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The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti by John Addington Symonds

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have received a letter from you to-day, from which I learn that you
have been informed by Lapo and Lodovico. I am glad that you should
rebuke me, because I deserve to be rebuked as a ne'er-do-well and
sinner as much as any one, or perhaps more. But you must know that I
have not been guilty in the affair for which you take me to task now,
neither as regards them nor any one else, except it be in doing more
than was my duty." After this exordium he proceeds to give an
elaborate explanation of his dealings with Lapo, and the man's

The correspondence with Buonarroto turns to a considerable extent upon
a sword-hilt which Michelangelo designed for the Florentine, Pietro
Aldobrandini. It was the custom then for gentlemen to carry swords and
daggers with hilt and scabbard wonderfully wrought by first-rate
artists. Some of these, still extant, are among the most exquisite
specimens of sixteenth-century craft. This little affair gave
Michelangelo considerable trouble. First of all, the man who had to
make the blade was long about it. From the day when the Pope came to
Bologna, he had more custom than all the smiths in the city were used
in ordinary times to deal with. Then, when the weapon reached
Florence, it turned out to be too short. Michelangelo affirmed that he
had ordered it exactly to the measure sent, adding that Aldobrandini
was "probably not born to wear a dagger at his belt." He bade his
brother present it to Filippo Strozzi, as a compliment from the
Buonarroti family; but the matter was bungled. Probably Buonarroto
tried to get some valuable equivalent; for Michelangelo writes to say
that he is sorry "he behaved so scurvily toward Filippo in so trifling
an affair."

Nothing at all transpires in these letters regarding the company kept
by Michelangelo at Bologna. The few stories related by tradition which
refer to this period are not much to the sculptor's credit for
courtesy. The painter Francia, for instance, came to see the statue,
and made the commonplace remark that he thought it very well cast and
of excellent bronze. Michelangelo took this as an insult to his
design, and replied: "I owe the same thanks to Pope Julius who
supplied the metal, as you do to the colourmen who sell you paints."
Then, turning to some gentlemen present there, he added that Francia
was "a blockhead." Francia had a son remarkable for youthful beauty.
When Michelangelo first saw him he asked whose son he was, and, on
being informed, uttered this caustic compliment: "Your father makes
handsomer living figures than he paints them." On some other occasion,
a stupid Bolognese gentleman asked whether he thought his statue or a
pair of oxen were the bigger. Michelangelo replied: "That is according
to the oxen. If Bolognese, oh! then with a doubt ours of Florence are
smaller." Possibly Albrecht Duerer may have met him in the artistic
circles of Bologna, since he came from Venice on a visit during these
years; but nothing is known about their intercourse.


Julius left Bologna on the 22nd of February 1507. Michelangelo
remained working diligently at his model. In less than three months it
was nearly ready to be cast. Accordingly, the sculptor, who had no
practical knowledge of bronze-founding, sent to Florence for a man
distinguished in that craft, Maestro dal Ponte of Milan. During the
last three years he had been engaged as Master of the Ordnance under
the Republic. His leave of absence was signed upon the 15th of May

Meanwhile the people of Bologna were already planning revolution. The
Bentivogli retained a firm hereditary hold on their affections, and
the government of priests is never popular, especially among the
nobles of a state. Michelangelo writes to his brother Giovan Simone
(May 2) describing the bands of exiles who hovered round the city and
kept its burghers in alarm: "The folk are stifling in their coats of
mail; for during four days past the whole county is under arms, in
great confusion and peril, especially the party of the Church." The
Papal Legate, Francesco Alidosi, Cardinal of Pavia, took such prompt
measures that the attacking troops were driven back. He also executed
some of the citizens who had intrigued with the exiled family. The
summer was exceptionally hot, and plague hung about; all articles of
food were dear and bad. Michelangelo felt miserable, and fretted to be
free; but the statue kept him hard at work.

When the time drew nigh for the great operation, he wrote in touching
terms to Buonarroto: "Tell Lodovico (their father) that in the middle
of next month I hope to cast my figure without fail. Therefore, if he
wishes to offer prayers or aught else for its good success, let him do
so betimes, and say that I beg this of him." Nearly the whole of June
elapsed, and the business still dragged on. At last, upon the 1st of
July, he advised his brother thus: "We have cast my figure, and it has
come out so badly that I verily believe I shall have to do it all over
again. I reserve details, for I have other things to think of. Enough
that it has gone wrong. Still I thank God, because I take everything
for the best." From the next letter we learn that only the lower half
of the statue, up to the girdle, was properly cast. The metal for the
rest remained in the furnace, probably in the state of what Cellini
called a cake. The furnace had to be pulled down and rebuilt, so as to
cast the upper half. Michelangelo adds that he does not know whether
Master Bernardino mismanaged the matter from ignorance or bad luck. "I
had such faith in him that I thought he could have cast the statue
without fire. Nevertheless, there is no denying that he is an able
craftsman, and that he worked with good-will. Well, he has failed, to
my loss and also to his own, seeing he gets so much blame that he
dares not lift his head up in Bologna." The second casting must have
taken place about the 8th of July; for on the 10th Michelangelo writes
that it is done, but the clay is too hot for the result to be
reported, and Bernardino left yesterday. When the statue was
uncovered, he was able to reassure his brother: "My affair might have
turned out much better, and also much worse. At all events, the whole
is there, so far as I can see; for it is not yet quite disengaged. I
shall want, I think, some months to work it up with file and hammer,
because it has come out rough. Well, well, there is much to thank God
for; as I said, it might have been worse." On making further
discoveries, he finds that the cast is far less bad than he expected;
but the labour of cleaning it with polishing tools proved longer and
more irksome than he expected: "I am exceedingly anxious to get away
home, for here I pass my life in huge discomfort and with extreme
fatigue. I work night and day, do nothing else; and the labour I am
forced to undergo is such, that if I had to begin the whole thing over
again, I do not think I could survive it. Indeed, the undertaking has
been one of enormous difficulty; and if it had been in the hand of
another man, we should have fared but ill with it. However, I believe
that the prayers of some one have sustained and kept me in health,
because all Bologna thought I should never bring it to a proper end."
We can see that Michelangelo was not unpleased with the result; and
the statue must have been finished soon after the New Year. However,
he could not leave Bologna. On the 18th of February 1508 he writes to
Buonarroto that he is kicking his heels, having received orders from
the Pope to stay until the bronze was placed. Three days later--that
is, upon the 21st of February--the Pope's portrait was hoisted to its
pedestal above the great central door of S. Petronio.

It remained there rather less than three years. When the Papal Legate
fled from Bologna in 1511, and the party of the Bentivogli gained the
upper hand, they threw the mighty mass of sculptured bronze, which had
cost its maker so much trouble, to the ground. That happened on the
30th of December. The Bentivogli sent it to the Duke Alfonso d'Este of
Ferrara, who was a famous engineer and gunsmith. He kept the head
intact, but cast a huge cannon out of part of the material, which took
the name of La Giulia. What became of the head is unknown. It is said
to have weighed 600 pounds.

So perished another of Michelangelo's masterpieces; and all we know
for certain about the statue is that Julius was seated, in full
pontificals, with the triple tiara on his head, raising the right hand
to bless, and holding the keys of S. Peter in the left.

Michelangelo reached Florence early in March. On the 18th of that
month he began again to occupy his house at Borgo Pinti, taking it
this time on hire from the Operai del Duomo. We may suppose,
therefore, that he intended to recommence work on the Twelve Apostles.
A new project seems also to have been started by his friend
Soderini--that of making him erect a colossal statue of Hercules
subduing Cacus opposite the David. The Gonfalonier was in
correspondence with the Marquis of Carrara on the 10th of May about a
block of marble for this giant; but Michelangelo at that time had
returned to Rome, and of the Cacus we shall hear more hereafter.


When Julius received news that his statue had been duly cast and set
up in its place above the great door of S. Petronio, he began to be
anxious to have Michelangelo once more near his person. The date at
which the sculptor left Florence again for Rome is fixed approximately
by the fact that Lodovico Buonarroti emancipated his son from parental
control upon the 13th of March 1508. According to Florentine law,
Michelangelo was not of age, nor master over his property and person,
until this deed had been executed.

In the often-quoted letter to Fattucci he says: "The Pope was still
unwilling that I should complete the tomb, and ordered me to paint the
vault of the Sistine. We agreed for 3000 ducats. The first design I
made for this work had twelve apostles in the lunettes, the remainder
being a certain space filled in with ornamental details, according to
the usual manner. After I had begun, it seemed to me that this would
turn out rather meanly; and I told the Pope that the Apostles alone
would yield a poor effect, in my opinion. He asked me why. I answered,
'Because they too were poor.' Then he gave me commission to do what I
liked best, and promised to satisfy my claims for the work, and told
me to paint down the pictured histories upon the lower row."

There is little doubt that Michelangelo disliked beginning this new
work, and that he would have greatly preferred to continue the
sepulchral monument, for which he had made such vast and costly
preparations. He did not feel certain how he should succeed in fresco
on a large scale, not having had any practice in that style of
painting since he was a prentice under Ghirlandajo. It is true that
the Cartoon for the Battle of Pisa had been a splendid success; still
this, as we have seen, was not coloured, but executed in various
methods of outline and chiaroscuro. Later on, while seriously engaged
upon the Sistine, he complains to his father: "I am still in great
distress of mind, because it is now a year since I had a farthing from
the Pope; and I do not ask, because my work is not going forward in a
way that seems to me to deserve it. That comes from its difficulty,
and also _from this not being my trade._ And so I waste my time
without results. God help me."

