The Buonarroti Simoni, to whom Michelangelo belonged, were a Florentine family of ancient burgher nobility. Their arms appear to have been originally "azure two bends or." To this coat was added "a label of four points gules inclosing three fleur-de-lys or." That augmentation, adopted from the shield of Charles of Anjou, occurs upon the scutcheons of many Guelf houses and cities. In the case of the Florentine Simoni, it may be ascribed to the period when Buonarrota di Simone Simoni held office as a captain of the Guelf party (1392). Such, then, was the paternal coat borne by the subject of this Memoir. His brother Buonarroto received a further augmentation in 1515 from Leo X., to wit: "upon a chief or, a pellet azure charged with fleur-de-lys or, between the capital letters L. and X." At the same time he was created Count Palatine. The old and simple bearing of the two bends was then crowded down into the extreme base of the shield, while the Angevine label found room beneath the chief.
According to a vague tradition, the Simoni drew their blood from the high and puissant Counts of Canossa. Michelangelo himself believed in this pedigree, for which there is, however, no foundation in fact, and no heraldic corroboration. According to his friend and biographer Condivi, the sculptor's first Florentine ancestor was a Messer Simone dei Conti di Canossa, who came in 1250 as Podestà to Florence. "The eminent qualities of this man gained for him admission into the burghership of the city, and he was appointed captain of a Sestiere; for Florence in those days was divided into Sestieri, instead of Quartieri, as according to the present usage." Michelangelo's contemporary, the Count Alessandro da Canossa, acknowledged this relationship. Writing on the 9th of October 1520, he addresses the then famous sculptor as "honoured kinsman," and gives the following piece of information: "Turning over my old papers, I have discovered that a Messere Simone da Canossa was Podestà of Florence, as I have already mentioned to the above-named Giovanni da Reggio." Nevertheless, it appears now certain that no Simone da Canossa held the office of Podestà at Florence in the thirteenth century. The family can be traced up to one Bernardo, who died before the year 1228. His grandson was called Buonarrota, and the fourth in descent was Simone. These names recur frequently in the next generations. Michelangelo always addressed his father as "Lodovico di Lionardo di Buonarrota Simoni," or "Louis, the son of Leonard, son of Buonarrota Simoni;" and he used the family surname of Simoni in writing to his brothers and his nephew Lionardo. Yet he preferred to call himself Michelangelo Buonarroti; and after his lifetime Buonarroti became fixed for the posterity of his younger brother. "The reason," says Condivi, "why the family in Florence changed its name from Canossa to Buonarroti was this: Buonarroto continued for many generations to be repeated in their house, down to the time of Michelangelo, who had a brother of that name; and inasmuch as several of these Buonarroti held rank in the supreme magistracy of the republic, especially the brother I have just mentioned, who filled the office of Prior during Pope Leo's visit to Florence, as may be read in the annals of that city, this baptismal name, by force of frequent repetition, became the cognomen of the whole family; the more easily, because it is the custom at Florence, in elections and nominations of officers, to add the Christian names of the father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and sometimes even of remoter ancestors, to that of each citizen. Consequently, through the many Buonarroti who followed one another, and from the Simone who was the first founder of the house in Florence, they gradually came to be called Buonarroti Simoni, which is their present designation." Excluding the legend about Simone da Canossa, this is a pretty accurate account of what really happened. Italian patronymics were formed indeed upon the same rule as those of many Norman families in Great Britain. When the use of Di and Fitz expired, Simoni survived from Di Simone, as did my surname Symonds from Fitz-Symond.
On the 6th of March 1475, according to our present computation, Lodovico di Lionardo Buonarroti Simoni wrote as follows in his private notebook: "I record that on this day, March 6, 1474, a male child was born to me. I gave him the name of Michelangelo, and he was born on a Monday morning four or five hours before daybreak, and he was born while I was Podestà of Caprese, and he was born at Caprese; and the godfathers were those I have named below. He was baptized on the eighth of the same month in the Church of San Giovanni at Caprese. These are the godfathers:
DON DANIELLO DI SER BUONAGUIDA of Florence,
Rector of San Giovanni at Caprese;
DON ANDREA DI …. of Poppi, Rector of the Abbey
of Diasiano (i.e., Dicciano);
JACOPO DI FRANCESCO of Casurio (?);
MARCO DI GIORGIO of Caprese;
GIOVANNI DI BIAGIO of Caprese;
ANDREA DI BIAGIO of Caprese;
FRANCESCO DI JACOPO DEL ANDUINO (?) of Caprese;
SER BARTOLOMMEO DI SANTI DEL LANSE (?), Notary."
Note that the date is March 6, 1474, according to Florentine usage ab incarnatione, and according to the Roman usage, a nativitate, it is 1475.
Vasari tells us that the planets were propitious at the moment of Michelangelo's nativity: "Mercury and Venus having entered with benign aspect into the house of Jupiter, which indicated that marvellous and extraordinary works, both of manual art and intellect, were to be expected from him."
Caprese, from its beauty and remoteness, deserved to be the birthplace of a great artist. It is not improbable that Lodovico Buonarroti and his wife Francesca approached it from Pontassieve in Valdarno, crossing the little pass of Consuma, descending on the famous battle-field of Campaldino, and skirting the ancient castle of the Conti Guidi at Poppi. Every step in the romantic journey leads over ground hallowed by old historic memories. From Poppi the road descends the Arno to a richly cultivated district, out of which emerges on its hill the prosperous little town of Bibbiena. High up to eastward springs the broken crest of La Vernia, a mass of hard millstone rock (macigno) jutting from desolate beds of lime and shale at the height of some 3500 feet above the sea. It was here, among the sombre groves of beech and pine which wave along the ridge, that S. Francis came to found his infant Order, composed the Hymn to the Sun, and received the supreme honour of the stigmata. To this point Dante retired when the death of Henry VII. extinguished his last hopes for Italy. At one extremity of the wedge-like block which forms La Vernia, exactly on the watershed between Arno and Tiber, stands the ruined castle of Chiusi in Casentino. This was one of the two chief places of Lodovico Buonarroti's podesteria. It may be said to crown the valley of the Arno; for the waters gathered here flow downwards toward Arezzo, and eventually wash the city walls of Florence. A few steps farther, travelling south, we pass into the valley of the Tiber, and, after traversing a barren upland region for a couple of hours, reach the verge of the descent upon Caprese. Here the landscape assumes a softer character. Far away stretch blue Apennines, ridge melting into ridge above Perugia in the distance. Gigantic oaks begin to clothe the stony hillsides, and little by little a fertile mountain district of chestnut-woods and vineyards expands before our eyes, equal in charm to those aërial hills and vales above Pontremoli. Caprese has no central commune or head-village. It is an aggregate of scattered hamlets and farmhouses, deeply embosomed in a sea of greenery. Where the valley contracts and the infant Tiber breaks into a gorge, rises a wooded rock crowned with the ruins of an ancient castle. It was here, then, that Michelangelo first saw the light. When we discover that he was a man of more than usually nervous temperament, very different in quality from any of his relatives, we must not forget what a fatiguing journey had been performed by his mother, who was then awaiting her delivery. Even supposing that Lodovico Buonarroti travelled from Florence by Arezzo to Caprese, many miles of rough mountain-roads must have been traversed by her on horseback.
Ludovico, who, as we have seen, was Podestà of Caprese and of Chiusi in the Casentino, had already one son by his first wife, Francesca, the daughter of Neri di Miniato del Sera and Bonda Rucellai. This elder brother, Lionardo, grew to manhood, and become a devoted follower of Savonarola. Under the influence of the Ferrarese friar, he determined to abjure the world, and entered the Dominican Order in 1491. We know very little about him, and he is only once mentioned in Michelangelo's correspondence. Even this reference cannot be considered certain. Writing to his father from Rome, July 1, 1497, Michelangelo says: "I let you know that Fra Lionardo returned hither to Rome. He says that he was forced to fly from Viterbo, and that his frock had been taken from him, wherefore he wished to go there (i.e., to Florence). So I gave him a golden ducat, which he asked for; and I think you ought already to have learned this, for he should be there by this time." When Lionardo died is uncertain. We only know that he was in the convent of S. Mark at Florence in the year 1510. Owing to this brother's adoption of the religious life, Michelangelo became, early in his youth, the eldest son of Lodovico's family. It will be seen that during the whole course of his long career he acted as the mainstay of his father, and as father to his younger brothers. The strength and the tenacity of his domestic affections are very remarkable in a man who seems never to have thought of marrying. "Art," he used to say, "is a sufficiently exacting mistress." Instead of seeking to beget children for his own solace, he devoted himself to the interests of his kinsmen.
The office of Podestà lasted only six months, and at the expiration of this term Lodovico returned to Florence. He put the infant Michelangelo out to nurse in the village of Settignano, where the Buonarroti Simoni owned a farm. Most of the people of that district gained their livelihood in the stone-quarries around Settignano and Maiano on the hillside of Fiesole. Michelangelo's foster-mother was the daughter and the wife of stone-cutters. "George," said he in after-years to his friend Vasari, "if I possess anything of good in my mental constitution, it comes from my having been born in your keen climate of Arezzo; just as I drew the chisel and the mallet with which I carve statues in together with my nurse's milk."
When Michelangelo was of age to go to school, his father put him under a grammarian at Florence named Francesco da Urbino. It does not appear, however, that he learned more than reading and writing in Italian, for later on in life we find him complaining that he knew no Latin. The boy's genius attracted him irresistibly to art. He spent all his leisure time in drawing, and frequented the society of youths who were apprenticed to masters in painting and sculpture. Among these he contracted an intimate friendship with Francesco Granacci, at that time in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandajo. Granacci used to lend him drawings by Ghirlandajo, and inspired him with the resolution to become a practical artist. Condivi says that "Francesco's influence, combined with the continual craving of his nature, made him at last abandon literary studies. This brought the boy into disfavour with his father and uncles, who often used to beat him severely; for, being insensible to the excellence and nobility of Art, they thought it shameful to give her shelter in their house. Nevertheless, albeit their opposition caused him the greatest sorrow, it was not sufficient to deter him from his steady purpose. On the contrary, growing even bolder he determined to work in colours." Condivi, whose narrative preserves for us Michelangelo's own recollections of his youthful years, refers to this period the painted copy made by the young draughtsman from a copper-plate of Martin Schöngauer. We should probably be right in supposing that the anecdote is slightly antedated. I give it, however, as nearly as possible in the biographer's own words. "Granacci happened to show him a print of S. Antonio tormented by the devils. This was the work of Martino d'Olanda, a good artist for the times in which he lived; and Michelangelo transferred the composition to a panel. Assisted by the same friend with colours and brushes, he treated his subject in so masterly a way that it excited surprise in all who saw it, and even envy, as some say, in Domenico, the greatest painter of his age. In order to diminish the extraordinary impression produced by this picture, Ghirlandajo went about saying that it came out of his own workshop, as though he had some part in the performance. While engaged on this piece, which, beside the figure of the saint, contained many strange forms and diabolical monstrosities, Michelangelo coloured no particular without going first to Nature and comparing her truth with his fancies. Thus he used to frequent the fish-market, and study the shape and hues of fishes' fins, the colour of their eyes, and so forth in the case of every part belonging to them; all of which details he reproduced with the utmost diligence in his painting." Whether this transcript from Schöngauer was made as early as Condivi reports may, as I have said, be reasonably doubted. The anecdote is interesting, however, as showing in what a naturalistic spirit Michelangelo began to work. The unlimited mastery which he acquired over form, and which certainly seduced him at the close of his career into a stylistic mannerism, was based in the first instance upon profound and patient interrogation of reality.
