The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti
by John Addington Symonds
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If suspicions of her husband's guilt crossed Vittoria's mind, as we have some reason to believe they did, these were not able to destroy her loyalty and love. Though left so young a widow and childless, she determined to consecrate her whole life to his memory and to religion. His nephew and heir, the Marchese del Vasto, became her adopted son. The Marchioness survived Pescara two-and-twenty years, which were spent partly in retirement at Ischia, partly in journeys, partly in convents at Orvieto and Viterbo, and finally in a semi-monastic seclusion at Rome. The time spared from pious exercises she devoted to study, the composition of poetry, correspondence with illustrious men of letters, and the society of learned persons. Her chief friends belonged to that group of earnest thinkers who felt the influences of the Reformation without ceasing to be loyal children of the Church. With Vittoria's name are inseparably connected those of Gasparo Contarini, Reginald Pole, Giovanni Morone, Jacopo Sadoleto, Marcantonio Flaminio, Pietro Carnesecchi, and Fra Bernardino Ochino. The last of these avowed his Lutheran principles, and was severely criticised by Vittoria Colonna for doing so. Carnesecchi was burned for heresy. Vittoria never adopted Protestantism, and died an orthodox Catholic. Yet her intimacy with men of liberal opinions exposed her to mistrust and censure in old age. The movement of the Counter-Reformation had begun, and any kind of speculative freedom aroused suspicion. This saintly princess was accordingly placed under the supervision of the Holy Office, and to be her friend was slightly dangerous. It is obvious that Vittoria's religion was of an evangelical type, inconsistent with the dogmas developed by the Tridentine Council; and it is probable that, like her friend Contarini, she advocated a widening rather than a narrowing of Western Christendom. To bring the Church back to purer morals and sincerity of faith was their aim. They yearned for a reformation and regeneration from within.

In all these matters, Michelangelo, the devout student of the Bible and the disciple of Savonarola, shared Vittoria's sentiments. His nature, profoundly and simply religious from the outset, assumed a tone of deeper piety and habitual devotion during the advance of years. Vittoria Colonna's influence at this period strengthened his Christian emotions, which remained untainted by asceticism or superstition. They were further united by another bond, which was their common interest in poetry. The Marchioness of Pescara was justly celebrated during her lifetime as one of the most natural writers of Italian verse. Her poems consist principally of sonnets consecrated to the memory of her husband, or composed on sacred and moral subjects. Penetrated by genuine feeling, and almost wholly free from literary affectation, they have that dignity and sweetness which belong to the spontaneous utterances of a noble heart. Whether she treats of love or of religion, we find the same simplicity and sincerity of style. There is nothing in her pious meditations that a Christian of any communion may not read with profit, as the heartfelt outpourings of a soul athirst for God and nourished on the study of the gospel.

Michelangelo preserved a large number of her sonnets, which he kept together in one volume. Writing to his nephew Lionardo in 1554, he says: "Messer Giovan Francesco (Fattucci) asked me about a month ago if I possessed any writings of the Marchioness. I have a little book bound in parchment, which she gave me some ten years ago. It has one hundred and three sonnets, not counting another forty she afterwards sent on paper from Viterbo. I had these bound into the same book, and at that time I used to lend them about to many persons, so that they are all of them now in print. In addition to these poems I have many letters which she wrote from Orvieto and Viterbo. These then are the writings I possess of the Marchioness." He composed several pieces, madrigals and sonnets, under the genial influence of this exchange of thoughts. It was a period at which his old love of versifying revived with singular activity. Other friends, like Tommaso Cavalieri, Luigi del Riccio, and afterwards Vasari, enticed his Muse to frequent utterance. Those he wrote for the Marchioness were distributed in manuscript among his private friends, and found their way into the first edition of his collected poems. But it is a mistake to suppose that she was the sole or even the chief source of his poetical inspiration.

We shall see that it was his custom to mark his feeling for particular friends by gifts of drawings as well as of poems. He did this notably in the case of both Vittoria Colonna and Tommaso dei Cavalieri. For the latter he designed subjects from Greek mythology; for the former, episodes in the Passion of our Lord. "At the request of this lady," says Condivi, "he made a naked Christ, at the moment when, taken from the cross, our Lord would have fallen like an abandoned corpse at the feet of his most holy Mother, if two angels did not support him in their arms. She sits below the cross with a face full of tears and sorrow, lifting both her widespread arms to heaven, while on the stem of the tree above is written this legend, 'Non vi si pensa quanto sangue costa.' The cross is of the same kind as that which was carried in procession by the White Friars at the time of the plague of 1348, and afterwards deposited in the Church of S. Croce at Florence. He also made, for love of her, the design of a Jesus Christ upon the cross, not with the aspect of one dead, as is the common wont, but in a divine attitude, with face raised to the Father, seeming to exclaim, 'Eli! Eli!' In this drawing the body does not appear to fall, like an abandoned corpse, but as though in life to writhe and quiver with the agony it feels."

Of these two designs we have several more or less satisfactory mementoes. The Pieta was engraved by Giulio Bonasoni and Tudius Bononiensis (date 1546), exactly as Condivi describes it. The Crucifixion survives in a great number of pencil-drawings, together with one or two pictures painted by men like Venusti, and many early engravings of the drawings. One sketch in the Taylor Museum at Oxford is generally supposed to represent the original designed for Vittoria.


What remains of the correspondence between Michelangelo and the Marchioness opens with a letter referring to their interchange of sonnets and drawings. It is dated Rome, 1545. Vittoria had evidently sent him poems, and he wishes to make her a return in kind: "I desired, lady, before I accepted the things which your ladyship has often expressed the will to give me—I desired to produce something for you with my own hand, in order to be as little as possible unworthy of this kindness. I have now come to recognise that the grace of God is not to be bought, and that to keep it waiting is a grievous sin. Therefore I acknowledge my error, and willingly accept your favours. When I possess them, not indeed because I shall have them in my house, but for that I myself shall dwell in them, the place will seem to encircle me with Paradise. For which felicity I shall remain ever more obliged to your ladyship than I am already, if that is possible.

"The bearer of this letter will be Urbino, who lives in my service. Your ladyship may inform him when you would like me to come and see the head you promised to show me."

This letter is written under the autograph copy of a sonnet which must have been sent with it, since it expresses the same thought in its opening quatrain. My translation of the poem runs thus:

Seeking at least to be not all unfit For thy sublime and-boundless courtesy, My lowly thoughts at first were fain to try What they could yield for grace so infinite. But now I know my unassisted wit Is all too weak to make me soar so high, For pardon, lady, for this fault I cry, And wiser still I grow, remembering it. Yea, well I see what folly 'twere to think That largess dropped from thee like dews from heaven Could e'er be paid by work so frail as mine! To nothingness my art and talent sink; He fails who from his mortal stores hath given A thousandfold to match one gift divine.

Michelangelo's next letter refers to the design for the Crucified Christ, described by Condivi. It is pleasant to find that this was sent by the hand of Cavalieri: "Lady Marchioness,—Being myself in Rome, I thought it hardly fitting to give the Crucified Christ to Messer Tommaso, and to make him an intermediary between your ladyship and me, your servant; especially because it has been my earnest wish to perform more for you than for any one I ever knew upon the world. But absorbing occupations, which still engage me, have prevented my informing your ladyship of this. Moreover, knowing that you know that love needs no taskmaster, and that he who loves doth not sleep, I thought the less of using go-betweens. And though I seemed to have forgotten, I was doing what I did not talk about in order to effect a thing that was not looked for. My purpose has been spoiled: He sins who faith like this so soon forgets."

A sonnet which may or may not have been written at this time, but seems certainly intended for the Marchioness, shall here be given as a pendant to the letter:—

_Blest spirit, who with loving tenderness Quickenest my heart, so old and near to die, Who 'mid thy joys on me dost bend an eye, Though many nobler men around thee press! As thou wert erewhile wont my sight to bless, So to console, my mind thou now dost fly; Hope therefore stills the pangs of memory, Which, coupled with desire, my soul distress. So finding in thee grace to plead for me— Thy thoughts for me sunk in so sad a case— He who now writes returns thee thanks for these. Lo! it were foul and monstrous usury To send thee ugliest paintings in the place Of thy fair spirit's living phantasies.

Unfortunately we possess no other document in prose addressed immediately to Vittoria. But four of her letters to him exist, and from these I will select some specimens reflecting light upon the nature of the famous intimacy. The Marchioness writes always in the tone and style of a great princess, adding that peculiar note of religious affectionateness which the French call "onction," and marking her strong admiration of the illustrious artist. The letters are not dated; but this matters little, since they only turn on literary courtesies exchanged, drawings presented, and pious interests in common.

