1902 Encyclopedia > Michelangelo Buonarroti

Michelangelo Buonarroti
Italian sculptor, painter and poet

MICHELANGELO (1475-1564). Michelangelo Buonarroti, best known simply as Michelangelo, the last and most famous of the great artists of Florence, was the son of Ludovico Buonarroti, a poor gentleman of that city, and of his wife Francesca di Neri.

Ludovico was barely able to live on the income of his estate, but made it his boast that he had never stooped to add to it by mercantile or mechanical pursuits. The favour of the Medici procured him employment in some minor offices of state, and in the autumn of 1474 he was appointed resident magistrate of Caprese, in the Casentino, for a period of six months. Thither he accordingly repaired with his family, and there, on March 6, 1475, his second son Michelagniolo or Michelangelo was born. Immediately afterwards the family returned to Florence, and the child was put to nurse with a marble-worker’s wife of Settignano. His mother’s health and already, it would seem, begun to fail; at all events in about two years from this time, after she had borne her husband two more sons, she died.

While still a young boy, Michelangelo determined in spite of his father’s opposition to be an artist. He had sucked in the passion, as he himself used to say, with his foster-mother’s milk. After a sharp struggle, his stubborn will overcame his father’s pride of gentility, and at thirteen he got himself articled as a paid assistant in the workshop of the brothers Ghirlandaio. Domenico Ghirlandaio, bred a jeweller, had become by this time the foremost painter of Florence. In his service the young Michelangelo laid the foundations of that skill in fresco with which twenty years afterwards he confounded his detractors at Rome. He studied also, like all the Florentine artists of that age, in the Brancacci chapel, where the frescos of Masaccio, painted some sixty years before, still victoriously held their own; and here, in a quarrel with an ill-conditioned fellow-student, Torrigiani, he received the blow of which his face bore the marks to his dying day.

Michelangelo image

Michelangelo Buonarroti

Though Michelangelo’s earliest studies were directed towards painting, he was by nature and predilection much more inclined to sculpture. In that art he presently received encouragement and training under the eye of an illustrious patron, Lorenzo dei Medici. On the recommendation, it is said, of Ghirlandaio, he was transferred, before the term of his apprenticeship as a painter had expired, to the school of sculpture established by Lorenzo in the Medici gardens. Here he could learn to match himself against his great predecessor, Donatello, one of whose pupils was the director of the school, and to compare the works of that master and his Tuscan contemporaries with the antiques collected for the instruction of the scholar. Here, too, he could listen to discourses on Platonism, and steep himself in the doctrines of an enthusiastic philosophy which sought to reconcile with Christian faith the lore and the doctrines of the Academy. Michelangelo remained a Christian Platonist to the end of his days; he was also from his youth up a devoted student of Dante. His powers of mind and hand soon attracted attention, and secured him the regard and favour of his patrons in spite of his rugged, unsociable exterior, and of a temper which at best was but a half-smothered volcano.

Michelangelo had been attached to the school and household of the Medici for barely three years when, in 1492, his great patron Lorenzo died. Lorenzo’s son Piero dei Medici inherited the position, but not the qualities, of his father; Florence soon chafed under his authority; and towards the autumn of 1494 it became apparent that disaster was impending over him and his adherents. Michelangelo was constitutionally subject to dark and sudden presentiments: one such seized him now, and, without awaiting the popular outbreak which soon followed, he took horse with two companions and fled to Bologna.

There, being now in his twentieth year, he was received with kindness by a member of the Aldovrandi family, and on his commission executed two figures of saints, and one of an angel, for the shrine of St Dominic in the church of St Petronius.

After about a year, work at Bologna failing, and his name having been included in his absence on the list of artists to provide a new hall of assembly for the Great Council Florence, Michelangelo returned home. The strange theocracy established by Savonarola was now in force, and the whole character of civic life at Florence was for the time being changed.

But Michelangelo was not left without employment. He found a friend in another Lorenzo, the son of Pierfrancesco dei Medici, for whom he at this time executed a statue of the boy St John. Having also carved a recumbent Cupid in imitation of the antique, it was suggested to him by the same patron that it should be so tinted and treated as to look like a real antique, and sold accordingly. Without increasing the price he put upon the work, Michelangelo for amusement lent himself to the counterfeit, and the piece was then actually sold for a large sum to a Roman collector, the cardinal San Giorgio, as a genuine work of antiquity, -- the dealer appropriating the profits. When presently the cardinal discovered the fraud, he caused the dealer to refund; but as to Michelangelo himself, it was represented to the young sculptor if he went to Rome, the amateur who had just involuntarily paid so high a tribute to his skill would certainly befriend him.

He set forth accordingly, and arrived at Rome for the first time at the end of June 1496. Such hopes as he may have entertained of countenance from the cardinal San Giorgio were quickly dispelled. Neither did the banished Piero dei Medici, who also was now living at Rome, do anything to help him. On the other hand Michelangelo won the favour of a Roman nobleman, Jacopo Galli, and through him of the French cardinal Jean de Villiers de la Grolaie, abbot of St Denis. From the former he received a commission for a Cupid and a Bacchus, from the latter for a Pietà, or Mary lamenting over the body of Christ, -- works of which probably all three, the last two certainly, are preserved.

Michelangelo’s stay in Rome at this time lasted five years, from the summer of 1496 till that of 1501. The interval had been one of extreme political distraction at Florence. The excitement of the French invasion, the mystic and ascetic regimen of Savonarola, the reaction which led to his overthrow, and finally the external wars and internal dissidences which preceded a new settlement, had all created an atmosphere most unfavourable to art. Nevertheless Ludovico Buonarroti, who in the troubles of 1494 had lost a small permanent appointment he held in the customs, and had come to regard his son Michelangelo as the mainstay of his house, had been repeatedly urging him to come home.