Lodovico perceived at length that it was useless to oppose his son's natural bent. Accordingly, he sent him into Ghirlandajo's workshop. A minute from Ghirlandajo's ledger, under the date 1488, gives information regarding the terms of the apprenticeship. "I record this first of April how I, Lodovico di Lionardo di Buonarrota, bind my son Michelangelo to Domenico and Davit di Tommaso di Currado for the next three ensuing years, under these conditions and contracts: to wit, that the said Michelangelo shall stay with the above-named masters during this time, to learn the art of painting, and to practise the same, and to be at the orders of the above-named; and they, for their part, shall give to him in the course of these three years twenty-four florins (fiorini di suggello): to wit, six florins in the first year, eight in the second, ten in the third; making in all the sum of ninety-six pounds (lire)." A postscript, dated April 16th of the same year, 1488, records that two florins were paid to Michelangelo upon that day.
It seems that Michelangelo retained no very pleasant memory of his sojourn with the Ghirlandajo brothers. Condivi, in the passage translated above, hints that Domenico was jealous of him. He proceeds as follows: "This jealousy betrayed itself still more when Michelangelo once begged the loan of a certain sketch-book, wherein Domenico had portrayed shepherds with their flocks and watchdogs, landscapes, buildings, ruins, and such-like things. The master refused to lend it; and indeed he had the fame of being somewhat envious; for not only showed he thus scant courtesy toward Michelangelo, but he also treated his brother likewise, sending him into France when he saw that he was making progress and putting forth great promise; and doing this not so much for any profit to David, as that he might himself remain the first of Florentine painters. I have thought fit to mention these things, because I have been told that Domenico's son is wont to ascribe the genius and divinity of Michelangelo in great part to his father's teaching, whereas the truth is that he received no assistance from that master. I ought, however, to add that Michelangelo does not complain: on the contrary, he praises Domenico both as artist and as man."
This passage irritated Vasari beyond measure. He had written his first Life of Michelangelo in 1550. Condivi published his own modest biography in 1553, with the expressed intention of correcting errors and supplying deficiencies made by "others," under which vague word he pointed probably at Vasari. Michelangelo, who furnished Condivi with materials, died in 1564; and Vasari, in 1568, issued a second enlarged edition of the Life, into which he cynically incorporated what he chose to steal from Condivi's sources. The supreme Florentine sculptor being dead and buried, Vasari felt that he was safe in giving the lie direct to this humble rival biographer. Accordingly, he spoke as follows about Michelangelo's relations with Domenico Ghirlandajo: "He was fourteen years of age when he entered that master's service, and inasmuch as one (Condivi), who composed his biography after 1550, when I had published these Lives for the first time, declares that certain persons, from want of familiarity with Michelangelo, have recorded things that did not happen, and have omitted others worthy of relation; and in particular has touched upon the point at issue, accusing Domenico of envy, and saying that he never rendered Michelangelo assistance."—Here Vasari, out of breath with indignation, appeals to the record of Lodovico's contract with the Ghirlandajo brothers. "These minutes," he goes on to say, "I copied from the ledger, in order to show that everything I formerly published, or which will be published at the present time, is truth. Nor am I acquainted with any one who had greater familiarity with Michelangelo than I had, or who served him more faithfully in friendly offices; nor do I believe that a single man could exhibit a larger number of letters written with his own hand, or evincing greater personal affection, than I can."
This contention between Condivi and Vasari, our two contemporary authorities upon the facts of Michelangelo's life, may not seem to be a matter of great moment for his biographer after the lapse of four centuries. Yet the first steps in the art-career of so exceptional a genius possess peculiar interest. It is not insignificant to ascertain, so far as now is possible, what Michelangelo owed to his teachers. In equity, we acknowledge that Lodovico's record on the ledger of the Ghirlandajo brothers proves their willingness to take him as a prentice, and their payment to him of two florins in advance; but the same record does not disprove Condivi's statement, derived from his old master's reminiscences, to the effect that Domenico Ghirlandajo was in no way greatly serviceable to him as an instructor. The fault, in all probability, did not lie with Ghirlandajo alone. Michelangelo, as we shall have occasions in plenty to observe, was difficult to live with; frank in speech to the point of rudeness, ready with criticism, incapable of governing his temper, and at no time apt to work harmoniously with fellow-craftsmen. His extraordinary force and originality of genius made themselves felt, undoubtedly, at the very outset of his career; and Ghirlandajo may be excused if, without being positively jealous of the young eagle settled in his homely nest, he failed to do the utmost for this gifted and rough-natured child of promise. Beethoven's discontent with Haydn as a teacher offers a parallel; and sympathetic students of psychology will perceive that Ghirlandajo and Haydn were almost superfluous in the training of phenomenal natures like Michelangelo and Beethoven.
Vasari, passing from controversy to the gossip of the studio, has sketched a pleasant picture of the young Buonarroti in his master's employ. "The artistic and personal qualities of Michelangelo developed so rapidly that Domenico was astounded by signs of power in him beyond the ordinary scope of youth. He perceived, in short, that he not only surpassed the other students, of whom Ghirlandajo had a large number under his tuition, but also that he often competed on an equality with the master. One of the lads who worked there made a pen-drawing of some women, clothed, from a design of Ghirlandajo. Michelangelo took up the paper, and with a broader nib corrected the outline of a female figure, so as to bring it into perfect truth to life. Wonderful it was to see the difference of the two styles, and to note the judgment and ability of a mere boy, so spirited and bold, who had the courage to chastise his master's handiwork! This drawing I now preserve as a precious relique, since it was given me by Granacci, that it might take a place in my Book of Original Designs, together with others presented to me by Michelangelo. In the year 1550, when I was in Rome, I Giorgio showed it to Michelangelo, who recognised it immediately, and was pleased to see it again, observing modestly that he knew more about the art when he was a child than now in his old age.
"It happened then that Domenico was engaged upon the great Chapel of S. Maria Novella; and being absent one day, Michelangelo set himself to draw from nature the whole scaffolding, with some easels and all the appurtenances of the art, and a few of the young men at work there. When Domenico returned and saw the drawing, he exclaimed: 'This fellow knows more about it than I do,' and remained quite stupefied by the new style and the new method of imitation, which a boy of years so tender had received as a gift from heaven."
Both Condivi and Vasari relate that, during his apprenticeship to Ghirlandajo, Michelangelo demonstrated his technical ability by producing perfect copies of ancient drawings, executing the facsimile with consummate truth of line, and then dirtying the paper so as to pass it off as the original of some old master. "His only object," adds Vasari, "was to keep the originals, by giving copies in exchange; seeing that he admired them as specimens of art, and sought to surpass them by his own handling; and in doing this he acquired great renown." We may pause to doubt whether at the present time—in the case, for instance, of Shelley letters or Rossetti drawings—clever forgeries would be accepted as so virtuous and laudable. But it ought to be remembered that a Florentine workshop at that period contained masses of accumulated designs, all of which were more or less the common property of the painting firm. No single specimen possessed a high market value. It was, in fact, only when art began to expire in Italy, when Vasari published his extensive necrology and formed his famous collection of drawings, that property in a sketch became a topic for moral casuistry.
Of Michelangelo's own work at this early period we possess probably nothing except a rough scrawl on the plaster of a wall at Settignano. Even this does not exist in its original state. The Satyr which is still shown there may, according to Mr. Heath Wilson's suggestion, be a rifacimento from the master's hand at a subsequent period of his career.
Condivi and Vasari differ considerably in their accounts of Michelangelo's departure from Ghirlandajo's workshop. The former writes as follows: "So then the boy, now drawing one thing and now another, without fixed place or steady line of study, happened one day to be taken by Granacci into the garden of the Medici at San Marco, which garden the magnificent Lorenzo, father of Pope Leo, and a man of the first intellectual distinction, had adorned with antique statues and other reliques of plastic art. When Michelangelo saw these things and felt their beauty, he no longer frequented Domenico's shop, nor did he go elsewhere, but, judging the Medicean gardens to be the best school, spent all his time and faculties in working there." Vasari reports that it was Lorenzo's wish to raise the art of sculpture in Florence to the same level as that of painting; and for this reason he placed Bertoldo, a pupil and follower of Donatello, over his collections, with a special commission to aid and instruct the young men who used them. With the same intention of forming an academy or school of art, Lorenzo went to Ghirlandajo, and begged him to select from his pupils those whom he considered the most promising. Ghirlandajo accordingly drafted off Francesco Granacci and Michelangelo Buonarroti. Since Michelangelo had been formally articled by his father to Ghirlandajo in 1488, he can hardly have left that master in 1489 as unceremoniously as Condivi asserts. Therefore we may, I think, assume that Vasari upon this point has preserved the genuine tradition.
Having first studied the art of design and learned to work in colours under the supervision of Ghirlandajo, Michelangelo now had his native genius directed to sculpture. He began with the rudiments of stone-hewing, blocking out marbles designed for the Library of San Lorenzo, and acquiring that practical skill in the manipulation of the chisel which he exercised all through his life. Condivi and Vasari agree in relating that a copy he made for his own amusement from an antique Faun first brought him into favourable notice with Lorenzo. The boy had begged a piece of refuse marble, and carved a grinning mask, which he was polishing when the Medici passed by. The great man stopped to examine the work, and recognised its merit. At the same time he observed with characteristic geniality: "Oh, you have made this Faun quite old, and yet have left him all his teeth! Do you not know that men of that great age are always wanting in one or two?" Michelangelo took the hint, and knocked a tooth out from the upper jaw. When Lorenzo saw how cleverly he had performed the task, he resolved to provide for the boy's future and to take him into his own household. So, having heard whose son he was, "Go," he said, "and tell your father that I wish to speak with him."
A mask of a grinning Faun may still be seen in the sculpture-gallery of the Bargello at Florence, and the marble is traditionally assigned to Michelangelo. It does not exactly correspond to the account given by Condivi and Vasari; for the mouth shows only two large tusk-like teeth, with the tip of the tongue protruding between them. Still, there is no reason to feel certain that we may not have here Michelangelo's first extant work in marble.