"Unique Master Michelangelo, and my most singular friend,—I have received your letter, and examined the crucifix, which truly hath crucified in my memory every other picture I ever saw. Nowhere could one find another figure of our Lord so well executed, so living, and so exquisitely finished. Certes, I cannot express in words how subtly and marvellously it is designed. Wherefore I am resolved to take the work as coming from no other hand but yours, and accordingly I beg you to assure me whether this is really yours or another's. Excuse the question. If it is yours, I must possess it under any conditions. In case it is not yours, and you want to have it carried out by your assistant, we will talk the matter over first. I know how extremely difficult it would be to copy it, and therefore I would rather let him finish something else than this. But if it be in fact yours, rest assured, and make the best of it, that it will never come again into your keeping. I have examined it minutely in full light and by the lens and mirror, and never saw anything more perfect.—Yours to command,

"The Marchioness of Pescara."

Like many grand ladies of the highest rank, even though they are poetesses, Vittoria Colonna did not always write grammatically or coherently. I am not therefore sure that I have seized the exact meaning of this diplomatical and flattering letter. It would appear, however, that Michelangelo had sent her the drawing for a crucifix, intimating that, if she liked it, he would intrust its execution to one of his workmen, perhaps Urbino. This, as we know, was a common practice adopted by him in old age, in order to avoid commissions which interfered with his main life-work at S. Peter's. The noble lady, fully aware that the sketch is an original, affects some doubt upon the subject, declines the intervention of a common craftsman, and declares her firm resolve to keep it, leaving an impression that she would gladly possess the crucifix if executed by the same hand which had supplied the masterly design.

Another letter refers to the drawing of a Christ upon the cross between two angels.

"Your works forcibly stimulate the judgment of all who look at them. My study of them made me speak of adding goodness to things perfect in themselves, and I have seen now that 'all is possible to him who believes.' I had the greatest faith in God that He would bestow upon you supernatural grace for the making of this Christ. When I came to examine it, I found it so marvellous that it surpasses all my expectations. Wherefore, emboldened by your miracles, I conceived a great desire for that which I now see marvellously accomplished: I mean that the design is in all parts perfect and consummate, and one could not desire more, nor could desire attain to demanding so much. I tell you that I am mighty pleased that the angel on the right hand is by far the fairer, since Michael will place you, Michelangelo, upon the right hand of our Lord at that last day. Meanwhile, I do not know how else to serve you than by making orisons to this sweet Christ, whom you have drawn so well and exquisitely, and praying you to hold me yours to command as yours in all and for all."

The admiration and the good-will of the great lady transpire in these somewhat incoherent and studied paragraphs. Their verbiage leaves much to be desired in the way of logic and simplicity. It is pleasanter perhaps to read a familiar note, sent probably by the hand of a servant to Buonarroti's house in Rome.

"I beg you to let me have the crucifix a short while in my keeping, even though it be unfinished. I want to show it to some gentlemen who have come from the Most Reverend the Cardinal of Mantua. If you are not working, will you not come to-day at your leisure and talk with me?—Yours to command,

"The Marchioness of Pescara."

It seems that Michelangelo's exchange of letters and poems became at last too urgent. We know it was his way (as in the case of Luigi del Riccio) to carry on an almost daily correspondence for some while, and then to drop it altogether when his mood changed. Vittoria, writing from Viterbo, gives him a gentle and humorous hint that he is taking up too much of her time:

"Magnificent Messer Michelangelo,—I did not reply earlier to your letter, because it was, as one might say, an answer to my last: for I thought that if you and I were to go on writing without intermission according to my obligation and your courtesy, I should have to neglect the Chapel of S. Catherine here, and be absent at the appointed hours for company with my sisterhood, while you would have to leave the Chapel of S. Paul, and be absent from morning through the day from your sweet usual colloquy with painted forms, the which with their natural accents do not speak to you less clearly than the living persons round me speak to me. Thus we should both of us fail in our duty, I to the brides, you to the vicar of Christ. For these reasons, inasmuch as I am well assured of our steadfast friendship and firm affection, bound by knots of Christian kindness, I do not think it necessary to obtain the proof of your good-will in letters by writing on my side, but rather to await with well-prepared mind some substantial occasion for serving you. Meanwhile I address my prayers to that Lord of whom you spoke to me with so fervent and humble a heart when I left Rome, that when I return thither I may find you with His image renewed and enlivened by true faith in your soul, in like measure as you have painted it with perfect art in my Samaritan. Believe me to remain always yours and your Urbino's."

This letter must have been written when Michelangelo was still working on the frescoes of the Cappella Paolina, and therefore before 1549. The check to his importunacy, given with genial tact by the Marchioness, might be taken, by those who believe their liaison to have had a touch of passion in it, as an argument in favour of that view. The great age which Buonarroti had now reached renders this, however, improbable; while the general tenor of their correspondence is that of admiration for a great artist on the lady's side, and of attraction to a noble nature on the man's side, cemented by religious sentiment and common interests in serious topics.


All students of Michelangelo's biography are well acquainted with the Dialogues on Painting, composed by the Portuguese miniature artist, Francis of Holland. Written in the quaint style of the sixteenth century, which curiously blent actual circumstance and fact with the author's speculation, these essays present a vivid picture of Buonarroti's conferences with Vittoria Colonna and her friends. The dialogues are divided into four parts, three of which profess to give a detailed account of three several Sunday conversations in the Convent of S. Silvestro on Monte Cavallo. After describing the objects which brought him to Rome, Francis says: "Above all, Michelangelo inspired me with such esteem, that when I met him in the palace of the Pope or on the streets, I could not make my mind up to leave him until the stars forced us to retire." Indeed, it would seem from his frank admissions in another place that the Portuguese painter had become a little too attentive to the famous old man, and that Buonarroti "did all he could to shun his company, seeing that when they once came together, they could not separate." It happened one Sunday that Francis paid a visit to his friend Lattanzio Tolomei, who had gone abroad, leaving a message that he would be found in the Church of S. Silvestro, where he was hoping to hear a lecture by Brother Ambrose of Siena on the Epistles of S. Paul, in company with the Marchioness. Accordingly he repaired to this place, and was graciously received by the noble lady. She courteously remarked that he would probably enjoy a conversation with Michelangelo more than a sermon from Brother Ambrose, and after an interval of compliments a servant was sent to find him. It chanced that Buonarroti was walking with the man whom Francis of Holland calls "his old friend and colour-grinder," Urbino, in the direction of the Thermae. So the lackey, having the good chance to meet him, brought him at once to the convent. The Marchioness made him sit between her and Messer Tolomei, while Francis took up his position at a little distance. The conversation then began, but Vittoria Colonna had to use the tact for which she was celebrated before she could engage the wary old man on a serious treatment of his own art.

He opened his discourse by defending painters against the common charge of being "eccentric in their habits, difficult to deal with, and unbearable; whereas, on the contrary, they are really most humane." Common people do not consider, he remarked, that really zealous artists are bound to abstain from the idle trivialities and current compliments of society, not because they are haughty or intolerant by nature, but because their art imperiously claims the whole of their energies. "When such a man shall have the same leisure as you enjoy, then I see no objection to your putting him to death if he does not observe your rules of etiquette and ceremony. You only seek his company and praise him in order to obtain honour through him for yourselves, nor do you really mind what sort of man he is, so long as kings and emperors converse with him. I dare affirm that any artist who tries to satisfy the better vulgar rather than men of his own craft, one who has nothing singular, eccentric, or at least reputed to be so, in his person, will never become a superior talent. For my part, I am bound to confess that even his Holiness sometimes annoys and wearies me by begging for too much of my company. I am most anxious to serve him, but, when there is nothing important going forward, I think I can do so better by studying at home than by dancing attendance through a whole day on my legs in his reception-rooms. He allows me to tell him so; and I may add that the serious occupations of my life have won for me such liberty of action that, in talking to the Pope, I often forget where I am, and place my hat upon my head. He does not eat me up on that account, but treats me with indulgence, knowing that it is precisely at such times that I am working hard to serve him. As for solitary habits, the world is right in condemning a man who, out of pure affectation or eccentricity, shuts himself up alone, loses his friends, and sets society against him. Those, however, who act in this way naturally, because their profession obliges them to lead a recluse life, or because their character rebels against feigned politenesses and conventional usage, ought in common justice to be tolerated. What claim by right have you on him? Why should you force him to take part in those vain pastimes, which his love for a quiet life induces him to shun? Do you not know that there are sciences which demand the whole of a man, without leaving the least portion of his spirit free for your distractions?" This apology for his own life, couched in a vindication of the artistic temperament, breathes an accent of sincerity, and paints Michelangelo as he really was, with his somewhat haughty sense of personal dignity. What he says about his absence of mind in the presence of great princes might be illustrated by a remark attributed to Clement VII. "When Buonarroti comes to see me, I always take a seat and bid him to be seated, feeling sure that he will do so without leave or license."