We may therefore believe Condivi when he asserts that "Michelangelo,
who had not yet practised colouring, and knew that the painting of a
vault is very difficult, endeavoured by all means to get himself
excused, putting Raffaello forward as the proper man, and pleading
that this was not his trade, and that he should not succeed." Condivi
states in the same chapter that Julius had been prompted to intrust
him with the Sistine by Bramante, who was jealous of his great
abilities, and hoped he might fail conspicuously when he left the
field of sculpture. I have given my reasons above for doubting the
accuracy of this tradition; and what we have just read of
Michelangelo's own hesitation confirms the statement made by Bramante
in the Pope's presence, as recorded by Rosselli. In fact, although we
may assume the truth of Bramante's hostility, it is difficult to form
an exact conception of the intrigues he carried on against Buonarroti.

Julius would not listen to any arguments. Accordingly, Michelangelo
made up his mind to obey the patron whom he nicknamed his Medusa.
Bramante was commissioned to erect the scaffolding, which he did so
clumsily, with beams suspended from the vault by huge cables, that
Michelangelo asked how the holes in the roof would be stopped up when
his painting was finished. The Pope allowed him to take down
Bramante's machinery, and to raise a scaffold after his own design.
The rope alone which had been used, and now was wasted, enabled a poor
carpenter to dower his daughter. Michelangelo built his own scaffold
free from the walls, inventing a method which was afterwards adopted
by all architects for vault-building. Perhaps he remembered the
elaborate drawing he once made of Ghirlandajo's assistants at work
upon the ladders and wooden platforms at S. Maria Novella.

Knowing that he should need helpers in so great an undertaking, and
also mistrusting his own ability to work in fresco, he now engaged
several excellent Florentine painters. Among these, says Vasari, were
his friends Francesco Granacci and Giuliano Bugiardini, Bastiano da
San Gallo surnamed Aristotele, Angelo di Donnino, Jacopo di Sandro,
and Jacopo surnamed l'Indaco. Vasari is probably accurate in his
statement here; for we shall see that Michelangelo, in his _Ricordi_,
makes mention of five assistants, two of whom are proved by other
documents to have been Granacci and Indaco. We also possess two
letters from Granacci which show that Bugiardini, San Gallo, Angelo di
Donnino, and Jacopo l'Indaco were engaged in July. The second of
Granacci's letters refers to certain disputes and hagglings with the
artists. This may have brought Michelangelo to Florence, for he was
there upon the 11th of August 1508, as appears from the following deed
of renunciation: "In the year of our Lord 1508, on the 11th day of
August, Michelangelo, son of Lodovico di Lionardo di Buonarrota,
repudiated the inheritance of his uncle Francesco by an instrument
drawn up by the hand of Ser Giovanni di Guasparre da Montevarchi,
notary of Florence, on the 27th of July 1508." When the assistants
arrived at Rome is not certain. It must, however, have been after the
end of July. The extracts from Michelangelo's notebooks show that he
had already sketched an agreement as to wages several weeks before. "I
record how on this day, the 10th of May 1508, I, Michelangelo,
sculptor, have received from the Holiness of our Lord Pope Julius II.
500 ducats of the Camera, the which were paid me by Messer Carlino,
chamberlain, and Messer Carlo degli Albizzi, on account of the
painting of the vault of the Sistine Chapel, on which I begin to work
to-day, under the conditions and contracts set forth in a document
written by his Most Reverend Lordship of Pavia, and signed by my hand.

"For the painter-assistants who are to come from Florence, who will be
five in number, twenty gold ducats of the Camera apiece, on this
condition; that is to say, that when they are here and are working in
harmony with me, the twenty ducats shall be reckoned to each man's
salary; the said salary to begin upon the day they leave Florence. And
if they do not agree with me, half of the said money shall be paid
them for their travelling expenses, and for their time."

On the strength of this _Ricordo_, it has been assumed that
Michelangelo actually began to paint the Sistine on the 10th of May
1508. That would have been physically and literally impossible. He was
still at Florence, agreeing to rent his house in Borgo Pinti, upon the
18th of March. Therefore he had no idea of going to Rome at that time.
When he arrived there, negotiations went on, as we have seen, between
him and Pope Julius. One plan for the decoration of the roof was
abandoned, and another on a grander scale had to be designed. To
produce working Cartoons for that immense scheme in less than two
months would have been beyond the capacities of any human brain and
hands. But there are many indications that the vault was not prepared
for painting, and the materials for fresco not accumulated, till a
much later date. For instance, we possess a series of receipts by
Piero Rosselli, acknowledging several disbursements for the plastering
of the roof between May 11 and July 27. We learn from one of these
that Granacci was in Rome before June 3; and Michelangelo writes for
fine blue colours to a certain Fra Jacopo Gesuato at Florence upon the
13th of May. All is clearly in the air as yet, and on the point of
preparation. Michelangelo's phrase, "on which I begin work to-day,"
will have to be interpreted, therefore, in the widest sense, as
implying that he was engaging assistants, getting the architectural
foundation ready, and procuring a stock of necessary articles. The
whole summer and autumn must have been spent in taking measurements
and expanding the elaborate design to the proper scale of working
drawings; and if Michelangelo had toiled alone without his Florentine
helpers, it would have been impossible for him to have got through
with these preliminary labours in so short a space of time.

Michelangelo's method in preparing his Cartoons seems to have been the
following. He first made a small-scale sketch of the composition,
sometimes including a large variety of figures. Then he went to the
living models, and studied portions of the whole design in careful
transcripts from Nature, using black and red chalk, pen, and sometimes
bistre. Among the most admirable of his drawings left to us are
several which were clearly executed with a view to one or other of
these great Cartoons. Finally, returning to the first composition, he
repeated that, or so much of it as could be transferred to a single
sheet, on the exact scale of the intended fresco. These enlarged
drawings were applied to the wet surface of the plaster, and their
outlines pricked in with dots to guide the painter in his brush-work.
When we reflect upon the extent of the Sistine vault (it is estimated
at more than 10,000 square feet of surface), and the difficulties
presented by its curves, lunettes, spandrels, and pendentives; when we
remember that this enormous space is alive with 343 figures in every
conceivable attitude, some of them twelve feet in height, those seated
as prophets and sibyls measuring nearly eighteen feet when upright,
all animated with extraordinary vigour, presenting types of the utmost
variety and vivid beauty, imagination quails before the intellectual
energy which could first conceive a scheme so complex, and then carry
it out with mathematical precision in its minutest details.

The date on which Michelangelo actually began to paint the fresco is
not certain. Supposing he worked hard all the summer, he might have
done so when his Florentine assistants arrived in August; and,
assuming that the letter to his father above quoted (_Lettere_, x.)
bears a right date, he must have been in full swing before the end of
January 1509. In that letter he mentions that Jacopo, probably
l'Indaco, "the painter whom I brought from Florence, returned a few
days ago; and as he complained about me here in Rome, it is likely
that he will do so there. Turn a deaf ear to him; he is a thousandfold
in the wrong, and I could say much about his bad behaviour toward me."
Vasari informs us that these assistants proved of no use; whereupon,
he destroyed all they had begun to do, refused to see them, locked
himself up in the chapel, and determined to complete the work in
solitude. It seems certain that the painters were sent back to
Florence. Michelangelo had already provided for the possibility of
their not being able to co-operate with him; but what the cause of
their failure was we can only conjecture. Trained in the methods of
the old Florentine school of fresco-painting, incapable of entering
into the spirit of a style so supereminently noble and so astoundingly
original as Michelangelo's, it is probable that they spoiled his
designs in their attempts to colour them. Harford pithily remarks: "As
none of the suitors of Penelope could bend the bow of Ulysses, so one
hand alone was capable of wielding the pencil of Buonarroti." Still it
must not be imagined that Michelangelo ground his own colours,
prepared his daily measure of wet plaster, and executed the whole
series of frescoes with his own hand. Condivi and Vasari imply,
indeed, that this was the case; but, beside the physical
impossibility, the fact remains that certain portions are obviously
executed by inferior masters. Vasari's anecdotes, moreover, contradict
his own assertion regarding Michelangelo's singlehanded labour. He
speaks about the caution which the master exercised to guard himself
against any treason of his workmen in the chapel. Nevertheless, far
the larger part, including all the most important figures, and
especially the nudes, belongs to Michelangelo.

These troubles with his assistants illustrate a point upon which I
shall have to offer some considerations at a future time. I allude to
Michelangelo's inaptitude for forming a school of intelligent
fellow-workers, for fashioning inferior natures into at least a
sympathy with his aims and methods, and finally for living long on
good terms with hired subordinates. All those qualities which the
facile and genial Raffaello possessed in such abundance, and which
made it possible for that young favourite of heaven and fortune to
fill Rome with so much work of mixed merit, were wanting to the stern,
exacting, and sensitive Buonarroti.