"Michelangelo accordingly went home, and delivered the message of the Magnificent. His father, guessing probably what he was wanted for, could only be persuaded by the urgent prayers of Granacci and other friends to obey the summons. Indeed, he complained loudly that Lorenzo wanted to lead his son astray, abiding firmly by the principle that he would never permit a son of his to be a stonecutter. Vainly did Granacci explain the difference between a sculptor and a stone-cutter: all his arguments seemed thrown away. Nevertheless, when Lodovico appeared before the Magnificent, and was asked if he would consent to give his son up to the great man's guardianship, he did not know how to refuse. 'In faith,' he added, 'not Michelangelo alone, but all of us, with our lives and all our abilities, are at the pleasure of your Magnificence!' When Lorenzo asked what he desired as a favour to himself, he answered: 'I have never practised any art or trade, but have lived thus far upon my modest income, attending to the little property in land which has come down from my ancestors; and it has been my care not only to preserve these estates, but to increase them so far as I was able by my industry.' The Magnificent then added: 'Well, look about, and see if there be anything in Florence which will suit you. Make use of me, for I will do the utmost that I can for you.' It so happened that a place in the Customs, which could only be filled by a Florentine citizen, fell vacant shortly afterwards. Upon this Lodovico returned to the Magnificent, and begged for it in these words: 'Lorenzo, I am good for nothing but reading and writing. Now, the mate of Marco Pucci in the Customs having died, I should like to enter into this office, feeling myself able to fulfil its duties decently.' The Magnificent laid his hand upon his shoulder, and said with a smile: 'You will always be a poor man;' for he expected him to ask for something far more valuable. Then he added: 'If you care to be the mate of Marco, you can take the post, until such time as a better becomes vacant.' It was worth eight crowns the month, a little more or a little less." A document is extant which shows that Lodovico continued to fill this office at the Customs till 1494, when the heirs of Lorenzo were exiled; for in the year 1512, after the Medici returned to Florence, he applied to Giuliano, Duke of Nemours, to be reinstated in the same.
If it is true, as Vasari asserts, that Michelangelo quitted Ghirlandajo in 1489, and if Condivi is right in saying that he only lived in the Casa Medici for about two years before the death of Lorenzo, April 1492, then he must have spent some twelve months working in the gardens at San Marco before the Faun's mask called attention to his talents. His whole connection with Lorenzo, from the spring of 1489 to the spring of 1492, lasted three years; and, since he was born in March 1475, the space of his life covered by this patronage extended from the commencement of his fifteenth to the commencement of his eighteenth year.
These three years were decisive for the development of his mental faculties and special artistic genius. It is not necessary to enlarge here upon Lorenzo de' Medici's merits and demerits, either as the ruler of Florence or as the central figure in the history of the Italian Renaissance. These have supplied stock topics for discussion by all writers who have devoted their attention to that period of culture. Still we must remember that Michelangelo enjoyed singular privileges under the roof of one who was not only great as diplomatist and politician, and princely in his patronage, but was also a man of original genius in literature, of fine taste in criticism, and of civil urbanity in manners. The palace of the Medici formed a museum, at that period unique, considering the number and value of its art treasures—bas-reliefs, vases, coins, engraved stones, paintings by the best contemporary masters, statues in bronze and marble by Verocchio and Donatello. Its library contained the costliest manuscripts, collected from all quarters of Europe and the Levant. The guests who assembled in its halls were leaders in that intellectual movement which was destined to spread a new type of culture far and wide over the globe. The young sculptor sat at the same board as Marsilio Ficino, interpreter of Plato; Pico della Mirandola, the phoenix of Oriental erudition; Angelo Poliziano, the unrivalled humanist and melodious Italian poet; Luigi Pulci, the humorous inventor of burlesque romance—with artists, scholars, students innumerable, all in their own departments capable of satisfying a youth's curiosity, by explaining to him the particular virtues of books discussed, or of antique works of art inspected. During those halcyon years, before the invasion of Charles VIII., it seemed as though the peace of Italy might last unbroken. No one foresaw the apocalyptic vials of wrath which were about to be poured forth upon her plains and cities through the next half-century. Rarely, at any period of the world's history, perhaps only in Athens between the Persian and the Peloponnesian wars, has culture, in the highest and best sense of that word, prospered more intelligently and pacifically than it did in the Florence of Lorenzo, through the co-operation and mutual zeal of men of eminence, inspired by common enthusiasms, and labouring in diverse though cognate fields of study and production.
Michelangelo's position in the house was that of an honoured guest or adopted son. Lorenzo not only allowed him five ducats a month by way of pocket-money, together with clothes befitting his station, but he also, says Condivi, "appointed him a good room in the palace, together with all the conveniences he desired, treating him in every respect, as also at his table, precisely like one of his own sons. It was the custom of this household, where men of the noblest birth and highest public rank assembled round the daily board, for the guests to take their places next the master in the order of their arrival; those who were present at the beginning of the meal sat, each according to his degree, next the Magnificent, not moving afterwards for any one who might appear. So it happened that Michelangelo found himself frequently seated above Lorenzo's children and other persons of great consequence, with whom that house continually flourished and abounded. All these illustrious men paid him particular attention, and encouraged him in the honourable art which he had chosen. But the chief to do so was the Magnificent himself, who sent for him oftentimes in a day, in order that he might show him jewels, cornelians, medals, and such-like objects of great rarity, as knowing him to be of excellent parts and judgment in these things." It does not appear that Michelangelo had any duties to perform or services to render. Probably his patron employed him upon some useful work of the kind suggested by Condivi. But the main business of his life in the Casa Medici was to make himself a valiant sculptor, who in after years should confer lustre on the city of the lily and her Medicean masters. What he produced during this period seems to have become his own property, for two pieces of statuary, presently to be described, remained in the possession of his family, and now form a part of the collection in the Casa Buonarroti.
Angelo Poliziano, who was certainly the chief scholar of his age in the new learning, and no less certainly one of its truest poets in the vulgar language, lived as tutor to Lorenzo's children in the palace of the Medici at Florence. Benozzo Gozzoli introduced his portrait, together with the portraits of his noble pupils, in a fresco of the Pisan Campo Santo. This prince of humanists recommended Michelangelo to treat in bas-relief an antique fable, involving the strife of young heroes for some woman's person. Probably he was also able to point out classical examples by which the boyish sculptor might be guided in the undertaking. The subject made enormous demands upon his knowledge of the nude. Adult and youthful figures, in attitudes of vehement attack and resistance, had to be modelled; and the conditions of the myth required that one at least of them should be brought into harmony with equine forms. Michelangelo wrestled vigorously with these difficulties. He produced a work which, though it is imperfect and immature, brings to light the specific qualities of his inherent art-capacity. The bas-relief, still preserved in the Casa Buonarroti at Florence, is, so to speak, in fermentation with powerful half-realised conceptions, audacities of foreshortening, attempts at intricate grouping, violent dramatic action and expression. No previous tradition, unless it was the genius of Greek or Greco-Roman antiquity, supplied Michelangelo with the motive force for this prentice-piece in sculpture. Donatello and other Florentines worked under different sympathies for form, affecting angularity in their treatment of the nude, adhering to literal transcripts from the model or to conventional stylistic schemes. Michelangelo discarded these limitations, and showed himself an ardent student of reality in the service of some lofty intellectual ideal. Following and closely observing Nature, he was also sensitive to the light and guidance of the classic genius. Yet, at the same time, he violated the aesthetic laws obeyed by that genius, displaying his Tuscan proclivities by violent dramatic suggestions, and in loaded, overcomplicated composition. Thus, in this highly interesting essay, the horoscope of the mightiest Florentine artist was already cast. Nature leads him, and he follows Nature as his own star bids. But that star is double, blending classic influence with Tuscan instinct. The roof of the Sistine was destined to exhibit to an awe-struck world what wealths of originality lay in the artist thus gifted, and thus swayed by rival forces. For the present, it may be enough to remark that, in the geometrical proportions of this bas-relief, which is too high for its length, Michelangelo revealed imperfect feeling for antique principles; while, in the grouping of the figures, which is more pictorial than sculpturesque, he already betrayed, what remained with him a defect through life, a certain want of organic or symmetrical design in compositions which are not rigidly subordinated to architectural framework or limited to the sphere of an intaglio.
Vasari mentions another bas-relief in marble as belonging to this period, which, from its style, we may, I think, believe to have been designed earlier than the Centaurs. It is a seated Madonna with the Infant Jesus, conceived in the manner of Donatello, but without that master's force and power over the lines of drapery. Except for the interest attaching to it as an early work of Michelangelo, this piece would not attract much attention. Vasari praises it for grace and composition above the scope of Donatello; and certainly we may trace here the first germ of that sweet and winning majesty which Buonarroti was destined to develop in his Pietà of S. Peter, the Madonna at Bruges, and the even more glorious Madonna of S. Lorenzo. It is also interesting for the realistic introduction of a Tuscan cottage staircase into the background. This bas-relief was presented to Cosimo de' Medici, first Grand Duke of Tuscany, by Michelangelo's nephew Lionardo. It afterwards came back into the possession of the Buonarroti family, and forms at present an ornament of their house at Florence.
We are accustomed to think of Michelangelo as a self-withdrawn and solitary worker, living for his art, avoiding the conflict of society, immersed in sublime imaginings. On the whole, this is a correct conception of the man. Many passages of his biography will show how little he actively shared the passions and contentions of the stirring times through which he moved. Yet his temperament exposed him to sudden outbursts of scorn and anger, which brought him now and then into violent collision with his neighbours. An incident of this sort happened while he was studying under the patronage of Lorenzo de' Medici, and its consequences marked him physically for life. The young artists whom the Magnificent gathered round him used to practise drawing in the Brancacci Chapel of the Carmine. There Masaccio and his followers bequeathed to us noble examples of the grand style upon the frescoed panels of the chapel walls. It was the custom of industrious lads to make transcripts from those broad designs, some of which Raphael deigned in his latest years to repeat, with altered manner, for the Stanze of the Vatican and the Cartoons. Michelangelo went one day into the Carmine with Piero Torrigiano and other comrades. What ensued may best be reported in the narration which Torrigiano at a later time made to Benvenuto Cellini.
