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The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti by John Addington Symonds

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DEATH. 1475-1492.







LORENZO. 1521-1526.






AGE. 1557-1564.





The Buonarroti Simoni, to whom Michelangelo belonged, were a
Florentine family of ancient burgher nobility. Their arms appear to
have been originally "azure two bends or." To this coat was added "a
label of four points gules inclosing three fleur-de-lys or." That
augmentation, adopted from the shield of Charles of Anjou, occurs upon
the scutcheons of many Guelf houses and cities. In the case of the
Florentine Simoni, it may be ascribed to the period when Buonarrota di
Simone Simoni held office as a captain of the Guelf party (1392).
Such, then, was the paternal coat borne by the subject of this Memoir.
His brother Buonarroto received a further augmentation in 1515 from
Leo X., to wit: "upon a chief or, a pellet azure charged with
fleur-de-lys or, between the capital letters L. and X." At the same
time he was created Count Palatine. The old and simple bearing of the
two bends was then crowded down into the extreme base of the shield,
while the Angevine label found room beneath the chief.

According to a vague tradition, the Simoni drew their blood from the
high and puissant Counts of Canossa. Michelangelo himself believed in
this pedigree, for which there is, however, no foundation in fact, and
no heraldic corroboration. According to his friend and biographer
Condivi, the sculptor's first Florentine ancestor was a Messer Simone
dei Conti di Canossa, who came in 1250 as Podesta to Florence. "The
eminent qualities of this man gained for him admission into the
burghership of the city, and he was appointed captain of a Sestiere;
for Florence in those days was divided into Sestieri, instead of
Quartieri, as according to the present usage." Michelangelo's
contemporary, the Count Alessandro da Canossa, acknowledged this
relationship. Writing on the 9th of October 1520, he addresses the
then famous sculptor as "honoured kinsman," and gives the following
piece of information: "Turning over my old papers, I have discovered
that a Messere Simone da Canossa was Podesta of Florence, as I have
already mentioned to the above-named Giovanni da Reggio."
Nevertheless, it appears now certain that no Simone da Canossa held
the office of Podesta at Florence in the thirteenth century. The
family can be traced up to one Bernardo, who died before the year
1228. His grandson was called Buonarrota, and the fourth in descent
was Simone. These names recur frequently in the next generations.
Michelangelo always addressed his father as "Lodovico di Lionardo di
Buonarrota Simoni," or "Louis, the son of Leonard, son of Buonarrota
Simoni;" and he used the family surname of Simoni in writing to his
brothers and his nephew Lionardo. Yet he preferred to call himself
Michelangelo Buonarroti; and after his lifetime Buonarroti became
fixed for the posterity of his younger brother. "The reason," says
Condivi, "why the family in Florence changed its name from Canossa to
Buonarroti was this: Buonarroto continued for many generations to be
repeated in their house, down to the time of Michelangelo, who had a
brother of that name; and inasmuch as several of these Buonarroti held
rank in the supreme magistracy of the republic, especially the brother
I have just mentioned, who filled the office of Prior during Pope
Leo's visit to Florence, as may be read in the annals of that city,
this baptismal name, by force of frequent repetition, became the
cognomen of the whole family; the more easily, because it is the
custom at Florence, in elections and nominations of officers, to add
the Christian names of the father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and
sometimes even of remoter ancestors, to that of each citizen.
Consequently, through the many Buonarroti who followed one another,
and from the Simone who was the first founder of the house in
Florence, they gradually came to be called Buonarroti Simoni, which is
their present designation." Excluding the legend about Simone da
Canossa, this is a pretty accurate account of what really happened.
Italian patronymics were formed indeed upon the same rule as those of
many Norman families in Great Britain. When the use of Di and Fitz
expired, Simoni survived from Di Simone, as did my surname Symonds
from Fitz-Symond.

On the 6th of March 1475, according to our present computation,
Lodovico di Lionardo Buonarroti Simoni wrote as follows in his private
notebook: "I record that on this day, March 6, 1474, a male child was
born to me. I gave him the name of Michelangelo, and he was born on a
Monday morning four or five hours before daybreak, and he was born
while I was Podesta of Caprese, and he was born at Caprese; and the
godfathers were those I have named below. He was baptized on the
eighth of the same month in the Church of San Giovanni at Caprese.
These are the godfathers:--

Rector of San Giovanni at Caprese;
DON ANDREA DI .... of Poppi, Rector of the Abbey
of Diasiano (_i.e._, Dicciano);

Note that the date is March 6, 1474, according to Florentine usage _ab
incarnatione_, and according to the Roman usage, _a nativitate_, it is

Vasari tells us that the planets were propitious at the moment of
Michelangelo's nativity: "Mercury and Venus having entered with benign
aspect into the house of Jupiter, which indicated that marvellous and
extraordinary works, both of manual art and intellect, were to be
expected from him."


Caprese, from its beauty and remoteness, deserved to be the birthplace
of a great artist. It is not improbable that Lodovico Buonarroti and
his wife Francesca approached it from Pontassieve in Valdarno,
crossing the little pass of Consuma, descending on the famous
battle-field of Campaldino, and skirting the ancient castle of the
Conti Guidi at Poppi. Every step in the romantic journey leads over
ground hallowed by old historic memories. From Poppi the road descends
the Arno to a richly cultivated district, out of which emerges on its
hill the prosperous little town of Bibbiena. High up to eastward
springs the broken crest of La Vernia, a mass of hard millstone rock
(_macigno_) jutting from desolate beds of lime and shale at the height
of some 3500 feet above the sea. It was here, among the sombre groves
of beech and pine which wave along the ridge, that S. Francis came to
found his infant Order, composed the Hymn to the Sun, and received the
supreme honour of the stigmata. To this point Dante retired when the
death of Henry VII. extinguished his last hopes for Italy. At one
extremity of the wedge-like block which forms La Vernia, exactly on
the watershed between Arno and Tiber, stands the ruined castle of
Chiusi in Casentino. This was one of the two chief places of Lodovico
Buonarroti's podesteria. It may be said to crown the valley of the
Arno; for the waters gathered here flow downwards toward Arezzo, and
eventually wash the city walls of Florence. A few steps farther,
travelling south, we pass into the valley of the Tiber, and, after
traversing a barren upland region for a couple of hours, reach the
verge of the descent upon Caprese. Here the landscape assumes a softer
character. Far away stretch blue Apennines, ridge melting into ridge
above Perugia in the distance. Gigantic oaks begin to clothe the stony
hillsides, and little by little a fertile mountain district of
chestnut-woods and vineyards expands before our eyes, equal in charm
to those aerial hills and vales above Pontremoli. Caprese has no
central commune or head-village. It is an aggregate of scattered
hamlets and farmhouses, deeply embosomed in a sea of greenery. Where
the valley contracts and the infant Tiber breaks into a gorge, rises a
wooded rock crowned with the ruins of an ancient castle. It was here,
then, that Michelangelo first saw the light. When we discover that he
was a man of more than usually nervous temperament, very different in
quality from any of his relatives, we must not forget what a fatiguing
journey had been performed by his mother, who was then awaiting her
delivery. Even supposing that Lodovico Buonarroti travelled from
Florence by Arezzo to Caprese, many miles of rough mountain-roads must
have been traversed by her on horseback.


Ludovico, who, as we have seen, was Podesta of Caprese and of Chiusi
in the Casentino, had already one son by his first wife, Francesca,
the daughter of Neri di Miniato del Sera and Bonda Rucellai. This
elder brother, Lionardo, grew to manhood, and become a devoted
follower of Savonarola. Under the influence of the Ferrarese friar, he
determined to abjure the world, and entered the Dominican Order in
1491. We know very little about him, and he is only once mentioned in
Michelangelo's correspondence. Even this reference cannot be
considered certain. Writing to his father from Rome, July 1, 1497,
Michelangelo says: "I let you know that Fra Lionardo returned hither
to Rome. He says that he was forced to fly from Viterbo, and that his
frock had been taken from him, wherefore he wished to go there
(_i.e._, to Florence). So I gave him a golden ducat, which he asked
for; and I think you ought already to have learned this, for he should
be there by this time." When Lionardo died is uncertain. We only know
that he was in the convent of S. Mark at Florence in the year 1510.
Owing to this brother's adoption of the religious life, Michelangelo
became, early in his youth, the eldest son of Lodovico's family. It
will be seen that during the whole course of his long career he acted
as the mainstay of his father, and as father to his younger brothers.
The strength and the tenacity of his domestic affections are very
remarkable in a man who seems never to have thought of marrying.
"Art," he used to say, "is a sufficiently exacting mistress." Instead
of seeking to beget children for his own solace, he devoted himself to
the interests of his kinsmen.

The office of Podesta lasted only six months, and at the expiration of
this term Lodovico returned to Florence. He put the infant
Michelangelo out to nurse in the village of Settignano, where the
Buonarroti Simoni owned a farm. Most of the people of that district
gained their livelihood in the stone-quarries around Settignano and
Maiano on the hillside of Fiesole. Michelangelo's foster-mother was
the daughter and the wife of stone-cutters. "George," said he in
after-years to his friend Vasari, "if I possess anything of good in my
mental constitution, it comes from my having been born in your keen
climate of Arezzo; just as I drew the chisel and the mallet with which
I carve statues in together with my nurse's milk."

When Michelangelo was of age to go to school, his father put him under
a grammarian at Florence named Francesco da Urbino. It does not
appear, however, that he learned more than reading and writing in
Italian, for later on in life we find him complaining that he knew no
Latin. The boy's genius attracted him irresistibly to art. He spent
all his leisure time in drawing, and frequented the society of youths
who were apprenticed to masters in painting and sculpture. Among these
he contracted an intimate friendship with Francesco Granacci, at that
time in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandajo. Granacci used to lend
him drawings by Ghirlandajo, and inspired him with the resolution to
become a practical artist. Condivi says that "Francesco's influence,
combined with the continual craving of his nature, made him at last
abandon literary studies. This brought the boy into disfavour with his
father and uncles, who often used to beat him severely; for, being
insensible to the excellence and nobility of Art, they thought it
shameful to give her shelter in their house. Nevertheless, albeit
their opposition caused him the greatest sorrow, it was not sufficient
to deter him from his steady purpose. On the contrary, growing even
bolder he determined to work in colours." Condivi, whose narrative
preserves for us Michelangelo's own recollections of his youthful
years, refers to this period the painted copy made by the young
draughtsman from a copper-plate of Martin Schoengauer. We should
probably be right in supposing that the anecdote is slightly
antedated. I give it, however, as nearly as possible in the
biographer's own words. "Granacci happened to show him a print of S.
Antonio tormented by the devils. This was the work of Martino
d'Olanda, a good artist for the times in which he lived; and
Michelangelo transferred the composition to a panel. Assisted by the
same friend with colours and brushes, he treated his subject in so
masterly a way that it excited surprise in all who saw it, and even
envy, as some say, in Domenico, the greatest painter of his age. In
order to diminish the extraordinary impression produced by this
picture, Ghirlandajo went about saying that it came out of his own
workshop, as though he had some part in the performance. While engaged
on this piece, which, beside the figure of the saint, contained many
strange forms and diabolical monstrosities, Michelangelo coloured no
particular without going first to Nature and comparing her truth with
his fancies. Thus he used to frequent the fish-market, and study the
shape and hues of fishes' fins, the colour of their eyes, and so forth
in the case of every part belonging to them; all of which details he
reproduced with the utmost diligence in his painting." Whether this
transcript from Schoengauer was made as early as Condivi reports may,
as I have said, be reasonably doubted. The anecdote is interesting,
however, as showing in what a naturalistic spirit Michelangelo began
to work. The unlimited mastery which he acquired over form, and which
certainly seduced him at the close of his career into a stylistic
mannerism, was based in the first instance upon profound and patient
interrogation of reality.


Lodovico perceived at length that it was useless to oppose his son's
natural bent. Accordingly, he sent him into Ghirlandajo's workshop. A
minute from Ghirlandajo's ledger, under the date 1488, gives
information regarding the terms of the apprenticeship. "I record this
first of April how I, Lodovico di Lionardo di Buonarrota, bind my son
Michelangelo to Domenico and Davit di Tommaso di Currado for the next
three ensuing years, under these conditions and contracts: to wit,
that the said Michelangelo shall stay with the above-named masters
during this time, to learn the art of painting, and to practise the
same, and to be at the orders of the above-named; and they, for their
part, shall give to him in the course of these three years twenty-four
florins (_fiorini di suggello_): to wit, six florins in the first
year, eight in the second, ten in the third; making in all the sum of
ninety-six pounds (_lire_)." A postscript, dated April 16th of the
same year, 1488, records that two florins were paid to Michelangelo
upon that day.

