CLOSER TO THE MASTER              a book about          23 MARCH – 25 JUNE 2006          BOOK NOW 020 7323 8181          W...
ContentsPublished in 2006 by the British Museummarketing department in association       Introduction                     ...
Why a small book about Michelangelo?                                50,000 drawings and over two million prints dating fro...
His body is sinewy and bony rather than fat and fleshy; it        Michelangelo Buonarrotiis healthy above all by nature an...
Michelangelo strove for perfection throughout his lifetime,        But Michelangelo, in reality, was far more earthy and c...
Condivi paints the reader a picture of a committed artist who           Vasari emphasized that an artist of Michelangelo’s...
Monsignor. – Your Lordship sends me word that I should           wife of one of the local stone-cutters. Vasari recounted ...
I [Condivi] have been told that the son of Domenico used                and wrinkled faun with a damaged nose and a laughi...
own family. Perhaps not surprisingly, envy set in among the                He [Michelangelo] also copied drawings done by ...
This came about because one day when Michelangelo                   grounds for fifty years, part carved by a previous art...
lightly with the chisel, allowing the dust to fall little by       only to be accosted by a footman who said: ‘Begging you...
basilica of St Peter’s were started – something that would have          … declaring to His Holiness that such men were ig...
Rome                                                                      hour what I’ve achieved after so many years and ...
While the pope had returned to Rome and Michelangelo           pope, who was an impetuous man in his undertakings and was ...
drawings of every figure to be painted, which were then enlarged         having the mind or capacity to produce good work....
the ceiling, alongside a caricature of a man arched backwards,      who was to become Pope Clement VII a year later – wish...
except his friend knowing he was there. So he saved himself;     This letter was a smokescreen. Most of Michelangelo’s fri...
twelve times greater than his contemporary Titian was receiving         Non vider gli occhi miei cosa mortalefrom Emperor ...
Except by long and steep ascent – the way                         know how to understand the love of Beauty unless it is  ...
However, it is in an anecdote Vasari recollects in his Lives that      that it was a most unseemly thing in such a venerab...
and after Michelangelo’s death his friend, the painter Daniele da           him from taking the post, for if he were given...
can make out, the doctors say I’m suffering from the               Michelangelo worked right up until his death on 18 Febr...
da Volterra, a very close friend of Michelangelo, and from          provided him with generous salaries for no other reaso...
Michelangelo: a brief chronology                                          1527                                     1545   ...
Closer to the master: a book about Michelangelo is published tocoincide with The BP special exhibition Michelangelo Drawin...
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  1. 1. CLOSER TO THE MASTER a book about 23 MARCH – 25 JUNE 2006 BOOK NOW 020 7323 8181 WWW.THEBRITISHMUSEUM.AC.UK TOTTENHAM COURT ROAD, HOLBORN, RUSSELL SQUARE Written and edited by Charlotte Mullins
  2. 2. ContentsPublished in 2006 by the British Museummarketing department in association Introduction 4with The British Museum Press A small book about Michelangelo 6British MuseumGreat Russell Street A brief chronology 46LondonWC1B 3DG Further reading © Charlotte Mullins 2006Extracts: Vasari © Oxford UniversityPress 2006Extracts: Condivi, letters and poems© Oxford University Press 2006Acknowledgements Published to coincide with The BP special exhibition MichelangeloMany thanks to Hugo Chapman,Brooke Dean, Gina Bianchi Drawings: closer to the master, at the British Museum, Londonand The British Museum Press 23 March-25 June 2006Printed by Cox and Wyman Ltd,Berkshire, England In support of Get London Reading week
  3. 3. Why a small book about Michelangelo? 50,000 drawings and over two million prints dating from the beginning of the fifteenth century to the present day. It coversMichelangelo’s unrivalled achievements as a sculptor, painter the history of drawing and printmaking as fine arts, andand architect set him a class apart from other artists of his includes important works by artists such as Rembrandt, Picasso,time. After the death of his main rival Raphael in 1520, he was Jake and Dinos Chapman, Goya and reign supreme in the European artistic capital of Rome for To celebrate the extraordinary achievements of Michelangelo,more than four decades. the British Museum is staging a major exhibition of his A measure of his extraordinary fame in his day is that other drawings, exhibiting work not only from its own outstandingartists produced portraits of him. This is not the case for his collection, but also those of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxfordcontemporaries, even artists we think of as giants of the and the Teyler Museum in Haarlem.Renaissance, such as Leonardo da Vinci. Michelangelo was also Called Michelangelo Drawings: closer to the master, thisthe subject of three biographies during his own lifetime, and he exhibition offers a genuinely once-in-a-lifetime opportunity towas the only living artist included in Giorgio Vasari’s follow the evolution of some of the world’s most celebratedgroundbreaking Lives of the Artists, first published in 1550 and artworks. Michelangelo’s drawings offer a unique insight intostill in print today. how he worked and thought, bringing us closer to him as an By the early 1530s, Michelangelo had been dubbed il divino artist and as a man. Given the scale of his work in paint and(the divine one), and after his death he was given an elaborate marble, they also provide the only possible means of chartingmemorial service in his native city, Florence, the only artist of his career in one place.his day to be so honoured. He left a rich legacy of poetry and The exhibition at the British Museum reunites material notletters, unique for any Italian Renaissance artist, and these add seen together since the dispersal of the artist’s studio moresignificantly to our understanding of his life and art. than 400 years ago, offering a wholly different perspective on a This book aims to give you a taste of his extraordinary life – defining personality of the Italian Renaissance. It traces sixtywherever possible in his own words and the words of those who years of Michelangelo’s stormy life, from intimate studies madeknew him best – to help suggest why Michelangelo really was when he was in his early twenties to the visionary Crucifixionthe master, il divino, the genius of the Renaissance. scenes carried out shortly before his death. So what better occasion to publish this small book? It’s not often you can enjoy the company of a genius during the rush hour.Michelangelo and the British Museum February 2006, The British MuseumThe Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museumcontains the national collection of Western prints and drawings,in the same way as the National Gallery and Tate hold the The BP special exhibition Michelangelo Drawings: closer to thenational collection of paintings. It is one of the top three master, British Museum, London WC1 (020 7323 8299,collections of its kind in the world. The collection holds around 23 March-25 June 2006 4 5
  4. 4. His body is sinewy and bony rather than fat and fleshy; it Michelangelo Buonarrotiis healthy above all by nature and from physical exercise 1475-1564as well as his continence regarding sexual intercourse, aswell as food; though in childhood he was very indisposed Michelangelo was one of the greatest artists of all time. Heand sickly … painted the incredible Sistine chapel in the Vatican palace almost single-handed, carved the colossal David from a block of marbleHis face has always had a good complexion; and his others had deemed impossible to work with and designed thestature is as follows: his body is of medium height, broad mighty St Peter’s basilica in Rome. He was known as il divino, theacross the shoulders, the rest of the body in proportion divine one, and described as terribile, frightening and awesome.and more slender than not. The shape of the front part of Several biographies were written about him during his lifetime, ahis skull is rounded so that over the ears it forms a half first for an Italian artist, and his work was known internationallycircle and a sixth. So his temples project somewhat through the wide dissemination of prints. When he finally died,beyond his ears, and his ears beyond his cheek-bones, aged eighty-eight, he left behind an estate that today would beand these beyond the rest.… worth millions, as well as 300 poems, 1,400 letters (by him, and those sent to him), and hundreds of drawings.The lips are thin, but the lower one is somewhat thicker, Michelangelo must have made thousands of drawings duringand seen in profile it juts out a little bit. His chin is well his lifetime, rethinking and exploring various possibilities formatched to the features already mentioned. In profile the every figure in each work. Only 600 remain, ninety of whichforehead almost projects beyond the nose, which is are included in the British Museum’s spring exhibitionalmost completely flattened save for a little bump in the Michelangelo Drawings: closer to the master. Michelangelo’smiddle. The eyebrows are sparse, the eyes can rather be friend and biographer Giorgio Vasari offers an explanation as tocalled small than otherwise, the colour of horn, but why comparatively few of them survived:changeable and flecked with tiny sparks of yellow andblue; the ears are the right size; the hair is black, as is the Michelangelo had such a distinctive and perfect imaginationbeard, save that now that he is in his seventy-ninth year, and the works he envisioned were of such a nature that hethe hair is copiously flecked with grey. And the beard is found it impossible to express such grandiose and awesomeforked, between four and five fingers long, and not very conceptions with his hands, and he often abandoned histhick, as can in part be seen in his portrait. works, or rather ruined many of them, as I myself know, because just before his death he burned a large number ofFrom Ascanio Condivi, Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1553 his own drawings, sketches and cartoons to prevent anyone from seeing the labours he endured or the ways he tested k his genius, for fear that he might seem less than perfect … 6 7