"This Buonarroti and I used, when we were boys, to go into the Church of the Carmine to learn drawing from the chapel of Masaccio. It was Buonarroti's habit to banter all who were drawing there; and one day, when he was annoying me, I got more angry than usual, and, clenching my fist, I gave him such a blow on the nose that I felt bone and cartilage go down like biscuit beneath my knuckles; and this mark of mine he will carry with him to the grave." The portraits of Michelangelo prove that Torrigiano's boast was not a vain one. They show a nose broken in the bridge. But Torrigiano, for this act of violence, came to be regarded by the youth of Florence with aversion, as one who had laid sacrilegious hands upon the sacred ark. Cellini himself would have wiped out the insult with blood. Still Cellini knew that personal violence was not in the line of Michelangelo's character; for Michelangelo, according to his friend and best biographer, Condivi, was by nature, "as is usual with men of sedentary and contemplative habits, rather timorous than otherwise, except when he is roused by righteous anger to resent unjust injuries or wrongs done to himself or others, in which case he plucks up more spirit than those who are esteemed brave; but, for the rest, he is most patient and enduring." Cellini, then, knowing the quality of Michelangelo's temper, and respecting him as a deity of art, adds to his report of Torrigiano's conversation: "These words begat in me such hatred of the man, since I was always gazing at the masterpieces of the divine Michelangelo, that, although I felt a wish to go with him to England, I now could never bear the sight of him."
The years Michelangelo spent in the Casa Medici were probably the blithest and most joyous of his lifetime. The men of wit and learning who surrounded the Magnificent were not remarkable for piety or moral austerity. Lorenzo himself found it politically useful "to occupy the Florentines with shows and festivals, in order that they might think of their own pastimes and not of his designs, and, growing unused to the conduct of the commonwealth, might leave the reins of government in his hands." Accordingly he devised those Carnival triumphs and processions which filled the sombre streets of Florence with Bacchanalian revellers, and the ears of her grave citizens with ill-disguised obscenity. Lorenzo took part in them himself, and composed several choruses of high literary merit to be sung by the masqueraders. One of these carries a refrain which might be chosen as a motto for the spirit of that age upon the brink of ruin:
Youths and maids, enjoy to-day: Naught ye know about to-morrow!
He caused the triumphs to be carefully prepared by the best artists, the dresses of the masquers to be accurately studied, and their chariots to be adorned with illustrative paintings. Michelangelo's old friend Granacci dedicated his talents to these shows, which also employed the wayward fancy of Piero di Cosimo and Pontormo's power as a colourist. "It was their wont," says Il Lasca, "to go forth after dinner; and often the processions paraded through the streets till three or four hours into the night, with a multitude of masked men on horseback following, richly dressed, exceeding sometimes three hundred in number, and as many on foot with lighted torches. Thus they traversed the city, singing to the accompaniment of music arranged for four, eight, twelve, or even fifteen voices, and supported by various instruments." Lorenzo represented the worst as well as the best qualities of his age. If he knew how to enslave Florence, it was because his own temperament inclined him to share the amusements of the crowd, while his genius enabled him to invest corruption with charm. His friend Poliziano entered with the zest of a poet and a pleasure-seeker into these diversions. He helped Lorenzo to revive the Tuscan Mayday games, and wrote exquisite lyrics to be sung by girls in summer evenings on the public squares. This giant of learning, who filled the lecture-rooms of Florence with Students of all nations, and whose critical and rhetorical labours marked an epoch in the history of scholarship, was by nature a versifier, and a versifier of the people. He found nothing' easier than to throw aside his professor's mantle and to improvise ballate for women to chant as they danced their rounds upon the Piazza di S. Trinità. The frontispiece to an old edition of such lyrics represents Lorenzo surrounded with masquers in quaint dresses, leading the revel beneath the walls of the Palazzo. Another woodcut shows an angle of the Casa Medici in Via Larga, girls dancing the carola upon the street below, one with a wreath and thyrsus kneeling, another presenting the Magnificent with a book of loveditties. The burden of all this poetry was: "Gather ye roses while ye may, cast prudence to the winds, obey your instincts." There is little doubt that Michelangelo took part in these pastimes; for we know that he was devoted to poetry, not always of the gravest kind. An anecdote related by Cellini may here be introduced, since it illustrates the Florentine customs I have been describing. "Luigi Pulci was a young man who possessed extraordinary gifts for poetry, together with sound Latin scholarship. He wrote well, was graceful in manners, and of surpassing personal beauty. While he was yet a lad and living in Florence, it was the habit of folk in certain places of the city to meet together during the nights of summer on the open streets, and he, ranking among the best of the improvisatori, sang there. His recitations were so admirable that the divine Michelangelo, that prince of sculptors and of painters, went, wherever he heard that he would be, with the greatest eagerness and delight to listen to him. There was a man called Piloto, a goldsmith, very able in his art, who, together with myself, joined Buonarroti upon these occasions." In like manner, the young Michelangelo probably attended those nocturnal gatherings upon the steps of the Duomo which have been so graphically described by Doni: "The Florentines seem to me to take more pleasure in summer airings than any other folk; for they have, in the square of S. Liberata, between the antique temple of Mars, now the Baptistery, and that marvellous work of modern architecture, the Duomo: they have, I say, certain steps of marble, rising to a broad flat space, upon which the youth of the city come and lay themselves full length during the season of extreme heat. The place is fitted for its purpose, because a fresh breeze is always blowing, with the blandest of all air, and the flags of white marble usually retain a certain coolness. There then I seek my chiefest solace, when, taking my aërial flights, I sail invisibly above them; see and hear their doings and discourses: and forasmuch as they are endowed with keen and elevated understanding, they always have a thousand charming things to relate; as novels, intrigues, fables; they discuss duels, practical jokes, old stories, tricks played off by men and women on each other: things, each and all, rare, witty, noble, decent and in proper taste. I can swear that during all the hours I spent in listening to their nightly dialogues, I never heard a word that was not comely and of good repute. Indeed, it seemed to me very remarkable, among such crowds of young men, to overhear nothing but virtuous conversation."
At the same period, Michelangelo fell under very different influences; and these left a far more lasting impression on his character than the gay festivals and witty word-combats of the lords of Florence. In 1491 Savonarola, the terrible prophet of coming woes, the searcher of men's hearts, and the remorseless denouncer of pleasant vices, began that Florentine career which ended with his martyrdom in 1498. He had preached in Florence eight years earlier, but on that occasion he passed unnoticed through the crowd. Now he took the whole city by storm. Obeying the magic of his eloquence and the magnetism of his personality, her citizens accepted this Dominican friar as their political leader and moral reformer, when events brought about the expulsion of the Medici in 1494. Michelangelo was one of his constant listeners at S. Marco and in the Duomo. He witnessed those stormy scenes of religious revival and passionate fanaticism which contemporaries have impressively described. The shorthand-writer to whom we owe the text of Savonarola's sermons at times breaks off with words like these: "Here I was so overcome with weeping that I could not go on." Pico della Mirandola tells that the mere sound of the monk's voice, startling the stillness of the Duomo, thronged through all its space with people, was like a clap of doom; a cold shiver ran through the marrow of his bones the hairs of his head stood on end while he listened. Another witness reports: "Those sermons caused such terror, alarm, sobbing, and tears, that every one passed through the streets without speaking, more dead than alive."
One of the earliest extant letters of Michelangelo, written from Rome in 1497 to his brother Buonarroto, reveals a vivid interest in Savonarola. He relates the evil rumours spread about the city regarding his heretical opinions, and alludes to the hostility of Fra Mariano da Genezzano; adding this ironical sentence: "Therefore he ought by all means to come and prophesy a little in Rome, when afterwards he will be canonised; and so let all his party be of good cheer." In later years, it is said that the great sculptor read and meditated Savonarola's writings together with the Bible. The apocalyptic thunderings and voices of the Sistine Chapel owe much of their soul-thrilling impressiveness to those studies. Michelet says, not without justice, that the spirit of Savonarola lives again in the frescoes of that vault.
On the 8th of April 1492, Michelangelo lost his friend and patron. Lorenzo died in his villa at Careggi, aged little more than forty-four years. Guicciardini implies that his health and strength had been prematurely broken by sensual indulgences. About the circumstances of his last hours there are some doubts and difficulties; but it seems clear that he expired as a Christian, after a final interview with Savonarola. His death cast a gloom over Italy. Princes and people were growing uneasy with the presentiment of impending disaster; and now the only man who by his diplomatical sagacity could maintain the balance of power had been taken from them. To his friends and dependants in Florence the loss appeared irreparable. Poliziano poured forth his sorrow in a Latin threnody of touching and simple beauty. Two years later both he and Pico della Mirandola followed their master to the grave. Marsilio Ficino passed away in 1499; and a friend of his asserted that the sage's ghost appeared to him. The atmosphere was full of rumours, portents, strange premonitions of revolution and doom. The true golden age of the Italian Renaissance may almost be said to have ended with Lorenzo de' Medici's life.
After the death of Lorenzo de' Medici, Michelangelo returned to his father's home, and began to work upon a statue of Hercules, which is now lost. It used to stand in the Strozzi Palace until the siege of Florence in 1530, when Giovanni Battista della Palla bought it from the steward of Filippo Strozzi, and sent it into France as a present to the king.
The Magnificent left seven children by his wife Clarice, of the princely Roman house of the Orsini. The eldest, Piero, was married to Alfonsina, of the same illustrious family. Giovanni, the second, had already received a cardinal's hat from his kinsman, Innocent VIII. Guiliano, the third, was destined to play a considerable part in Florentine history under the title of Duke of Nemours. One daughter was married to a Salviati, another to a Ridolfi, a third to the Pope's son, Franceschetto Cybò. The fourth, Luisa, had been betrothed to her distant cousin, Giovanni de' Medici; but the match was broken off, and she remained unmarried.
Piero now occupied that position of eminence and semi-despotic authority in Florence which his father and grandfather had held; but he was made of different stuff, both mentally and physically. The Orsini blood, which he inherited from his mother, mixed but ill in his veins with that of Florentine citizens and bankers. Following the proud and insolent traditions of his maternal ancestors, he began to discard the mask of civil urbanity with which Cosimo and Lorenzo had concealed their despotism. He treated the republic as though it were his own property, and prepared for the coming disasters of his race by the overbearing arrogance of his behaviour. Physically, he was powerful, tall, and active; fond of field-sports, and one of the best pallone-players of his time in Italy. Though he had been a pupil of Poliziano, he displayed but little of his father's interest in learning, art, and literature. Chance brought Michelangelo into personal relations with this man. On the 20th of January 1494 there was a heavy fall of snow in Florence, and Piero sent for the young sculptor to model a colossal snow-man in the courtyard of his palace. Critics have treated this as an insult to the great artist, and a sign of Piero's want of taste; but nothing was more natural than that a previous inmate of the Medicean household should use his talents for the recreation of the family who lived there. Piero upon this occasion begged Michelangelo to return and occupy the room he used to call his own during Lorenzo's lifetime. "And so," writes Condivi, "he remained for some months with the Medici, and was treated by Piero with great kindness; for the latter used to extol two men of his household as persons of rare ability, the one being Michelangelo, the other a Spanish groom, who, in addition to his personal beauty, which was something wonderful, had so good a wind and such agility that when Piero was galloping on horseback he could not outstrip him by a hand's-breadth."