A spirit of family duty and family pride was the ruling principle in all Michelangelo’s conduct. During the best years of his life he submitted sternly and without a murmur to pinching hardship and almost superhuman labour for the sake of his father and brothers, who were ever selfishly ready to be fed and helped by him.

Having now, after an illness, come home in 1501, Michelangelo received the request from the cardinal Francesco Piccolomini to adorn with a number of sculptured figures a shrine already begun in the cathedral of Siena in honour of the most distinguished member of his house, Pope Pius II. Four only of these figures were ever executed, and those not apparently, or only in small part, by the master’s hand.

A work of greater interest in Florence itself had diverted him from engagement to his Sienese patron. These was the execution of the famous colossal statue of David, popularly known as the Giant. It was carved out of a huge block of marble on which another sculpture, Agostino d’Antonio, had begun unsuccessfully to work forty years before, and which had been lying idle ever since. Michelangelo had here a difficult problem before him. Without much regard to tradition or the historical character of his hero, he carved out of the vast but cramped mass of material a youthful, frowning colossus, which amazed every beholder by its freedom and science of execution, and its victorious energy of expression. All the best artists of Florence were called in council to determine on what site it should be set up, and after much debate the terrace of the Palace of the Signory was chosen, in preference to the neighbouring Loggia dei Lanzi. Here accordingly the colossal David of Michelangelo took, in the month of May 1504, the place which it continued to hold ever afterwards, until ten years ago, in 1873, it was removed for the sake of protection to a hall in the Academy of Fine Arts.

Other works of sculpture by the same indomitable hands also belong to this period: among these another David, in bronze, and on a smaller scale; a great roughhewn St Matthew begun but never completed for the cathedral of Florence; a Madonna and Child executed on the commission of a merchant of Bruges; and two unfinished bas-reliefs of the same subject.

Neither was Michelangelo idle at the same time as a painter. Leaving disputed works for the moment out of sight, he in these days at any rate painted for his and Raphael’s common patron, Angelo Doni, the Holy Family now in the Uffizi at Florence. And in the autumn of 1504, the year of the completion of the David, he received from the Florentine state for a work of monumental painting on an heroic scale. Leonardo da Vinci had been for some months engaged on his great cartoon of the Battle of Anghiari, to be painted on the wall of the great hall of the municipal council. The gonfaloniere Soderini now procured for Michelangelo the commission to design a companion work. Michelangelo chose an incident of the Pisan war, when the Florentine soldiery had been surprised by the enemy in the act of bathing: he dashed at the task with his accustomed fiery energy, and had carried a great part of the cartoon to completion when, in the early spring of 1505, he broke of the work in order to obey a call to Rome which reached him from Pope Julius II.

His unfinished cartoon showed how greatly Michelangelo had profited by the example of his elder rival, Leonardo, little as, personally, he yielded to his charm or could bring himself to respond to his courtesy. The work of Michelangelo’s youth is for the most part comparatively tranquil in character. His early sculpture, showing a degree of science and perfection unequalled since the antique, had also something of the antique serenity. It bears strongly the stamp of intellectual research, but not by any means that of storm or strain. In the cartoon of the Bathers, he on the other hands appropriated and carried further the mastery, which Leonardo had first asserted, over every variety of violent action and every extreme of energetic movement. In it the qualities afterwards proverbially associated with Michelangelo -- his furia, his terribilità, the tempest and hurricane of the spirit which accompanied his unequalled technical mastery and knowledge -- first found expression.

With Michelangelo’s departure to Rome early in 1505 the first part of his artistic career may be said to end. It will be convenient here to recapitulate its principal results in sculpture and painting, both those preserved, and those recorded but lost.

David (Michelangelo) image

David (detail).
Statue by Michelangelo Buonarroti.

SCULPTURE.—Florence, 1489-94. Head of a Faun, National Museum, Florence (?). Condivi described Michelangelo’s first essay in sculpture as a head of an aged faun with a front tooth knocked out, this latter point having been an afterthought suggested by Lorenzo dei Medici. The head is commonly identified with one in the National Museum at Florence, which, however, bears no marks of Michelangelo’s style, and is in all probability spurious. Madonna Seated on a Step, Casa Buonarroti, Florence. This bas-relief is a genuine example of Michelangelo’s early work in the Medicean school under Bertoldo. It is executed in low relief in imitation of the technical style of Donatello; but the attitudes and characters of the figures, and the long-drawn, somewhat tormented folds of drapery, recall rather the manner of Jacopo della Quercia. Centauromachia, Casa Buonarroti. A fine and unquestionable genuine work in full relief, of probably somewhat later date than the last mentioned; Michelangelo has followed the antique in his conception and treatment of the nude, but not all in the arrangement of the subject, which occurs frequently in works of ancient art.

Bologna, 1491-95. Kneeling Angel, supporting the shrine of St Dominic. This is the figure, with crisp hair, short resolute features, and drapery clinging to show the limbs on the right-hand side of the spectator as he fronts the altar. The prettier and more engaging figure at the opposite end was long taken to be Michelangelo’s work, but is really that of Niccoló dell’ Arca. Michelangelo also finished the figure of St Petronius on the cornice of the same altar, begun by the same Niccoló, and executed one of St Proculus which has perished.

