Michelangelo: The Titan and the Crisis

During his fifteen years as Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, FRANCIS HENRY TAYLOR rose to be one of the most outspoken and influential figures in the world of art. Now as Director Emeritus of the Metropolitan and Director of the Worcester Art Museum he returns to New England and to a regime which will afford him time for writing as well as for his administrative duties.

by FRANCIS HENRY TAYLOR

1

No ONE bus expressed the torment of his age with greater poignancy or with such volcanic and terrifying force. “Michelangelo is the hero as artist. . . . The quality of his genius, like his own dread statue of Lorenzo dei Medici, fascinates and is intolerable.” With these words John Addington Symonds concludes his biography. We cannot, take this artist out of context; he is the lens through which the sixteenth century can be examined microscopically and understood. Seldom in history has there been an artist so representative of his epoch, one who so epitomized the triumphs and tragedies of his contemporaries. Strangely, there appears in the literature on this great man scarcely any evidence of moments of crisis in his domestic life on which the historian can put his finger. He was instead the incarnation of the intellectual, moral, and religious crisis of the Renaissance.

This crisis was nothing more nor less than the revolt of the modern world against the blindness and ignorance of the medieval Church. When Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses against the abuse of indulgences on the door of the castle church at Wittenberg in 1517, Michelangelo was already in his forties. He was too old to change the faith or religious habits of a lifetime, yet he was young enough to he disillusioned by the Golden Age of Popes Julius II and Leo X, for whom he had been working at the Vatican. Within him were burgeoning the seeds of Reformation.

His roots were too deeply buried in the fifteenth century for him to become a Protestant man of action; for the old ideas of scholasticism were merely clothed with a thin veneer of pagan culture. His conflict rose from the fact that his soul belonged to the intolerance of his friend Savonarola, while his intellect, spurred on by an overwhelming scientific curiosity, would have been more at home with Galileo, who was not born until the year of the artist’s death. Politically, too, Michelangelo’s span of life passed from the absolutism of the merchant princes of Medicean Florence to the reckless authoritarianism of the Holy See. His most glorious works, the Sistine ceiling and the Florentine tombs of the Medici, were executed at the moment when Italy was the pawn of the German-Spanish Emperor Charles V and the Sack of Rome was bringing to a close the Renaissance in Italy. When at last the artist returned to Rome in 1535 to embark upon the Last Judgment and the frescoes of the Pauline Chapel, the Eternal City had become the empty academy into which neither the Council of Trent nor the Inquisition was able to breathe new life. The Augustan Age offered a polite formula with which Italy might look back into the dazzling sunset of her former splendor.

The key to Michelangelo’s eighty-nine years is found in the decorations of the Sistine Chapel, that solemn chamber from which emanate the great pronouncements of the Roman Catholic Church. The Chapel is a narrow, long, rectangular room, 133 by 45 feet, surmounted by a vaulted ceiling some 70 feet above the floor. The ceiling comprises a surface of approximately 10,000 square feet upon which Michelangelo painted and spread before an astonished world the age-old theme of the Christian faith — the Creation, the sin and redemption of mankind, the majesty of God, and the beauty of man created in His image. Nine major panels illustrate the first nine chapters of Genesis, beginning with God separating light from darkness over the high altar and ending with the drunkenness of Noah opposite. Smaller compositions corresponding with the spandrels between the windows are devoted to representations of the ancestors of Jesus, the prophets of the Old Testament, and the sibyls of classic Latin literature, who were thought to have foretold the coming of Christ.

Always the artist’s preoccupation is with classic sculpture and sculptural effects. Color, though always beautiful and harmonious, is a secondary consideration, a means of projecting the human figure from the wall, a tonal background for the painted, animated, life-size nudes of which, not counting cherubs and putti, there are over three hundred in the ceiling.