But the assistants were not the only hindrance to Michelangelo at the
outset. Condivi says that "he had hardly begun painting, and had
finished the picture of the Deluge, when the work began to throw out
mould to such an extent that the figures could hardly be seen through
it. Michelangelo thought that this excuse might be sufficient to get
him relieved of the whole job. So he went to the Pope and said: 'I
already told your Holiness that painting is not my trade; what I have
done is spoiled; if you do not believe it, send to see.' The Pope sent
San Gallo, who, after inspecting the fresco, pronounced that the
lime-basis had been put on too wet, and that water oozing out produced
this mouldy surface. He told Michelangelo what the cause was, and bade
him proceed with the work. So the excuse helped him nothing." About
the fresco of the Deluge Vasari relates that, having begun to paint
this compartment first, he noticed that the figures were too crowded,
and consequently changed his scale in all the other portions of the
ceiling. This is a plausible explanation of what is striking--namely,
that the story of the Deluge is quite differently planned from the
other episodes upon the vaulting. Yet I think it must be rejected,
because it implies a total change in all the working Cartoons, as well
as a remarkable want of foresight.

Condivi continues: "While he was painting, Pope Julius used oftentimes
to go and see the work, climbing by a ladder, while Michelangelo gave
him a hand to help him on to the platform. His nature being eager and
impatient of delay, he decided to have the roof uncovered, although
Michelangelo had not given the last touches, and had only completed
the first half--that is, from the door to the middle of the vault."
Michelangelo's letters show that the first part of his work was
executed in October. He writes thus to his brother Buonarroto: "I am
remaining here as usual, and shall have finished my painting by the
end of the week after next--that is, the portion of it which I began;
and when it is uncovered, I expect to be paid, and shall also try to
get a month's leave to visit Florence."


The uncovering took place upon November 1, 1509. All Rome flocked to
the chapel, feeling that something stupendous was to be expected after
the long months of solitude and seclusion during which the silent
master had been working. Nor were they disappointed. The effect
produced by only half of the enormous scheme was overwhelming. As
Vasari says, "This chapel lighted up a lamp for our art which casts
abroad lustre enough to illuminate the World, drowned, for so many
centuries in darkness." Painters saw at a glance that the genius which
had revolutionised sculpture was now destined to introduce a new style
and spirit into their art. This was the case even with Raffaello, who,
in the frescoes he executed at S. Maria della Pace, showed his
immediate willingness to learn from Michelangelo, and his
determination to compete with him. Condivi and Vasari are agreed upon
this point, and Michelangelo himself, in a moment of hasty
indignation, asserted many years afterwards that what Raffaello knew
of art was derived from him. That is, of course, an over-statement;
for, beside his own exquisite originality, Raffaello formed a
composite style successively upon Perugino, Fra Bartolommeo, and
Lionardo. He was capable not merely of imitating, but of absorbing and
assimilating to his lucid genius the excellent qualities of all in
whom he recognised superior talent. At the same time, Michelangelo's
influence was undeniable, and we cannot ignore the testimony of those
who conversed with both great artists--of Julius himself, for
instance, when he said to Sebastian del Piombo: "Look at the work of
Raffaello, who, after seeing the masterpieces of Michelangelo,
immediately abandoned Perugino's manner, and did his utmost to
approach that of Buonarroti."

Condivi's assertion that the part uncovered in November 1509 was the
first half of the whole vault, beginning from the door and ending in
the middle, misled Vasari, and Vasari misled subsequent biographers.
We now know for certain that what Michelangelo meant by "the portion I
began" was the whole central space of the ceiling--that is to say, the
nine compositions from Genesis, with their accompanying genii and
architectural surroundings. That is rendered clear by a statement in
Albertini's Roman Handbook, to the effect that the "upper portion of
the whole vaulted roof" had been uncovered when he saw it in 1509.
Having established this error in Condivi's narrative, what he proceeds
to relate may obtain some credence. "Raffaello, when he beheld the new
and marvellous style of Michelangelo's work, being extraordinarily apt
at imitation, sought, by Bramante's means, to obtain a commission for
the rest." Had Michelangelo ended at a line drawn halfway across the
breadth of the vault, leaving the Prophets and Sibyls, the lunettes
and pendentives, all finished so far, it would have been a piece of
monstrous impudence even in Bramante, and an impossible discourtesy in
gentle Raffaello, to have begged for leave to carry on a scheme so
marvellously planned. But the history of the Creation, Fall, and
Deluge, when first exposed, looked like a work complete in itself.
Michelangelo, who was notoriously secretive, had almost certainly not
explained his whole design to painters of Bramante's following; and it
is also improbable that he had as yet prepared his working Cartoons
for the lower and larger portion of the vault. Accordingly, there
remained a large vacant space to cover between the older frescoes by
Signorelli, Perugino, Botticelli, and other painters, round the walls
below the windows, and that new miracle suspended in the air. There
was no flagrant impropriety in Bramante's thinking that his nephew
might be allowed to carry the work downward from that altitude. The
suggestion may have been that the Sistine Chapel should become a
Museum of Italian art, where all painters of eminence could deposit
proofs of their ability, until each square foot of wall was covered
with competing masterpieces. But when Michelangelo heard of Bramante's
intrigues, he was greatly disturbed in spirit. Having begun his task
unwillingly, he now felt an equal or greater unwillingness to leave
the stupendous conception of his brain unfinished. Against all
expectation of himself and others, he had achieved a decisive victory,
and was placed at one stroke, Condivi says, "above the reach of envy."
His hand had found its cunning for fresco as for marble. Why should he
be interrupted in the full swing of triumphant energy? "Accordingly,
he sought an audience with the Pope, and openly laid bare all the
persecutions he had suffered from Bramante, and discovered the
numerous misdoings of the man." It was on this occasion, according to
Condivi, that Michelangelo exposed Bramante's scamped work and
vandalism at S. Peter's. Julius, who was perhaps the only man in Rome
acquainted with his sculptor's scheme for the Sistine vault, brushed
the cobwebs of these petty intrigues aside, and left the execution of
the whole to Michelangelo.

There is something ignoble in the task of recording rivalries and
jealousies between artists and men of letters. Genius, however, like
all things that are merely ours and mortal, shuffles along the path of
life, half flying on the wings of inspiration, half hobbling on the
feet of interest the crutches of commissions. Michelangelo, although
he made the David and the Sistine, had also to make money. He was
entangled with shrewd men of business, and crafty spendthrifts,
ambitious intriguers, folk who used undoubted talents, each in its
kind excellent and pure, for baser purposes of gain or getting on. The
art-life of Rome seethed with such blood-poison; and it would be
sentimental to neglect what entered so deeply and so painfully into
the daily experience of our hero. Raffaello, kneaded of softer and
more facile clay than Michelangelo, throve in this environment, and
was somehow able--so it seems--to turn its venom to sweet uses. I like
to think of the two peers, moving like stars on widely separated
orbits, with radically diverse temperaments, proclivities, and habits,
through the turbid atmosphere enveloping but not obscuring their
lucidity. Each, in his own way, as it seems to me, contrived to keep
himself unspotted by the world; and if they did not understand one
another and make friends, this was due to the different conceptions
they were framed to take of life the one being the exact antipodes to
the other.


Postponing descriptive or aesthetic criticism of the Sistine frescoes,
I shall proceed with the narration of their gradual completion. We
have few documents to guide us through the period of time which
elapsed between the first uncovering of Michelangelo's work on the
roof of the Sistine (November 1, 1509) and its ultimate accomplishment
(October 1512). His domestic correspondence is abundant, and will be
used in its proper place; but nothing transpires from those pages of
affection, anger, and financial negotiation to throw light upon the
working of the master's mind while he was busied in creating the
sibyls and prophets, the episodes and idyls, which carried his great
Bible of the Fate of Man downwards through the vaulting to a point at
which the Last Judgment had to be presented as a crowning climax. For,
the anxious student of his mind and life-work, nothing is more
desolating than the impassive silence he maintains about his doings as
an artist. He might have told us all we want to know, and never shall
know here about them. But while he revealed his personal temperament
and his passions with singular frankness, he locked up the secret of
his art, and said nothing.

Eventually we must endeavour to grasp Michelangelo's work in the
Sistine as a whole, although it was carried out at distant epochs of
his life. For this reason I have thrown these sentences forward, in
order to embrace a wide span of his artistic energy (from May 10,
1508, to perhaps December 1541). There is, to my mind, a unity of
conception between the history depicted on the vault, the prophets and
forecomers on the pendentives, the types selected for the
spandrels, and the final spectacle of the day of doom. Living, as he
needs must do, under the category of time, Michelangelo was unable to
execute his stupendous picture-book of human destiny in one sustained
manner. Years passed over him of thwarted endeavour and distracted
energies--years of quarrying and sculpturing, of engineering and
obeying the vagaries of successive Popes. Therefore, when he came
at last to paint the Last Judgment, he was a worn man, exhausted in
services of many divers sorts. And, what is most perplexing to the
reconstructive critic, nothing in his correspondence remains to
indicate the stages of his labour. The letters tell plenty about
domestic anxieties, annoyances in his poor craftsman's household,
purchases of farms, indignant remonstrances with stupid brethren; but
we find in them, as I have said, no clue to guide us through that
mental labyrinth in which the supreme artist was continually walking,
and at the end of which he left to us the Sistine as it now is.