  5. 5. Michelangelo strove for perfection throughout his lifetime, But Michelangelo, in reality, was far more earthy and complexand obviously wanted to continue to appear ‘divine’ after death, than this extract suggests. For a start, he was a nit-pickingdestroying much of the evidence of how he considered and perfectionist and a passionate workaholic. Vasari talks of himworked at designs for his greatest artworks. Giorgio Vasari – working all day and all night:who included Michelangelo in his first volume of artists’ lives His sobriety made him very restless and he rarely slept,published in 1550 (the only living artist to be included) and and very often during the night he would arise, beingsubsequently revised and reprinted his entry in the 1568 second unable to sleep, and would work with his chisel, havingedition – supported Michelangelo’s claim to divine ability. He fashioned a helmet made of paste-board holding a burningsummed up the artist’s talent in the following way: candle over the middle of his head which shed light where He [God] decided, in order to rid us of so many errors, to he was working without tying up his hands. send to earth a spirit who, working alone, was able to The other main chronicler of Michelangelo’s life, his ‘official’ demonstrate in every art and every profession the biographer, was Ascanio Condivi. Condivi also emphasizes how meaning of perfection in the art of design, how to give hard-working and focussed Michelangelo was, describing how relief to the details in paintings by means of proper he often fell into bed fully clothed: drawing, tracing, shading, and casting light, how to work When he was more robust he often slept in his clothes and with good judgement in sculpture, and how to make in the boots which he has always worn for reason of buildings comfortable and secure, healthy, cheerful, well cramp, from which he has continually suffered, as much proportioned, and richly adorned with various decorations as for anything else. And sometimes he has been so long in architecture. Moreover, He wanted to join to this spirit in taking them off that subsequently along with his boots true moral philosophy and the gift of sweet poetry, so he sloughed off his skin, like a snake’s. that the world would admire and prefer him for the wholly singular example of his life, his work, the holiness Condivi’s Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti was published in of his habits, and all his human undertakings, and so that 1553, three years after Vasari’s first edition of his Lives. It was we would call him something divine rather than mortal. widely seen to be a ghosted autobiography by Michelangelo. While Michelangelo had on the whole been happy with Vasari’s account when it was published, he subsequently wanted to commit to paper his own version. In places, events are even k more embroidered in this biography, for example when Condivi claims Michelangelo was self-taught as an artist. Both biographies offer partial and biased accounts, but still provide an incredible insight into the life of Michelangelo. 8 9
  6. 6. Condivi paints the reader a picture of a committed artist who Vasari emphasized that an artist of Michelangelo’s standingwas a slave to his art: should be allowed to distance himself from everyday worries: Michelangelo has always been very frugal in his way of No one should think it strange that Michelangelo took life, taking food more from necessity than for pleasure, pleasure in solitude, as a man deeply enamoured of his art, especially when working; and at these times he has which wants a man to be alone and pensive for its own invariably been content with a piece of bread, even eating purposes, since anyone who desires to apply himself to it while still at work. the study of this art must avoid companions: it so Vasari, while acknowledging that Michelangelo was a financially happens that those who attend to the considerations ofsuccessful artist, said much the same: art are never alone or without thoughts, and people who attribute their desire for solitude to daydreams and Although he was wealthy, he lived like a poor man, and eccentricity are wrong, for anyone who wishes to work well his friends rarely or never ate with him, nor did he accept must rid himself of cares and worries, since talent requires presents from anyone, for he thought that when someone thought, solitude, comfort, and concentration of mind. gave him something he would always be obliged to him. Michelangelo himself often complained in his letters to Michelangelo’s desire to be on his own was seen by his biographers patrons and his family that unresolved issues kept him fromas something that his art demanded of him, as Condivi explains: concentrating on his work. In a letter from October 1525 to Now Michelangelo, when he was young, gave himself not Giovan Francesco Fattucci (a chaplain of Florence cathedral, and only to sculpture and painting, but also to all those Michelangelo’s representative in negotiations for his ongoing branches of study which either belong or are close to them; commission to create Pope Julius II’s tomb), Michelangelo writes: and he did this so zealously that for a while he came near to … if I am given my salary, as I said, I shall never stop cutting himself off completely from the fellowship of men, working for Pope Clement with all the strength I have, except for the company of a very few. For this, he was held though it doesn’t amount to much as I’m old [he was fifty]. to be proud by some, and by others very touchy and And also I must not go on being taunted the way I am temperamental, though he had neither one or the other of [concerning the financing of Pope Julius II’s tomb], these faults. Rather (as has been the case with many men of because this affects me deeply; and it has stopped me from excellence) it was the love of virtuosity, and the continuous doing what I want these many months, for one cannot practice of the fine arts, that made him solitary; he took so work on something with one’s hands and on something much delight and pleasure in them that the company of else with one’s brain, especially when it comes to marble. others not only did not bring him contentment but positively gave him displeasure, since it diverted him from Nearly twenty years later, in October 1542, in a letter (perhaps his meditation, and he (as the great Scipio used to say sent to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, grandson of Pope Paul III), he himself) was never less alone than when alone. is still complaining that he can’t work if he is worrying about events: 10 11
  7. 7. Monsignor. – Your Lordship sends me word that I should wife of one of the local stone-cutters. Vasari recounted how paint [the Pauline chapel frescoes] and not worry about later in life Michelangelo said to him: anything else. I reply that one paints with the head and ‘Giorgio, if I have any intelligence at all, it has come from not with the hands; and if he can’t keep a clear head a being born in the pure air of your native Arezzo, and also man is lost. So until this business of the tomb is settled, I because I took the hammer and chisels with which I carve shan’t do any good work. my figures from my wet-nurse’s milk.’ Michelangelo was hot-blooded and passionate, ambitious, He grew up in a male household, as his mother died when hehard-working and solitary. He was at times paranoid, snobbish, was only six, and was sent to grammar school to study Latin.obsessive, secretive and proud, but always devout. His was a life But, as his authorized biographer Condivi notes:of disruption, as he regularly fled cities as politics or Popeschanged. And his art was born from an inherent tension as he … whenever he was able to steal some time, he could nottried to reconcile his sensual interest in the male nude with his resist running off to draw in one place or another, andfervent Catholicism. seeking out the company of painters … He befriended Francesco Granacci, a young disciple of the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Granacci borrowed k engravings from Ghirlandaio’s workshop for Michelangelo to copy. But, as Condivi continues, Michelangelo’s burgeoning interest in art didn’t go down well at home:Michelangelo’s Childhood This brought him the disapproval of his father and his1475-1496 father’s brothers, who hated the art of design, and very often he was outrageously beaten: as they were ignorant ofMichelangelo was the second of five sons born to Lodovico di the excellence and nobility of the art, it seemed shamefulLeonardo Buonarroti Simoni and his wife Francesca. At the time to them that is should be practised in their family.of Michelanglo’s birth, Lodovico was the governor of Caprese, a (Ironically, despite his family’s resistance to the career hesmall town near Arezzo under Florentine rule. His family had wanted to pursue, it was Michelangelo’s success as an artist thatonce been of higher social standing, but their status and wealth restored wealth and prestige back to the Buonarroti family.)had declined so much that Lodovico and his family existed on a At the age of twelve, his father begrudgingly acceptedsmall inheritance, the rent from a farm he owned with his Michelangelo’s desire to be an artist, and apprenticed him tobrother and the salary he took from intermittent low-ranking Domenico Ghirlandaio. As Michelangelo grew older, hejobs for the Florentine state. emphatically denied Ghirlandaio’s part in his training. In his Michelangelo was given to a wet-nurse when he was born (as official biography, he had Condivi denounce accounts of hiswas traditional at the time for children of rank) who was the time spent in Ghirlandaio’s successful Florentine workshop: 12 13
  8. 8. I [Condivi] have been told that the son of Domenico used and wrinkled faun with a damaged nose and a laughing to attribute the divine excellence of Michelangelo in mouth, which he found there. Although Michelangelo had great part to the teaching of his father, who in reality never before touched marble or chisels, the imitation gave him no assistance at all … turned out so well that Lorenzo was astonished, and when Michelangelo wanted the reader of his biography to believe that Lorenzo saw that Michelangelo, following his own fantasyhis talent was entirely heaven-sent, and that he was naturally rather than the antique head, had carved its mouth opengifted with no need for training. (This sense of divine ability is to give it a tongue and to make all its teeth visible, thisprobably the reason he destroyed many of his working drawings.) lord, laughing with pleasure as was his custom, said to Vasari was having none of this, and retaliated in his second edition him: ‘But you should have known that old men never haveof the Lives with irrefutable evidence, claiming that Condivi’s all their teeth and that some of them are always missing.’assertions Michelangelo learnt nothing from Ghirlandaio were: In that simplicity of his, it seemed to Michelangelo, who loved and feared this lord, that Lorenzo was correct; and … obviously false, as can be seen from a document as soon as Lorenzo left, he immediately broke a tooth on written in the hand of Lodovico, Michelangelo’s father, the head and dug out the gum in such a way that it and inscribed in Domenico’s record books now in the seemed the tooth had fallen out … possession of his heirs, which states as follows: ‘1488. On this day, the first of April, I record that I, Lodovico di While Michelangelo couldn’t say legitimately that he was self- Lionardo di Buonarroti, place my son Michelangelo with taught as a painter, it seems that he was naturally gifted as a Domenico and David di Tommaso di Currado [Bigordi sculptor. The Faun, now lost, was the first sculpture Michelangelo Ghirlandaio] for the next three years …’ ever carved. (The detail of the knocked-out tooth and hollowed gum points to Michelangelo’s future interest in anatomical Michelangelo in fact spent little over a year in Ghirlandaio’s dissection, something he practiced from the mid-1490s onwards.)workshop. He was offered the opportunity to attend an Michelangelo had a precocious talent as a sculptor. Vasariinformal artistic academy set up by Lorenzo de’Medici in the describes his unfinished relief of the Battle of the Centaurs,Medici Garden, which was filled with antique sculpture and made in 1492 when Michelangelo was seventeen:contemporary paintings in loggias. When Michelangelo firstarrived, Vasari recalls that he saw a group of clay figures Michelangelo created in a single piece of marble given tosculpted in the round by a pupil, Torrigiano Torrigiani. him by Lorenzo the Battle of Hercules with the Centaurs,Michelangelo’s competitive spirit was aroused: which was so beautiful that those who examine it today sometimes cannot believe it is by the hand of a young After Michelangelo saw these figures, he made some man rather than by an esteemed master who has been himself to rival those of Torrigiani, so that Lorenzo, seeing steeped in the study and practice of this art. his high spirit, always had great expectations for him, and, encouraged after only a few days, Michelangelo began Michelangelo studied hard at the Medici Palace, and was all but copying with a piece of marble the antique head of an old adopted by Lorenzo, who allowed him to live and eat with his 14 15
  9. 9. own family. Perhaps not surprisingly, envy set in among the He [Michelangelo] also copied drawings done by variousother pupils, as Vasari recounts: old masters so closely that they were not recognized as It is said that Torrigiani, who struck up a friendship with copies, for by staining and ageing them with smoke and him, was fooling around when, prompted by envy at various materials, he soiled them so that they seemed old seeing Michelangelo more honoured and more talented and could not be distinguished from the originals; he did as an artist, he struck Michelangelo upon the nose with this for no other reason than to have the originals, giving such force that he broke and flattened it, unfortunately away his copies, because he admired the originals for the marking Michelangelo for life; and this was the reason excellence of their skill, which he sought to surpass in his why he was banished from Florence … copies, thereby acquiring a very great reputation. In 1492, Lorenzo de’Medici died. Michelangelo stayed on at Michelangelo’s belief in his abilities perhaps outshone anythe palace and Lorenzo’s son Piero became his new patron. But thoughts about what would happen, should he be found out.Piero’s lack of leadership qualities meant he was soon expelled kfrom Florence, and the first Florentine republic was established.Michelangelo was supportive of the republic, but had left thecity shortly before Piero’s departure, worried about hisassociations with his former patron. He ended up in Bologna,carving figures for the shrine of St Dominic. Rome Towards the end of 1495 Michelangelo returned home, but he 1496-1501was soon to move to Rome. While in Florence, he carved asleeping Cupid. Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’Medici suggested he The scam with the Cupid did in fact backfire, although a Romansell it not as one of his own sculptures, but as an antique, as this cardinal did initially part with 200 ducats for it, believing it to beway it would fetch 200 ducats, rather than thirty. Vasari recounts an antique. However, once the cardinal realized that theLorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’Medici’s promise: sculpture was by a contemporary artist he refused to keep it. ‘If you were to prepare it, so that it should appear to have Instead he requested Michelangelo join him in Rome. been buried, I shall send it to Rome and it would pass for And so Michelangelo moved to Rome, living for a year with an antique, and you would sell it much more profitably.’ Cardinal Riario, for whom he carved Bacchus. In the end Michelangelo’s god of decadence turned out to be too modern Vasari claims Michelangelo accepted this challenge because for the cardinal and was bought instead by the banker Jacopohe was smart enough to work out how to trick the eye into Gallo. However, his masterpiece of his five-year stay in Romebelieving it was antique. But it was not the first time he had was the Pietà now in St Peter’s. It is the only work thatforged an artwork, as Vasari had noted earlier in his book: Michelangelo signed, claiming proud ownership after a misunderstanding, as Vasari recalls: 16 17