It seems that Michelangelo retained no very pleasant memory of his
sojourn with the Ghirlandajo brothers. Condivi, in the passage
translated above, hints that Domenico was jealous of him. He proceeds
as follows: "This jealousy betrayed itself still more when
Michelangelo once begged the loan of a certain sketch-book, wherein
Domenico had portrayed shepherds with their flocks and watchdogs,
landscapes, buildings, ruins, and such-like things. The master refused
to lend it; and indeed he had the fame of being somewhat envious; for
not only showed he thus scant courtesy toward Michelangelo, but he
also treated his brother likewise, sending him into France when he saw
that he was making progress and putting forth great promise; and doing
this not so much for any profit to David, as that he might himself
remain the first of Florentine painters. I have thought fit to mention
these things, because I have been told that Domenico's son is wont to
ascribe the genius and divinity of Michelangelo in great part to his
father's teaching, whereas the truth is that he received no assistance
from that master. I ought, however, to add that Michelangelo does not
complain: on the contrary, he praises Domenico both as artist and as

This passage irritated Vasari beyond measure. He had written his first
Life of Michelangelo in 1550. Condivi published his own modest
biography in 1553, with the expressed intention of correcting errors
and supplying deficiencies made by "others," under which vague word he
pointed probably at Vasari. Michelangelo, who furnished Condivi with
materials, died in 1564; and Vasari, in 1568, issued a second enlarged
edition of the Life, into which he cynically incorporated what he
chose to steal from Condivi's sources. The supreme Florentine sculptor
being dead and buried, Vasari felt that he was safe in giving the lie
direct to this humble rival biographer. Accordingly, he spoke as
follows about Michelangelo's relations with Domenico Ghirlandajo: "He
was fourteen years of age when he entered that master's service, and
inasmuch as one (Condivi), who composed his biography after 1550, when
I had published these Lives for the first time, declares that certain
persons, from want of familiarity with Michelangelo, have recorded
things that did not happen, and have omitted others worthy of
relation; and in particular has touched upon the point at issue,
accusing Domenico of envy, and saying that he never rendered
Michelangelo assistance."--Here Vasari, out of breath with
indignation, appeals to the record of Lodovico's contract with the
Ghirlandajo brothers. "These minutes," he goes on to say, "I copied
from the ledger, in order to show that everything I formerly
published, or which will be published at the present time, is truth.
Nor am I acquainted with any one who had greater familiarity with
Michelangelo than I had, or who served him more faithfully in friendly
offices; nor do I believe that a single man could exhibit a larger
number of letters written with his own hand, or evincing greater
personal affection, than I can."

This contention between Condivi and Vasari, our two contemporary
authorities upon the facts of Michelangelo's life, may not seem to be
a matter of great moment for his biographer after the lapse of four
centuries. Yet the first steps in the art-career of so exceptional a
genius possess peculiar interest. It is not insignificant to
ascertain, so far as now is possible, what Michelangelo owed to his
teachers. In equity, we acknowledge that Lodovico's record on the
ledger of the Ghirlandajo brothers proves their willingness to take
him as a prentice, and their payment to him of two florins in advance;
but the same record does not disprove Condivi's statement, derived
from his old master's reminiscences, to the effect that Domenico
Ghirlandajo was in no way greatly serviceable to him as an instructor.
The fault, in all probability, did not lie with Ghirlandajo alone.
Michelangelo, as we shall have occasions in plenty to observe, was
difficult to live with; frank in speech to the point of rudeness,
ready with criticism, incapable of governing his temper, and at no
time apt to work harmoniously with fellow-craftsmen. His extraordinary
force and originality of genius made themselves felt, undoubtedly, at
the very outset of his career; and Ghirlandajo may be excused if,
without being positively jealous of the young eagle settled in his
homely nest, he failed to do the utmost for this gifted and
rough-natured child of promise. Beethoven's discontent with Haydn as a
teacher offers a parallel; and sympathetic students of psychology will
perceive that Ghirlandajo and Haydn were almost superfluous in the
training of phenomenal natures like Michelangelo and Beethoven.

Vasari, passing from controversy to the gossip of the studio, has
sketched a pleasant picture of the young Buonarroti in his master's
employ. "The artistic and personal qualities of Michelangelo developed
so rapidly that Domenico was astounded by signs of power in him beyond
the ordinary scope of youth. He perceived, in short, that he not only
surpassed the other students, of whom Ghirlandajo had a large number
under his tuition, but also that he often competed on an equality with
the master. One of the lads who worked there made a pen-drawing of
some women, clothed, from a design of Ghirlandajo. Michelangelo took
up the paper, and with a broader nib corrected the outline of a female
figure, so as to bring it into perfect truth to life. Wonderful it was
to see the difference of the two styles, and to note the judgment and
ability of a mere boy, so spirited and bold, who had the courage to
chastise his master's handiwork! This drawing I now preserve as a
precious relique, since it was given me by Granacci, that it might
take a place in my Book of Original Designs, together with others
presented to me by Michelangelo. In the year 1550, when I was in Rome,
I Giorgio showed it to Michelangelo, who recognised it immediately,
and was pleased to see it again, observing modestly that he knew more
about the art when he was a child than now in his old age.

"It happened then that Domenico was engaged upon the great Chapel of
S. Maria Novella; and being absent one day, Michelangelo set himself
to draw from nature the whole scaffolding, with some easels and all
the appurtenances of the art, and a few of the young men at work
there. When Domenico returned and saw the drawing, he exclaimed: 'This
fellow knows more about it than I do,' and remained quite stupefied by
the new style and the new method of imitation, which a boy of years so
tender had received as a gift from heaven."

Both Condivi and Vasari relate that, during his apprenticeship to
Ghirlandajo, Michelangelo demonstrated his technical ability by
producing perfect copies of ancient drawings, executing the facsimile
with consummate truth of line, and then dirtying the paper so as to
pass it off as the original of some old master. "His only object,"
adds Vasari, "was to keep the originals, by giving copies in exchange;
seeing that he admired them as specimens of art, and sought to surpass
them by his own handling; and in doing this he acquired great renown."
We may pause to doubt whether at the present time--in the case, for
instance, of Shelley letters or Rossetti drawings--clever forgeries
would be accepted as so virtuous and laudable. But it ought to be
remembered that a Florentine workshop at that period contained masses
of accumulated designs, all of which were more or less the common
property of the painting firm. No single specimen possessed a high
market value. It was, in fact, only when art began to expire in Italy,
when Vasari published his extensive necrology and formed his famous
collection of drawings, that property in a sketch became a topic for
moral casuistry.

Of Michelangelo's own work at this early period we possess probably
nothing except a rough scrawl on the plaster of a wall at Settignano.
Even this does not exist in its original state. The Satyr which is
still shown there may, according to Mr. Heath Wilson's suggestion, be
a _rifacimento_ from the master's hand at a subsequent period of his


Condivi and Vasari differ considerably in their accounts of
Michelangelo's departure from Ghirlandajo's workshop. The former
writes as follows: "So then the boy, now drawing one thing and now
another, without fixed place or steady line of study, happened one day
to be taken by Granacci into the garden of the Medici at San Marco,
which garden the magnificent Lorenzo, father of Pope Leo, and a man of
the first intellectual distinction, had adorned with antique statues
and other reliques of plastic art. When Michelangelo saw these things
and felt their beauty, he no longer frequented Domenico's shop, nor
did he go elsewhere, but, judging the Medicean gardens to be the best
school, spent all his time and faculties in working there." Vasari
reports that it was Lorenzo's wish to raise the art of sculpture in
Florence to the same level as that of painting; and for this reason he
placed Bertoldo, a pupil and follower of Donatello, over his
collections, with a special commission to aid and instruct the young
men who used them. With the same intention of forming an academy or
school of art, Lorenzo went to Ghirlandajo, and begged him to select
from his pupils those whom he considered the most promising.
Ghirlandajo accordingly drafted off Francesco Granacci and
Michelangelo Buonarroti. Since Michelangelo had been formally articled
by his father to Ghirlandajo in 1488, he can hardly have left that
master in 1489 as unceremoniously as Condivi asserts. Therefore we
may, I think, assume that Vasari upon this point has preserved the
genuine tradition.

Having first studied the art of design and learned to work in colours
under the supervision of Ghirlandajo, Michelangelo now had his native
genius directed to sculpture. He began with the rudiments of
stone-hewing, blocking out marbles designed for the Library of San
Lorenzo, and acquiring that practical skill in the manipulation of the
chisel which he exercised all through his life. Condivi and Vasari
agree in relating that a copy he made for his own amusement from an
antique Faun first brought him into favourable notice with Lorenzo.
The boy had begged a piece of refuse marble, and carved a grinning
mask, which he was polishing when the Medici passed by. The great man
stopped to examine the work, and recognised its merit. At the same
time he observed with characteristic geniality: "Oh, you have made
this Faun quite old, and yet have left him all his teeth! Do you not
know that men of that great age are always wanting in one or two?"
Michelangelo took the hint, and knocked a tooth out from the upper
jaw. When Lorenzo saw how cleverly he had performed the task, he
resolved to provide for the boy's future and to take him into his own
household. So, having heard whose son he was, "Go," he said, "and tell
your father that I wish to speak with him."

A mask of a grinning Faun may still be seen in the sculpture-gallery
of the Bargello at Florence, and the marble is traditionally assigned
to Michelangelo. It does not exactly correspond to the account given
by Condivi and Vasari; for the mouth shows only two large tusk-like
teeth, with the tip of the tongue protruding between them. Still,
there is no reason to feel certain that we may not have here
Michelangelo's first extant work in marble.

"Michelangelo accordingly went home, and delivered the message of the
Magnificent. His father, guessing probably what he was wanted for,
could only be persuaded by the urgent prayers of Granacci and other
friends to obey the summons. Indeed, he complained loudly that Lorenzo
wanted to lead his son astray, abiding firmly by the principle that he
would never permit a son of his to be a stonecutter. Vainly did
Granacci explain the difference between a sculptor and a stone-cutter:
all his arguments seemed thrown away. Nevertheless, when Lodovico
appeared before the Magnificent, and was asked if he would consent to
give his son up to the great man's guardianship, he did not know how
to refuse. 'In faith,' he added, 'not Michelangelo alone, but all of
us, with our lives and all our abilities, are at the pleasure of your
Magnificence!' When Lorenzo asked what he desired as a favour to
himself, he answered: 'I have never practised any art or trade, but
have lived thus far upon my modest income, attending to the little
property in land which has come down from my ancestors; and it has
been my care not only to preserve these estates, but to increase them
so far as I was able by my industry.' The Magnificent then added:
'Well, look about, and see if there be anything in Florence which will
suit you. Make use of me, for I will do the utmost that I can for
you.' It so happened that a place in the Customs, which could only be
filled by a Florentine citizen, fell vacant shortly afterwards. Upon
this Lodovico returned to the Magnificent, and begged for it in these
words: 'Lorenzo, I am good for nothing but reading and writing. Now,
the mate of Marco Pucci in the Customs having died, I should like to
enter into this office, feeling myself able to fulfil its duties
decently.' The Magnificent laid his hand upon his shoulder, and said
with a smile: 'You will always be a poor man;' for he expected him to
ask for something far more valuable. Then he added: 'If you care to be
the mate of Marco, you can take the post, until such time as a better
becomes vacant.' It was worth eight crowns the month, a little more or
a little less." A document is extant which shows that Lodovico
continued to fill this office at the Customs till 1494, when the heirs
of Lorenzo were exiled; for in the year 1512, after the Medici
returned to Florence, he applied to Giuliano, Duke of Nemours, to be
reinstated in the same.

If it is true, as Vasari asserts, that Michelangelo quitted
Ghirlandajo in 1489, and if Condivi is right in saying that he only
lived in the Casa Medici for about two years before the death of
Lorenzo, April 1492, then he must have spent some twelve months
working in the gardens at San Marco before the Faun's mask called
attention to his talents. His whole connection with Lorenzo, from the
spring of 1489 to the spring of 1492, lasted three years; and, since
he was born in March 1475, the space of his life covered by this
patronage extended from the commencement of his fifteenth to the
commencement of his eighteenth year.

