The Cavaliere Cosimo Buonnarroti was the lineal descendant of Buonnarroto Buonnarroti, the younger brother of Michelangelo, and the possessor of the house which had belonged to him in the Via Ghibellina at Florence. He died on the 12th of February, 1858, bequeathing his house and the Michelangelesque Museum contained in it to the city of Florence. In truth, the collection of memorials existing there might well be called a Museum.
Not only was the mass of manuscripts extremely voluminous, but there were many works of art from the hand of the master, models especially, and first ideas for several of his larger works, especially one most interesting first sketch in wax of the ” David,” besides other relics, — his chair, his walking-stick, his writing-desk, and the like. The house and all its contents, as has been said, were left by the Cavaliere Cosimo, who had been Minister of Public Instruction under the last Grand Duke, to the city of Florence, to the exclusion of certain collateral relatives, who, it was known, would have dispersed and sold the collection. But in consequence of a curious circumstance the city did not enter into possession of the property under the will.Order now
The Tuscan law required (and the Italian law may still require, but there were differences in the legislation at that time); that the witnesses to the execution of a holograph will, such as that which the Cavaliere Buonnarroti made, should be in the same room with the testator at the time of his making the will in question. Now the Cavaliere Buonnarroti being very ill, and suffering much from the heat in the room in which he was dying, in which there were several persons, a portion of those present were requested to pass into an adjoining room, communicating with the sick-man’s room by large folding-doors, which were open. Several of those present did so, and the persons who subsequently signed the will as witnesses were among the number.
Hence it was afterwards objected, on the behalf of those who were the heirsat-law, and would have inherited the Buonnarroti house and its contents but for the will, that the document was invalid on the ground which has been mentioned. The case was brought before the courts, and was given against the city, which, however, succeeded in compromising the matter by the payment of a large sura to the heirs-at-law. When the papers had become public property, the task of editing the letters was intrusted to the Cavaliere Gaetano Milanesi; the task of writing a new life based in part on the new materials was assigned to the Commendatore Aurelio Gotti, while Count Luigi Passerini, the librarian of the National Library, under- took to prepare a Michelangelesque bibliography, with an addition thereto of a list of all the engravers who have produced engravings from his works. Previously, however, it was arranged that an English translation of the “ Life ” should be executed by Mr. Charles Heath Wilson, a well-known artist and man of letters, long resident at Florence.
Born in 1475, in the lovely district of the Casentino, the upper valley of the Arno, — that lush and green valley which Dante has described so well and so fondly, — where his father was serving the office of podestA or chief magistrate of the little town of Caprese, the infant Michelangelo was carried, at the expiration of his father’s six months’ tenure of office, to Florence, and was placed with a wet-nurse, the wife of a stone-cutter in the village of Settigrano, amid the quarries on the hillside above the Arno valley, not far from Fiesole. The circumstance is not without interest. The woman from whose breast the infant Michelangelo was nourished was the wife, and doubtless the daughter, of a stone-cutter, in all probability the descendant of a long line of stone-cutters; for all the people at Settigrano are stone-cutters, and some of them were sculptors, equally calling themselves lapicida.
For the hierarchy of art had not in those days shaped itself into any defined table of precedence; and it would have been difficult, if any one had dreamed of attempting it, to draw the line between the artist and the artisan. With what degree of mastery and deftness the fathers of her whose breast supplied the elements of growth to the great artist may have cut the Settigrano stone there is no saying, but that they were engaged in that art from time out of mind may be reckoned as certain; and physiological theorists may make a note of it.