Florence, 1495-96. St John in the Wilderness, Berlin Museum. During the year between Michelangelo’s return from Bologna and his first departure to Rome he executed, as has been narrated above, a statue of St Giovannine for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco dei Medici. This had for centuries been supposed lost, when in 1874 it was declared to have been found in the possession of Count Gualandi-Rossalmini at Pisa. Vehement and prolonged discussions arose as to the authenticity of the work, and at last it was bought for the Berlin Museum, where its genuineness is with apparently good reason maintained. The stripling saints stand naked but for a skin about his loins, holding a honeycomb in his left hand and lifting to his mouth a goat’s horn full of honey with his right. Restoration of an antique group of Bacchus and Ampelus, Uffizi Gallery, Florence. This interesting restoration of an antique torso, by the addition of a head, the lower part of the legs, and the accessory figure of an attendant genius, a plinth, and mask, is not one of the works traditionally ascribed to Michelangelo; but has lately, and as it seems rightly, been claimed for him on internal evidence. Recumbent Cupid, bought by the cardinal San Giorgio as an antique. This work, which played an important part in Michelangelo’s history, is unfortunately lost.

Rome, 1495-1501. Kneeling Cupid, South Kensington Museum, London. This beautiful statue of an athletic youth kneeling on the right knee, looking over his right shoulder, with the right hand lowered and the left raised, and having a quiver on the ground beside him, is acknowledged on internal grounds as an early work of Michelangelo. There is some ambiguity about the character and action of the personage; but the work is usually identified with the Cupid which Michelangelo is recorded to have executed at this time for Jacopo Galli. Bacchus and Young Faun, National Museum, Florence. This is unquestionably the "Bacchus" commissioned by the same patron. The finely-framed but soft-limbed youthful god, his weight supported somewhat staggeringly on the left leg, holds up a wine cup in his right hand, and with his loosely-hanging left hand holds a cluster of grapes, at which a child-faun standing a little behind him grasps and nibbles. The surface highly finished and polished, as in the Berlin St John. Virgin Lamenting the Dead Christ, St Peter’s Rome. This group executed for the French abbot of St Denis, is the finest of all Michelangelo’s early sculptures, and one of the finest of his life. It still recalls the ideals of some of the earlier Tuscan masters, especially Jacopo da Quercia; but the execution is of a mastery and nobility unprecedented in Italian art. The Virgin, in drapery of magnificent design, with her left knee somewhat raised and her right hand slightly extended, sits holding on her lap the dead Christ, -- a figure of splendid frame and modelling as well as of admirable pathos and dignity in expression.

Florence, 1501-6. Four Saints decorating the Shrine of Pius II, in the cathedral of Siena. These figures represent the only part which Michelangelo over completed of his contract with the cardinal Piccolomini and his heirs. They are evidently carried out by the hand of pupils only. Virgin and Child, Liebfrauenkirche, Bruges. This pleasing group has been since the says of Albert Dürer attributed to Michelangelo, and bears the manifest stamp of his design, though its execution may be partly by inferior hands. It is placed close to the tombstone of a member of the Moscheroni (or Moskeron) family. We know that Michelangelo executed at this time, for one of this very family, a work which the ancient biographers describe as having been in bronze, -- a medallion in that metal, says explicitly Vasari; but it is probably really the marble group in question. Virgin and Child, Royal Academy, London. This beautiful unfinished circular relief is identified with one recorded to have been executed by the master for Taddeo Gaddi. Virgin and Child, National Museum, Florence, -- a similar relief, also unfinished, originally ordered by Bartolommeo Pitti. Youthful David, Academy of Arts, Florence. Of this colossal work, which in spite of its scale and subject has still, in grace of pose and style, a considerable artistic affinity with the earlier Bacchus and St John, enough has been said. Figure of David, a small statue in bronze. Several extant works have been pointed out as probably identified with this lost statue; but the claims of none have been generally acknowledged.

PAINTING.—Holy Family, Uffizi, Florence. This circular picture, painted for Angelo Doni, and mentioned by the earliest biographers, is the only perfectly well-attested panel-painting of Michelangelo which exists. His love of restless and somewhat strained actions is illustrated by the action of the Madonna, who kneels on the ground holding up the child on her right shoulder; his love of the nude by the introduction (wherein he follows Luca Signorelli) of some otherwise purposeless undraped figures in the background. Virgin and Child with Four Angels, National Gallery, London. This unfinished painting, marked by great grace as well as severity of feeling and design, was formerly attributed to Domenico Ghirlandaio, but is now commonly held to be the earliest extant picture by Michelangelo. Of his manner, especially in the design and treatment of the drapery, it bears evident marks; but the execution seems like that of some weaker pupil or companion, perhaps Rodolfo Ghirlandaio or Granacci. Entombment of Christ, National Gallery, London. This picture, also unfinished, has in like manner been much contested. Its composition is unfortunate; weaker hands have disfigured some portions of the work; but the extraordinary excellence of other portions, an the grandeur of some of the actions, render it probable that the work is one begun and afterwards abandoned by Michelangelo himself. Cartoon of the Battle of Anghiari. Of this famous lost work (begun, though apparently not completed, in the period now engaging us) the only authentic record is contained in two early engravings, one by Marcantonio and the other by Agostino Veneziano. An elaborate drawing of many figures at Holkham Hall, well known and often engraved, seems to be a later cento destitute of real authority.