The old reckoning of the time consumed by Michelangelo in painting the
roof of the Sistine, and the traditions concerning his mode of work
there, are clearly fabulous. Condivi says: "He finished the whole in
twenty months, without having any assistance whatsoever, not even of a
man to grind his colours." From a letter of September 7, 1510, we
learn that the scaffolding was going to be put up again, and that he
was preparing to work upon the lower portion of the vaulting. Nearly
two years elapse before we hear of it again. He writes to Buonarroto
on the 24th of July 1512: "I am suffering greater hardships than ever
man endured, ill, and with overwhelming labour; still I put up with
all in order to reach the desired end." Another letter on the 21st of
August shows that he expects to complete his work at the end of
September; and at last, in October, he writes to his father: "I have
finished the chapel I was painting. The Pope is very well satisfied."
On the calculation that he began the first part on May 10, 1508, and
finished the whole in October 1512, four years and a half were
employed upon the work. A considerable part of this time was of course
taken up with the preparation of Cartoons; and the nature of
fresco-painting rendered the winter months not always fit for active
labour. The climate of Rome is not so mild but that wet plaster might
often freeze and crack during December, January, and February.
Besides, with all his superhuman energy, Michelangelo could not have
painted straight on daily without rest or stop. It seems, too, that
the master was often in need of money, and that he made two journeys
to the Pope to beg for supplies. In the letter to Fattucci he says:
"When the vault was nearly finished, the Pope was again at Bologna;
whereupon, I went twice to get the necessary funds, and obtained
nothing, and lost all that time until I came back to Rome. When I
reached Rome, I began to make Cartoons--that is, for the ends and
sides of the said chapel, hoping to get money at last and to complete
the work. I never could extract a farthing; and when I complained one
day to Messer Bernardo da Bibbiena and to Atalante, representing that
I could not stop longer in Rome, and that I should be forced to go
away with God's grace, Messer Bernardo told Atalante he must bear this
in mind, for that he wished me to have money, whatever happened." When
we consider, then, the magnitude of the undertaking, the arduous
nature of the preparatory studies, and the waste of time in journeys
and through other hindrances, four and a half years are not too long a
period for a man working so much alone as Michelangelo was wont to do.

We have reason to believe that, after all, the frescoes of the Sistine
were not finished in their details. "It is true," continues Condivi,
"that I have heard him say he was not suffered to complete the work
according to his wish. The Pope, in his impatience, asked him one day
when he would be ready with the Chapel, and he answered: 'When I shall
be able.' To which his Holiness replied in a rage: 'You want to make
me hurl you from that scaffold!' Michelangelo heard and remembered,
muttering: 'That you shall not do to me.' So he went straightway, and
had the scaffolding taken down. The frescoes were exposed to view on
All Saints' day, to the great satisfaction of the Pope, who went that
day to service there, while all Rome flocked together to admire them.
What Michelangelo felt forced to leave undone was the retouching of
certain parts with ultramarine upon dry ground, and also some gilding,
to give the whole a richer effect. Giulio, when his heat cooled down,
wanted Michelangelo to make these last additions; but he, considering
the trouble it would be to build up all that scaffolding afresh,
observed that what was missing mattered little. 'You ought at least to
touch it up with gold,' replied the Pope; and Michelangelo, with that
familiarity he used toward his Holiness, said carelessly: 'I have not
observed that men wore gold.' The Pope rejoined: 'It will look poor.'
Buonarroti added: 'Those who are painted there were poor men.' So the
matter turned into pleasantry, and the frescoes have remained in their
present state." Condivi goes on to state that Michelangelo received
3000 ducats for all his expenses, and that he spent as much as twenty
or twenty-five ducats on colours alone. Upon the difficult question of
the moneys earned by the great artist in his life-work, I shall have
to speak hereafter, though I doubt whether any really satisfactory
account can now be given of them.


Michelangelo's letters to his family in Florence throw a light at once
vivid and painful over the circumstances of his life during these
years of sustained creative energy. He was uncomfortable in his
bachelor's home, and always in difficulties with his servants. "I am
living here in discontent, not thoroughly well, and undergoing great
fatigue, without money, and with no one to look after me." Again, when
one of his brothers proposed to visit him in Rome, he writes: "I hear
that Gismondo means to come hither on his affairs. Tell him not to
count on me for anything; not because I do not love him as a brother,
but because I am not in the position to assist him. I am bound to care
for myself first, and I cannot provide myself with necessaries. I live
here in great distress and the utmost bodily fatigue, have no friends,
and seek none. I have not even time enough to eat what I require.
Therefore let no additional burdens be put upon me, for I could not
bear another ounce." In the autumn of 1509 he corresponded with his
father about the severe illness of an assistant workman whom he kept,
and also about a boy he wanted sent from Florence. "I should be glad
if you could hear of some lad at Florence, the son of good parents and
poor, used to hardships, who would be willing to come and live with me
here, to do the work of the house, buy what I want, and go around on
messages; in his leisure time he could learn. Should such a boy be
found, please let me know; because there are only rogues here, and I
am in great need of some one." All through his life, Michelangelo
adopted the plan of keeping a young fellow to act as general servant,
and at the same time to help in art-work. Three of these servants are
interwoven with the chief events of his later years, Pietro Urbano,
Antonio Mini, and Francesco d'Amadore, called Urbino, the last of whom
became his faithful and attached friend till death parted them. Women
about the house he could not bear. Of the serving-maids at Rome he
says: "They are all strumpets and swine." Well, it seems that Lodovico
found a boy, and sent him off to Rome. What followed is related in the
next letter. "As regards the boy you sent me, that rascal of a
muleteer cheated me out of a ducat for his journey. He swore that the
bargain had been made for two broad golden ducats, whereas all the
lads who come here with the muleteers pay only ten carlins. I was more
angry at this than if I had lost twenty-five ducats, because I saw
that his father had resolved to send him on mule-back like a
gentleman. Oh, I had never such good luck, not I! Then both the father
and the lad promised that he would do everything, attend to the mule,
and sleep upon the ground, if it was wanted. And now I am obliged to
look after him. As if I needed more worries than the one I have had
ever since I arrived here! My apprentice, whom I left in Rome, has
been ill from the day on which I returned until now. It is true that
he is getting better; but he lay for about a month in peril of his
life, despaired of by the doctors, and I never went to bed. There are
other annoyances of my own; and now I have the nuisance of this lad,
who says that he does not want to waste time, that he wants to study,
and so on. At Florence he said he would be satisfied with two or three
hours a day. Now the whole day is not enough for him, but he must
needs be drawing all the night. It is all the fault of what his father
tells him. If I complained, he would say that I did not want him to
learn. I really require some one to take care of the house; and if the
boy had no mind for this sort of work, they ought not to have put me
to expense. But they are good-for-nothing, and are working toward a
certain end of their own. Enough, I beg you to relieve me of the boy;
he has bored me so that I cannot bear it any longer. The muleteer has
been so well paid that he can very well take him back to Florence.
Besides, he is a friend of the father. Tell the father to send for him
home. I shall not pay another farthing. I have no money. I will have
patience till he sends; and if he does not send, I will turn the boy
out of doors. I did so already on the second day of his arrival, and
other times also, and the father does not believe it.

"_P.S._--If you talk to the father of the lad, put the matter to him
nicely: as that he is a good boy, but too refined, and not fit for my
service, and say that he had better send for him home."

The repentant postscript is eminently characteristic of Michelangelo.
He used to write in haste, apparently just as the thoughts came.
Afterwards he read his letter over, and softened its contents down, if
he did not, as sometimes happened, feel that his meaning required
enforcement; in that case he added a stinging tail to the epigram. How
little he could manage the people in his employ is clear from the last
notice we possess about the unlucky lad from Florence. "I wrote about
the boy, to say that his father ought to send for him, and that I
would not disburse more money. This I now confirm. The driver is paid
to take him back. At Florence he will do well enough, learning his
trade and dwelling with his parents. Here he is not worth a farthing,
and makes me toil like a beast of burden; and my other apprentice has
not left his bed. It is true that I have not got him in the house; for
when I was so tired out that I could not bear it, I sent him to the
room of a brother of his. I have no money."

These household difficulties were a trifle, however, compared with the
annoyances caused by the stupidity of his father and the greediness of
his brothers. While living like a poor man in Rome, he kept
continually thinking of their welfare. The letters of this period are
full of references to the purchase of land, the transmission of cash
when it was to be had, and the establishment of Buonarroto in a
draper's business. They, on their part, were never satisfied, and
repaid his kindness with ingratitude. The following letter to Giovan
Simone shows how terrible Michelangelo could be when he detected
baseness in a brother:--

"Giovan Simone,--It is said that when one does good to a good man, he
makes him become better, but that a bad man becomes worse. It is now
many years that I have been endeavouring with words and deeds of
kindness to bring you to live honestly and in peace with your father
and the rest of us. You grow continually worse. I do not say that you
are a scoundrel; but you are of such sort that you have ceased to give
satisfaction to me or anybody. I could read you a long lesson on your
ways of living; but they would be idle words, like all the rest that I
have wasted. To cut the matter short, I will tell you as a fact beyond
all question that you have nothing in the world: what you spend and
your house-room, I give you, and have given you these many years, for
the love of God, believing you to be my brother like the rest. Now, I
am sure that you are not my brother, else you would not threaten my
father. Nay, you are a beast; and as a beast I mean to treat you. Know
that he who sees his father threatened or roughly handled is bound to
risk his own life in this cause. Let that suffice. I repeat that you
have nothing in the world; and if I hear the least thing about your
ways of going on, I will come to Florence by the post, and show you
how far wrong you are, and teach you to waste your substance, and set
fire to houses and farms you have not earned. Indeed you are not where
you think yourself to be. If I come, I will open your eyes to what
will make you weep hot tears, and recognise on what false grounds you
base your arrogance.

