At the close of Michelangelo's life the sacristy was still unfinished. It contained the objects I have described—the marble panelling, the altar with its candelabra, the statues of the Dukes and their attendant figures, the Madonna and two Medicean patron saints—in fact, all that we find there now, with the addition of Giovanni da Udine's frescoes in the cupola, the relics of which have since been buried under cold Florentine whitewash.
All the views I have advanced in the foregoing paragraphs as to the point at which Michelangelo abandoned this chapel, and his probable designs for its completion, are in the last resort based upon an important document penned at the instance of the Duke of Florence by Vasari to Buonarroti, not long before the old man's death in Rome. This epistle has so weighty a bearing upon the matter in hand that I shall here translate it. Careful study of its fluent periods will convince an unprejudiced mind that the sacristy, as we now see it, is even less representative of its maker's design than it was when Vasari wrote. The frescoes of Giovanni da Udine are gone. It will also show that the original project involved a wealth of figurative decoration, statuary, painting, stucco, which never arrived at realisation.
Vasari, writing in the spring of 1562, informs Michelangelo concerning the Academy of Design founded by Duke Cosimo de' Medici, and of the Duke's earnest desire that he should return to Florence in order that the sacristy at S. Lorenzo may be finished. "Your reasons for not coming are accepted as sufficient. He is therefore considering —forasmuch as the place is being used now for religious services by day and night, according to the intention of Pope Clement—he is considering, I say, a plan for erecting the statues which are missing in the niches above the sepulchres and the tabernacles above the doors. The Duke then wishes that all the eminent sculptors of this academy, in competition man with man, should each of them make one statue, and that the painters in like manner should exercise their art upon the chapel. Designs are to be prepared for the arches according to your own project, including works of painting and of stucco; the other ornaments and the pavement are to be provided; in short, he intends that the new academicians shall complete the whole imperfect scheme, in order that the world may see that, while so many men of genius still exist among us, the noblest work which was ever yet conceived on earth has not been left unfinished. He has commissioned me to write to you and unfold his views, begging you at the same time to favour him by communicating to himself or to me what your intentions were, or those of the late Pope Clement, with regard to the name and title of the chapel; moreover, to inform us what designs you made for the four tabernacles on each side of the Dukes Lorenzo and Giuliano; also what you projected for the eight statues above the doors and in the tabernacles of the corners; and, finally, what your idea was of the paintings to adorn the flat walls and the semicircular spaces of the chapel. He is particularly anxious that you should be assured of his determination to alter nothing you have already done or planned, but, on the contrary, to carry out the whole work according to your own conception. The academicians too are unanimous in their hearty desire to abide by this decision. I am furthermore instructed to tell you, that if you possess sketches, working cartoons, or drawings made for this purpose, the same would be of the greatest service in the execution of his project; and he promises to be a good and faithful administrator, so that honour may ensue. In case you do not feel inclined to do all this, through the burden of old age or for any other reason, he begs you at least to communicate with some one who shall write upon the subject; seeing that he would be greatly grieved, as indeed would the whole of our academy, to have no ray of light from your own mind, and possibly to add things to your masterpiece which were not according to your designs and wishes. We all of us look forward to being comforted by you, if not with actual work, at least with words. His Excellency founds this hope upon your former willingness to complete the edifice by allotting statues to Tribolo, Montelupo, and the Friar (Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli). The last named of these masters is here, eagerly desirous to have the opportunity of doing you honour. So are Francesco Sangallo, Giovanni Bologna, Benvenuto Cellini, Ammanato, Rossi and Vincenzio Danti of Perugia, not to mention other sculptors of note. The painters, headed by Bronzino, include many talented young men, skilled in design, and colourists, quite capable of establishing an honourable reputation. Of myself I need not speak. You know well that in devotion, attachment, love, and loyalty (and let me say this with prejudice to no one) I surpass the rest of your admirers by far. Therefore, I entreat you, of your goodness, to console his Excellency, and all these men of parts, and our city, as well as to show this particular favour to myself, who have been selected by the Duke to write to you, under the impression that, being your familiar and loving friend, I might obtain from you some assistance of sterling utility for the undertaking. His Excellency is prepared to spend both substance and labour on the task, in order to honour you. Pray then, albeit age is irksome, endeavour to aid him by unfolding your views; for, in doing so, you will confer benefits on countless persons, and will be the cause of raising all these men of parts to higher excellence, each one of whom has learned what he already knows in the sacristy, or rather let me say our school."
This eloquent despatch informs us very clearly that the walls of the sacristy, above the tall Corinthian order which, encloses the part devoted to sculpture, were intended to be covered with stucco and fresco paintings, completing the polychromatic decoration begun by Giovanni da Udine in the cupola. Twelve statues had been designed for the niches in the marble panelling; and one word used by Vasari, facciate, leaves the impression that the blank walls round and opposite the altar were also to be adorned with pictures. We remain uncertain how Michelangelo originally meant to dispose of the colossal Madonna with SS. Damian and Cosimo.
Unhappily, nothing came of the Duke's project. Michelangelo was either unable or unwilling—probably unable—to furnish the necessary plans and drawings. In the eighth chapter of this book I have discussed the hesitations with regard to the interior of the sacristy which are revealed by some of his extant designs for it. We also know that he was not in the habit of preparing accurate working cartoons for the whole of a large scheme, but that he proceeded from point to point, trusting to slight sketches and personal supervision of the work. Thus, when Vasari wrote to him from Rome about the staircase of the library, he expressed a perfect readiness to help, but could only remember its construction in a kind of dream. We may safely assume, then, that he had not sufficient material to communicate; plans definite enough in general scope and detailed incident to give a true conception of his whole idea were lacking.
Passing to aesthetical considerations, I am forced to resume here what I published many years ago about the Sacristy of S. Lorenzo, as it now exists. Repeated visits to that shrine have only renewed former impressions, which will not bear to be reproduced in other language, and would lose some of their freshness by the stylistic effort. No other course remains then but to quote from my own writings, indorsing them with such weight as my signature may have acquired since they were first given to the world.
"The sacristy may be looked on either as the masterpiece of a sculptor who required fit setting for his statues, or of an architect who designed statues to enhance the structure he had planned. Both arts are used with equal ease, nor has the genius of Michelangelo dealt more masterfully with the human frame than with the forms of Roman architecture in this chapel. He seems to have paid no heed to classic precedent, and to have taken no pains to adapt the parts to the structural purpose of the building. It was enough for him to create a wholly novel framework for the modern miracle of sculpture it enshrines, attending to such rules of composition as determine light and shade, and seeking by the relief of mouldings and pilasters to enhance the terrible and massive forms that brood above the Medicean tombs. The result is a product of picturesque and plastic art as true to the Michelangelesque spirit as the Temple of the Wingless Victory to that of Pheidias. But where Michelangelo achieved a triumph of boldness, lesser natures were betrayed into bizarrerie; and this chapel of the Medici, in spite of its grandiose simplicity, proved a stumbling-block to subsequent architects by encouraging them to despise propriety and violate the laws of structure.
"We may assume then that the colossal statues of Giuliano and Lorenzo were studied with a view to their light and shadow as much as to their form; and this is a fact to be remembered by those who visit the chapel where Buonarroti laboured both as architect and sculptor. Of the two Medici, it is not fanciful to say that the Duke of Urbino is the most immovable of spectral shapes eternalised in marble; while the Duke of Nemours, more graceful and elegant, seems intended to present a contrast to this terrible thought-burdened form. The allegorical figures, stretched on segments of ellipses beneath the pedestals of the two Dukes, indicate phases of darkness and of light, of death and life. They are two women and two men; tradition names them Night and Day, Twilight and Dawning. Thus in the statues themselves and in their attendant genii we have a series of abstractions, symbolising the sleep and waking of existence, action and thought, the gloom of death, the lustre of life, and the intermediate states of sadness and of hope that form the borderland of both. Life is a dream between two slumbers; sleep is death's twin-brother; night is the shadow of death; death is the gate of life:—such is the mysterious mythology wrought by the sculptor of the modern world in marble. All these figures, by the intensity of their expression, the vagueness of their symbolism, force us to think and question. What, for example, occupies Lorenzo's brain? Bending forward, leaning his chin upon his wrist, placing the other hand upon his knee, on what does he for ever ponder?