  10. 10. This came about because one day when Michelangelo grounds for fifty years, part carved by a previous artist who had was entering the church where the statue was placed, he been defeated by it. No one else had been able to suggest a way found a large number of foreigners from Lombardy who to carve a figure from it without the need to add extra pieces of were praising the statue very highly; one of them asked marble. Michelangelo convinced the authorities that he could another who had sculpted it, and he replied: ‘Our Gobbo breathe life into the block as it was. And he offered to do it within from Milan’. Michelangelo stood there silently, and it two years. Vasari recounts how he went about it: seemed somewhat strange to him that his labours were Michelangelo did a wax model depicting a young David being attributed to someone else; one night he locked with a sling in hand, as the symbol of the palace, for just as himself inside the church with a little light, and, having David had defended his people and governed them with brought his chisels, he carved his name upon the statue. justice, so, too, those who governed this city should Michelangelo was proud of the skill he had demonstrated in courageously defend it and govern it with justice: he beganthe Pietà, but Vasari suggests that the artist was too much for the statue in the Works Department of Santa Maria delsome people: Fiore [the cathedral’s workshop], where he erected a While staying in Rome, Michelangelo acquired so much scaffolding between the wall and the tables surrounding skill in his study of art that it was incredible to see his lofty the marble, and, working continuously without letting concepts and his difficult style, which he put into practice anyone see it, he brought the statue to perfect completion. with such great facility that it terrified people Michelangelo’s David, nicknamed il gigante, the giant, was the unaccustomed to seeing such works as well as those first colossus to be carved in Italy since Roman times. Vasari accustomed to good ones, for the works that others were recounts a tale of the Gonfaloniere (republican leader) of showing seemed nothing in comparison with his. Florence, Piero Soderini, supposedly visiting the sculpture as Michelangelo was finishing it: Around this time it happened that Piero Soderini saw k the statue, and it pleased him greatly, but while Michelangelo was giving it the finishing touches, he told Michelangelo that he thought the nose of the figure was too large. Michelangelo, realizing that the GonfaloniereFlorence was standing under the giant and that his viewpoint did1501-1505 not allow him to see it properly, climbed up the scaffolding to satisfy Soderini (who was behind himMichelangelo was riding high after the success of his Pietà. He nearby), and having quickly grabbed his chisel in his leftreturned to Florence in order to respond to a challenge set by the hand along with a little marble dust that he found on thecathedral for a sculptor to carve a figure from a narrow eighteen- planks in the scaffolding, Michelangelo began to tapfoot block of marble in their possession. It had sat in the church’s 18 19
  11. 11. lightly with the chisel, allowing the dust to fall little by only to be accosted by a footman who said: ‘Begging your little without retouching the nose from the way it was. pardon, I have instructions not to let you enter.’ Then, looking down at the Gonfaloniere who stood there There was a bishop present, and when he heard the watching, he ordered: words of the footman he rebuked him, saying: ‘You ‘Look at it now.’ cannot know who this man is.’ ‘I like it better’, replied the Gonfaloniere, ‘you’ve made ‘Indeed I do known him,’ answered the footman, ‘but I it come alive.’ am bound to do what I am instructed by my masters, without enquiring further.’ Michelangelo (against whom till then no curtain had k ever been drawn nor door bolted), when he saw how he was being goaded, became indignant over all this and answered him: ‘And you tell the Pope that from now on if he wants me, he can seek me elsewhere.’Rome So having returned home, he ordered two servants that1505-1506 he had, once they had sold all the household furniture and received the money, to follow him to Florence. HeIn 1505 Michelangelo was summoned to Rome again, this time rode with the post and at the second hour of the night heby the new pope, Julius II. After months of waiting for a reached Poggibonsi, a little town in the countryside ofcommission, Julius II asked Michelangelo to design his own Florence, eighteen or twenty miles from the city. Here,tomb. Michelangelo created an ambitious design, a vast feeling he was in a safe place, he rested.freestanding marble structure decorated with over 40 Pope Julius II’s couriers tracked him down in Poggibonsi, but,sculptures. Julius II approved the design, and Michelangelo, as Condivi continues,being a perfectionist, camped out at Carrara – home of Italy’schief marble quarry – for eight months to oversee the … he had arrived at a place where they could not do himextraction of flawless blocks from which to carve the tomb. The any violence, and with Michelangelo threatening that ifstones were then shipped from Carrara to Ripa, and brought to they tried anything he would have them murdered, theyRome, where Michelangelo paid for the shipping and unloading turned to full. He then went to see the pope, to be reimbursed. He was Michelangelo’s pride at being refused an audience seems totold to return the next day. And the next. Until finally, as have been dented more than his bank balance, which had takenMichelangelo’s authorized biographer Condivi tells us, a hefty blow. He was certainly still raging when the couriers Another morning, he [Michelangelo] returned and entered caught up with him, threatening to kill them. But Michelangelo the ante-chamber to seek an audience [with the pope], may have had other reasons as to why he so dramatically quit Rome. Just the day before he left, the foundations for the new 20 21
  12. 12. basilica of St Peter’s were started – something that would have … declaring to His Holiness that such men were ignorantupset the artist because he rightly predicted that the funds for and worthless in anything outside of their art, and that hehis grand tomb for Julius II may well dry up as the papal purse should willingly forgive him. This enraged the pope, whoemptied into the building programme. thrashed the bishop with a mace he was holding, telling him: ‘You are the ignorant one, speaking insults We would never utter!’ And so the bishop was driven out by the k footmen with sticks and left, and after the pope vented his anger on him he blessed Michelangelo … The pope asked Michelangelo to remain in Bologna to cast aFlorence then Bologna giant bronze sculpture of him to go above the door of San Petronio church, which he did. (The sculpture was melted down1506-1508 just three years after it was completed, when Bologna changedMichelangelo refused to go back to Rome, despite the pope’s hands again). During this time, Michelangelo had another run-repeated entreaties. The Signoria (the ruling council) of Florence in with a fellow artist, who inadvertently angered him. Vasariwanted to keep the peace with the pope, so they negotiated tells the tale:that Michelangelo would meet him in Bologna, to where the It is said that while Michelangelo was working on the statue,pope was travelling with an army to restore papal rule. When Il Francia, a goldsmith and most excellent painter, cameMichelangelo arrived, Vasari writes, to see it, since he knew Michelangelo’s reputation and the His Holiness looked at him askance and, as if he were praise given his works but had never seen any of them. He angry, he said: ‘Rather than coming to meet Us, you have sent messages asking to see the statue, and gained waited for Us to come to meet you?’, meaning to infer permission to do so. Upon seeing Michelangelo’s skill, he that Bologna was closer to Florence than to Rome. With was amazed and when he was asked what he thought of courteous gestures and a loud voice, Michelangelo the figure, II Francia replied that it was a very fine casting humbly begged the pope’s pardon, excusing himself, and beautiful material. Since Michelangelo felt he had since he had acted in anger, having been unable to bear praised the bronze more than the craftsmanship, he said: being chased away in such a fashion, and he begged the ‘I have the same obligation to Pope Julius who gave me pope once again to forgive him for having done wrong. the bronze as you have to the apothecaries who give you the colours for your paint’, and in the presence of some Michelangelo was right to ingratiate himself with the notoriously gentlemen he angrily declared that Il Francia was a fool.fiery Pope.The bishop who had presented Michelangelo to the Popehad tried to make excuses for Michelangelo, Vasari continues, k 22 23
  13. 13. Rome hour what I’ve achieved after so many years and through1508-1516 such great toil. And by the body of Christ, that’s the truth! He bailed out his brother Buonarroto from creditors when hisMoney had always been important to Michelangelo, and by the business foundered; he established a substantial fund for histime he returned to Rome he was earning a significant amount. father to live on. But it seems sometimes his family repaid himAs a young man, Michelangelo had been ashamed by his by taking even more than he had allocated. In a letter tofather’s resigned attitude to the family’s current standing, and Buonarroto in September 1512, he wrote,it fired in him an incredible drive and sense of ambition. His firstincome was as an apprentice to Ghirlandaio aged twelve at a As for the forty ducats that Lodovico [Michelangelo’srate of six florins a year (roughly £600 in today’s money). When father] drew from Santa Maria Nuova, I wrote you thehe was commissioned to paint the Sistine chapel twenty years other day in my letter that if your life were in danger youlater, he received 3,200 ducats or florins, that translates to a should spend not just forty ducats, but all of them; buthefty £320,000 today. (In an additional exhibition at the British apart from that, I have not given you leave to touch them.Museum, Michelangelo: money and medals, this subject is Let me tell you that I don’t have a penny and that I’mstudied in more depth. Another conversion method is suggested practically barefoot and naked, and I cannot have thethat would make the 3,200 ducats closer to £1.6m by today’s balance due to me till I have finished the work; and I stillcomparable standards of living.) have to endure great toil and hardship. So when you too But while Michelangelo did start to buy properties in and have to bear some hardship, don’t feel sorry for yourself;around Florence with his increased earnings, he invested much and while you can help yourself from your own money,of his income into improving his family’s lot. However, they don’t take mine …didn’t always seem grateful for all his efforts on their behalf. In Michelangelo’s melodramatic tone in both letters, from 1509a letter from June 1509 to his brother Giovansimone, he wrote, and 1512, could have been provoked by the enormous pressure he Let me be brief and just tell you that for sure you have was under. He was in the middle of painting the entire Sistine nothing of your own in this world, and your spending chapel ceiling – over forty metres long – by himself, standing on money and home expenses are what I give you and have a scaffold with no natural light, for an impatient pope. given you for some time, for the love of God.