How Not to Write the Biography of Michelangelo
*Michael Hirst, Michelangelo: The Achievement of Fame, 1475– 1534. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. x + 438 pages, 29 b/w illustrations + 24 color plates. $40, cloth.
Although biography is a literary art form, scholars can all too easily reject the demands of the genre. Such is the case in Michael Hirst’s new biography of Michelangelo.* The author is more concerned with facts and factoids than he is with the shape of his narrative and the way in which these facts fit nicely and compellingly into a story. Hirst’s book, the first of a projected two-volume work, is less a vivid and well-shaped biography than a chronological sequence of facts, as well as corrections of the errors of previous scholars—a bloodless series of readings of documents that might well serve usefully as prolegomena to a future biography. Hirst’s contentious approach to previous scholarship will also prevent him from reaching the general reader, the non-specialist who is curious to know more about the art and life of the artist and how they are inextricably linked. As he plows through the documentary record, attempting to relate it to the crucial sixteenth-century biographies of Michelangelo by Vasari and Condivi, Hirst writes, strangely enough, without enthusiasm about one of the greatest figures in the history of art. He writes in an austere style that is chilling.
The unsuspecting “common reader,” looking for guidance beyond Hirst will be unaware of the fact that his “Bibliography” is a very Select Bibliography, which omits many authors who—one suspects, given the tone of the book— either arouse Hirst’s antipathy or are not deemed worthy of his consideration. Among the scholars who have written vividly about Michelangelo’s life and work, writers contributing to the biography of the artist who have no place in Hirst’s Select Bibliography, or are inadequately represented there, are the following: Emma Spina Barelli, James Beck, George Bull, Robert Clements, Sydney Freedberg, Howard Hibbard, Anthony Hughes, John Pope-Hennessy, Robert Liebert, Ralph Lieberman, Deborah Parker, Livio Pestilli, Lisa Pon, Charles Seymour, and David Summers. Beck, Bull, and Hughes in particular have interesting things to say about Michelangelo’s life that are based on the documents and worth noting in a positive way.
Hirst’s volume, which takes Michelangelo’s story up to 1534, when he left Florence never to return, is divided into two parts: a 265-page year-by-year account of the artist’s activities, and a 111-page apparatus of notes in which the author wages his battle against the errors of previous scholarship. He writes, as all of Michelangelo’s modern biographers do, in the shadow of the great sixteenth-century biographies of the artist. I mean Vasari’s life of Michelangelo from 1550, Condivi’s biography of the artist of 1553, which reflects Michelangelo’s voice and is thus partially autobiographical, and Vasari’s revised account in 1568, which absorbs much from Condivi‘s narrative. These biographies are available in various English translations, and they remain an excellent point of departure for any reader who wants an introduction to the artist.
Discussing the art of Michelangelo, which is what makes the artist’s life story compelling in the first place, Hirst is strangely perfunctory. When he speaks, for example, of the Crucifix in Santo Spirito, in Florence, he observes that although its attribution to Michelangelo “has not gone unchallenged,” “the singularity of the work confirms its attribution.” Surely an attribution is based on more than singularity. Writing of the unfinished Entombment in the National Gallery, London, he speaks of the painting’s “astonishing invention.” The reader is left wondering exactly what the author means by this suggestive assertion. He might be so generous with his expertise as to tell us.
Hirst moves from year to year, from work to work, from argument to argument—from the Battle of the Lapthis and the Centaurs, made during the period when Michelangelo worked in the Medici gardens, to the Crucifix, to the Bacchus and Pietà carved in Rome, to the David and Sistine ceiling frescoes and beyond, scarcely describing these and still other works at all. It is as if these works are merely documents, unread documents at that. No event in the life of an artist is more important, however, than the art itself. Reflecting the artist’s imagination, art is the central fact in the artist’s life story or biography. Of Michelangelo’s art and artistic imagination, however, we hear almost nothing in Hirst’s book. Hirst says little about the great statue of the David, for example, and so we must turn to Charles Seymour’s book, Michelangelo’s David: A Search for Identity, unmentioned in the Select Bibliography, for penetrating insights into the ways in which Michelangelo identified with his subject. Similarly, we must turn back to Vasari for clues to the mysteriously youthful Mary of Michelangelo’s Pietà. Vasari quotes a poem by Giovan Battista Strozzi in relation to the Pietà in which Mary is described as mother, spouse, and daughter of Jesus, an embellishment of Dante, the poet so beloved of Michelangelo. Strozzi encourages us to see the mystery of Michelangelo’s idealized Dantesque Mary, who as mother and daughter at once transcends time.