As usual, the tradesman-tather wanted to make a tradesman ot his lapicida-suckled boy, and as usual failed. Little Michelangelo would do nothing but draw and model Wiser than many another father suffering from the same misfortune, the elder Buonnarroti soon gave up the struggle, and placed the boy in the workshop of Domenico and David Ghirlandaio. At the age of fourteen he had already so distinguished himself that Lorenzo the Magnificent was attracted by his unmistakable genius, and made him a member of his family, where among other advantages he had that of the literary instruction of Politian. In 1496 (aged twenty-one) he goes to Rome at the invitation of the Cardinal St. Giorgio, and remains there nearly five years, executing a variety of statues and groups, and increasing daily in reputation. In 1501 (aged twenty-six) he returns to Florence at the request of his father, and we find cardinals and municipalities at once bidding for his services. But in 1504 he again goes to Rome on the invitation of Pope Julius II., becomes dissatisfied with that headstrong and masterful Pope’s caprices, returns to Florence, and refuses to obey the Pope’s summons to go back to Rome, but at length does so on the receipt of a new invitation in the year 1508 ; and in that same year,-the thirty-third of his age, begins the immortal works in the Sistine Chapel, which are completed in 1512. Pope Julius dies in 1513, and Michelangelo continues to labor, sometimes at Rome, sometimes at Carrara, and sometimes at Florence, chiefly for Pope Leo X., during the whole of his reign. And if the historians, who are continually claiming the toleration and indulgence of mankind for this Pope, and other “art-loving” popes and princes, on the score of their patronage and protection of artists, would make themselves a little better acquainted with that back-stairs view of such transactions, which are only to he come at in the records and familiar letters of the patronized, it is probable that the world would feel less enthusiasm of admiration for the “ magnificent ” popes and princes in question!
In 1523 Clement VII. succeeded to the Papal throne, after the very short reign of Adrian VI., which divided that of Clement from that of his relative, Leo X. And Michelangelo continued to work for Pope Clement. In 1529, however, when Pope Clement, in disgraceful alliance with Charles V., is besieging his ancestral city, the great artist is found on the popular side, and is appointed by the city director of the fortifications. After the restoration of the Medici to Florence, Michelangelo is “pardoned” for Li3 patriotism and continues to work for the Pope. In October, 1534, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese succeeds Clement as Paul III., and he in his turn employs Michelangelo in the great works with which he hoped to associate his own name. Immediately on his accession the new Pontiff determined to employ the greatest artist of his day; but it was not till the September of the year 1534 that Michelangelo, now in his fifty-ninth year, and formally named chief architect, painter, and sculptor to the Apostolic palace, began the great fresco of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. It was during these same months, while the negotiations con- nected with his appointment to the above offices, and the prepara- tions for the execution of the great fresco were in progress, that one of the most interesting episodes in the life of Michelangelo took place. This was his acquaintanceship and friendship with Vittoria Colonna. She was then a widow, and had only been prevented from becoming a nun, in her despair at the untimely death of her husband, by the absolute prohibition of the Pope.
She retired, however, to the nunnery of St. Silvestro in Capito, in Rome, and there, in the words of Mr. Heath “Wilson, “in acts of devotion and of active charity, in study and the exercise of her highly poetical feeling, writing verses and religious hymns, she gradually recovered her serenity of mind, and resumed her intercourse with society. Amongst the men and women she attracted, endowed like herself with high qualities, was Michelangelo, who formed a friendship for her marked by the depth and grandeur of his character in its devotion and vitality; and returned by her with an admiration of his gifts and talents which was unbounded. In the relationship which subsisted between them it is pleasant to contemplate her appreciation of his genius and works, and the happiness which her gentle influence brought to the hitherto solitary self-tormentor, who saw too much of the sad side of nature, and whose undoubted trials were intensified by his constitutional melancholy.
His life was now illumined by a pure ray, to which he turned with all the goodness and love which were in hisr nature hidden under its rugged exterior. The intercourse between Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna forms a bright and beautiful episode in a life the history of which is so sombre as to be almost ceaselessly painful in its aspect, illustrated by his works, in which there is hardly a trace at any time of a smile suggestive of happiness or peace.” Vittoria Colonna has, in every generation since her own, been of lt to be a figure standing out from the sufficiently dark background of those times with a vividness of relief which makes her an object of special interest to us. And the incident of her friend- ship for Michelangelo is perhaps the most interesting episode in her career.
