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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 carvers could have done in three or four, an almost incredible thing to one who has not seen it; and I thought the whole work would fall to pieces because he moved with such impetuosity and fury, knocking to the floor large chunks three and four fingers thick.

Luckily, the repentant sculptor saved the broken pieces of his mangled Pietà and handed the wreck to one of his students, Tiberio Calcagni, with a request to repair the damage. Before he lost his temper, Michelangelo had meant for this four-person statue group to decorate his tomb, and therefore lent his own features to the elderly figure of Nicodemus, who bends protectively over the tragic tableau of the dead Christ, his mother, and Mary Magdalene, holding them all in his generous embrace.*

To this aged Michelangelo, with his frailties, his frustrations, and his insoluble contradictions, William Wallace has devoted the latest and most poignant of his books on the artist (there are six others). Because all creative people start out as young people, we have a tendency to ascribe creativity to youth itself, but mature masters like Michelangelo remind us that the urge to create has nothing to do with age or the lack of it, but rather with that inventive spirit both he and Vasari called ingegno—inborn wit, cleverness, genius. The spirit often manifests young, but like wine and wood, it depends on age to reveal its full complexity. When Michelangelo turned seventy, as he does at the beginning of Michelangelo, God’s Architect, he had nineteen more years to live, every one of them spent at work. As dear friends died and his body weakened, he took on a remarkable series of huge, daunting projects, fully aware, as Wallace emphasizes, that he would never live to see them completed. In his deeply spiritual vision of the world, his own limits hardly mattered; God had called him, and he had answered.

Wallace, in turn, relies on his own experience to take bold risks as a writer, pushing the haphazard evidence that survives from sixteenth-century Rome to bring the city and its people to life. He imagines himself, and his readers, inside Michelangelo’s dilapidated studio in an area with the inauspicious name of Macel de’ Corvi (Crows’ Market) long since plowed under by the urban dreams of a nineteenth-century unified Italian state and the imperial designs of Benito Mussolini. Today a discreet plaque on the side of the mock-Venetian Palazzo delle Assicurazioni Generali on the vast Piazza Venezia commemorates the site of Michelangelo’s studio, sacrificed in the early twentieth century to the Roman headquarters of an insurance company. Where idling taxicabs now spew their exhaust in the shadow of Trajan’s Column, Wallace takes us back to a Rome that still has a foot in the Middle Ages. We can smell the stench of the surrounding butcher shops, the filthy streets, and the sweat of Michelangelo’s chestnut horse in his stable, the modest luxury of an older man who no longer walks so well. Marvelous statues people his studio, but we can also feel at home amid the raw stone and the masterpieces, in the company of his kindly caretakers, the housekeeper, and the cat.

Wallace walks us up the steep slope behind Michelangelo’s house to meet his aristocratic friend Vittoria Colonna, Marchioness of Pescara, at a terrace on the Quirinal Hill, overlooking the city, where they contemplate the view of the unfinished St. Peter’s Basilica, soon to become Michelangelo’s most challenging commission of all. In another chapter, using every document within reach, Wallace creates an imaginative diary of a “typical” work week for his most atypical subject: a man in his eighties, charged with putting the largest dome in the world on the largest church in the world, inventing a new kind of construction technique as he inspects the goings-on from a wooden scaffolding suspended 150 feet in the air. Like his hero, Wallace has learned, with time, how to convey sensations and information concisely, and to venture fearlessly out over the void.

He portrays Michelangelo as a man of coruscating passions, flashes of destructive temper, and affections so intense that they sometimes scared his friends away. He was introduced to the aristocratic widow Vittoria Colonna in 1536, when he was sixty-one and she was in her mid-forties. Her sprawling family castle, Palazzo Colonna, a medieval fortress in the center of the city (transformed along elegant Baroque lines in the eighteenth century), loomed over Michelangelo’s humble, odoriferous Macel de’ Corvi, but Vittoria lived, when in Rome, in a convent. Her patrician lineage thrilled Michelangelo, and so did her status as a published poet; each of them was starstruck by the other, probably to an equal degree.