Of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, unarguably one of the most famous works in the entire history of art, Hirst says not a word. We must return to Vasari who writes of Michelangelo’s Adam: “A figure whose beauty, pose, and contours are such that it seems to have been fashioned that very moment by the first and supreme creator rather than by the drawing and brush of a mortal man.” Sydney Freedberg has embellished Vasari’s powerful comparison of Michelangelo to God in his writing on the Sistine ceiling, when he says of this fresco in his book, Painting of the High Renaissance in Rome and Florence: “For the moment of this fresco God and Michelangelo enjoy a confusion of role: God acts the classical sculptor.” Hirst, by contrast, is remarkably indifferent to the artistic character and drama of biography,
to the ways in which a life is shaped or given form, to the way in which the fictive biography is, in a sense, the outcome of the art. Somebody once said, “The artist creates the art, but the biographer creates the artist.” The Michelangelo who is divorced from his art in Hirst’s biography is stillborn. Hirst may on occasion refer to Michelangelo’s emotions, but such references convey little feeling or affect. The prose is too flat.
Hirst cares most about the facts. Fair enough. He cares too little, however, about the interpretation of the facts. He insists with great urgency that Michelangelo worked as a youth in the Medici gardens and then was shaped by the culture of the Medici who appreciated his talent. But here he is flogging a dead horse since no modern scholar doubts that Michelangelo worked in the garden; indeed everybody cites the famous letter that refers to Michelangelo in the garden. The issue is how to interpret this extraordinary moment? Did Michelangelo really pick up a chisel and hammer for the first time in that garden to carve a Faun, a laughing Faun, whose laughter was delightfully echoed by Lorenzo de’ Medici who discovered his talent but laughed at Michelangelo’s naiveté? Although he acknowledges that the story is lively, Hirst summarizes it in a mechanical way. I urge the curious reader to turn back to and savor in full Condivi’s charming account or Vasari’s delightful retelling of this tale.
Hirst wants to establish the importance of the distinguished classicist Poliziano in Michelangelo’s formation in this crucial Medicean moment, which is a nice idea, but he strangely ignores so much of the potential evidence at hand or deals with it too briefly. He alludes to Michelangelo’s signing his Rome Pietà in the imperfect (“faciebat”) as a reflection of Poliziano’s writing about this form of signature. Yes, but we need to remember too that the signature in the imperfect was associated by Pliny specifically with the work of the exemplary ancient sculptors Apelles and Polyclitus—a further point that Poliziano might well have suggested to him. Moreover, when Michelangelo signed his work “faciebat,” he omitted, as has been noted, the “t” at the end of the verb; in other words he wittily signed in the imperfect imperfectly. Is this clever conceit also something that came to him from Poliziano?
Scholars have also noticed another detail in Michelangelo’s art that suggests the erudition of Poliziano. When Michelangelo carved his Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, he represented among a host of otherwise youthful figures a singular old man holding up a stone with two hands. This figure, the only old figure in the relief, suggests the artist’s self-comparison to Phidias, since according to Plutarch, Phidias portrayed himself as an old man holding up a stone with two hands on a battle relief. The not unreasonable inference here is that the learned Poliziano suggested this classical allusion to the artist, an allusion that implicitly suggests the comparison of the modern artist to the ancient sculptor. In his comparison, Michelangelo, seemingly under Poliziano’s spell, was also invoking another topos, that of the puer senex, since the young Michelangelo was demonstrating a skill comparable to that of the aged artist Phidias. Moreover, since the warriors of Michelangelo’s scene engage in battle primarily with large rocks, we might well wonder whether there is here a trans-lingual pun as the Lapithae lapidate their adversaries. Do we not see yet again the intervention of the profoundly learned Poliziano?
There is further evidence of Michelangelo’s connections with Poliziano in an early poem by Michelangelo, both sensuous and immensely playful, in which the poet imagines himself tightly bound to his beloved, a poem which, as scholars have remarked, was influenced by Poliziano’s poetry. (Hirst for some inexplicable reason gives relatively little attention to the place of poetry in Michelangelo’s biography.) Finally, David Summers has written eloquently and suggestively about Michelangelo in relation to Poliziano, but these suggestive associations between poet and artist are mysteriously ignored.