The conversation passed by natural degrees to a consideration of the fine arts in general. In the course of this discussion, Michelangelo uttered several characteristic opinions, strongly maintaining the superiority of the Italian to the Flemish and German schools, and asserting his belief that, while all objects are worthy of imitation by the artist, the real touch stone of excellence lies in his power to represent the human form. His theory of the arts in their reciprocal relations and affinities throws interesting light upon the qualities of his own genius and his method in practice. "The science of design, or of line-drawing, if you like to use this term, is the source and very essence of painting, sculpture, architecture, and of every form of representation, as well too as of all the sciences. He who has made himself a master in this art possesses a great treasure. Sometimes, when I meditate upon these topics, it seems to me that I can discover but one art or science, which is design, and that all the works of the human brain and hand are either design itself or a branch of that art." This theme he develops at some length, showing how a complete mastery of drawing is necessary not only to the plastic arts of painting and sculpture, but also to the constructive and mechanical arts of architecture, fortification, gun-foundry, and so forth, applying the same principle to the minutest industries.

With regard to the personal endowments of the artist, he maintained that "a lofty style, grave and decorous, was essential to great work. Few artists understand this, and endeavour to appropriate these qualities. Consequently we find many members of the confraternity who are only artists in name. The world encourages this confusion of ideas, since few are capable of distinguishing between a fellow who has nothing but his colour-box and brushes to make him a painter, and the really gifted natures who appear only at wide intervals." He illustrates the position that noble qualities in the artist are indispensable to nobility in the work of art, by a digression on religious painting and sculpture. "In order to represent in some degree the adored image of our Lord, it is not enough that a master should be great and able. I maintain that he must also be a man of good conduct and morals, if possible a saint, in order that the Holy Ghost may rain down inspiration on his understanding. Ecclesiastical and secular princes ought, therefore, to permit only the most illustrious among the artists of their realm to paint the benign sweetness of our Saviour, the purity of our Lady, and the virtues of the saints. It often happens that ill-executed images distract the minds of worshippers and ruin their devotion, unless it be firm and fervent. Those, on the contrary, which are executed in the high style I have described, excite the soul to contemplation and to tears, even among the least devout, by inspiring reverence and fear through the majesty of their aspect." This doctrine is indubitably sound. To our minds, nevertheless, it rings a little hollow on the lips of the great master who modelled the Christ of the Minerva and painted the Christ and Madonna of the Last Judgment. Yet we must remember that, at the exact period when these dialogues took place, Buonarroti, under the influence of his friendship with Vittoria Colonna, was devoting his best energies to the devout expression of the Passion of our Lord. It is deeply to be regretted that, out of the numerous designs which remain to us from this endeavour, all of them breathing the purest piety, no monumental work except the Pieta at Florence emerged for perpetuity.

Many curious points, both of minute criticism and broad opinion, might still be gleaned from the dialogues set down by Francis of Holland. It must suffice here to resume what Michelangelo maintained about the artist's method. One of the interlocutors begged to be informed whether he thought that a master ought to aim at working slowly or quickly. "I will tell you plainly what I feel about this matter. It is both good and useful to be able to work with promptitude and address. We must regard it as a special gift from God to be able to do that in a few hours which other men can only perform in many days of labour. Consequently, artists who paint rapidly, without falling in quality below those who paint but slowly, deserve the highest commendation. Should this rapidity of execution, however, cause a man to transgress the limits of sound art, it would have been better to have proceeded with more tardiness and study. A good artist ought never to allow the impetuosity of his nature to overcome his sense of the main end of art, perfection. Therefore we cannot call slowness of execution a defect, nor yet the expenditure of much time and trouble, if this be employed with the view of attaining greater perfection. The one unpardonable fault is bad work. And here I would remind you of a thing essential to our art, which you will certainly not ignore, and to which I believe you attach the full importance it deserves. In every kind of plastic work we ought to strive with all our might at making what has cost time and labour look as though it had been produced with facility and swiftness. It sometimes happens, but rarely, that a portion of our work turns out excellent with little pains bestowed upon it. Most frequently, however, it is the expenditure of care and trouble which conceals our toil. Plutarch relates that a bad painter showed Apelles a picture, saying: 'This is from my hand; I have just made it in a moment.' The other replied: 'I should have recognised the fact without your telling me; and I marvel that you do not make a multitude of such things every day.'" Michelangelo is reported to have made a similar remark to Vasari when the latter took him to inspect some frescoes he had painted, observing that they had been dashed off quickly.

We must be grateful to Francis of Holland for this picture of the Sunday-morning interviews at S. Silvestro. The place was cool and tranquil. The great lady received her guests with urbanity, and led the conversation with highbred courtesy and tact. Fra Ambrogio, having discoursed upon the spiritual doctrines of S. Paul's Epistles, was at liberty to turn an attentive ear to purely aesthetical speculations. The grave and elderly Lattanzio Tolomei added the weight of philosophy and literary culture to the dialogue. Michelangelo, expanding in the genial atmosphere, spoke frankly on the arts which he had mastered, not dictating ex cathedra rules, but maintaining a note of modesty and common-sense and deference to the opinion of others. Francis engaged on equal terms in the discussion. His veneration for Buonarroti, and the eagerness with which he noted all the great man's utterances, did not prevent him from delivering lectures at a somewhat superfluous length. In short, we may fairly accept his account of these famous conferences as a truthful transcript from the refined and witty social gatherings of which Vittoria Colonna formed the centre.


This friendship with Vittoria Colonna forms a very charming episode in the history of Michelangelo's career, and it was undoubtedly one of the consolations of his declining years. Yet too great stress has hitherto been laid on it by his biographers. Not content with exaggerating its importance in his life, they have misinterpreted its nature. The world seems unable to take interest in a man unless it can contrive to discover a love-affair in his career. The singular thing about Michelangelo is that, with the exception of Vittoria Colonna, no woman is known to have influenced his heart or head in any way. In his correspondence he never mentions women, unless they be aunts, cousins, grand-nieces, or servants. About his mother he is silent. We have no tradition regarding amours in youth or middle age; and only two words dropped by Condivi lead us to conjecture that he was not wholly insensible to the physical attractions of the female. Romancers and legend-makers have, therefore, forced Vittoria Colonna to play the role of Juliet in Michelangelo's life-drama. It has not occurred to these critics that there is something essentially disagreeable in the thought of an aged couple entertaining an amorous correspondence. I use these words deliberately, because poems which breathe obvious passion of no merely spiritual character have been assigned to the number he composed for Vittoria Colonna. This, as we shall see, is chiefly the fault of his first editor, who printed all the sonnets and madrigals as though they were addressed to one woman or another. It is also in part due to the impossibility of determining their exact date in the majority of instances. Verses, then, which were designed for several objects of his affection, male or female, have been indiscriminately referred to Vittoria Colonna, whereas we can only attribute a few poems with certainty to her series.

This mythus of Michelangelo's passion for the Marchioness of Pescara has blossomed and brought forth fruit abundantly from a single and pathetic passage in Condivi. "In particular, he greatly loved the Marchioness of Pescara, of whose divine spirit he was enamoured, being in return dearly beloved by her. He still preserves many of her letters, breathing honourable and most tender affection, and such as were wont to issue from a heart like hers. He also wrote to her a great number of sonnets, full of wit and sweet longing. She frequently removed from Viterbo and other places, whither she had gone for solace or to pass the summer, and came to Rome with the sole object of seeing Michelangelo. He for his part, loved her so, that I remember to have heard him say that he regretted nothing except that when he went to visit her upon the moment of her passage from this life, he did not kiss her forehead or her face, as he did kiss her hand. Her death was the cause that oftentimes he dwelt astonied, thinking of it, even as a man bereft of sense."

Michelangelo himself, writing immediately after Vittoria's death, speaks of her thus: "She felt the warmest affection for me, and I not less for her. Death has robbed me of a great friend." It is curious that he here uses the masculine gender: "un grande amico." He also composed two sonnets, which were in all probability inspired by the keen pain of this bereavement. To omit them here would be unjust to the memory of their friendship:—

When my rude hammer to the stubborn stone Gives human shape, now that, now this, at will, Following his hand who wields and guides it still, It moves upon another's feet alone:

The third illustrates in a singular manner that custom of sixteenth-century literature which Shakespeare followed in his sonnets, of weaving poetical images out of thoughts borrowed from law and business. It is also remarkable in this respect, that Michelangelo has here employed precisely the same conceit for Vittoria Colonna which he found serviceable when at an earlier date he wished to deplore the death of the Florentine, Cecchino dei Bracci. For both of them he says that Heaven bestowed upon the beloved object all its beauties, instead of scattering these broad-cast over the human race, which, had it done so, would have entailed the bankruptcy and death of all:—

So that high heaven should have not to distrain From several that vast beauty ne'er yet shown, To one exalted dame alone The total sum was lent in her pure self:— Heaven had made sorry gain, Recovering from the crowd its scattered pelf. Now in a puff of breath, Nay, in one second, God Hath ta'en her back through death, Back from the senseless folk and from our eyes. Yet earth's oblivious sod, Albeit her body dies, Will bury not her live words fair and holy. Ah, cruel mercy! Here thou showest solely How, had heaven lent us ugly what she took, And death the debt reclaimed, all men were broke.

