Other Literary Forms
“The visions of the painter are perpetuated in the vault; the cares of the man in his letters,” E. H. Ramsden declares in the introduction to her edition of English translations of Michelangelo’s letters (The Letters of Michelangelo, 1963). The renowned painter and sculptor, creator of the statue of David and the epic paintings of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, also left a literary legacy. Along with his poetry, he wrote some five hundred letters which, though never intended as publishable literature, are a rich source of psychological and biographical material. Michelangelo’s letters are largely concerned with money, contracts, the difficulties of dealing with popes, family quarrels and obligations, real estate deals and speculations, politics (very obliquely referred to), premonitions, and setting his worthless brothers up in business. Rarely, if ever, does he discuss the art which was his sole reason for existence. When he completed the paintings in the Sistine Chapel after four years of hard labor, all he wrote to his father was:
I have finished the chapel I have been painting; the Pope is very well satisfied. But other things have not turned out for me as I’d hoped. For this I blame the times, which are very unfavorable to our art. . . .
By all accounts, Michelangelo reigned as the most important and most gifted sculptor of the Renaissance. When his Pietà, commissioned for Saint Peter’s and carved when Michelangelo was barely twenty, was unveiled, it caused a great flurry of excitement, and when his David was presented less than a decade later, there was little doubt that his work would define the standards for the highest period of the Italian Renaissance. Throughout his life, he was sought after by both the Papacy and the patriarchs of Florence, not only for his talents as a sculptor but also for his gifts as an architect and a military engineer.
His allegiance always to his art, Michelangelo was able to produce commissioned works as great as the Sistine Chapel or the Medici tombs without falling prey to the political rivalries between Rome and Florence—a feat in itself, attesting the esteem in which he was held by the ruling class. Four centuries after his death, Michelangelo is revered by popular opinion; his most famous works, especially the Pietà of Saint Peter’s Basilica, the David, and the Sistine Chapel, draw tens of thousands of people every year, and are among the most popular tourist attractions in Europe. In addition, critics have reevaluated Michelangelo’s poetry, establishing its merit not simply as a sidelight to his sculpture but as an innovative and important body of work in its own right.
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni’s attainments as a poet can be understood, both thematically and aesthetically, only against the background of the artist’s life in the service of six popes of the Italian Renaissance and his colossal achievements in all the visual arts—sculpture, painting, and architecture.
Brought to Florence from Caprese while still an infant, Michelangelo was sent to nurse with a stonecutter’s wife in Settignano, where, he later liked to say, he imbibed marble dust with his wet-nurse’s milk. When he was still a child, his mother died, leaving her husband, Lodovico, with five young sons. Lodovico remarried in 1485, and about that time, Michelangelo returned to Florence to live in the Santa Croce quarter with his father, stepmother, four brothers, and an uncle. Of the brothers, only Buonarroto, two years younger than Michelangelo, married and left progeny. The eldest brother, Leonardo, became a Dominican monk; the youngest brothers, Giovansimone and Sigismondo, passed their lives in trade, soldiering, and farming. Undoubtedly the untimely death of his mother and the overwhelmingly male household in which the artist spent his early years are important clues to certain aspects of Michelangelo’s personality. He never married, asserting that his art was sufficient mistress for him; his nudes are characterized by a blurring of distinctly male and female attributes, a projection of a race whose physiognomy and physiology would seem to partake of the qualities of both sexes. Similar qualities are manifest in his poetry.
Michelangelo’s correspondence with his father and brothers reveals the artist’s deep, almost morbid attachment to his family, despite the fact that comprehension of, or even interest in, Michelangelo’s art was entirely lacking on their part. Throughout their lives, his father and brothers looked upon Michelangelo only as a source of income or as a counselor in their various projects. Although in his letters Michelangelo frequently refers to his financial affairs, he never discusses art with his family, and rarely indeed with anyone else.
As a boy, Michelangelo cared little for the traditional Latin and Humanist studies; his inclination to draw led his father, despite his scorn for art, to enroll him (on April 1, 1488) as a student apprentice in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio, then the most popular painter in Florence. A year later, however, Michelangelo left that master to study in the Medici gardens near San Marco, where Lorenzo the Magnificent had gathered a collection of ancient statues and had assigned Bertoldo di Giovanni, a follower of Donatello, to train young men in sculpture. A faun’s head (now lost) that Michelangelo had freely copied from a classic fragment attracted Lorenzo’s attention, and Michelangelo, then fifteen years old, was taken to live almost as a son in the Medici Palace, first with Lorenzo de’ Medici, then briefly with his son Piero. It was during these impressionable years that the youthful artist absorbed the Neoplatonic ideas of Lorenzo’s famous circle of Humanists, Poliziano, Marsilio Ficino, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Undoubtedly, Michelangelo’s notion of reality as an essence underlying, or contained within, an enveloping substance was derived from conversations he heard in Lorenzo’s “academy.” The sculptural art of “taking away”—that is, revealing the figure already contained within the block—is analogous to ascending the Platonic ladder to a preexistent Form. At Poliziano’s suggestion, the young sculptor carved a relief, the Battle of the Centaurs, that showed indications of his mastery of the nude as the ideal vehicle of expression. The Neoplatonism which Michelangelo absorbed in the Medici Palace is one of the major themes of his poetry, especially the contrast between carnal and ideal love.
After the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent on April 8, 1492, his unworthy son Piero showed little interest in Michelangelo’s genius, assigning the sculptor such tasks as making a snowman. Subsequently, fearing the imminent invasion of the French under Charles VIII and the threatened fall of the Medici, Michelangelo and two companions fled to Venice and then returned to Bologna. Several times during the artist’s life, unpredictable flights of this kind occurred, resulting apparently from nameless fears.