These three years were decisive for the development of his mental
faculties and special artistic genius. It is not necessary to enlarge
here upon Lorenzo de' Medici's merits and demerits, either as the
ruler of Florence or as the central figure in the history of the
Italian Renaissance. These have supplied stock topics for discussion
by all writers who have devoted their attention to that period of
culture. Still we must remember that Michelangelo enjoyed singular
privileges under the roof of one who was not only great as diplomatist
and politician, and princely in his patronage, but was also a man of
original genius in literature, of fine taste in criticism, and of
civil urbanity in manners. The palace of the Medici formed a museum,
at that period unique, considering the number and value of its art
treasures--bas-reliefs, vases, coins, engraved stones, paintings by
the best contemporary masters, statues in bronze and marble by
Verocchio and Donatello. Its library contained the costliest
manuscripts, collected from all quarters of Europe and the Levant. The
guests who assembled in its halls were leaders in that intellectual
movement which was destined to spread a new type of culture far and
wide over the globe. The young sculptor sat at the same board as
Marsilio Ficino, interpreter of Plato; Pico della Mirandola, the
phoenix of Oriental erudition; Angelo Poliziano, the unrivalled
humanist and melodious Italian poet; Luigi Pulci, the humorous
inventor of burlesque romance--with artists, scholars, students
innumerable, all in their own departments capable of satisfying a
youth's curiosity, by explaining to him the particular virtues of
books discussed, or of antique works of art inspected. During those
halcyon years, before the invasion of Charles VIII., it seemed as
though the peace of Italy might last unbroken. No one foresaw the
apocalyptic vials of wrath which were about to be poured forth upon
her plains and cities through the next half-century. Rarely, at any
period of the world's history, perhaps only in Athens between the
Persian and the Peloponnesian wars, has culture, in the highest and
best sense of that word, prospered more intelligently and pacifically
than it did in the Florence of Lorenzo, through the co-operation and
mutual zeal of men of eminence, inspired by common enthusiasms, and
labouring in diverse though cognate fields of study and production.

Michelangelo's position in the house was that of an honoured guest or
adopted son. Lorenzo not only allowed him five ducats a month by way
of pocket-money, together with clothes befitting his station, but he
also, says Condivi, "appointed him a good room in the palace, together
with all the conveniences he desired, treating him in every respect,
as also at his table, precisely like one of his own sons. It was the
custom of this household, where men of the noblest birth and highest
public rank assembled round the daily board, for the guests to take
their places next the master in the order of their arrival; those who
were present at the beginning of the meal sat, each according to his
degree, next the Magnificent, not moving afterwards for any one who
might appear. So it happened that Michelangelo found himself
frequently seated above Lorenzo's children and other persons of great
consequence, with whom that house continually flourished and abounded.
All these illustrious men paid him particular attention, and
encouraged him in the honourable art which he had chosen. But the
chief to do so was the Magnificent himself, who sent for him
oftentimes in a day, in order that he might show him jewels,
cornelians, medals, and such-like objects of great rarity, as knowing
him to be of excellent parts and judgment in these things." It does
not appear that Michelangelo had any duties to perform or services to
render. Probably his patron employed him upon some useful work of the
kind suggested by Condivi. But the main business of his life in the
Casa Medici was to make himself a valiant sculptor, who in after years
should confer lustre on the city of the lily and her Medicean masters.
What he produced during this period seems to have become his own
property, for two pieces of statuary, presently to be described,
remained in the possession of his family, and now form a part of the
collection in the Casa Buonarroti.


Angelo Poliziano, who was certainly the chief scholar of his age in
the new learning, and no less certainly one of its truest poets in the
vulgar language, lived as tutor to Lorenzo's children in the palace of
the Medici at Florence. Benozzo Gozzoli introduced his portrait,
together with the portraits of his noble pupils, in a fresco of the
Pisan Campo Santo. This prince of humanists recommended Michelangelo
to treat in bas-relief an antique fable, involving the strife of young
heroes for some woman's person. Probably he was also able to point out
classical examples by which the boyish sculptor might be guided in the
undertaking. The subject made enormous demands upon his knowledge of
the nude. Adult and youthful figures, in attitudes of vehement attack
and resistance, had to be modelled; and the conditions of the myth
required that one at least of them should be brought into harmony with
equine forms. Michelangelo wrestled vigorously with these
difficulties. He produced a work which, though it is imperfect and
immature, brings to light the specific qualities of his inherent
art-capacity. The bas-relief, still preserved in the Casa Buonarroti
at Florence, is, so to speak, in fermentation with powerful
half-realised conceptions, audacities of foreshortening, attempts at
intricate grouping, violent dramatic action and expression. No
previous tradition, unless it was the genius of Greek or Greco-Roman
antiquity, supplied Michelangelo with the motive force for this
prentice-piece in sculpture. Donatello and other Florentines worked
under different sympathies for form, affecting angularity in their
treatment of the nude, adhering to literal transcripts from the model
or to conventional stylistic schemes. Michelangelo discarded these
limitations, and showed himself an ardent student of reality in the
service of some lofty intellectual ideal. Following and closely
observing Nature, he was also sensitive to the light and guidance of
the classic genius. Yet, at the same time, he violated the aesthetic
laws obeyed by that genius, displaying his Tuscan proclivities by
violent dramatic suggestions, and in loaded, overcomplicated
composition. Thus, in this highly interesting essay, the horoscope of
the mightiest Florentine artist was already cast. Nature leads him,
and he follows Nature as his own star bids. But that star is double,
blending classic influence with Tuscan instinct. The roof of the
Sistine was destined to exhibit to an awe-struck world what wealths of
originality lay in the artist thus gifted, and thus swayed by rival
forces. For the present, it may be enough to remark that, in the
geometrical proportions of this bas-relief, which is too high for its
length, Michelangelo revealed imperfect feeling for antique
principles; while, in the grouping of the figures, which is more
pictorial than sculpturesque, he already betrayed, what remained with
him a defect through life, a certain want of organic or symmetrical
design in compositions which are not rigidly subordinated to
architectural framework or limited to the sphere of an _intaglio_.

Vasari mentions another bas-relief in marble as belonging to this
period, which, from its style, we may, I think, believe to have been
designed earlier than the Centaurs. It is a seated Madonna with the
Infant Jesus, conceived in the manner of Donatello, but without that
master's force and power over the lines of drapery. Except for the
interest attaching to it as an early work of Michelangelo, this piece
would not attract much attention. Vasari praises it for grace and
composition above the scope of Donatello; and certainly we may trace
here the first germ of that sweet and winning majesty which Buonarroti
was destined to develop in his Pieta of S. Peter, the Madonna at
Bruges, and the even more glorious Madonna of S. Lorenzo. It is also
interesting for the realistic introduction of a Tuscan cottage
staircase into the background. This bas-relief was presented to Cosimo
de' Medici, first Grand Duke of Tuscany, by Michelangelo's nephew
Lionardo. It afterwards came back into the possession of the
Buonarroti family, and forms at present an ornament of their house at


We are accustomed to think of Michelangelo as a self-withdrawn and
solitary worker, living for his art, avoiding the conflict of society,
immersed in sublime imaginings. On the whole, this is a correct
conception of the man. Many passages of his biography will show how
little he actively shared the passions and contentions of the stirring
times through which he moved. Yet his temperament exposed him to
sudden outbursts of scorn and anger, which brought him now and then
into violent collision with his neighbours. An incident of this sort
happened while he was studying under the patronage of Lorenzo de'
Medici, and its consequences marked him physically for life. The young
artists whom the Magnificent gathered round him used to practise
drawing in the Brancacci Chapel of the Carmine. There Masaccio and his
followers bequeathed to us noble examples of the grand style upon the
frescoed panels of the chapel walls. It was the custom of industrious
lads to make transcripts from those broad designs, some of which
Raphael deigned in his latest years to repeat, with altered manner,
for the Stanze of the Vatican and the Cartoons. Michelangelo went one
day into the Carmine with Piero Torrigiano and other comrades. What
ensued may best be reported in the narration which Torrigiano at a
later time made to Benvenuto Cellini.

"This Buonarroti and I used, when we were boys, to go into the Church
of the Carmine to learn drawing from the chapel of Masaccio. It was
Buonarroti's habit to banter all who were drawing there; and one day,
when he was annoying me, I got more angry than usual, and, clenching
my fist, I gave him such a blow on the nose that I felt bone and
cartilage go down like biscuit beneath my knuckles; and this mark of
mine he will carry with him to the grave." The portraits of
Michelangelo prove that Torrigiano's boast was not a vain one. They
show a nose broken in the bridge. But Torrigiano, for this act of
violence, came to be regarded by the youth of Florence with aversion,
as one who had laid sacrilegious hands upon the sacred ark. Cellini
himself would have wiped out the insult with blood. Still Cellini knew
that personal violence was not in the line of Michelangelo's
character; for Michelangelo, according to his friend and best
biographer, Condivi, was by nature, "as is usual with men of sedentary
and contemplative habits, rather timorous than otherwise, except when
he is roused by righteous anger to resent unjust injuries or wrongs
done to himself or others, in which case he plucks up more spirit than
those who are esteemed brave; but, for the rest, he is most patient
and enduring." Cellini, then, knowing the quality of Michelangelo's
temper, and respecting him as a deity of art, adds to his report of
Torrigiano's conversation: "These words begat in me such hatred of the
man, since I was always gazing at the masterpieces of the divine
Michelangelo, that, although I felt a wish to go with him to England,
I now could never bear the sight of him."


The years Michelangelo spent in the Casa Medici were probably the
blithest and most joyous of his lifetime. The men of wit and learning
who surrounded the Magnificent were not remarkable for piety or moral
austerity. Lorenzo himself found it politically useful "to occupy the
Florentines with shows and festivals, in order that they might think
of their own pastimes and not of his designs, and, growing unused to
the conduct of the commonwealth, might leave the reins of government
in his hands." Accordingly he devised those Carnival triumphs and
processions which filled the sombre streets of Florence with
Bacchanalian revellers, and the ears of her grave citizens with
ill-disguised obscenity. Lorenzo took part in them himself, and
composed several choruses of high literary merit to be sung by the
masqueraders. One of these carries a refrain which might be chosen as
a motto for the spirit of that age upon the brink of ruin:--