"The sight, as Rogers said well, 'fascinates and is intolerable.' Michelangelo has shot the beaver of the helmet forward on his forehead, and bowed his head, so as to clothe the face in darkness. But behind the gloom there lurks no fleshless skull, as Rogers fancied. The whole frame of the powerful man is instinct with some imperious thought. Has he outlived his life and fallen upon everlasting contemplation? Is he brooding, injured and indignant, over his own doom and the extinction of his race? Is he condemned to witness in immortal immobility the woes of Italy he helped to cause? Or has the sculptor symbolised in him the burden of that personality we carry with us in this life, and bear for ever when we wake into another world? Beneath this incarnation of oppressive thought there lie, full length and naked, the figures of Dawn and Twilight, Morn and Evening. So at least they are commonly called, and these names are not inappropriate; for the breaking of the day and the approach of night are metaphors for many transient conditions of the soul. It is only as allegories in a large sense, comprehending both the physical and intellectual order, and capable of various interpretation, that any of these statues can be understood. Even the Dukes do not pretend to be portraits, and hence in part perhaps the uncertainty that has gathered round them. Very tranquil and noble is Twilight: a giant in repose, he meditates, leaning upon his elbow, looking down. But Dawn starts from her couch, as though some painful summons had reached her, sunk in dreamless sleep, and called her forth to suffer. Her waking to consciousness is like that of one who has been drowned, and who finds the return to life agony. Before her eyes, seen even through the mists of slumber, are the ruin and the shame of Italy. Opposite lies Night, so sorrowful, so utterly absorbed in darkness and the shade of death, that to shake off that everlasting lethargy seems impossible. Yet she is not dead. If we raise our voices, she too will stretch her limbs, and, like her sister, shudder into sensibility with sighs. Only we must not wake her; for he who fashioned her has told us that her sleep of stone is great good fortune. Both of these women are large and brawny, unlike the Fates of Pheidias, in their muscular maturity. The burden of Michelangelo's thought was too tremendous to be borne by virginal and graceful beings. He had to make women no less capable of suffering, no less world-wearied, than his country.
"Standing before these statues, we do not cry, How beautiful! We murmur, How terrible, how grand! Yet, after long gazing, we find them gifted with beauty beyond grace. In each of them there is a palpitating thought, torn from the artist's soul and crystallised in marble. It has been said that architecture is petrified music. In the Sacristy of S. Lorenzo we feel impelled to remember phrases of Beethoven. Each of these statues becomes for us a passion, fit for musical expression, but turned like Niobe to stone. They have the intellectual vagueness, the emotional certainty, that belong to the motives of a symphony. In their allegories, left without a key, sculpture has passed beyond her old domain of placid concrete form. The anguish of intolerable emotion, the quickening of the consciousness to a sense of suffering, the acceptance of the inevitable, the strife of the soul with destiny, the burden and the passion of mankind:—that is what they contain in their cold chisel-tortured marble. It is open to critics of the school of Lessing to object that here is the suicide of sculpture. It is easy to remark that those strained postures and writhen limbs may have perverted the taste of lesser craftsmen. Yet if Michelangelo was called to carve Medicean statues after the sack of Rome and the fall of Florence—if he was obliged in sober sadness to make sculpture a fit language for his sorrow-laden heart—how could he have wrought more truthfully than this? To imitate him without sharing his emotion or comprehending his thoughts, as the soulless artists of the decadence attempted, was without all doubt a grievous error. Surely also we may regret, not without reason, that in the evil days upon which he had fallen, the fair antique Heiterkeit and Allgemeinheit were beyond his reach."
That this regret is not wholly sentimental may be proved, I think, by an exchange of verses, which we owe to Vasari's literary sagacity. He tells us that when the statue of the Night was opened to the public view, it drew forth the following quatrain from an author unknown to himself by name:—
The Night thou seest here, posed gracefully In act of slumber, was by an Angel wrought Out of this stone; sleeping, with life she's fraught: Wake her, incredulous wight; she'll speak to thee.
Michelangelo would have none of these academical conceits and compliments. He replied in four verses, which show well enough what thoughts were in his brain when he composed the nightmare-burdened, heavy-sleeping women:
Dear is my sleep, but more to be mere stone, So long as ruin and dishonour reign: To hear naught, to feel naught, is my great gain; Then wake me not; speak in an undertone.
After the death of Clement VII., Michelangelo never returned to reside for any length of time at Florence. The rest of his life was spent in Rome, and he fell almost immediately under the kind but somewhat arbitrary patronage of Alessandro Farnese, who succeeded to the Papal chair in October 1534, with the title of Paul III.
One of the last acts of Clement's life had been to superintend the second contract with the heirs of Julius, by which Michelangelo undertook to finish the tomb upon a reduced scale within the space of three years. He was allowed to come to Rome and work there during four months annually. Paul, however, asserted his authority by upsetting these arrangements and virtually cancelling the contract.
"In the meanwhile," writes Condivi, "Pope Clement died, and Paul III. sent for him, and requested him to enter his service. Michelangelo saw at once that he would be interrupted in his work upon the Tomb of Julius. So he told Paul that he was not his own master, being bound to the Duke of Urbino until the monument was finished. The Pope grew angry, and exclaimed: 'It is thirty years that I have cherished this desire, and now that I am Pope, may I not indulge it? Where is the contract? I mean to tear it up.' Michelangelo, finding himself reduced to these straits, almost resolved to leave Rome and take refuge in the Genoese, at an abbey held by the Bishop of Aleria, who had been a creature of Julius, and was much attached to him. He hoped that the neighbourhood of the Carrara quarries, and the facility of transporting marbles by sea, would help him to complete his engagements. He also thought of settling at Urbino, which he had previously selected as a tranquil retreat, and where he expected to be well received for the sake of Pope Julius. Some months earlier, he even sent a man of his to buy a house and land there. Still he dreaded the greatness of the Pontiff, as indeed he had good cause to do; and for this reason he abandoned the idea of quitting Rome, hoping to pacify his Holiness with fair words.
"The Pope, however, stuck to his opinion; and one day he visited Michelangelo at his house, attended by eight or ten Cardinals. He first of all inspected the cartoon prepared in Clement's reign for the great work of the Sistine; then the statues for the tomb, and everything in detail. The most reverend Cardinal of Mantua, standing before the statue of Moses, cried out: 'That piece alone is sufficient to do honour to the monument of Julius.' Pope Paul, having gone through the whole workshop, renewed his request that Michelangelo should enter his service; and when the latter still resisted, he clinched the matter by saying: 'I will provide that the Duke of Urbino shall be satisfied with three statues from your hand, and the remaining three shall be assigned to some other sculptor.' Accordingly, he settled on the terms of a new contract with the agents of the Duke, which were confirmed by his Excellency, who did not care to displeasure the Pope. Michelangelo, albeit he was now relieved from the obligation of paying for the three statues, preferred to take this cost upon himself, and deposited 1580 ducats for the purpose. And so the Tragedy of the Tomb came at last to an end. This may now be seen at S. Pietro ad Vincula; and though, truth to tell, it is but a mutilated and botched-up remnant of Michelangelo's original design, the monument is still the finest to be found in Rome, and perhaps elsewhere in the world, if only for the three statues finished by the hand of the great master."
In this account, Condivi, has condensed the events of seven years. The third and last contract with the heirs of Julius was not ratified until the autumn of 1542, nor was the tomb erected much before the year 1550. We shall see that the tragedy still cost its hero many anxious days during this period.
Paul III., having obtained his object, issued a brief, whereby he appointed Michelangelo chief architect, sculptor, and painter at the Vatican. The instrument is dated September 1, 1535, and the terms with which it describes the master's eminence in the three arts are highly flattering. Allusion is directly made to the fresco of the Last Judgment, which may therefore have been begun about this date. Michelangelo was enrolled as member of the Pontifical household, with a permanent pension of 1200 golden crowns, to be raised in part on the revenues accruing from a ferry across the Po at Piacenza. He did not, however, obtain possession of this ferry until 1537, and the benefice proved so unremunerative that it was exchanged for a little post in the Chancery at Rimini.
When Michelangelo began to work again in the Sistine Chapel, the wall above the altar was adorned with three great sacred subjects by the hand of Pietro Perugino. In the central fresco of the Assumption Perugino introduced a portrait of Sixtus IV. kneeling in adoration before the ascending Madonna. The side panels were devoted to the Nativity and the finding of Moses. In what condition Michelangelo found these frescoes before the painting of the Last Judgment we do not know. Vasari says that he caused the wall to be rebuilt with well-baked carefully selected bricks, and sloped inwards so that the top projected half a cubit from the bottom. This was intended to secure the picture from dust. Vasari also relates that Sebastiano del Piombo, acting on his own responsibility, prepared this wall with a ground for oil-colours, hoping to be employed by Michelangelo, but that the latter had it removed, preferring the orthodox method of fresco-painting. The story, as it stands, is not very probable; yet we may perhaps conjecture that, before deciding on the system to be adopted for his great work, Buonarroti thought fit to make experiments in several surfaces. The painters of that period, as is proved by Sebastiano's practice, by Lionardo da Vinci's unfortunate innovations at Florence, and by the experiments of Raffaello's pupils in the hall of Constantine, not unfrequently invented methods for mural decoration which should afford the glow and richness of oil-colouring. Michelangelo may even have proposed at one time to intrust a large portion of his fresco to Sebastiano's executive skill, and afterwards have found the same difficulties in collaboration which reduced him to the necessity of painting the Sistine vault in solitude.