At this period of his life Michelangelo devoted himself to anatomy. He had a friend, the Prior of S. Spirito, for whom he carved a wooden crucifix of nearly life-size. This liberal-minded churchman put a room at his disposal, and allowed him to dissect dead bodies. Condivi tells us that the practice of anatomy was a passion with his master. "His prolonged habits of dissection injured his stomach to such an extent that he lost the power of eating or drinking to any profit. It is true, however, that he became so learned in this branch of knowledge that he has often entertained the idea of composing a work for sculptors and painters, which should treat exhaustively of all the movements of the human body, the external aspect of the limbs, the bones, and so forth, adding an ingenious discourse upon the truths discovered by him through the investigations of many years. He would have done this if he had not mistrusted his own power of treating such a subject with the dignity and style of a practised rhetorician. I know well that when he reads Albert Dürer's book, it seems to him of no great value; his own conception being so far fuller and more useful. Truth to tell, Dürer only treats of the measurements and varied aspects of the human form, making his figures straight as stakes; and, what is more important, he says nothing about the attitudes and gestures of the body. Inasmuch as Michelangelo is now advanced in years, and does not count on bringing his ideas to light through composition, he has disclosed to me his theories in their minutest details. He also began to discourse upon the same topic with Messer Realdo Colombo, an anatomist and surgeon of the highest eminence. For the furtherance of such studies this good friend of ours sent him the corpse of a Moor, a young man of incomparable beauty, and admirably adapted for our purpose. It was placed at S. Agata, where I dwelt and still dwell, as being a quarter removed from public observation.
"On this corpse Michelangelo demonstrated to me many rare and abstruse things, which perhaps have never yet been fully understood, and all of which I noted down, hoping one day, by the help of some learned man, to give them to the public. Of Michelangelo's studies in anatomy we have one grim but interesting record in a pen-drawing by his hand at Oxford. A corpse is stretched upon a plank and trestles. Two men are bending over it with knives in their hands; and, for light to guide them in their labours, a candle is stuck into the belly of the subject."
As it is not my intention to write the political history of Michelangelo's period, I need not digress here upon the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII., which caused the expulsion of the Medici from Florence, and the establishment of a liberal government under the leadership of Savonarola. Michelangelo appears to have anticipated the catastrophe which was about to overwhelm his patron. He was by nature timid, suspicious, and apt to foresee disaster. Possibly he may have judged that the haughty citizens of Florence would not long put up with Piero's aristocratical insolence. But Condivi tells a story on the subject which is too curious to be omitted, and which he probably set down from Michelangelo's own lips. "In the palace of Piero a man called Cardiere was a frequent inmate. The Magnificent took much pleasure in his society, because he improvised verses to the guitar with marvellous dexterity, and the Medici also practised this art; so that nearly every evening after supper there was music. This Cardiere, being a friend of Michelangelo, confided to him a vision which pursued him, to the following effect. Lorenzo de' Medici appeared to him barely clad in one black tattered robe, and bade him relate to his son Piero that he would soon be expelled and never more return to his home. Now Piero was arrogant and overbearing to such an extent that neither the good-nature of the Cardinal Giovanni, his brother, nor the courtesy and urbanity of Giuliano, was so strong to maintain him in Florence as his own faults to cause his expulsion. Michelangelo encouraged the man to obey Lorenzo and report the matter to his son; but Cardiere, fearing his new master's temper, kept it to himself. On another morning, when Michelangelo was in the courtyard of the palace, Cardiere came with terror and pain written on his countenance. Last night Lorenzo had again appeared to him in the same garb of woe; and while he was awake and gazing with his eyes, the spectre dealt him a blow on the cheek, to punish him for omitting to report his vision to Piero. Michelangelo immediately gave him such a thorough scolding that Cardiere plucked up courage, and set forth on foot for Careggi, a Medicean villa some three miles distant from the city. He had traveled about halfway, when he met Piero, who was riding home; so he stopped the cavalcade, and related all that he had seen and heard. Piero laughed him to scorn, and, beckoning the running footmen, bade them mock the poor fellow. His Chancellor, who was afterwards the Cardinal of Bibbiena, cried out: 'You are a madman! Which do you think Lorenzo loved best, his son or you? If his son, would he not rather have appeared to him than to some one else?' Having thus jeered him, they let him go; and he, when he returned home and complained to Michelangelo, so convinced the latter of the truth of his vision that Michelangelo after two days left Florence with a couple of comrades, dreading that if what Cardiere had predicted should come true, he would no longer be safe in Florence."
This ghost-story bears a remarkable resemblance to what Clarendon relates concerning the apparition of Sir George Villiers. Wishing to warn his son, the Duke of Buckingham, of his coming murder at the hand of Lieutenant Felton, he did not appear to the Duke himself, but to an old man-servant of the family; upon which behaviour of Sir George's ghost the same criticism has been passed as on that of Lorenzo de' Medici.
Michelangelo and his two friends travelled across the Apennines to Bologna, and thence to Venice, where they stopped a few days. Want of money, or perhaps of work there drove them back upon the road to Florence. When they reached Bologna on the return journey, a curious accident happened to the party. The master of the city, Giovanni Bentivoglio, had recently decreed that every foreigner, on entering the gates, should be marked with a seal of red wax upon his thumb. The three Florentines omitted to obey this regulation, and were taken to the office of the Customs, where they were fined fifty Bolognese pounds. Michelangelo did not possess enough to pay this fine; but it so happened that a Bolognese nobleman called Gianfrancesco Aldovrandi was there, who, hearing that Buonarroti was a sculptor, caused the men to be released. Upon his urgent invitation, Michelangelo went to this gentleman's house, after taking leave of his two friends and giving them all the money in his pocket. With Messer Aldovrandi he remained more than a year, much honoured by his new patron, who took great delight in his genius; "and every evening he made Michelangelo read aloud to him out of Dante or Petrarch, and sometimes Boccaccio, until he went to sleep." He also worked upon the tomb of San Domenico during this first residence at Bologna. Originally designed and carried forward by Niccolò Pisano, this elaborate specimen of mediaeval sculpture remained in some points imperfect. There was a San Petronio whose drapery, begun by Niccolò da Bari, was unfinished. To this statue Michelangelo put the last touches; and he also carved a kneeling angel with a candelabrum, the workmanship of which surpasses in delicacy of execution all the other figures on the tomb.
Michelangelo left Bologna hastily. It is said that a sculptor who had expected to be employed upon the arca of S. Domenic threatened to do him some mischief if he stayed and took the bread out of the mouths of native craftsmen. He returned to Florence some time in 1495. The city was now quiet again, under the rule of Savonarola. Its burghers, in obedience to the friar's preaching, began to assume that air of pietistic sobriety which contrasted strangely with the gay licentiousness encouraged by their former master. Though the reigning branch of the Medici remained in exile, their distant cousins, who were descended from Lorenzo, the brother of Cosimo, Pater Patriae, kept their place in the republic. They thought it prudent, however, at this time, to exchange the hated name of de' Medici for Popolano. With a member of this section of the Medicean family, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, Michelangelo soon found himself on terms of intimacy. It was for him that he made a statue of the young S. John, which was perhaps rediscovered at Pisa in 1874. For a long time this S. Giovannino was attributed to Donatello; and it certainly bears decided marks of resemblance to that master's manner, in the choice of attitude, the close adherence to the model, and the treatment of the hands and feet. Still it has notable affinities to the style of Michelangelo, especially in the youthful beauty of the features, the disposition of the hair, and the sinuous lines which govern the whole composition. It may also be remarked that those peculiarities in the hands and feet which I have mentioned as reminding us of Donatello—a remarkable length in both extremities, owing to the elongation of the metacarpal and metatarsal bones and of the spaces dividing these from the forearm and tibia—are precisely the points which Michelangelo retained through life from his early study of Donatello's work. We notice them particularly in the Dying Slave of the Louvre, which is certainly one of his most characteristic works. Good judges are therefore perhaps justified in identifying this S. Giovannino, which is now in the Berlin Museum, with the statue made for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici.
The next piece which occupied Michelangelo's chisel was a Sleeping Cupid. His patron thought this so extremely beautiful that he remarked to the sculptor: "If you were to treat it artificially, so as to make it look as though it had been dug up, I would send it to Rome; it would be accepted as an antique, and you would be able to sell it at a far higher price." Michelangelo took the hint. His Cupid went to Rome, and was sold for thirty ducats to a dealer called Messer Baldassare del Milanese, who resold it to Raffaello Riario, the Cardinal di S. Giorgio, for the advanced sum of 200 ducats. It appears from this transaction that Michelangelo did not attempt to impose upon the first purchaser, but that this man passed it off upon the Cardinal as an antique. When the Cardinal began to suspect that the Cupid was the work of a modern Florentine, he sent one of his gentlemen to Florence to inquire into the circumstances. The rest of the story shall be told in Condivi's words.
"This gentleman, pretending to be on the lookout for a sculptor capable of executing certain works in Rome, after visiting several, was addressed to Michelangelo. When he saw the young artist, he begged him to show some proof of his ability; whereupon Michelangelo took a pen (for at that time the crayon [lapis] had not come into use), and drew a hand with such grace that the gentleman was stupefied. Afterwards, he asked if he had ever worked in marble, and when Michelangelo said yes, and mentioned among other things a Cupid of such height and in such an attitude, the man knew that he had found the right person. So he related how the matter had gone, and promised Michelangelo, if he would come with him to Rome, to get the difference of price made up, and to introduce him to his patron, feeling sure that the latter would receive him very kindly. Michelangelo, then, partly in anger at having been cheated, and partly moved by the gentleman's account of Rome as the widest field for an artist to display his talents, went with him, and lodged in his house, near the palace of the Cardinal." S. Giorgio compelled Messer Baldassare to refund the 200 ducats, and to take the Cupid back. But Michelangelo got nothing beyond his original price; and both Condivi and Vasari blame the Cardinal for having been a dull and unsympathetic patron to the young artist of genius he had brought from Florence. Still the whole transaction was of vast importance, because it launched him for the first time upon Rome, where he was destined to spend the larger part of his long life, and to serve a succession of Pontiffs in their most ambitious undertakings.
Before passing to the events of his sojourn at Rome, I will wind up the story of the Cupid. It passed first into the hands of Cesare Borgia, who presented it to Guidobaldo di Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. On the 30th of June 1502, the Marchioness of Mantua wrote a letter to the Cardinal of Este, saying that she should very much like to place this piece, together with an antique statuette of Venus, both of which had belonged to her brother-in-law, the Duke of Urbino, in her own collection. Apparently they had just become the property of Cesare Borgia, when he took and sacked the town of Urbino upon the 20th of June in that year. Cesare Borgia seems to have complied immediately with her wishes; for in a second letter, dated July 22, 1502, she described the Cupid as "without a peer among the works of modern times."