"I have something else to say to you, which I have said before. If you
will endeavour to live rightly, and to honour and revere your father,
I am willing to help you like the rest, and will put it shortly within
your power to open a good shop. If you act otherwise, I shall come and
settle your affairs in such a way that you will recognise what you are
better than you ever did, and will know what you have to call your
own, and will have it shown to you in every place where you may go. No
more. What I lack in words I will supply with deeds.

"Michelangelo _in Rome_.

"I cannot refrain from adding a couple of lines. It is as follows. I
have gone these twelve years past drudging about through Italy, borne
every shame, suffered every hardship, worn my body out in every toil,
put my life to a thousand hazards, and all with the sole purpose of
helping the fortunes of my family. Now that I have begun to raise it
up a little, you only, you alone, choose to destroy and bring to ruin
in one hour what it has cost me so many years and such labour to build
up. By Christ's body this shall not be; for I am the man to put to the
rout ten thousand of your sort, whenever it be needed. Be wise in
time, then, and do not try the patience of one who has other things to
vex him."

Even Buonarroto, who was the best of the brothers and dearest to his
heart, hurt him by his graspingness and want of truth. He had been
staying at Rome on a visit, and when he returned to Florence it
appears that he bragged about his wealth, as if the sums expended on
the Buonarroti farms were not part of Michelangelo's earnings. The
consequence was that he received a stinging rebuke from his elder
brother. "The said Michele told me you mentioned to him having spent
about sixty ducats at Settignano. I remember your saying here too at
table that you had disbursed a large sum out of your own pocket. I
pretended not to understand, and did not feel the least surprise,
because I know you. I should like to hear from your ingratitude out of
what money you gained them. If you had enough sense to know the truth,
you would not say: 'I spent so and so much of my own;' also you would
not have come here to push your affairs with me, seeing how I have
always acted toward you in the past, but would have rather said:
'Michelangelo remembers what he wrote to us, and if he does not now do
what he promised, he must be prevented by something of which we are
ignorant,' and then have kept your peace; because it is not well to
spur the horse that runs as fast as he is able, and more than he is
able. But you have never known me, and do not know me. God pardon you;
for it is He who granted me the grace to bear what I do bear and have
borne, in order that you might be helped. Well, you will know me when
you have lost me."

Michelangelo's angry moods rapidly cooled down. At the bottom of his
heart lay a deep and abiding love for his family. There is something
caressing in the tone with which he replies to grumbling letters from
his father. "Do not vex yourself. God did not make us to abandon us."
"If you want me, I will take the post, and be with you in two days.
Men are worth more than money." His warm affection transpires even
more clearly in the two following documents:

"I should like you to be thoroughly convinced that all the labours I
have ever undergone have not been more for myself than for your sake.
What I have bought, I bought to be yours so long as you live. If you
had not been here, I should have bought nothing. Therefore, if you
wish to let the house and farm, do so at your pleasure. This income,
together with what I shall give you, will enable you to live like a
lord." At a time when Lodovico was much exercised in his mind and
spirits by a lawsuit, his son writes to comfort the old man. "Do not
be discomfited, nor give yourself an ounce of sadness. Remember that
losing money is not losing one's life. I will more than make up to you
what you must lose. Yet do not attach too much value to worldly goods,
for they are by nature untrustworthy. Thank God that this trial, if it
was bound to come, came at a time when you have more resources than
you had in years past. Look to preserving your life and health, but
let your fortunes go to ruin rather than suffer hardships; for I would
sooner have you alive and poor; if you were dead, I should not care
for all the gold in the world. If those chatterboxes or any one else
reprove you, let them talk, for they are men without intelligence and
without affection."

References to public events are singularly scanty in this
correspondence. Much as Michelangelo felt the woes of Italy--and we
know he did so by his poems--he talked but little, doing his work
daily like a wise man all through the dust and din stirred up by
Julius and the League of Cambrai. The lights and shadows of Italian
experience at that time are intensely dramatic. We must not altogether
forget the vicissitudes of war, plague, and foreign invasion, which
exhausted the country, while its greatest men continued to produce
immortal masterpieces. Aldo Manuzio was quietly printing his complete
edition of Plato, and Michelangelo was transferring the noble figure
of a prophet or a sibyl to the plaster of the Sistine, while young
Gaston de Foix was dying at the point of victory upon the bloody
shores of the Ronco. Sometimes, however, the disasters of his country
touched Michelangelo so nearly that he had to write or speak about
them. After the battle of Ravenna, on the 11th of April 1512, Raimondo
de Cardona and his Spanish troops brought back the Medici to Florence.
On their way, the little town of Prato was sacked with a barbarity
which sent a shudder through the whole peninsula. The Cardinal
Giovanni de' Medici, who entered Florence on the 14th of September,
established his nephews as despots in the city, and intimidated the
burghers by what looked likely to be a reign of terror. These facts
account for the uneasy tone of a letter written by Michelangelo to
Buonarroto. Prato had been taken by assault upon the 30th of August,
and was now prostrate after those hideous days of torment, massacre,
and outrage indescribable which followed. In these circumstances
Michelangelo advises his family to "escape into a place of safety,
abandoning their household gear and property; for life is far more
worth than money." If they are in need of cash, they may draw upon his
credit with the Spedalingo of S. Maria Novella. The constitutional
liability to panic which must be recognised in Michelangelo emerges at
the close of the letter. "As to public events, do not meddle with them
either by deed or word. Act as though the plague were raging. Be the
first to fly." The Buonarroti did not take his advice, but remained at
Florence, enduring agonies of terror. It was a time when disaffection
toward the Medicean princes exposed men to risking life and limb.
Rumours reached Lodovico that his son had talked imprudently at Rome.
He wrote to inquire what truth there was in the report, and
Michelangelo replied: "With regard to the Medici, I have never spoken
a single word against them, except in the way that everybody
talks--as, for instance, about the sack of Prato; for if the stones
could have cried out, I think they would have spoken. There have been
many other things said since then, to which, when I heard them, I have
answered: 'If they are really acting in this way, they are doing
wrong;' not that I believed the reports; and God grant they are not
true. About a month ago, some one who makes a show of friendship for
me spoke very evilly about their deeds. I rebuked him, told him that
it was not well to talk so, and begged him not to do so again to me.
However, I should like Buonarroto quietly to find out how the rumour
arose of my having calumniated the Medici; for if it is some one who
pretends to be my friend, I ought to be upon my guard."

The Buonarroti family, though well affected toward Savonarola, were
connected by many ties of interest and old association with the
Medici, and were not powerful enough to be the mark of violent
political persecution. Nevertheless, a fine was laid upon them by the
newly restored Government. This drew forth the following epistle from

"Dearest Father,--Your last informs me how things are going on at
Florence, though I already knew something. We must have patience,
commit ourselves to God, and repent of our sins; for these trials are
solely due to them, and more particularly to pride and ingratitude. I
never conversed with a people more ungrateful and puffed up than the
Florentines. Therefore, if judgment comes, it is but right and
reasonable. As for the sixty ducats you tell me you are fined, I think
this a scurvy trick, and am exceedingly annoyed. However, we must have
patience as long as it pleases God. I will write and enclose two lines
to Giuliano de' Medici. Read them, and if you like to present them to
him, do so; you will see whether they are likely to be of any use. If
not, consider whether we can sell our property and go to live
elsewhere.... Look to your life and health; and if you cannot share
the honours of the land like other burghers, be contented that bread
does not fail you, and live well with Christ, and poorly, as I do
here; for I live in a sordid way, regarding neither life nor
honours--that is, the world--and suffer the greatest hardships and
innumerable anxieties and dreads. It is now about fifteen years since
I had a single hour of well-being, and all that I have done has been
to help you, and you have never recognised this nor believed it. God
pardon us all! I am ready to go on doing the same so long as I live,
if only I am able."

We have reason to believe that the petition to Giuliano proved
effectual, for in his next letter he congratulates his father upon
their being restored to favour. In the same communication he mentions
a young Spanish painter whom he knew in Rome, and whom he believes to
be ill at Florence. This was probably the Alonso Berughetta who made a
copy of the Cartoon for the Battle of Pisa. In July 1508 Michelangelo
wrote twice about a Spaniard who wanted leave to study the Cartoon;
first begging Buonarroto to procure the keys for him, and afterwards
saying that he is glad to hear that the permission was refused. It
does not appear certain whether this was the same Alonso; but it is
interesting to find that Michelangelo disliked his Cartoon being
copied. We also learn from these letters that the Battle of Pisa then
remained in the Sala del Papa.