… When Michelangelo returned to Rome from Bologna in 1508, For twelve years now I’ve been traipsing around Italy, he hadn’t painted a fresco for twenty years. And yet he found borne all kinds of disgrace, suffered every calamity, himself being asked to paint the Sistine chapel, a gigantic lacerated my body with cruel toil, put my own life in undertaking that required him to be a proficient fresco painter. danger a thousand times, only to help my family; and now Michelangelo argued that he was the wrong man for the job, but that I’ve started to raise our house up again a little, just the die had been cast while he was in Bologna, as Vasari recounts: you alone wish to be the one to confound it and ruin in an 24 25
  14. 14. While the pope had returned to Rome and Michelangelo pope, who was an impetuous man in his undertakings and was completed the statue in Bologna, Bramante, the friend once again urged on by Michelangelo’s rivals, especially and relative of Raphael of Urbino, and therefore no real Bramante, so that the pope, who was quick to anger, almost friend of Michelangelo, realized, in Michelangelo’s flew into a rage with Michelangelo … absence, that the pope favoured and encouraged Both Michelangelo’s biographers Vasari and Condivi are quick Michelangelo’s works in sculpture, and, along with to point the finger at Bramante for plotting against him, and Raphael, began thinking of a way to change his mind, so Michelangelo was certainly paranoid that this was the case, that upon Michelangelo’s return His Holiness would not discussing Bramante’s scheming in letters long after his death try to complete his tomb, by telling him that this would in 1514. But Michelangelo also resented Bramante for having seem to hasten his death and that it was bad luck to build more influence over Pope Julius II than he did, and was angry one’s tomb while alive; and Bramante and Raphael that the basilica, being built to Bramante’s design, was diverting persuaded the pope that upon Michelangelo’s return, in money from his own schemes, notably Julius II’s tomb. memory of his uncle Sixtus, the pope should have Bramante had been asked by the pope to make a scaffold for Michelangelo paint the vault of the chapel that Sixtus Michelangelo to work on in the Sistine chapel, but on seeing it, had built in the [Vatican] palace, and in this way Michelangelo spotted a flaw in the design. The scaffold hung Bramante and other rivals of Michelangelo hoped to take from the ceiling on thick ropes. Vasari recounts: Michelangelo away from sculpture, in which they saw he Michelangelo asked Bramante how, once the painting had reached perfection, and to drive him to desperation, had been completed, he would be able to fill the holes assuming that by having him paint he would produce a [left by the ropes]; and Bramante replied, ‘We’ll worry less praiseworthy work and would be less likely to about that later’, and added that there was no other way succeed than Raphael, since he had no experience in to do it. Michelangelo then realized that either Bramante doing frescoes in colour; and even if the work turned out knew little about it or he was not much of a friend, and he well, doing it would make him angry with the pope at any went to the pope and told him that this scaffolding was rate, so that in one way or another their intention of unsatisfactory and that Bramante had not understood getting rid of him would succeed. how to build it; in Bramante’s presence, the pope replied And so Michelangelo returned to Rome, and the pope decided that he [Michelangelo] should build one in his own way.not to complete his tomb for the time being and asked him to Michelangelo set about designing his own scaffold that restedpaint the vault of the chapel. Michelangelo, who wished to on side beams. No daylight could penetrate it from the windowsfinish the tomb and saw that painting the vault would be an below, and consequently the whole ceiling had to be paintedenormous and difficult task, considering his lack of experience entirely by lamp light, but it could now be painted in its entirety.with colours, tried in every way possible to remove this burden The theme chosen for the ceiling was the creation, from Godfrom his shoulders, allegedly recommending Raphael for the illuminating the world to the story of Noah. Michelangelo madejob. But the more he refused, the more persistent he made the 26 27
  15. 15. drawings of every figure to be painted, which were then enlarged having the mind or capacity to produce good work. They neveras cartoons [giant drawings to scale] and their outlines transferred lasted long, and it seems he was happier without them. He hadto the ceiling as each area of fresh wet plaster was applied. The never wanted to run a workshop, as it implied he was a tradesmanscale of the project meant that Michelangelo had to employ a team of sorts, as he wrote in a letter to his nephew Lionardo, in May 1548:of artists to help him.Vasari recalls how he sent to Florence for men, … I never was the sort of painter or sculptor who kept … and having decided to demonstrate in this project that shop. Always, I have guarded against doing that, for the those who had painted there before him were unequal to honour of my father and my brothers, though indeed I his labours, he also wished to show modern artisans how have served three Popes, as needs must. to design and paint. Thus, the theme of the work So instead Michelangelo started to paint the ceiling on his compelled Michelangelo to aim high for the sake of both own. He had absorbed the skills of fresco painting from his his reputation and the well-being of the art of painting, assistants while they had briefly worked on site, but his lack of and he began and completed the cartoons; then wishing direct experience in working in the medium was revealed when to colour them in fresco but lacking the necessary the painting began to grow mould. Condivi explains what experience, he brought some painters who were friends happened next: of his to Rome from Florence to assist him in the project and also to see their method of working in fresco, in which … after he [Michelangelo] had started the work, and had some were skilled; these included Granacci, Giuliano finished the picture of the Flood, it began to grow a Bugiardini, Jacopo di Sandro, the elder Indaco, Angelo di mould in such a manner that the figures were scarcely Domenico, and Aristotle; and after starting the project, discernible. And then thinking that this excuse should be he had them begin a few things as a sample of their work. enough to let him escape being burdened with this task, he went to the Pope and said to him: ‘I have indeed told Unfortunately, Michelangelo was not impressed with their your Holiness that this is not my art: what I have done islevel of skill. Vasari continues, spoilt: and if you won’t believe it, send to see.’ … when he saw that their labours were far from what he The Pope sent [Giuliano da] Sangallo, and when he saw wished to achieve and failed to satisfy him, he decided one it he realized that Michelangelo had put the lime on too morning to pull down everything they had done.And closing wet, and because of this when the moisture ran down it himself inside the chapel, he would not open it to them or had this effect; and after Michelangelo was told of this, even see them at his home. And when they thought this joke the Pope made him proceed and no excuse helped. had been carried far enough, they made up their minds The mould was scraped off, the plaster’s composition altered, and returned to Florence in disgrace. Then Michelangelo and Michelangelo continued painting. made arrangements to do the whole work by himself … Michelangelo moaned in letters about his workload Michelangelo had never been much good at employing throughout the four-year period he was painting the Sistineassistants. Either he saw them as lacklustre and lazy or as not chapel. He even wrote a poem about his plight while at work on 28 29