Be that as it may, when the doors of the chapel once closed behind the master, we hear nothing whatsoever about his doings till they opened again on Christmas Day in 1541. The reticence of Michelangelo regarding his own works is one of the most trying things about him. It is true indeed that his correspondence between 1534 and 1541 almost entirely fails; still, had it been abundant, we should probably have possessed but dry and laconic references to matters connected with the business of his art.
He must have been fully occupied on the Last Judgment during 1536 and 1537. Paul III. was still in correspondence with the Duke of Urbino, who showed himself not only willing to meet the Pope's wishes with regard to the Tomb of Julius, but also very well disposed toward the sculptor. In July 1537, Hieronimo Staccoli wrote to the Duke of Camerino about a silver salt-cellar which Michelangelo had designed at his request. This prince, Guidobaldo della Rovere, when he afterwards succeeded to the Duchy of Urbino, sent a really warm-hearted despatch to his "dearest Messer Michelangelo." He begins by saying that, though he still cherishes the strongest wish to see the monument of his uncle completed, he does not like to interrupt the fresco in the Sistine Chapel, upon which his Holiness has set his heart. He thoroughly trusts in Michelangelo's loyalty, and is assured that his desire to finish the tomb, for the honour of his former patron's memory, is keen and sincere. Therefore, he hopes that when the picture of the Last Judgment is terminated, the work will be resumed and carried to a prosperous conclusion. In the meantime, let Buonarroti attend to his health, and not put everything again to peril by overstraining his energies.
Signer Gotti quotes a Papal brief, issued on the 18th of September 1537, in which the history of the Tomb of Julius up to date is set forth, and Michelangelo's obligations toward the princes of Urbino are recited. It then proceeds to declare that Clement VII. ordered him to paint the great wall of the Sistine, and that Paul desires this work to be carried forward with all possible despatch. He therefore lets it be publicly known that Michelangelo has not failed to perform his engagements in the matter of the tomb through any fault or action of his own, but by the express command of his Holiness. Finally, he discharges him and his heirs from all liabilities, pecuniary or other, to which he may appear exposed by the unfulfilled contracts.
While thus engaged upon his fresco, Michelangelo received a letter, dated Venice, September 15, 1537, from that rogue of genius, Pietro Aretino. It opens in the strain of hyperbolical compliment and florid rhetoric which Aretino affected when he chose to flatter. The man, however, was an admirable stylist, the inventor of a new epistolary manner. Like a volcano, his mind blazed with wit, and buried sound sense beneath the scoriae and ashes it belched forth. Gifted with a natural feeling for rhetorical contrast, he knew the effect of some simple and impressive sentence, placed like a gem of value in the midst of gimcrack conceits. Thus: "I should not venture to address you, had not my name, accepted by the ears of every prince in Europe, outworn much of its native indignity. And it is but meet that that I should approach you with this reverence; for the world has many kings, and one only Michelangelo.
"Strange miracle, that Nature, who cannot place aught so high but that you explore it with your art, should be impotent to stamp upon her works that majesty which she contains within herself, the immense power of your style and your chisel! Wherefore, when we gaze on you, we regret no longer that we may not meet with Pheidias, Apelles, or Vitruvius, whose spirits were the shadow of your spirit." He piles the panegyric up to its climax, by adding it is fortunate for those great artists of antiquity that their masterpieces cannot be compared with Michelangelo's, since, "being arraigned before the tribunal of our eyes, we should perforce proclaim you unique as sculptor, unique as painter, and as architect unique." After the blare of this exordium, Aretino settles down to the real business of his letter, and communicates his own views regarding the Last Judgment, which he hears that the supreme master of all arts is engaged in depicting. "Who would not quake with terror while dipping his brush into the dreadful theme? I behold Anti-christ in the midst of thronging multitudes, with an aspect such as only you could limn. I behold affright upon the forehead of the living; I see the signs of the extinction of the sun, the moon, the stars; I see the breath of life exhaling from the elements; I see Nature abandoned and apart, reduced to barrenness, crouching in her decrepitude; I see Time sapless and trembling, for his end has come, and he is seated on an arid throne; and while I hear the trumpets of the angels with their thunder shake the hearts of all, I see both Life and Death convulsed with horrible confusion, the one striving to resuscitate the dead, the other using all his might to slay the living; I see Hope and Despair guiding the squadrons of the good and the cohorts of the wicked; I see the theatre of clouds, blazing with rays that issue from the purest fires of heaven, upon which among his hosts Christ sits, ringed round with splendours and with terrors; I see the radiance of his face, coruscating flames of light both glad and awful, filling the blest with joy, the damned with fear intolerable. Then I behold the satellites of the abyss, who with horrid gestures, to the glory of the saints and martyrs, deride Caesar and the Alexanders; for it is one thing to have trampled on the world, but more to have conquered self. I see Fame, with her crowns and palms trodden under foot, cast out among the wheels of her own chariots. And to conclude all, I see the dread sentence issue from the mouth of the Son of God. I see it in the form of two darts, the one of salvation, the other of damnation; and as they hustle down, I hear the fury of its onset shock the elemental frame of things, and, with the roar of thunderings and voices, smash the universal scheme to fragments. I see the vault of ether merged in gloom, illuminated only by the lights of Paradise and the furnaces of hell. My thoughts, excited by this vision of the day of Doom, whisper: 'If we quake in terror before the handiwork of Buonarroti, how shall we shake and shrink affrighted when He who shall judge passes sentence on our souls?'"
This description of the Last Day, in which it is more than doubtful whether a man like Aretino had any sincere faith, possesses considerable literary interest. In the first place, it is curious as coming from one who lived on terms of closest intimacy with painters, and who certainly appreciated art; for this reason, that nothing less pictorial than the images evoked could be invented. Then, again, in the first half of the sixteenth century it anticipated the rhetoric of the barocco period—the eloquence of seventeenth-century divines, Dutch poets, Jesuit pulpiteers. Aretino's originality consisted in his precocious divination of a whole new age of taste and style, which was destined to supersede the purer graces of the Renaissance.
The letter ends with an assurance that if anything could persuade him to break a resolution he had formed, and to revisit Rome, it would be his great anxiety to view the Last Judgment of the Sistine Chapel with his own eyes. Michelangelo sent an answer which may be cited as an example of his peculiar irony. Under the form of elaborate compliment it conceals the scorn he must have conceived for Aretino and his insolent advice. Yet he knew how dangerous the man could be, and felt obliged to humour him.
"Magnificent Messer Pietro, my lord and brother,—The receipt of your letter gave me both joy and sorrow. I rejoiced exceedingly, since it came from you, who are without peer in all the world for talent. Yet at the same time I grieved, inasmuch as, having finished a large part of the fresco, I cannot realise your conception, which is so complete, that if the Day of Judgment had come, and you had been present and seen it with your eyes, your words could not have described it better. Now, touching an answer to my letter, I reply that I not only desire it, but I entreat you to write one, seeing that kings and emperors esteem it the highest favour to be mentioned by your pen. Meanwhile, if I have anything that you would like, I offer it with all my heart. In conclusion, do not break your resolve of never revisiting Rome on account of the picture I am painting, for this would be too much."
Aretino's real object was to wheedle some priceless sketch or drawing out of the great master. This appears from a second letter written by him on the 20th of January 1538. "Does not my devotion deserve that I should receive from you, the prince of sculpture and of painting, one of those cartoons which you fling into the fire, to the end that during life I may enjoy it, and in death carry it with me to the tomb?" After all, we must give Aretino credit for genuine feelings of admiration toward illustrious artists like Titian, Sansovino, and Michelangelo. Writing many years after the date of these letters, when he has seen an engraving of the Last Judgment, he uses terms, extravagant indeed, but apparently sincere, about its grandeur of design. Then he repeats his request for a drawing. "Why will you not repay my devotion to your divine qualities by the gift of some scrap of a drawing, the least valuable in your eyes? I should certainly esteem two strokes of the chalk upon a piece of paper more than all the cups and chains which all the kings and princes gave me." It seems that Michelangelo continued to correspond with him, and that Benvenuto Cellini took part in their exchange of letters. But no drawings were sent; and in course of time the ruffian got the better of the virtuoso in Aretino's rapacious nature. Without ceasing to fawn and flatter Michelangelo, he sought occasion to damage his reputation. Thus we find him writing in January 1546 to the engraver Enea Vico, bestowing high praise upon a copper-plate which a certain Bazzacco had made from the Last Judgment, but criticising the picture as "licentious and likely to cause scandal with the Lutherans, by reason of its immodest exposure of the nakedness of persons of both sexes in heaven and hell." It is not clear what Aretino expected from Enea Vico. A reference to the Duke of Florence seems to indicate that he wished to arouse suspicions among great and influential persons regarding the religious and moral quality of Michelangelo's work.
This malevolent temper burst out at last in one of the most remarkable letters we possess of his. It was obviously intended to hurt and insult Michelangelo as much as lay within his power of innuendo and direct abuse. The invective offers so many points of interest with regard to both men, that I shall not hesitate to translate it here in full.