Wallace details the ebb and flow of their friendship with sympathetic insight; both were complicated characters, deeply religious but prey to their vanities, warm but impossibly demanding. Both of them received, and to an extent encouraged, a cultlike devotion. Neither of them quite fit into their hierarchical society, and nor did their friendship. Colonna would summon her new friend for a conversation and then, as the flatteries flew back and forth, remind him that they should be fixing their thoughts on religion; Wallace suspects that it was her way of keeping the artist’s epic emotions at a comfortable distance. Theirs was not a romance in the conventional sense; Michelangelo reserved those feelings for another younger friend, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, and the portrait drawing he presented to Tommaso is a more polished work in every way than the devotional drawings he produced for the pious marchioness.

Vittoria Colonna was not a beautiful woman, and perhaps that is why she took such peculiar pride in her shapely breasts. They make a conspicuous appearance in most of her portraits, in odd contrast to her proper widow’s weeds, and as Wallace notes, they also figure with jarring prominence in the fulsome praise lavished on her by the writer Paolo Giovio. Michelangelo presented her with his drawing of a Pietà, a Virgin Mary mourning over the body of her son, dressed in a gown that emphasizes the Madonna’s own monumental bosom.

Like so many of Michelangelo’s close friends, Colonna died long before him, at a much younger age. One by one, his patrons, his assistants, and his friends slipped away, compelling him to find new companions. They included the strange residents of his studio: figures of heroic men and women emerging, with every blow of his chisel, from their mysterious marble surroundings. Michelangelo loved releasing these characters from their captivity. His copy of Colonna’s collected poems is signed “Michelangelo schultore” in his big, confident script. Despite the fact that his learned contemporaries regarded sculpture as the lowest of the arts because it required such hard physical labor and generated so much noise and dust, he knew their talk was nothing but talk. What could be more majestic than a colossus, and who knew better than he how to create one?

Michelangelo carved stone with matchless speed and facility, but the fact that he shaped his works instinctively rather than by careful advance preparation led him into trouble as well as success; his studio was filled with half-finished projects, some of them impossible to complete, some of them familiar if silent friends. For years, he kept his monumental Moses at home as he struggled to finish its companion figures for the long-overdue tomb of Pope Julius II. Reportedly he smacked it on the knee and ordered, “Speak!”; one wonders whether, in the privacy of the studio, it actually did from time to time. Wallace begins his book with the moment when Moses finally leaves its long residence in the Macel de’ Corvi for its present home in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, not far away but reached only after an arduous journey: a gigantic Hebrew prophet riding on a cart through treacherous, unpaved Roman streets.

If sculpture stood lowest on the totem pole of the Renaissance arts, architecture stood at its pinnacle, for it included elements of drawing, painting, and sculpture as well as its own particular specialties: shaping cities and enclosing space. And because of its complexity, architecture, more than the other arts, was an older man’s game in Renaissance Italy. Most of those older men, like Michelangelo, had trained first in some other profession.

The guild system, with its hierarchical network of masters and apprentices, meant that only experienced men were likely to be entrusted with the large budgets, large workforces, and myriad problems involved in construction. Filippo Brunelleschi belonged to the goldsmiths’ guild; Donato Bramante, Raphael, and Baldassare Peruzzi began as painters; Leon Battista Alberti and Fra Giovanni Giocondo da Verona were educated as classical scholars and learned to draw because all gentlemen did, just as they learned to play a musical instrument. Vasari was tutored in the classics before his apprenticeship to an artist. There were exceptional people who worked as architects from the very beginning, but they came into the profession at a lower rung of the social ladder, notably the Sienese architect Francesco di Giorgio Martini. Antonio da Sangallo and his brother joined the building crew at St. Peter’s as apprentice contractors and became architects in their own right, picking up a smattering of Latin along the way.