I will conclude this chapter by translating a sonnet addressed to
Giovanni da Pistoja, in which Michelangelo humorously describes the
discomforts he endured while engaged upon the Sistine. Condivi tells
us that from painting so long in a strained attitude, gazing up at the
vault, he lost for some time the power of reading except when he
lifted the paper above his head and raised his eyes. Vasari
corroborates the narrative from his own experience in the vast halls
of the Medicean palace.

_I've grown a goitre by dwelling in this den--
As cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy,
Or in what other land they hap to be--
Which drives the belly close beneath the chin:
My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in,
Fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly
Grows like a harp: a rich embroidery
Bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin.
My loins into my paunch like levers grind:
My buttock like a crupper bears my weight;
My feet unguided wander to and fro;
In front my skin grows loose and long; behind,
By bending it becomes more taut and strait;
Crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bow:
Whence false and quaint, I know,
Must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye;
For ill can aim the gun that bends awry.
Come then, Giovanni, try
To succour my dead pictures and my fame,
Since foul I fare and painting is my shame._



The Sistine Chapel was built in 1473 by Baccio Pontelli, a Florentine
architect, for Pope Sixtus IV. It is a simple barn-like chamber, 132
feet in length, 44 in breadth, and 68 in height from the pavement. The
ceiling consists of one expansive flattened vault, the central portion
of which offers a large plane surface, well adapted to fresco
decoration. The building is lighted by twelve windows, six upon each
side of its length. These are placed high up, their rounded arches
running parallel with the first spring of the vaulting. The ends of
the chapel are closed by flat walls, against the western of which is
raised the altar.

When Michelangelo was called to paint here, he found both sides of the
building, just below the windows, decorated in fresco by Perugino,
Cosimo Rosselli, Sandro Botticelli, Luca Signorelli, and Domenico
Ghirlandajo. These masters had depicted, in a series of twelve
subjects, the history of Moses and the life of Jesus. Above the lines
of fresco, in the spaces between the windows and along the eastern end
at the same height, Botticelli painted a row of twenty-eight Popes.
The spaces below the frescoed histories, down to the seats which ran
along the pavement, were blank, waiting for the tapestries which
Raffaello afterwards supplied from cartoons now in possession of the
English Crown. At the west end, above the altar, shone three
decorative frescoes by Perugino, representing the Assumption of the
Virgin, between the finding of Moses and the Nativity. The two last of
these pictures opened respectively the history of Moses and the life
of Christ, so that the Old and New Testaments were equally illustrated
upon the Chapel walls. At the opposite, or eastern end, Ghirlandajo
painted the Resurrection, and there was a corresponding picture of
Michael contending with Satan for the body of Moses.

Such was the aspect of the Sistine Chapel when Michelangelo began his
great work. Perugino's three frescoes on the west wall were afterwards
demolished to make room for his Last Judgment. The two frescoes on the
east wall are now poor pictures by very inferior masters; but the
twelve Scripture histories and Botticelli's twenty-eight Popes remain
from the last years of the fifteenth century.

Taken in their aggregate, the wall-paintings I have described afforded
a fair sample of Umbrian and Tuscan art in its middle or
_quattrocento_ age of evolution. It remained for Buonarroti to cover
the vault and the whole western end with masterpieces displaying what
Vasari called the "modern" style in its most sublime and imposing
manifestation. At the same time he closed the cycle of the figurative
arts, and rendered any further progress on the same lines impossible.
The growth which began with Niccolo of Pisa and with Cimabue, which
advanced through Giotto and his school, Perugino and Pinturicchio,
Piero della Francesca and Signorelli, Fra Angelico and Benozzo
Gozzoli, the Ghirlandajo brothers, the Lippi and Botticelli,
effloresced in Michelangelo, leaving nothing for aftercomers but
manneristic imitation.


Michelangelo, instinctively and on principle, reacted against the
decorative methods of the fifteenth century. If he had to paint a
biblical or mythological subject, he avoided landscapes, trees,
flowers, birds, beasts, and subordinate groups of figures. He eschewed
the arabesques, the labyrinths of foliage and fruit enclosing pictured
panels, the candelabra and gay bands of variegated patterns, which
enabled a _quattrocento_ painter, like Gozzoli or Pinturicchio, to
produce brilliant and harmonious general effects at a small
expenditure of intellectual energy. Where the human body struck the
keynote of the music in a work of art, he judged that such simple
adjuncts and naive concessions to the pleasure of the eye should be
avoided. An architectural foundation for the plastic forms to rest on,
as plain in structure and as grandiose in line as could be fashioned,
must suffice. These principles he put immediately to the test in his
first decorative undertaking. For the vault of the Sistine he designed
a mighty architectural framework in the form of a hypaethral temple,
suspended in the air on jutting pilasters, with bold cornices,
projecting brackets, and ribbed arches flung across the void of
heaven. Since the whole of this ideal building was painted upon
plaster, its inconsequence, want of support, and disconnection from
the ground-plan of the chapel do not strike the mind. It is felt to be
a mere basis for the display of pictorial art, the theatre for a
thousand shapes of dignity and beauty.

I have called this imaginary temple hypaethral, because the master
left nine openings in the flattened surface of the central vault. They
are unequal in size, five being short parallelograms, and four being
spaces of the same shape but twice their length. Through these the eye
is supposed to pierce the roof and discover the unfettered region of
the heavens. But here again Michelangelo betrayed the inconsequence of
his invention. He filled the spaces in question with nine dominant
paintings, representing the history of the Creation, the Fall, and the
Deluge. Taking our position at the west end of the chapel and looking
upwards, we see in the first compartment God dividing light from
darkness; in the second, creating the sun and the moon and the solid
earth; in the third, animating the ocean with His brooding influence;
in the fourth, creating Adam; in the fifth, creating Eve. The sixth
represents the temptation of our first parents and their expulsion
from Paradise. The seventh shows Noah's sacrifice before entering the
ark; the eighth depicts the Deluge, and the ninth the drunkenness of
Noah. It is clear that, between the architectural conception of a roof
opening on the skies and these pictures of events which happened upon
earth, there is no logical connection. Indeed, Michelangelo's new
system of decoration bordered dangerously upon the barocco style, and
contained within itself the germs of a vicious mannerism.

It would be captious and unjust to push this criticism home. The
architectural setting provided for the figures and the pictures of the
Sistine vault is so obviously conventional, every point of vantage has
been so skilfully appropriated to plastic uses, every square inch of
the ideal building becomes so naturally, and without confusion, a
pedestal for the human form, that we are lost in wonder at the
synthetic imagination which here for the first time combined the arts
of architecture, sculpture, and painting in a single organism. Each
part of the immense composition, down to the smallest detail, is
necessary to the total effect. We are in the presence of a most
complicated yet mathematically ordered scheme, which owes life and
animation to one master-thought. In spite of its complexity and
scientific precision, the vault of the Sistine does not strike the
mind as being artificial or worked out by calculation, but as being
predestined to existence, inevitable, a cosmos instinct with vitality.

On the pendentives between the spaces of the windows, running up to
the ends of each of the five lesser pictures, Michelangelo placed
alternate prophets and sibyls upon firm projecting consoles. Five
sibyls and five prophets run along the side-walls of the chapel. The
end-walls sustain each of them a prophet. These twelve figures are
introduced as heralds and pioneers of Christ the Saviour, whose
presence on the earth is demanded by the fall of man and the renewal
of sin after the Deluge. In the lunettes above the windows and the
arched recesses or spandrels over them are depicted scenes setting
forth the genealogy of Christ and of His Mother. At each of the four
corner-spandrels of the ceiling, Michelangelo painted, in spaces of a
very peculiar shape and on a surface of embarrassing inequality, one
magnificent subject symbolical of man's redemption. The first is the
raising of the Brazen Serpent in the wilderness; the second, the
punishment of Haman; the third, the victory of David over Goliath; the
fourth, Judith with the head of Holofernes.

Thus, with a profound knowledge of the Bible, and with an intense
feeling for religious symbolism, Michelangelo unrolled the history of
the creation of the world and man, the entrance of sin into the human
heart, the punishment of sin by water, and the reappearance of sin in
Noah's family. Having done this, he intimated, by means of four
special mercies granted to the Jewish people--types and symbols of
God's indulgence--that a Saviour would arise to redeem the erring
human race. In confirmation of this promise, he called twelve potent
witnesses, seven of the Hebrew prophets and five of the Pagan sibyls.
He made appeal to history, and set around the thrones on which these
witnesses are seated scenes detached from the actual lives of our
Lord's human ancestors.

The intellectual power of this conception is at least equal to the
majesty and sublime strength of its artistic presentation. An awful
sense of coming doom and merited damnation hangs in the thunderous
canopy of the Sistine vault, tempered by a solemn and sober
expectation of the Saviour. It is much to be regretted that Christ,
the Desired of all Nations, the Redeemer and Atoner, appears nowhere
adequately represented in the Chapel. When Michelangelo resumed his
work there, it was to portray him as an angered Hercules, hurling
curses upon helpless victims. The August rhetoric of the ceiling loses
its effective value when we can nowhere point to Christ's life and
work on earth; when there is no picture of the Nativity, none of the
Crucifixion, none of the Resurrection; and when the feeble panels of a
Perugino and a Cosimo Rosselli are crushed into insignificance by the
terrible Last Judgment. In spite of Buonarroti's great creative
strength, and injuriously to his real feeling as a Christian, the
piecemeal production which governs all large art undertakings results
here in a maimed and one-sided rendering of what theologians call the
Scheme of Salvation.