There is no doubt that at one period of her life she was strongly attracted not so much perhaps by the doctrines as by the purity of life and moral excellence of the little knot of Italian men and women who, though they were for the most part not prepared to go the length of secession from the Church of Rome, were anxiously hoping for some change which should render the spirit prevailing in that church less grossly pagan, and less entirely divorced from all tendency to promote morality of life. And the testimony thus given to the characteristics of her mind is of much interest in connection with the marked influence which she and the great artist mutually exercised over each other. She was a poetess of no mean order, as the volume of her sonnets and canzoni, which have been frequently republished, testifies. The earlier portion of these works turns mainly on her passionate love for her husband, the Marchese di Pescara, and was chiefly composed during his absences from her, while fighting the battles of Charles V. But the verses which belong to that latter period of her life, when she became acquainted with Michelangelo, are almost, if not quite, entirely religious in character.
Michelangelo had also been, during the greater part of his life, a maker of verses; but the best and the most numerous of his productions in this kind belong to the time when Vittoria Colonna was exercising her influence over him. During the same period the scope and character of his verses undergoes a marked change. From being mainly love poetry of the old kind, filled with classical allusions, with far-fetched conceits, with intricate allegories, and indeed with anything save truth and genuine passion, after the manner of that time, they take a religious tone in unison and accordance with hers. Sometimes he addresses his verse to her, and puts on record the influence her character had exercised on him; as in the fifty-seventh sonnet, in which lie tells her that she has formed the poet as the sculptor forms the marble, shaping it to the expression of his own imaginings.
A pretty little edition of Michelangelo’s poems was published in 1858 in the same volume with the life by Condivi, and a few of his letters. The poems occupy one hundred and eighty-two small pages. Here is the passage in which Condivi relates his affection for Vittoria Colonna. It is well worth quoting. “ Specially he had a devoted affection for the Marchesa di Pescara, of whose divine mind he was enamored, being in return loved of her with an immense love. He treasures many of her letters , full of sweet and pure love, and such as might be expected to proceed from such a heart as hers. He also wrote to her very many sonnets full of ingenuity and sweet affection. She was wont to go often to Viterbo or else- where for amusement, and to pass the hot months away from Rome, whither she would often return for no other purpose than to see Michelangelo. And he requited her affection with so much love that I remember to have heard him say that he only regretted then, when he stood by her side as she died, he had not kissed her on the forehead, as he had kissed her hand.
I have seen him often altogether lost in the violence of his sorrow, and as one amazed at the thought of her death.” Michelangelo was not, one would have said at first sight, the sort of man to inspire so loving a regard in a still beautiful woman, whose birth and position in society and beauty had placed all the courtier world, among which she had lived, at her feet. He was not only a decidedly plain man, rugged, broken-nosed, harsh- featured, bony, and angular, but was, unlike many of the better- known artists of his day, singularly careless of his appearance, and always shabbily attired. Though ever largely generous to his lather as long as the old man lived, and to his ever-needy brothers afterwards, his own habits were penurious to excess; while his self-assertion towards the great and powerful, and his absolute refusal of the expected tribute of adulation in his conversation and dealings with them, rendered his path through life a rugged and thorny one. Clement VII., who knew the nature of the man well, used, when conferring with him, to open the conversation by commanding him to sit down and put on his hat, “for,” said
Clement, “ I know very well that if I did not tell him to do so, he would do it without, and that would 1×3 worse! ” All the more honorable to Vittoria Colonna was it, that she was able to appreci- ate the diamond in the rough, and recognize the value of the grain wrapped in so coarse a husk. The artist finished that great and wonderful work, the fresco of the Last Judgment, in 1541, when he was sixty-six years old. During the remainder of Paul’s life he was more or less uninter-ruptedly engaged on the great works projected and in large part executed by that great Pontiff. And in the latter part of his life his work seems to have been more important as an architect than as either a painter or sculptor. Paul III. died in 1549. Julius III., who succeeded him, died in 1555, and was followed by the saintly Marcellus, who, to the infinito and lasting misfortune of Christendom, reigned only three weeks. Ho was succeeded by Paul IV., who died in 1559, and was succeeded by Pius IV. A greater contrast than that between all these three last and Paul III. cannot well be imagined. They were very widely different from each other.
