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Michelangelo

Category: Genius

 

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (6 March 1475 – 18 February 1564) was an Italian sculptor, painter, architect, and poet of the High Renaissance.  His output in every field of interest was prodigious, he sculpted two of his best-known works, the Pietà and David, before the age of thirty. Although he considered himself more of a sculptor than a painter, Michelangelo created two of the most influential frescoes in the history of Western art: the scenes from Genesis on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, and The Last Judgment on its altar wall.

 As an architect, Michelangelo designed the Laurentian Library and at the age of 74, he succeeded Antonio da Sangallo the Younger as the architect of St. Peter's Basilica. Michelangelo transformed the plan so that the western end was finished to his design, as was the dome, with some modification, after his death.

 

Michael Ayrton – Introduction to Michelangelo’s Sonnets

Michelangelo's contemporaries thought him the greatest artist who had ever lived and they called him 'divine'. His reputation as sculptor, architect, painter and draughtsman has not subsequently been surpassed and who is to say that his contemporaries were wrong? Their opinion has not dated. He was, and is, the archetype of genius in the visual arts. He is also the archetypal artist and the central paradox around which his life revolved is the basis of the mystique which surrounds that term.

That paradox, put simply, is one of success and failure, the failure of a super-human achievement in the light of an even more super-human ambition. In Michelangelo the man, it showed itself in a profound melancholy marching step by step with a vast public esteem until the man, raised to a status of demi-god, found himself forced further and further out of human intercourse and into an especial purgatory. Fortuitously but none the less certainly, it was Michelangelo even more than Raphael and Leonardo who raised the image-maker from craftsman to artist, that mysterious state of forlorn grace beyond normality.

In doing so, he changed the attitude of the spectator from one of simple satisfaction to one of awed disquiet.

Works

Michelangelo was a devout Catholic whose faith was absolute.  It did not matter who he was actually being paid by, who had commissioned him, he ultimately did all his work for ‘God’.  As far as he was concerned, he received his talent and his inspiration from God and as such it was to him all his work was dedicated.  As a consequence, he was never satisfied with what he had done, he was riddled the whole time with angst. 

Michael Ayrton – Introduction to Michelangelo’s Sonnets

 

Michelangelo …. was  the first man to count himself a failure in the very teeth of the greatest personal success ever won by an image-maker. His failure lay in his ambition and in the distant goal - far beyond the praises of a sequence of popes - he set himself to gain. ……In that process he initiated a struggle which has since become the norm. The artist dying in squalor, the misunderstood genius, the artist driven mad, the artist ahead of his times, haunted by immeasurable longings, persecuted by philistines, reaching towards the unattainable…..

Where in poetry he enjoys for a moment a fraction of the gigantic exaltation which is at the core of his visual images, he attributes his relief solely to the virtue or beauty of the loved object. He himself is nothing.  He walks from dark to dark, 'living on his death'. .. he repeatedly stresses his weakness, his baseness and his total reliance for survival upon forces outside himself.

Sonnets LXIV and LXX, for instance, show this abject humility yet they were written by the man whose ferocity and grandeur were famed in the word Terribilita, the man whom Pope Leo X called 'Terrifying' and to whom Sebastiano del' Piombo wrote, 'You frighten everyone, even Popes.'

And in one of the strangest quirks of fate, it would seem that those works commissioned by men for their own glorification were often destined to fail, whereas the works commissioned to glorify God and His creation achieved success.

Michael Ayrton – Introduction to Michelangelo’s Sonnets

Michelangelo's life before he settled in Rome in 1534 had consisted of a series of triumphs offset by a series of grandiose schemes which remained unrealised for external reasons beyond his control. Ultimately his very last works were to fail, if such a word could be applied to them except by their creator, for internal reasons equally beyond his control. The pattern of triumph and frustration had been constant throughout his life……

In the Gospel of Matthew, Eleazar, the son of Eliud, is listed in the
genealogy of Jesus as the great-grandfather of Joseph, husband of Mary.

In 1503, he began a series of twelve marble Apostles for the Cathedral of Florence. They were never completed. In 1504 he made numerous studies and a complete cartoon for a fresco representing an incident in the Pisan war. This fresco was intended for the Council Chamber in the Palazzo Vecchio and was to complement Leonardo's equally ill-fated Battle of Anghiari. Michelangelo’s cartoon for this painting, the so-called Cascina Cartoon, became one of the most influential works of the later Renaissance.