So much has been written about the pictorial beauty, the sublime
imagination, the dramatic energy, the profound significance, the exact
science, the shy graces, the terrible force, and finally the vivid
powers of characterisation displayed in these frescoes, that I feel it
would be impertinent to attempt a new discourse upon a theme so
time-worn. I must content myself with referring to what I have already
published, which will, I hope, be sufficient to demonstrate that I do
not avoid the task for want of enthusiasm. The study of much
rhetorical criticism makes me feel strongly that, in front of certain
masterpieces, silence is best, or, in lieu of silence, some simple
pregnant sayings, capable of rousing folk to independent observation.

These convictions need not prevent me, however, from fixing attention
upon a subordinate matter, but one which has the most important
bearing upon Michelangelo's genius. After designing the architectural
theatre which I have attempted to describe, and filling its main
spaces with the vast religious drama he unrolled symbolically in a
series of primeval scenes, statuesque figures, and countless minor
groups contributing to one intellectual conception, he proceeded to
charge the interspaces--all that is usually left for facile decorative
details--with an army of passionately felt and wonderfully executed
nudes, forms of youths and children, naked or half draped, in every
conceivable posture and with every possible variety of facial type and
expression. On pedestals, cornices, medallions, tympanums, in the
angles made by arches, wherever a vacant plane or unused curve was
found, he set these vivid transcripts from humanity in action. We need
not stop to inquire what he intended by that host of plastic shapes
evoked from his imagination. The triumphant leaders of the crew, the
twenty lads who sit upon their consoles, sustaining medallions by
ribands which they lift, have been variously and inconclusively
interpreted. In the long row of Michelangelo's creations, those young
men are perhaps the most significant--athletic adolescents, with faces
of feminine delicacy and poignant fascination. But it serves no
purpose to inquire what they symbolise. If we did so, we should have
to go further, and ask, What do the bronze figures below them, twisted
into the boldest attitudes the human frame can take, or the twinned
children on the pedestals, signify? In this region, the region of pure
plastic play, when art drops the wand of the interpreter and allows
physical beauty to be a law unto itself, Michelangelo demonstrated
that no decorative element in the hand of a really supreme master is
equal to the nude.

Previous artists, with a strong instinct for plastic as opposed to
merely picturesque effect, had worked upon the same line. Donatello
revelled in the rhythmic dance and stationary grace of children. Luca
Signorelli initiated the plan of treating complex ornament by means of
the mere human body; and for this reason, in order to define the
position of Michelangelo in Italian art-history, I shall devote the
next section of this chapter to Luca's work at Orvieto. But Buonarroti
in the Sistine carried their suggestions to completion. The result is
a mapped-out chart of living figures--a vast pattern, each detail of
which is a masterpiece of modelling. After we have grasped the
intellectual content of the whole, the message it was meant to
inculcate, the spiritual meaning present to the maker's mind, we
discover that, in the sphere of artistic accomplishment, as distinct
from intellectual suggestion, one rhythm of purely figurative beauty
has been carried throughout--from God creating Adam to the boy who
waves his torch above the censer of the Erythrean sibyl.


Of all previous painters, only Luca Signorelli deserves to be called
the forerunner of Michelangelo, and his Chapel of S. Brizio in the
Cathedral at Orvieto in some remarkable respects anticipates the
Sistine. This eminent master was commissioned in 1499 to finish its
decoration, a small portion of which had been begun by Fra Angelico.
He completed the whole Chapel within the space of two years; so that
the young Michelangelo, upon one of his journeys to or from Rome, may
probably have seen the frescoes in their glory. Although no visit to
Orvieto is recorded by his biographers, the fame of these masterpieces
by a man whose work at Florence had already influenced his youthful
genius must certainly have attracted him to a city which lay on the
direct route from Tuscany to the Campagna.

The four walls of the Chapel of S. Brizio are covered with paintings
setting forth events immediately preceding and following the day of
judgment. A succession of panels, differing in size and shape,
represent the preaching of Antichrist, the destruction of the world by
fire, the resurrection of the body, the condemnation of the lost, the
reception of saved souls into bliss, and the final states of heaven
and hell. These main subjects occupy the upper spaces of each wall,
while below them are placed portraits of poets, surrounded by rich and
fanciful arabesques, including various episodes from Dante and antique
mythology. Obeying the spirit of the fifteenth century, Signorelli did
not aim at what may be termed an architectural effect in his
decoration of this building. Each panel of the whole is treated
separately, and with very unequal energy, the artist seeming to exert
his strength chiefly in those details which made demands on his
profound knowledge of the human form and his enthusiasm for the nude.
The men and women of the Resurrection, the sublime angels of Heaven
and of the Judgment, the discoloured and degraded fiends of Hell, the
magnificently foreshortened clothed figures of the Fulminati, the
portraits in the preaching of Antichrist, reveal Luca's specific
quality as a painter, at once impressively imaginative and crudely
realistic. There is something in his way of regarding the world and of
reproducing its aspects which dominates our fancy, does violence to
our sense of harmony and beauty, leaves us broken and bewildered,
resentful and at the same moment enthralled. He is a power which has
to be reckoned with; and the reason for speaking about him at length
here is that, in this characteristic blending of intense vision with
impassioned realistic effort after truth to fact, this fascination
mingled with repulsion, he anticipated Michelangelo. Deep at the root
of all Buonarroti's artistic qualities lie these contradictions.
Studying Signorelli, we study a parallel psychological problem. The
chief difference between the two masters lies in the command of
aesthetic synthesis, the constructive sense of harmony, which belonged
to the younger, but which might, we feel, have been granted in like
measure to the elder, had Luca been born, as Michelangelo was, to
complete the evolution of Italian figurative art, instead of marking
one of its most important intermediate moments.

The decorative methods and instincts of the two men were closely
similar. Both scorned any element of interest or beauty which was not
strictly plastic--the human body supported by architecture or by rough
indications of the world we live in. Signorelli invented an intricate
design for arabesque pilasters, one on each side of the door leading
from his chapel into the Cathedral. They are painted _en grisaille_,
and are composed exclusively of nudes, mostly male, perched or grouped
in a marvellous variety of attitudes upon an ascending series of
slender-stemmed vases, which build up gigantic candelabra by their
aggregation. The naked form is treated with audacious freedom. It
appears to be elastic in the hands of the modeller. Some dead bodies
carried on the backs of brawny porters are even awful by the contrast
of their wet-clay limpness with the muscular energy of brutal life
beneath them. Satyrs giving drink to one another, fauns whispering in
the ears of stalwart women, centaurs trotting with corpses flung
across their cruppers, combatants trampling in frenzy upon prostrate
enemies, men sunk in self-abandonment to sloth or sorrow--such are the
details of these incomparable columns, where our sense of the
grotesque and vehement is immediately corrected by a perception of
rare energy in the artist who could play thus with his plastic

We have here certainly the preludings to Michelangelo's serener, more
monumental work in the Sistine Chapel. The leading motive is the same
in both great masterpieces. It consists in the use of the simple body,
if possible the nude body, for the expression of thought and emotion,
the telling of a tale, the delectation of the eye by ornamental
details. It consists also in the subordination of the female to the
male nude as the symbolic unit of artistic utterance. Buonarroti is
greater than Signorelli chiefly through that larger and truer
perception of aesthetic unity which seems to be the final outcome of a
long series of artistic effort. The arabesques, for instance, with
which Luca wreathed his portraits of the poets, are monstrous,
bizarre, in doubtful taste. Michelangelo, with a finer instinct for
harmony, a deeper grasp on his own dominant ideal, excluded this
element of _quattrocento_ decoration from his scheme. Raffaello, with
the graceful tact essential to the style, developed its crude
rudiments into the choice forms of fanciful delightfulness which charm
us in the Loggie. Signorelli loved violence. A large proportion of the
circular pictures painted _en grisaille_ on these walls represent
scenes of massacre, assassination, torture, ruthless outrage. One of
them, extremely spirited in design, shows a group of three
executioners hurling men with millstones round their necks into a
raging river from the bridge which spans it. The first victim
flounders half merged in the flood; a second plunges head foremost
through the air; the third stands bent upon the parapet, his shoulders
pressed down by the varlets on each side, at the very point of being
flung to death by drowning. In another of these pictures a man seated
upon the ground is being tortured by the breaking of his teeth, while
a furious fellow holds a club suspended over him, in act to shatter
his thigh-bones. Naked soldiers wrestle in mad conflict, whirl staves
above their heads, fling stones, displaying their coarse muscles with
a kind of frenzy. Even the classical subjects suffer from extreme
dramatic energy of treatment. Ceres, seeking her daughter through the
plains of Sicily, dashes frantically on a car of dragons, her hair
dishevelled to the winds, her cheeks gashed by her own crooked
fingers. Eurydice struggles in the clutch of bestial devils; Pluto,
like a mediaeval Satan, frowns above the scene of fiendish riot; the
violin of Orpheus thrills faintly through the infernal tumult. Gazing
on the spasms and convulsions of these grim subjects, we are inclined
to credit a legend preserved at Orvieto to the effect that the painter
depicted his own unfaithful mistress in the naked woman who is being
borne on a demon's back through the air to hell.