Michelangelo remained in Bologna from the fall of 1494 until the beginning of 1495 as a guest of Gianfrancesco Aldovrandi, a wealthy merchant, to whom Michelangelo read Dante, Petrarch, and other Tuscan poets. During his lifetime, Michelangelo had the reputation of being a profound scholar of Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy). A harsh exaltation informs the work of both Tuscans, and in Michelangelo’s own poetry, the intellectual power of Dante is matched, if not his graceful style and fertile imagery.
In 1495, Michelangelo returned to Florence, where he carved in marble a San Giovannino and a Sleeping Cupid (both lost). The Cupid was such a skillful imitation of classical sculpture that it was sold to a Roman art dealer, who in turn sold the counterfeit as an authentic antique to Cardinal Raffaello Riario. Discovering the deception, the cardinal summoned Michelangelo to Rome in June, 1496, thinking to order other works from the astonishing young talent. Although the cardinal’s patronage ultimately proved unrewarding, Michelangelo remained in Rome for five fruitful years. During this period he completed a Bacchus in marble for the Roman banker Jacopo Galli and the Pietà that is now in Saint Peter’s Basilica for the French Cardinal Jean Villiers de la Groslaye. This first sojourn in Rome resulted in great fame for the youthful sculptor. Sharply revealed in his Bacchus and Pietà at this time are two of the main contrasting themes which served Michelangelo all of his life: pagan exaltation of the nude male figure and love-pity for the Christ. Both of these works, however, in their combination of naturalistic detail, high finish, and rather cold classical beauty, still hark back to the earlier fifteenth century Florentine sculptors. A comparison of this Pietà with a Pietà from his last years shows how far the artist moved from this early, vigorous naturalism to an abstract spiritualization of form and material.
Three months before Michelangelo signed his contract for the Pietà, Girolamo Savonarola was burned at the stake (May 23, 1498) after his condemnation by the Borgia Pope Alexander VI. The martyrdom of the Dominican deeply affected Michelangelo, who continued to read Savonarola’s sermons throughout his life. The prophetic nature of the friar was probably also a factor that led the artist to assiduous reading of the Old Testament. Nevertheless, the years of Savonarola’s domination had been unfavorable to art, and it was perhaps the more propitious atmosphere that had come about in Florence, as well as the repeated urgings of his father, that drew Michelangelo back to his native city. When Michelangelo returned from Rome in 1501, he was already a famous sculptor. He was deluged with commissions, most notably for the gigantic David, a fourteen-foot nude extracted from a single, awkwardly shaped block of Carrara marble (1501-1504).
This colossal David was, both in dimension and conception, Michelangelo’s first truly heroic work. The frowning hero is the first expression of the terribilità for which the sculptor later became so famous. In the disproportionate right hand and the strained position of the left hand holding the sling bag at the shoulder, the artist was already moving away from the more literal naturalism of his earlier work. The huge hand is an apotheosis of la man che ubbidisce all’ intelletto—“the hand that serves the intellect.” The fierce frown plays an odd counterpoint against the relaxed pose, a typical Michelangelo equilibrium between contrary forces, a coexistence of contrarieties frequently found also in his poetry.
In 1505, Pope Julius II summoned Michelangelo to Rome, assigning him the task of creating the pope’s mausoleum. The project, which involved over forty life-size figures, seemingly lacked any trace of religious spirit, and would have been a suitable secular glorification of the worldliness of the Renaissance papacy.
The intention was to place the mausoleum in the new apse then being constructed in the old basilica of Saint Peter’s. The project threatened to dwarf the existing church and thus suggested to Julius the idea of reconstructing the entire basilica on a new, immense scale. It may therefore be said that the colossal dimensions of Michelangelo’s plans for the tomb were an indirect cause of the construction of the new Saint Peter’s. The fickleness of the pope and his failure to pay Michelangelo for the expense of carting the marble, as well as a nameless presentiment that his life was in jeopardy, caused the hypersensitive artist to depart unexpectedly for Florence on April 17, 1506, the day before the laying of the cornerstone of the new Saint Peter’s. Followed in vain by messengers and threats from the pope, who sent three peremptory briefs to the Signory of Florence, Michelangelo fiercely refused to return to Rome. Several violent sonnets addressed to Pope Julius probably date from this period. Eventually Michelangelo was persuaded to attempt a reconciliation. In November, 1506, Michelangelo, “with a rope around my neck” (the traditional symbol of submission), came to Julius at Bologna, which the old pope, marching at the head of his troops, had just reconquered from the local tyrant, Giovanni Bentivoglio. In a stormy meeting, Julius pardoned Michelangelo and assigned him a new task; to cast a huge bronze statue of the pope to be set over the main portal of San Petronio in Bologna.
The bronze finished, Michelangelo returned home, planning to complete many assignments; Julius, however, summoned him again to Rome. Michelangelo sought in vain to free himself from the pope’s insistence that Michelangelo fresco the vault of the Sistine Chapel instead of resuming work on the tomb. Again, the Florentine found himself engaged in a craft which he did not consider his own. Nevertheless, once Michelangelo undertook the assignment, he set to work with typical fury and confidence, resolved to surpass all other achievements in the art of fresco. Six assistants whom he had summoned from Florence were soon dismissed by the fiercely individualistic artist. Except for some manual help in preparing the plaster grounds, and perhaps in painting some portions of the architectural setting, the entire stupendous task of decorating a barrel vault 128 feet long and forty-five-feet wide, sixty-eight feet from the pavement, together with lunettes over twelve windows, was carried out by...
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