"Sir, when I inspected the complete sketch of the whole of your Last Judgment, I arrived at recognising the eminent graciousness of Raffaello in its agreeable beauty of invention.
"Meanwhile, as a baptized Christian, I blush before the license, so forbidden to man's intellect, which you have used in expressing ideas connected with the highest aims and final ends to which our faith aspires. So, then, that Michelangelo stupendous in his fame, that Michelangelo renowned for prudence, that Michelangelo whom all admire, has chosen to display to the whole world an impiety of irreligion only equalled by the perfection of his painting! Is it possible that you, who, since you are divine, do not condescend to consort with human beings, have done this in the greatest temple built to God, upon the highest altar raised to Christ, in the most sacred chapel upon earth, where the mighty hinges of the Church, the venerable priests of our religion, the Vicar of Christ, with solemn ceremonies and holy prayers, confess, contemplate, and adore his body, his blood, and his flesh?
"If it were not infamous to introduce the comparison, I would plume myself upon my virtue when I wrote La Nanna. I would demonstrate the superiority of my reserve to your indiscretion, seeing that I, while handling themes lascivious and immodest, use language comely and decorous, speak in terms beyond reproach and inoffensive to chaste ears. You, on the contrary, presenting so awful a subject, exhibit saints and angels, these without earthly decency, and those without celestial honours.
"The pagans, when they modelled a Diana, gave her clothes; when they made a naked Venus, hid the parts which are not shown with the hand of modesty. And here there comes a Christian, who, because he rates art higher than the faith, deems it a royal spectacle to portray martyrs and virgins in improper attitudes, to show men dragged down by their shame, before which things houses of ill-fame would shut the eyes in order not to see them. Your art would be at home in some voluptuous bagnio, certainly not in the highest chapel of the world. Less criminal were it if you were an infidel, than, being a believer, thus to sap the faith of others. Up to the present time the splendour of such audacious marvels hath not gone unpunished; for their very superexcellence is the death of your good name. Restore them to repute by turning the indecent parts of the damned to flames, and those of the blessed to sunbeams; or imitate the modesty of Florence, who hides your David's shame beneath some gilded leaves. And yet that statue is exposed upon a public square, not in a consecrated chapel.
"As I wish that God may pardon you, I do not write this out of any resentment for the things I begged of you. In truth, if you had sent me what you promised, you would only have been doing what you ought to have desired most eagerly to do in your own interest; for this act of courtesy would silence the envious tongues which say that only certain Gerards and Thomases dispose of them.
"Well, if the treasure bequeathed you by Pope Julius, in order that you might deposit his ashes in an urn of your own carving, was not enough to make you keep your plighted word, what can I expect from you? It is not your ingratitude, your avarice, great painter, but the grace and merit of the Supreme Shepherd, which decide his fame. God wills that Julius should live renowned for ever in a simple tomb, inurned in his own merits, and not in some proud monument dependent on your genius. Meantime, your failure to discharge your obligations is reckoned to you as an act of thieving.
"Our souls need the tranquil emotions of piety more than the lively impressions of plastic art. May God, then, inspire his Holiness Paul with the same thoughts as he instilled into Gregory of blessed memory, who rather chose to despoil Rome of the proud statues of the Pagan deities than to let their magnificence deprive the humbler images of the saints of the devotion of the people.
"Lastly, when you set about composing your picture of the universe and hell and heaven, if you had steeped your heart with those suggestions of glory, of honour, and of terror proper to the theme which I sketched out and offered to you in the letter I wrote you and the whole world reads, I venture to assert that not only would nature and all kind influences cease to regret the illustrious talents they endowed you with, and which to-day render you, by virtue of your art, an image of the marvellous: but Providence, who sees all things, would herself continue to watch over such a masterpiece, so long as order lasts in her government of the hemispheres.
"Your servant, "The Aretine.
"Now that I have blown off some of the rage I feel against you for the cruelty you used to my devotion, and have taught you to see that, while you may be divine, I am not made of water, I bid you tear up this letter, for I have done the like, and do not forget that I am one to whose epistles kings and emperors reply.
"To the great Michelangelo Buonarroti in Rome."
The malignancy of this letter is only equalled by its stylistic ingenuity. Aretino used every means he could devise to wound and irritate a sensitive nature. The allusion to Raffaello, the comparison of his own pornographic dialogues with the Last Judgment in the Sistine, the covert hint that folk gossiped about Michelangelo's relations to young men, his sneers at the great man's exclusiveness, his cruel insinuations with regard to the Tomb of Julius, his devout hope that Paul will destroy the fresco, and the impudent eulogy of his precious letter on the Last Day, were all nicely calculated to annoy. Whether the missive was duly received by Buonarroti we do not know. Gaye asserts that it appears to have been sent through the post. He discovered it in the Archives of the Strozzi Palace.
The virtuous Pietro Aretino was not the only one to be scandalised by the nudities of the Last Judgment; and indeed it must be allowed that when Michelangelo treated such a subject in such a manner, he was pushing the principle of art for art's sake to its extremity. One of the most popular stories told about this work shows that it early began to create a scandal. When it was three fourths finished, Pope Paul went to see the fresco, attended by Messer Biagio da Cesena, his Master of the Ceremonies. On being asked his opinion of the painting, Messer Biagio replied that he thought it highly improper to expose so many naked figures in a sacred picture, and that it was more fit for a place of debauchery than for the Pope's chapel. Michelangelo, nettled by this, drew the prelate's portrait to the life, and placed him in hell with horns on his head and a serpent twisted round his loins. Messer Biagio, finding himself in this plight, and being no doubt laughed at by his friends, complained to the Pope, who answered that he could do nothing to help him. "Had the painter sent you to Purgatory, I would have used my best efforts to get you released; but I exercise no influence in hell; ubi nulla est redemptio." Before Michelangelo's death, his follower, Daniele da Volterra, was employed to provide draperies for the most obnoxious figures, and won thereby the name of Il Braghettone, or the breeches-maker. Paul IV. gave the painter this commission, having previously consulted Buonarroti on the subject. The latter is said to have replied to the Pope's messenger: "Tell his Holiness that this is a small matter, and can easily be set straight. Let him look to setting the world in order: to reform a picture costs no great trouble." Later on, during the Pontificate of Pio V., a master named Girolamo da Fano continued the process begun by Daniele da Volterra. As a necessary consequence of this tribute to modesty, the scheme of Michelangelo's colouring and the balance of his masses have been irretrievably damaged.
Vasari says that not very long before the Last Judgment was finished, Michelangelo fell from the scaffolding, and seriously hurt his leg. The pain he suffered and his melancholy made him shut himself up at home, where he refused to be treated by a doctor. There was a Florentine physician in Rome, however, of capricious humour, who admired the arts, and felt a real affection for Buonarroti. This man contrived to creep into the house by some privy entrance, and roamed about it till he found the master. He then insisted upon remaining there on watch and guard until he had effected a complete cure. The name of this excellent friend, famous for his skill and science in those days, was Baccio Rontini.
After his recovery Michelangelo returned to work, and finished the Last Judgment in a few months. It was exposed to the public on Christmas Day in 1541.
Time, negligence, and outrage, the dust of centuries, the burned papers of successive conclaves, the smoke of altar-candles, the hammers and the hangings of upholsterers, the brush of the breeches-maker and restorer, have so dealt with the Last Judgment that it is almost impossible to do it justice now. What Michelangelo intended by his scheme of colour is entirely lost. Not only did Daniele da Volterra, an execrable colourist, dab vividly tinted patches upon the modulated harmonies of flesh-tones painted by the master; but the whole surface has sunk into a bluish fog, deepening to something like lamp-black around the altar. Nevertheless, in its composition the fresco may still be studied; and after due inspection, aided by photographic reproductions of each portion, we are not unable to understand the enthusiasm which so nobly and profoundly planned a work of art aroused among contemporaries.