It was destroyed during his lifetime.

His failure to complete the fresco was caused by the importunate demands of Pope ]ulius II and Michelangelo left for Rome to begin the sculptures for a tomb which the Pope was anxious to have completed during his own lifetime. There were to be forty marble sculptures ornamenting the Papal resting place and on this project Michelangelo worked for forty years. It was never completed, although it was the subject of five successive contracts with four successive popes.

In 1506 he completed a colossal bronze of Julius II at Bologna.  In 1511 it was destroyed.

 In 1508 he returned to Rome and began to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and on this he worked in circumstances of great difficulty, virtually alone, until 1512. How he felt about this undertaking is described in Sonnet V, but at least it was finished. This work, at the age of thirty-seven, earned him the title 'divine'.

 

Julius II died and the new Pope Leo X was a Medici, the younger son of Lorenzo. He remained Michelangelo's master until his death in 1521, when another Medici became pope, Clement VII, who  continued to employ Michelangelo so that it was for the Medici family or for a Medici pope that he worked until 1534.

During that time he wasted four years on the facade of S. Lorenzo - which to this day has no facade - and carved the sculptures for the Medici Chapel, which remains incomplete. He also designed the Laurencian Library.

In 1527, the Medici were expelled from Florence and Michelangelo, an ardent republican, took part in the defence of the city until its capitulation in 1530. The Medici were reinstated and Michelangelo was pardoned, but after working for four more years on the sculptures for the Medici Chapel, he left Florence for good. It was the pattern of his life that in painting, an activity of which he thought little, his greatest designs were completed, with the exception of the fresco for the Palazzo Vecchio, whereas in sculpture, which he considered his proper profession, all his greatest projects failed to materialise or remained in some compromise form to mock him. He was the longest lived of the three masters who stand at the summit of the High Renaissance and who together created the artist in his new status. The pattern these giants present is one of a strangely blighted perfection, as if the gods had shown their jealousy towards men in the ancient fashion. Michelangelo, as we have seen, saw himself defeated; Leonardo da Vinci watched his grandest achievements destroyed or perish; Raphael failed in nothing, but he died at only thirty-seven.

 

The source of his genius

We have seen that one of the principle drivers of Michelangelo’s work was his faith, his absolute conviction that ‘heaven’ existed and a God for whom he was working and to whom he owed his talent.  But there were other drivers, one of which was his humility.

Despite all the praises heaped upon him, Michelangelo was neither egotistical as a consequence, nor was he actually interested in material goods or trappings.  He once told his apprentice, Ascanio Condivi: "However rich I may have been, I have always lived like a poor man."

Michael Ayrton – Introduction to Michelangelo’s Sonnets

The majority of Michelangelo's sonnets were written in the last thirty years of his life, that is to say, after he had finally settled in Rome in 1534. By this time, Leonardo and Raphael were dead and Michelangelo was without rivals. He was the surviving giant from a golden age, but he was also, in some sort, a refugee from his native city of Florence and from the tyranny of a Medici newly created 'Duke'.

As a man without rivals, with Spain, France, Flanders and Venice following his lead and with artists as great as Tintoretto and El Greco in his debt, employed by the fifth in the series of Popes to commission him and about to begin The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, he must have seemed to his contemporaries to have arrived at the summit of human ambition.

To read the sonnets is to see how little that meant to him, and to follow those last thirty years of his life is to watch a supreme master move towards the lonely and desperate condition of one who is answerable only to himself. And that is to watch a man embark upon a work which cannot be finished.

 

Michelangelo was described as "abstemious in his personal life and indifferent to food and drink", eating "more out of necessity than of pleasure".  He matches every definition we could find of a genius - in Schopenhauer's words, they ‘fall into the mire while gazing at the stars’. He even "often slept in his clothes and ... boots."  This lack of domestic comfort and lack of interest in his personal comforts "deprived posterity of any pupils who might have followed him."  But there appears to be little evidence that he wanted pupils.  What is the point in attempting to teach what you know is God given to those who have not been graced by God?  And like all geniuses he preferred to be alone “he was by nature a solitary and melancholy person, bizzarro e fantastico, a man who withdrew himself from the company of men."