_Youths and maids, enjoy to-day:
Naught ye know about to-morrow!_

He caused the triumphs to be carefully prepared by the best artists,
the dresses of the masquers to be accurately studied, and their
chariots to be adorned with illustrative paintings. Michelangelo's old
friend Granacci dedicated his talents to these shows, which also
employed the wayward fancy of Piero di Cosimo and Pontormo's power as
a colourist. "It was their wont," says Il Lasca, "to go forth after
dinner; and often the processions paraded through the streets till
three or four hours into the night, with a multitude of masked men on
horseback following, richly dressed, exceeding sometimes three hundred
in number, and as many on foot with lighted torches. Thus they
traversed the city, singing to the accompaniment of music arranged for
four, eight, twelve, or even fifteen voices, and supported by various
instruments." Lorenzo represented the worst as well as the best
qualities of his age. If he knew how to enslave Florence, it was
because his own temperament inclined him to share the amusements of
the crowd, while his genius enabled him to invest corruption with
charm. His friend Poliziano entered with the zest of a poet and a
pleasure-seeker into these diversions. He helped Lorenzo to revive the
Tuscan Mayday games, and wrote exquisite lyrics to be sung by girls in
summer evenings on the public squares. This giant of learning, who
filled the lecture-rooms of Florence with Students of all nations, and
whose critical and rhetorical labours marked an epoch in the history
of scholarship, was by nature a versifier, and a versifier of the
people. He found nothing' easier than to throw aside his professor's
mantle and to improvise _ballate_ for women to chant as they danced
their rounds upon the Piazza di S. Trinita. The frontispiece to an old
edition of such lyrics represents Lorenzo surrounded with masquers in
quaint dresses, leading the revel beneath the walls of the Palazzo.
Another woodcut shows an angle of the Casa Medici in Via Larga, girls
dancing the _carola_ upon the street below, one with a wreath and
thyrsus kneeling, another presenting the Magnificent with a book of
loveditties. The burden of all this poetry was: "Gather ye roses while
ye may, cast prudence to the winds, obey your instincts." There is
little doubt that Michelangelo took part in these pastimes; for we
know that he was devoted to poetry, not always of the gravest kind. An
anecdote related by Cellini may here be introduced, since it
illustrates the Florentine customs I have been describing. "Luigi
Pulci was a young man who possessed extraordinary gifts for poetry,
together with sound Latin scholarship. He wrote well, was graceful in
manners, and of surpassing personal beauty. While he was yet a lad and
living in Florence, it was the habit of folk in certain places of the
city to meet together during the nights of summer on the open streets,
and he, ranking among the best of the improvisatori, sang there. His
recitations were so admirable that the divine Michelangelo, that
prince of sculptors and of painters, went, wherever he heard that he
would be, with the greatest eagerness and delight to listen to him.
There was a man called Piloto, a goldsmith, very able in his art, who,
together with myself, joined Buonarroti upon these occasions." In like
manner, the young Michelangelo probably attended those nocturnal
gatherings upon the steps of the Duomo which have been so graphically
described by Doni: "The Florentines seem to me to take more pleasure
in summer airings than any other folk; for they have, in the square of
S. Liberata, between the antique temple of Mars, now the Baptistery,
and that marvellous work of modern architecture, the Duomo: they have,
I say, certain steps of marble, rising to a broad flat space, upon
which the youth of the city come and lay themselves full length during
the season of extreme heat. The place is fitted for its purpose,
because a fresh breeze is always blowing, with the blandest of all
air, and the flags of white marble usually retain a certain coolness.
There then I seek my chiefest solace, when, taking my aerial flights,
I sail invisibly above them; see and hear their doings and discourses:
and forasmuch as they are endowed with keen and elevated
understanding, they always have a thousand charming things to relate;
as novels, intrigues, fables; they discuss duels, practical jokes, old
stories, tricks played off by men and women on each other: things,
each and all, rare, witty, noble, decent and in proper taste. I can
swear that during all the hours I spent in listening to their nightly
dialogues, I never heard a word that was not comely and of good
repute. Indeed, it seemed to me very remarkable, among such crowds of
young men, to overhear nothing but virtuous conversation."

At the same period, Michelangelo fell under very different influences;
and these left a far more lasting impression on his character than the
gay festivals and witty word-combats of the lords of Florence. In 1491
Savonarola, the terrible prophet of coming woes, the searcher of men's
hearts, and the remorseless denouncer of pleasant vices, began that
Florentine career which ended with his martyrdom in 1498. He had
preached in Florence eight years earlier, but on that occasion he
passed unnoticed through the crowd. Now he took the whole city by
storm. Obeying the magic of his eloquence and the magnetism of his
personality, her citizens accepted this Dominican friar as their
political leader and moral reformer, when events brought about the
expulsion of the Medici in 1494. Michelangelo was one of his constant
listeners at S. Marco and in the Duomo. He witnessed those stormy
scenes of religious revival and passionate fanaticism which
contemporaries have impressively described. The shorthand-writer to
whom we owe the text of Savonarola's sermons at times breaks off with
words like these: "Here I was so overcome with weeping that I could
not go on." Pico della Mirandola tells that the mere sound of the
monk's voice, startling the stillness of the Duomo, thronged through
all its space with people, was like a clap of doom; a cold shiver ran
through the marrow of his bones the hairs of his head stood on end
while he listened. Another witness reports: "Those sermons caused such
terror, alarm, sobbing, and tears, that every one passed through the
streets without speaking, more dead than alive."

One of the earliest extant letters of Michelangelo, written from Rome
in 1497 to his brother Buonarroto, reveals a vivid interest in
Savonarola. He relates the evil rumours spread about the city
regarding his heretical opinions, and alludes to the hostility of Fra
Mariano da Genezzano; adding this ironical sentence: "Therefore he
ought by all means to come and prophesy a little in Rome, when
afterwards he will be canonised; and so let all his party be of good
cheer." In later years, it is said that the great sculptor read and
meditated Savonarola's writings together with the Bible. The
apocalyptic thunderings and voices of the Sistine Chapel owe much of
their soul-thrilling impressiveness to those studies. Michelet says,
not without justice, that the spirit of Savonarola lives again in the
frescoes of that vault.

On the 8th of April 1492, Michelangelo lost his friend and patron.
Lorenzo died in his villa at Careggi, aged little more than forty-four
years. Guicciardini implies that his health and strength had been
prematurely broken by sensual indulgences. About the circumstances of
his last hours there are some doubts and difficulties; but it seems
clear that he expired as a Christian, after a final interview with
Savonarola. His death cast a gloom over Italy. Princes and people were
growing uneasy with the presentiment of impending disaster; and now
the only man who by his diplomatical sagacity could maintain the
balance of power had been taken from them. To his friends and
dependants in Florence the loss appeared irreparable. Poliziano poured
forth his sorrow in a Latin threnody of touching and simple beauty.
Two years later both he and Pico della Mirandola followed their master
to the grave. Marsilio Ficino passed away in 1499; and a friend of his
asserted that the sage's ghost appeared to him. The atmosphere was
full of rumours, portents, strange premonitions of revolution and
doom. The true golden age of the Italian Renaissance may almost be
said to have ended with Lorenzo de' Medici's life.



After the death of Lorenzo de' Medici, Michelangelo returned to his
father's home, and began to work upon a statue of Hercules, which is
now lost. It used to stand in the Strozzi Palace until the siege of
Florence in 1530, when Giovanni Battista della Palla bought it from
the steward of Filippo Strozzi, and sent it into France as a present
to the king.

The Magnificent left seven children by his wife Clarice, of the
princely Roman house of the Orsini. The eldest, Piero, was married to
Alfonsina, of the same illustrious family. Giovanni, the second, had
already received a cardinal's hat from his kinsman, Innocent VIII.
Guiliano, the third, was destined to play a considerable part in
Florentine history under the title of Duke of Nemours. One daughter
was married to a Salviati, another to a Ridolfi, a third to the Pope's
son, Franceschetto Cybo. The fourth, Luisa, had been betrothed to her
distant cousin, Giovanni de' Medici; but the match was broken off, and
she remained unmarried.

Piero now occupied that position of eminence and semi-despotic
authority in Florence which his father and grandfather had held; but
he was made of different stuff, both mentally and physically. The
Orsini blood, which he inherited from his mother, mixed but ill in his
veins with that of Florentine citizens and bankers. Following the
proud and insolent traditions of his maternal ancestors, he began to
discard the mask of civil urbanity with which Cosimo and Lorenzo had
concealed their despotism. He treated the republic as though it were
his own property, and prepared for the coming disasters of his race by
the overbearing arrogance of his behaviour. Physically, he was
powerful, tall, and active; fond of field-sports, and one of the best
pallone-players of his time in Italy. Though he had been a pupil of
Poliziano, he displayed but little of his father's interest in
learning, art, and literature. Chance brought Michelangelo into
personal relations with this man. On the 20th of January 1494 there
was a heavy fall of snow in Florence, and Piero sent for the young
sculptor to model a colossal snow-man in the courtyard of his palace.
Critics have treated this as an insult to the great artist, and a sign
of Piero's want of taste; but nothing was more natural than that a
previous inmate of the Medicean household should use his talents for
the recreation of the family who lived there. Piero upon this occasion
begged Michelangelo to return and occupy the room he used to call his
own during Lorenzo's lifetime. "And so," writes Condivi, "he remained
for some months with the Medici, and was treated by Piero with great
kindness; for the latter used to extol two men of his household as
persons of rare ability, the one being Michelangelo, the other a
Spanish groom, who, in addition to his personal beauty, which was
something wonderful, had so good a wind and such agility that when
Piero was galloping on horseback he could not outstrip him by a


At this period of his life Michelangelo devoted himself to anatomy. He
had a friend, the Prior of S. Spirito, for whom he carved a wooden
crucifix of nearly life-size. This liberal-minded churchman put a room
at his disposal, and allowed him to dissect dead bodies. Condivi tells
us that the practice of anatomy was a passion with his master. "His
prolonged habits of dissection injured his stomach to such an extent
that he lost the power of eating or drinking to any profit. It is
true, however, that he became so learned in this branch of knowledge
that he has often entertained the idea of composing a work for
sculptors and painters, which should treat exhaustively of all the
movements of the human body, the external aspect of the limbs, the
bones, and so forth, adding an ingenious discourse upon the truths
discovered by him through the investigations of many years. He would
have done this if he had not mistrusted his own power of treating such
a subject with the dignity and style of a practised rhetorician. I
know well that when he reads Albert Duerer's book, it seems to him of
no great value; his own conception being so far fuller and more
useful. Truth to tell, Duerer only treats of the measurements and
varied aspects of the human form, making his figures straight as
stakes; and, what is more important, he says nothing about the
attitudes and gestures of the body. Inasmuch as Michelangelo is now
advanced in years, and does not count on bringing his ideas to light
through composition, he has disclosed to me his theories in their
minutest details. He also began to discourse upon the same topic with
Messer Realdo Colombo, an anatomist and surgeon of the highest
eminence. For the furtherance of such studies this good friend of ours
sent him the corpse of a Moor, a young man of incomparable beauty, and
admirably adapted for our purpose. It was placed at S. Agata, where I
dwelt and still dwell, as being a quarter removed from public

"On this corpse Michelangelo demonstrated to me many rare and abstruse
things, which perhaps have never yet been fully understood, and all of
which I noted down, hoping one day, by the help of some learned man,
to give them to the public. Of Michelangelo's studies in anatomy we
have one grim but interesting record in a pen-drawing by his hand at
Oxford. A corpse is stretched upon a plank and trestles. Two men are
bending over it with knives in their hands; and, for light to guide
them in their labours, a candle is stuck into the belly of the

As it is not my intention to write the political history of
Michelangelo's period, I need not digress here upon the invasion of
Italy by Charles VIII., which caused the expulsion of the Medici from
Florence, and the establishment of a liberal government under the
leadership of Savonarola. Michelangelo appears to have anticipated the
catastrophe which was about to overwhelm his patron. He was by nature
timid, suspicious, and apt to foresee disaster. Possibly he may have
judged that the haughty citizens of Florence would not long put up
with Piero's aristocratical insolence. But Condivi tells a story on
the subject which is too curious to be omitted, and which he probably
set down from Michelangelo's own lips. "In the palace of Piero a man
called Cardiere was a frequent inmate. The Magnificent took much
pleasure in his society, because he improvised verses to the guitar
with marvellous dexterity, and the Medici also practised this art; so
that nearly every evening after supper there was music. This Cardiere,
being a friend of Michelangelo, confided to him a vision which pursued
him, to the following effect. Lorenzo de' Medici appeared to him
barely clad in one black tattered robe, and bade him relate to his son
Piero that he would soon be expelled and never more return to his
home. Now Piero was arrogant and overbearing to such an extent that
neither the good-nature of the Cardinal Giovanni, his brother, nor the
courtesy and urbanity of Giuliano, was so strong to maintain him in
Florence as his own faults to cause his expulsion. Michelangelo
encouraged the man to obey Lorenzo and report the matter to his son;
but Cardiere, fearing his new master's temper, kept it to himself. On
another morning, when Michelangelo was in the courtyard of the palace,
Cardiere came with terror and pain written on his countenance. Last
night Lorenzo had again appeared to him in the same garb of woe; and
while he was awake and gazing with his eyes, the spectre dealt him a
blow on the cheek, to punish him for omitting to report his vision to
Piero. Michelangelo immediately gave him such a thorough scolding that
Cardiere plucked up courage, and set forth on foot for Careggi, a
Medicean villa some three miles distant from the city. He had traveled
about halfway, when he met Piero, who was riding home; so he stopped
the cavalcade, and related all that he had seen and heard. Piero
laughed him to scorn, and, beckoning the running footmen, bade them
mock the poor fellow. His Chancellor, who was afterwards the Cardinal
of Bibbiena, cried out: 'You are a madman! Which do you think Lorenzo
loved best, his son or you? If his son, would he not rather have
appeared to him than to some one else?' Having thus jeered him, they
let him go; and he, when he returned home and complained to
Michelangelo, so convinced the latter of the truth of his vision that
Michelangelo after two days left Florence with a couple of comrades,
dreading that if what Cardiere had predicted should come true, he
would no longer be safe in Florence."