Without disputing the fact that a very sincere emotion underlay these verses, it must be submitted that, in the words of Samuel Johnson about "Lycidas," "he who thus grieves will excite no sympathy; he who thus praises will confer no honour." This conviction will be enforced when we reflect that the thought upon which the madrigal above translated has been woven (1547) had been already used for Cecchino dei Bracci in 1544. It is clear that, in dealing with Michelangelo's poetical compositions, we have to accept a mass of conventional utterances, penetrated with a few firmly grasped Platonical ideas. It is only after long familiarity with his work that a man may venture to distinguish between the accents of the heart and the head-notes in the case of so great a master using an art he practised mainly as an amateur. I shall have to return to these considerations when I discuss the value of his poetry taken as a whole.

The union of Michelangelo and Vittoria was beautiful and noble, based upon the sympathy of ardent and high-feeling natures. Nevertheless we must remember that when Michelangelo lost his old servant Urbino, his letters and the sonnet written upon that occasion express an even deeper passion of grief.

Love is an all-embracing word, and may well be used to describe this exalted attachment, as also to qualify the great sculptor's affection for a faithful servant or for a charming friend. We ought not, however, to distort the truth of biography or to corrupt criticism, from a personal wish to make more out of his feeling than fact and probability warrant. This is what has been done by all who approached the study of Michelangelo's life and writings. Of late years, the determination to see Vittoria Colonna through every line written by him which bears the impress of strong emotion, and to suppress other aspects of his sensibility, has been so deliberate, that I am forced to embark upon a discussion which might otherwise have not been brought so prominently forward. For the understanding of his character, and for a proper estimate of his poetry, it has become indispensable to do so.


Michelangelo's best friend in Rome was a young nobleman called Tommaso Cavalieri. Speaking of his numerous allies and acquaintances, Vasari writes: "Immeasurably more than all the rest, he loved Tommaso dei Cavalieri, a Roman gentleman, for whom, as he was young and devoted to the arts, Michelangelo made many stupendous drawings of superb heads in black and red chalk, wishing him to learn the method of design. Moreover, he drew for him a Ganymede carried up to heaven by Jove's eagle, a Tityos with the vulture feeding on his heart, the fall of Phaeton with the sun's chariot into the river Po, and a Bacchanal of children; all of them things of the rarest quality, and drawings the like of which were never seen. Michelangelo made a cartoon portrait of Messer Tommaso, life-size, which was the only portrait that he ever drew, since he detested to imitate the living person, unless it was one of incomparable beauty." Several of Michelangelo's sonnets are addressed to Tommaso Cavalieri. Benedetto Varchi, in his commentary, introduces two of them with these words: "The first I shall present is one addressed to M. Tommaso Cavalieri, a young Roman of very noble birth, in whom I recognised, while I was sojourning at Rome, not only incomparable physical beauty, but so much elegance of manners, such excellent intelligence, and such graceful behaviour, that he well deserved, and still deserves, to win the more love the better he is known." Then Varchi recites the sonnet:—

Why should I seek to ease intense desire With still more tears and windy words of grief, When heaven, or late or soon, sends no relief To souls whom love hath robed around with fire?

Why need my aching heart to death aspire, When all must die? Nay, death beyond belief Unto these eyes would be both sweet and brief, Since in my sum of woes all joys expire!

Therefore, because I cannot shun the blow I rather seek, say who must rule my breast, Gliding between her gladness and her woe?

If only chains and bands can make me blest, No marvel if alone and bare I go, An armed KNIGHT'S captive and slave confessed.

"The other shall be what follows, written perhaps for the same person, and worthy, in my opinion, not only of the ripest sage, but also of a poet not unexercised in writing verse:—

With your fair eyes a charming light I see, For which my own blind eyes would peer in vain; Stayed by your feet, the burden I sustain Which my lame feet find all too strong for me;

Wingless upon your pinions forth I fly; Heavenward your sprit stirreth me to strain; E'en as you will, I blush and blanch again, Freeze in the sun, burn 'neath a frosty sky.

Your will includes and is the lord of mine; Life to my thoughts within your heart is given; My words begin to breathe upon your breath: Like to the-moon am I, that cannot shine Alone; for, lo! our eyes see naught in heaven Save what the living sun illumineth."

The frank and hearty feeling for a youth of singular distinction which is expressed in these sonnets, gave no offence to society during the period of the earlier Renaissance; but after the Tridentine Council social feeling altered upon this and similar topics. While morals remained what they had been, language and manners grew more nice and hypocritical. It happened thus that grievous wrong was done to the text of Michelangelo's poems, with the best intentions, by their first editor. Grotesque misconceptions, fostered by the same mistaken zeal, are still widely prevalent.

When Michelangelo the younger arranged his grand-uncle's poems for the press, he was perplexed by the first of the sonnets quoted by Varchi. The last line, which runs in the Italian thus—

Resto prigion d'un Cavalier armato,

has an obvious play of words upon Cavalieri's surname. This he altered into

Resto prigion d'un cor di virtu armato.

The reason was that, if it stood unaltered, "the ignorance of men would have occasion to murmur." "Varchi," he adds, "did wrong in printing it according to the text." "Remember well," he observes, "that this sonnet, as well as the preceding number and some others, are concerned, as is manifest, with a masculine love of the Platonic species." Michelangelo the younger's anxiety for his granduncle's memory induced him thus to corrupt the text of his poems. The same anxiety has led their latest editor to explain away the obvious sense of certain words. Signor Guasti approves of the first editor's pious fraud, on the ground that morality has higher claims than art; but he adds that the expedient was not necessary: "for these sonnets do not refer to masculine love, nor yet do any others. In the first (xxxi.) the lady is compared to an armed knight, because she carries the weapons of her sex and beauty; and while I think on it, an example occurs to my mind from Messer Cino in support of the argument. As regards the second (lxii.), those who read these pages of mine will possibly remember that Michelangelo, writing of the dead Vittoria Colonna, called her amico; and on reflection, this sounds better than amica, in the place where it occurs. Moreover, there are not wanting in these poems instances of the term signore, or lord, applied to the beloved lady; which is one of the many periphrastical expressions used by the Romance poets to indicate their mistress." It is true that Cino compares his lady in one sonnet to a knight who has carried off the prize of beauty in the lists of love and grace by her elegant dancing. But he never calls a lady by the name of cavaliere. It is also indubitable that the Tuscans occasionally addressed the female or male object of their adoration under the title of signore, lord of my heart and soul. But such instances weigh nothing against the direct testimony of a contemporary like Varchi, into whose hands Michelangelo's poems came at the time of their composition, and who was well acquainted with the circumstances of their composition. There is, moreover, a fact of singular importance bearing on this question, to which Signor Guasti has not attached the value it deserves. In a letter belonging to the year 1549, Michelangelo thanks Luca Martini for a copy of Varchi's commentary on his sonnet, and begs him to express his affectionate regards and hearty thanks to that eminent scholar for the honour paid him. In a second letter addressed to G.F. Fattucci, under date October 1549, he conveys "the thanks of Messer Tomao de' Cavalieri to Varchi for a certain little book of his which has been printed, and in which he speaks very honourably of himself, and not less so of me." In neither of these letters does Michelangelo take exception to Varchi's interpretation of Sonnet xxxi. Indeed, the second proves that both he and Cavalieri were much pleased with it. Michelangelo even proceeds to inform Fattucci that Cavalieri "has given me a sonnet which I made for him in those same years, begging me to send it on as a proof and witness that he really is the man intended. This I will enclose in my present letter." Furthermore, we possess an insolent letter of Pietro Aretino, which makes us imagine that the "ignorance of the vulgar" had already begun to "murmur." After complaining bitterly that Michelangelo refused to send him any of his drawings, he goes on to remark that it would be better for the artist if he did so, "inasmuch as such an act of courtesy would quiet the insidious rumours which assert that only Gerards and Thomases can dispose of them." We have seen from Vasari that Michelangelo executed some famous designs for Tommaso Cavalieri. The same authority asserts that he presented "Gherardo Perini, a Florentine gentleman, and his very dear friend," with three splendid drawings in black chalk. Tommaso Cavalieri and Gherardo Perini, were, therefore, the "Gerards and Thomases" alluded to by Aretino.