There are those who describe Michelangelo as homosexual, but there is no evidence at all that he had any sexual relations with anyone – man or woman.  Condivi ascribed to him a "monk-like chastity".  At the level we are describing here, sex does not help genius.  The energy you need to create at this level is all consuming, if you expend it elsewhere you lose all creative spirit. 

 

But Michelangelo could love and he could love both men and women, as is often the case with mystic genius.  He wrote over three hundred sonnets and madrigals, and many expressed love in various ways and some were addressed to men and some to women. This deep and abiding affection for people, was taken advantage of – he was cruelly treated by some and it must have hurt him deeply.  The model Febo di Poggio asked for money in response to a love-poem, and a second model, Gherardo Perini, stole from him shamelessly.  But not all those he cared for were this cruel, some cared for him too.

His longest romantic friendship was with Tommaso dei Cavalieri (c. 1509–1587), who was 23 years old when Michelangelo met him in 1532, at the age of 57. His sonnets to Tommaso make up the first large sequence of poems in any modern tongue addressed by one man to another, predating Shakespeare's sonnets to the fair youth by fifty years.

Tommaso dei Cavalieri  also loved who Michelangelo was – it was his character that attracted him : "I swear to return your love. Never have I loved a man more than I love you, never have I wished for a friendship more than I wish for yours." And Cavalieri remained devoted to Michelangelo until his death.  In 1542, Michelangelo met Cecchino dei Bracci who died only a year later, inspiring Michelangelo to write forty-eight funeral epigrams.

 

There are other examples on this site of men who even married, but who still loved other men.  John Addington Symonds (5 October 1840 – 19 April 1893), for example, was an English poet and literary critic. He married and had a family - four daughters – but had a number of very deep romantic friendships with men before and after he was married. 

Creative geniuses at this pinnacle of art have become almost sexless.  People are people and somehow the sex of the person has become meaningless, because the urge to ‘have sex’ has gone, whereas the urge to express love for a loved character – the man or woman within predominates.

Michelangelo’s paintings are of androgynous people, they all - men and women - have the strong muscular physique of a well formed man, they may or may not have breasts, none has large breasts, even the women’s breasts are quite small, their faces are sexless but beautiful, their hair is soft curly and often quite long.  Michelangelo lived in the world of perfect balance, where feminine and masculine have combined – the Lovers have consummated the Mystic marriage.

 

Michelangelo lived in Rome from 1534–46,near the church of Santa Maria di Loreto. It was at this time that he met the poet Vittoria Colonna, marchioness of Pescara, who was to become one of his closest friends until her death in 1547. 

She was a widow by the time they met in 1536 or 1538 and in her late forties at the time. They wrote sonnets for each other and were in regular contact until she died. These sonnets mostly deal with the spiritual issues that occupied them. Condivi recalls Michelangelo's saying that his sole regret in life was that he did not kiss the widow's face in the same manner that he had her hand.

Thus we can say that the abiding, underlying driver of Michelangelo’s genius was LOVE – love for his Creator, love for his messiah, love for men, love for women and love for the planet and its creatures.

Michelangelo died in Rome in 1564, at the age of 88 (three weeks before his 89th birthday). His body was taken from Rome for interment at the Basilica of Santa Croce, fulfilling the maestro's last request to be buried in his beloved Florence.

 

Sonnet LXXIII

Unburdened by the body's fierce demands,
And now at last released from my frail boat,
Dear God, I put myself into your hands;
Smooth the rough waves on which my ship must float.

The thorns, the nails, the wounds in both your palms,
The gentleness, the pity on your face -
For great repentance, these have promised grace.
My soul will find salvation in your arms.

And let not justice only fill your eyes,
But mercy too. Oh temper your severe
Judgment with tenderness, relieve my burden.

Let your own blood remove my faults and clear
My guilt, and let your grace so strongly rise
That I am granted an entire pardon.

 

References

Sonnets - Michelangelo's grandnephew, Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, published his poems and sonnets in 1623, but very annoyingly changed the gender of all his poems expressing love for men, to love for women.  It was not until John Addington Symonds translated them into English in 1893 that the original genders were restored.

 

 

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