  16. 16. the ceiling, alongside a caricature of a man arched backwards, who was to become Pope Clement VII a year later – wishedhand in the air, painting. The poem begins, Michelangelo to remain in Florence. Condivi explains how the This comes of dangling from the ceiling – cardinal kept him in the city: I’m goitered like a Lombard cat And to keep him occupied, and provide an excuse, he (Or wherever else their throats grow fat) – commissioned him to make the fabric of the Medici It’s my belly that’s beyond concealing, Library in San Lorenzo, together with the sacristy for the It hangs beneath my chin like peeling. tombs of his ancestors, promising to arrange matters and My beard points skyward, I seem a bat to satisfy the Pope on his behalf. Upon its back, I’ve breasts and splat! Michelangelo worked on the Laurentian library and Medici On my face the paint’s congealing.… tombs for the next eighteen years, despite the Medici family The first half of the ceiling was revealed to an impatient pope being forced out of Florence again, in 1527. Condivi describesand eager public in 1510, and the whole ceiling was complete the course of events:by October 1512. Michelangelo was thirty-seven years old, and The Medici were driven from Florence by the opposinghad created a masterpiece. In typical down-beat style, he wrote party, because they had seized more authority than a freeto his father, Lodovico, in October 1512, city ruling itself as a republic will tolerate. Not doubting I have finished the chapel I have been painting; the pope that the Pope [Clement VII, a Medici] must do everything is very well satisfied. But other things have not turned out he could to restore his family, and in the expectation of for me as I’d hoped. For this I blame the times, which are certain war, the Signoria [Florentine government] turned very unfavourable to our art.… its thoughts to fortifying the city; and it put Michelangelo in charge of this as commissioner general. For two years Michelangelo worked on strengthening the city k against the army who sided with his former patrons. But by August 1530 the city had surrendered, and the Medici were restored to power. Michelangelo, fearing for his life, went into hiding, as Condivi recounts,Florence … many citizens were seized and killed, the court sent to1516-1532 Michelangelo’s house to have him seized as well; and all theMichelangelo returned to Florence in 1516 to build a façade for rooms and chests were searched, including even the chimneySan Lorenzo, the Medici family’s church. However, the project and the privy. However, fearing what was to happen,was shelved, and in 1522 the new pope, Adrian VI, requested Michelangelo had fled to the house of a great friend of hisMichelangelo return to Rome. But Cardinal Giulio de’Medici – where he stayed hidden for many days, without anyone 30 31
  17. 17. except his friend knowing he was there. So he saved himself; This letter was a smokescreen. Most of Michelangelo’s friends for when the fury passed Pope Clement wrote to Florence were anti-Medici exiles, but he was worried because he owned that Michelangelo should be sought for, and he commanded property in and around Florence, which he feared could be seized. that, when he was found, if he wished to pursue the work on the tombs which had already been started, he should be left at liberty and treated courteously. k But although Pope Clement VII had granted him immunity, hestill feared for his life. Condivi writes, Michelangelo remained in the greatest fear, because Rome Duke Alessandro [de’Medici, Duke of Florence] hated him 1534-1564 deeply and was, as everyone knows, a wild and vindictive youth. And there is no doubt that he would have got rid of In 1534 Pope Clement VII died, to be replaced by Paul III. Vasari him, were it not from consideration of the Pope. writes, Michelangelo was at pains to hide his republican sympathies, … after the elevation of Pope Paul III, the latter sent forboth after the first Florentine republic foundered and when the Michelangelo to ask him to stay in his service. Fearful ofMedici regained power following the fall of the second republic being impeded in what he was doing, Michelangeloin 1530. As late as October 1547, he was still worrying about replied that he could not do so, for the reason that he wasbeing exposed, as he writes in a letter to his nephew Lionardo, bound under contract to the Duke of Urbino until he had finished the work that he had in hand [Julius II’s tomb]. I’m glad that you have informed me about the decree Disturbed and angry the Pope said: ‘Already thirty years I [that Florentines should have nothing to do with anti- have had this wish, and now that I’m Pope cannot I satisfy Medici exiles], because if up till now I’ve been on my it? Where is this contract? I will tear it up.’ guard about talking to the exiles and associating with them, I’ll be much more on my guard in future … I go Michelangelo had just moved to Rome again when Clement about very little and talk to no-one, least of all to VII died. Clement VII had commissioned him to paint the Last Florentines; but if I’m greeted in the street I cannot but Judgement on the wall behind the altar in the Sistine chapel the respond with a civil word and pass on – though, if I were previous year, and they had reached an agreement that ensured informed as to which are the exiles, I would make no Michelangelo could continue to work on Julius II’s tomb. response at all. But, as I’ve said, from now on I’ll be very Michelangelo may have worried that Paul III wouldn’t grant him much on my guard, particularly as I have so many other time to finish the tomb (it was finally finished in 1545 in a anxieties that life is a burden. much reduced state), but he can’t have had any worries financially – by the mid-1530s, his salary from Pope Paul III was 32 33
  18. 18. twelve times greater than his contemporary Titian was receiving Non vider gli occhi miei cosa mortalefrom Emperor Charles V. To Tommaso Cavalieri (?), c. 1535-41 By this point, Michelangelo was nearly sixty, and in love. No mortal being would my eyes beholdMichelangelo met Tommaso de’Cavalieri, a young Roman When in your eyes my utter peace I found,aristocrat, in 1532 during one of Michelangelo’s long visits to But my own likeness proved on pure ground,the city from Florence, and Tommaso may have been the spur The one whose arms my heart by love enfold;for Michelangelo to move back to Rome. He certainly became And were not God Himself my soul’s own mould,the recipient of many of his poems and drawings. The handsome looks which all our eyes astound S’un casto amor, s’una pietà superna Would satisfy; but no such charms are sound; To Tommaso de’Cavalieri, 1532 The soul with abstract beauty is enrolled. No man can gratify through what must die If one chaste love, if one God-given piety, All his desires; nor can there be achieved If one same fortune by two lovers dared, Eternal form in time, since flesh decays. If one the grief but two the pain it shared, For here our senses must our love belie If one will rules two hearts whose souls agree, And kill the soul; but if on earth perceived If bodies doubled set one spirit free As friends, we’re perfect when to heaven we’re raised. And both to heaven rise on quick wings paired; If love’s fire in two self-same souls has flared In other poems, Michelangelo repeatedly called Tommaso his From one thrust of one dart’s trajectory; ‘phoenix love’, implying that his aging self was reborn through If loving one another they spurn self his love. (Tommaso was perhaps only twelve years old when By mutual pleasure, zest and certain aim they first met.) However, whether or not there was a physical Which speeds them both to where they want to go: dimension to their relationship, it was reported by his If this were true a thousand fold, its wealth biographers as chaste and virtuous. Would be a hundredth of the love I claim Michelangelo was homosexual, but that didn’t prevent him Is ours, which disdain only could bring low. forming a close bond with Vittoria Colonna, Marchioness of Pescara. They met just before he began the Last Judgement. She Michelangelo was a prolific poet. 300 of his poems survive and was a devout widow, who, despite being wealthy, lived frugally.are still widely read today. He had a deep knowledge of Florentine They were fellow poets, and regularly exchanged sonnets.poetry, including the works of Petrarch and Dante, and Dante’svision of hell heavily influenced his Last Judgement. He sent his A l’alta tuo lucente diademapoems only to his closest friends, and they weren’t widely known To Vittoria Colonna, c. 1541until they were published sixty years after his death. To your resplendent beauty’s diadem No one may hope to rise, O Lady, 34 35