Taken as a whole, the ceiling is an act of faith, as devout an expression of religious conviction as the frescoes of Giotto at Assisi. But it is a different faith and a different expression. Michelangelo has thrown overboard the religious notions and patterns of preceding centuries. Here we have the precursor of a rational approach to religious experience, in which Michelangelo by his own doubts and power foretells the Reformation, completing in the fresco of the Last Judgment above the high altar of the Chapel the cycle of Christian dogma which, beginning with the Creation and the Fall of Man, continues with the Mosaic and Messianic Dispensations and closes with the Trump of Doom. Both from the point of view of art and that of religion it marks the close of the Middle Ages and of that final glitter of medieval times which was expressed in the classical veneer of the early Renaissance. Michelangelo’s conflict, the crisis of his life, was indeed the crisis of the Church, the crisis of Europe in the sixteenth century.

2

THE irresistible force of Michelangelo’s creative imagination and the immovable body of his atavistic beliefs and prejudices could only meet in a worldshattering explosion. The impact of the revelation of his art, in which an utterly new and unfamiliar treatment of the human body was set forth, was not unlike the effect produced a decade ago by the first experimental nuclear reactions. The effect of the skies in which God is seen separating light from darkness and creating Adam and the sun and moon upon the clerics and laymen of his day was revolutionary. Michelangelo had almost in a single stroke of the pencil destroyed the classical Renaissance and had defied the most cherished precepts of humanism. Moreover, he had dared to restore the traditional dogma of Christianity in its new clothes in the very heart of sacerdotal agnosticism. For this he had singlehanded broken the bonds of artistic convention and ushered in the era of modern art. And, like most inventors, he was condemned for his terribilità.

Herein lies his great attraction for the present generation. The critical and biographical studies of the mid-twentieth century are of a very different order from those produced in the complacent and declining years of Queen Victoria. Gone are the purple passages and jeweled prose of our grandparents; Michelangelo has ceased to be the symbol of the dilettante’s rapture; in the power and solidity of his forms and in the candor of his observations, he has won the confidence of our contemporaries.

“There are few,” wrote Symonds, “who can feel at home with him in all the length and breadth and dark depths of the regions that he traversed. The world of thoughts and forms in which he lived is habitually too arid, like an extinct planet, tenanted by mighty, elemental beings with little human left to them but visionary titan-shapes, too vast and void for common minds to dwell in pleasurably. The sweetness that emerges from his strength, the beauty which blooms rarely, strangely, in unhornely wise, upon the awful crowd of his conceptions, are only to be apprehended by some innate sympathy or by long incubation of the brooding intellect.”

This marks the high point of Victorian appreciation. Our purpose, however, is not so much to present the artist in the delicate nuances of his art so appealing to the eighties and nineties, but rather to cast him in the role of spokesman for his own time. This cannot be undertaken without relying heavily upon the words of those who knew him best, his servant Ascanio Condivi and his pupil Giorgio Vasari.

Michelangelo was born in 1475 and lived on into the seventh decade of the following century; his life of eighty-nine years embraced the reigns of thirteen pontiffs, from Sixtus IV to Pius 1V. Like Titian, two years his junior, whose death at ninetynine occurred twelve years after that of the Florentine sculptor, Michelangelo Buonarroti covered the transition from ihe ancient to the modern world. The quality which set him apart from his contemporaries in Florence as a youth was the fact that while they had pursued the path of the recovery of the classical past, Michelangelo used that past in order to captivate the future; his attitude to life, his attitude to God, and his attitude to artistic form belonged in many ways more to the twentieth century than to the fifteenth.

How deeply out of tune he fell with the little world in which he lived and worked may be judged from his Sonnet IV, On Rome in the Pontificate of Julius II (Qua si fa elmi di calici e spade); already one senses the crisis of revulsion which was to affect his later years; —

Here helms and swords are made of chalices:
the blood of Christ is sold so much the quart:
his cross and thorns are spears and shields; and short
must be the time ere even his patience cease.
Nay let him come no more to raise the fees
of this foul sacrilege beyond report!
For Rome still flays and sells him at the court,
where paths are closed to virtue’s fair increase.
Now were fit time for me to scrape a treasure!
Seeing that work and gain are gone; while he
who wears the robe, is my Medusa still.
God welcomes poverty perchance with pleasure:
but of that better life what hope have we,
when the blessed banner leads to nought but ill?
(J. A. Symonds, trails.)