It has sometimes been asserted that this enormous painting, the largest and most comprehensive in the world, is a tempest of contending forms, a hurly-burly of floating, falling, soaring, and descending figures. Nothing can be more opposed to the truth. Michelangelo was sixty-six years of age when he laid his brush down at the end of the gigantic task. He had long outlived the spontaneity of youthful ardour. His experience through half a century in the planning of monuments, the painting of the Sistine vault, the designing of facades and sacristies and libraries, had developed the architectonic sense which was always powerful in his conceptive faculty. Consequently, we are not surprised to find that, intricate and confused as the scheme may appear to an unpractised eye, it is in reality a design of mathematical severity, divided into four bands or planes of grouping. The wall, since it occupies one entire end of a long high building, is naturally less broad than lofty. The pictorial divisions are therefore horizontal in the main, though so combined and varied as to produce the effect of multiplied curves, balancing and antiphonally inverting their lines of sinuosity. The pendentive upon which the prophet Jonah sits, descends and breaks the surface at the top, leaving a semicircular compartment on each side of its corbel. Michelangelo filled these upper spaces with two groups of wrestling angels, the one bearing a huge cross, the other a column, in the air. The cross and whipping-post are the chief emblems of Christ's Passion. The crown of thorns is also there, the sponge, the ladder, and the nails. It is with no merciful intent that these signs of our Lord's suffering are thus exhibited. Demonic angels, tumbling on clouds like Leviathans, hurl them to and fro in brutal wrath above the crowd of souls, as though to demonstrate the justice of damnation. In spite of a God's pain and shameful death, mankind has gone on sinning. The Judge is what the crimes of the world and Italy have made him. Immediately below the corbel, and well detached from the squadrons of attendant saints, Christ rises from His throne. His face is turned in the direction of the damned, His right hand is lifted as though loaded with thunderbolts for their annihilation. He is a ponderous young athlete; rather say a mass of hypertrophied muscles, with the features of a vulgarised Apollo. The Virgin sits in a crouching attitude at His right side, slightly averting her head, as though in painful expectation of the coming sentence. The saints and martyrs who surround Christ and His Mother, while forming one of the chief planes in the composition, are arranged in four unequal groups of subtle and surprising intricacy. All bear the emblems of their cruel deaths, and shake them in the sight of Christ as though appealing to His judgment-seat. It has been charitably suggested that they intend to supplicate for mercy. I cannot, however, resist the impression that they are really demanding rigid justice. S. Bartholomew flourishes his flaying-knife and dripping skin with a glare of menace. S. Catherine struggles to raise her broken wheel. S. Sebastian frowns down on hell with a sheaf of arrows quivering in his stalwart arm. The saws, the carding-combs, the crosses, and the grid-irons, all subserve the same purpose of reminding Christ that, if He does not damn the wicked, confessors will have died with Him in vain. It is singular that, while Michelangelo depicted so many attitudes of expectation, eagerness, anxiety, and astonishment in the blest, he has given to none of them the expression of gratitude, or love, or sympathy, or shrinking awe. Men and women, old and young alike, are human beings of Herculean build. Paradise, according to Buonarroti's conception, was not meant for what is graceful, lovely, original, and tender. The hosts of heaven are adult and over-developed gymnasts. Yet, while we record these impressions, it would be unfair to neglect the spiritual beauty of some souls embracing after long separation in the grave, with folding arms, and clasping hands, and clinging lips. While painting these, Michelangelo thought peradventure of his father and his brother.
The two planes which I have attempted to describe occupy the upper and the larger portion of the composition. The third in order is made up of three masses. In the middle floats a band of Titanic cherubs, blowing their long trumpets over earth and sea to wake the dead. Dramatically, nothing can be finer than the strained energy and superhuman force of these superb creatures. Their attitudes compel our imagination to hear the crashing thunders of the trump of doom. To the left of the spectator are souls ascending to be judged, some floating through vague ether, enwrapped with grave-clothes, others assisted by descending saints and angels, who reach a hand, a rosary, to help the still gross spirit in its flight. To the right are the condemned, sinking downwards to their place of torment, spurned by seraphs, cuffed by angelic grooms, dragged by demons, hurling, howling, huddled in a mass of horror. It is just here, and still yet farther down, that Michelangelo put forth all his power as a master of expression. While the blessed display nothing which is truly proper to their state of holiness and everlasting peace, the damned appear in every realistic aspect of most stringent agony and terror. The colossal forms of flesh with which the multitudes of saved and damned are equally endowed, befit that extremity of physical and mental anguish more than they suit the serenity of bliss eternal. There is a wretch, twined round with fiends, gazing straight before him as he sinks; one half of his face is buried in his hand, the other fixed in a stony spasm of despair, foreshadowing perpetuity of hell. Nothing could express with sublimity of a higher order the sense of irremediable loss, eternal pain, a future endless without hope, than the rigid dignity of this not ignoble sinner's dread. Just below is the place to which the doomed are sinking. Michelangelo reverted to Dante for the symbolism chosen to portray hell. Charon, the demon, with eyes of burning coal, compels a crowd of spirits in his ferryboat. They land and are received by devils, who drag them before Minos, judge of the infernal regions. He towers at the extreme right end of the fresco, indicating that the nether regions yawn infinitely deep, beyond our ken; just as the angels above Christ suggest a region of light and glory, extending upward through illimitable space. The scene of judgment on which attention is concentrated forms but an episode in the universal, sempiternal scheme of things. Balancing hell, on the left hand of the spectator, is brute earth, the grave, the forming and the swallowing clay, out of which souls, not yet acquitted or condemned, emerge with difficulty, in varied forms of skeletons or corpses, slowly thawing into life eternal.
Vasari, in his description of the Last Judgment, seized upon what after all endures as the most salient aspect of this puzzling work, at once so fascinating and so repellent. "It is obvious," he says, "that the peerless painter did not aim at anything but the portrayal of the human body in perfect proportions and most varied attitudes, together with the passions and affections of the soul. That was enough for him, and here he has no equal. He wanted to exhibit the grand style: consummate draughtsmanship in the nude, mastery over all problems of design. He concentrated his power upon the human form, attending to that alone, and neglecting all subsidiary things, as charm of colour, capricious inventions, delicate devices and novelties of fancy." Vasari might have added that Michelangelo also neglected what ought to have been a main object of his art: convincing eloquence, the solemnity proper to his theme, spirituality of earthly grossness quit. As a collection of athletic nudes in all conceivable postures of rest and action, of foreshortening, of suggested movement, the Last Judgment remains a stupendous miracle. Nor has the aged master lost his cunning for the portrayal of divinely simple faces, superb limbs, masculine beauty, in the ideal persons of young men. The picture, when we dwell long enough upon its details, emerges into prominence, moreover, as indubitably awe-inspiring, terrifying, dreadful in its poignant expression of wrath, retaliation, thirst for vengeance, cruelty, and helpless horror. But the supreme point even of Doomsday, of the Dies Irae, has not been seized. We do not hear the still small voice of pathos and of human hope which thrills through Thomas a Celano's hymn:—
Quaerens me sedisti lassus, Redemisti crucem passus: Tantus labor non sit cassus.
The note is one of sustained menace and terror, and the total scheme of congregated forms might be compared to a sense-deafening solo on a trombone. While saying this, we must remember that it was the constant impulse of Michelangelo to seize one moment only, and what he deemed the most decisive moment, in the theme he had to develop. Having selected the instant of time at which Christ, half risen from his Judgment-seat of cloud, raises an omnific hand to curse, the master caused each fibre of his complex composition to thrill with the tremendous passion of that coming sentence. The long series of designs for Crucifixions, Depositions from the Cross, and Pietas which we possess, all of them belonging to a period of his life not much later than 1541, prove that his nature was quite as sensitive to pathos as to terror; only, it was not in him to attempt a combination of terror and pathos.
"He aimed at the portrayal of the human body. He wanted to exhibit the grand style." So says Vasari, and Vasari is partly right. But we must not fall into the paradox, so perversely maintained by Ruskin in his lecture on Tintoretto and Michelangelo, that the latter was a cold and heartless artist, caring chiefly for the display of technical skill and anatomical science. Partial and painful as we may find the meaning of the Last Judgment, that meaning has been only too powerfully and personally felt. The denunciations of the prophets, the woes of the Apocalypse, the invectives of Savonarola, the tragedies of Italian history, the sense of present and indwelling sin, storm through and through it. Technically, the masterpiece bears signs of fatigue and discontent, in spite of its extraordinary vigour of conception and execution. The man was old and tired, thwarted in his wishes and oppressed with troubles. His very science had become more formal, his types more arid and schematic, than they used to be. The thrilling life, the divine afflatus, of the Sistine vault have passed out of the Last Judgment. Wholly admirable, unrivalled, and unequalled by any other human work upon a similar scale as this fresco may be in its command over the varied resources of the human body, it does not strike our mind as the production of a master glorying in carnal pride and mental insolence, but rather as that of one discomfited and terrified, upon the point of losing heart.
Henri Beyle, jotting down his impressions in the Sistine Chapel, was reminded of the Grand Army's flight after the burning of Moscow. "When, in our disastrous retreat from Russia, it chanced that we were suddenly awakened in the middle of the dark night by an obstinate cannonading, which at each moment seemed to gain in nearness, then all the forces of a man's nature gathered close around his heart; he felt himself in the presence of fate, and having no attention left for things of vulgar interest, he made himself ready to dispute his life with destiny. The sight of Michelangelo's picture has brought back to my consciousness that almost forgotten sensation." This is a piece of just and sympathetic criticism, and upon its note I am fain to close.