But the difference between them and Paul III. was one involving and illustrating a great change in the whole body and temper of the times, and may be said to have been equivalent to a transformation in the spirit of the Romish Church. But the works upon which Michelangelo was engaged were, if not perhaps equally dear to the heart of the latter pontiffs, yet very much so. And the rapid succession of masters does not seem to have made any very great difference in his position or his occupa- tions. To this period of his life belong his plans for the building of St. Peter’s, and the partial execution of them ; of which we may find space to say something further before the close of this article. The greatest work of Michelangelo’s old age is the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, built within the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian. The sixteen wonderfully noble monolithic columns of red Egyptian granite, of perfectly startling proportions, belonged of course to the construction of the Roman Emperor; but tho present design and arrangement are Michelangelo’s own. “ Noth- ing exists in architecture,” says Mr. Heath Wilson, “which exceeds the plan of this church in beauty and variety of fonn.
The general proportions are so harmonious, the lines of the plan so gracefully disposed, the form of the whole so original, that without looking at the elevations, the eye is delighted by the evidence on all sides of the imagination, taste, and skill shown by the venerable architect in this superb work.” The latest letters in the Buonnarroti archives indicate, as Mr. Heath Wilson says, that the evening of Michelangelo’s life passed peacefully. He was surrounded by devoted friends and pupils, who regarded him with the strongest affection and respect. There was an idea at Florence that he was neglected, or rather, perhaps, as a somewhat intimate knowledge of the mental habits and ways of mind of the descendants of those sixteenth-century Florentines leads the present writer to suspect, there was a feeling of jealousy and Florentine hatred against the Romans, which prompted the sus- picion that the old and now comparatively rich old man was plundered, or at least made profit of, by others than those who would fain have had all such pickings to themselves.
His nephew Lionardo, who was to be his heir, seems to have written to him manifesting feelings of this sort, and drew down upon himself the following characteristic reply. I give the letter in Mr. Heath Wilson’s translation. “Lionardo, I see by thy letter that thou givest faith to certain envious and sad fellows, who, not being able to get me into their hands to rob me, write lies to thee. They are a set of greedy ones, and thou art foolish to lend them thy faith, as if I were a baby. Get rid of them as scandalmongers, envious and evil livers. With regard to my suffering from bad service, I say to thee that I could not be better served nor more faithfully; and as to being robbed, I tell thee that I have in my house people in whom I can peacefully confide. Think of thine own affairs, and not of mine, for I know how to.take care of myself when needful I am not a baby. May it be well with thee! ”
Some of the letters to this Lionardo, of whom Mr. Wilson says that he was evidently a selfish and cold-hearted man, arc full of kindness. His aged uncle’s thoughts seem to have been very much occupied with him and his welfare; and several of his letters concern his nephew’s choice of a wife, a subject on which he gives him much business-like advice. He gives him lists of marriageable Florentine girls, and desires that certain old and inexperienced friends of his own shall be requested to inquire carefully and report to him concerning them. There must, he says in one letter, be many noble and poor families in Florence, among whom a good wife might be chosen; and if there be no dower, it will be all the better, “ for if there be no money, there will be no pride.” But all the old artist’s interest did not prevent him from writing to him occasionally letters of extreme bitterness and severity. As, for example, the following, taken also from Mr. Wilson’s translation.
It has reference to certain property which Michelangelo was desirous of purchasing, but suspected that his nephew was, from selfish motives, anxious to drive him into doing more quickly than he chose. “ Lionardo, thou hast beeu in a great hurry to give me information respecting the possessions of the Carboli. I thought that thou wast still in Florence. Hadst thou fear that I should repent, that thou earnest here so eagerly ? I tell thee that I mean to act cautiously, for I have made my money with a labor of which one who, like thee, was born with clothes on his back, knows nothing. With regard to thy coming to Rome with such expedition, I am not aware that thou earnest so quickly when 1 was in poverty, in want even of bread. It is enough for thee to throw away the money thou hast not earned, in thy fear of losing this heritage. Whence the necessity for thy coming here ? Was it for the love thou bearest me ?