Considering himself always a sculptor rather than a painter — his paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel being done not from preference but under duress, a commission imposed upon him by Pope Julius II — Michelangelo sought in all his work to arrive at the highest expression of monumentality. It was not by chance that he spent twelve years as a young man deep in the study of anatomy and that he was thus able to give to the great concepts of his day that flexibility and latent power which can come only from a knowledge of the human figure and the force which it conveys in different attitudes and postures. Not only his sculpture and painting bear witness to this fact, but also his poetry; —

nor hath God deigned to show Himself elsewhere
more clearly than in human forms sublime;
which, since they image Him, alone I love.

Jakob Burckhardt observed a hundred years ago that, despite the differences between the sculptures of antiquity and those of Michelangelo, the latter seemed to remain always faithful to the classical concept. That is to say, he maintained an equilibrium between life itself and the actual modeling of the human figure which he drew or carved. Yet his statues appear to be created essentially for the beauty of the soul which is revealed through the perfection of the body; and it is paradoxical that the painting of the Sistine Chapel, which obliged him to put aside for a period of several years the art of sculpture, exerted the most extraordinary influence upon his later plastic style. For it is these works of the second period, together with the tomb of Julius II and the Medici tombs in Florence, by which the artist is to be judged most seriously today. In them he reveals himself as being more tormented than any previous artist had ever shown himself to be by his preoccupation with the representation of the human figure, particularly of the nude, in every action compatible with the laws of style and composition. In this regard he is the opposite of the artists of antiquity, who, from one generation to the next, developed motifs and conceits projected by their predecessors. It has not been unusual in the history of art for as much as five centuries to elapse between the germination of an idea and its ultimate realization.

Michelangelo on the other hand is always in quest of new motifs, and in this sense he is par excellence the modern artist. His imagination finds neither guarantees nor limits in an ancient or venerated myth; his Biblical figures themselves are drawn from a purely inspired artistic vision of his own, and his allegories are proclaimed with a most singular boldness. Often, even the prophets and sibyls of the Sistine show little or no connection with the traditional aspects they are expected to express.

The very life which the artist was always seeking to portray again reveals a dual tendency. On the one hand, he wished to show through a ceaseless and tireless series of anatomical studies that he could give the statue an accomplished reality; and on the other, he sought to find in the representation of the superhuman the concept of deity, not as it appeared symbolically in early primitives by the gesture of a head or hand, but in the strangeness of poses and in the contortion of muscular movement.

Thus he generated that excess, almost immortal power contained within the human body. Paradoxically, many of his figures, at first, appear by their monstrousness to be the denial of the very thing which finally he so eloquently proclaims and of which he convinces the spectator. But, since the fundamental classical training of his youth was tempered by the depth of his inner Christianity, he allowed the lingering medieval concerns with sin and the life to come, which were soon to be the basic issues of the impending Reformation, to be a dominant feature of his art. We are suddenly confronted anew with a subjectivity which had gone out of the world since late Roman times, in which the torture of the soul is fully expressed by the muscular distortion of the body. In fact, the very soul-searching which dominates the poetry of his middle and later life, revealed in the following sonnet (Se ‘l mio rozzo martello i’ duri sassi), elevated him from the craftsman, the stonemason, and the mural painter to be one of the greatest artists of all time: —

If my rude hammer lend enduring stone
Similitude of life, being swayed and plied
By arm of one who doth its labor guide,
It moveth with a motion not its own;
But that on high, which lieth by God’s throne;
Itself, and all beside makes beautiful;
And if no tool he wrought without a tool.
The rest are fashioned by its power alone.
As falls a blow with greater force and heat
The further it descends, for forging mine,
The lifted hammer high as heaven flew;
Wherefore mine own will never he complete
Unless perfected from the forge divine,
For that which shaped it earth may not renew.
(W. W. Newell, trans.)

3

THERE is no need here either to enumerate or to describe the works which made Michelangelo so great. They have come down to us intact in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican, in the Medici Chapel in Florence, in the other works situated in Florentine churches and museums, and in the two great figures at the Louvre, the Captive Slaves originally intended for the tomb of Julius II. Other works exist in London and in Bruges. They have been endlessly described and are familiar to everyone.