Michelangelo arrived in Rome at the end of June 1496. This we know from the first of his extant letters, which is dated July 2, and addressed to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici. The superscription, however, bears the name of Sandro Botticelli, showing that some caution had still to be observed in corresponding with the Medici, even with those who latterly assumed the name of Popolani. The young Buonarroti writes in excellent spirits: "I only write to inform you that last Saturday we arrived safely, and went at once to visit the Cardinal di San Giorgio; and I presented your letter to him. It appeared to me that he was pleased to see me, and he expressed a wish that I should go immediately to inspect his collection of statues. I spent the whole day there, and for that reason was unable to deliver all your letters. Afterwards, on Sunday, the Cardinal came into the new house, and had me sent for. I went to him, and he asked what I thought about the things which I had seen. I replied by stating my opinion, and certainly I can say with sincerity that there are many fine things in the collection. Then he asked me whether I had the courage to make some beautiful work of art. I answered that I should not be able to achieve anything so great, but that he should see what I could do. We have bought a piece of marble for a life-size statue, and on Monday I shall begin to work."
After describing his reception, Michelangelo proceeds to relate the efforts he was making to regain his Sleeping Cupid from Messer Baldassare: "Afterwards, I gave your letter to Baldassare, and asked him for the child, saying I was ready to refund his money. He answered very roughly, swearing he would rather break it in a hundred pieces; he had bought the child, and it was his property; he possessed writings which proved that he had satisfied the person who sent it to him, and was under no apprehension that he should have to give it up. Then he complained bitterly of you, saying that you had spoken ill of him. Certain of our Florentines sought to accommodate matters, but failed in their attempt. Now I look to coming to terms through the Cardinal; for this is the advice of Baldassare Balducci. What ensues I will report to you." It is clear that Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, being convinced of the broker's sharp practice, was trying to recover the Sleeping Cupid (the child) at the price originally paid for it, either for himself or for Buonarroti. The Cardinal is mentioned as being the most likely person to secure the desired result.
Whether Condivi is right in saying that S. Giorgio neglected to employ Michelangelo may be doubted. We have seen from this letter to Lorenzo that the Cardinal bought a piece of marble and ordered a life-size statue. But nothing more is heard about the work. Professor Milanesi, however, has pointed out that when the sculptor was thinking of leaving Rome in 1497 he wrote to his father on the 1st of July as follows: "Most revered and beloved father, do not be surprised that I am unable to return, for I have not yet settled my affairs with the Cardinal, and I do not wish to leave until I am properly paid for my labour; and with these great patrons one must go about quietly, since they cannot be compelled. I hope, however, at any rate during the course of next week, to have completed the transaction."
Michelangelo remained at Rome for more than two years after the date of the letter just quoted. We may conjecture, then, that he settled his accounts with the Cardinal, whatever these were, and we know that he obtained other orders. In a second letter to his father, August 19, 1497, he writes thus: "Piero de' Medici gave me a commission for a statue, and I bought the marble. But I did not begin to work upon it, because he failed to perform what he promised. Wherefore I am acting on my own account, and am making a statue for my own pleasure. I bought the marble for five ducats, and it turned out bad. So I threw my money away. Now I have bought another at the same price, and the work I am doing is for my amusement. You will therefore understand that I too have large expenses and many troubles."
During the first year of his residence in Rome (between July 2, 1496, and August 19, 1497) Michelangelo must have made some money, else he could not have bought marble and have worked upon his own account. Vasari asserts that he remained nearly twelve months in the household of the Cardinal, and that he only executed a drawing of S. Francis receiving the stigmata, which was coloured by a barber in S. Giorgio's service, and placed in the Church of S. Pietro a Montorio. Benedetto Varchi describes this picture as having been painted by Buonarroti's own hand. We know nothing more for certain about it. How he earned his money is therefore, unexplained, except upon the supposition that S. Giorgio, unintelligent as he may have been in his patronage of art, paid him for work performed. I may here add that the Piero de' Medici who gave the commission mentioned in the last quotation was the exiled head of the ruling family. Nothing had to be expected from such a man. He came to Rome in order to be near the Cardinal Giovanni, and to share this brother's better fortunes; but his days and nights were spent in debauchery among the companions and accomplices of shameful riot.
Michelangelo, in short, like most young artists, was struggling into fame and recognition. Both came to him by the help of a Roman gentleman and banker, Messer Jacopo Gallo. It so happened that an intimate Florentine friend of Buonarroti, the Baldassare Balducci mentioned at the end of his letter to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, was employed in Gallo's house of business. It is probable, therefore, that this man formed the link of connection between the sculptor and his new patron. At all events, Messer Gallo purchased a Bacchus, which now adorns the sculpture-gallery of the Bargello, and a Cupid, which may possibly be the statue at South Kensington.
Condivi says that this gentleman, "a man of fine intelligence, employed him to execute in his own house a marble Bacchus, ten palms in height, the form and aspect of which correspond in all parts to the meaning of ancient authors. The face of the youth is jocund, the eyes wandering and wanton, as is the wont with those who are too much addicted to a taste for wine. In his right hand he holds a cup, lifting it to drink, and gazing at it like one who takes delight in that liquor, of which he was the first discoverer. For this reason, too, the sculptor has wreathed his head with vine-tendrils. On his left arm hangs a tiger-skin, the beast dedicated to Bacchus, as being very partial to the grape. Here the artist chose rather to introduce the skin than the animal itself, in order to hint that sensual indulgence in the pleasure of the grape-juice leads at last to loss of life. With the hand of this arm he holds a bunch of grapes, which a little satyr, crouched below him, is eating on the sly with glad and eager gestures. The child may seem to be seven years, the Bacchus eighteen of age." This description is comparatively correct, except that Condivi is obviously mistaken when he supposes that Michelangelo's young Bacchus faithfully embodies the Greek spirit. The Greeks never forgot, in all their representations of Dionysos, that he was a mystic and enthusiastic deity. Joyous, voluptuous, androgynous, he yet remains the god who brought strange gifts and orgiastic rites to men. His followers, Silenus, Bacchantes, Fauns, exhibit, in their self-abandonment to sensual joy, the operation of his genius. The deity descends to join their revels from his clear Olympian ether, but he is not troubled by the fumes of intoxication. Michelangelo has altered this conception. Bacchus, with him, is a terrestrial young man, upon the verge of toppling over into drunkenness. The value of the work is its realism. The attitude could not be sustained in actual life for a moment without either the goblet spilling its liquor or the body reeling side-ways. Not only are the eyes wavering and wanton, but the muscles of the mouth have relaxed into a tipsy smile; and, instead of the tiger-skin being suspended from the left arm, it has slipped down, and is only kept from falling by the loose grasp of the trembling hand. Nothing, again, could be less godlike than the face of Bacchus. It is the face of a not remarkably good-looking model, and the head is too small both for the body and the heavy crown of leaves. As a study of incipient intoxication, when the whole person is disturbed by drink, but human dignity has not yet yielded to a bestial impulse, this statue proves the energy of Michelangelo's imagination. The physical beauty of his adolescent model in the limbs and body redeems the grossness of the motive by the inalienable charm of health and carnal comeliness. Finally, the technical merits of the work cannot too strongly be insisted on. The modelling of the thorax, the exquisite roundness and fleshiness of the thighs and arms and belly, the smooth skin-surface expressed throughout in marble, will excite admiration in all who are capable of appreciating this aspect of the statuary's art. Michelangelo produced nothing more finished in execution, if we except the Pietà at S. Peter's. His Bacchus alone is sufficient to explode a theory favoured by some critics, that, left to work unhindered, he would still have preferred a certain vagueness, a certain want of polish in his marbles.
Nevertheless, the Bacchus leaves a disagreeable impression on the mind—as disagreeable in its own way as that produced by the Christ of the Minerva. That must be because it is wrong in spiritual conception—brutally materialistic, where it ought to have been noble or graceful. In my opinion, the frank, joyous naturalism of Sansovino's Bacchus (also in the Bargello) possesses more of true Greek inspiration than Michelangelo's. If Michelangelo meant to carve a Bacchus, he failed; if he meant to imitate a physically desirable young man in a state of drunkenness, he succeeded.
What Shelley wrote upon this statue may here be introduced, since it combines both points of view in a criticism of much spontaneous vigour.
"The countenance of this figure is the most revolting mistake of the spirit and meaning of Bacchus. It looks drunken, brutal, and narrow-minded, and has an expression of dissoluteness the most revolting. The lower part of the figure is stiff, and the manner in which the shoulders are united to the breast, and the neck to the head, abundantly inharmonious. It is altogether without unity, as was the idea of the deity of Bacchus in the conception of a Catholic. On the other hand, considered merely as a piece of workmanship, it has great merits. The arms are executed in the most perfect and manly beauty; the body is conceived with great energy, and the lines which describe the sides and thighs, and the manner in which they mingle into one another, are of the highest order of boldness and beauty. It wants, as a work of art, unity and simplicity; as a representation of the Greek deity of Bacchus, it wants everything."
Jacopo Gallo is said to have also purchased a Cupid from Michelangelo. It has been suggested, with great plausibility, that this Cupid was the piece which Michelangelo began when Piero de' Medici's commission fell through, and that it therefore preceded the Bacchus in date of execution. It has also been suggested that the so-called Cupid at South Kensington is the work in question. We have no authentic information to guide us in the matter. But the South Kensington Cupid is certainly a production of the master's early manhood. It was discovered some forty years ago, hidden away in the cellars of the Gualfonda (Rucellai) Gardens at Florence, by Professor Miliarini and the famous Florentine sculptor Santarelli. On a cursory inspection they both declared it to be a genuine Michelangelo. The left arm was broken, the right hand damaged, and the hair had never received the sculptor's final touches. Santarelli restored the arm, and the Cupid passed by purchase into the possession of the English nation. This fine piece of sculpture is executed in Michelangelo's proudest, most dramatic manner. The muscular young man of eighteen, a model of superb adolescence, kneels upon his right knee, while the right hand is lowered to lift an arrow from the ground. The left hand is raised above the head, and holds the bow, while the left leg is so placed, with the foot firmly pressed upon the ground, as to indicate that in a moment the youth will rise, fit the shaft to the string, and send it whistling at his adversary. This choice of a momentary attitude is eminently characteristic of Michelangelo's style; and, if we are really to believe that he intended to portray the god of love, it offers another instance of his independence of classical tradition. No Greek would have thus represented Eros. The lyric poets, indeed, Ibycus and Anacreon, imaged him as a fierce invasive deity, descending like the whirlwind on an oak, or striking at his victim with an axe. But these romantic ideas did not find expression, so far as I am aware, in antique plastic art. Michelangelo's Cupid is therefore as original as his Bacchus. Much as critics have written, and with justice, upon the classical tendencies of the Italian Renaissance, they have failed to point out that the Paganism of the Cinque Cento rarely involved a servile imitation of the antique or a sympathetic intelligence of its spirit. Least of all do we find either of these qualities in Michelangelo. He drew inspiration from his own soul, and he went straight to Nature for the means of expressing the conception he had formed. Unlike the Greeks, he invariably preferred the particular to the universal, the critical moment of an action to suggestions of the possibilities of action. He carved an individual being, not an abstraction or a generalisation of personality. The Cupid supplies us with a splendid illustration of this criticism. Being a product of his early energy, before he had formed a certain manneristic way of seeing Nature and of reproducing what he saw, it not only casts light upon the spontaneous working of his genius, but it also shows how the young artist had already come to regard the inmost passion of the soul. When quite an old man, rhyming those rough platonic sonnets, he always spoke of love as masterful and awful. For his austere and melancholy nature, Eros was no tender or light-winged youngling, but a masculine tyrant, the tamer of male spirits. Therefore this Cupid, adorable in the power and beauty of his vigorous manhood, may well remain for us the myth or symbol of love as Michelangelo imagined that emotion. In composition, the figure is from all points of view admirable, presenting a series of nobly varied line-harmonies. All we have to regret is that time, exposure to weather, and vulgar outrage should have spoiled the surface of the marble.