The dome of St. Peter’s presented the elderly artist with challenges on every conceivable front, from the declining powers of his own body to the demands of spiritual aesthetics to the physics of construction. Simply climbing the thirteen stories to the base of the dome was an effort in itself: Michelangelo, somewhat unsteady on his feet, rarely made the ascent. Shortly after he accepted the weighty assignment from Pope Paul III, Michelangelo realized that the basilica’s rising dome had grave structural flaws. The only solution was to demolish the existing structure and rebuild it from scratch, while preserving the cavernous church on which it stood. In the middle of the sixteenth century, he had been called upon to perform a twentieth- or twenty-first-century task: dismantling the upper levels of a high-rise without compromising the rest of the building. Furthermore, this particular high-rise loomed over the horizon in plain view for miles around. No one was prepared to watch its majestic outline shrink rather than ascend to glorious new heights.

To convince the pope, Michelangelo brought forth all the social graces he had learned as a youth in Florence at the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent, and succeeded both in getting permission for the demolition and in carrying it out, driven, as he later wrote, “for the love of God and in honor of the Apostle.” In a tour de force of historical imagination, Wallace lists all the questions Michelangelo would have had to face as head architect of St. Peter’s. The list goes on for three pages, and the completed dome (finished after Michelangelo’s death, with a taller profile, by Giacomo Della Porta) proves how attentively he addressed each one of those concerns. That driving sense of responsibility to the pope and Saint Peter kept him from ever returning to his beloved Florence.

Michelangelo, God’s Architect is well illustrated, but the truth is that not one of Michelangelo’s creations can be conveyed easily in a photograph. The Sistine Chapel ceiling dazzles our eyes so dynamically because it curves in a gentle arch. David is meant to be seen from every direction, but the camera can provide only one. Without standing inside the Laurentian Library and the Medici Chapel we can never truly feel the way Michelangelo has shaped these enclosing spaces by the careful arrangement of solid columns, statues, cornices, and consoles. But his late projects present, if anything, a steeper challenge. St. Peter’s is larger than our senses can grasp even when we are standing beneath its massive dome; there is no way to reproduce that disconcerting three-dimensional discomfort on a comfortably sized page. More interesting, and infinitely more moving, are the ways in which Michelangelo’s last two statues—that ravaged Pietà now in Florence and another, equally battered Pietà in Milan—strike right through to the soul by some magical trick of the old man’s chisel. It doesn’t matter that they are both unpolished ruins; Michelangelo has passed beyond the idea of completion to single out a universally recognizable instant through an instantly eloquent detail.

With the “Bandini” Pietà in Florence, it is the figure of Nicodemus, and his solicitous embrace; by carving his own portrait into the elder’s face, Michelangelo has turned his act of creation into a way of caring not just for his figures and the people they represent, but also for the viewers who take the time to stay awhile in their presence. Through his art, Michelangelo, in the person of Nicodemus, has taken on the burden of caring for us. He cares as fiercely as Caravaggio cares, actively, irresistibly, and he shows his care by letting us experience his pain as a pledge that he, in turn, will honor ours. David, completed when the artist was about thirty, presents humanity in the magnificence of youth, pride, and vigor. These late sculptures present nothing so much as the stubborn endurance of love in spite of everything: weakness, injustice, and death itself.

Michelangelo's The ‘Rondanini’ Pietà
Castello Sforzesco, Milan/Alinari/Art Resource
Michelangelo: The ‘Rondanini’ Pietà, 1552–1564

Michelangelo’s last statue, another Pietà (the “Rondanini”; see illustration), shows a tiny, muscular Virgin Mary holding the slumped, elongated body of her son. Their faces are barely sketched. Jesus has a free-floating extra arm, the remnant of a previous composition; Michelangelo vandalized this work as he had vandalized his previous Pietà. It hardly matters. What survives, and what no photograph can reveal, is the tension a master sculptor can pack into the Virgin’s sturdy legs, riveted to the ground as she sustains this unbearable burden, and the iron grip of the arm she has flung around her son’s corpse. She could be Atlas holding up the world, and indeed Michelangelo’s faith told him that in that moment she was clasping all of human salvation to her heart. She is a scrappy little Italian mamma performing the task of a Titan. And she will never let go.

  1. *

    Some art historians identify this group as a Deposition from the Cross rather than a Pietà.