Modern scholarship and modern journalism have further added greatly to the understanding of his genius and to the dissemination of the artist’s influence. The wonderful photographs recently published by the Phaidon Press and the color reproductions that Life presented to eleven million readers make it unnecessary to comment further. There is scarcely a family in the land that has not been exposed in the past decade to some detailed view of the art of Michelangelo Buonarroti. But despite all these photographs and descriptions, perhaps the most telling circumstance of our day is the extraordinary film, The Titan, which has recently been shown to audiences throughout the country. It is a film based exclusively on the works of art which Michelangelo created. There is no human actor visible. The works of art instead are the actors in the piece. It is always the cold, eternal immobility of the statue or the picture itself that speaks most eloquently of the artist’s vision.

That Michelangelo shared this view of the immutability of art is attested by statements attributed to him in the dialogues recorded by the Portuguese miniature painter Francisco d’Hollanda. In the apartments of Vittoria Colonna in the Convent of San Silvestro, Michelangelo, now in his sixties, was discoursing upon art. “Good painting,” he said, “is nothing else but a copy of the perfections of God and a reminder of His painting. Finally, good painting is a music and a melody which intellect only can appreciate and with great difficulty. This painting is so rare that few are capable of doing it or attaining it. . . . I sometimes set myself thinking and imagining that I find amongst men but one single art or science, and that is drawing or painting, all others being members proceeding therefrom.”

And once again it is in his poetry that we see into the inner recesses of the artist’s mind: —

When that which is divine in us doth try
to shape a face, both brain and hand unite
to give, from a mere model frail and slight,
life to the stone by Art’s free energy.
Thus too before the painter dares to ply
paint-brush or canvas, he is wont to write
sketches on scraps of paper, and invite
wise minds to judge his figured history. . . .

(J. A. Symonds, trans.)

After extolling the virtues of the artist and recording the high esteem in which he was held by popes and emperors, kings and sultans, Condivi gives us an intimate portrait of his master’s character. “So then Michelangelo, while he was yet a youth, devoted himself not only to sculpture and painting, but also to all those other arts which to them are allied or subservient, and this he did with such absorbing energy that for a time he almost entirely cut himself off from human society, conversing with but very few intimate friends. On this account, some folk thought him proud, others eccentric and capricious, although he was tainted with none of these defects; but as has happened to many men of great ability, the love of study and the perpetual practice of his art rendered him solitary, being so taken up with the pleasure and delight of these things that society not only offered him no solace, but even caused him annoyance by diverting him from meditation. . . .

“In like manner as he enjoyed the converse of learned men so also did he take pleasure in the study of eminent writers, whether of prose or verse. Among these he particularly admired Dante whose marvellous poems he had all by heart. Nevertheless the same might perhaps be said about his love for Petrarch. These poets he not only delighted in studying but also was wont to compose from time to time upon his own account.”

So much space has been devoted to Michelangelo’s terribilità by his critics and biographers, and to the subject of his quarrels with the popes who employed him, and with his fellow artists San Gallo, Bramante, and Raphael, who were working simultaneously with him at the Vatican, that a distorted picture of his personality has become generally accepted. There is no question that Michelangelo was difficult or that he was inordinately fond of money, primarily for the sake of re-establishing the ancient nobility of his family, which had fallen into desuetude. His timidity also gave him at times an undeserved reputation for physical cowardice although, to be sure, he was quite justifiably afraid for his own life on innumerable occasions when the wrath of Julius II was visited upon him, forcing him to escape from Rome to Bologna and to Florence. Nor can one deny that in the accepted idiom of his day his relations to the Medici, and to the cardinals who befriended him and were his patrons, were those of a sycophant and courtier. These faults lay within the limitations of his explosive and titanic genius.

His life was comparatively undisturbed by women. His Platonic attachment to Vittoria Colonna, the Marchesa da Pescara, a celebrated beauty and bluestocking, was the most consuming passion of his life. Michelangelo was over sixty when they met, yet it is to her that the most passionate and beautiful of his sonnets and madrigals are addressed. She was the leader of a coterie of devoted Roman Catholics who tried to find the basis for reform within the Church. Reginald Cardinal Pole was her intimate friend and confidant. All of them, including Michelangelo, came under the scrutiny of the Inquisition, for already the city of Rome, including the papal household, was a house divided against itself.

