Symonds's Life of Michelangelo

MR. SYMONDS’S Life of Michelangelo1 is the fourth exhaustive biography of the great master which has been issued in the past thirty years. This is a remarkable fact, not to be paralleled in the case of any other artist, nor, so far as we recall, of any other of the world’s great men. Three centuries and more after his death, historians are busying themselves with Michelangelo almost as if his life were of contemporary interest; and in addition to the four biographies we have mentioned, many smaller treatises have been devoted to a discussion of his work. Why is this ? That Michelangelo was one of the few supreme men, and therefore that he is of perpetual significance, will hardly account for all the attention he has recently received. The dominant explanation is that it is only within the past generation that materials for an adequate biography have been set free. In 1858, his house, with its archives, was bequeathed to the city of Florence, and in the following year the British Museum bought a large hatch of his letters. The celebration, in 1865, of the four hundredth anniversary of his birth further stimulated research; the result being that, all the biographies which had been written previous to 1860 — we except, of course, the lives by Condivi and Vasari, which appeared during his lifetime — have been permanently superseded.

The earliest biographer to avail himself of this new material was the German, Grimm, whose diffuse volumes still enjoy an exaggerated vogue. Grimm had the advantage of first occupying the field, which always counts for much, and by using Michelangelo’s career as a thread on which to string much discursive information about the history of Italy from the time of Pius II. to the Council of Trent, and many reflections on the fine arts, from Cimabue to Cornelius, he produced an entertaining book. Thirty years ago the Renaissance was less familiar to English readers than it is now, and they were willing to hear what Grimm chose to tell about it while he was incidentally narrating the life of his hero. We need not now insist that this method does justice neither to Michelangelo nor to the Renaissance. He was not a great political figure; he was only indirectly affected by many of the political events to which Grimm devotes much space. With equal relevance might a biographer of Shakespeare deem it incumbent upon him to write the history of England during the reigns of Elizabeth and James I. Therefore, as we have now books in which we can study the Renaissance in proper historical perspective, it seems likely that Grimm’s work, which already shows signs of flagging, will not much longer hold its popularity.

Still, by borrowing from Michelangelo’s letters at the British Museum, Grimm was able here and there to reveal many lifelike personal traits, an achievement in which he was surpassed by Gotti, the second of the recent biographers. Gotti had access to the Buonarroti archives, and also to the artist’s complete correspondence. He restricted himself to the writing of a life instead of a history, and though his style is dull, marked by that tendency to adjectives and the superlative which Italian writers on art and history have not yet overcome, his biography is still the best. Heath Wilson, a patient and discriminating if not an original student of art, proposed to translate Gotti s book into English ; but he soon began to paraphrase and to add, until in the end he produced a woik which he could fairly call his own. Paying more attention to Michelangelo’s art than to his personality, and investigating with much perseverance the remaining frescoes, statues, and drawings, Heath Wilson’s is a valuable contribution to a technical understanding of the subject; but his translations from the Italian, whether of Gotti’s text or of Michelangelo’s letters, display an ignorance of the rudiments of that language which none but an Englishman, with John Bull’s hereditary contempt for foreigners and their speech, would have been willing to display.

These being the most important modern lives of Michelangelo, Mr. John Addington Symonds now publishes a fourth. His qualifications for such a task are well known. His voluminous history of the Italian Renaissance, not less than many detached essays, showed him to be familiar with this period not only in its broader phases, but in most of its less explored crannies. He had treated with equal luminousness subjects so different as the philosophy of Giordano Bruno, the rollicking songs of the Goliardi, and the crimes of the fifteenthcentury despots. We have come to look for the careful collation of much material, and the straightforward presentation of it, in whatever he writes. He assimilates readily, and often forgets that he did not originate the views he has absorbed. In a word, he is the type of a scholar of remarkable breadth and insatiate curiosity, who has at the same time a faculty of fluent expression uncommon to most scholars. Richter somewhere says that in literature there are two classes : one, of those who, like a great ship, bring a rich cargo from far-off lands ; and the other, of those who, like barges or lighters, unload and distribute that cargo. We have no hesitation in assigning Mr. Symonds to the latter class; many are the rich galleons he has helped to unload.

But this lack of originality would not necessarily preclude Mr. Symonds from being an excellent biographer. Lewes, in the last generation, did, in different fields, work similar to that which Symonds has been doing in our time, and Lewes certainly produced an excellent life of Goethe. Mr. Symonds’s defects lie deeper. He is essentially an essayist and critic rather than a narrator; and we hold that whoever would write good history or biography, which is merely history in detail, must have the storyteller’s gift. This he has not, and no amount of erudition can compensate for its absence. Despite accumulated details and lucid explanations, he never makes us feel that the men and time he describes are quite alive ; at most they are galvanized into a semblance of life.