It is probable that the fame of the Last Judgment spread rapidly abroad through Italy, and that many visits to Rome were made for the purpose of inspecting it. Complimentary sonnets must also have been addressed to the painter. I take it that Niccolo Martelli sent some poems on the subject from Florence, for Michelangelo replied upon the 20th of January 1542 in the following letter of singular modesty and urbane kindness:—
"I received from Messer Vincenzo Perini your letter with two sonnets and a madrigal. The letter and the sonnet addressed to me are so marvellously fine, that if a man should find in them anything to castigate, it would be impossible to castigate him as thoroughly as they are castigated. It is true they praise me so much, that had I Paradise in my bosom, less of praise would suffice. I perceive that you suppose me to be just what God wishes that I were. I am a poor man and of little merit, who plod along in the art which God gave me, to lengthen out my life as far as possible. Such as I am, I remain your servant and that of all the house of Martelli. I thank you for your letter and the poems, but not as much as duty bids, for I cannot soar to such heights of courtesy."
When the Last Judgment was finished, Michelangelo not unreasonably hoped that he might resume his work upon the Tomb of Julius. But this was not to be. Antonio da San Gallo had just completed the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament in the Vatican, which is known as the Cappella Paolina, and the Pope resolved that its frescoes should be painted by Buonarroti. The Duke of Urbino, yielding to his wishes, wrote to Michelangelo upon the 6th of March 1542, saying that he should be quite satisfied if the three statues by his hand, including the Moses, were assigned to the tomb, the execution of the rest being left to competent workmen under his direction.
In effect, we possess documents proving that the tomb was consigned to several masters during this year, 1542. The first is a contract dated February 27, whereby Raffaello da Montelupo undertakes to finish three statues, two of these being the Active Life and the Contemplative. The second is a contract dated May 16, in which Michelangelo assigns the architectural and ornamental portion of the monument conjointly to Giovanni de' Marchesi and Francesco d' Amadore, called Urbino, providing that differences which may arise between them shall be referred to Donato Giannotti. There is a third contract, under date June 1, about the same work intrusted to the same two craftsmen, prescribing details with more exactitude. It turned out that the apprehension of disagreement between the masters about the division of their labour was not unfounded, for Michelangelo wrote twice in July to his friend Luigi del Riccio, complaining bitterly of their dissensions, and saying that he has lost two months in these trifles. He adds that one of them is covetous, the other mad, and he fears their quarrel may end in wounds or murder. The matter disturbs his mind greatly, chiefly on account of Urbino, because he has brought him up, and also because of the time wasted over "their ignorance and bestial stupidity." The dispute was finally settled by the intervention of three master-masons (acting severally for Michelangelo, Urbino, and Giovanni), who valued the respective portions of the work.
I must interrupt this narrative of the tomb to explain who some of the persons just mentioned were, and how they came to be connected with Buonarroti. Donato Giannotti was the famous writer upon political and literary topics, who, after playing a conspicuous part in the revolution of Florence against the Medici, now lived in exile at Rome. His dialogues on Dante, and Francesco d'Olanda's account of the meetings at S. Silvestro, prove that he formed a member of that little circle which included Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna. Luigi del Riccio was a Florentine merchant, settled in the banking-house of the Strozzi at Rome. For many years he acted as Michelangelo's man of business; but their friendship was close and warm in many other ways. They were drawn together by a common love of poetry, and by the charm of a rarely gifted youth called Cecchino dei Bracci. Urbino was the great sculptor's servant and man of all work, the last and best of that series, which included Stefano Miniatore, Pietro Urbino, Antonio Mini. Michelangelo made Urbino's fortune, mourned his death, and undertook the guardianship of his children, as will appear in due course. All through his life the great sculptor was dependent upon some trusted servant, to whom he became personally attached, and who did not always repay his kindness with gratitude. After Urbino's death, Ascanio Condivi filled a similar post, and to this circumstance we owe the most precious of our contemporary biographies.
Our most important document with regard to the Tomb of Julius is an elaborate petition addressed by Michelangelo to Paul III. upon the 20th of July. It begins by referring to the contract of April 18, 1532, and proceeds to state that the Pope's new commission for the Cappella Paolina has interfered once more with the fulfilment of the sculptor's engagements. Then it recites the terms suggested by the Duke of Urbino in his letter of March 6, 1542, according to which three of the statues of the tomb may be assigned to capable craftsmen, while the other three, including the Moses, will have to be finished by Michelangelo himself. Raffaello da Montelupo has already undertaken the Madonna and Child, a Prophet, and a Sibyl. Giovanni de' Marchese and Francesco da Urbino are at work upon the architecture. It remains for Michelangelo to furnish the Moses and two Captives, all three of which are nearly completed. The Captives, however, were designed for a much larger monument, and will not suit the present scheme. Accordingly, he has blocked out two other figures, representing the Active and Contemplative Life. But even these he is unable to finish, since the painting of the chapel absorbs his time and energy. He therefore prays the Pope to use his influence with the Duke of Urbino, so that he may be henceforward wholly and absolutely freed from all obligations in the matter of the tomb. The Moses he can deliver in a state of perfection, but he wishes to assign the Active and Contemplative Life to Raffaello or to any other sculptor who may be preferred by the Duke. Finally, he is prepared to deposit a sum of 1200 crowns for the total costs, and to guarantee that the work shall be efficiently executed in all its details.
It is curious that in this petition and elsewhere no mention is made of what might be considered the most important portion of the tomb—namely, the portrait statue of Julius.
The document was presented to Messer Piero Giovanni Aliotti, Bishop of Forli, and keeper of the wardrobe to Pope Paul. Accordingly, the final contract regarding the tomb was drawn up and signed upon the 20th of August. I need not recapitulate its terms, for I have already printed a summary of them in a former chapter of this work. Suffice it to say that Michelangelo was at last released from all active responsibility with regard to the tomb, and that the vast design of his early manhood now dwindled down to the Moses. To Raffaello da Montelupo was left the completion of the remaining five statues.
This lamentable termination to the cherished scheme of his lifetime must have preyed upon Michelangelo's spirits. The letters in which he alludes to it, after the contract had been signed, breathe a spirit of more than usual fretfulness. Moreover, the Duke of Urbino now delayed to send his ratification, by which alone the deed could become valid. In October, writing to Del Riccio, Michelangelo complains that Messer Aliotti is urging him to begin painting in the chapel; but the plaster is not yet fit to work on. Meanwhile, although he has deposited 1400 crowns, "which would have kept him working for seven years, and would have enabled him to finish two tombs," the Duke's ratification does not come. "It is easy enough to see what that means without writing it in words! Enough; for the loyalty of thirty-six years, and for having given myself of my own free will to others, I deserve no better. Painting and sculpture, labour and good faith, have been my ruin, and I go continually from bad to worse. Better would it have been for me if I had set myself to making matches in my youth! I should not be in such distress of mind.... I will not remain under this burden, nor be vilified every day for a swindler by those who have robbed my life and honour. Only death or the Pope can extricate me." It appears that at this time the Duke of Urbino's agents were accusing him of having lent out moneys which he had received on account for the execution of the monument. Then follows, in the same month of October, that stormy letter to some prelate, which is one of the most weighty autobiographical documents from the hand of Michelangelo in our possession.
"Monsignore,—Your lordship sends to tell me that I must begin to paint, and have no anxiety. I answer that one paints with the brain and not with the hands; and he who has not his brains at his command produces work that shames him. Therefore, until my business is settled, I can do nothing good. The ratification of the last contract does not come. On the strength of the other, made before Clement, I am daily stoned as though I had crucified Christ.... My whole youth and manhood have been lost, tied down to this tomb.... I see multitudes with incomes of 2000 or 3000 crowns lying in bed, while I with all my immense labour toil to grow poor.... I am not a thief and usurer, but a citizen of Florence, noble, the son of an honest man, and do not come from Cagli." (These and similar outbursts of indignant passion scattered up and down the epistle, show to what extent the sculptor's irritable nature had been exasperated by calumnious reports. As he openly declares, he is being driven mad by pin-pricks. Then follows the detailed history of his dealings with Julius, which, as I have already made copious use of it, may here be given in outline.) "In the first year of his pontificate, Julius commissioned me to make his tomb, and I stayed eight months at Carrara quarrying marbles and sending them to the Piazza of S. Peter's, where I had my lodgings behind S. Caterina. Afterwards the Pope decided not to build his tomb during his lifetime, and set me down to painting. Then he kept me two years at Bologna casting his statue in bronze, which has been destroyed. After that I returned to Rome and stayed with him until his death, always keeping my house open without post or pension, living on the money for the tomb, since I had no other income. After the death of Julius, Aginensis wanted me to go on with it, but on a larger scale. So I brought the marbles to the Macello dei Corvi, and got that part of the mural scheme finished which is now walled in at S. Pietro in Vincoli, and made the figures which I have at home still. Meanwhile, Leo, not wishing me to work at the tomb, pretended that he wanted to complete the facade of S. Lorenzo at Florence, and begged me of the Cardinal.