Michelangelo had not been long in Rome before Pope Julius devised fit employment for him. That capacious and headstrong spirit, on fire with great enterprises, had conceived the idea of a sepulchral monument to commemorate his glory when he should be dead and to be executed according to his own plans while he was still living. He entrusted this congenial task to Michelangelo. The design being approved, the artist spent the winter of 1505-6 at the quarries of Carrara, superintending the excavation and shipment of the necessary marbles. In the spring he returned to Rome, and when the marbles arrived fell to with all his energy at the preparations for the work. For a while the pope followed their progress eagerly, and was all kindness to the young sculptor. But presently his disposition changed. In Michelangelo’s absence an artist who was no friend of his, Bramante of Urbino, had been selected by Julius to carry out a new architectural scheme, commensurate with the usual vastness of his conceptions, namely the rebuilding of St Peter’s church. To the influence and the malice of Bramante Michelangelo attributed the unwelcome invitations he now received to interrupt the great work of sculpture which he had just begun, in order to decorate the Sixtine chapel with frescos.

Soon, however, schemes of war and conquest interposed to divert the thoughts of Julius, not from the progress of his own monument merely, but from artistic enterprises altogether. One day Michelangelo heard him say at table to his jeweller that he meant to spend no more money on pebbles either small or great. To add to the artist’s discomfiture, when he went to apply in person for payments due, he was first put off from day to day, and at last actually with scant courtesy dismissed. At thus his dark mood got the mastery of him. Convinced that not his employment only but life was threatened, he suddenly took horse and left Rome, and before the messengers of the pope could overtake him was safe on Florentine territory. Michelangelo’s flight took place in April 1506. Once among his own people, he turned a deaf ear to all overtures made from Rome for his return, and stayed throughout the summer at Florence, how occupied we are not distinctly informed, but apparently, among other things, on the continuation of his great battle cartoon.

During the same summer Julius planned and executed the victorious military campaign which ended in his unopposed entry at the head of his army into Bologna. Thither, under strict safe-conduct and promises of renewed favour, Michelangelo was at last prevailed on to betake himself. Julius received the truant artist kindly, as indeed between these two volcanic natures there existed a natural affinity and ordered of him his own colossal likeness in bronze, to be set up, as a symbol of his conquering authority, over the principal entrance of the church of St Petronius.

For the next fifteen months Michelangelo devoted his whole strength to this new task. The price at which he undertook it left him, as it turned out, hardly any margin to subsist on. Moreover, in the technical art of metal casting he was inexperienced, and an assistant whom he had summoned from Florence proved insubordinate and had to be dismissed.

Nevertheless his genius prevailed over every hardship and difficulty, and on the 21st of February 1508 the majestic bronze colossus of the seated pope, robed and mitred, with one hand grasping the keys and the other extended in a gesture of benediction and command, was duly raised to its station over the church porch.

Three years later it was destroyed in a revolution. The people of Bologna rose against the authority of Julius; his delegates and partisans were cast out, and his effigy hurled from its place. The work of Michelangelo, after being trailed in derision through the streets, was broken up and its fragments cast into the furnace.

Meanwhile the artist himself, as soon as his work was done, had followed his reconciled master back to Rome. The task that here awaited him, however, was after all not the resumption of the papal monument, but the execution of the series of paintings in the Sixtine chapel which had been mooted before his departure. Painting, he always averred, was not his business; and he entered with misgiving and reluctance upon his new undertaking.

Destiny, however, so ruled that the work thus thrust upon his remains his chief title to glory. His history is one of indomitable will and almost superhuman energy, yet of will that hardly ever had its way, and of energy continually at war with circumstance. The only work which in all his life he was able to complete as he had conceived it was this of the decoration of the Sixtine ceiling.

The pope had at first proposed a scheme including figures of the twelve apostles only. Michelangelo would be content with nought so meagre, and furnished instead a design of many hundred figures, embodying all the history of creation and of the first patriarchs, with accessory personages of prophets and sibyls dreaming on the new dispensation to come, and, in addition, those of the forefathers of Christ. The whole was to be enclosed and divided by an elaborate framework of painted architecture, with a multitude of nameless human shapes supporting its several members or reposing among them, -- shapes mediating, as it were, between the features of the inanimate framework and those of the great dramatic and prophetic scenes themselves.

Michelangelo’s plan was accepted by the pope, and by May 1508 his preparations for its execution were made. Later in the same year he summoned a number of assistant painters from Florence. Trained in the traditions of the earlier Florentine school, they were unable, it seems to interpret Michelangelo’s designs in fresco either with sufficient freedom or sufficient uniformity of style to satisfy him. At any rate he soon dismissed them, and carried out the remainder of his colossal task alone, except for the necessary amount of purely mechanical and subordinate help. The physical conditions of prolonged work, face upwards, upon this vast expanse of ceiling were adverse and trying in the extreme. But after four and a half years of toil the task was accomplished.

Michelangelo had during its progress been harassed alike by delays of payment and by hostile intrigue. The absolute need of funds for the furtherance of the undertaking had even constrained him at one moment to break off work, and pursue his inconsiderate master as far as Bologna. His ill-wishers at the same time kept casting doubts on his capacity, and vaunting the superior powers of Raphael. That gentle spirit would by nature have been no man’s enemy, but unluckily Michelangelo’s moody, self-concentrated temper prevented the two artists being on terms of amity such as might have stopped the mouths of mischief-makers. Once during the progress of his task Michelangelo was compelled to remove a portion of the scaffolding and exhibit what had been so far done, when the effect alike upon friends and detractors was overwhelming. Still more complete was his triumph when, late in the autumn of 1512, the whole of his vast achievement was disclosed to view.

The Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel (Michelangelo) image

The Creation of Adam (detail), Sistine Chapel.
Painted by Michelangelo Buonarroti.