The love of the moth for the candle I If thou didst love me, thou wouldst have written to me: * Michelangelo, expend the three thousand crowns thero for yourself, for you have given us so much that it is enough .r Your life is dearer to us than your property.’ Thou hast lived upon me now for forty years, nor have I ever had anything of thine, not even kind words. True it is, that last year, being urged to do so, for very shame, thou didst send me a load of sweet wine. It matters not if thou hadst not sent it. I do not write this letter to thee because I will not buy . I mean to try to provide me with an income; but I will act cautiously that I may not buy at the same time some burden.” This is a cruelly unkind letter, and, if Lionardo had not been as rhinoceros-hided as selfish and interested, would have sufficed to prevent him from accepting any more of those benefits with which he was so bitterly reproached, and which after all constituted the employment which the old artist, with all an Italian’s passion for founding a family, best loved to make of his money. No doubt that ho had always been generous to his family, first to his father, then to his brothers and his nephew.
They had all hung upon him, and he had been the providence of the family. But it is equally true that he had seasoned his benefits with abundance of hard words, as was his wont. He cannot be accused, however, of indulging himself in the use of hard words only to those dependent upon him. No social position or dignity of station was sufficient to protect those who had dealings with him from his hard words, when he deemed plain speaking necessary. There was a committee for watching over the works going on at St Peter’s, consisting of cardinals and others in the highest position; and between them and our painter- sculptor-architect there were continual misunderstandings and bickerings, as is intelligible enough.
Michelangelo considered them as simply a finance committee. They considered themselves as enforced to direct and superintend the execution of the work. One day Paul III., having been applied to, summoned the members of the committee to meet the artist in his presence. Paul told him that the commissioners complained that a certain portion of the building as proposed would have insufficient light This having been explained to him, Michelangelo, as Vasari relates, replied, “ I should like, in the first place, to hear what the commissioners have to say.” Whereupon the Cardinal Marcello answered, “ We are the commissioners.” “ Well, then, Monsignore , know that above the windows in the vault, which is to be built of travertine stone, there are to be three others.” “You never told us that!” said the Cardinal. Upon which the artist spoke his mind. “ I am not, nor will I ever consent to be, obliged to explain, cither to your Lordship or to any one else, what I mean and will to do! Your office is to find money, and to guard it from robbers.
The design of the building is in my charge.” Then, turning to Paul III., he said, “Holy Father, you see what I have to suffer. In truth, if the labor I undergo does not benefit my soul, I lose my time and work! ” For it must be explained that Michelangelo gave his superintendence and plans for this colossal work wholly without remuneration, — a circumstance which we may suppose to have been not without its influence on Pope Paul’s reply. The Pontiff, who loved him, says Vasari, laid his hand upon his shoulder, and said, “ You do benefit both soul and body. Never fear! ” Much about this time (1549) he suffered from a short but severe and dangerous disease, respecting which he writes in the April of that year to Lionardo: “ With regard to my disease I am better; and to the astonishment of all there is now hope, for I was thought to be dying, and so I supposed myself to be. I have had a good physician; but I believe more in the efficacy of prayer.”
There are frequent expressions in his letters indicating the religious ten- dency and temperament of his mind. But that his natural sense and shrewdness was too strong td permit him to be fooled by sanctimonious cant is abundantly testified by the following curious and amusing letter to his nephew: “To-day I have had a letter from the wife of that weaver, who says that she was anxious to find a wife for thee, a daughter of Capponi, and of his wife a Niccolini. She has written me a long bible with a small sermon advising me to live religiously and to give alms; and she tells me that she has persuaded thee to live a Christian life, and that she was inspired by God to give thee that damsel I should say that she would be better occupied in spinning and weaving than in bestowing all that sanctimoniousness upon ine t ” He was now seventy-four; but several years were yet in store for him before the end came.