"To continue my history of the tomb of Julius, I say that when he changed his mind about building it in his lifetime, some shiploads of marble came to the Ripa, which I had ordered a short while before from Carrara, and as I could not get money from the Pope to pay the freightage, I had to borrow 150 or 200 ducats from Baldassare Balducci—that is, from the bank of Jacopo Gallo. At the same time workmen came from Florence, some of whom are still alive; and I furnished the house which Julius gave me behind S. Caterina with beds and other furniture for the men, and what was wanted for the work of the tomb. All this being done without money, I was greatly embarrassed. Accordingly, I urged the Pope with all my power to go forward with the business, and he had me turned away by a groom one morning when I came to speak upon the matter." (Here intervenes the story of the flight to Florence, which has been worked up in the course of Chapter IV.) "Later on, while I was at Florence, Julius sent three briefs to the Signory. At last the latter sent for me and said: 'We do not want to go to war with Pope Julius because of you. You must return; and if you do so, we will write you letters of such authority that if he does you harm, he will be doing it to this Signory.' Accordingly, I took the letters, and went back to the Pope, and what followed would be long to tell!
"All the dissensions between Pope Julius and me arose from the envy of Bramante and Raffaello da Urbino; and this was the cause of my not finishing the tomb in his lifetime. They wanted to ruin me. Raffaello had indeed good reason, for all he had of art, he had from me."
Twice again in October Michelangelo wrote to Luigi del Riccio about the ratification of his contract. "I cannot live, far less paint." "I am resolved to stop at home and finish the three figures, as I agreed to do. This would be better for me than to drag my limbs daily to the Vatican. Let him who likes get angry. If the Pope wants me to paint, he must send for the Duke's ambassador and procure the ratification."
What happened at this time about the tomb can be understood by help of a letter written to Salvestro da Montauto on the 3rd of February 1545. Michelangelo refers to the last contract, and says that the Duke of Urbino ratified the deed. Accordingly, five statues were assigned to Raffaello da Montelupo. "But while I was painting the new chapel for Pope Paul III., his Holiness, at my earnest prayer, allowed me a little time, during which I finished two of them, namely, the Active and Contemplative Life, with my own hand."
With all his good-will, however, Michelangelo did not wholly extricate himself from the anxieties of this miserable affair. As late as the year 1553, Annibale Caro wrote to Antonio Gallo entreating him to plead for the illustrious old man with the Duke of Urbino. "I assure you that the extreme distress caused him by being in disgrace with his Excellency is sufficient to bring his grey hairs to the grave before his time."
The Tomb of Julius, as it now appears in the Church of S. Pietro in Vincoli in Rome, is a monument composed of two discordant parts, by inspecting which a sympathetic critic is enabled to read the dreary history of its production. As Condivi allows, it was a thing "rattoppata e rifatta," patched together and hashed up.
The lower half represents what eventually survived from the grandiose original design for one facade of that vast mount of marble which was to have been erected in the Tribune of St. Peter's. The socles, upon which captive Arts and Sciences were meant to stand, remain; but instead of statues, inverted consoles take their places, and lead lamely up to the heads and busts of terminal old men. The pilasters of these terms have been shortened. There are four of them, enclosing two narrow niches, where beautiful female figures, the Active Life and the Contemplative Life, still testify to the enduring warmth and vigour of the mighty sculptor's genius. As single statues duly worked into a symmetrical scheme, these figures would be admirable, since grace of line and symbolical contrast of attitude render both charming. In their present position they are reduced to comparative insignificance by heavy architectural surroundings. The space left free between the niches and the terms is assigned to the seated statue of Moses, which forms the main attraction of the monument, and of which, as a masterpiece of Michelangelo's best years, I shall have to speak later on.
The architectural plan and the surface decoration of this lower half are conceived in a style belonging to the earlier Italian Renaissance. Arabesques and masks and foliated patterns adorn the flat slabs. The recess of each niche is arched with a concave shell. The terminal busts are boldly modelled, and impose upon the eye. The whole is rich in detail, and, though somewhat arid in fanciful invention, it carries us back to the tradition of Florentine work by Mino da Fiesole and Desiderio da Settignano.
When we ascend to the upper portion, we seem to have passed, as indeed we do pass, into the region of the new manner created by Michelangelo at S. Lorenzo. The orders of the pilasters are immensely tall in proportion to the spaces they enclose. Two of these spaces, those on the left and right side, are filled in above with meaningless rectangular recesses, while seated statues occupy less than a whole half in altitude of the niches. The architectural design is nondescript, corresponding to no recognised style, unless it be a bastard Roman Doric. There is absolutely no decorative element except four shallow masks beneath the abaci of the pilasters. All is cold and broad and dry, contrasting strangely with the accumulated details of the lower portion. In the central niche, immediately above the Moses, stands a Madonna of fine sculptural quality, beneath a shallow arch, which repeats the shell-pattern. At her feet lies the extended figure of Pope Julius II., crowned with the tiara, raising himself in a half-recumbent attitude upon his right arm.
Of the statues in the upper portion, by far the finest in artistic merit is the Madonna. This dignified and gracious lady, holding the Divine Child in her arms, must be reckoned among Buonarroti's triumphs in dealing with the female form. There is more of softness and sweetness here than in the Madonna of the Medicean sacristy, while the infant playing with a captured bird is full of grace. Michelangelo left little in this group for the chisel of Montelupo to deform by alteration. The seated female, a Sibyl, on the left, bears equally the stamp of his design. Executed by himself, this would have been a masterpiece for grandeur of line and dignified repose. As it is, the style, while seeming to aim at breadth, remains frigid and formal. The so-called Prophet on the other side counts among the signal failures of Italian sculpture. It has neither beauty nor significance. Like a heavy Roman consul of the Decadence, the man sits there, lumpy and meaningless; we might take it for a statue-portrait erected by some provincial municipality to celebrate a local magnate; but of prophecy or inspiration there is nothing to detect in this inert figure. We wonder why he should be placed so near a Pope.
It is said that Michelangelo expressed dissatisfaction with Montelupo's execution of the two statues finally committed to his charge, and we know from documents that the man was ill when they were finished. Still we can hardly excuse the master himself for the cold and perfunctory performance of a task which had such animated and heroic beginnings. Competent judges, who have narrowly surveyed the monument, say that the stones are badly put together, and the workmanship is defective in important requirements of the sculptor-mason's craft. Those who defend Buonarroti must fall back upon the theory that weariness and disappointment made him at last indifferent to the fate of a design which had cost him so much anxiety, pecuniary difficulties, and frustrated expectations in past years. He let the Tomb of Julius, his first vast dream of art, be botched up out of dregs and relics by ignoble hands, because he was heart-sick and out of pocket.
As artist, Michelangelo might, one thinks, have avoided the glaring discord of styles between the upper and the lower portions of the tomb; but sensitiveness to harmony of manner lies not in the nature of men who rapidly evolve new forms of thought and feeling from some older phase. Probably he felt the width and the depth of that gulf which divided himself in 1505 from the same self in 1545, less than we do. Forty years in a creative nature introduce subtle changes, which react upon the spirit of the age, and provoke subsequent criticism to keen comments and comparisons. The individual and his contemporaries are not so well aware of these discrepancies as posterity.
The Moses, which Paul and his courtiers thought sufficient to commemorate a single Pope, stands as the eminent jewel of this defrauded tomb. We may not be attracted by it. We may even be repelled by the goat-like features, the enormous beard, the ponderous muscles, and the grotesque garments of the monstrous statue. In order to do it justice, Jet us bear in mind that the Moses now remains detached from a group of environing symbolic forms which Michelangelo designed. Instead of taking its place as one among eight corresponding and counterbalancing giants, it is isolated, thrust forward on the eye; whereas it was intended to be viewed from below in concert with a scheme of balanced figures, male and female, on the same colossal scale.
Condivi writes not amiss, in harmony with the gusto of his age, and records what a gentle spirit thought about the Moses then: "Worthy of all admiration is the statue of Moses, duke and captain of the Hebrews. He sits posed in the attitude of a thinker and a sage, holding beneath his right arm the tables of the law, and with the left hand giving support to his chin, like one who is tired and full of anxious cares. From the fingers of this hand escape long flowing lines of beard, which are very beautiful in their effect upon the eye. The face is full of vivid life and spiritual force, fit to inspire both love and terror, as perhaps the man in truth did. He bears, according to the customary wont of artists while portraying Moses, two horns upon the head, not far removed from the summit of the brows. He is robed and girt about the legs with hosen, the arms bare, and all the rest after the antique fashion. It is a marvellous work, and full of art: mostly in this, that underneath those subtleties of raiment one can perceive the naked form, the garments detracting nothing from the beauty of the body; as was the universal way of working with this master in all his clothed figures, whether painted or sculptured."
Except that Condivi dwelt too much upon the repose of this extraordinary statue, too little upon its vivacity and agitating unrest, his description serves our purpose as well as any other. He does not seem to have felt the turbulence and carnal insolence which break our sense of dignity and beauty now.