Having spoken in these general terms in order to show that we have applied the highest tests to Mr. Symonds’s new work, we are aware that generalizations are often partial, and that many books which fall below the highest yet merit consideration, and even great esteem, and this we can truly say of his Life of Michelangelo. He has not been led into Grimm’s error of submerging the artist’s career in the flood of public events in which he was only partly concerned ; he has more literary skill than Gotti ; he is not so technical as Heath Wilson. He has endeavored to bring out Michelangelo’s personality in deep relief, without, however, slighting his works, and he has furnished a sufficient but not too extensive account of political happenings ; and yet his hook has stretched to nearly nine hundred pages, more than twice the length of Gotti’s volume of biography. Part of this expansion is due to legitimate causes, — to the insertion of new material, and of copious translations from the letters and from Condivi; but the larger part must be charged to the diffuseness of his style, which, though always lucid, is never terse. He has incorporated what are really essays on the fine arts wherever a pause in the narrative gives an excuse for so doing. His intellectual conscience seems to impose upon him the obligation of expressing an opinion about every minute topic which comes in his way, and this, coupled with incapacity for being emphatic, swells his chapters beyond necessary bounds. We shall always remember four or five pages of Ruskin, whether we agree with them or not; but after a few days, only by a strong effort of memory do opinions which Mr. Symonds expresses at ten times that length emerge from a clinging haze.

Nevertheless, Mr. Symonds has done patiently all that it was in his power to do. You feel respect for the pains he has been at to ferret into the obscure places in Michelangelo’s career, and you find carefully set down details gathered from many sources. We are not aware, for instance, that any other biographer has given so precisely the long “ tragedy of the tomb" of Julius II.; taking up the various contracts by which Michelangelo was harassed for nearly forty years, describing each plan, and tracing the fate of each fragment of the colossal monument. Equally minute is his description of the Medieean chapel, or of the Sistine frescoes, or of Michelangelo’s relations with his fellows. He has swept away, we hope permanently, several of the stock legends ; as that Michelangelo worked in morose solitude at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, envious of the popularity of genial, easy-going Raphael. He has shown anew the absurdity of the common belief that Michelangelo, at past threescore, was romantically in love with Vittoria Colonna, a widow of five and forty, with an absorbing preference for the cloistered life. Since no vehement love affair could be attributed to the master, early biographers and gossips made the most of this Platonic friendship. It is time that the rather cheap romance they fabricated were discarded. Mr. Symonds has also put the sonnets in their proper light, as it is natural that he who long ago made a special study of them should do. But we are astonished that he should blemish a work of this kind by raking up and trying afresh the vile scandals which, if true, could not be proved now, and ought therefore not to be unearthed. To dignify that archruffian, Pietro Aretino, by translating in full the letter in which he vilifies Michelangelo by innuendoes is to show slight respect for decency and a total lack of historical perspective. If all biographers imitated Mr. Symonds in perpetuating the calumnies which blackguards have uttered about great men, we should ask to have the writing of biographies made a penal offense.

It is not our purpose to traverse the main points in Mr. Symonds’s criticism of Michelangelo’s art. He agrees with the verdict reached by contemporaries three and a half centuries ago, that the quality of terribleness distinguishes Michelangelo’s paintings and statues from all others. He recognizes in part the validity of Ruskin’s strictures, but he maintains that to see only “ anatomical diagrams” in the Sistine frescoes is to see less than they contain. He separates, somewhat arbitrarily perhaps, the artist’s development into several periods, laying less stress than usual on the effect the newly discovered antique statues are supposed to have produced on Michelangelo’s style, and he assumes that an unrecorded early visit to Orvieto revealed to him in Signorelli’s frescoes a pattern for his own. Mr. Symonds’s elaborate word pictures of the sculptures and paintings confirm the opinion we had previously formed as to the futility of attempting to convey by language any adequate notion of the quality of a work of art. A description of the artist’s subject may well enough be given, but when the critic digresses into technical dissertations on values, and lights and shades, and modeling, — much more, when he gives rein to his fancy or his sentiment, and tells what impression the work produced on him, — he indulges in loquacity of little profit to any student who has not the given work before his eyes. By restraining this tendency, Mr. Symonds could have lessened the bulk of his book without in the least impairing its worth.