The Grand Duke had made repeated efforts to induce Michelangelo to leave Rome and return to Florence. Here are his answers sent through his friend Vasari. The letter is dated the 11th of May, 1555. “ I was placed by force in the direction of the fabric of St. Peter’s, and I have served for eight years, not only as a free gift, but to my great loss and discomfort. Now that progress has been made, and now that there is money, and that I am about to turn the cupola, if I departed it would be the ruin of the fabric; it would be a reproach to me throughout Christendom, and a grievous sin on my part. Therefore, my dear Messer Giorgio, I pray you to thank the Duke for his noble offers, of which you have written to me, and to intimate to his Highness that, with his grace and permission, I desire to remain here till I can leave Iiome with reputation, honor, and without sin.” Again, on the 22(1 of June, of the same year, he writes to Vasari: “Messer Giorgio, my dear friend, one of these evenings there came to my house a discreet and well-bred young gentleman, Messer Lionardo, chamberlain of the Duke, making me, with many kindly expres- sions, the same offers on the part of his Highness which you did in your last I answered him as I did you, that I besought the permission of his Highness to go on with the work of St Peter’s till it shall be completed, so that it might not be altered, and another form given to it; for were I to leave Rome before this, it would be the cause of great misfortune, a shame, and a crime.
Then I pray that, for the love of God and of St Peter, you will beseech the Duke for me. You must see in my handwriting that I touch my twenty-fourth hour; and no thought is now bom in my mind in which death is not mixed. God grant that a few years of labor may yet be mine.” Michelangelo was now eighty years old ; and nine years yet remained to him. But it is very strange to hear him at eighty talk- ing of the possibility that the fabric of the new St. Peter’s should be “ completed ” within his lifetime! Even the dome, which is more especially the work of Michelangelo, was not finished till 1590, four-and-twenty years after his death ; and the church it- self was not completed, even to such an extent as to permit of its dedication and consecration, till 1626. And if it be true that the intensity of a human heart’s attachment to some particular spot of earth’s surface can have force to cause the disembodied spirit to linger near it, the spirit of the great artist must assuredly have often revisited the scene of his so earnest labors; and he would have seen that in truth the “ form ” of his work was changed, indeed, in almost every respect, except that of his own majestic dome, which was completed in all respects according to his design.
The remaining years of Michelangelo’s life were much harassed by the intrigues, calumnies, accusations, and opposition of those who were jealous of his supreme authority in the great work at the St Peter’s, of those who would fain have supplanted him, and of the deadly enemies he had made in numbers, by his uncom- promising opposition to all peculation, jobbery, and fraud in the carrying out of the work. Those who know Italy best can most adequately conceive the amount of deadly emnity thus generated. In other respects these last years seem to have been prosperous and tranquil enough. He was now rich ; he had the pleasure of accomplishing that great desire of an Italian heart, the placing his family and descendants in an eminent social position in their na- tive city ; he was surrounded by “ that which should accompany old age, as honor, love, obedience, troops of friends ”; and he had the satisfaction of holding his own, and triumphing over all the host of enemies, who would have ousted him from his position of authority. I cannot but think that Mr. Heath Wilson exaggerates a little in his representations of the great and abiding unhappiness of the great artist’s life. Everything did not go smoothly. Great people cheated him, little people maligned him; he was not at all times able to follow the dictates of his own genius, but was obliged to bow to the ignorant or unreasonable requisitions of cardinals, dukes, princes, and popes.
But lie possessed his own soul, spoke his own mind, and thought his own thoughts to a degree that most unquestionably no other artist orman in his social position, or almost any other in that day, dreamed of venturing to do. And when the result of passing a long life in thus thinking his own thoughts and speaking his own mind, and that in the atmosphere of a papal court, was that “ he bought the farm of Capiteto on the 27th of January, 1506; another farm called La Loggia on the 28th of May, 1512; another lot of land on the 20th of June following; a farm at Settignano in 1515 ; land in the city to build a mansion and studio on in 1517; the farm called Fitto on the 27th of October, 1519; and in 1520 additional land at Settignano, it seems hardly reasonable to deplore the misery and unhappiness of his life. It is true that the tone of a great portion of his letters is an unhappy and complaining one. But there is reason to fear that his temper was of the kind that is little calculated to secure happiness under any circumstances.
