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Michael Angelo

      We have spoken of Leonardo da Vinci. Michael Angelo, the other great luminary of art, was twenty-two years younger, but the more severe and reflective cast of his mind rendered their difference of age far less in effect than in reality. It is usual to compare Michael Angelo with Raphael, but he is more aptly compared with Leonardo da Vinci. All the great artists of that time, even Raphael himself, were influenced more or less by these two extraordinary men, but they exercised no influence on each other. They started from opposite points; they pursued throughout their whole existence, and in all they planned and achieved, a course as different as their respective characters.

      Michael Angelo Buonarroti was born at Setignano, near Florence, in the year 1474. He was descended from a family once noble--even among the noblest of the feudal lords of Northern Italy--the Counts of Canossa; but that branch of it represented by his father, Luigi Leonardo Buonarroti Simoni, had for some generations become poorer and poorer, until the last descendant was thankful to accept an office in the law, and had been nominated magistrate or mayor (Podesta) of Chiusi. In this situation he had limited his ambition to the prospect of seeing his eldest son a notary or advocate in his native city. The young Michael Angelo showed the utmost distaste for the studies allotted to him, and was continually escaping from his home and from his desk to haunt the ateliers of the painters, particularly that of Ghirlandajo who was then at the height of his reputation.

      The father of Michael Angelo, who found his family increase too rapidly for his means, had destined some of his sons for commerce (it will be recollected that in Genoa and Florence the most powerful nobles were merchants or manufacturers), and others for civil or diplomatic employments; but the fine arts, as being at that time productive of little honor or emolument, he held in no esteem, and treated these tastes of his eldest son sometimes with contempt and sometimes even with harshness. Michael Angelo, however, had formed some friendships among the young painters, and particularly with Francesco Granacci, one of the best pupils of Ghirlandajo; he contrived to borrow models and drawings, and studied them in secret with such persevering assiduity and consequent improvement, that Ghirlandajo, captivated by his genius, undertook to plead his cause to his father, and at length prevailed over the old man's family pride and prejudices. At the age of fourteen Michael Angelo was received into the studio of Ghirlandajo as a regular pupil, and bound to him for three years; and such was the precocious talent of the boy, that, instead of being paid for his instruction, Ghirlandajo undertook to pay the father, Leonardo Buonarroti, for the first, second, and third years, six, eight, and twelve golden florins, as payment for the advantage he expected to derive from the labor of the son. Thus was the vocation of the young artist decided for life.

      At that time Lorenzo the Magnificent reigned over Florence. He had formed in his palace and gardens a collection of antique marbles, busts, statues, fragments, which he had converted into an academy for the use of young artists, placing at the head of it as director a sculptor of some eminence, named Bertoldo. Michael Angelo was one of the first who, through the recommendation of Ghirlandajo, was received into this new academy, afterward so famous and so memorable in the history of art. The young man, then not quite sixteen, had hitherto occupied himself chiefly in drawing; but now, fired by the beauties he beheld around him, and by the example and success of a fellow-pupil, Torregiano, he set himself to model in clay, and at length to copy in marble what was before him; but, as was natural in a character and genius so steeped in individuality, his copies became not so much imitations of form as original embodyings of the leading idea. For example: his first attempt in marble, when he was about fifteen, was a copy of an antique mask of an old laughing Faun; he treated this in a manner so different from the original, and so spirited as to excite the astonishment of Lorenzo de Medici, who criticised it, however, saying, "Thou shouldst have remembered that old folks do not retain all their teeth; some of them are always wanting." The boy struck the teeth out, giving it at once the most grotesque expression; and Lorenzo, infinitely amused, sent for his father and offered to attach his son to his own particular service, and to undertake the entire care of his education. The father consented, on condition of receiving for himself an office under the government, and thenceforth Michael Angelo was lodged in the palace of the Medici and treated by Lorenzo as his son.

Michael Angelo and Vittoria Colonna.

      Michael Angelo continued his studies under the auspices of Lorenzo; but just as he had reached his eighteenth year he lost his generous patron, his second father, and was thenceforth thrown on his own resources. It is true that the son of Lorenzo, Piero de Medici, continued to extend his favor to the young artist, but with so little comprehension of his genius and character, that on one occasion, during the severe winter of 1494, he set him to form a statue of snow for the amusement of his guests.