Michelangelo left the Moses incomplete in many details, after bringing the rest of the figure to a high state of polish. Tooth-marks of the chisel are observable upon the drapery, the back, both hands, part of the neck, the hair, and the salient horns. It seems to have been his habit, as Condivi and Cellini report, to send a finished statue forth with some sign-manual of roughness in the final touches. That gave his work the signature of the sharp tools he had employed upon it. And perhaps he loved the marble so well that he did not like to quit the good white stone without sparing a portion of its clinging strength and stubbornness, as symbol of the effort of his brain and hand to educe live thought from inert matter.
In the century after Michelangelo's death a sonnet was written by Giovanni Battista Felice Zappi upon this Moses. It is famous in Italian literature, and expresses adequately the ideas which occur to ordinary minds when they approach the Moses. For this reason I think that it is worthy of being introduced in a translation here:—
_Who is the man who, carved in this huge stone, Sits giant, all renowned things of art Transcending? he whose living lips, that start, Speak eager words? I hear, and take their tone.
He sure is Moses. That the chin hath shown By its dense honour, the brows' beam bipart: 'Tis Moses, when he left the Mount, with part, A great-part, of God's glory round him thrown.
Such was the prophet when those sounding vast Waters he held suspense about him; such When he the sea barred, made it gulph his foe.
And you, his tribes, a vile calf did you cast? Why not an idol worth like this so much? To worship that had wrought you lesser woe._
Before quitting the Tomb of Julius, I must discuss the question of eight scattered statues, partly unfinished, which are supposed, on more or less good grounds, to have been designed for this monument. About two of them, the bound Captives in the Louvre, there is no doubt. Michelangelo mentions these in his petition to Pope Paul, saying that the change of scale implied by the last plan obliged him to abstain from using them. We also know their history. When the sculptor was ill at Rome in 1544, Luigi del Riccio nursed him in the palace of the Strozzi. Gratitude for this hospitality induced him to make a present of the statues to Ruberto degli Strozzi, who took them to France and offered them to the King. Francis gave them to the Constable de Montmorenci; and he placed them in his country-house of Ecouen. In 1793 the Republic offered them for sale, when they were bought for the French nation by M. Lenoir.
One of these Captives deserves to be called the most fascinating creation of the master's genius. Together with the Adam, it may be taken as fixing his standard of masculine beauty. He is a young man, with head thrown back, as though in swoon or slumber; the left arm raised above the weight of massy curls, the right hand resting on his broad full bosom. There is a divine charm in the tranquil face, tired but not fatigued, sad but not melancholy, suggesting that the sleeping mind of the immortal youth is musing upon solemn dreams. Praxiteles might have so expressed the Genius of Eternal Repose; but no Greek sculptor would have given that huge girth to the thorax, or have exaggerated the mighty hand with such delight in sinewy force. These qualities, peculiar to Buonarroti's sense of form, do not detract from the languid pose and supple rhythm of the figure, which flows down, a sinuous line of beauty, through the slightly swelling flanks, along the finely moulded thighs, to loveliest feet emerging from the marble. It is impossible, while gazing on this statue, not to hear a strain of intellectual music. Indeed, like melody, it tells no story, awakes no desire, but fills the soul with something beyond thought or passion, subtler and more penetrating than words.
The companion figure has not equal grace. Athletically muscular, though adolescent, the body of this young man, whose hands are tied behind his back, is writhed into an attitude of vehement protest and rebellion. He raises his face with appealing pain to heaven. The head, which is only blocked out, overweighs the form, proving that Michelangelo, unlike the Greeks, did not observe a fixed canon of proportion for the human frame. This statue bears a strong resemblance in feeling and conception to the Apollo designed for Baccio Valori.
There are four rough-hewn male figures, eccentrically wrought into the rock-work of a grotto in the Boboli Gardens, which have been assigned to the Tomb of Julius. This attribution involves considerable difficulties. In the first place, the scale is different, and the stride of one of them, at any rate, is too wide for the pedestals of that monument. Then their violent contortions and ponderous adult forms seem to be at variance with the spirit of the Captives. Mr. Heath Wilson may perhaps be right in his conjecture that Michelangelo began them for the sculptural decoration on the facade of S. Lorenzo. Their incompleteness baffles criticism; yet we feel instinctively that they were meant for the open air and for effect at a considerable distance. They remind us of Deucalion's men growing out of the stones he threw behind his back. We could not wish them to be finished, or to lose their wild attraction, as of primeval beings, the remnants of dim generations nearer than ourselves to elemental nature. No better specimens of Buonarroti's way of working in the marble could be chosen. Almost savage hatchings with the point blend into finer touches from the toothed chisel; and here and there the surface has been treated with innumerable smoothing lines that round it into skin and muscle. To a man who chiselled thus, marble must have yielded like softest freestone beneath his tools; and how recklessly he wrought is clear from the defective proportions of one old man's figure, whose leg below the knee is short beyond all excuse.
A group of two figures, sometimes called the Victory, now in the Bargello Palace, was catalogued without hesitation by Vasari among the statues for the tomb. A young hero, of gigantic strength and height, stands firmly poised upon one foot, while his other leg, bent at the knee, crushes the back of an old man doubled up beneath him. In the face of the vanquished warrior critics have found a resemblance to Michelangelo. The head of the victorious youth seems too small for his stature, and the features are almost brutally vacuous, though burning with an insolent and carnal beauty. The whole forcible figure expresses irresistible energy and superhuman litheness combined with massive strength. This group cannot be called pleasing, and its great height renders it almost inconceivable that it was meant to range upon one monument with the Captives of the Louvre. There are, however, so many puzzles and perplexities connected with that design in its several stages, that we dare affirm or deny nothing concerning it. M. Guillaume, taking it for granted that the Victory was intended for the tomb, makes the plausible suggestion that some of the peculiarities which render it in composition awkward, would have been justified by the addition of bronze wings. Mr. Heath Wilson, seeking after an allegory, is fain to believe that it represents Michelangelo's own state of subjection while employed upon the Serravezza quarries.
Last comes the so-called Adonis of the Bargello Palace, which not improbably was designed for one of the figures prostrate below the feet of a victorious Genius. It bears, indeed, much resemblance to a roughly indicated nude at the extreme right of the sketch for the tomb. Upon this supposition, Michelangelo must have left it in a very unfinished state, with an unshaped block beneath the raised right thigh. This block has now been converted into a boar. Extremely beautiful as the Adonis undoubtedly is, the strained, distorted attitude seems to require some explanation. That might have been given by the trampling form and robes of a Genius. Still it is difficult to comprehend why the left arm and hand, finished, I feel almost sure, by Michelangelo, should have been so carefully executed. The Genius, if draped, would have hidden nearly the whole of that part of the statue. The face of this Adonis displays exactly the same type as that of the so-called Victory and of Giuliano de' Medici. Here the type assumes singular loveliness.
After the death of Clement VII. Michelangelo never returned to reside at Florence. The rest of his life was spent in Rome. In the year 1534 he had reached the advanced age of fifty-nine, and it is possible that he first became acquainted with the noble lady Vittoria Colonna about 1538. Recent students of his poetry and friendships have suggested that their famous intimacy began earlier, during one of his not infrequent visits to Rome. But we have no proof of this. On the contrary, the only letters extant which he sent to her, two in number, belong to the year 1545. It is certain that anything like friendship between them grew up at some considerable time after his final settlement in Rome.
Vittoria was the daughter of Fabrizio Colonna, Grand Constable of Naples, by his marriage with Agnesina di Montefeltro, daughter of Federigo, Duke of Urbino. Blood more illustrious than hers could not be found in Italy. When she was four years old, her parents betrothed her to Ferrante Francesco d'Avalos, a boy of the same age, the only son of the Marchese di Pescara. In her nineteenth year the affianced couple were married at Ischia, the fief and residence of the house of D'Avalos. Ferrante had succeeded to his father's title early in boyhood, and was destined for a brilliant military career. On the young bride's side at least it was a love-match. She was tenderly attached to her handsome husband, ignorant of his infidelities, and blind to his fatal faults of character. Her happiness proved of short duration. In 1512 Pescara was wounded and made prisoner at the battle of Ravenna, and, though he returned to his wife for a short interval, duty called him again to the field of war in Lombardy in 1515. After this date Vittoria saw him but seldom. The last time they met was in October 1522. As general of the Imperial forces, Pescara spent the next years in perpetual military operations. Under his leadership the battle of Pavia was won in 1525, and King Francis became his master's prisoner. So far, nothing but honour, success, and glory waited on the youthful hero. But now the tide turned. Pescara, when he again settled down at Milan, began to plot with Girolamo Morone, Grand Chancellor of Francesco Sforza's duchy. Morone had conceived a plan for reinstating his former lord in Milan by the help of an Italian coalition. He offered Pescara the crown of Naples if he would turn against the Emperor. The Marquis seems at first to have lent a not unwilling ear to these proposals, but seeing reason to doubt the success of the scheme, he finally resolved to betray Morone to Charles V., and did this with cold-blooded ingenuity. A few months afterwards, on November 25, 1525, he died, branded as a traitor, accused of double treachery, both to his sovereign and his friend.