He was honest, upright, bitter against meanness and wrong, and at bot- tom kind and generous. But he was harsh, masterful, overbearing, intolerant of opposition, and apparently little disposed to look on the bright side of things. In the February of 1564, his eighty-ninth year, Michelangelo felt that the summons which he had been for some time expecting was nigh at hand. He sent for his friend and brother painter Daniello de Volterra; and he on his way to him called on Ascanio Condivi, and asked him to go to his old friend and master, taking care that his visit should not seem to have been occasioned by any unusual motive. “ Daniello, my friend, it is all over with me! I beg of you not to leave me! ” said he as Daniello de Volterra entered his room. Michelangelo then asked him to write a letter for him to his nephew Lionardo; which he did, and Michelangelo signed it But Lionardo did not arrive in time to see his uncle. A slow fever, which the utmost efforts of his physicians, Federigo Donato and Gherardo Fidellissimi, were unable to conquer, consumed him. It was on the 15th of February, 1564, when Daniello Ricciarelli, more commonly known by his soubriquet, Daniello de Volterra, visited him; and from that day he took to his bed. Up to that time, though very ill, he had persisted in sitting by the fireside in his arm-chair. He was then confined to his bed for three days only, and died on the 18th of February, 1564.
Of course it has been impossible within the limit here available to attempt any filling up of the bare outline of the story of his life, which has been given in the preceding pages. Those who may feel an interest in the details of the life and the life-work of so great a man must seek them in the handsome volume of Mr. Heath Wil- son. But there is one other point, in respect of which Mr. Wilson’s book is an altogether new contribution to the history of the art of the Renaissance period, as illustrated by Michelangelo’s great work, the ornamentation of the Sistine Chapel. And of this portion of the author’s work I think the reader would wish to have some little account. Mr. Wilson is the first practical artist who has written on Michelangelo since inaccurate, gossiping, amusing Giorgio Vasari wrote his life, while the subject of it was still living. He took especial pains, and had very exceptional facilities for examin- ing the work itself, more especially the vault, and he spent some time in Rome expressly for this purpose. The great and wonderful work in the Sistine Chapel, the grandest achievement in fresco ever executed, was begun on the 10th of May, 1508, in the thirty-third year of the artist’s age. The equally wonderful if not equally admirable work, the great fresco of the Last Judgment, painted on the western wall of the chapel, was begun (according to the generally received account, which, however, Mr- Wilson thinks is somewhat too early) in 1534, twenty-six years subsequently to the finishing of the vault, and was finished in the sixty-sixth year of the artist’s age.
The work undertaken by Michelangelo — to paint in fresco the entirety of the vault of the Sistine Chapel — involved the covering with designs and with color more than ten thousand square feet of surface, and the artist’s first care was to find some persons capable of acting as his assistants. The plan followed was first to design and draw to scale the plan for the ornamentation of the whole; then to .prepare the cartoons, or working drawings, for his assistants to work after. “ A modern master,” says Mr. Wilson, “ would in the same position also provide colored studies for the guidance of his assistants. This does not appear to have been common among the great masters of the sixteenth century. No such colored sketches remain, although cartoons have been preserved. Michelangelo pro- vided sketches executed in chalk showing the chiaroscuro, and full- sized outlines for transfer to the vault; and he must have trusted to verbal instructions for thecolor, and to his own example. He had also to prepare and lay off the general plan of the architectural division of the vault in conformity with his design ; this framework must have been designed and drawn to scale, and marked off upon the vault before the painting could be commenced. The completed work shows how great was the pains which was taken, how accurate the calculations and measurements must have been, before the scheme was matured. The more the vault and its paintings are studied, the more the real marvels of their history will be appre- ciated and distinguished from the paltry legends of the biographers.”