The main field of the Sixtine ceiling is divided into four larger alternating with five smaller fields. The following is the order of the subjects depicted in them:-- (1) the dividing of the light from darkness; (2) the creation of sun, moon, and stars, and of the herbage; (3) the creation of the waters; (4) the creation of man; (5) the creation of woman; (6) the temptation and expulsion; (7) an enigmatical scene, said to represent the sacrifice of Cain and Abel, but rather resembling the sacrifice of Noah; (8) the deluge; (9) the drunkenness of Noah. The figures in the last three of these scenes are on a smaller scale than those in the first six. In numbers 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 the field of the picture is reduced by the encroachments of the architectural framework and supporters. These subjects are flanked at each end by the figure of a seated prophets or sibyl alternately; two other prophets and five sibyls in all. In the angles to right and left of the prophets at the two extremities are the Death of Goliath, the Death of Judith, the Brazen Serpent, and the Punishment of Haman. In the twelve lunettes above the windows, and the similar number of triangular vaulted spaces over them, are mysterious groups, or pairs of groups, of figures, which from Michelangelo’s own time have usually been known as Ancestors of Christ. The army of nameless architectural and subordinate figures is too numerous to be here spoken of.

The work represents all the powers of Michelangelo at their best. Disdaining all the accessory of allurements of the painter’s art, he has concentrated himself upon the exclusive delineation of the human form and face at their highest power. His imagination has conceived, and his knowledge and certainty of hand have enabled him to realize, attitudes and combinations of unmatched variety and grandeur, and countenances of unmatched expressiveness and power.

But he has not trusted, as he came later to trust, to science and acquired knowledge merely, neither do his personages, so far as they did afterwards, transcend human possibility or leave the facts of actual life behind them. In a word, his sublimity, often in excess of the occasion, is here no more than equal to it; moreover it is combined with the noblest elements of grace and even of tenderness.

As for the intellectual meanings of his vast design, over and above those which reveal themselves at a first glance or by a bare description, -- they are from the nature of the case inexhaustible, and can never be perfectly defined. Whatever the soul of this great Florentine, the spiritual heir of Dante, with the Christianity of the Middle Age not shaken in his mind, but expanded, and transcendentalized, by the knowledge and love of Plato, -- whatever the soul of such a man, full of suppressed tenderness and righteous indignation, and of anxious questionings of coming fate, could conceive, that Michelangelo has expressed or shadowed forth in this great and significant scheme of paintings. The details it must remain for every fresh student to interpret in his own manner.

The Sixtine chapel was no sooner completed than Michelangelo resumed work upon the marbles for the monument of Julius. But four months only had passed when Julius died. His heirs immediately entered (in the summer of 1513) into a new contract with Michelangelo for the execution of the monument on a reduced scale. What the precise nature and extent of the original design had been we do not know, but the new one was extensive and magnificent enough. It was to consist of a great quadrilateral structure, two courses high, projecting from the church wall, and decorated on its three unattached sides with statues. On the upper course was to be placed the colossal recumbent figure if the pope under a canopy, and beside it mourning angels -- sixteen figures in all. The lower course was to be enriched with twenty-four figures in niches and on projecting pedestals:-- in the niches and on projecting pedestals -- in the niches, Victories trampling on conquered Provinces; in the pedestals, Art and Sciences in bondage. The entire work was to completed in nine years' time. During the next three years, it would seem, Michelangelo brought to completion three at least of the promised figures, and they among the most famous of all existing work of the sculptor’s art, -- namely, the Moses now in the church of S. Pietro in Vincoli at Rome and the two "Slaves" at the Louvre.

The Moses, originally intended for one of the angles of the upper course, is now placed at the level of the eye, in the centre of the principal face of the monument as it was at last finished, on a deplorably reduced and altered scale, by Michelangelo and his assistants in his old age. The prophet, heavily bearded and draped, with only his right arm bare, sits with his left foot drawn back, his head raised and turned to the left with an expression of indignation and menace, his left hand laid on his lap and his right grasping the tables of the law. The work, except in one or two places, is of the utmost finish, and the statue looks like one of the prophets of the Sixtine ceiling done in marble.

The "Slaves" at the Lourve are youthful male figures of equally perfect execution, nude but for the band which passed over the breast of one and the right leg of the other. One, with his left hand raised to his head and his right pressed to his bosom, and his eyes almost closed, bound behind his back, looks upward still hopelessly struggling. There is reason to believe that all three of these figures were finished between 1513 and 1516.

The beginnings of other figures or groups intended for the same monument are to be found at Florence, where they were no doubt made and then abandoned some years later, -- viz., four rudely blocked figured of slaves or prisoners, in a grotto of the Boboli gardens, and the so-called Victory in the National Museum, an unfinished group of a combatant kneeling on and crushing to death a fallen enemy; with these may be associated a wax model known as Hercules and Cacus in the South Kensington Museum, and the figure of a crouching man at St Petersburg.

By this time (1516) Michelangelo’s evil star was again in the ascendant. Julius II had been succeeded on the papal throne by a Medici under the title of Leo X. The Medici, too, had about the same time by force and fraud re-established their sway in Florence, overthrowing the free institutions that had prevailed there since the days of Savonarola. Now on the one hand this family were the hereditary friends and patrons of Michelangelo; on the other hand he was a patriotic son of republican Florence; so that henceforward his personal allegiance and his political sympathies were destined to be at conflict. Over much of his art, as he been thought, the pain and perplexity of this conflict have cast their shadow. For the present the consequence to him of the rise to power of the Medici was a fresh interruption of his cherished work in the tomb of Julius. Leo X and his kinsmen insisted that Michelangelo, regardless of all other engagements, must design and carry out a great new scheme for the enrichment of their own family church of San Lorenzo in Florence. The heirs of Julius on their part showed an accommodating temper and at the request of Leo allowed their three-years’ old contract to be cancelled in favour of another, whereby the scale and sculptured decorations of the Julian monument were again to be reduced by nearly a half. Unwillingly Michelangelo accepted the new commission thus thrust upon him for the church façade at Florence; but, having once accepted it, he produced a design of combined sculpture and architectural as splendid and ambitious in its way as had been that for the monument of Julius. In the summer of 1516 he left Rome for Carrara to superintend the excavation of the marbles.