This ghost-story bears a remarkable resemblance to what Clarendon
relates concerning the apparition of Sir George Villiers. Wishing to
warn his son, the Duke of Buckingham, of his coming murder at the hand
of Lieutenant Felton, he did not appear to the Duke himself, but to an
old man-servant of the family; upon which behaviour of Sir George's
ghost the same criticism has been passed as on that of Lorenzo de'

Michelangelo and his two friends travelled across the Apennines to
Bologna, and thence to Venice, where they stopped a few days. Want of
money, or perhaps of work there drove them back upon the road to
Florence. When they reached Bologna on the return journey, a curious
accident happened to the party. The master of the city, Giovanni
Bentivoglio, had recently decreed that every foreigner, on entering
the gates, should be marked with a seal of red wax upon his thumb. The
three Florentines omitted to obey this regulation, and were taken to
the office of the Customs, where they were fined fifty Bolognese
pounds. Michelangelo did not possess enough to pay this fine; but it
so happened that a Bolognese nobleman called Gianfrancesco Aldovrandi
was there, who, hearing that Buonarroti was a sculptor, caused the men
to be released. Upon his urgent invitation, Michelangelo went to this
gentleman's house, after taking leave of his two friends and giving
them all the money in his pocket. With Messer Aldovrandi he remained
more than a year, much honoured by his new patron, who took great
delight in his genius; "and every evening he made Michelangelo read
aloud to him out of Dante or Petrarch, and sometimes Boccaccio, until
he went to sleep." He also worked upon the tomb of San Domenico during
this first residence at Bologna. Originally designed and carried
forward by Niccolo Pisano, this elaborate specimen of mediaeval
sculpture remained in some points imperfect. There was a San Petronio
whose drapery, begun by Niccolo da Bari, was unfinished. To this
statue Michelangelo put the last touches; and he also carved a
kneeling angel with a candelabrum, the workmanship of which surpasses
in delicacy of execution all the other figures on the tomb.


Michelangelo left Bologna hastily. It is said that a sculptor who had
expected to be employed upon the _arca_ of S. Domenic threatened to do
him some mischief if he stayed and took the bread out of the mouths of
native craftsmen. He returned to Florence some time in 1495. The city
was now quiet again, under the rule of Savonarola. Its burghers, in
obedience to the friar's preaching, began to assume that air of
pietistic sobriety which contrasted strangely with the gay
licentiousness encouraged by their former master. Though the reigning
branch of the Medici remained in exile, their distant cousins, who
were descended from Lorenzo, the brother of Cosimo, Pater Patriae,
kept their place in the republic. They thought it prudent, however, at
this time, to exchange the hated name of de' Medici for Popolano. With
a member of this section of the Medicean family, Lorenzo di
Pierfrancesco, Michelangelo soon found himself on terms of intimacy.
It was for him that he made a statue of the young S. John, which was
perhaps rediscovered at Pisa in 1874. For a long time this S.
Giovannino was attributed to Donatello; and it certainly bears decided
marks of resemblance to that master's manner, in the choice of
attitude, the close adherence to the model, and the treatment of the
hands and feet. Still it has notable affinities to the style of
Michelangelo, especially in the youthful beauty of the features, the
disposition of the hair, and the sinuous lines which govern the whole
composition. It may also be remarked that those peculiarities in the
hands and feet which I have mentioned as reminding us of Donatello--a
remarkable length in both extremities, owing to the elongation of the
metacarpal and metatarsal bones and of the spaces dividing these from
the forearm and tibia--are precisely the points which Michelangelo
retained through life from his early study of Donatello's work. We
notice them particularly in the Dying Slave of the Louvre, which is
certainly one of his most characteristic works. Good judges are
therefore perhaps justified in identifying this S. Giovannino, which
is now in the Berlin Museum, with the statue made for Lorenzo di
Pierfrancesco de' Medici.

The next piece which occupied Michelangelo's chisel was a Sleeping
Cupid. His patron thought this so extremely beautiful that he remarked
to the sculptor: "If you were to treat it artificially, so as to make
it look as though it had been dug up, I would send it to Rome; it
would be accepted as an antique, and you would be able to sell it at a
far higher price." Michelangelo took the hint. His Cupid went to Rome,
and was sold for thirty ducats to a dealer called Messer Baldassare
del Milanese, who resold it to Raffaello Riario, the Cardinal di S.
Giorgio, for the advanced sum of 200 ducats. It appears from this
transaction that Michelangelo did not attempt to impose upon the first
purchaser, but that this man passed it off upon the Cardinal as an
antique. When the Cardinal began to suspect that the Cupid was the
work of a modern Florentine, he sent one of his gentlemen to Florence
to inquire into the circumstances. The rest of the story shall be told
in Condivi's words.

"This gentleman, pretending to be on the lookout for a sculptor
capable of executing certain works in Rome, after visiting several,
was addressed to Michelangelo. When he saw the young artist, he begged
him to show some proof of his ability; whereupon Michelangelo took a
pen (for at that time the crayon [_lapis_] had not come into use), and
drew a hand with such grace that the gentleman was stupefied.
Afterwards, he asked if he had ever worked in marble, and when
Michelangelo said yes, and mentioned among other things a Cupid of
such height and in such an attitude, the man knew that he had found
the right person. So he related how the matter had gone, and promised
Michelangelo, if he would come with him to Rome, to get the difference
of price made up, and to introduce him to his patron, feeling sure
that the latter would receive him very kindly. Michelangelo, then,
partly in anger at having been cheated, and partly moved by the
gentleman's account of Rome as the widest field for an artist to
display his talents, went with him, and lodged in his house, near the
palace of the Cardinal." S. Giorgio compelled Messer Baldassare to
refund the 200 ducats, and to take the Cupid back. But Michelangelo
got nothing beyond his original price; and both Condivi and Vasari
blame the Cardinal for having been a dull and unsympathetic patron to
the young artist of genius he had brought from Florence. Still the
whole transaction was of vast importance, because it launched him for
the first time upon Rome, where he was destined to spend the larger
part of his long life, and to serve a succession of Pontiffs in their
most ambitious undertakings.

Before passing to the events of his sojourn at Rome, I will wind up
the story of the Cupid. It passed first into the hands of Cesare
Borgia, who presented it to Guidobaldo di Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino.
On the 30th of June 1502, the Marchioness of Mantua wrote a letter to
the Cardinal of Este, saying that she should very much like to place
this piece, together with an antique statuette of Venus, both of which
had belonged to her brother-in-law, the Duke of Urbino, in her own
collection. Apparently they had just become the property of Cesare
Borgia, when he took and sacked the town of Urbino upon the 20th of
June in that year. Cesare Borgia seems to have complied immediately
with her wishes; for in a second letter, dated July 22, 1502, she
described the Cupid as "without a peer among the works of modern


Michelangelo arrived in Rome at the end of June 1496. This we know
from the first of his extant letters, which is dated July 2, and
addressed to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici. The superscription,
however, bears the name of Sandro Botticelli, showing that some
caution had still to be observed in corresponding with the Medici,
even with those who latterly assumed the name of Popolani. The young
Buonarroti writes in excellent spirits: "I only write to inform you
that last Saturday we arrived safely, and went at once to visit the
Cardinal di San Giorgio; and I presented your letter to him. It
appeared to me that he was pleased to see me, and he expressed a wish
that I should go immediately to inspect his collection of statues. I
spent the whole day there, and for that reason was unable to deliver
all your letters. Afterwards, on Sunday, the Cardinal came into the
new house, and had me sent for. I went to him, and he asked what I
thought about the things which I had seen. I replied by stating my
opinion, and certainly I can say with sincerity that there are many
fine things in the collection. Then he asked me whether I had the
courage to make some beautiful work of art. I answered that I should
not be able to achieve anything so great, but that he should see what
I could do. We have bought a piece of marble for a life-size statue,
and on Monday I shall begin to work."

After describing his reception, Michelangelo proceeds to relate the
efforts he was making to regain his Sleeping Cupid from Messer
Baldassare: "Afterwards, I gave your letter to Baldassare, and asked
him for the child, saying I was ready to refund his money. He answered
very roughly, swearing he would rather break it in a hundred pieces;
he had bought the child, and it was his property; he possessed
writings which proved that he had satisfied the person who sent it to
him, and was under no apprehension that he should have to give it up.
Then he complained bitterly of you, saying that you had spoken ill of
him. Certain of our Florentines sought to accommodate matters, but
failed in their attempt. Now I look to coming to terms through the
Cardinal; for this is the advice of Baldassare Balducci. What ensues I
will report to you." It is clear that Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, being
convinced of the broker's sharp practice, was trying to recover the
Sleeping Cupid (the child) at the price originally paid for it, either
for himself or for Buonarroti. The Cardinal is mentioned as being the
most likely person to secure the desired result.

Whether Condivi is right in saying that S. Giorgio neglected to employ
Michelangelo may be doubted. We have seen from this letter to Lorenzo
that the Cardinal bought a piece of marble and ordered a life-size
statue. But nothing more is heard about the work. Professor Milanesi,
however, has pointed out that when the sculptor was thinking of
leaving Rome in 1497 he wrote to his father on the 1st of July as
follows: "Most revered and beloved father, do not be surprised that I
am unable to return, for I have not yet settled my affairs with the
Cardinal, and I do not wish to leave until I am properly paid for my
labour; and with these great patrons one must go about quietly, since
they cannot be compelled. I hope, however, at any rate during the
course of next week, to have completed the transaction."

Michelangelo remained at Rome for more than two years after the date
of the letter just quoted. We may conjecture, then, that he settled
his accounts with the Cardinal, whatever these were, and we know that
he obtained other orders. In a second letter to his father, August 19,
1497, he writes thus: "Piero de' Medici gave me a commission for a
statue, and I bought the marble. But I did not begin to work upon it,
because he failed to perform what he promised. Wherefore I am acting
on my own account, and am making a statue for my own pleasure. I
bought the marble for five ducats, and it turned out bad. So I threw
my money away. Now I have bought another at the same price, and the
work I am doing is for my amusement. You will therefore understand
that I too have large expenses and many troubles."

During the first year of his residence in Rome (between July 2, 1496,
and August 19, 1497) Michelangelo must have made some money, else he
could not have bought marble and have worked upon his own account.
Vasari asserts that he remained nearly twelve months in the household
of the Cardinal, and that he only executed a drawing of S. Francis
receiving the stigmata, which was coloured by a barber in S. Giorgio's
service, and placed in the Church of S. Pietro a Montorio. Benedetto
Varchi describes this picture as having been painted by Buonarroti's
own hand. We know nothing more for certain about it. How he earned his
money is therefore, unexplained, except upon the supposition that S.
Giorgio, unintelligent as he may have been in his patronage of art,
paid him for work performed. I may here add that the Piero de' Medici
who gave the commission mentioned in the last quotation was the exiled
head of the ruling family. Nothing had to be expected from such a man.
He came to Rome in order to be near the Cardinal Giovanni, and to
share this brother's better fortunes; but his days and nights were
spent in debauchery among the companions and accomplices of shameful

Michelangelo, in short, like most young artists, was struggling into
fame and recognition. Both came to him by the help of a Roman
gentleman and banker, Messer Jacopo Gallo. It so happened that an
intimate Florentine friend of Buonarroti, the Baldassare Balducci
mentioned at the end of his letter to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, was
employed in Gallo's house of business. It is probable, therefore, that
this man formed the link of connection between the sculptor and his
new patron. At all events, Messer Gallo purchased a Bacchus, which now
adorns the sculpture-gallery of the Bargello, and a Cupid, which may
possibly be the statue at South Kensington.