Michelangelo the younger's and Cesare Guasti's method of defending Buonarroti from a malevolence which was only too well justified by the vicious manners of the time, seems to me so really injurious to his character, that I feel bound to carry this investigation further. First of all, we ought to bear in mind what Buonarroti admitted concerning his own temperament. "You must know that I am, of all men who were ever born, the most inclined to love persons. Whenever I behold some one who possesses any talent or displays any dexterity of mind, who can do or say something more appropriately than the rest of the world, I am compelled to fall in love with him; and then I give myself up to him so entirely that I am no longer my own property, but wholly his." He mentions this as a reason for not going to dine with Luigi del Riccio in company with Donate Giannotti and Antonio Petrejo. "If I were to do so, as all of you are adorned with talents and agreeable graces, each of you would take from me a portion of myself, and so would the dancer, and so would the lute-player, if men with distinguished gifts in those arts were present. Each person would filch away a part of me, and instead of being refreshed and restored to health and gladness, as you said, I should be utterly bewildered and distraught, in such wise that for many days to come I should not know in what world I was moving." This passage serves to explain the extreme sensitiveness of the great artist to personal charm, grace, accomplishments, and throws light upon the self-abandonment with which he sometimes yielded to the attractions of delightful people.

We possess a series of Michelangelo's letters addressed to or concerned with Tommaso Cavalieri, the tone of which is certainly extravagant. His biographer, Aurelio Gotti, moved by the same anxiety as Michelangelo the younger and Guasti, adopted the extraordinary theory that they were really directed to Vittoria Colonna, and were meant to be shown to her by the common friend of both, Cavalieri. "There is an epistle to this young man," he says, "so studied in its phrases, so devoid of all naturalness, that we cannot extract any rational sense from it without supposing that Cavalieri was himself a friend of the Marchioness, and that Michelangelo, while writing to him, intended rather to address his words to the Colonna." Of this letter, which bears the date of January 1, 1533, three drafts exist, proving the great pains taken by Michelangelo in its composition.

"Without due consideration, Messer Tomao, my very dear lord, I was moved to write to your lordship, not by way of answer to any letter received from you, but being myself the first to make advances, as though I felt bound to cross a little stream with dry feet, or a ford made manifest by paucity of water. But now that I have left the shore, instead of the trifling river I expected, the ocean with its towering waves appears before me, so that, if it were possible, in order to avoid drowning, I would gladly retrace my steps to the dry land whence I started. Still, as I am here, I will e'en make of my heart a rock, and proceed farther; and if I shall not display the art of sailing on the sea of your powerful genius, that genius itself will excuse me, nor will be disdainful of my inferiority in parts, nor desire from me that which I do not possess, inasmuch as he who is unique in all things can have peers in none. Therefore your lordship, the light of our century without paragon upon this world, is unable to be satisfied with the productions of other men, having no match or equal to yourself. And if, peradventure, something of mine, such as I hope and promise to perform, give pleasure to your mind, I shall esteem it more fortunate than excellent; and should I be ever sure of pleasing your lordship, as is said, in any particular, I will devote the present time and all my future to your service; indeed, it will grieve me much that I cannot regain the past, in order to devote a longer space to you than the future only will allow, seeing I am now too old. I have no more to say. Read the heart, and not the letter, because 'the pen toils after man's good-will in vain.'

"I have to make excuses for expressing in my first letter a marvellous astonishment at your rare genius; and thus I do so, having recognised the error I was in; for it is much the same to wonder at God's working miracles as to wonder at Rome producing divine men. Of this the universe confirms us in our faith."

It is clear that Michelangelo alludes in this letter to the designs which he is known to have made for Cavalieri, and the last paragraph has no point except as an elaborate compliment addressed to a Roman gentleman. It would be quite out of place if applied to Vittoria Colonna. Gotti finds the language strained and unnatural. We cannot deny that it differs greatly from the simple diction of the writer's ordinary correspondence. But Michelangelo did sometimes seek to heighten his style, when he felt that the occasion demanded a special effort; and then he had recourse to the laboured images in vogue at that period, employing them with something of the ceremonious cumbrousness displayed in his poetry. The letters to Pietro Aretino, Niccolo Martelli, Vittoria Colonna, Francis I., Luca Martini, and Giorgio Vasari might be quoted as examples.

As a postscript to this letter, in the two drafts which were finally rejected, the following enigmatical sentence is added:—"It would be permissible to give the name of the things a man presents, to him who receives them; but proper sense of what is fitting prevents it being done in this letter."

Probably Michelangelo meant that he should have liked to call Cavalieri his friend, since he had already given him friendship. The next letter, July 28, 1533, begins thus:—"My dear Lord,—Had I not believed that I had made you certain of the very great, nay, measureless love I bear you, it would not have seemed strange to me nor have roused astonishment to observe the great uneasiness you show in your last letter, lest, through my not having written, I should have forgotten you. Still it is nothing new or marvellous when so many other things go counter, that this also should be topsy-turvy. For what your lordship says to me, I could say to yourself: nevertheless, you do this perhaps to try me, or to light a new and stronger flame, if that indeed were possible: but be it as it wills: I know well that, at this hour, I could as easily forget your name as the food by which I live; nay, it were easier to forget the food, which only nourishes my body miserably, than your name, which nourishes both body and soul, filling the one and the other with such sweetness that neither weariness nor fear of death is felt by me while memory preserves you to my mind. Think, if the eyes could also enjoy their portion, in what condition I should find myself."

This second letter has also been extremely laboured; for we have three other turns given in its drafts to the image of food and memory. That these two documents were really addressed to Cavalieri, without any thought of Vittoria Colonna, is proved by three letters sent to Michelangelo by the young man in question. One is dated August 2, 1533, another September 2, and the third bears no date. The two which I have mentioned first belong to the summer of 1533; the third seems to be the earliest. It was clearly written on some occasion when both men were in Rome together, and at the very beginning of their friendship. I will translate them in their order. The first undated letter was sent to Michelangelo in Rome, in answer to some writing of the illustrious sculptor which we do not possess:—

"I have received from you a letter, which is the more acceptable because it was so wholly unexpected. I say unexpected, because I hold myself unworthy of such condescension in a man of your eminence. With regard to what Pierantonio spoke to you in my praise, and those things of mine which you have seen, and which you say have aroused in you no small affection for me, I answer that they were insufficient to impel a man of such transcendent genius, without a second, not to speak of a peer, upon this earth, to address a youth who was born but yesterday, and therefore is as ignorant as it is possible to be. At the same time I cannot call you a liar. I rather think then, nay, am certain, that the love you bear me is due to this, that you being a man most excellent in art, nay, art itself, are forced to love those who follow it and love it, among whom am I; and in this, according to my capacity, I yield to few. I promise you truly that you shall receive from me for your kindness affection equal, and perhaps greater, in exchange; for I never loved a man more than I do you, nor desired a friendship more than I do yours. About this, though my judgment may fail in other things, it is unerring; and you shall see the proof, except only that fortune is adverse to me in that now, when I might enjoy you, I am far from well. I hope, however, if she does not begin to trouble me again, that within a few days I shall be cured, and shall come to pay you my respects in person. Meanwhile I shall spend at least two hours a day in studying two of your drawings, which Pierantonio brought me: the more I look at them, the more they delight me; and I shall soothe my complaint by cherishing the hope which Pierantonio gave me, of letting me see other things of yours. In order not to be troublesome, I will write no more. Only I beg you remember, on occasion, to make use of me; and recommend myself in perpetuity to you.—Your most affectionate servant.

"Thomao Cavaliere."

The next letters were addressed to Michelangelo in Florence:—"Unique, my Lord,—I have received from you a letter, very acceptable, from which I gather that you are not a little saddened at my having written to you about forgetting. I answer that I did not write this for either of the following reasons: to wit, because you have not sent me anything, or in order to fan the flame of your affection. I only wrote to jest with you, as certainly I think I may do. Therefore, do not be saddened, for I am quite sure you will not be able to forget me. Regarding what you write to me about that young Nerli, he is much my friend, and having to leave Rome, he came to ask whether I needed anything from Florence. I said no, and he begged me to allow him to go in my name to pay you my respects, merely on account of his own desire to speak with you. I have nothing more to write, except that I beg you to return quickly. When you come you will deliver me from prison, because I wish to avoid bad companions; and having this desire, I cannot converse with any one but you. I recommend myself to you a thousand times.—Yours more than his own,

"Thomao Cavaliere. "Rome, August 2, 1533."

It appears from the third letter, also sent to Florence, that during the course of the month Michelangelo had despatched some of the drawings he made expressly for his friend:—"Unique, my Lord,—Some days ago I received a letter from you, which was very welcome, both because I learned from it that you were well, and also because I can now be sure that you will soon return. I was very sorry not to be able to answer at once. However, it consoles me to think that, when you know the cause, you will hold me excused. On the day your letter reached me, I was attacked with vomiting and such high fever that I was on the point of death; and certainly I should have died, if it (i.e., the letter) had not somewhat revived me. Since then, thank God, I have been always well. Messer Bartolommeo (Angelini) has now brought me a sonnet sent by you, which has made me feel it my duty to write. Some three days since I received my Phaethon, which is exceedingly well done. The Pope, the Cardinal de' Medici, and every one, have seen it; I do not know what made them want to do so. The Cardinal expressed a wish to inspect all your drawings, and they pleased him so much that he said he should like to have the Tityos and Ganymede done in crystal. I could not manage to prevent him from using the Tityos, and it is now being executed by Maestro Giovanni. Hard I struggled to save the Ganymede. The other day I went, as you requested, to Fra Sebastiano. He sends a thousand messages, but only to pray you to come back.—Your affectionate,

"Thomao Cavaliere. "Rome, September 6."