Michelangelo was now in his forty-second year. Though more than half his life was yet come, yet its best days had, as it proved, been spent. All the hindrances which he had encountered hitherto were as nothing to those which began to beset him now.

For the supply of materials for the façade of San Lorenzo he had set a firm of masons to work, and had himself, it seems, entered into a kind of partnership with them, at Carrara, where he knew the quarries well, and where the industry was hereditary and well understood. When all was well in progress there under his own eye, reasons of state induced the Medici and the Florentine magistracy to bid him resort instead to certain new quarries at Pietrasanta, near Serravelle in the territory of Florence. Hither, to the disgust of his old clients at Carrara and to his own, Michelangelo accordingly had to transfer the scene of his labours. Presently he found himself so impeded and enraged by the mechanical difficulties of raising and transporting the marbles, and by the disloyalty and incompetence of those with whom he had to deal, that he was fain to throw up the commission altogether. The contracts for the façade of San Lorenzo were rescinded in March 1518, and the whole magnificent scheme came to nothing.

Michelangelo then returned to Florence, where proposals of work poured in on him from many quarters. The king of France desired something from his hand to place beside the two pictures he possessed by Raphael. The authorities of Bologna wanted him to design a façade for their church of St Petronius; those of Genoa to cast a statue on bronze of their great commander, Andrea Doria. Cardinal Grimani begged hard for any picture or statue he might have to spare; other amateurs importuned him for so much as a pencil drawing or sketch. Lastly his friend and partisan Sebastian del Piombo at Rome, ever eager to keep up the feud between the followers of Michelangelo and those of Raphael, besought him on Raphael’s death to return to once to Rome, and take out of the hands of then dead master’s pupils the works of painting still remaining to be done in the Vatican chambers.

Michelangelo complied with none of these requests. All that we know of his doing at this time was the finishing a commission received and first put in hand four years previously, for a full-sized statue of a nude Christ grasping the Cross. This statue, completed and sent to Rome in 1521 (with some last touches added by subordinate hands in Rome itself), stands now in the church of St. Maria sopra Minerva; there is little in it of the Christian spirit as commonly understood, although, in those parts which Michelangelo himself finished, there is extreme accomplishment of design and workmanship.

The next twelve years of Michelangelo’s life (1522-34) were spent at Florence, and again employed principally in the service of his capricious and uncongenial patrons, the Medici. The plan of a great group of monuments to deceased members of this family, to be set up in their mortuary chapel in San Lorenzo, seems to have been formed, and preparations to have been made by Michelangelo for its execution, as early as 1519. It was not, however, until 1524, after Leo X had died, and his successor Adrian VI had been in his turn succeeded by another Medicean pope, Clement VII, that any practical impulse was given to the work.

Even then the impulse was a wavering one. First Clement proposed to associate another artists, Sansavino, with Michelangelo in his task. This proposal being in Michelangelo’s peremptory demand abandoned, Clement next distracted the artist with an order for a new architectural design, -- that, namely, for the proposed Medicean or "Laurentian" library. When at last the plans for the sepulchral monuments took shape, they did not include, as has been at first intended, memorials to the founders of the house’s greatness, Cosimo and Lorenzo the Magnificent, or even to Pope Leo X himself, but only to two younger members of the house lately deceased , Giuliano, duke of Nemours, and Lorenzo, duke of Urbino.

Michelangelo brooded long over his designs for his work, and was still engaged on its execution -- his time being partly also taken up by the building plans for the Medicean library -- when political revolutions interposed to divert his industry. In 1527 came to pass the sack of Rome by the Austrians, and the apparently irretrievable ruin of Pope Clement. The Florentines seized the occasion to expel the Medici from their city, and set up a free republican government once more.

Naturally no more funds for the work in San Lorenzo were forthcoming, and Michelangelo, on the invitation of the new signory, occupied himself for a while with designs for a colossal group of Samson and the Philistines to be wrought out of a block of marble which had been rough-hewn already for anther purpose by Baccio Bandinelli.

Soon, however, he was called to help in defending the city itself from danger. Clement and his enemy Charles V. having become reconciled, both alike were now bent on bringing Florence again under the rule of the Medici. In view of the approaching siege, Michelangelo was appointed engineer-in-chief of the fortifications. He spent the early summer of 1529 in strengthening the defences of San Miniato; from July to September he was absent on a diplomatic mission to Ferrara and Venice. Returning in the middle of the latter month, he found the cause of Florence hopeless from internal treachery and from the overwhelming strength of her enemies. One of his dark seizures overcame him, and he departed again suddenly for Venice. Not cowardice, but despair of his city’s liberties, and still more of his own professional prospects amid the turmoil of Italian affairs, was the motive of his departure.

For a while he remained in Venice, negotiating for a future residence in France. Then, while the siege was still in progress, he returned once more to Florence; but in the final death-struggle of her liberties he bore no part. When in 1530 the city submitted to her conquerors, no mercy was shown to most of those who had taken part in her defence. Michelangelo believed himself in danger with the rest, but on the intervention of Baccio Valori he was presently taken back into favour and employment of Pope Clement. For three years more he still remained at Florence, engaged principally on the completion of the Medici monuments, and on the continuance of the Medicean library, but partly also on a picture of Leda for the duke of Ferrara.