      Michael Angelo, while he yielded, perforce, to the caprices of his protector, turned the energies of his mind to a new study--that of anatomy--and pursued it with all that fervor which belonged to his character. His attention was at the same time directed to literature, by the counsels and conversations of a very celebrated scholar and poet then residing in the court of Piero--Angelo Poliziano; and he pursued at the same time the cultivation of his mind and the practice of his art. Engrossed by his own studies, he was scarcely aware of what was passing around him, nor of the popular intrigues which were preparing the ruin of the Medici; suddenly this powerful family were flung from sovereignty to temporary disgrace and exile; and Michael Angelo, as one of their retainers, was obliged to fly from Florence, and took refuge in the city of Bologna. During the year he spent there he found a friend, who employed him on some works of sculpture; and on his return to Florence he executed a Cupid in marble, of such beauty that it found its way into the cabinet of the Duchess of Mantua as a real antique. On the discovery that the author of this beautiful statue was a young man of two-and-twenty, the Cardinal San Giorgio invited him to Rome, and for some time lodged him in his palace. Here Michael Angelo, surrounded and inspired by the grand remains of antiquity, pursued his studies with unceasing energy; he produced a statue of Bacchus, which added to his reputation; and in 1500, at the age of five-and-twenty, he produced the famous group of the dead Christ on the knees of his Virgin Mother (called the "Pieta"), which is now in the church of St. Peter's, at Rome; this last being frequently copied and imitated, obtained him so much applause and reputation, that he was recalled to Florence, to undertake several public works, and we find him once more established in his native city in the year 1502.

      In 1506 Michael Angelo was summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II., who, while living, had conceived the idea of erecting a most splendid monument to perpetuate his memory. For this work, which was never completed, Michael Angelo executed the famous statue of Moses, seated, grasping his flowing beard with one hand, and with the other sustaining the tables of the Law. While employed on this tomb, the pope commanded him to undertake also the decoration of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Pope Sixtus IV. had, in the year 1473, erected this famous chapel, and summoned the best painters of that time, Signorelli, Cosimo Roselli, Perugino, and Ghirlandajo, to decorate the interior; but down to the year 1508 the ceiling remained without any ornament; and Michael Angelo was called upon to cover this enormous vault, a space of one hundred and fifty feet in length by fifty in breadth, with a series of subjects representing the most important events connected, either literally or typically, with the fall and redemption of mankind.

      No part of Michael Angelo's long life is so interesting, so full of characteristic incident, as the history of his intercourse with Pope Julius II., which began in 1505, and ended only with the death of the pope in 1513.

      Michael Angelo had at all times a lofty idea of his own dignity as an artist, and never would stoop either to flatter a patron or to conciliate a rival. Julius II., though now seventy-four, was as impatient of contradiction as fiery in temper, as full of magnificent and ambitious projects as if he had been in the prime of life; in his service was the famous architect, Bramante, who beheld with jealousy and alarm the increasing fame of Michael Angelo, and his influence with the pontiff, and set himself by indirect means to lessen both. He insinuated to Julius that it was ominous to erect his own mausoleum during his lifetime, and the pope gradually fell off in his attentions to Michael Angelo, and neglected to supply him with the necessary funds for carrying on the work. On one occasion, Michael Angelo, finding it difficult to obtain access to the pope, sent a message to him to this effect, "that henceforth, if his Holiness desired to see him, he should send to seek him elsewhere;" and the same night, leaving orders with his servants to dispose of his property, he departed for Florence. The pope despatched five couriers after him with threats, persuasions, promises--but in vain. He wrote to the Gonfaloniere Soderini, then at the head of the government of Florence, commanding him, on pain of his extreme displeasure, to send Michael Angelo back to him; but the inflexible artist absolutely refused; three months were spent in vain negotiations. Soderini, at length, fearing the pope's anger, prevailed on Michael Angelo to return, and sent with him his relation, Cardinal Soderini, to make up the quarrel between the high contending powers.