All Michelangelo’s plans, as regarded the securing of assistance failed. It was very soon found that the persons engaged were in- capable of working with Michelangelo, or of transferring to the plaster designs conceived in a style wholly new to them, and far in advance of the art of the time. They had to be paid for their journey from Florence to Rome, for they were all Floren- tines, and for the time they had lost, and be dismissed. “ He then girded himself for his great task,” says Mr. Wilson ; “it was in an exceptional sense only that it has been said that he painted alone and unaided. It cannot be true; for in fresco painting on such a scale solitary work is a practical impossibility.” Further on he remarks that ” the stories that he ground his own colors,” and prepared the lime to paint on, though so often repeated, are manifestly absurd. He required hundredweights of color and lime! How could he possibly prepare the quantity required alone and unaided ? . . . . But while the great artist’s proceedings and reputation have been veiled under idle tales by his first biographers, since so frequently repeated, his greatest work is also veiled by the barbarous neglect and maltreatment to which it has been exposed, and it is now seen from the floor of the chapel so imperfectly that his purposes in the design and execution of it cannot be properly appreciated. This is possible only by close examination of the frescos from a position as elevated as the scaffold erected by Michelangelo.
Under very favorable circumstances such an ex- amination has been made of a portion of the vault ; and the interest which this great work of genius has ex- cited for centuries, and now excites perhaps more than ever, may, it is hoped, be an excuse for giving the results of the examination with some minuteness of detail.” “ The entire composition contains three hundred and forty-three figures, varying in their proportions, infinite in invention, full of life and of movement. The vault is alive with figures of mighty beings, the offspring of the exhaustless and noble inspiration of Michelangelo A careful examination of the frescos shows that Michelangelo adhered throughout to his sketch. Unhappily it is lost ;*but it is easy to see that it sprang from his brain complete in every part. …. It is not to be understood that in his first sketch he drew every figure and group as we now’ see them painted. But every part of his subject was present to his mind; he indicated his general idea; placed groups and figures where he intended them to be in his finished work; shadowred forth tho entire composition; and from that first creation he never swerved.” The “ figures in the uppermost part of the vault measure from ten to twelve feet in height, with certain exceptions. The Prophets and Sibyls would be nearly eighteen feet, if erect; and tho ancestors of our Lord in the lunettes are colossal. …. It would appear, from his sketches of draped figures, as well as from the finished paintings, that he provided costumes for his models. There are many slight details and accidents of fold which must have been imitated from the reality. …. Artists most frequently trans- ferred the outline of the cartoon to the wet and yielding surface of the plaster by placing the former upon the latter, and then firmly passing over its lines with a point or stylus, which indented the plaster through the paper.
Michelangelo prepared the process which is called pouncing. This can be seen in his frescos. The cartoons were nailed to the wall during the process. The nail-holes are observable in the fresco of the Last Judgment; and in that of Ezekiel, in one of the pendentives of the ceiling, an original nail still remains in its place close to this figure. Michelangelo’s motive for avoiding the more usual method of pressing in the out- line with the stylus through the paper is quite evident. He dis- liked the disturbance of the surface which it involves, which was inconsistent with his ideas of refinement of execution. But he did not therefore altogether reject the use of his instrument. When the outline was pounced, he appears to have passed round it with a point as sharp as a penknife, so fine is the cut, and it is easily distinguished from the line passed through the paper; for, besides its sharpness, the instrument has frequently broken out a morsel of lime, where the hand has stopped. He did not draw in the features in this manner, but marked in the muscles in the beautiful figure of Adam, and possibly in others.
Evidently he varied his practice, sometimes using it, sometimes omitting it Drapery he generally marked in with the point in very rapid sweeps, and sometimes adhered to these lines, at others not …. So far as could be observed, the group of children on the piers have been painted without any outline at all; a single guiding perpen- dicular line ruled between them on the wet plaster sufficed to enable him to paint them at once in their places without other preparation. The architecture is outlined with the stylus, and the lines are often carried over part of the figures. This is common in old frescos. It shows that subject and background were painted simultaneously; and this is very evident in Michelangelo’s work; for he often cut the plaster away from his finished day’s painting at some distance from the outline of the figure. Thus he avoided hardness of contour. The lesson is an important one, especially to modern fresco painters…….