All the drawings mentioned by Vasari as having been made for Cavalieri are alluded to here, except the Bacchanal of Children. Of the Phaethon we have two splendid examples in existence, one at Windsor, the other in the collection of M. Emile Galichon. They differ considerably in details, but have the same almost mathematical exactitude of pyramidal composition. That belonging to M. Galichon must have been made in Rome, for it has this rough scrawl in Michelangelo's hand at the bottom, "Tomao, se questo scizzo non vi piace, ditelo a Urbino." He then promises to make another. Perhaps Cavalieri sent word back that he did not like something in the sketch—possibly the women writhing into trees—and that to this circumstance we owe the Windsor drawing, which is purer in style. There is a fine Tityos with the vulture at Windsor, so exquisitely finished and perfectly preserved that one can scarcely believe it passed through the hands of Maestro Giovanni. Windsor, too, possesses a very delicate Ganymede, which seems intended for an intaglio. The subject is repeated in an unfinished pen-design at the Uffizi, incorrectly attributed to Michelangelo, and is represented by several old engravings. The Infant Bacchanals again exist at Windsor, and fragmentary jottings upon the margin of other sketches intended for the same theme survive.


A correspondence between Bartolommeo Angelini in Rome and Michelangelo in Florence during the summers of 1532 and 1533 throws some light upon the latter's movements, and also upon his friendship for Tommaso Cavalieri. The first letter of this series, written on the 21st of August 1532, shows that Michelangelo was then expected in Rome. "Fra Sebastiano says that you wish to dismount at your own house. Knowing then that there is nothing but the walls, I hunted up a small amount of furniture, which I have had sent thither, in order that you may be able to sleep and sit down and enjoy some other conveniences. For eating, you will be able to provide yourself to your own liking in the neighbourhood." From the next letter (September 18, 1532) it appears that Michelangelo was then in Rome. There ensues a gap in the correspondence, which is not resumed until July 12, 1533. It now appears that Buonarroti had recently left Rome at the close of another of his visits. Angelini immediately begins to speak of Tommaso Cavalieri. "I gave that soul you wrote of to M. Tommao, who sends you his very best regards, and begs me to communicate any letters I may receive from you to him. Your house is watched continually every night, and I often go to visit it by day. The hens and master cock are in fine feather, and the cats complain greatly over your absence, albeit they have plenty to eat." Angelini never writes now without mentioning Cavalieri. Since this name does not occur in the correspondence before the date of July 12, 1533, it is possible that Michelangelo made the acquaintance during his residence at Rome in the preceding winter. His letters to Angelini must have conveyed frequent expressions of anxiety concerning Cavalieri's affection; for the replies invariably contain some reassuring words (July 26): "Yours makes me understand how great is the love you bear him; and in truth, so far as I have seen, he does not love you less than you love him." Again (August 11, 1533): "I gave your letter to M. Thomao, who sends you his kindest remembrances, and shows the very strongest desire for your return, saying that when he is with you, then he is really happy, because he possesses all that he wishes for upon this world. So then, it seems to me that, while you are fretting to return, he is burning with desire for you to do so. Why do you not begin in earnest to make plans for leaving Florence? It would give peace to yourself and all of us, if you were here. I have seen your soul, which is in good health and under good guardianship. The body waits for your arrival."

This mysterious reference to the soul, which Angelini gave, at Buonarroti's request, to young Cavalieri, and which he now describes as prospering, throws some light upon the passionate phrases of the following mutilated letter, addressed to Angelini by Michelangelo upon the 11th of October. The writer, alluding to Messer Tommao, says that, having given him his heart, he can hardly go on living in his absence: "And so, if I yearn day and night without intermission to be in Rome, it is only in order to return again to life, which I cannot enjoy without the soul." This conceit is carried on for some time, and the letter winds up with the following sentence: "My dear Bartolommeo, although you may think that I am joking with you, this is not the case. I am talking sober sense, for I have grown twenty years older and twenty pounds lighter since I have been here." This epistle, as we shall see in due course, was acknowledged. All Michelangelo's intimates in Rome became acquainted with the details of this friendship. Writing to Sebastiano from Florence in this year, he says: "I beg you, if you see Messer T. Cavalieri, to recommend me to him infinitely; and when you write, tell me something about him to keep him in my memory; for if I were to lose him from my mind, I believe that I should fall down dead straightway." In Sebastiano's letters there is one allusion to Cavalieri, who had come to visit him in the company of Bartolommeo Angelini, when he was ill.

It is not necessary to follow all the references to Tommaso Cavalieri contained in Angelini's letters. They amount to little more than kind messages and warm wishes for Michelangelo's return. Soon, however, Michelangelo began to send poems, which Angelini acknowledges (September 6): "I have received the very welcome letter you wrote me, together with your graceful and beautiful sonnet, of which I kept a copy, and then sent it on to M. Thomao. He was delighted to possess it, being thereby assured that God has deigned to bestow upon him the friendship of a man endowed with so many noble gifts as you are." Again he writes (October 18): "Yours of the 12th is to hand, together with M. Thomao's letter and the most beautiful sonnets. I have kept copies, and sent them on to him for whom they were intended, because I know with what affection he regards all things that pertain to you. He promised to send an answer which shall be enclosed in this I now am writing. He is counting not the days merely, but the hours, till you return." In another letter, without date, Angelini says, "I gave your messages to M. Thomao, who replied that your presence would be dearer to him than your writing, and that if it seems to you a thousand years, to him it seems ten thousand, till you come. I received your gallant (galante) and beautiful sonnet; and though you said nothing about it, I saw at once for whom it was intended, and gave it to him. Like everything of yours, it delighted him. The tenor of the sonnet shows that love keeps you perpetually restless. I do not think this ought to be the effect of love, and so I send you one of my poor performances to prove the contrary opinion." We may perhaps assume that this sonnet was the famous No. xxxi., from the last line of which every one could perceive that Michelangelo meant it for Tommaso Cavalieri.


It is significant that, while Michelangelo's affection for the young Roman was thus acquiring force, another friendship, which must have once been very dear to him, sprang up and then declined, but not apparently through his own fault or coldness. We hear of Febo di Poggio in the following autumn for the first and last time. Before proceeding to speak of him, I will wind up what has to be said about Tommaso Cavalieri. Not long after the date of the last letter quoted above, Michelangelo returned to Rome, and settled there for the rest of his life. He continued to the end of his days in close friendship with Cavalieri, who helped to nurse him during his last illness, who took charge of his effects after his death, and who carried on the architectural work he had begun at the Capitol.

Their friendship seems to have been uninterrupted by any disagreement, except on one occasion when Michelangelo gave way to his suspicious irritability, quite at the close of his long life. This drew forth from Cavalieri the following manly and touching letter:—

"Very magnificent, my Lord,—I have noticed during several days past that you have some grievance—what, I do not know—against me. Yesterday I became certain of it when I went to your house. As I cannot imagine the cause, I have thought it best to write this, in order that, if you like, you may inform me. I am more than positive that I never offended you. But you lend easy credence to those whom perhaps you ought least to trust; and some one has possibly told you some lie, for fear I should one day reveal the many knaveries done under your name, the which do you little honour; and if you desire to know about them, you shall. Only I cannot, nor, if I could, should I wish to force myself—but I tell you frankly that if you do not want me for a friend, you can do as you like, but you cannot compel me not to be a friend to you. I shall always try to do you service; and only yesterday I came to show you a letter written by the Duke of Florence, and to lighten your burdens, as I have ever done until now. Be sure you have no better friend than me; but on this I will not dwell. Still, if you think otherwise, I hope that in a short time you will explain matters; and I know that you know I have always been your friend without the least interest of my own. Now I will say no more, lest I should seem to be excusing myself for something which does not exist, and which I am utterly unable to imagine. I pray and conjure you, by the love you bear to God, that you tell me what you have against me, in order that I may disabuse you. Not having more to write, I remain your servant,

"Thomao De' Cavalieri. "From my house, November 15, 1561."

