He Made Stone Speak

St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos
St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, 1993

If Michelangelo’s first biographers described his achievements as nothing short of divine, the man himself was beset throughout his life with mortal worries. They only increased with age. He was seventy-five when his protégé Giorgio Vasari described him in 1550 as sent down by Heaven to redeem art from its “endless futility,” “passionate but fruitless zeal, and the presumptuous opinions of mortals, more distant from truth than darkness from light.” Fortunately, as Vasari saw it, God had a plan:

The governor of Heaven…decided to redeem us from such error by sending to earth a spirit universally capable, by single-handed effort in every art and profession, of exhibiting perfection: in the art of drawing, by delineating, outlining, shading, and highlighting to give painting a sense of three dimensions; as a sculptor, to work with right judgment; and in architecture, to make our dwellings comfortable and safe, sound, cheerful, well-proportioned, and rich in the variety of their ornament.

That same year, art’s designated redeemer doubted in a letter that the new pope, Julius III, would need him, “owing to my age.”

Shortly thereafter, in 1553, a closer associate, Ascanio Condivi, published his competing account of the great man’s life, apparently encouraged by Michelangelo himself. The factual errors they had found in Vasari’s biography did not include discerning Heaven’s role in Michelangelo’s birth “in the year of our salvation 1474, on the sixth of March, four hours before dawn, on a Monday.” Astrology was important in sixteenth-century Italy, not yet separate from the discipline of astronomy, and Michelangelo’s father, as a minor aristocrat, took care to have a professional cast his newborn son’s horoscope. Condivi remarks:

A grand nativity, to be sure, already revealing the greatness of this boy and his creative genius, for Mercury (with Venus in the second house), received into the House of Jupiter under a benevolent aspect, promised everything that followed: that this would be the birth of a high and noble creative genius, capable of universal success in whatever enterprise he undertook, but chiefly in those arts that delight the senses, such as Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture.

When Condivi published his Life of Michelangelo, the “high and noble creative genius” was nearly eighty. Far from basking in the “universal success” promised him by his horoscope, he had recently become so frustrated with a sculpted Pietà in his studio that he took up a hammer and smashed it with thoroughly professional competence. As a visitor reported in 1549, the frail old man could still break up marble with astonishing facility:

I have seen Michelangelo, although more than sixty years old [in fact he was seventy-four] and no longer among the most robust, knock off more chips of a very hard marble in a quarter of an hour than three young stone…

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