But the first question we ask, and the last, is, What manner of man was this Michelangelo? The mighty products of his genius remain. For well-nigh four centuries they have aroused the wonder of men. One school of æsthetic criticism after another has said its say about them. Every traveler in Rome or Florence has lavished his store of adjectives upon them, and then has turned from the contemplation of the works to speculate upon the character of their maker. His genius we all acknowledge, but what of the man, — what of his daily life, his virtues and defects, his power to cope with the vicissitudes of fortune, his personal, mortal part ? All this it is the business of the biographer to answer, if he can, in order that we may learn what sort of an instrument Providence chose for these particular revelations.

Mr. Symonds has endeavored to satisfy this legitimate curiosity, and has not failed to make copious use of well known passages in Condivi and Vasari and in the less known letters. These last, indeed, strike us as the most interesting parts of the book. Their characteristic intensity, their evident sincerity, their vigor of thought even when the language is not terse, make Mr. Symonds’s style seem sometimes almost pedestrian by contrast. Certainly, if nothing but the following note remained from Michelangelo’s correspondence, we could infer much about his character: “ Most blessed father, I have been turned out of the palace to-day by your orders ; wherefore I give you notice that from this time forward, if you want me, you must look for me elsewhere than at Rome.” Remember that the man who wrote this was then a young sculptor of thirty-one, and that the Pope who received it was Julius II., and you will not be surprised that the writer subsequently modeled the Moses and painted the Last Judgment. On the whole, the more we learn of Michelangelo’s character, — his “psychology,” as Mr. Symonds is fond of calling it, — the more we are disposed to respect it. The sordidness of his habits, in which he reminds us of Turner, and his ambition to be ranked with the best families of Florence — as if any patent of nobility could have ennobled him — were foibles on the surface. In the depths there were virtues which no mean spirit can harbor: loyal support of his kindred, even when they were ungrateful ; candor in an age of overweening despots and truckling courtiers ; real religiousness in an age when most men sneered at the religion to which, for prudence’ sake, they outwardly conformed ; and an unswerving fidelity to the ideals of his art. Mr. Symonds errs, we think, in condescending to refute Lombroso and Parlagreco, two psychologists who have recently classed Michelangelo among the unsane men of genius, alleging as proofs his irritability, his love of solitude, his insensibility to women, his timorousness, and similar evidence. What are the facts? Michelangelo started poor, and though usually ill paid, and though he gave much of his substance to his family and received no compensation at all for very important work, he died passing rich. Do practical men of affairs, whose sanity is taken for granted, achieve more than that? Michelangelo, consecrating his life to his ideal, renounced luxury, curbed his passions, and shunned whatever might interfere with the freest expression of his genius. Are these to be regarded as indications of lack of mental balance ? At twenty-four he executed the Pietà, at twenty-seven the David; at thirty he began work on the tomb of Julius; at thirty-one he drew the cartoon for the Battle of Pisa ; at thirty-seven he finished the vault of the Sistine Chapel; at forty he was set to work upon the Church of San Lorenzo; at fifty he was occupied with the Medicean monuments; at fifty-four he superintended the fortifications of Florence ; at sixty-six he completed the fresco of the Last Judgment; at seventy-one he was appointed architect of St. Peter’s, and worked with unabated vigor till his death in his eightyninth year. These are but the foremost of his achievements, any one of which would suffice for the fame of a lesser man, and yet we are bidden to look upon him as morbid, as a neurotic subject! How many average men, who, by their commonplaceness, run no risk of falling under this suspicion, pursue their vocation to the age of eighty-nine? We suspect that Mr. Symonds would have done well to have paid no attention to “ psychology ” of this kind.

In conclusion, we can assure any one who takes up these volumes that he will find in them all the important facts that have hitherto been published concerning Michelangelo. Of Mr. Symonds’s methods, which are those of the essayist rather than of the historian, we have sufficiently indicated the limitations. We feel that the materials are here for a first-rate biography, but the ideal biographer, to do justice to the subject, must possess, besides Mr. Symonds’s scholarship, a vigor and grasp and sense of vitality such as characterize Carlyle at bis best.

No praise is needed for the many illustrations, well selected and generally well executed, which enrich the work.

  1. The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti. Based on Studies in the Archives of the Buonarroti Family at Florence. By JOHN ADDINGTON SYMONDS. With Etched Portrait and Fifty Reproductions from the Works of the Master. In two volumes. New York : Charles Scribners Sous. 1893.