      On his return to Rome, Michael Angelo wished to have resumed his work on the mausoleum; but the pope had resolved on the completion of the Sistine Chapel; he commanded Michael Angelo to undertake the decoration of the vaulted ceiling; and the artist was obliged, though reluctantly, to obey. At this time the frescos which Raphael and his pupils were painting in the chambers of the Vatican had excited the admiration of all Rome. Michael Angelo, who had never exercised himself in the mechanical part of the art of fresco, invited from Florence several painters of eminence, to execute his designs under his own superintendence; but they could not reach the grandeur of his conceptions, which became enfeebled under their hands, and one morning, in a mood of impatience, he destroyed all that they had done, closed the doors of the chapel against them, and would not thenceforth admit them to his presence. He then shut himself up, and proceeded with incredible perseverance and energy to accomplish his task alone; he even prepared his colors with his own hands. He began with the end toward the door, and in the two compartments first painted (though not first in the series), the "Deluge," and the "Vineyard of Noah;" he made the figures too numerous and too small to produce their full effect from below, a fault which he corrected in those executed subsequently. When almost half the work was completed, the pope insisted on viewing what was done, and the astonishment and admiration it excited rendered him more and more eager to have the whole completed at once. The progress, however, was not rapid enough to suit the impatient temper of the pontiff. On one occasion he demanded of the artist when he meant to finish it; to which Michael Angelo replied calmly, "When I can." "When thou canst!" exclaimed the fiery old pope, "thou hast a mind that I should have thee thrown from the scaffold!" At length, on the day of All Saints, 1512, the ceiling was uncovered to public view. Michael Angelo had employed on the painting only, without reckoning the time spent in preparing the cartoons, twenty-two months, and he received in payment three thousand crowns.

      The collection of engravings after Michael Angelo in the British Museum is very imperfect, but it contains some fine old prints from the Prophets which should be studied by those who wish to understand the true merit of this great master, of whom Sir Joshua Reynolds said that, "to kiss the hem of his garment, to catch the slightest of his perfections, would be glory and distinction enough for an ambitious man!"

      When the Sistine Chapel was completed Michael Angelo was in his thirty-ninth year; fifty years of a glorious though troubled career were still before him.

      Pope Julius II. died in 1513, and was succeeded by Leo X., the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent. As a Florentine and his father's son, we might naturally have expected that he would have gloried in patronizing and employing Michael Angelo; but such was not the case. There was something in the stern, unbending character, and retired and abstemious habits of Michael Angelo, repulsive to the temper of Leo, who preferred the graceful and amiable Raphael, then in the prime of his life and genius; hence arose the memorable rivalry between Michael Angelo and Raphael, which on the part of the latter was merely generous emulation, while it must be confessed that something like scorn mingled with the feelings of Michael Angelo. The pontificate of Leo X., an interval of ten years, was the least productive period of his life. In the year 1519, when the Signoria of Florence was negotiating with Ravenna for the restoration of the remains of Dante, he petitioned the pope that he might be allowed to execute, at his own labor and expense, a monument to the "Divine Poet." He was sent to Florence to superintend the building of the church of San Lorenzo and the completion of Santa Croce; but he differed with the pope on the choice of the marble, quarrelled with the officials, and scarcely anything was accomplished. Clement VII., another Medici, was elected pope in 1523. He had conceived the idea of consecrating a chapel in the church of San Lorenzo, to receive the tombs of his ancestors and relations, and which should be adorned with all the splendor of art. Michael Angelo planned and built the chapel, and for its interior decoration designed and executed six of his greatest works in sculpture.

      While Michael Angelo was engaged in these works his progress was interrupted by events which threw all Italy into commotion. Rome was taken and sacked by the Constable de Bourbon in 1527. The Medici were once more expelled from Florence; and Michael Angelo, in the midst of these strange vicissitudes, was employed by the republic to fortify his native city against his former patrons. Great as an engineer, as in every other department of art and science, he defended Florence for nine months. At length the city was given up by treachery, and, fearing the vengeance of the conquerors, Michael Angelo fled and concealed himself; but Clement VII. was too sensible of his merit to allow him to remain long in disgrace and exile. He was pardoned, and continued ever afterward in high favor with the pope, who employed him on the sculptures in the chapel of San Lorenzo during the remainder of his pontificate.

      In the year 1531 he had completed the statues of "Night and Morning," and Clement, who heard of his incessant labors, sent him a brief commanding him, on pain of excommunication, to take care of his health, and not to accept of any other work but that which his Holiness had assigned him.