It is clear from this letter, and from the relations which subsisted between Michelangelo and Cavalieri up to the day of his death, that the latter was a gentleman of good repute and honour, whose affection did credit to his friend. I am unable to see that anything but an injury to both is done by explaining away the obvious meaning of the letters and the sonnets I have quoted. The supposition that Michelangelo intended the Cavalieri letters to reach Vittoria Colonna through that friend's hands does not, indeed, deserve the complete refutation which I have given it. I am glad, however, to be able to adduce the opinion of a caustic Florentine scholar upon this topic, which agrees with my own, and which was formed without access to the original documents which I have been enabled to make use of. Fanfani says: "I have searched, but in vain, for documentary proofs of the passion which Michelangelo is supposed to have felt for Vittoria Colonna, and which she returned with ardour according to the assertion of some critics. My own belief, concurring with that of better judges than myself, is that we have here to deal with one of the many baseless stories told about him. Omitting the difficulties presented by his advanced age, it is wholly contrary to all we know about the Marchioness, and not a little damaging to her reputation for austerity, to suppose that this admirable matron, who, after the death of her husband, gave herself up to God, and abjured the commerce of the world, should, later in life, have carried on an intrigue, as the saying is, upon the sly, particularly when a third person is imposed on our credulity, acting the part of go-between and cloak in the transaction, as certain biographers of the great artist, and certain commentators of his poetry, are pleased to assert, with how much common-sense and what seriousness I will not ask."


The history of Luigi del Riccio's affection for a lad of Florence called Cecchino dei Bracci, since this is interwoven with Michelangelo's own biography and the criticism of his poems, may be adduced in support of the argument I am developing. Cecchino was a youth of singular promise and personal charm. His relative, the Florentine merchant, Luigi del Riccio, one of Buonarroti's most intimate friends and advisers, became devotedly attached to the boy. Michelangelo, after his return to Rome in 1534, shared this friend Luigi's admiration for Cecchino; and the close intimacy into which the two elder men were drawn, at a somewhat later period of Buonarroti's life, seems to have been cemented by their common interest in poetry and their common feeling for a charming personality. We have a letter of uncertain date, in which Michelangelo tells Del Riccio that he has sent him a madrigal, begging him, if he thinks fit, to commit the verses "to the fire—that is, to what consumes me." Then he asks him to resolve a certain problem which has occurred to his mind during the night, "for while I was saluting our idol in a dream, it seemed to me that he laughed, and in the same instant threatened me; and not knowing which of these two moods I have to abide by, I beg you to find out from him; and on Sunday, when we meet again, you will inform me." Cecchino, who is probably alluded to in this letter, died at Rome on the 8th of January 1542, and was buried in the Church of Araceli. Luigi felt the blow acutely. Upon the 12th of January he wrote to his friend Donate Giannotti, then at Vicenza, in the following words:—

"Alas, my friend Donato! Our Cecchino is dead. All Rome weeps. Michelangelo is making for me the design of a decent sepulture in marble; and I pray you to write me the epitaph, and to send it to me with a consolatory letter, if time permits, for my grief has distraught me. Patience! I live with a thousand and a thousand deaths each hour. O God! How has Fortune changed her aspect!" Giannotti replied, enclosing three fine sonnets, the second of which, beginning—

Messer Luigi mio, di noi che fia Che sian restati senza il nostro sole?

seems to have taken Michelangelo's fancy. Many good pens in Italy poured forth laments on this occasion. We have verses written by Giovanni Aldobrandini, Carlo Gondi, Fra Paolo del Rosso, and Anton Francesco Grazzini, called Il Lasca. Not the least touching is Luigi's own threnody, which starts upon this note:—

Idol mio, che la tua leggiadra spoglia Mi lasciasti anzi tempo.

Michelangelo, seeking to indulge his own grief and to soothe that of his friend Luigi, composed no fewer than forty-two epigrams of four lines each, in which he celebrated the beauty and rare personal sweetness of Cecchino in laboured philosophical conceits. They rank but low among his poems, having too much of scholastic trifling and too little of the accent of strong feeling in them. Certainly these pieces did not deserve the pains which Michelangelo the younger bestowed, when he altered the text of a selection from them so as to adapt their Platonic compliments to some female. Far superior is a sonnet written to Del Riccio upon the death of the youth, showing how recent had been Michelangelo's acquaintance with Cecchino, and containing an unfulfilled promise to carve his portrait:—

Scarce had I seen for the first time his eyes, Which to your living eyes were life and light, When, closed at last in death's injurious night, He opened them on God in Paradise. I know it, and I weep—too late made wise: Yet was the fault not mine; for death's fell spite Robbed my desire of that supreme delight Which in your better memory never dies. Therefore, Luigi, if the task be mine To make unique Cecchino smile in stone For ever, now that earth hath made him dim, If the beloved within the lover shine, Since art without him cannot work alone, You must I carve to tell the world of him.

The strange blending of artificial conceits with spontaneous feeling in these poetical effusions, the deep interest taken in a mere lad like Cecchino by so many eminent personages, and the frank publicity given to a friendship based apparently upon the beauty of its object, strike us now as almost unintelligible. Yet we have the history of Shakespeare's Sonnets, and the letters addressed by Languet to young Sidney, in evidence that fashion at the end of the sixteenth century differed widely from that which prevails at the close of the nineteenth.


Some further light may here be thrown upon Michelangelo's intimacy with young men by two fragments extracted independently from the Buonarroti Archives by Milanesi and Guasti. In the collection of the letters we find the following sorrowful epistle, written in December 1533, upon the eve of Michelangelo's departure from Florence. It is addressed to a certain Febo:—

"Febo,—Albeit you bear the greatest hatred toward my person—I know not why—I scarcely believe, because of the love I cherish for you, but probably through the words of others, to which you ought to give no credence, having proved me—yet I cannot do otherwise than write to you this letter. I am leaving Florence to-morrow, and am going to Pescia to meet the Cardinal di Cesis and Messer Baldassare. I shall journey with them to Pisa, and thence to Rome, and I shall never return again to Florence. I wish you to understand that, so long as I live, wherever I may be, I shall always remain at your service with loyalty and love, in a measure unequalled by any other friend whom you may have upon this world.

"I pray God to open your eyes from some other quarter, in order that you may come to comprehend that he who desires your good more than his own welfare, is able to love, not to hate like an enemy."

Milanesi prints no more of the manuscript in his edition of the Letters. But Guasti, conscientiously collecting fragments of Michelangelo's verses, gives six lines, which he found at the foot of the epistle:—

_Vo' sol del mie morir contento veggio: La terra piange, e'l ciel per me si muove; E vo' men pieta stringe ov' io sto peggio._ _O sol che scaldi il mondo in ogni dove, O Febo, o luce eterna de' mortali, Perche a me sol ti scuri e non altrove?

* * * * *

Naught comforts you, I see, unless I die: Earth weeps, the heavens for me are moved to woe; You feel of grief the less, the more grieve I. O sun that warms the world where'er you go, O Febo, light eterne for mortal eyes! Why dark to me alone, elsewhere not so?_

These verses seem to have been written as part of a long Capitolo which Michelangelo himself, the elder, used indifferently in addressing Febo and his abstract "donna." Who Febo was, we do not know. But the sincere accent of the letter and the lyric cry of the rough lines leave us to imagine that he was some one for whom Michelangelo felt very tenderly in Florence.

Milanesi prints this letter to Febo with the following title, "A Febo (di Poggio)." This proves that he at any rate knew it had been answered by some one signing "Febo di Poggio." The autograph, in an illiterate hand and badly spelt, is preserved among the Buonarroti Archives, and bears date January 14, 1534. Febo excuses himself for not having been able to call on Michelangelo the night before he left Florence, and professes to have come the next day and found him already gone. He adds that he is in want of money, both to buy clothes and to go to see the games upon the Monte. He prays for a gratuity, and winds up: "Vostro da figliuolo (yours like a son), Febo di Poggio." I will add a full translation here:—

"Magnificent M. Michelangelo, to be honoured as a father,—I came back yesterday from Pisa, whither I had gone to see my father. Immediately upon my arrival, that friend of yours at the bank put a letter from you into my hands, which I received with the greatest pleasure, having heard of your well-being. God be praised, I may say the same about myself. Afterwards I learned what you say about my being angry with you. You know well I could not be angry with you, since I regard you in the place of a father. Besides, your conduct toward me has not been of the sort to cause in me any such effect. That evening when you left Florence, in the morning I could not get away from M. Vincenzo, though I had the greatest desire to speak with you. Next morning I came to your house, and you were already gone, and great was my disappointment at your leaving Florence without my seeing you.

"I am here in Florence; and when you left, you told me that if I wanted anything, I might ask it of that friend of yours; and now that M. Vincenzo is away, I am in want of money, both to clothe myself, and also to go to the Monte, to see those people fighting, for M. Vincenzo is there. Accordingly, I went to visit that friend at the bank, and he told me that he had no commission whatsoever from you; but that a messenger was starting to-night for Rome, and that an answer could come back within five days. So then, if you give him orders, he will not fail, I beseech you, then, to provide and assist me with any sum you think fit, and do not fail to answer.

"I will not write more, except that with all my heart and power I recommend myself to you, praying God to keep you from harm.—Yours in the place of a son,

"Febo Di Poggio. "Florence, January 4, 154."