Hirst also avoids many wonderful anecdotes that add color to the artist’s life, stories that we can imagine he ignores precisely because they are not factual and are thus incompatible with his dogmatic positivism. He chooses to ignore the truthfulness of these fictions; he ignores the role they play in shaping the artist’s life story. We recall, for example, how in Vasari, Piero Soderini is said to have criticized Michelangelo’s David because the nose was too large, upon which Michelangelo climbed a scaffold and, pretending to correct his error, dropped some marble dust without touching the statue. At this, Soderini was made to appear foolish because he criticized the artist’s error and then praised the improvement to the statue even though Michelangelo had not made any corrections. Se non è vero è ben trovato. If not true, the story has verisimilitude, because it reflects Michelangelo’s pride and ingenuity as well as the critic’s flawed judgment. Vasari’s story points also to Michelangelo’s rich sense of humor that we find throughout his poetry, as well as in his art and letters. Although Hirst does talk about one amusing letter by Michelangelo, he otherwise ignores the comic side of Michelangelo. One could write a book about Michelangelo’s wit and humor.
The main problem with Hirst’s biography is that there is no narrative thrust to it at all, since it is fractured time and time again by argumentation over the facts of his life. Yet the various anecdotes about Michelangelo that Hirst avoids are the cement of fiction that binds the facts to biography. Consider, for example, a delightful tale about Michelangelo’s drawing of a hand told by Condivi, which one presumes Hirst ignores because he thinks it apocryphal. According to Condivi’s story, the man who acquired Michelangelo’s Sleeping Cupid, which was made as a forged antique buried in the ground, sent a gentleman to Tuscany to identify the author of this forgery. When he reached Michelangelo’s house, he suspected that the artist was the man for whom he was searching. He then asked Michelangelo to display something of his work, but because he had nothing to show, Michelangelo drew a hand. When the visitor considered this drawing, he was convinced that Michelangelo was his man, and he urged the artist to come to Rome, which would be a great place to display his talents.
The charm of this story, which has always been regarded as fiction, lies in its double entendre. The gentleman from Rome, who came to Florence in search of the hand that made the Cupid, was shown a drawing of a hand from the hand of the artist whom he sought. The hand in this witty story is thus emblematic of Michelangelo’s identity. Condivi’s knowing reader would have recognized that the story was a witty variation on the story of Giotto’s O. When a visitor to Giotto from Rome wanted a demonstration of the artist’s skill, according to Vasari, the painter rendered a perfect O, the letter emblematic of Giotto’s name, with its pronounced double O sound. Just as the O was self-reflexive, a condensed signature, so Michelangelo’s drawing of a hand was a signature piece. If Condivi’s fiction comes from Michelangelo himself, as one might surmise, it reflects Michelangelo’s skill as storyteller or novelliere. Reporting aspects of his life story in old age through Condivi, Michelangelo was in this case writing under the spell of Vasari’s story of Giotto’s O—a surprising reversal of roles.
In the history of biographical writing on Michelangelo, there are several milestones. After the marvelous books of Vasari and Condivi, which are far more than information, far more than facts or errors, far more than mere fiction, there is Herman Grimm’s monumental book, Walter Pater’s deeply biographical essay on Michelangelo, John Addington Symonds’s classic biography of the artist, and Giovanni Papini’s spirited, immensely engaging biography, the latter a work that deserves to be reprinted. But that is not all. Two years ago, William Wallace published with Cambridge University Press a lively biography of the artist, a vivid narrative that is based on the kind of documentation used by Hirst. Wallace writes, however, with real flair in an inviting prose that is both accessible to the general reader and instructive to the scholar. If one wants an up-to-date biography of Michelangelo, grounded in the documents but also sensitive to the art, I recommend Wallace’s book, especially because it goes more deeply and with more nuance into the social history of Michelangelo’s world. Wallace, I might add, is especially good on the playfulness of Michelangelo, a topic almost entirely missing from Hirst’s dour text. We might almost say that whereas Hirst greets Michelangelo with a sneer, Wallace approaches the artist with a smile.