While Michelangelo himself never revolted from Catholicism or departed from the Church, and it is quite debatable to what extent he was influenced by heretical ideas, he nevertheless expressed in his later work and in his poetry the agitation and questioning of the things of the spirit which were to become the preoccupation of the continent for the next three hundred years. With him medievalism died and modern art was born.

Ten years before his death Michelangelo addressed a sonnet to Giorgio Vasari (LXV) entitled “On the Brink of Death": —

Now hath my life across a stormy sea
like a frail bark reached that wide port where all
are bidden, ere the final reckoning fall
of good and evil for eternity.
Now know I well how that fond phantasy
which made my soul the worshipper and thrall
of earthly art, is vain; how criminal
is that which all men seek unwillingly.
Those amorous thoughts which were so lightly dressed,
what are they when the double death is nigh?
The one I know for sure, the other dread.
Painting nor sculpture now can lull to rest
my soul that turns to His great love on high,
whose arms to clasp us on the cross were spread.
(J. A. Symonds, trans.)

4

THE life of Michelangelo was at once a paradox and a crisis. It was the crisis of the world in which he lived, the conflict between the modern world and antiquity. It was the conflict of the free spirit of the individual as opposed to the dogmatic and authoritarian tradition of the Middle Ages. He was, above all, a Platonist, influenced in his early youth by the eloquence of Marsilio Ficino, whom he must have heard in the Medicean gardens where he studied sculpture.

To find the secret of his Platonism, as W. W. Newell has pointed out, it is not necessary to turn to the Phaedrus or to the Symposium. His verse “like all true poetry is self-illuminative . . . that God is the archetype and fountainhead of all excellency, that external objects suggest the perfection they do not include; that objects of nature, reflected in the mirror of the intelligence, move the soul to perform the creative act by which outward beauty is reborn into her own likeness, and loved as the representation of her own divinity, that the highest property of external things is to cause human thought to transcend from the partial to the universal, — these are conceptions so simple and natural that no course of study is necessary to their appreciation.”There was enough of Dante and Christian mysticism in his make-up, however, to adulterate the serenity of his Platonism. It was, in a sense, the very thing of which Christianity is composed, a union of Platonic imagination with Hebrew piety.

As to Michelangelo’s character, we have the testimony of Scipione Ammirato in his history of Florence, published the year of the sculptor’s death, 1564, who stated that “Buonarroti having lived for ninety years, there was never found through all that length of time and with all that liberty to sin, anyone who could with right and justice impute to him a stain or any ugliness of manners.” For this it is necessary to discount the accusations of homosexuality, of which he was accused not only in his lifetime but subsequently, and against which Condivi defended him with so much eloquence. To be sure, this question is no more important in the case of Michelangelo than it was in that of Leonardo da Vinci, for the Renaissance looked differently upon those things than we are apt to do today.

Condivi adds, “I am sure that no vile thoughts were born in him, by this token, that he loved not only the beauty of human beings, but in general all fair things, as a beautiful horse, a beautiful dog, a beautiful piece of country, a beautiful plant, a beautiful mountain, a beautiful wood and every sight in its kind fair and rare, admiring them with marvelous affection. That was his way; to choose what is beautiful from nature, as bees collect the honey from flowers, and use it for their purpose in their workings: which indeed was always the method of those masters who have acquired any fame in painting.”

There is no need to dwell on the other limitations of his character, his jealousy, his parsimony, and the other petty sins and peccadilloes of which he was frequently indicted. The fact remains that this titanic personality lived to the age of eighty-nine and contributed probably more to the world in which he lived than any other man of his day. His declining years were something like the final rumblings of a volcano that has spent itself. In part his loneliness was derived from the fact that he had outlived the persons of whom he was fondest. At the moment of his death the Council of Trent had been sitting nearly twenty years. The baroque style was evolving in order to carry the message that the Church had found to be advisable. The Jesuits had saved the day. Michelangelo had already put into stone and fresco the conflict of the age, and with it many of its solutions. Compared with other men of action, Michelangelo might be said to be a contemplative, even though an explosive and volcanic force. The world and the Church owe much to him, but it is the artists who came after him who are chiefly in his debt, for without Michelangelo the artist’s interpretation of the modern world could never have been possible.