It is natural to turn from the Cupid to another work belonging to the English nation, which has recently been ascribed to Michelangelo. I mean the Madonna, with Christ, S. John, and four attendant male figures, once in the possession of Mr. H. Labouchere, and now in the National Gallery. We have no authentic tradition regarding this tempera painting, which in my judgment is the most beautiful of the easel pictures attributed to Michelangelo. Internal evidence from style renders its genuineness in the highest degree probable. No one else upon the close of the fifteenth century was capable of producing a composition at once so complicated, so harmonious, and so clear as the group formed by Madonna, Christ leaning on her knee to point a finger at the book she holds, and the young S. John turned round to combine these figures with the exquisitely blended youths behind him. Unfortunately the two angels or genii upon the left hand are unfinished; but had the picture been completed, we should probably have been able to point out another magnificent episode in the composition, determined by the transverse line carried from the hand upon the last youth's shoulder, through the open book and the upraised arm of Christ, down to the feet of S. John and the last genius on the right side. Florentine painters had been wont to place attendant angels at both sides of their enthroned Madonnas. Fine examples might be chosen from the work of Filippino Lippi and Botticelli. But their angels were winged and clothed like acolytes; the Madonna was seated on a rich throne or under a canopy, with altar-candles, wreaths of roses, flowering lilies. It is characteristic of Michelangelo to adopt a conventional motive, and to treat it with brusque originality. In this picture there are no accessories to the figures, and the attendant angels are Tuscan lads half draped in succinct tunics. The style is rather that of a flat relief in stone than of a painting; and though we may feel something of Ghirlandajo's influence, the spirit of Donatello and Luca della Robbia are more apparent. That it was the work of an inexperienced painter is shown by the failure to indicate pictorial planes. In spite of the marvellous and intricate beauty of the line-composition, it lacks that effect of graduated distances which might perhaps have been secured by execution in bronze or marble. The types have not been chosen with regard to ideal loveliness or dignity, but accurately studied from living models. This is very obvious in the heads of Christ and S. John. The two adolescent genii on the right hand possess a high degree of natural grace. Yet even here what strikes one most is the charm of their attitude, the lovely interlacing of their arms and breasts, the lithe alertness of the one lad contrasted with the thoughtful leaning languor of his comrade. Only perhaps in some drawings of combined male figures made by Ingres for his picture of the Golden Age have lines of equal dignity and simple beauty been developed. I do not think that this Madonna, supposing it to be a genuine piece by Michelangelo, belongs to the period of his first residence in Rome. In spite of its immense intellectual power, it has an air of immaturity. Probably Heath Wilson was right in assigning it to the time spent at Florence after Lorenzo de' Medici's death, when the artist was about twenty years of age.
I may take this occasion for dealing summarily with the Entombment in the National Gallery. The picture, which is half finished, has no pedigree. It was bought out of the collection of Cardinal Fesch, and pronounced to be a Michelangelo by the Munich painter Cornelius. Good judges have adopted this attribution, and to differ from them requires some hardihood. Still it is painful to believe that at any period of his life Michelangelo could have produced a composition so discordant, so unsatisfactory in some anatomical details, so feelingless and ugly. It bears indubitable traces of his influence; that is apparent in the figure of the dead Christ. But this colossal nude, with the massive chest and attenuated legs, reminds us of his manner in old age; whereas the rest of the picture shows no trace of that manner. I am inclined to think that the Entombment was the production of a second-rate craftsman, working upon some design made by Michelangelo at the advanced period when the Passion of our Lord occupied his thoughts in Rome. Even so, the spirit of the drawing must have been imperfectly assimilated; and, what is more puzzling, the composition does not recall the style of Michelangelo's old age. The colouring, so far as we can understand it, rather suggests Pontormo.
Michelangelo's good friend, Jacopo Gallo, was again helpful to him in the last and greatest work which he produced during this Roman residence. The Cardinal Jean de la Groslaye de Villiers François, Abbot of S. Denys, and commonly called by Italians the Cardinal di San Dionigi, wished to have a specimen of the young sculptor's handiwork. Accordingly articles were drawn up to the following effect on August 26, 1498: "Let it be known and manifest to whoso shall read the ensuing document, that the most Rev. Cardinal of S. Dionigi has thus agreed with the master Michelangelo, sculptor of Florence, to wit, that the said master shall make a Pietà of marble at his own cost; that is to say, a Virgin Mary clothed, with the dead Christ in her arms, of the size of a proper man, for the price of 450 golden ducats of the Papal mint, within the term of one year from the day of the commencement of the work." Next follow clauses regarding the payment of the money, whereby the Cardinal agrees to disburse sums in advance. The contract concludes with a guarantee and surety given by Jacopo Gallo. "And I, Jacopo Gallo, pledge my word to his most Rev. Lordship that the said Michelangelo will finish the said work within one year, and that it shall be the finest work in marble which Rome to-day can show, and that no master of our days shall be able to produce a better. And, in like manner, on the other side, I pledge my word to the said Michelangelo that the most Rev. Card. will disburse the payments according to the articles above engrossed. To witness which, I, Jacopo Gallo, have made this present writing with my own hand, according to the date of year, month, and day as above."
The Pietà raised Michelangelo at once to the highest place among the artists of his time, and it still remains unrivalled for the union of sublime aesthetic beauty with profound religious feeling. The mother of the dead Christ is seated on a stone at the foot of the cross, supporting the body of her son upon her knees, gazing sadly at his wounded side, and gently lifting her left hand, as though to say, "Behold and see!" She has the small head and heroic torso used by Michelangelo to suggest immense physical force. We feel that such a woman has no difficulty in holding a man's corpse upon her ample lap and in her powerful arms. Her face, which differs from the female type he afterwards preferred, resembles that of a young woman. For this he was rebuked by critics who thought that her age should correspond more naturally to that of her adult son. Condivi reports that Michelangelo explained his meaning in the following words: "Do you not know that chaste women maintain their freshness far longer than the unchaste? How much more would this be the case with a virgin, into whose breast there never crept the least lascivious desire which could affect the body? Nay, I will go further, and hazard the belief that this unsullied bloom of youth, besides being maintained in her by natural causes, may have been miraculously wrought to convince the world of the virginity and perpetual purity of the Mother. This was not necessary for the Son. On the contrary, in order to prove that the Son of God took upon himself, as in very truth he did take, a human body, and became subject to all that an ordinary man is subject to, with the exception of sin; the human nature of Christ, instead of being superseded by the divine, was left to the operation of natural laws, so that his person revealed the exact age to which he had attained. You need not, therefore, marvel if, having regard to these considerations, I made the most Holy Virgin, Mother of God, much younger relatively to her Son than women of her years usually appear, and left the Son such as his time of life demanded." "This reasoning," adds Condivi, "was worthy of some learned theologian, and would have been little short of marvellous in most men, but not in him, whom God and Nature fashioned, not merely to be peerless in his handiwork, but also capable of the divinest concepts, as innumerable discourses and writings which we have of his make clearly manifest."
The Christ is also somewhat youthful, and modelled with the utmost delicacy; suggesting no lack of strength, but subordinating the idea of physical power to that of a refined and spiritual nature. Nothing can be more lovely than the hands, the feet, the arms, relaxed in slumber. Death becomes immortally beautiful in that recumbent figure, from which the insults of the scourge, the cross, the brutal lance have been erased. Michelangelo did not seek to excite pity or to stir devotion by having recourse to those mediaeval ideas which were so passionately expressed in S. Bernard's hymn to the Crucified. The aesthetic tone of his dead Christ is rather that of some sweet solemn strain of cathedral music, some motive from a mass of Palestrina or a Passion of Sebastian Bach. Almost involuntarily there rises to the memory that line composed by Bion for the genius of earthly loveliness bewailed by everlasting beauty—
E'en as a corpse he is fair, fair corpse as fallen aslumber.
It is said that certain Lombards passing by and admiring the Pietà ascribed it to Christoforo Solari of Milan, surnamed Il Gobbo. Michelangelo, having happened to overhear them, shut himself up in the chapel, and engraved the belt upon the Madonna's breast with his own name. This he never did with any other of his works.
This masterpiece of highest art combined with pure religious feeling was placed in the old Basilica of S. Peter's, in a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Fever, Madonna della Febbre. Here, on the night of August 19, 1503, it witnessed one of those horrid spectacles which in Italy at that period so often intervened to interrupt the rhythm of romance and beauty and artistic melody. The dead body of Roderigo Borgia, Alexander VI., lay in state from noon onwards in front of the high altar; but since "it was the most repulsive, monstrous, and deformed corpse which had ever yet been seen, without any form or figure of humanity, shame compelled them to partly cover it." "Late in the evening it was transferred to the chapel of Our Lady of the Fever, and deposited in a corner by six hinds or porters and two carpenters, who had made the coffin too narrow and too short. Joking and jeering, they stripped the tiara and the robes of office from the body, wrapped it up in an old carpet, and then with force of fists and feet rammed it down into the box, without torches, without a ministering priest, without a single person to attend and bear a consecrated candle." Of such sort was the vigil kept by this solemn statue, so dignified in grief and sweet in death, at the ignoble obsequies of him who, occupying the loftiest throne of Christendom, incarnated the least erected spirit of his age. The ivory-smooth white corpse of Christ in marble, set over against that festering corpse of his Vicar on earth, "black as a piece of cloth or the blackest mulberry," what a hideous contrast!
