varied attitudes, with divers moods of dramatic expression, are diagrams wrought out imaginatively from the stored-up resources of a lifetime. It may be argued that it was impossible to pose models, in other words, to appeal to living men and women, for the foreshortenings of falling or soaring shapes in that huge drift of human beings. This is true; and the strongest testimony to the colossal powers of observation possessed by Michelangelo is that none of all those attitudes are wrong. We may verify them, if we take particular pains to do so, by training the sense of seeing to play the part of a detective camera. Michelangelo was gifted with a unique faculty for seizing momentary movements, fixing them upon his memory, and transferring them to fresco by means of his supreme acquaintance with the bony structure and the muscular capacities of the human frame. Regarded from this point of view, the Last Judgment was an unparalleled success. As such the contemporaries of Buonarroti hailed it. Still, the breath of life has exaled from all those bodies, and the tyranny of the schematic ideal of form is felt in each of them. Without meaning to be irreverent, we might fancy that two elastic lay-figures, one male, the other female, both singularly similar in shape, supplied the materials for the total composition. Of the dramatic intentions and suggestions underlying these plastic and elastic shapes I am not now speaking. It is my present business to establish the phases through which my master's sense of form passed from its cradle to its grave.

In the frescoes of the Cappella Paolina, so ruined at this day that we can hardly value them, the mechanic manner of the fourth stage seems to reach its climax. Ghosts of their former selves, they still reveal the poverty of creative and spontaneous inspiration which presided over their nativity.

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