Condivi says that this gentleman, "a man of fine intelligence,
employed him to execute in his own house a marble Bacchus, ten palms
in height, the form and aspect of which correspond in all parts to the
meaning of ancient authors. The face of the youth is jocund, the eyes
wandering and wanton, as is the wont with those who are too much
addicted to a taste for wine. In his right hand he holds a cup,
lifting it to drink, and gazing at it like one who takes delight in
that liquor, of which he was the first discoverer. For this reason,
too, the sculptor has wreathed his head with vine-tendrils. On his
left arm hangs a tiger-skin, the beast dedicated to Bacchus, as being
very partial to the grape. Here the artist chose rather to introduce
the skin than the animal itself, in order to hint that sensual
indulgence in the pleasure of the grape-juice leads at last to loss of
life. With the hand of this arm he holds a bunch of grapes, which a
little satyr, crouched below him, is eating on the sly with glad and
eager gestures. The child may seem to be seven years, the Bacchus
eighteen of age." This description is comparatively correct, except
that Condivi is obviously mistaken when he supposes that
Michelangelo's young Bacchus faithfully embodies the Greek spirit. The
Greeks never forgot, in all their representations of Dionysos, that he
was a mystic and enthusiastic deity. Joyous, voluptuous, androgynous,
he yet remains the god who brought strange gifts and orgiastic rites
to men. His followers, Silenus, Bacchantes, Fauns, exhibit, in their
self-abandonment to sensual joy, the operation of his genius. The
deity descends to join their revels from his clear Olympian ether, but
he is not troubled by the fumes of intoxication. Michelangelo has
altered this conception. Bacchus, with him, is a terrestrial young
man, upon the verge of toppling over into drunkenness. The value of
the work is its realism. The attitude could not be sustained in actual
life for a moment without either the goblet spilling its liquor or the
body reeling side-ways. Not only are the eyes wavering and wanton, but
the muscles of the mouth have relaxed into a tipsy smile; and, instead
of the tiger-skin being suspended from the left arm, it has slipped
down, and is only kept from falling by the loose grasp of the
trembling hand. Nothing, again, could be less godlike than the face of
Bacchus. It is the face of a not remarkably good-looking model, and
the head is too small both for the body and the heavy crown of leaves.
As a study of incipient intoxication, when the whole person is
disturbed by drink, but human dignity has not yet yielded to a bestial
impulse, this statue proves the energy of Michelangelo's imagination.
The physical beauty of his adolescent model in the limbs and body
redeems the grossness of the motive by the inalienable charm of health
and carnal comeliness. Finally, the technical merits of the work
cannot too strongly be insisted on. The modelling of the thorax, the
exquisite roundness and fleshiness of the thighs and arms and belly,
the smooth skin-surface expressed throughout in marble, will excite
admiration in all who are capable of appreciating this aspect of the
statuary's art. Michelangelo produced nothing more finished in
execution, if we except the Pieta at S. Peter's. His Bacchus alone is
sufficient to explode a theory favoured by some critics, that, left to
work unhindered, he would still have preferred a certain vagueness, a
certain want of polish in his marbles.

Nevertheless, the Bacchus leaves a disagreeable impression on the
mind--as disagreeable in its own way as that produced by the Christ of
the Minerva. That must be because it is wrong in spiritual
conception--brutally materialistic, where it ought to have been noble
or graceful. In my opinion, the frank, joyous naturalism of
Sansovino's Bacchus (also in the Bargello) possesses more of true
Greek inspiration than Michelangelo's. If Michelangelo meant to carve
a Bacchus, he failed; if he meant to imitate a physically desirable
young man in a state of drunkenness, he succeeded.

What Shelley wrote upon this statue may here be introduced, since it
combines both points of view in a criticism of much spontaneous

"The countenance of this figure is the most revolting mistake of the
spirit and meaning of Bacchus. It looks drunken, brutal, and
narrow-minded, and has an expression of dissoluteness the most
revolting. The lower part of the figure is stiff, and the manner in
which the shoulders are united to the breast, and the neck to the
head, abundantly inharmonious. It is altogether without unity, as was
the idea of the deity of Bacchus in the conception of a Catholic. On
the other hand, considered merely as a piece of workmanship, it has
great merits. The arms are executed in the most perfect and manly
beauty; the body is conceived with great energy, and the lines which
describe the sides and thighs, and the manner in which they mingle
into one another, are of the highest order of boldness and beauty. It
wants, as a work of art, unity and simplicity; as a representation of
the Greek deity of Bacchus, it wants everything."

Jacopo Gallo is said to have also purchased a Cupid from Michelangelo.
It has been suggested, with great plausibility, that this Cupid was
the piece which Michelangelo began when Piero de' Medici's commission
fell through, and that it therefore preceded the Bacchus in date of
execution. It has also been suggested that the so-called Cupid at
South Kensington is the work in question. We have no authentic
information to guide us in the matter. But the South Kensington Cupid
is certainly a production of the master's early manhood. It was
discovered some forty years ago, hidden away in the cellars of the
Gualfonda (Rucellai) Gardens at Florence, by Professor Miliarini and
the famous Florentine sculptor Santarelli. On a cursory inspection
they both declared it to be a genuine Michelangelo. The left arm was
broken, the right hand damaged, and the hair had never received the
sculptor's final touches. Santarelli restored the arm, and the Cupid
passed by purchase into the possession of the English nation. This
fine piece of sculpture is executed in Michelangelo's proudest, most
dramatic manner. The muscular young man of eighteen, a model of superb
adolescence, kneels upon his right knee, while the right hand is
lowered to lift an arrow from the ground. The left hand is raised
above the head, and holds the bow, while the left leg is so placed,
with the foot firmly pressed upon the ground, as to indicate that in a
moment the youth will rise, fit the shaft to the string, and send it
whistling at his adversary. This choice of a momentary attitude is
eminently characteristic of Michelangelo's style; and, if we are
really to believe that he intended to portray the god of love, it
offers another instance of his independence of classical tradition. No
Greek would have thus represented Eros. The lyric poets, indeed,
Ibycus and Anacreon, imaged him as a fierce invasive deity, descending
like the whirlwind on an oak, or striking at his victim with an axe.
But these romantic ideas did not find expression, so far as I am
aware, in antique plastic art. Michelangelo's Cupid is therefore as
original as his Bacchus. Much as critics have written, and with
justice, upon the classical tendencies of the Italian Renaissance,
they have failed to point out that the Paganism of the Cinque Cento
rarely involved a servile imitation of the antique or a sympathetic
intelligence of its spirit. Least of all do we find either of these
qualities in Michelangelo. He drew inspiration from his own soul, and
he went straight to Nature for the means of expressing the conception
he had formed. Unlike the Greeks, he invariably preferred the
particular to the universal, the critical moment of an action to
suggestions of the possibilities of action. He carved an individual
being, not an abstraction or a generalisation of personality. The
Cupid supplies us with a splendid illustration of this criticism.
Being a product of his early energy, before he had formed a certain
manneristic way of seeing Nature and of reproducing what he saw, it
not only casts light upon the spontaneous working of his genius, but
it also shows how the young artist had already come to regard the
inmost passion of the soul. When quite an old man, rhyming those rough
platonic sonnets, he always spoke of love as masterful and awful. For
his austere and melancholy nature, Eros was no tender or light-winged
youngling, but a masculine tyrant, the tamer of male spirits.
Therefore this Cupid, adorable in the power and beauty of his vigorous
manhood, may well remain for us the myth or symbol of love as
Michelangelo imagined that emotion. In composition, the figure is from
all points of view admirable, presenting a series of nobly varied
line-harmonies. All we have to regret is that time, exposure to
weather, and vulgar outrage should have spoiled the surface of the


It is natural to turn from the Cupid to another work belonging to the
English nation, which has recently been ascribed to Michelangelo. I
mean the Madonna, with Christ, S. John, and four attendant male
figures, once in the possession of Mr. H. Labouchere, and now in the
National Gallery. We have no authentic tradition regarding this
tempera painting, which in my judgment is the most beautiful of the
easel pictures attributed to Michelangelo. Internal evidence from
style renders its genuineness in the highest degree probable. No one
else upon the close of the fifteenth century was capable of producing
a composition at once so complicated, so harmonious, and so clear as
the group formed by Madonna, Christ leaning on her knee to point a
finger at the book she holds, and the young S. John turned round to
combine these figures with the exquisitely blended youths behind him.
Unfortunately the two angels or genii upon the left hand are
unfinished; but had the picture been completed, we should probably
have been able to point out another magnificent episode in the
composition, determined by the transverse line carried from the hand
upon the last youth's shoulder, through the open book and the upraised
arm of Christ, down to the feet of S. John and the last genius on the
right side. Florentine painters had been wont to place attendant
angels at both sides of their enthroned Madonnas. Fine examples might
be chosen from the work of Filippino Lippi and Botticelli. But their
angels were winged and clothed like acolytes; the Madonna was seated
on a rich throne or under a canopy, with altar-candles, wreaths of
roses, flowering lilies. It is characteristic of Michelangelo to adopt
a conventional motive, and to treat it with brusque originality. In
this picture there are no accessories to the figures, and the
attendant angels are Tuscan lads half draped in succinct tunics. The
style is rather that of a flat relief in stone than of a painting; and
though we may feel something of Ghirlandajo's influence, the spirit of
Donatello and Luca della Robbia are more apparent. That it was the
work of an inexperienced painter is shown by the failure to indicate
pictorial planes. In spite of the marvellous and intricate beauty of
the line-composition, it lacks that effect of graduated distances
which might perhaps have been secured by execution in bronze or
marble. The types have not been chosen with regard to ideal loveliness
or dignity, but accurately studied from living models. This is very
obvious in the heads of Christ and S. John. The two adolescent genii
on the right hand possess a high degree of natural grace. Yet even
here what strikes one most is the charm of their attitude, the lovely
interlacing of their arms and breasts, the lithe alertness of the one
lad contrasted with the thoughtful leaning languor of his comrade.
Only perhaps in some drawings of combined male figures made by Ingres
for his picture of the Golden Age have lines of equal dignity and
simple beauty been developed. I do not think that this Madonna,
supposing it to be a genuine piece by Michelangelo, belongs to the
period of his first residence in Rome. In spite of its immense
intellectual power, it has an air of immaturity. Probably Heath Wilson
was right in assigning it to the time spent at Florence after Lorenzo
de' Medici's death, when the artist was about twenty years of age.

I may take this occasion for dealing summarily with the Entombment in
the National Gallery. The picture, which is half finished, has no
pedigree. It was bought out of the collection of Cardinal Fesch, and
pronounced to be a Michelangelo by the Munich painter Cornelius. Good
judges have adopted this attribution, and to differ from them requires
some hardihood. Still it is painful to believe that at any period of
his life Michelangelo could have produced a composition so discordant,
so unsatisfactory in some anatomical details, so feelingless and ugly.
It bears indubitable traces of his influence; that is apparent in the
figure of the dead Christ. But this colossal nude, with the massive
chest and attenuated legs, reminds us of his manner in old age;
whereas the rest of the picture shows no trace of that manner. I am
inclined to think that the Entombment was the production of a
second-rate craftsman, working upon some design made by Michelangelo
at the advanced period when the Passion of our Lord occupied his
thoughts in Rome. Even so, the spirit of the drawing must have been
imperfectly assimilated; and, what is more puzzling, the composition
does not recall the style of Michelangelo's old age. The colouring, so
far as we can understand it, rather suggests Pontormo.


Michelangelo's good friend, Jacopo Gallo, was again helpful to him in
the last and greatest work which he produced during this Roman
residence. The Cardinal Jean de la Groslaye de Villiers Francois,
Abbot of S. Denys, and commonly called by Italians the Cardinal di San
Dionigi, wished to have a specimen of the young sculptor's handiwork.
Accordingly articles were drawn up to the following effect on August
26, 1498: "Let it be known and manifest to whoso shall read the
ensuing document, that the most Rev. Cardinal of S. Dionigi has thus
agreed with the master Michelangelo, sculptor of Florence, to wit,
that the said master shall make a Pieta of marble at his own cost;
that is to say, a Virgin Mary clothed, with the dead Christ in her
arms, of the size of a proper man, for the price of 450 golden ducats
of the Papal mint, within the term of one year from the day of the
commencement of the work." Next follow clauses regarding the payment
of the money, whereby the Cardinal agrees to disburse sums in advance.
The contract concludes with a guarantee and surety given by Jacopo
Gallo. "And I, Jacopo Gallo, pledge my word to his most Rev. Lordship
that the said Michelangelo will finish the said work within one year,
and that it shall be the finest work in marble which Rome to-day can
show, and that no master of our days shall be able to produce a
better. And, in like manner, on the other side, I pledge my word to
the said Michelangelo that the most Rev. Card. will disburse the
payments according to the articles above engrossed. To witness which,
I, Jacopo Gallo, have made this present writing with my own hand,
according to the date of year, month, and day as above."