FROM CONDIVI’S “LIFE OF MICHELANGELO” (1553), TRANS. GEORGE BULL
[AA] I wanted to make mention of this, because I have been told that the son of Domenico used to attribute the divine excellence of Michelangelo in great part to the teaching of his father, who in reality gave him no assistance at all; and yet rather than complaining about that, Michelangelo praised Domenico both for his art and his behavior. But that was somewhat of a digression; let us return to our story.
No less amazement was caused at the same period by another enterprise of Michelangelo, accomplished in the same delightful way. He had been given a head, which was for him to draw, and he reproduced it so exactly that, when the owner was given the copy instead of the original, he did not recognize the deception until it was revealed to him after the boy had confronted one of his companions with it, and told him all about it. Many people wished to compare it, and found no difference; and this was because as well as the perfection of the drawing, Michelangelo had used smoke to make it appear the same age as the original. This brought him much reputation.
So the boy continued drawing now one thing and now another, still without any settled workplace, or studio, when one day Granacci happened to take him to the garden of the Medici at San Marco, which Lorenzo the Magnificent, father of Pope Leo, a man distinguished for every kind of excellence, had adorned with various antique statues and figures. When Michelangelo had seen these, and tasted the beauty of the works to be found there, no longer did he go either to Domenico’s workshop, or anywhere else, but instead all day long, as in the best school of all for this branch of art, stayed in the garden where he was always working.
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Having come back to his own country, Michelangelo applied himself to making a god of Love, six to seven years of age, lying down, in the form of a man asleep: and when this was seen by Lorenzo di Pier Francesco de’ Medici (for whom in the meantime Michelangelo had made an infant St John) he judged it to be extremely beautiful, and he said to him: ‘If you were to prepare it, so that it should appear to have been buried, I shall send it to Rome and it would pass for an antique, and you would sell it much more profitably.’
Hearing this, Michelangelo, from whom no path of genius was hidden, at once prepared it so that it appeared to have been made many years before. And so when it was sent to Rome, Cardinal San Giorgio bought it as an antique for 200 ducats; however, the man who took this amount of money wrote to Florence that Michelangelo should be paid 30 ducats, that being what he had got for the Cupid, thus deceiving both Lorenzo di Pier Francesco and Michelangelo. But in the meanwhile, it came to the ears of the cardinal just how the putto had been made in Florence, and indignant at being tricked he sent there a gentleman of his, who, after seeing several others, was invited to the house of Michelangelo. And when he saw the young man, being wary of revealing what he wanted, he requested him to show him something he had done. But, as he had nothing to show, he took a quill pen (since at that time chalk was not in use) and depicted a hand for him with such grace and lightness that he stood there stupefied. Then he asked him if he had ever made a work of sculpture; and when Michelangelo responded yes, and among the other things a Cupid of such and such a size and pose, the gentleman learned what he wanted to know. The story having been told as it had happened, he promised Michelangelo, if he would go with him to Rome, to have him recompensed for the difference, and to arrange matters for him with the owner, who he knew would be very pleased with that. Michelangelo, therefore, partly from indignation at having been defrauded, partly in order to see Rome, so highly appraised to him by the gentleman as a very large field where everyone could demonstrate his talents, went along with him; and he lodged in his house, which was near the cardinal’s palace.
The cardinal, having in the meantime been advised by letter how matters stood, had the man who had sold him the statue for an antique apprehended; and, after his own money was returned, he gave him back the statue. Subsequently, I do not know by what path, it fell into the hands of Duke Valentino and was then given to the Marchioness of Mantua and sent by her to Mantua where it is still to be found in the house of those rulers. Some people blamed the Cardinal of San Giorgio over this affair: for if, when seen by all the artists of Rome, the work was judged by all of them, unanimously, to be very beautiful, it should hardly have given so much offence as a modern work that for the sake of 200 crowns a rich and moneyed man should deprive himself of it. If he was smarting over having been deceived, he could have punished so and so by having the balance of the money, that he had previously taken home, paid out to the statue’s patron.
But no one suffered as a result more than Michelangelo, who other than what he had received in Florence made nothing out of it. And that Cardinal San Giorgio little understood or enjoyed statues, this makes clear enough: in all the time that Michelangelo stayed with him, which was around a year, he was never commissioned by San Giorgio to do anything.
FROM VASARI’S “LIFE OF MICHELANGELO” (1550), TRANS. GEORGE BULL
[A] At that time the custodian or keeper of all the fine antiques that Lorenzo the Magnificent had collected at great expense and kept in his garden on the Piaza di San Marco was the sculptor Bertoldo. He had been a pupil of Donatello’s and the chief reason why Lorenzo kept him in his service was because he had set his heart on establishing a school of first rate painters and sculptors and wanted Bertoldo to teach and look after them. Bertoldo was now too old to work; nevertheless, he was very experienced and very famous, not only for having polished the bronze pulpits cast by Donatello but also for the many bronze casts of battle-scenes and the other small things he had executed himself with a competence that no one else in Florence could rival. So Lorenzo, who was an enthusiastic lover of painting and sculpture, regretting that he could find no great and noble sculptors to compare with the many contemporary painters of ability and repute, determined, as I said, to found a school himself. For this reason he told Domenico Ghirlandaio that if he had in his workshop any young men who were drawn to sculpture he should send them along to his garden, where they would be trained and formed in a manner that would do honour to himself, to Domenico, and to the whole city. So Domenico gave him some of the best among his young men, including Michelangelo and Francesco Grancacci. And when they arrived at the garden they found Torrigiano (a young man of the Torrigiani family) working there on some clay figures in the round that Bertoldo had given him to do. After he had seen these figures, Michelangelo was prompted to make some himself; and when he saw the boy’s ambitious nature Lorenzo started to have very high hopes of what he would do. Michelangelo was so encouraged that some days later he set himself to copy in marble an antique faun’s head which he found in the garden; it was very old and wrinkled, with the nose damaged and a laughing mouth. Although this was the first time he had ever touched a chisel or worked in marble, Michelangelo succeeded in copying it so well that Lorenzo was flabbergasted. Then, when he saw that Michelangelo had departed a little from the model and followed his own fancy in hollowing out a mouth for the faun and giving it a tongue and all its teeth, Lorenzo laughed in his usual charming was and said:
‘But you should have known that old folk never have all their teeth and there are always some missing.”
In his simplicity Michelangelo, who loved and feared that lord, reflected that this was true, and as soon as Lorenzo had gone he broke one of the faun’s teeth and dug into the gum so it looked as if the tooth had fallen out; then he waited anxiously for Lorenzo to comeback. And after he had seen the result of Michelangelo’s simplicity and skill, Lorenzo laughed at the incident more than once and used to tell it for a marvel to his friends. He resolved that he would help and favor the young Michelangelo; and first he sent for his father, Lodovico, and asked whether he could have the boy, adding that he wanted to keep him as one of his own sons. Lodovico willingly agreed, and then Lorenzo arranged to have Michelangelo given a room of his own and looked after as one of the Medici household, Michelangelo always ate at Lorenzo’s table with the sons of the family and other distinguished and noble persons who lived with that lord, and Lorenzo always treated him with great respect. All this happened the year after Michelangelo had been placed with Domenico; when he was fifteen or sixteen years old and he lived in the Medici house for four years, until the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492.
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[B]When he saw the David in place Piero Soderini was delighted; but while Michelangelo was retouching it he remarked that he though the nose was too thick. Michelangelo noticing that Gonfolonier was standing beneath the Giant and that from where he was he could not see the figure properly, to satisfy him climbed on the scaffolding by the shoulders, seized hold of a chisel in his left hand, together with some of the marble dust lying on the planks, and as he tapped lightly with the chisel let the dust fall little by little, without altering anything. Then he looked down at the Gonfalonier, who had stopped to watch, and said:
“Now look at it.”
Ah, that’s much better,” replied Soderini. “Now you’ve really brought it to life.”
And then Michelangelo climbed down, feeling sorry for those critics who talk nonsense in the hope of appearing well informed. When the work was finally finished he uncovered it for everyone to see. And without any doubt this figure has put in the shade every other statue, ancient or modern, Greek or Roman. Neither the Marforio in Rome, nor the Tiber and the Nile of the Belvedere, nor the colossal statues of Monte Cavello can be compared with Michelangelo’s David, such were the satisfying proportions and beauty of the finished work. The legs are skillfully outlined, the slender flanks are beautifully shaped and the limbs are joined faultlessly to the trunk. The grace of this figure and the serenity of its pose have never been surpassed, nor have the feet, and hands, and the head, whose harmonious proportions and loveliness are in keeping with the rest. To be sure, anyone who has seen Michelangelo’s David has no need to see anything else by any sculptor, living or dead.
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So Michelangelo started work on a round painting of the Madonna. This picture shows Our Lady kneeling down and holding out the child to St. Joseph. The mother of Christ turns her head and gazes intently on the supreme beauty of her son with an air of marvelous contentment lovingly shared with the venerable St. Joseph, who takes the child with similar affection, tenderness, and reverence, as we can see from a glance at his face. Not content with this achievement, to show his superb master of painting, Michelangelo depicted in the background several nude figures, some leaning, others standing and seated. He executed this work with such care and diligence that it is held beyond doubt as the most beautiful and perfect of the few panel pictures he painted. When it was ready he sent it under wrappings to Angelo’s house with a note asking for payment of seventy ducats. Now Angelo, who was careful with his money, was disconcerted at being asked to spend so much on a picture, even though he knew that, in fact, it was worth even more. So he gave the messenger forty ducats and told him that that was enough. Whereupon Michelangelo returned the money with a message to say that Angelo should send back either a hundred ducats or the picture itself. Then Angelo, who liked the painting, said: ‘Well, I’ll give him seventy.’
However, Michelangelo was still far from satisfied. Indeed, because of Angelo’s breach of faith he demanded double what he had asked first of all, and this meant that to get the picture Angelo was having to pay a hundred and forty ducats.
It happened that while the great painter Leonardo da Vinci was working in the Council Chamber (as I related in his biography), Piero Soderini, who was then Gonfalonier, recognizing Michelangelo’s abilities, had part of the hall allocated to him; and this was why Michelangelo painted the other wall in competition with Leonardo, taking as his subject an episode in the Pisan War. For this project Michelangelo used a room in the Dyers’ Hospital at Sant’Onofrio, where he started work on a vast cartoon which he refused to let anyone see. He filled it with naked men who are bathing because of the heat in the River Arno when suddenly, upon an attack by the enemy, the alarm is raised in the camp. And as the soldiers rush out of the water to dress themselves, Michelangelo’s inspired hand depicted some hurrying to arm themselves in order to bring help to their comrades, others buckling on their cuirasses, many fastening other pieces of armor on their bodies, and countless more dashing into the fray on horseback. Among the rest was the figure of an old man wearing a garland of ivy to shade his head; he is sitting down to pull on his stockings, but he cannot do so because his legs are wet from the water, and as he hears the cries and tumult of the soldiers and the beating of the drums he is straining to draw on one stocking by force. The nerves and muscles of his face and his contorted mouth convey the frenzied effort and exertion he is making with his whole body. There were some drummers and other naked figures, with their clothes bundled up, hurrying to get to the fighting, and drawn in various unusual attitudes: some upright, some kneeling or leaning forward, or half-way between one position and another, all exhibiting the most difficult foreshortenings. There were also many groups of figures drawn in different ways: some outlined in charcoal, others sketched with a few strokes, some shaded gradually and heightened with lead-white. This Michelangelo did to show how much he knew about his craft. When they saw the cartoon, all the other artists were overcome with admiration and astonishment, for it was a revelation of the perfection that the art of painting could reach. People who have seen these inspired figures declare that they have never been surpassed by Michelangelo himself or by anyone else, and that no one can ever again reach such sublime heights. And this may readily be believed, for after the cartoon had been finished and, to the glory of Michelangelo, carried to the Sala del Papa, with tremendous acclamations from all the artists, those who subsequently studied it and made copies of the figures (as was done for many years in Florence by local artists and others) became excellent painters themselves. As we know, the artists who studied the cartoon included Aristotile da Sangallo (Michelangelo’s friend), Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, Raphael Sanzio of Urbino, Francesco Granacci, Baccio Bandinelli, and the Spaniard Alonso Beruguete. They were followed by the Andrea del Sarto, Franciabigio, Jacopo Sansovino, Rosso, Maturino, Lorenzetto, and Tribolo, when he was a child, and by Jacopo da Pantormo and Perin del Vaga. All these men were outstanding Florentine artists.
The cartoon having thus become a school for craftsmen, it was taken to the great upper room of the house of the Medici. But this meant that it was unwisely left in the hands of the craftsmen; and when Duke Giuliano fell ill, without warning it was torn into pieces. And now it is dispersed in various places. For example, there are some fragments still to be seen at Mantua in the house of Uberto Strozzi, a Mantuan gentleman, who preserves them with great reverence; and certainly anyone who sees them is inclined to think them of divine rather than human origin.
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Michelangelo also finished the Moses, a beautiful statue in marble ten feet high. With this no other modern work will even bear comparison (nor, indeed, do the statues of the ancient world). For, seated in an attitude of great dignity, Moses rests one arm on the tablets that he is grasping in one hand, while with the other he is holding his beard, which falls in long ringlets and is carved in the marble so finely that the hairs (extremely difficult for the sculptor to represent) are downy and soft and so detailed that it seems that Michelangelo must have exchanged his chisel for a brush. Moreover, the face of Moses is strikingly handsome, and he wears a saintly and regal expression; indeed, one cries out for his countenance to be veiled, so dazzling and resplendent does it appear and so perfectly has Michelangelo expressed it in the marble the divinity that God first infused in Moses’ most holy form. In addition, the draperies worn by Moses are carved and finished with beautiful folds in the skirt; and the arms with their muscles and the hands with their bones and tendons are so supremely beautiful, the legs, knees, and feet are covered with such carefully fashioned hose and sandals, and every part of the work is finished so expertly, that today more than ever Moses can truly be called the friend of God. For, through the skill of Michelangelo, God has wanted to restore and prepare the body of Moses for the Resurrection before that of anyone else. And well may the Jews continue to go there (as they do every Sabbath, both men and women, like flocks of starlings) to visit and adore the statue, since they will be adoring something that is divine rather than human.
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To return to the Last Judgement: Michelangelo had already finished more than three-fourths of the work when Pope Paul went to see it. On this occasion Biagio da Cesena, the master of ceremonies and a very high-minded person, happened to be with the Pope in the chapel and was asked what he thought of the painting. He answered that it was most disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully, and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather for the public baths and taverns. Angered by this comment, Michelangelo determined he would have his revenge; and as soon as Biagio had left he drew his portrait from memory in the figure of Minos, shown with a great serpent curled round his legs, among a heap of devils in hell; nor for all his pleading with the Pope and Michelangelo could Biagio have the figure removed, and it was left, to record the incident, as it is today.
It then happened that Michelangelo fell no small distance from the scaffolding in the chapel and hurt his leg; and in his pain and anger he refused to be treated by anyone. Now at this time there lived a certain Florentine called Baccio Rontini, a friend and admirer of Michelangelo’s and an ingenious physician. Feeling sorry for Michelangelo, one day he went along to see him at home; when he received no answer to his knocking, either from Michelangelo or the neighbors, he made his way up by a secret way from room to room until he found Buonarroti, who was in a desperate condition. And then Baccio refused to go away or leave his side until he was better. After he was cured, Michelangelo returned to the chapel and worked continuously until everything was finished. And the paintings he did were imbued with such force that he justified the words of Dante: ‘Dear are the dead, the living truly live…’ We are shown the misery of the damned and the joy of the blessed.
When the Last Judgement was revealed it was seen that Michelangelo had not only excelled the masters who had worked there previously but had also striven to excel even the vaulting that he had made so famous; for the Last Judgement was finer by far, and in it Michelangelo outstripped himself. He imagined to himself all the terror of those days and he represented, for the greater punishment of those who have not lived well, the entire Passion of Jesus Christ, depicting in the air various naked figures carrying the cross, the column, the lance, the sponge, the nails, and the crown of thorns. These were shown in diverse attitudes and were perfectly executed with consummate facility. We see the seated figure of Christ turning towards the damned his stern and terrible countenance in order to curse them; and in great fear Our Lady draws her mantle around her as she hears and sees such tremendous desolation. In a circle around the figure of Christ are innumerable prophets and apostles; and most remarkable are the figures of Adam and St. Peter, included, it is believed, as being, respectively, the original parent of the human race that is not brought to Judgment, and the first foundation of the Christian Church. At the feet of Christ is a most beautiful St. Bartholomew, who is displaying his flayed skin. We see also the nude figure of St. Lawrence, and in addition an endless number of male and female saints and other figures of men and women around Christ, near or distant, who embrace each other and rejoice, because they have won everlasting beatitude by the grace of God and as a reward for their good deeds. Beneath the feet of Christ are the Seven Angels with the Seven Trumpets as described by St. John the Evangelist; as they sound the call to Judgment they cause the hair of those who are looking at them to stand on end at the terrible wrath of their countenances. Among the rest are two angels with the Book of Life in their hands; and near them on one side, depicted with perfect judgment, may be seen the seven mortal sins in the form of devils, assailing and striving to drag down to hell the souls that are flying towards heaven, all shortened. Nor did Michelangelo hesitate to show to the world, in the resurrection of the dead, how they take to themselves once more bones and flesh from the same earth and how, with the help of others already alive, they go soaring towards heaven, where again they are assisted by the souls of those already blessed; and all this was painted with the appropriate judgment and consideration. Throughout the painting may be seen exercises and studies of various kinds, the perfection of which is clearly illustrated by a notable detail showing the bark of Charon. In an attitude of frenzy, Charon is striking with his oar the souls being dragged into the bark by the demons. Here, Michelangelo was following the description give by his favorite poet, Dante, when he wrote:
Charon, his eyes red like a burning brand,
Thumps with his oar the lingerers that delay,
And rounds them up, and beckons with his hand.
Michelangelo painted the heads of his demons with such marvelous force and variety that they are truly like monsters out of hell. And in the figures of the damned we can see the presence of sin and the fear of eternal punishment. Apart from the beauty of its every detail, it is extraordinary to see how this painting produces in its finished state an impression of such harmony that it seems to have been executed all in one day, and even so with a finish unrivalled by any miniature. To be sure, the awesomeness and grandeur of this painting, with its vast host of figures, are so overwhelming that it defies description; for in it may be seen marvelously portrayed all the emotions that mankind can experience. The discerning eye can easily distinguish the proud and the envious, the avaricious, the lustful, and other sinners of various kinds; for in this painting Michelangelo observed all the rules of decorum, and gave his figures the appropriate expressions, attitudes, and settings. This was a great and powerful achievement; but it was all the same well within his powers, because he was always shrewd and observant and he had seen a lot of mankind, and thus he had acquired by contact with the day-to-day world the understanding that philosophers obtain from books and speculation. To any discerning critic, the Last Judgement demonstrates the sublime force of art and Michelangelo’s figures reveal thoughts and emotions that only he has known how to express. Moreover, anyone in a position to judge will also be struck by the amazing diversity of the figures which is reflected in the various and unusual gestures of the young and old, the men and the women. All these details bear witness to the sublime power of Michelangelo’s art, in which skill was combined with a natural inborn grace. Michelangelo’s figures stir the emotions even of people who know nothing about painting, let alone those who understand. The foreshortenings that appear to be in actual relief; the way he blended his colors to produce a mellow softness and grace; and the delicate finish he gave to every detail: these serve to show the kind of picture that a good and true artist should paint. In the contours of the forms, turned in a manner no other artists could have rivaled, Michelangelo showed the world the true Judgment and the true Damnation and Resurrection.
The Last Judgement must be recognized as the great exemplar of the grand manner of painting, directly inspired by God and enabling mankind to see the fateful results when an artist of sublime intellect infused with divine grace and knowledge appears on earth. Behind this work, bound in chains, follow all those who believe they have mastered the art of painting; the strokes with which Michelangelo outlined his figures make every intelligent and sensitive artist wonder and tremble, no matter how strong a draughtsman he may be. When other artists study the fruits of Michelangelo’s labors, they are thrown into confusion by the mere thought of what manner of things all other pictures, past or future, would look like if placed side by side with this masterpiece. How fortunate they are, and what happy memories they have stored up, who have seen this truly stupendous marvel of our times! And we can count Pope Paul III as doubly fortunate and happy, seeing that, by allowing this work to come into existence under his protection, God ensured future renown for his holiness and for Michelangelo. How greatly are the merits of the Pope enhanced by the genius of the artist! The birth of Michelangelo was indeed a stroke of fortune for all artists of the present age, for his work as a painter, a sculptor, and an architect has with its brilliance illuminated every problem and difficulty.
Michelangelo labored for eight years on the Last Judgement, and he threw it open to view, I believe, on Christmas Day in the year 1541, to the wonder and astonishment of the whole of Rome, or rather the whole world. That year, I went to Rome myself, travelling from Venice, in order to see it, and I along with the rest was stupefied by what I saw.