In all the compositions I have quoted as illustrative of Michelangelo's relations with young men, there is a singular humility which gives umbrage to his editors. The one epistle to Gherardo Perini, cited above, contains the following phrases: "I do not feel myself of force enough to correspond to your kind letter;" "Your most faithful and poor friend."

Yet there was nothing extraordinary in Cavalieri, Cecchino, Febo, or Perini, except their singularity of youth and grace, good parts and beauty. The vulgar are offended when an illustrious man pays homage to these qualities, forgetful of Shakespeare's self-abasement before Mr. W.H. and of Languet's prostration at the feet of Sidney. In the case of Michelangelo, we may find a solution of this problem, I think, in one of his sonnets. He says, writing a poem belonging very probably to the series which inspires Michelangelo the younger with alarm:—

As one who will re-seek her home of light, Thy form immortal to this prison-house Descended, like an angel-piteous, To heal all hearts and make the whole world bright, 'Tis this that thralls my soul in love's delight, Not thy clear face of beauty glorious; For he who harbours virtue still will choose To love what neither years nor death can blight. So fares it ever with things high and rare Wrought in the sweat of nature; heaven above Showers on their birth the blessings of her prime: Nor hath God deigned to show Himself elsewhere More clearly than in human forms sublime, Which, since they image Him, alone I love.

It was not, then, to this or that young man, to this or that woman, that Michelangelo paid homage, but to the eternal beauty revealed in the mortal image of divinity before his eyes. The attitude of the mind, the quality of passion, implied in these poems, and conveyed more clumsily through the prose of the letters, may be difficult to comprehend. But until we have arrived at seizing them we shall fail to understand the psychology of natures like Michelangelo. No language of admiration is too strong, no self-humiliation too complete, for a soul which has recognised deity made manifest in one of its main attributes, beauty. In the sight of a philosopher, a poet, and an artist, what are kings, popes, people of importance, compared with a really perfect piece of God's handiwork?

From thy fair face I learn, O my loved lord, That which no mortal tongue can rightly say; The soul imprisoned in her house of clay, Holpen by thee, to God hath often soared. And though the vulgar, vain, malignant horde Attribute what their grosser wills obey, Yet shall this fervent homage that I pay, This love, this faith, pure joys for us afford. Lo, all the lovely things we find on earth, Resemble for the soul that rightly sees That source of bliss divine which gave us birth: Nor have we first-fruits or remembrances Of heaven elsewhere. Thus, loving loyally, I rise to God, and make death sweet by thee.

We know that, in some way or other, perhaps during those early years at Florence among the members of the Platonic Academy, Michelangelo absorbed the doctrines of the Phoedrus and Symposium. His poems abound in references to the contrast between Uranian and Pandemic, celestial and vulgar, Eros. We have even one sonnet in which he distinctly states the Greek opinion that the love of women is unworthy of a soul bent upon high thoughts and virile actions. It reads like a verse transcript from the main argument of the Symposium:—

Love is not always harsh and deadly sin, When love for boundless beauty makes us pine; The heart, by love left soft and infantine, Will let the shafts of God's grace enter in. Love wings and wakes the soul, stirs her to win Her flight aloft, nor e'er to earth decline; 'Tis the first step that leads her to the shrine Of Him who slakes the thirst that burns within.

The love of that whereof I speak ascends: Woman is different far; the love of her But ill befits a heart manly and wise. The one love soars, the other earthward tends; The soul lights this, while that the senses stir; And still lust's arrow at base quarry flies.

The same exalted Platonism finds obscure but impassioned expression in this fragment of a sonnet (No. lxxix.):——

For Love's fierce wound, and for the shafts that harm, True medicine 'twould have been to pierce my heart; But my soul's Lord owns only one strong charm, Which makes life grow where grows life's mortal smart. My Lord dealt death, when with his-powerful arm He bent Love's bow. Winged with that shaft, from Love An angel flew, cried, "Love, nay Burn! Who dies, Hath but Love's plumes whereby to soar above! Lo, I am He who from thine earliest years Toward, heaven-born Beauty raised thy faltering eyes. Beauty alone lifts live man to heaven's spheres."

Feeling like this, Michelangelo would have been justly indignant with officious relatives and critics, who turned his amici into animi, redirected his Cavalieri letters to the address of Vittoria Colonna, discovered Florence in Febo di Poggio, and ascribed all his emotional poems to some woman.

There is no doubt that both the actions and the writings of contemporaries justified a considerable amount of scepticism regarding the purity of Platonic affections. The words and lives of many illustrious persons gave colour to what Segni stated in his History of Florence, and what Savonarola found it necessary to urge upon the people from his pulpit.

But we have every reason to feel certain that, in a malicious age, surrounded by jealous rivals, with the fierce light of his transcendent glory beating round his throne, Buonarroti suffered from no scandalous reports, and maintained an untarnished character for sobriety of conduct and purity of morals.

The general opinion regarding him may be gathered from Scipione Ammirati's History (under the year 1564). This annalist records the fact that "Buonarotti having lived for ninety years, there was never found through all that length of time, and with all that liberty to sin, any one who could with right and justice impute to him a stain or any ugliness of manners."

How he appeared to one who lived and worked with him for a long period of intimacy, could not be better set forth than in the warm and ingenuous words of Condivi: "He has loved the beauty of the human body with particular devotion, as is natural with one who knows that beauty so completely; and has loved it in such wise that certain carnally minded men, who do not comprehend the love of beauty, except it be lascivious and indecorous, have been led thereby to think and to speak evil of him: just as though Alcibiades, that comeliest young man, had not been loved in all purity by Socrates, from whose side, when they reposed together, he was wont to say that he arose not otherwise than from the side of his own father. Oftentimes have I heard Michelangelo discoursing and expounding on the theme of love, and have afterwards gathered from those who were present upon these occasions that he spoke precisely as Plato wrote, and as we may read in Plato's works upon this subject. I, for myself, do not know what Plato says; but I know full well that, having so long and so intimately conversed with Michelangelo, I never once heard issue from that mouth words that were not of the truest honesty, and such as had virtue to extinguish in the heart of youth any disordered and uncurbed desire which might assail it. I am sure, too, that no vile thoughts were born in him, by this token, that he loved not only the beauty of human beings, but in general all fair things, as a beautiful horse, a beautiful dog, a beautiful piece of country, a beautiful plant, a beautiful mountain, a beautiful wood, and every site or thing in its kind fair and rare, admiring them with marvellous affection. This was his way; to choose what is beautiful from nature, as bees collect the honey from flowers, and use it for their purpose in their workings: which indeed was always the method of those masters who have acquired any fame in painting. That old Greek artist, when he wanted to depict a Venus, was not satisfied with the sight of one maiden only. On the contrary, he sought to study many; and culling from each the particular in which she was most perfect, to make use of these details in his Venus. Of a truth, he who imagines to arrive at any excellence without following this system (which is the source of a true theory in the arts), shoots very wide indeed of his mark."

Condivi perhaps exaggerated the influence of lovely nature, horses, dogs, flowers, hills, woods, &c., on Michelangelo's genius. His work, as we know, is singularly deficient in motives drawn from any province but human beauty; and his poems and letters contain hardly a trace of sympathy with the external world. Yet, in the main contention, Condivi told the truth. Michelangelo's poems and letters, and the whole series of his works in fresco and marble, suggest no single detail which is sensuous, seductive, enfeebling to the moral principles. Their tone may be passionate; it is indeed often red-hot with a passion like that of Lucretius and Beethoven; but the genius of the man transports the mind to spiritual altitudes, where the lust of the eye and the longings of the flesh are left behind us in a lower region. Only a soul attuned to the same chord of intellectual rapture can breathe in that fiery atmosphere and feel the vibrations of its electricity.


I have used Michelangelo's poems freely throughout this work as documents illustrative of his opinions and sentiments, and also in their bearing on the events of his life. I have made them reveal the man in his personal relations to Pope Julius II., to Vittoria Colonna, to Tommaso dei Cavalieri, to Luigi del Riccio, to Febo di Poggio. I have let them tell their own tale, when sorrow came upon him in the death of his father and Urbino, and when old age shook his lofty spirit with the thought of approaching death. I have appealed to them for lighter incidents: matters of courtesy, the completion of the Sistine vault, the statue of Night at S. Lorenzo, the subjection of Florence to the Medici, his heart-felt admiration for Dante's genius. Examples of his poetic work, so far as these can be applied to the explanation of his psychology, his theory of art, his sympathies, his feeling under several moods of passion, will consequently be found scattered up and down by volumes. Translation, indeed, is difficult to the writer, and unsatisfactory to the reader. But I have been at pains to direct an honest student to the original sources, so that he may, if he wishes, compare my versions with the text. Therefore I do not think it necessary to load this chapter with voluminous citations. Still, there remains something to be said about Michelangelo as poet, and about the place he occupies as poet in Italian literature.

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