The Pieta raised Michelangelo at once to the highest place among the
artists of his time, and it still remains unrivalled for the union of
sublime aesthetic beauty with profound religious feeling. The mother
of the dead Christ is seated on a stone at the foot of the cross,
supporting the body of her son upon her knees, gazing sadly at his
wounded side, and gently lifting her left hand, as though to say,
"Behold and see!" She has the small head and heroic torso used by
Michelangelo to suggest immense physical force. We feel that such a
woman has no difficulty in holding a man's corpse upon her ample lap
and in her powerful arms. Her face, which differs from the female type
he afterwards preferred, resembles that of a young woman. For this he
was rebuked by critics who thought that her age should correspond more
naturally to that of her adult son. Condivi reports that Michelangelo
explained his meaning in the following words: "Do you not know that
chaste women maintain their freshness far longer than the unchaste?
How much more would this be the case with a virgin, into whose breast
there never crept the least lascivious desire which could affect the
body? Nay, I will go further, and hazard the belief that this
unsullied bloom of youth, besides being maintained in her by natural
causes, may have been miraculously wrought to convince the world of
the virginity and perpetual purity of the Mother. This was not
necessary for the Son. On the contrary, in order to prove that the Son
of God took upon himself, as in very truth he did take, a human body,
and became subject to all that an ordinary man is subject to, with the
exception of sin; the human nature of Christ, instead of being
superseded by the divine, was left to the operation of natural laws,
so that his person revealed the exact age to which he had attained.
You need not, therefore, marvel if, having regard to these
considerations, I made the most Holy Virgin, Mother of God, much
younger relatively to her Son than women of her years usually appear,
and left the Son such as his time of life demanded." "This reasoning,"
adds Condivi, "was worthy of some learned theologian, and would have
been little short of marvellous in most men, but not in him, whom God
and Nature fashioned, not merely to be peerless in his handiwork, but
also capable of the divinest concepts, as innumerable discourses and
writings which we have of his make clearly manifest."

The Christ is also somewhat youthful, and modelled with the utmost
delicacy; suggesting no lack of strength, but subordinating the idea
of physical power to that of a refined and spiritual nature. Nothing
can be more lovely than the hands, the feet, the arms, relaxed in
slumber. Death becomes immortally beautiful in that recumbent figure,
from which the insults of the scourge, the cross, the brutal lance
have been erased. Michelangelo did not seek to excite pity or to stir
devotion by having recourse to those mediaeval ideas which were so
passionately expressed in S. Bernard's hymn to the Crucified. The
aesthetic tone of his dead Christ is rather that of some sweet solemn
strain of cathedral music, some motive from a mass of Palestrina or a
Passion of Sebastian Bach. Almost involuntarily there rises to the
memory that line composed by Bion for the genius of earthly loveliness
bewailed by everlasting beauty--

_E'en as a corpse he is fair, fair corpse as fallen aslumber._

It is said that certain Lombards passing by and admiring the Pieta
ascribed it to Christoforo Solari of Milan, surnamed Il Gobbo.
Michelangelo, having happened to overhear them, shut himself up in the
chapel, and engraved the belt upon the Madonna's breast with his own
name. This he never did with any other of his works.

This masterpiece of highest art combined with pure religious feeling
was placed in the old Basilica of S. Peter's, in a chapel dedicated to
Our Lady of the Fever, Madonna della Febbre. Here, on the night of
August 19, 1503, it witnessed one of those horrid spectacles which in
Italy at that period so often intervened to interrupt the rhythm of
romance and beauty and artistic melody. The dead body of Roderigo
Borgia, Alexander VI., lay in state from noon onwards in front of the
high altar; but since "it was the most repulsive, monstrous, and
deformed corpse which had ever yet been seen, without any form or
figure of humanity, shame compelled them to partly cover it." "Late in
the evening it was transferred to the chapel of Our Lady of the Fever,
and deposited in a corner by six hinds or porters and two carpenters,
who had made the coffin too narrow and too short. Joking and jeering,
they stripped the tiara and the robes of office from the body, wrapped
it up in an old carpet, and then with force of fists and feet rammed
it down into the box, without torches, without a ministering priest,
without a single person to attend and bear a consecrated candle." Of
such sort was the vigil kept by this solemn statue, so dignified in
grief and sweet in death, at the ignoble obsequies of him who,
occupying the loftiest throne of Christendom, incarnated the least
erected spirit of his age. The ivory-smooth white corpse of Christ in
marble, set over against that festering corpse of his Vicar on earth,
"black as a piece of cloth or the blackest mulberry," what a hideous


It may not be inappropriate to discuss the question of the Bruges
Madonna here. This is a marble statue, well placed in a chapel of
Notre Dame, relieved against a black marble niche, with excellent
illumination from the side. The style is undoubtedly Michelangelesque,
the execution careful, the surface-finish exquisite, and the type of
the Madonna extremely similar to that of the Pieta at S. Peter's. She
is seated in an attitude of almost haughty dignity, with the left foot
raised upon a block of stone. The expression of her features is marked
by something of sternness, which seems inherent in the model. Between
her knees stands, half reclining, half as though wishing to step
downwards from the throne, her infant Son. One arm rests upon his
mother's knee; the right hand is thrown round to clasp her left. This
attitude gives grace of rhythm to the lines of his nude body. True to
the realism which controlled Michelangelo at the commencement of his
art career, the head of Christ, who is but a child, slightly overloads
his slender figure. Physically he resembles the Infant Christ of our
National Gallery picture, but has more of charm and sweetness. All
these indications point to a genuine product of Michelangelo's first
Roman manner; and the position of the statue in a chapel ornamented by
the Bruges family of Mouscron renders the attribution almost certain.
However, we have only two authentic records of the work among the
documents at our disposal. Condivi, describing the period of
Michelangelo's residence in Florence (1501-1504), says: "He also cast
in bronze a Madonna with the Infant Christ, which certain Flemish
merchants of the house of Mouscron, a most noble family in their own
land, bought for two hundred ducats, and sent to Flanders." A letter
addressed under date August 4, 1506, by Giovanni Balducci in Rome to
Michelangelo at Florence, proves that some statue which was destined
for Flanders remained among the sculptor's property at Florence.
Balducci uses the feminine gender in writing about this work, which
justifies us in thinking that it may have been a Madonna. He says that
he has found a trustworthy agent to convey it to Viareggio, and to
ship it thence to Bruges, where it will be delivered into the hands of
the heir of John and Alexander Mouscron and Co., "as being their
property." This statue, in all probability, is the "Madonna in marble"
about which Michelangelo wrote to his father from Rome on the 31st of
January 1507, and which he begged his father to keep hidden in their
dwelling. It is difficult to reconcile Condivi's statement with
Balducci's letter. The former says that the Madonna bought by the
Mouscron family was cast in bronze at Florence. The Madonna in the
Mouscron Chapel at Notre Dame is a marble. I think we may assume that
the Bruges Madonna is the piece which Michelangelo executed for the
Mouscron brothers, and that Condivi was wrong in believing it to have
been cast in bronze. That the statue was sent some time after the
order had been given, appears from the fact that Balducci consigned it
to the heir of John and Alexander, "as being their property;" but it
cannot be certain at what exact date it was begun and finished.


While Michelangelo was acquiring immediate celebrity and immortal fame
by these three statues, so different in kind and hitherto unrivalled
in artistic excellence, his family lived somewhat wretchedly at
Florence. Lodovico had lost his small post at the Customs after the
expulsion of the Medici; and three sons, younger than the sculptor,
were now growing up. Buonarroto, born in 1477, had been put to the
cloth-trade, and was serving under the Strozzi in their warehouse at
the Porta Rossa. Giovan-Simone, two years younger (he was born in
1479), after leading a vagabond life for some while, joined Buonarroto
in a cloth-business provided for them by Michelangelo. He was a
worthless fellow, and gave his eldest brother much trouble.
Sigismondo, born in 1481, took to soldiering; but at the age of forty
he settled down upon the paternal farm at Settignano, and annoyed his
brother by sinking into the condition of a common peasant.

The constant affection felt for these not very worthy relatives by
Michelangelo is one of the finest traits in his character. They were
continually writing begging letters, grumbling and complaining. He
supplied them with funds, stinting himself in order to maintain them
decently and to satisfy their wishes. But the more he gave, the more
they demanded; and on one or two occasions, as we shall see in the
course of this biography, their rapacity and ingratitude roused his
bitterest indignation. Nevertheless, he did not swerve from the path
of filial and brotherly kindness which his generous nature and steady
will had traced. He remained the guardian of their interests, the
custodian of their honour, and the builder of their fortunes to the
end of his long life. The correspondence with his father and these
brothers and a nephew, Lionardo, was published in full for the first
time in 1875. It enables us to comprehend the true nature of the man
better than any biographical notice; and I mean to draw largely upon
this source, so as gradually, by successive stipplings, as it were, to
present a miniature portrait of one who was both admirable in private
life and incomparable as an artist.

This correspondence opens in the year 1497. From a letter addressed to
Lodovico under the date August 19, we learn that Buonarroto had just
arrived in Rome, and informed his brother of certain pecuniary
difficulties under which the family was labouring. Michelangelo gave
advice, and promised to send all the money he could bring together.
"Although, as I have told you, I am out of pocket myself, I will do my
best to get money, in order that you may not have to borrow from the
Monte, as Buonarroto says is possible. Do not wonder if I have
sometimes written irritable letters; for I often suffer great distress
of mind and temper, owing to matters which must happen to one who is
away from home.... In spite of all this, I will send you what you ask
for, even should I have to sell myself into slavery." Buonarroto must
have paid a second visit to Rome; for we possess a letter from
Lodovico to Michelangelo, under date December 19, 1500, which throws
important light upon the latter's habits and designs. The old man
begins by saying how happy he is to observe the love which
Michelangelo bears his brothers. Then he speaks about the
cloth-business which Michelangelo intends to purchase for them.
Afterwards, he proceeds as follows: "Buonarroto tells me that you live
at Rome with great economy, or rather penuriousness. Now economy is
good, but penuriousness is evil, seeing that it is a vice displeasing
to God and men, and moreover injurious both to soul and body. So long
as you are young, you will be able for a time to endure these
hardships; but when the vigour of youth fails, then diseases and
infirmities make their appearance; for these are caused by personal
discomforts, mean living, and penurious habits. As I said, economy is
good; but, above all things, shun stinginess. Live discreetly well,
and see you have what is needful. Whatever happens, do not expose
yourself to physical hardships; for in your profession, if you were
once to fall ill (which God forbid), you would be a ruined man. Above
all things, take care of your head, and keep it moderately warm, and
see that you never wash: have yourself rubbed down, but do not wash."
This sordid way of life became habitual with Michelangelo. When he was
dwelling at Bologna in 1506, he wrote home to his brother Buonarroto:
"With regard to Giovan-Simone's proposed visit, I do not advise him to
come yet awhile, for I am lodged here in one wretched room, and have
bought a single bed, in which we all four of us (_i.e_., himself and
his three workmen) sleep." And again: "I am impatient to get away from
this place, for my mode of life here is so wretched, that if you only
knew what it is, you would be miserable." The summer was intensely hot
at Bologna, and the plague broke out. In these circumstances it seems
miraculous that the four sculptors in one bed escaped contagion.
Michelangelo's parsimonious habits were not occasioned by poverty or
avarice. He accumulated large sums of money by his labour, spent it
freely on his family, and exercised bountiful charity for the welfare
of his soul. We ought rather to ascribe them to some constitutional
peculiarity, affecting his whole temperament, and tinging his
experience with despondency and gloom. An absolute insensibility to
merely decorative details, to the loveliness of jewels, stuffs, and
natural objects, to flowers and trees and pleasant landscapes, to
everything, in short, which delighted the Italians of that period, is
a main characteristic of his art. This abstraction and aridity, this
ascetic devotion of his genius to pure ideal form, this almost
mathematical conception of beauty, may be ascribed, I think, to the
same psychological qualities which determined the dreary conditions of
his home-life. He was no niggard either of money or of ideas; nay,
even profligate of both. But melancholy made him miserly in all that
concerned personal enjoyment; and he ought to have been born under
that leaden planet Saturn rather than Mercury and Venus in the house
of Jove. Condivi sums up his daily habits thus: "He has always been
extremely temperate in living, using food more because it was
necessary than for any pleasure he took in it; especially when he was
engaged upon some great work; for then he usually confined himself to
a piece of bread, which he ate in the middle of his labour. However,
for some time past, he has been living with more regard to health, his
advanced age putting this constraint upon his natural inclination.
Often have I heard him say: 'Ascanio, rich as I may have been, I have
always lived like a poor man.' And this abstemiousness in food he has
practised in sleep also; for sleep, according to his own account,
rarely suits his constitution, since he continually suffers from pains
in the head during slumber, and any excessive amount of sleep deranges
his stomach. While he was in full vigour, he generally went to bed
with his clothes on, even to the tall boots, which he has always worn,
because of a chronic tendency to cramp, as well as for other reasons.
At certain seasons he has kept these boots on for such a length of
time, that when he drew them off the skin came away together with the
leather, like that of a sloughing snake. He was never stingy of cash,
nor did he accumulate money, being content with just enough to keep
him decently; wherefore, though innumerable lords and rich folk have
made him splendid offers for some specimen of his craft, he rarely
complied, and then, for the most part, more out of kindness and
friendship than with any expectation of gain." In spite of all this,
or rather because of his temperance in food and sleep and sexual
pleasure, together with his manual industry, he preserved excellent
health into old age.

I have thought it worth while to introduce this general review of
Michelangelo's habits, without omitting some details which may seem
repulsive to the modern reader, at an early period of his biography,
because we ought to carry with us through the vicissitudes of his long
career and many labours an accurate conception of our hero's
personality. For this reason it may not be unprofitable to repeat what
Condivi says about his physical appearance in the last years of his
life. "Michelangelo is of a good complexion; more muscular and bony
than fat or fleshy in his person: healthy above all things, as well by
reason of his natural constitution as of the exercise he takes, and
habitual continence in food and sexual indulgence. Nevertheless, he
was a weakly child, and has suffered two illnesses in manhood. His
countenance always showed a good and wholesome colour. Of stature he
is as follows: height middling; broad in the shoulders; the rest of
the body somewhat slender in proportion. The shape of his face is
oval, the space above the ears being one sixth higher than a
semicircle. Consequently the temples project beyond the ears, and the
ears beyond the cheeks, and these beyond the rest; so that the skull,
in relation to the whole head, must be called large. The forehead,
seen in front, is square; the nose, a little flattened--not by nature,
but because, when he was a young boy, Torrigiano de' Torrigiani, a
brutal and insolent fellow, smashed in the cartilage with his fist.
Michelangelo was carried home half dead on this occasion; and
Torrigiano, having been exiled from Florence for his violence, came to
a bad end. The nose, however, being what it is, bears a proper
proportion to the forehead and the rest of the face. The lips are
thin, but the lower is slightly thicker than the upper; so that, seen
in profile, it projects a little. The chin is well in harmony with the
features I have described. The forehead, in a side-view, almost hangs
over the nose; and this looks hardly less than broken, were it not for
a trifling proturberance in the middle. The eyebrows are not thick
with hair; the eyes may even be called small, of a colour like horn,
but speckled and stained with spots of bluish yellow. The ears in good
proportion; hair of the head black, as also the beard, except that
both are now grizzled by old age; the beard double-forked, about five
inches long, and not very bushy, as may partly be observed in his

We have no contemporary account of Michelangelo in early manhood; but
the tenor of his life was so even, and, unlike Cellini, he moved so
constantly upon the same lines and within the same sphere of patient
self-reserve, that it is not difficult to reconstruct the young and
vigorous sculptor out of this detailed description by his loving
friend and servant in old age. Few men, notably few artists, have
preserved that continuity of moral, intellectual, and physical
development in one unbroken course which is the specific
characterisation of Michelangelo. As years advanced, his pulses beat
less quickly and his body shrank. But the man did not alter. With the
same lapse of years, his style grew drier and more abstract, but it
did not alter in quality or depart from its ideal. He seems to me in
these respects to be like Milton: wholly unlike the plastic and
assimilative genius of a Raphael.



Michelangelo returned to Florence in the spring of 1501. Condivi says
that domestic affairs compelled him to leave Rome, and the
correspondence with his father makes this not improbable. He brought a
heightened reputation back to his native city. The Bacchus and the
Madonna della Febbre had placed him in advance of any sculptor of his
time. Indeed, in these first years of the sixteenth century he may be
said to have been the only Tuscan sculptor of commanding eminence.
Ghiberti, Della Quercia, Brunelleschi, Donatello, all had joined the
majority before his birth. The second group of distinguished
craftsmen--Verocchio, Luca della Robbia, Rossellino, Da Maiano,
Civitali, Desiderio da Settignano--expired at the commencement of the
century. It seemed as though a gap in the ranks of plastic artists had
purposely been made for the entrance of a predominant and tyrannous
personality. Jacopo Tatti, called Sansovino, was the only man who
might have disputed the place of preeminence with Michelangelo, and
Sansovino chose Venice for the theatre of his life-labours. In these
circumstances, it is not singular that commissions speedily began to
overtax the busy sculptor's power of execution. I do not mean to
assert that the Italians, in the year 1501, were conscious of
Michelangelo's unrivalled qualities, or sensitive to the corresponding
limitations which rendered these qualities eventually baneful to the
evolution of the arts; but they could not help feeling that in this
young man of twenty-six they possessed a first-rate craftsman, and one
who had no peer among contemporaries.

The first order of this year came from the Cardinal Francesco
Piccolomini, who was afterwards elected Pope in 1503, and who died
after reigning three weeks with the title of Pius III. He wished to
decorate the Piccolomini Chapel in the Duomo of Siena with fifteen
statues of male saints. A contract was signed on June 5, by which
Michelangelo agreed to complete these figures within the space of
three years. One of them, a S. Francis, had been already begun by
Piero Torrigiano; and this, we have some reason to believe, was
finished by the master's hand. Accounts differ about his share in the
remaining fourteen statues; but the matter is of no great moment,
seeing that the style of the work is conventional, and the scale of
the figures disagreeably squat and dumpy. It seems almost impossible
that these ecclesiastical and tame pieces should have been produced at
the same time as the David by the same hand. Neither Vasari nor
Condivi speaks about them, although it is certain that Michelangelo
was held bound to his contract during several years. Upon the death of
Pius III., he renewed it with the Pope's heirs, Jacopo and Andrea
Piccolomini, by a deed dated September 15, 1504; and in 1537 Anton
Maria Piccolomini, to whom the inheritance succeeded, considered
himself Michelangelo's creditor for the sum of a hundred crowns, which
had been paid beforehand for work not finished by the sculptor.

A far more important commission was intrusted to Michelangelo in
August of the same year, 1501. Condivi, after mentioning his return to
Florence, tells the history of the colossal David in these words:
"Here he stayed some time, and made the statue which stands in front
of the great door of the Palace of the Signory, and is called the
Giant by all people. It came about in this way. The Board of Works at
S. Maria del Fiore owned a piece of marble nine cubits in height,
which had been brought from Carrara some hundred years before by a
sculptor insufficiently acquainted with his art. This was evident,
inasmuch as, wishing to convey it more conveniently and with less
labour, he had it blocked out in the quarry, but in such a manner that
neither he nor any one else was capable of extracting a statue from
the block, either of the same size, or even on a much smaller scale.
The marble being, then, useless for any good purpose, Andrea del Monte
San Savino thought that he might get possession of it from the Board,
and begged them to make him a present of it, promising that he would
add certain pieces of stone and carve a statue from it. Before they
made up their minds to give it, they sent for Michelangelo; then,
after explaining the wishes and the views of Andrea, and considering
his own opinion that it would be possible to extract a good thing from
the block, they finally offered it to him. Michelangelo accepted,
added no pieces, and got the statue out so exactly, that, as any one
may see, in the top of the head and at the base some vestiges of the
rough surface of the marble still remain. He did the same in other
works, as, for instance, in the Contemplative Life upon the tomb of
Julius; indeed, it is a sign left by masters on their work, proving
them to be absolute in their art. But in the David it was much more
remarkable, for this reason, that the difficulty of the task was not
overcome by adding pieces; and also he had to contend with an
ill-shaped marble. As he used to say himself, it is impossible, or at
least extraordinarily difficult in statuary to set right the faults of
the blocking out. He received for this work 400 ducats, and carried it
out in eighteen months."

The sculptor who had spoiled this block of marble is called "Maestro
Simone" by Vasari; but the abundant documents in our possession, by
aid of which we are enabled to trace the whole history of
Michelangelo's David with minuteness, show that Vasari was
misinformed. The real culprit was Agostino di Antonio di Duccio, or
Guccio, who had succeeded with another colossal statue for the Duomo.
He is honourably known in the history of Tuscan sculpture by his
reliefs upon the facade of the Duomo at Modena, describing episodes in
the life of S. Gemignano, by the romantically charming reliefs in
marble, with terracotta settings, on the Oratory of S. Bernardino at
Perugia, and by a large amount of excellent surface-work in stone upon
the chapels of S. Francesco at Rimini. We gather from one of the
contracts with Agostino that the marble was originally blocked out for
some prophet. But Michelangelo resolved to make a David; and two wax
models, now preserved in the Museo Buonarroti, neither of which
corresponds exactly with the statue as it exists, show that he felt
able to extract a colossal figure in various attitudes from the
damaged block. In the first contract signed between the Consuls of the
Arte della Lana, the Operai del Duomo, and the sculptor, dated August
16, 1501, the terms are thus settled: "That the worthy master
Michelangelo, son of Lodovico Buonarroti, citizen of Florence, has
been chosen to fashion, complete, and finish to perfection that male
statue called the Giant, of nine cubits in height, now existing in the
workshop of the cathedral, blocked out aforetime by Master Agostino of
Florence, and badly blocked; and that the work shall be completed
within the term of the next ensuing two years, dating from September,
at a salary of six golden florins per month; and that what is needful
for the accomplishment of this task, as workmen, timbers, &c., which
he may require, shall be supplied him by the Operai; and when the
statue is finished, the Consuls and Operai who shall be in office
shall estimate whether he deserve a larger recompense, and this shall
be left to their consciences."


Michelangelo began to work on Monday morning, September 13, in a
wooden shed erected for the purpose, not far from the cathedral. On
the 28th of February 1502, the statue, which is now called for the
first time "the Giant, or David," was brought so far forward that the
judges declared it to be half finished, and decided that the sculptor
should be paid in all 400 golden florins, including the stipulated
salary. He seems to have laboured assiduously during the next two
years, for by a minute of the 25th of January 1504 the David is said
to be almost entirely finished. On this date a solemn council of the
most important artists resident in Florence was convened at the Opera
del Duomo to consider where it should be placed.

We possess full minutes of this meeting, and they are so curious that
I shall not hesitate to give a somewhat detailed account of the
proceedings. Messer Francesco Filarete, the chief herald of the
Signory, and himself an architect of some pretensions, opened the
discussion in a short speech to this effect: "I have turned over in my
mind those suggestions which my judgment could afford me. You have two
places where the statue may be set up: the first, that where the
Judith stands; the second, in the middle of the courtyard where the
David is. The first might be selected, because the Judith is an omen
of evil, and no fit object where it stands, we having the cross and
lily for our ensign; besides, it is not proper that the woman should
kill the male; and, above all, this statue was erected under an evil
constellation, since you have gone continually from bad to worse since
then. Pisa has been lost too. The David of the courtyard is imperfect
in the right leg; and so I should counsel you to put the Giant in one
of these places, but I give the preference myself to that of the
Judith." The herald, it will be perceived, took for granted that
Michelangelo's David would be erected in the immediate neighbourhood
of the Palazzo Vecchio. The next speaker, Francesco Monciatto, a
wood-carver, advanced the view that it ought to be placed in front of
the Duomo, where the Colossus was originally meant to be put up. He
was immediately followed, and his resolution was seconded, by no less
personages than the painters Cosimo Rosselli and Sandro Botticelli.
Then Giuliano da San Gallo, the illustrious architect, submitted a
third opinion to the meeting. He began his speech by observing that he
agreed with those who wished to choose the steps of the Duomo, but due
consideration caused him to alter his mind. "The imperfection of the
marble, which is softened by exposure to the air, rendered the
durability of the statue doubtful. He therefore voted for the middle
of the Loggia dei Lanzi, where the David would be under cover." Messer
Angelo di Lorenzo Manfidi, second herald of the Signory, rose to state
a professional objection. "The David, if erected under the middle arch

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