  19. 19. Except by long and steep ascent – the way know how to understand the love of Beauty unless it is On high is by your gentle courtesy. lascivious and impure, there has been occasion to think My strength is failing me, I spend and talk evil of him: as if Alcibiades, a most handsome My breath half-way – I fall, I stray, young man, had not been loved most chastely by And yet your beauty makes me happy Socrates; from whose side, when he lay with him, it used And nothing else can please my heart to be said that he did not get up otherwise than as from In love with everything sublime the side of his father. But that, descending here to me Michelangelo’s favourite subject was the male nude, and he On earth, you are not set apart. repeatedly drew the same figure again and again, from different It comforts me meantime, angles, in action and repose. He would sketch sculptures, such Forseeing your disdain, that this my crime as the newly unearthed classical sculpture Apollo Belvedere, and Pardons in you the bringing of such light would animate their limbs to try and work out how their Down so closely from your hated height. muscles would contract and stretch. Michelangelo’s sentiment in his poems for Vittoria implies an Michelangelo wrote a sonnet on sculpture, which he sent toaltogether more pure and spiritual love than the suggestive Vittoria Colonna when they first met:coupling that ripples through poems to Tommaso. His feelings Non ha l’ottimo artista alcun concettofor them both are also reflected in the drawings he sent them. To Vittoria Colonna, 1538-41He created The Fall of Phaeton for Tommaso, showing a litheand naked young mortal tumbling head first out of the skies, a No block of marble but it does not hidemetaphor for Michelangelo’s soaring yet uncontrollable love. The concept living in the artist’s mind –For Vittoria, he sent several devotional drawings. She praised Pursuing it inside that form, he’ll guidethem highly, as a letter she wrote in 1541 makes clear: His hand to shape what reason has defined. I have received your letter and seen the Crucifix which has The ill I flee, the good I hope to find certainly crucified itself in my memory more than any In you, exalted lady of true pride, other picture that I have ever seen. No image better Are also circumscribed; and yet I’m lied made, more alive, or finished could be seen. To by my art which to my will is blind. Love’s not to blame, nor your severity, Vittoria Colonna died in 1547, and Michelangelo mourned her Disdainful beauty, nor what fortune shows,deeply. However, his true love had always been his art. He was Or destiny: I fixed my own ill thrall to beauty, as Condivi defensively explains: Though death and mercy side by side I see He has loved, too, the beauty of the human body, as one Lodged in your heart, my passion only knows who knows it thoroughly and well. And he has loved it in How to carve death: this is my skill’s poor force. such a fashion that among certain lewd men, who do not 36 37
  20. 20. However, it is in an anecdote Vasari recollects in his Lives that that it was a most unseemly thing in such a venerablewe most clearly see Michelangelo’s true love: place to have painted so many nudes that so indecently A priest, a friend of his [Michelangelo’s], said: ‘It’s a pity display their shame and that it was not a work for a pope’s you haven’t taken a wife, for you would have had many chapel but rather one for baths or taverns. This comment children and bequeathed to them many honourable works.’ displeased Michelangelo and, wishing to avenge himself, Michelangelo answered: ‘I have too much of a wife in as soon as Messer Biagio had left, he drew his actual this art that has always afflicted me, and the works I shall portrait without his being present, placing him in Hell in leave behind will be my children, and even if they are the person of Minos with a large serpent wrapped around nothing, they will live for a long while. And woe to Lorenzo his legs in a heap of devils. Nor did Messer Biagio’s di Bartoluccio Ghiberti if he had not created the doors of entreaties to the pope and to Michelangelo that it be San Giovanni [the baptistry doors for Florence’s removed do any good, for Michelangelo left it there in cathedral], for his sons and nephews sold and spoiled memory of the event, where it can still be seen today. everything he left them, while the doors are still standing.’ When the Last Judgement was unveiled, Vasari writes, Michelangelo began the Last Judgement in 1536. Condivi Michelangelo proved not only that he had triumphed overdescribed how, in this painting, the first artisans who had worked in the chapel but that he Michelangelo expressed all that the art of painting can also wished to triumph over himself in the vault he had made make of the human body, leaving out not one single attitude so famous, and since the Last Judgement was by far superior or movement. to that, Michelangelo surpassed even himself, having imagined the terror of those days, in which he depicted, for the greater punishment of those who have not lived good k lives, all of Christ’s Passion; he has various naked figures in the air carrying the cross, the column, the lance, the sponge, the nails, and the crown in different and varied poses with a grace that can be executed only with great difficulty. He was sixty-one when he started it, but still as hot-headed Michelangelo had intentionally tried to divest the body of itsas he had been in his youth, as Vasari recounts when a visitor sexuality for this painting, endeavouring to paint nudes whostarted commenting on the Last Judgement before it was finished: were tormented rather than sensuous, unlike many of the lithe Michelangelo had already completed more than three- bodies depicted on the ceiling. In the Last Judgement there is a quarters of the work when Pope Paul came to see it, and constant tension between his obvious passion for the male when Messer Biagio da Cesena, master of ceremonies and body, and his unwavering commitment to Catholicism – his a scrupulous man who was in the chapel with the pope, utter belief in heaven and hell – that animates all the figures. was asked what he thought of the painting, he declared (In the end, the painting was deemed too risqué for papal eyes, 38 39
  21. 21. and after Michelangelo’s death his friend, the painter Daniele da him from taking the post, for if he were given the office,Volterra, was asked to cover up much of the genitalia on display.) he did not want any of them involved in this building As Michelangelo grew older, he increasingly meditated on death project; they took these words spoken in public veryand redemption. This can be seen in the Last Judgement, but also badly, as one might imagine, and this was the reason whyin his private Crucifixion drawings, his last unfinished Pietà and in they hated Michelangelo so deeply, a hatred which grewhis letters to friends and his nephew Lionardo. He completed two every day as they saw him changing the entire plan insidefrescoes in the Pauline chapel at the Vatican Palace in 1550, and out; why they could not allow him to go on living;which he had started eight years earlier, but on the whole his and why every day they devised new and differentprofessional life was dominated by his appointment as supreme stratagems to torment him …architect of St Peter’s in 1546, following the death of Antonio da Finally, Pope Paul issued a motu proprio [a letter setting outSangallo (who had replaced Raphael upon his death in 1520, who his wishes] to Michelangelo, making him the head of thein turn had replaced Bramante). building project with full authority so that he could do and As always, Michelangelo fought his appointment. Vasari writes, undo what was there, increase, decrease, or vary anything to his His Holiness decided to send for Michelangelo, and when liking, and he decided that all the officials there should be under the pope sought to put him in Sangallo’s place, Michelangelo’s authority. Michelangelo refused, declaring, in order to escape this He worked on the basilica up until his death, habitually moaning burden, that architecture was not his true profession. about it to the painter Giorgio Vasari, whose biographical Lives Finally, after his entreaties were to no avail, the pope was published in 1550. In May 1555 Michelangelo wrote to Vasari, ordered Michelangelo to accept the job, and to his I was forced to work on the fabric of St Peter’s, and my greatest displeasure and very much against his will he was service for about eight years has not only been a free gift forced to join in this enterprise. but done me great harm and caused me unhappiness; but Michelangelo, the hard-working perfectionist, found corruption now that it is well advanced and there is money to spend,rife on the project, as Vasari recounts: and I am shortly to vault the dome, it would be the ruin of … it became obvious that the building project was a shop the building if I were to quit. It would bring me enormous and a business making a profit which was extended for disgrace throughout Christendom, and be a terrible sin the benefit of those who had cornered the market rather and stain my soul. than for the purpose of finishing the church. These Increasingly Michelangelo was writing of redemption and sin, methods did not satisfy this righteous man, and to rid and his faith deepened. He had experienced an acute illness himself of these men while the pope was pressing him to several years earlier, and in March 1549 wrote to his nephew accept the position of architect on the project, he told Lionardo complaining of being unable to urinate: them one day openly that they should gain the assistance I’ve been very ill with it since then, groaning day and night, of their friends and do everything they could to prevent unable to sleep or to get any rest whatever. As far as they 40 41