The statues of the Medici monuments take rank beside the Moses and the Slaves as the finest work of Michelangelo’s central time in sculpture; moreover, though some of the figures are unfinished, they constitute as actually executed a complete scheme. They consist of a Madonna and Child (left imperfect because the marble was short in bulk), and of the two famous monumental groups, each consisting of an armed and seated portrait-statue in a niche, with two emblematic figures reclining on each side of a sarcophagus below. The portraits are treated not realistically but typically. In that of Lorenzo seems to be typified the mood of brooding and concentrated inward thought preparatory to warlike action; in that of Giuliano, the type of alert and confident practical survey immediately preceding the moment of action. To this contrast of the meditative and active characters corresponds to some extent a contrast in the emblematic groups accompanying the portraits. At the feet of the Duke Guiliano recline the shapes of Night and Day, -- the former, a female, the latter a male personification, -- the former sunk in an attitude of deep but uneasy slumber, the latter (whose head and face are merely blocked out of the marble) lifting himself in one of wrathful and disturbed awakening. But for Michelangelo’s unfailing grandeur of style, and for the sense which his works convey of a compulsive heat and tempest of thought and feeling in the soul that thus conceived the, both these attitudes might be charged with extravagance.

As grand, bur far less violent, are those of the two companion figures that recline between sleep and waking on the sarcophagus of the pensive Lorenzo. Of these, the male figure is known as Evening, and the female as Morning (Crepuscolo and Aurora). In Michelangelo’s original idea, figures of Earth and Heaven were to be associated with those of night and Day on the monument of Giuliano, and others of a corresponding nature, no doubt, with those of the Morning and Evening Twilight on that of Lorenzo; these figures afterwards fell out of the scheme.

Michelangelo’s obvious and fundamental idea was, as some words of his own record, to exhibit the elements, and the powers of earth and heaven, lamenting the death of the princes; it is a question of much interest, but not to be discussed here, what other ideas of a more personal and deeper kind may have conflicted or come into association with these, and found expression in these majestic works of art, whereof no one who looks upon them can escape the spell.

Michelangelo had never ceased to be troubled by the heirs and executors of Julius, as well as by his own artistic conscience and ambition, concerning the long-postponed completion of the Julian monument. Agreement after agreement had been made, and then from the force of circumstances broken. In 1532, on the completion of the Medicean monuments at Florence, he entered into a new and what he firmly meant to be a binding contract to complete the work, on a scale once more very greatly reduced, and to set it up in the church of S. Pierto in Vincoli in Rome. But once more the demands of the pope diverted his purpose. Clement insisted that Michelangelo must complete his decorations of the Sixtine chapel by painting anew the great end wall above the altar, adorned until then by frescos of Perugino. The subject chosen was the Last Judgment, and Michelangelo began to prepare sketches. For the next two years he lived between Rome and Florence, and in the autumn of 1534, in his sixtieth year, settled finally and for the remainder of his life at Rome.

Immediately afterwards Pope Clement died, and was succeeded by a Farnese under the title of Paul III. Even more than his predecessor, Paul insisted on claiming the main services of Michelangelo for himself, and forced him to let all other engagements drift. For the first seven years after the artist’s return to Rome, his time was principally taken up with the painting of the colossal and multitudinous Last Judgment. This being completed in 1541, he was next compelled to undertake two more great frescos, one of the Conversion of Paul and another of the Martyrdom of Peter, is a new chapel which the pope had caused to be built in the Vatican, and named after himself Capella Paolina.

The fresco of the Last Judgment in the Sixtine chapel is probably the most famous single picture in the world. In its Michelangelo shows more than even the omnipotence of his artistic science, and the fiery daring of his conceptions. The work exhibits the athletic unclothed human form in every variety and extremity of hitherto unattempted action and predicament. But of moderation, as well as of beauty and tenderness, it is almost entirely devoid. Whether from the complexion of his own thoughts, and the saeva indignatio that was native to his breast, or from the influence of the passionate and embittered theological temper of the time, Michelangelo has here neglected the consolatory aspects of Christianity, and insisted on its terrific aspects almost exclusively. Neither in the qualities of colour and execution is the work, so far as the condition of either admits comparison, comparable for charm to the earlier and far more nobly-inspired frescos of the ceiling. It is to these, and not to the Last Judgment, that the students must turn if he would realize what is best and greatest in the art of Michelangelo.

The frescos of the Pauline Chapel are on their part in part so injured as to be hardly susceptible of useful study or criticism. In their ruined state they bear evidence of the same tendencies that made the art of Michelangelo in its latest phase so dangerous an example to weaker men, -- the tendency, that is, to seek for energy and violence of action both in place and out, for "terribleness" quand même, and to design actions not by help of direct study from nature, but by scientific deduction for the abstract laws of structure and movement. At best these frescos can never have been happy examples of Michelangelo’s art.

During the fifteen years (1534-49) when Michelangelo was mainly engaged on these paintings, he had also at last been enabled to acquit himself, although in a manner that can have been satisfactory to none concerned, of his engagements to the heirs of Julius. Once more the influence of the pope had prevailed on them to accept a compromise altogether to their disadvantage. It was agreed that the Moses executed thirty years before should be the central figure of the new scheme; assistants were employed to carve two smaller flanking figures of female personifications; and the three were in 1545 set up in S. Pierto in Vincoli in combination with an architectural structure of rich but incongruous design.