It may not be inappropriate to discuss the question of the Bruges Madonna here. This is a marble statue, well placed in a chapel of Notre Dame, relieved against a black marble niche, with excellent illumination from the side. The style is undoubtedly Michelangelesque, the execution careful, the surface-finish exquisite, and the type of the Madonna extremely similar to that of the Pietà at S. Peter's. She is seated in an attitude of almost haughty dignity, with the left foot raised upon a block of stone. The expression of her features is marked by something of sternness, which seems inherent in the model. Between her knees stands, half reclining, half as though wishing to step downwards from the throne, her infant Son. One arm rests upon his mother's knee; the right hand is thrown round to clasp her left. This attitude gives grace of rhythm to the lines of his nude body. True to the realism which controlled Michelangelo at the commencement of his art career, the head of Christ, who is but a child, slightly overloads his slender figure. Physically he resembles the Infant Christ of our National Gallery picture, but has more of charm and sweetness. All these indications point to a genuine product of Michelangelo's first Roman manner; and the position of the statue in a chapel ornamented by the Bruges family of Mouscron renders the attribution almost certain. However, we have only two authentic records of the work among the documents at our disposal. Condivi, describing the period of Michelangelo's residence in Florence (1501-1504), says: "He also cast in bronze a Madonna with the Infant Christ, which certain Flemish merchants of the house of Mouscron, a most noble family in their own land, bought for two hundred ducats, and sent to Flanders." A letter addressed under date August 4, 1506, by Giovanni Balducci in Rome to Michelangelo at Florence, proves that some statue which was destined for Flanders remained among the sculptor's property at Florence. Balducci uses the feminine gender in writing about this work, which justifies us in thinking that it may have been a Madonna. He says that he has found a trustworthy agent to convey it to Viareggio, and to ship it thence to Bruges, where it will be delivered into the hands of the heir of John and Alexander Mouscron and Co., "as being their property." This statue, in all probability, is the "Madonna in marble" about which Michelangelo wrote to his father from Rome on the 31st of January 1507, and which he begged his father to keep hidden in their dwelling. It is difficult to reconcile Condivi's statement with Balducci's letter. The former says that the Madonna bought by the Mouscron family was cast in bronze at Florence. The Madonna in the Mouscron Chapel at Notre Dame is a marble. I think we may assume that the Bruges Madonna is the piece which Michelangelo executed for the Mouscron brothers, and that Condivi was wrong in believing it to have been cast in bronze. That the statue was sent some time after the order had been given, appears from the fact that Balducci consigned it to the heir of John and Alexander, "as being their property;" but it cannot be certain at what exact date it was begun and finished.
While Michelangelo was acquiring immediate celebrity and immortal fame by these three statues, so different in kind and hitherto unrivalled in artistic excellence, his family lived somewhat wretchedly at Florence. Lodovico had lost his small post at the Customs after the expulsion of the Medici; and three sons, younger than the sculptor, were now growing up. Buonarroto, born in 1477, had been put to the cloth-trade, and was serving under the Strozzi in their warehouse at the Porta Rossa. Giovan-Simone, two years younger (he was born in 1479), after leading a vagabond life for some while, joined Buonarroto in a cloth-business provided for them by Michelangelo. He was a worthless fellow, and gave his eldest brother much trouble. Sigismondo, born in 1481, took to soldiering; but at the age of forty he settled down upon the paternal farm at Settignano, and annoyed his brother by sinking into the condition of a common peasant.
The constant affection felt for these not very worthy relatives by Michelangelo is one of the finest traits in his character. They were continually writing begging letters, grumbling and complaining. He supplied them with funds, stinting himself in order to maintain them decently and to satisfy their wishes. But the more he gave, the more they demanded; and on one or two occasions, as we shall see in the course of this biography, their rapacity and ingratitude roused his bitterest indignation. Nevertheless, he did not swerve from the path of filial and brotherly kindness which his generous nature and steady will had traced. He remained the guardian of their interests, the custodian of their honour, and the builder of their fortunes to the end of his long life. The correspondence with his father and these brothers and a nephew, Lionardo, was published in full for the first time in 1875. It enables us to comprehend the true nature of the man better than any biographical notice; and I mean to draw largely upon this source, so as gradually, by successive stipplings, as it were, to present a miniature portrait of one who was both admirable in private life and incomparable as an artist.
This correspondence opens in the year 1497. From a letter addressed to Lodovico under the date August 19, we learn that Buonarroto had just arrived in Rome, and informed his brother of certain pecuniary difficulties under which the family was labouring. Michelangelo gave advice, and promised to send all the money he could bring together. "Although, as I have told you, I am out of pocket myself, I will do my best to get money, in order that you may not have to borrow from the Monte, as Buonarroto says is possible. Do not wonder if I have sometimes written irritable letters; for I often suffer great distress of mind and temper, owing to matters which must happen to one who is away from home…. In spite of all this, I will send you what you ask for, even should I have to sell myself into slavery." Buonarroto must have paid a second visit to Rome; for we possess a letter from Lodovico to Michelangelo, under date December 19, 1500, which throws important light upon the latter's habits and designs. The old man begins by saying how happy he is to observe the love which Michelangelo bears his brothers. Then he speaks about the cloth-business which Michelangelo intends to purchase for them. Afterwards, he proceeds as follows: "Buonarroto tells me that you live at Rome with great economy, or rather penuriousness. Now economy is good, but penuriousness is evil, seeing that it is a vice displeasing to God and men, and moreover injurious both to soul and body. So long as you are young, you will be able for a time to endure these hardships; but when the vigour of youth fails, then diseases and infirmities make their appearance; for these are caused by personal discomforts, mean living, and penurious habits. As I said, economy is good; but, above all things, shun stinginess. Live discreetly well, and see you have what is needful. Whatever happens, do not expose yourself to physical hardships; for in your profession, if you were once to fall ill (which God forbid), you would be a ruined man. Above all things, take care of your head, and keep it moderately warm, and see that you never wash: have yourself rubbed down, but do not wash." This sordid way of life became habitual with Michelangelo. When he was dwelling at Bologna in 1506, he wrote home to his brother Buonarroto: "With regard to Giovan-Simone's proposed visit, I do not advise him to come yet awhile, for I am lodged here in one wretched room, and have bought a single bed, in which we all four of us (i.e., himself and his three workmen) sleep." And again: "I am impatient to get away from this place, for my mode of life here is so wretched, that if you only knew what it is, you would be miserable." The summer was intensely hot at Bologna, and the plague broke out. In these circumstances it seems miraculous that the four sculptors in one bed escaped contagion. Michelangelo's parsimonious habits were not occasioned by poverty or avarice. He accumulated large sums of money by his labour, spent it freely on his family, and exercised bountiful charity for the welfare of his soul. We ought rather to ascribe them to some constitutional peculiarity, affecting his whole temperament, and tinging his experience with despondency and gloom. An absolute insensibility to merely decorative details, to the loveliness of jewels, stuffs, and natural objects, to flowers and trees and pleasant landscapes, to everything, in short, which delighted the Italians of that period, is a main characteristic of his art. This abstraction and aridity, this ascetic devotion of his genius to pure ideal form, this almost mathematical conception of beauty, may be ascribed, I think, to the same psychological qualities which determined the dreary conditions of his home-life. He was no niggard either of money or of ideas; nay, even profligate of both. But melancholy made him miserly in all that concerned personal enjoyment; and he ought to have been born under that leaden planet Saturn rather than Mercury and Venus in the house of Jove. Condivi sums up his daily habits thus: "He has always been extremely temperate in living, using food more because it was necessary than for any pleasure he took in it; especially when he was engaged upon some great work; for then he usually confined himself to a piece of bread, which he ate in the middle of his labour. However, for some time past, he has been living with more regard to health, his advanced age putting this constraint upon his natural inclination. Often have I heard him say: 'Ascanio, rich as I may have been, I have always lived like a poor man.' And this abstemiousness in food he has practised in sleep also; for sleep, according to his own account, rarely suits his constitution, since he continually suffers from pains in the head during slumber, and any excessive amount of sleep deranges his stomach. While he was in full vigour, he generally went to bed with his clothes on, even to the tall boots, which he has always worn, because of a chronic tendency to cramp, as well as for other reasons. At certain seasons he has kept these boots on for such a length of time, that when he drew them off the skin came away together with the leather, like that of a sloughing snake. He was never stingy of cash, nor did he accumulate money, being content with just enough to keep him decently; wherefore, though innumerable lords and rich folk have made him splendid offers for some specimen of his craft, he rarely complied, and then, for the most part, more out of kindness and friendship than with any expectation of gain." In spite of all this, or rather because of his temperance in food and sleep and sexual pleasure, together with his manual industry, he preserved excellent health into old age.
I have thought it worth while to introduce this general review of Michelangelo's habits, without omitting some details which may seem repulsive to the modern reader, at an early period of his biography, because we ought to carry with us through the vicissitudes of his long career and many labours an accurate conception of our hero's personality. For this reason it may not be unprofitable to repeat what Condivi says about his physical appearance in the last years of his life. "Michelangelo is of a good complexion; more muscular and bony than fat or fleshy in his person: healthy above all things, as well by reason of his natural constitution as of the exercise he takes, and habitual continence in food and sexual indulgence. Nevertheless, he was a weakly child, and has suffered two illnesses in manhood. His countenance always showed a good and wholesome colour. Of stature he is as follows: height middling; broad in the shoulders; the rest of the body somewhat slender in proportion. The shape of his face is oval, the space above the ears being one sixth higher than a semicircle. Consequently the temples project beyond the ears, and the ears beyond the cheeks, and these beyond the rest; so that the skull, in relation to the whole head, must be called large. The forehead, seen in front, is square; the nose, a little flattened—not by nature, but because, when he was a young boy, Torrigiano de' Torrigiani, a brutal and insolent fellow, smashed in the cartilage with his fist. Michelangelo was carried home half dead on this occasion; and Torrigiano, having been exiled from Florence for his violence, came to a bad end. The nose, however, being what it is, bears a proper proportion to the forehead and the rest of the face. The lips are thin, but the lower is slightly thicker than the upper; so that, seen in profile, it projects a little. The chin is well in harmony with the features I have described. The forehead, in a side-view, almost hangs over the nose; and this looks hardly less than broken, were it not for a trifling proturberance in the middle. The eyebrows are not thick with hair; the eyes may even be called small, of a colour like horn, but speckled and stained with spots of bluish yellow. The ears in good proportion; hair of the head black, as also the beard, except that both are now grizzled by old age; the beard double-forked, about five inches long, and not very bushy, as may partly be observed in his portrait."
We have no contemporary account of Michelangelo in early manhood; but the tenor of his life was so even, and, unlike Cellini, he moved so constantly upon the same lines and within the same sphere of patient self-reserve, that it is not difficult to reconstruct the young and vigorous sculptor out of this detailed description by his loving friend and servant in old age. Few men, notably few artists, have preserved that continuity of moral, intellectual, and physical development in one unbroken course which is the ...