  22. 22. can make out, the doctors say I’m suffering from the Michelangelo worked right up until his death on 18 February stone. They’re still not certain. However, they continue to 1564. His sight was poor, and he had others write his letters as treat me for the said malady and are very hopeful. he could no longer hold a pen. Daniele da Volterra wrote to Nevertheless, as I’m an old man suffering from such a Michelangelo’s nephew Lionardo, shortly after his death, to say cruel malady, they’re not making me any promises. that he had seen Michelangelo carving a Pietà all Saturday the It was at that time, when he was seventy-four, that he decided week before he died. The sculptor Tiberio Calcagni, a pupil ofto write a will, writing to Lionardo in April 1549, Michelangelo’s, recounted his last days also in a letter to Lionardo, sent to Florence from Rome on 14 February 1564: Regarding putting my affairs in order … I shall just say that, if only because I’m old and ill, I decided to make a will. … I found him [Michelangelo] walking outside – and this And the will is as follows. That what I have is to be left to despite the fact it was raining! And when I saw him and Gismondo and you, Lionardo, in this manner: that said that it hardly seemed appropriate for him to be Gismondo my brother is to have the same amount as you outside in this weather, he replied, ‘And what would you my nephew, and neither one of you can take any of his rather have me doing? I am ill and can find peace share of my things without the consent of the other; and nowhere.’ And never before as much as then, what with if you wish to have this done through a notary, I shall his appearance and wavering words, had he caused me to ratify it at any time. fear so much for his life. Although Michelangelo lived for a further fifteen years, death Michelangelo’s funeral was held in Rome before his nephewwas never far from his mind, as is clear from a letter from June Lionardo arrived from Florence. Vasari described it as,1555 to Giorgio Vasari: … a very dignified funeral attended by the entire artistic I know that you understand in what I write that I am at the profession, as well as all his friends and the Florentine eleventh hour and not a thought arises in me that does community, Michelangelo was buried in a tomb in the not have Death carved within it: but God grant that I keep church of the Santi Apostoli in the presence of all of him waiting in suspense for a few years yet. Rome, while His Holiness planned to erect a special memorial and a tomb in Saint Peter’s itself. Lionardo was keen to have his body removed to Florence, and k Cosimo de’Medici, Duke of Florence, wanted to honour Michelangelo in death, as he felt he had been unable to do in life. Vasari recounts Lionardo’s situation: Lionardo Buonarroti, nephew of Michelangelo, who, having heard of his uncle’s illness, had gone to Rome by coach but had not found him alive, learned from Daniele 42 43
  23. 23. da Volterra, a very close friend of Michelangelo, and from provided him with generous salaries for no other reason still others who had been close to that saintly old man, than to avail themselves of his great talent; this happens that Michelangelo had asked and begged for his body to only to men of great worth, as he was, for it was recognized be taken to Florence, his most noble native city which he had and understood that all three of these arts had reached a always tenderly loved; and so, with great determination, true state of perfection in his works, and that God had not Lionardo had cautiously and quickly smuggled the body granted such genius either to the artists of antiquity or to out of Rome and, as if it were merchandise, sent it to those of the modern period as He had to Michelangelo, in Florence in a bale. all the many years the sun had been revolving. Four artists of the newly founded Florentine Art Academy – Both Michelangelo’s chief biographers, Vasari and Condivi,Giorgio Vasari, Agnolo Bronzino, Benvenuto Cellini and paid him the ultimate compliment in their works, by saying thatBartolomeo Ammannati – organized the memorial service at he had not only created works that matched those of theSan Lorenzo, the Medici family’s church (Michelangelo’s body ancients, whose sculptures were still seen as the pinnacle of art,now lies in San Croce, his family’s parish church in Florence). but that he had surpassed them. As Vasari concludes,The ceremony was much like a high-profile service today, with He executed his works, which are inimitable, just as wella famous orator (the writer and historian Benedetto Varchi) with a brush as with a chisel, and he has given, as hasgiving the funeral address, celebrities of the day in attendance, already been said, so much skill, grace, and a certainthe church decorated for the occasion, and the tomb quickly vitality to his works that – and this may be said withoutbecoming covered in poetic condolences written by visitors disagreement – he surpassed and triumphed over thewho had come from far and wide to see it. The poems were left ancients, for he knew how to resolve the problems in hiscovering the tomb for weeks after the ceremony to allow works so easily that they appear to be executed withouteveryone who wanted to visit to pay their respects. effort even though, when others later try to sketch his Michelangelo, who died aged eighty-eight, lived through works, they discover the difficulties in imitating them.thirteen popes, and served many of them. Vasari explains hisextraordinary standing at the time of his death: Michelangelo’s talent was recognized during his lifetime and not, as happens to so many, only after his death, for k as we have seen, Julius II, Leo X, Clement VII, Paul III, Julius III, Paul IV, and Pius IV, all supreme pontiffs, wished to have him nearby at all times, and, as is well known, The extracts from Vasari, Condivi and Michelangelo’s own Suleiman, Emperor of the Turks, Francis Valois, King of letters and poems are reprinted from two Oxford France, Emperor Charles V, the Signoria of Venice, and University Press translations. For full details of both titles finally Duke Cosimo de’Medici, as was mentioned, all please see page 48. 44 45
  24. 24. Michelangelo: a brief chronology 1527 1545 The Medici are expelled from The Julius II tomb is finally Florence again, and the city erected in San Pietro in Vincoli, becomes a republic once more. Rome.1475 1501 Michelangelo oversees the6 March, born in Caprese near Back in Florence, he starts to 1546 fortifications of Florence in hisArezzo, the second of five sons sculpt the colossal David, He becomes the supreme role as commissioner general asborn to the Florentine Lodovico completed in 1504. architect overseeing the the city prepares to be attacked.di Leonardo Buonarroti Simoni construction of St Peter’s. 1505 1530and his wife, Francesca. Summoned to Rome by Pope 1550 Florence surrenders to the1481 Julius II, he is commissioned to Giorgio Vasari’s first edition of Imperial army and the MediciDeath of Francesca, design his tomb. It takes forty Lives of the Artists is published are restored to power.Michelangelo’s mother. years to complete. in Florence. The biography of Michelangelo goes into hiding, Michelangelo is the only one1487 1506 but is pardoned by the Medici included of a living artist.Joins the workshop of Michelangelo storms back to pope, Clement VII.Florentine painter Domenico Florence after Pope Julius II 1552/3 1532Ghirlandaio. upsets him, then he travels to He begins his last sculpture, On a long visit to Rome, he Bologna to make peace. He the Rondanini Pietà, which hec. 1488 meets the young Roman stays there for two years. continues to work on until theJoins the Medici household and aristocrat Tommaso week before his death.studies sculpture in the Medici 1508 de’Cavalieri with whom he fallsGarden. He is called to Rome to paint in love. 1553 the Sistine chapel ceiling for Ascanio Condivi publishes his1494 1534 Julius II. biography, Life of MichelangeloPiero de’Medici is expelled He returns to live in Rome, and Buonarroti, in Rome.from Florence and the first 1512 never goes back to Florence.Florentine republic is founded. The Sistine chapel ceiling is 1564 1536Michelangelo works in Bologna unveiled. Michelangelo dies aged eighty- He begins the Last Judgement,on figures for the shrine of St eight on 18 February. Following 1516 which takes five years toDominic. a funeral in Rome, his body is Returns to Florence to create complete. taken back to Florence and1496 the façade of San Lorenzo, the 1542 finally buried in San Croce.Aged twenty-one, he moves to Medici family’s church. The Michelangelo starts twoRome, and completes Bacchus project is abandoned in 1520. frescoes in the Pauline chapel.and his acclaimed Pietà. He is commissioned instead Completed in 1550, they are to create a Medici library and his last paintings. four tombs. 46 47
  25. 25. Closer to the master: a book about Michelangelo is published tocoincide with The BP special exhibition Michelangelo Drawings:closer to the master, at the British Museum, London, 23 March-25 June 2006Other books and films related Museum director Neil MacGregor,to the exhibition can be purchased online,, or inMichelangelo Drawings: closer to British Museum shops, price £17.99.the masterThe exhibition catalogue, written The Lives of the Artistsby Hugo Chapman (British Museum A translation by Julia Conawaycurator of Italian drawings before Bondanella and Peter Bondanella of1800) is available in hardback, price Giorgio Vasari’s classic book of£40, or paperback, price £25, biographies, first published in 1550,published by The British Museum that includes the life ofPress. Michelangelo. Published by Oxford University Press, price £8.99.MichelangeloAn illustrated gift book on the life Michelangelo: Life, Letters and Poetryand work of Michelangelo, price A volume that includes Ascanio£9.99, is also published by The Condivi’s Life of MichelangeloBritish Museum Press. Buonarroti, translated by George Bull, as well as a selection ofMichelangelo: A Life Michelangelo’s letters and poems,A film tracing the evolution of some translated by George Bull and Peterof Michelangelo’s most celebrated Porter. Published by Oxfordartworks, presented by British University Press, price £6.99.All the above titles are available in British Museum shops. Great Russell Street London WC1B 3DG 020 7323 8299