During the same years the long-pent human elements of fervour and tenderness in Michelangelo’s nature had found vent and utterance such as they had never found before. He had occasionally practiced poetry in youth, and there are signs of some transient love-passage during his life at Bologna. But it was not until towards his sixtieth year that the springs of feeling were fairly opened in the heart of this solitary, this masterful and stern, life-wearied and labour-hardened man. Towards that age we find him beginning to address impassioned sonnets, of which the sentiment is curiously comparable to that expressed in some of Shakespeare’s, to a beautiful and gifted youth, Tommaso Cavalieri. Soon afterwards he made the acquaintance of the pious, accomplished, and high-souled lady, Vittoria Colonna, widow of the Marquis Pescara. For twelve years until her death, which happened in 1547, her friendship was the great solace of Michelangelo’s life. On her, in all loyalty and reverence, he poured out all the treasures of his mind, and all his imprisoned powers of tenderness and devotion. He painted for her a crucifixion of extraordinary beauty, of which many imitations but not the original have come down to us. She was the chief inspirer of his poetry, -- in which, along with her praises, the main themes are the Christian religion, the joys of Platonic love, and the power and mysteries of art.

Michelangelo’s poetical style is strenuous and concentrated like the man. He wrote with labour and much self-correction; we seem to feel him flinging himself on the material of language with the same overwhelming energy and vehemence -- the same impetuosity of temperament, combined with the same fierce desire of perfection, -- with which contemporaries describe him as flinging himself on the material of marble.

And so the mighty sculptor, painter, and poet reached old age. An infirmity which settled on him in 1544, and the death of Vittoria Colonna in 1547, left him broken in health and heart. But his strength held on for many a year longer yet. His father and brothers were dead, and his family sentiment concentrated itself on a nephew, Leonardo, to whom he showed unremitting practical kindness, coupled with his usual suspiciousness and fitfulness of temper.

In almost all his relations the old man continued to the end to manifest the same loyal and righteous heart, accompanied by the same masterful, moody, and estranging temper, as in youth. Among the artists of the younger generation he held a position of absolute ascendancy and authority; nor was his example, as we have said, by any means altogether salutary for them.

During the last years of his life he made but few more essays in sculpture, and those not successful, but was much employed in the fourth art in which he excelled, that of architecture. A succession of popes demanded his services for the embellishment of Rome. For Paul III he built the palace called after the name of the pope’s family the Farnese. On the death of Antonio da San Gallo he succeeded to the onerous and coveted office of chief architect of St Peter’s Church, for which he remodelled all the designs, living to see some of the main features, including the supports and lower portion of the great central dome, carried out in spite of all obstacles according to his plans. Other great architectural tasks on which he was engaged were the convention of a portion of the Baths of Diocletian into the church of Sta Maria degli Angeli, and the embellishment and rearrangement of the great group of buildings on the Roman Capitol.

At length, in the midst of these vast schemes and responsibilities, the heroic old man’s last remains of strength gave way. He died on the threshold of his ninetieth year, on the 18th of February 1564.

For biography of Michelangelo, which is extensive, see the useful though very imperfect compilation of Passerini, Bibliografia di Michelangelo Buonarroti, &c., Florence, 1875. The most important works, taken in chronological order, are the following:-- P. Giovio, supplement to the fragmentary Dialogus de viris litteris illustribus, written soon after 1527, first published by Tiraboschi, Storia della Letteratura italiana, Modena, 1871; G. Vasari, invite degli, piü eccellenti architettori, pittori, e scultori, &c., Florence, 1550; A. Condivi, Vita di Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1553; this account, for which the author, a pupil and friend of the master’s, had long been collecting materials, was much fuller than that of Vassari, who made use of it in rewriting his own life of Michelangelo for his second edition, which appeared after the master’s death (1568). The best edition of Vasari is that by Milanesi, Florence, 1878-83; of Condivi, that by Gori and Mariette, Pisa, 1746. The first additions of importance were published by Bottari, Raccolata di lettere sulla pittura, &c., Rome, 1754 (2d ed., by Ticozzi, Milan, 1822); the next by Gave, Caryeggio inedito, 1840. Portions of the correspondence preserved in the Buonarroti archives were published by Guasti in his notes to the Rime di Michelangelo Buenarroti, 1863, and by Daelli in Carte Michelangelesche inedited, Milan, 1865. Complete biographies of Michelangelo had been meanwhile attempted by J. Harford, London, 1857, and with more power by Hermann Grimm, Leben Michelangelos, Hanover (5th ed., 1879). A great increment of biographical material was at length obtained by the publication, in the four hundredth year after Michelangelo’s birth, of the whole body of his letters preserved in the Buonarroti archives -- Lettere di Michelangelo Buonarroti, ed. G. Milanesi, Florence, 1875. This material was first employed in a connected narrative by A. Gotti, Vita di Michelangelo, Florence, 1875. Next followed C. Health Wilson, Life and Works of Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florence, 1876, the technical remarks in which, especially as concerns the fresco-paintings, are valuable. Lastly, the combined lives of Michelangelo and Raphael by Professor A. Springer in Dohme’s series of Kunst u. Künstler, Leipsic [Leipzig], 1878, contain the best biography of the master which has yet appeared. Of the poems of Michelangelo the best edition is that already referred to -- G. Guasti, Rime di Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1863; in earlier additions the text had been recklessly tampered with, and the rugged individuality of the master’s style smoothes down. An edition with German translations was published by Hasenclever, Leipsic [Leipzig], 1875; for the English student the translations by Mr. J. A. Symonds, in Sonnets of Michelangelo and Companella, London, 1878, are invaluable. (S. C.)

The above article was written by Prof. Sidney Colvin, M.A.; Keeper of Prints and Drawings, British Museum from 1884; Slade Professor of Fine Art, Cambridge, 1873-85; edited the Edinburgh edition of R. L. Stevenson's works, Letters of R. L. Stevenson, and History of Painting, from the German of Woltmann and Woermann.

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries