Home  |  Authors  |  Books  |  Stories  |  What's New  |  How to Get Involved 
   T h e   B a l d w i n   P r o j e c t
     Bringing Yesterday's Classics to Today's Children                 @mainlesson.com
Search This Site Only
 
 
Great Artists: Volume Three by  Jennie Ellis Keysor
Table of Contents


 

 

[Illustration]

MICHAEL ANGELO

MICHAEL ANGELO!

A lion all men fear and none can tame;

A man that all men honor and the model

That all should follow; one who works and prays,

For work is prayer, and consecrates his life

To the sublime ideal of his art;

Till life and art are one; a man who holds

Such place in all men's thoughts, that when they speak

Of great thinks done, or to be done, his name

Is ever on their lips.:

—Longfellow.

"Not a fragment of his labor, from the earliest to the latest, was insignificant…Into art, as into a rich land, he came and conquered."

—Symonds

MICHAEL ANGELO BUONARROTI

1475-1564

[7] IN Our study of history, if we were to select a favorite period, the one most crowded with great names and most thoroughly filled with event that have had the most potent influence on subsequent history, I am sure, if we knew our history well, that we should select those two centuries which begin about 1460 and end about 1660. If we were to make out a list of the glorious men and deeds that fill that time, we should wonder how the question could have been asked, so evident is it that this is the great period.

Within this time two great revolutions settled affairs in England. Columbus, with his science and his persistence, found our own new world, and the Reformation, which not only introduced a new form of faith, but which tried the nations as with fire regarding their attitude toward free government, was accomplished.

[8] In literature, the greatest spirits of English expression, Shakespeare, Milton and Spenser, ran their divine courses, and left us the rich inheritance of their works. The greatest writers of Spain did their work for the world who gladly received it.

In plastic art who can measure the wonders which this period gave us? In it Gothic architecture completed its flowering time. Painting and sculpture developed to a perfection heretofore undreamed of, excelling even the gigantic splendor of the Greeks in that a soul was added to Pagan beauty. Indeed, it is quite safe to say that never again will the world see a time when its whole expression will along art lines—in wonderful cathedrals, divine pictures and inspired statuary. Our life is becoming so complex that the domination of one over-mastering expression must of necessity be quite impossible.

Almost half of this great period was spanned by the life of him we are about to study, Michael Angelo. Among all the illustrious lives that we prize there is not one so well proportioned to the age he represented. It is the case of a giant in intellect representing a Titanic age.

We are to study an Italian, more narrowly still, a Florentine. Let us then bring ourselves down specifically to the city to which this great master belonged [9] when he did some of his noblest work, and see what was its fate through the ninety years of Angelo's life.

Perhaps no city about which we read has for us the charm of Florence. Its greatest landmarks, Giotto's Tower, the Duomo, the Gardens of San Marco, are as real to us as the notable buildings of our home towns. The story teller has but to utter the name of Florence, or the poet but to pen its magic letters, and we are instantly all attention.

There is a legend that the city was built originally in a field of lilies. Another, long current in Florence, was that if the heart of one of her citizens were cut in two, it would reveal therein the lily of his beloved city perfectly shaped and colored. Whether there be truth or not in these ancient stories and superstitions, from earliest times the device on the shield of the city has been a lily. At first it was snow white, but it later became flood red, possibly in this change of color representing the history of the city, where the blood of her sons flowed so freely.

This, the city of lilies, was the city of Michael Angelo and of his noble ancestors. During his long life it passed through strange and sad vicissitudes. At the time of his birth it seemed firmly established on a republican foundation. Even then, however, it was evident that one family, the Medici, was gaining ascendancy [11] above all others, and that the immense wealth which they controlled was an overwhelming power in Florentine politics.

The basis for the greatness of this family was laid by Cosimo. It was gloriously continued by Lorenzo the Magnificent, who encouraged art and literature, but whose unholy ways of living were the beginning of his family's decline. The Medici were many times compelled to fly from Florence and as often did the fickle citizens recall them. Finally, so low had this family fallen, that its head representative was a murderer, not lawfully a member of the family he degraded. Still another member of the family pointed the cannons of destruction against the revered city.

There were many direful things that befell Florence during Michael Angelo's life time, but the most terrible of them all was the loss of liberty, of that power of self-government, which in their early history they had exercised so effectively. Florence declined in this matter until she became the most abject of ruled people, until she seemed to forget that she had ever been free.

In his lifetime Angelo saw her beautiful belt of suburbs, rich with olive orchards and vineyards and stately villas, reduced to desolate ruins. He saw the guns of the besieging enemies re-enforced through traitors by those stationed to protect her. After she [12] had fallen the victim of a triumphant enemy and a perfidious defender, he saw pestilence walk with almost audible step her wretched streets and complete the work of destruction. He likewise saw Rome, "the city of his soul," reduced by siege and moral degradation from three hundred thousand inhabitants to one third that number, with the church he honored degraded through the incapacity of corruption of some of its highest officers, until its most earnest adherents longed for its reformation.

With such sights continually before his eyes, with such burdens constantly weighing upon his lofty soul, is it any wonder that all his work cries out to us with a message of warning for the things to come, and of sorrow for the things already accomplished? Thinking of all these things and of Angelo's power and his grasp of great thoughts, he seems to us like the very spirit of his age expressing in undertones its hopes, and in full loud diapason its anguish. It is little wonder that outwardly his life was sad and his face furrowed with lines which only thought and sorrow know how to write.

Turning form the age, with its splendid achievement and its atrocious depravity, to the man himself we must coin new words to in any way express his wonderful power. Coleridge was fond of calling Shakespeare the "myriad-minded" but if we adequately describe Angelo [15] we must supplement this epithet by the words "many-handed" and so speak of him as the myriad-minded, many-handed, for we must, if we know him at all, study him as engineer, poet, painter, architect and sculptor.

It is then an inspiring task to learn of Michael Angelo. From his love of country we may learn the purest patriotism. From his devotion to truth we mist value it still more highly and appreciate more widely, "how much blood it costs" to keep it alive and undefiled. From his undaunted courage in conceiving and executing new works to bless the earth we may learn to love still more highly the lofty ideal and to pursue it unremittingly under the most adverse circumstances. From his love and tender care of his father and brothers we may learn anew the grand lesson of filial and fraternal love. Even from his faults, brought to light by the corruption of his age, his irascible temper, his churlish plain-speaking, we may learn how much the gracious silence or the kindly word brightens life.

Michael Angelo's parents were Florentines. The Buonarroti, his father's family, was one of the most renowned of Florence. They were of undoubtedly noble origin, claiming descent from the Counts of Conossa. The child Michael was not born in Florence, however. Ludovico Buonarroti, the father, had been [16] appointed governor of the little towns of Chusi and Caprese up in the mountains near the sources of the Tiber and the Arno.

Here on the 6th of March, 1475, the greatest of all modern artists and men was born. It was thought that very early the child shoed signs of greatness so they gave him the name of the fighting archangel, Michael. We remember that, for a similar reason, the parents of Raphael, eight years later, gave their divine child another archangel's name.

In a year the father and mother found it necessary to return to Florence. They brought the child only as far as Settignano, a mountain town near the city. Here was a villa belonging to the Buonarroti family and here they left the child in the care of a competent nurse, in sight of the mountains, within sound of the chisel that cut away the useless parts of the quarried rock, and all the time luxuriating in the purity of the mountain air. So the child grew strong in body and breathed into his very soul influences which it seemed directed his future life.


[Illustration]

ANGELO'S HOME

The brothers who came after him were destined for trade, the natural employment of the sons of Florence. For Michael, Ludovico and his good wife looked forward to the life of a scholar. He was early put to study with the best teachers in Florence, but he quickly [17] mastered the lessons assigned and then spent the remainder of the time following his heart's desire—drawing the things about him. In his zeal for this sort of work he became acquainted with a youth of five years his senior, named Granucei, who loaned him prints and sympathized generally with the boy's artistic tastes.

The father was disappointed that his son wished to be an artist when there were so many other promising avenues open to the scholar. The boy, however, was immovable in his desire. When he was thirteen years old he was permitted, reluctantly, to enter the studio of Ghirlandajo, the leading artist of Florence and a skilled and minute worker in gold and silver hair ornaments; hence his name which means "the garland maker."

The time spent by other boys in the healthful sports of youth was spent by Angelo in Ghirlandajo's studio with the application of a mature man. That he accomplished wonderful things for so young a boy goes without saying. One day when the students were gone to dinner he drew so accurately the scaffoldings used in some fresco work on which the master and pupils were engaged that his master was surprised into praising his pupil highly. At another time, when Ghirlandajo passed about some of his own drawings to be copied by the pupils, with more skill than prudence, Angelo corrected [19] them by a few bold strokes, which deed of course offended the teacher.

A few years later Lorenzo de Medici asked Ghirlandajo to send him two of his best pupils to enjoy the privileges of his Academy in the gardens of San Marco, and he selected Angelo and Granucci. The former soon attracted the attention of Lorenzo by his painstaking and strong work. It is related that one day, while Angelo was finishing the head of an aged faun, Lorenzo, who happened to be walking in the gardens at the time, approached the youth and, after watching him work for some time, remarked that so old a creature ought not to be represented with a full set of teeth. The young artist made no response but when, a few days later, Lorenzo again saw the faun's head, a tooth had been carefully broken out as if lost by age.

This pleased Lorenzo. Besides this, he had heard continually of the studiousness of the youth. He asked Angelo's father to allow his son to become an inmate of his palace, to sit at his table among his guests and the members of his own family. The father was unwilling to lose the companionship of his gifted boy but he finally consented knowing what advantages it would bring to his son. Here he heard learned discussions on art, literature and politics. Here he was the familiar companion of the Medician princes.

[20] In those days what a privilege it was held for this youth to be allowed to associate with the Medici in their home. We to-day feel what an inestimable privilege was that of the Medici to entertain at their table in his youthful days "the terrible master" of half a dozen arts. Had they guessed but a tithe of the power that lay in his hand and brain well might they have silenced their unimportant chatter to listen to his great soul pour itself forth in words. Never guessing what the future might bring forth, in quietness, in almost ascetic devotion, the youth studied and wrought with his hands.

Sculpture did not occupy all of his time, for we find him assiduously copying the masterful frescoes of Masaccio, then newly painted in the Church of the Carmine and constituting a sort of school for the painting of Florence.

It was while engaged in this work that he so enraged Sorrigiano, a fellow artist, that the latter gave him the blow in the face which broke his nose, disfiguring him for life. It was a brutal thing whatever provocation Angelo may have given him and we are not sorry when we read that the assailant was obliged to flee for his life and that he later perished miserably.

In 1492, Florence was appalled by the death of Lorenzo, and Michael Angelo with the others, for he had lost a generous patron and protector. He retired to his [23] studio in his father's house and worked with double zeal, perhaps to forget his loss. Lorenzo's dwarfed and unworthy son, Pietro, succeeded to his father's place in the state. His tastes were low and he astounded the Florentines by the weakness of his policy. He cared more for his horses and their grooms than for the quality of his intellectual companions.


[Illustration]

TOMB OF LORENZE DE MEDICI

One winter's day, in 1494, a very unusual thing happened in Florence; a great storm of snow came and heaped its solid whiteness in drifts in the garden of the Medici. Suddenly the childish desire seized Pietro to have a statue moulded by Michael Angelo out of this snow. Angelo was summoned and he came and built the desired statue for the exacting ruler only to have its wonderful proportions dissolved in the next day's sun. What was the subject of that fleeting statue I know not nor does any authority known to me pretend to say, and I like it better so, for you may imagine it one thing and I another, perhaps.

Whatever the subject of that statue of a day, whether it were a serene madonna, or a struggling youth, or a comical satyr, or a trumpeting angel, two thoughts arise in our minds, one of chagrin that ever such art as Angelo's should be made the sport of unworthy rulers, and the other that the statue which Angelo modeled that winter's day was a type of Pietro himself—built [24] up by the magnificence of his father, melting to nothingness in the steady glare of a people demanding their liberties.

Once more Angelo became a member of the Medici household, but instead of rejoicing in its privileges he was humiliated by the attention. The family was threatened now, for a French army was crossing the Alps yonder to liberate Florence from the yoke of Medicean rule, at least so felt a strong party in the city. Another thing that made his position much more galling was that secretly he sympathized with Savonarola, the prior of San Marco, and the most bitter denouncer of the Medici.

Here were two men of similar power in detecting evil, both eloquent in their different forms of expression, but one leading the opposition to the Medici, the other sitting at their table, their familiar companion. Convinced that whichever way the struggle terminated it would be ruin to him, he quietly left the city and went to Venice on foot. Just what he did in the island city we do not know, but we feel sure that the architectural beauty of the city and its quiet, stable government were attractions enough for him.

He remained in Venice but a short time and then journeyed toward Florence by way of Bologna, where he met the Medici in their flight from the city of the [27] Arno. After doing some unimportant work here he went to Florence and there took up his artist work.

An important work of this time was a cupid in which he so well caught the spirit of the antique that an enterprising but dishonest dealer conceived the idea of burying it for a time in the earth and then selling it as a genuine antique. It must be remembered that at this time some of the most wonderful old statues were from time to time being dug up, so there was a fever for antiques and a corresponding chance to cheat by selling modern works for the old ones. Within a short time The Dying Gladiator," "The Laocoon," and the "Apollo Belvidere" were brought to light after having been buried for centuries, and Angelo assisted in restoring certain parts of the respective figures.

It was to straighten out a misunderstanding regarding the "Cupid" above referred to that Michael Angelo first went to Rome. He had not been a party to the deception and he wished Cardinal Riario, the purchaser of the supposed antique, to know it.

We who know what mighty works Angelo did in the holy city, feel a kind of awe regarding the artist's first sight of the city of the seven hills. We wonder, was there any wee voice within him that suggested how he more than any other man would adorn this city? Was there the barest suggestion of the glory that would [28] follow him through all the ages for his ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, for his "Moses," or for the dome of yonder St. Peter's that he was literally to suspend in the air as he promised? There may have been no distinct intimation of the wonderful things he was to do but, from the majesty of his character as we know it now, there must have been in the man some degree of self-consciousness even though it was unknown to himself.


[Illustration]

THE THREE FATES

His first visit to Rome was productive of at least one great work, that known as "The Pieta" where the dead Christ reposes upon the lap of the Virgin. The mother from her purity and angelic character is so youthful that the dead Christ, always severe on Angelo's work, asked him tauntingly where one could find a son older than his mother. The artist's instant reply was "In Paradise."

It is thought by many whose judgment in such matters is to be trusted, that Angelo never did anything finer than this work of his early years. Others were more ladened with deep though, more restive under the great questions concerning the mysteries of life, but non could exceed or quite equal the repose of this group.

His residence in Rome at this time was not long. He returned to Florence in 1501, three years after [31] Savonarola had been burned at the stake. His family needed his strong arm and there was a demand for his work in Florence. On his return, fresh from his Roman residence, he was at once given several important commissions. Of these the most interesting to us is that which the Florentine authorities gave for a colossal statue of David. For this he was given an immense block of marble from which an inferior sculptor had begun to cut a figure, after which he abandoned it. The work was to be done in two years and he was to receive twelve dollars a month for his services.

It took him somewhat longer but when it was finished and stood before the people in all its grand beauty they marveled at the wonderful work. It was eighteen feet high and represented the youthful hero as he was about to attack Goliath. His splendid eyes and distended nostrils, his erect head and tense muscles show plainly how it will be with the giant. The whole motive is that of a high and noble purpose with the power to put it into execution.


[Illustration]

HEAD OF DAVID

It took four days for forty men to take the marble giant from the studio to the place assigned to it by the council of artists summoned for the purpose, and yet the distance was but a quarter of a mile. When the statue was set up in the most central square of the city, it must have seemed to the citizens, as it does to us [32] to-day, to stand for a free people's menace to him who should try to enslave them. Through all the bloodshed of revolution that raged about its base, it was only once injured. It was found, however, that wind and weather were doing what war had failed to do. It was noticed that the marble was wearing, and in 1874 it was removed to the Academy, where it could be under cover, and there it stands to-day in all it majesty and pride, seeming still more majestic from its enclosed position.

Some minor works now intervened, among them a Madonna, which was presented to a church in Bruges by some rich Flemish merchants. It was marked by the strong points usual in his great works and a degree of tenderness very unusual with him.

In 1504, one of the greatest contests in the history of art took place in Florence. The governor of the city asked his two friends, Leonardo da Vinci and Michael Angelo, to decorate opposite sides of the City Hall with subjects of national interest. Then the two set to work—the world's greatest citizens of the time—to show their respective power and to rival each other. The work never progressed farther than the completion of the cartoons, but these hung on the allotted spaces in the hall and all Florence went to admire them.

Angelo's theme was merely some soldiers suddenly called to battle while bathing in the Arno. Da Vinci's [35] represented a vigorous battle about a fallen standard. Which was the greater work history does not tell us, and they were both long ago lost to art. Two mighty masters had striven and their work was enough to train the artists of Florence for months. Even the immortal Raphael thought is an opportunity not to be slighted, and so he came with others to gain from the two cartoons.

During Angelo's life ten different popes occupied the chair of St. Peter. The first one with whom Angelo was identified was Julius II, the warrior pope. We are glad and we are sorrowful when we recall how this pope, so like the artist in his vehement disposition and in his towering enthusiasm, exacted from Angelo some of his greatest work. The principal reason why we deplore the pope's exactions is on account of the monument which he ordered Angelo to construct, and which, for various reasons, was a source of grievance and sore annoyance to the artist for full forty years of the best part of his life.

Immediately after the contest with Da Vinci, Julius sent for Angelo and on his arrival gave him the commission to make this marvelous tomb. It was planned on so gigantic a scale that one life, even such as Angelo's, if left in undisturbed tranquility, would have been hardly long enough to complete it. It was to be three [36] stories high and to cover eight hundred square feet of ground. From base to summit it was to be adorned with statues of the arts and of victory. The whole was to stand in St. Peter's Church, and no expense was to be spared in its construction.

When it was found that the basilica of St. Peter's was not large enough to contain so stupendous a monument, Julius was still undismayed, and evidently without a tremor he ordered his chief architect to demolish the old building to make room for a new one, which should be commensurate with the papal tomb it was to enclose.

Angelo, in accomplishing the mighty work laid out for him, was quite as undaunted as Julius himself. He went to the quarries of Carrara to get materials for his work, as if it would be accomplished this year or next. He never dreamed how the task, shrinking with each new contract, would drag on for forty weary years, the tragedy of his life, and in the end be the merest shadow of the original project, housed, not in sumptuous St. Peter's, but consigned instead to an unimportant church of Rome.

Angelo had worked but a short time at the monument before enemies of the artist persuaded the pope that it was an evil omen to build one's sepulchre in life. Angelo was denied entrance to Julius's presence. He wasted no time in regrets, but sold out his belongings [39] and journeyed to Florence. Julius had no timid artist to deal with. When he crossed swords with Michael Angelo, he did so with his equal. It was Greek meeting Greek, to use an old but expressive phrase.

Julius sent messengers to overtake and bring back the fleeing artist but they failed in the object of their pursuit. He was not the man to come and go and the beck of a potentate, however powerful. In the meanwhile Julius advanced with his victorious army to Bologna. Notwithstanding that he was leading one of the most picturesque marches recorded in history, he did not forget the artist whom he had patronized and banished. Again he sent for him extending with one hand pardon, with the other rich remuneration for future work.

Angelo yielded and met Julius at Bologna where he was received in a friendly and princely manner though not without some upbraidings for his hasty departure from Rome. To show that hostilities between them were at an end for the time being, Angelo began work on the splendid bronze statue of the pope to be set up in Bologna. We remember in what a short time it was converted into an immense cannon known in history as the Gulia. It was regarding this statue that Angelo asked, "Shall I place a book in the uplifted hand?" "What book?" said Julius. "Rather a sword—I am no reader."

[40] After this work he had just quietly settled down in Florence when again Julius summoned him to Rome. Angelo naturally supposed it was to continue work on the tomb. What then was his surprise when the august patron announced to him his wish that he should paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? In vain did Angelo assert that he was no painter, that sculpture was his proper work. Julius insisted as he alone knew how to do it and to painting the artist turned his hand.

It was such a task that the most experienced painter might have quailed before it. The master's enemies, ever a numerous band, stood by looking for the great failure which to their limited minds they surely saw awaiting Angelo. They knew not even the outer garment of his divine genius, for see what he did: Within four years, some say twenty months of actual work, the stupendous task was completed and in such wise that ever since, the world has looked upon it as the most wonderful achievement of the painter's art.

Julius' first proposition was to fill certain spaces with saints at so much a figure. Angelo's artistic nature rebelled against this way of doing and the plan was left entirely in his hands. The artist then brought forth a unified design which, taken altogether, represented the world's preparation for the coming of Christ.


[Illustration]

[43] To adequately present this sublime subject the artist used nearly three hundred and fifty figures. In the nine central spaces are recorded the thrilling events of the Old Testament history of man, his creation, his fall, his great sins. On either side in sublime majesty are the prophets alternating with the heathen prophetesses who foretold the coming of a redeeming Christ. As one contemplates these figures words seem to fail him in expressing their grand qualities.


[Illustration]

DECRATIVE FIGURE, SISTENE CHAPEL

If we seek youth, strong, hopeful, beautiful, we cannot but be satisfied as we look at the prophets: Daniel, Isaiah and Joel, or at the superb Lybian and Delphie Sibyls. If we prefer age and contemplation there are the grand Jeremiah and Zachariah and the ancient sibyls of Cumae or Persia whose very eyesight fails them as they still search their pagan books for the blessed promise. If earnest entreaty is more to our minds, then may we study with satisfaction Ezekiel. The fine strong figures of the center we cannot pass without noting the magnificent repose of the Adam receiving that electric spark which is his life, the grandeur of the Father encompassed in clouds of his angels as he brings life to man or separates light from darkness.


[Illustration]

PROPHET EZEKIEL

The ceiling is begrimed with almost four centuries of dust and incense smoke. The plaster has cracked [44] across some of the grandest figures but still it stands one of the wonders of man's creating, a shrine to which thousands yearly flock. Kugler, a great critic, says of the work, "The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel contains the most perfect work done by Michael Angelo in his long and active life. Here his great spirit appears in its noblest dignity, in its highest purity; here the attention to which his great power not unfrequently led him in other works."


[Illustration]

SISTINE CHAPEL, ROME

It was indeed a magnificent work but our painter had undergone some trials during its progress. So strained had his position been throughout the work that for months afterwards he could not read without holding the book above his head. The man sacrificed himself that the immortal part of him might triumph. His enemies were shamed for the failure they looked for had presented itself an astounding victory.

If Julius' persistence was the influence which forced from Michael Angelo this masterly work, then all glory be to the warrior pope. His reign was noted for splendid wars but, notwithstanding this, the greatest achievement was this same ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

We ought not to complete our study of this work without for a moment noting the magnificent chapel for [45] which it was the crowning decoration. It was a rectangular room one hundred thirty-one feet long and forty-four feet wide, pierced by six windows on either side. The walls were divided lengthwise into three sections. The first space was for the hanging of tapestries and here Raphael's wonderful tapestries were hung on state occasions. Next above were long spaces filled with paintings by some of the greatest masters of Italy. Above this were the windows between which were full length portraits of the popes. Crowning all this was the arched ceiling, with the spandrels and the lunettes above the windows, which Michael Angelo filled as we have already noticed. The altar piece of this chapel was "The Last Judgment" painted by Angelo nearly thirty years after he had completed the ceiling.

While Angelo was doing his incomparable work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel Raphael was decorating in his own inimitable was the Stanze of the Vatican. What a picture for our contemporaries! The two greatest painters in the world working silently almost side by side. There was no communication between them. Each worked as if the other did not exist. Raphael deliberately, with his crowd of devoted students, Angelo furiously and alone.

We who to-day feel how salutary is the association of great men cannot but regret their separation, for [46] Raphael might have given of his sweetness and yet been an angel while Angelo might have imparted of his strength and yet remained a Titan.

Only a year after the Sistine Chapel was thrown open to the public, Julius II. died and was succeeded by Leo X., one of the Medici whom Angelo had known intimately while he lived in the palace of his father. The new pope lacked the impetuousness of Julius but he loved art and so continued to patronize Michael Angelo, who would much have preferred being left to himself that he might continue work on the monument for Julius. He was already at work upon "Moses" and the "Sleeping Prisoners," that were to adorn the monument on a smaller scale which had lately been agreed upon. He finished the smaller statue and merely blocked out the others.


[Illustration]

STATUE OF MOSES

The "Moses" was a figure worthy of the hand of him who had wrought so marvelously in the Sistine Chapel. From it we feel the power of the Hebrew leader more even than from the works of the Bible. In profound thought he sits there grasping with one hand his luxuriant beard. From the inspired expression of the face we know that he has lately talked with God. Sacred account says that his face was horned when he came down from the mountain after receiving the tables of stone. The expression was meant to tell us that his [49] face shone, but the sculptor has taken the word literally, so we see two horns just starting to grow from the statue's head. Far from being troubled by the unnatural excrescences they only harmonize with the whole almost superhuman nobility of bearing.


[Illustration]

HEAD OF MOSES

Angelo's hope to finish an already long-standing commission was overturned by Leo's visit to Florence in 1515. The façade or front of the church of San Lorenzo was simply rough stone. As this church was especially the church of the Medici family, Leo X. felt that he as their representative ought to have it beautified. He asked some of the leading artists of Italy, Raphael, San Gallo, Sansovino and Angelo to present designs for the façade. Angelo's was selected as the best and it was arranged to begin work at once upon it.

As usual, Angelo was hopeful and said of this new work "I will make it the masterpiece of all Italy." Again the artist repaired to the quarries of Carrara to superintend the getting out of the marble for the façade. Here he remained for four years practically an exile. He must have improved the time by studying those things which enabled him to solve the difficult problems attending his later architectural work.

Five years after the project was advanced by Leo it was abandoned as impractical, so if we were to visit the church of San Lorenzo to-day we would still find it with [50] a façade of rough stone. No other master has had the temerity to undertake what Angelo was compelled to abandon. We feel only regret that five precious years of the artist's life had been wasted because of the impractical proposition and that he was thus compelled to put still further into the future the completion of the Julius monument.

For relief to his overburdened soul he worked at intervals upon a statue of "The Risen Christ."

The failure of one of his plans did not prevent Leo from unfolding another to the troubled artist. This was that of building a chapel at one side of San Lorenzo to contain statues of his brother Giuliano and his nephew Lorenzo. The new work was begun without delay. Plans were drawn and the marble quarried. Leo did not live to see the completion of the work but happily it fared much better at the hands of the artist than did the façade of San Lorenzo.


[Illustration]

GUILIANO DE MEDICI

The two years following the death of Leo were occupied by Angelo in working, according to his bent, upon the monument and upon the Medicean chapel.

In 1523, another Medici, Clement VII., came to the papal chair. For eleven years he lived, "The very sport of every misfortune, without doubt, the most ill-fated pontiff that ever sat on the papal throne," as an eminent authority says.

[51] The new Pope respected Angelo, and he had such a desire for his entire work that he urged him to become a monk. Then his whole time could be given to the Church. But Angelo would not consent to this and so Clement bethought himself of how he might worthily occupy the artist for a part of his valuable time, for surely he, like his predecessors, must engage the great master in glorifying the Church. The Laurentian Library, near San Lorenzo, was the work taken up for Clement. When the Pope proposed the erection of a great colossus in Florence, in honor of the Medici, the sculptor who, perhaps, had learned to be wary of gigantic schemes, made so much objection that it was never again mentioned.

Times in Florence were ripe for more warlike occupations than that of the artist with brush and chisel. The soldier and the engineer who could manage fortifications were men in demand. The discontented people had again expelled the Medici. They were now to be forced to receive them back. The threatening army was already approaching.

Angelo was summoned from his studio to act as governor of the fortifications. With the help of a great number of peasants the hill of San Mineato was fortified and its precious church, "My bride," as Angelo loved to call it, was protected. Then he went to Ferrara to [52] study its fortifications, which were considered the best in Italy, and thence, with two companions, to Venice, on state business. On his return he found that the captain-general, Bagliono, was treasonous to the cause of Florence. He reported the same to the authorities, who passed it by as a light matter. Angelo's heart sank within him at this perfidy and seeing nothing but ruin awaiting their cause, he fled to Venice.

When the time for the siege actually came, Angelo returned to his post to share with his fellow-citizens their downfall and disgrace, for the traitors had their way, and the Medici again entered the city as rulers. Then Angelo hid himself and was declared an enemy, with a price upon his head. But the debased Medici did not dare to kill the most renowned man in Italy, and so they issued a pardon if he would but come forth from his hiding place.

The artist took advantage of the pardon and went quietly to work on the statues in the Medici chapel. With what a crushed and broken spirit, the works themselves tell us in pathetic and powerful fashion. Who does not know those completed central statues of Lorenzo and Giuliano? One, the greater, is bowed in profound and overpowering thought, so that it has ceased to be considered a portrait and has become instead "Il Penseroso"—that is, the thoughtful one.

[55] Then those symbolical side figures of "Day" and "Night," of "Dawn" and "Twilight." As we look at the "Night," so wonderful in its repose, we almost unconsciously repeat the sad words which Angelo put into the mouth of the statue:

"Dear to me is sleep and more to be of stone;

While injury and shame endure,

To see not, to feel not, is fortune for me;

So wake me not; alas! speak low."

From the painful awakening of the "Dawn" we know too well what must have been Michael Angelo's thoughts concerning his darling Florence. Through all the years these two groups have proclaimed in accents more marked than language could express the sorrow of the stricken patriot-sculptor.

When Angelo had become advanced in years, and more still, in his mind, yet another Pope, Paul III., set him to work upon an immense fresco, "The Last Judgment," already referred to. Although a single work, it contained almost as many figures as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The subject was one well adapted to sum up all the bitterness of a long life of public woe, and Michael Angelo did it with the master of his genius strong upon him.

The loving Christ set forth as a wrathful judge, the [56] great throng of anxious unjudged, the host of those who go down into utter darkness and their agony at their doom, fill us and overwhelm us until even the trumpeting angels and the army of the saved comfort us not, and we turn away to seek happier visions for stricken humanity. Our hearts turn from its agony, but our heads tell us that it is a masterpiece, the very outgrowth of the age which produced it, of the mind and hand that gave it tangible expression.


[Illustration]

LAST JUDGMENT

While painting this fresco, the artist fell from a scaffolding and injured himself seriously. Other severe illnesses were now frequent with him, so that it was feared he could not live long. But he rallied from each succeeding illness to live out thirty years yet of troubled, inspired work.

In 1543, the Julian sepulchre was at last completed after forty years of toil and sorrow. Were it nor for the matchless "Moses" which adorns the dwarfed monument, we should hardly give it more than a passing glance in the solitude of the Church of St. Peter in Vinculo. Was its very insignificance a rebuke to the ambition of man who ordered it on so vast a scale that a great church was demolished to make room for it? Only our hearts answer us and we turn from it impressed anew with the old thought of how infinitely better is it to minister to others than to ourselves.

[59] About this time Titian resided in Rome. The great master of color, and Angelo, who knew almost to perfection the power of line—that is, drawing—visited each other as friends.

The aged artist was also gratified to receive from Francis I. of France a request for some of his work. Angelo promised to make for him a work in bronze, one in marble, and to paint him a picture, and he added, "Should death interrupt this desire, then, if it be possible to sculpture or paint in the other world, I shall not fail to do so, where no one becomes old."

The last solemn part of Angelo's life was brightened by a friendship so deep and sacred that it stands almost alone in the history of friendships. About 1536, Angelo first met the cultivated and beautiful Vittoria Colonna, and from that time for about fifteen years she was the light of his life. She had been the wife of the Marquis of Pescara and they two had lived a happy life together in their palace on the island of Ischia until, too ambitious for his happiness, the marquis went to war and died from wounds received in battle.

Their home had been the resort of the learned and inspired men of Italy and when it was broken up and her idolized husband dead, Vittoria was almost inconsolable in her grief. She retired to a convent for rest and meditation. Here she spent years "weeping, praying, [61] studying, writing and stretching forth her hands with benefits for her kind."

After long retirement she came forth and took her place among her rank. She met many people of note and among them was Michael Angelo. From the time of their first meeting they were devoted friends. It is said that the artist spoke to her of marriage but she would not listen and then their relations of almost divine friendship followed. They wrote sonnets and then criticized and compared them. She suggested pictures which he painted and in turn he listened to her praise of blame of them. Twice he painted her portrait. In their letters to each other they discussed art, religion and literature.


[Illustration]

MICHAEL ANGELO AND VITTORIA COLONNA

The lovely Vittoria was, however, a frail woman and, almost before he knew it, she sickened and died. In after years when asked why he had never married, he responded, "I have a wife who is too much for me already; one who unceasingly persecutes me. It is my art, and my works are my children."

A few years later his beloved servant, who had been with him twenty-six years, also died. Truly the mile-stones of his life were coming to be the grave-stones of his most cherished friends. Still he lived on, laboring almost incessantly, when illness did not possess him, but with his thoughts more and more on the great hereafter.

[62] Since 1546 he had been chief architect of St. Peter's and to complete it in his lifetime so that no future bungler could spoil his design was the ambition of his closing years. To that end he had a model of wood so carefully constructed that there could be no mistake in carrying out his plans.

All his life he had admired intensely Brunelleschi's dome, the dome on the Duomo of Florence. He had even expressed the wish that he might be buried within sight of its airy loveliness. This was his model for the more wonderful dome with which in his last days he crowned St. Peter's. When he became the architect of Rome's great church he refused all pay. He undertook the work for its own sake and for his soul's repose. He had earned money for himself and for his family and now, in his last years, a higher motive pressed him into noble service.

His infirmities increased and February 18,1564, he left the world whose problems had hung so heavily upon him. His last words were most fitting to come from the lips of so great a soul, "I give my soul to God, my body to the earth, and my worldly possessions to my nearest of kin, charging them through life to remember the sufferings of Jesus Christ."

The Romans were so anxious to keep his dust within their city that they buried him secretly. His nephew, [63] Lionard Buonarotti removed the body to Florence in a package of merchandise, where it was buried in the church of Santa Croce, Italy's Westminster. He was placed beside the great men of his country but his coming reduced their rank, for he was beyond them all, the first among them.

Magnificent services were held which thousands attended, great men and humble coming to do honor to Italy's greatest citizen, "That most holy old man who was the light of their arts."

Of his integrity of character what need we say after the above pages? If there has been one thing more than another in our minds as we have followed his life of toil and self-denial and suffering it has been that of the man's absolute purity, of the artist's lofty purpose. In the human landscape where Raphael was the softly flowing river, serenely moving to join the sea, Angelo was the lofty mountain, jagged and broken, with only occasional spots of verdure on its rough sides, but massive and towering, piercing the storm clouds and at last standing with its summit clear and shining in the upper air, which is the presence of the living God.


 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Next: Leonardo da Vinci
Copyright (c) 2000-2017 Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.