      Clement VII. was succeeded by Pope Paul III., of the Farnese family, in 1534. This pope, though nearly seventy when he was elected, was as anxious to immortalize his name by great undertakings as any of his predecessors had been. His first wish was to complete the decoration of the interior of the Sistine Chapel, left unfinished by Julius II. and Leo X. He summoned Michael Angelo, who endeavored to excuse himself, pleading other engagements; but the pope would listen to no excuses which interfered with his sovereign power to dissolve all other obligations; and thus the artist found himself, after an interval of twenty years, most reluctantly forced to abandon sculpture for painting; and, as Vasari expresses it, he consented to serve Pope Paul only because he could not do otherwise.

      The same Pope Paul III. had in the meantime constructed a beautiful chapel, which was called after his name the chapel Paolina, and dedicated to St. Peter and St Paul. Michael Angelo was called upon to design the decorations. He painted on one side the "Conversion of St. Paul," and on the other the "Crucifixion of St. Peter," which were completed in 1549. But these fine paintings--of which existing old engravings give a better idea than the blackened and faded remains of the original frescos--were from the first ill-disposed as to the locality, and badly lighted, and at present they excite little interest compared with the more famous works in the Sistine.

      With the frescos in the Pauline Chapel ends Michael Angelo's career as a painter. He had been appointed chief architect of St. Peter's, in 1547, by Paul III. He was then in his seventy-second year, and during the remainder of his life, a period of sixteen years, we find him wholly devoted to architecture. His vast and daring genius finding ample scope in the completion of St. Peter's, he has left behind him in his capacity of architect yet greater marvels than he has achieved as painter and sculptor. Who that has seen the cupola of St. Peter's soaring into the skies, but will think almost with awe of the universal and majestic intellect of the man who reared it?

      It appears, from the evidence of contemporary writers, that in the last years of his life the acknowledged worth and genius of Michael Angelo, his widespread fame, and his unblemished integrity, combined with his venerable age and the haughtiness and reserve of his deportment to invest him with a sort of princely dignity. It is recorded that, when he waited on Pope Julius III., to receive his commands, the pontiff rose on his approach, seated him, in spite of his excuses, on his right hand, and while a crowd of cardinals, prelates, and ambassadors, were standing round at humble distance, carried on the conference as equal with equal. When the Grand Duke Cosmo was in Rome, in 1560, he visited Michael Angelo, uncovered in his presence, and stood with his hat in his hand while speaking to him; but from the time when he made himself the tyrant of Florence he never could persuade Michael Angelo to visit, even for a day, his native city.

      The arrogance imputed to Michael Angelo seems rather to have arisen from a contempt for others than from any overweening opinion of himself. He was too proud to be vain. He had placed his standard of perfection so high, that to the latest hour of his life he considered himself as striving after that ideal excellence which had been revealed to him, but to which he conceived that others were blind or indifferent. In allusion to his own imperfections, he made a drawing, since become famous, which represents an aged man in a go-cart, and underneath the words "Ancora impara" (still learning).

      He continued to labor unremittingly, and with the same resolute energy of mind and purpose, till the gradual decay of his strength warned him of his approaching end. He did not suffer from any particular malady, and his mind was strong and clear to the last. He died at Rome, on February 18, 1564, in the ninetieth year of his age. A few days before his death he dictated his will in these few simple words: "I bequeath my soul to God, my body to the earth, and my possessions to my nearest relations." His nephew, Leonardo Buonarroti, who was his principal heir, by the orders of the Grand Duke Cosmo had his remains secretly conveyed out of Rome and brought to Florence; they were with due honors deposited in the church of Santa Croce, under a costly monument, on which we may see his noble bust surrounded by three very commonplace and ill-executed statues, representing the arts in which he excelled--Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. They might have added Poetry, for Michael Angelo was so fine a poet that his productions would have given him fame, though he had never peopled the Sistine with his giant creations, nor "suspended the Pantheon in the air." The object to whom his poems are chiefly addressed, Vittoria Colonna, Marchioness of Pescara, was the widow of the celebrated commander who overcame Francis I. at the battle of Pavia; herself a poetess, and one of the most celebrated women of her time for beauty, talents, virtue, and piety. She died in 1547.

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