No one who has studied Michelangelo impartially will deny that in this
preference for the violent he came near to Signorelli. We feel it in
his choice of attitude, the strain he puts upon the lines of plastic
composition, the stormy energy of his conception and expression. It is
what we call his _terribilita_. But here again that dominating sense
of harmony, that instinct for the necessity of subordinating each
artistic element to one strain of architectonic music, which I have
already indicated as the leading note of difference between him and
the painter of Cortona, intervened to elevate his terribleness into
the region of sublimity. The violence of Michelangelo, unlike that of
Luca, lay not so much in the choice of savage subjects (cruelty,
ferocity, extreme physical and mental torment) as in a forceful,
passionate, tempestuous way of handling all the themes he treated. The
angels of the Judgment, sustaining the symbols of Christ's Passion,
wrestle and bend their agitated limbs like athletes. Christ emerges
from the sepulchre, not in victorious tranquillity, but with the clash
and clangour of an irresistible energy set free. Even in the
Crucifixion, one leg has been wrenched away from the nail which
pierced its foot, and writhes round the knee of the other still left
riven to the cross. The loves of Leda and the Swan, of Ixion and Juno,
are spasms of voluptuous pain; the sleep of the Night is troubled with
fantastic dreams, and the Dawn starts into consciousness with a
shudder of prophetic anguish. There is not a hand, a torso, a simple
nude, sketched by this extraordinary master, which does not vibrate
with nervous tension, as though the fingers that grasped the pen were
clenched and the eyes that viewed the model glowed beneath knit brows.
Michelangelo, in fact, saw nothing, felt nothing, interpreted nothing,
on exactly the same lines as any one who had preceded or who followed
him. His imperious personality he stamped upon the smallest trifle of
his work.

Luca's frescoes at Orvieto, when compared with Michelangelo's in the
Sistine, mark the transition from the art of the fourteenth, through
the art of the fifteenth, to that of the sixteenth century, with broad
and trenchant force. They are what Marlowe's dramas were to
Shakespeare's. They retain much of the mediaeval tradition both as
regards form and sentiment. We feel this distinctly in the treatment
of Dante, whose genius seems to have exerted at least as strong an
influence over Signorelli's imagination as over that of Michelangelo.
The episodes from the Divine Comedy are painted in a rude Gothic
spirit. The spirits of Hell seem borrowed from grotesque bas-reliefs
of the Pisan school. The draped, winged, and armed angels of Heaven
are posed with a ceremonious research of suavity or grandeur. These
and other features of his work carry us back to the period of Giotto
and Niccolo Pisano. But the true force of the man, what made him a
commanding master of the middle period, what distinguished him from
all his fellows of the _quattrocento_, is the passionate delight he
took in pure humanity--the nude, the body studied under all its
aspects and with no repugnance for its coarseness--man in his crudity
made the sole sufficient object for figurative art, anatomy regarded
as the crowning and supreme end of scientific exploration. It is this
in his work which carries us on toward the next age, and justifies our
calling Luca "the morning-star of Michelangelo."

It would be wrong to ascribe too much to the immediate influence of
the elder over the younger artist--at any rate in so far as the
frescoes of the Chapel of S. Brizio may have determined the creation
of the Sistine. Yet Vasari left on record that "even Michelangelo
followed the manner of Signorelli, as any one may see." Undoubtedly,
Buonarroti, while an inmate of Lorenzo de' Medici's palace at
Florence, felt the power of Luca's Madonna with the naked figures in
the background; the leading motive of which he transcended in his Doni
Holy Family. Probably at an early period he had before his eyes the
bold nudities, uncompromising designs, and awkward composition of
Luca's so-called School of Pan. In like manner, we may be sure that
during his first visit to Rome he was attracted by Signorelli's solemn
fresco of Moses in the Sistine. These things were sufficient to
establish a link of connection between the painter of Cortona and the
Florentine sculptor. And when Michelangelo visited the Chapel of S.
Brizio, after he had fixed and formed his style (exhibiting his innate
force of genius in the Pieta, the Bacchus, the Cupid, the David, the
statue of Julius, the Cartoon for the Battle of Pisa), that early bond
of sympathy must have been renewed and enforced. They were men of a
like temperament, and governed by kindred aesthetic instincts.
Michelangelo brought to its perfection that system of working wholly
through the human form which Signorelli initiated. He shared his
violence, his _terribilita_, his almost brutal candour. In the fated
evolution of Italian art, describing its parabola of vital energy,
Michelangelo softened, sublimed, and harmonised his predecessor's
qualities. He did this by abandoning Luca's naivetes and crudities;
exchanging his savage transcripts from coarse life for profoundly
studied idealisations of form; subordinating his rough and casual
design to schemes of balanced composition, based on architectural
relations; penetrating the whole accomplished work, as he intended it
should be, with a solemn and severe strain of unifying intellectual

Viewed in this light, the vault of the Sistine and the later fresco of
the Last Judgment may be taken as the final outcome of all previous
Italian art upon a single line of creative energy, and that line the
one anticipated by Luca Signorelli. In like manner, the Stanze and
Loggie of the Vatican were the final outcome of the same process upon
another line, suggested by Perugino and Fra Bartolommeo.

Michelangelo adapted to his own uses and bent to his own genius
motives originated by the Pisani, Giotto, Giacopo della Quercia,
Donatello, Masaccio, while working in the spirit of Signorelli. He
fused and recast the antecedent materials of design in sculpture and
painting, producing a quintessence of art beyond which it was
impossible to advance without breaking the rhythm, so intensely
strung, and without contradicting too violently the parent
inspiration. He strained the chord of rhythm to its very utmost, and
made incalculable demands upon the religious inspiration of its
predecessors. His mighty talent was equal to the task of transfusion
and remodelling which the exhibition of the supreme style demanded.
But after him there remained nothing for successors except mechanical
imitation, soulless rehandling of themes he had exhausted by reducing
them to his imperious imagination in a crucible of fiery intensity.


No critic with a just sense of phraseology would call Michelangelo a
colourist in the same way as Titian and Rubens were colourists. Still
it cannot be denied with justice that the painter of the Sistine had a
keen perception of what his art required in this region, and of how to
attain it. He planned a comprehensive architectural scheme, which
served as setting and support for multitudes of draped and undraped
human figures. The colouring is kept deliberately low and subordinate
to the two main features of the design--architecture, and the plastic
forms of men and women. Flesh-tints, varying from the strong red tone
of Jonah's athletic manhood, through the glowing browns of the seated
Genii, to the delicate carnations of Adam and the paler hues of Eve;
orange and bronze in draperies, medallions, decorative nudes, russets
like the tints of dead leaves; lilacs, cold greens, blue used
sparingly; all these colours are dominated and brought into harmony by
the greys of the architectural setting. It may indeed be said that the
different qualities of flesh-tints, the architectural greys, and a
dull bronzed yellow strike the chord of the composition. Reds are
conspicuous by their absence in any positive hue. There is no
vermilion, no pure scarlet or crimson, but a mixed tint verging upon
lake. The yellows are brought near to orange, tawny, bronze, except in
the hair of youthful personages, a large majority of whom are blonde.
The only colour which starts out staringly is ultramarine, owing of
course to this mineral material resisting time and change more
perfectly than the pigments with which it is associated. The whole
scheme leaves a grave harmonious impression on the mind, thoroughly in
keeping with the sublimity of the thoughts expressed. No words can
describe the beauty of the flesh-painting, especially in the figures
of the Genii, or the technical delicacy with which the modelling of
limbs, the modulation from one tone to another, have been carried from
silvery transparent shades up to the strongest accents.


Mr. Ruskin has said, and very justly said, that "the highest art can
do no more than rightly represent the human form." This is what the
Italians of the Renaissance meant when, through the mouths of
Ghiberti, Buonarroti, and Cellini, they proclaimed that the perfect
drawing of a fine nude, "un bel corpo ignudo," was the final test of
mastery in plastic art. Mr. Ruskin develops his text in sentences
which have peculiar value from his lips. "This is the simple test,
then, of a perfect school--that it has represented the human form so
that it is impossible to conceive of its being better done. And that,
I repeat, has been accomplished twice only: once in Athens, once in
Florence. And so narrow is the excellence even of these two exclusive
schools, that it cannot be said of either of them that they
represented the entire human form. The Greeks perfectly drew and
perfectly moulded the body and limbs, but there is, so far as I am
aware, no instance of their representing the face as well as any great
Italian. On the other hand, the Italian painted and carved the face
insuperably; but I believe there is no instance of his having
perfectly represented the body, which, by command of his religion, it
became his pride to despise and his safety to mortify."

We need not pause to consider whether the Italian's inferiority to the
Greek's in the plastic modelling of human bodies was due to the
artist's own religious sentiment. That seems a far-fetched explanation
for the shortcomings of men so frankly realistic and so scientifically
earnest as the masters of the Cinque Cento were. Michelangelo's
magnificent cartoon of Leda and the Swan, if it falls short of some
similar subject in some _gabinetto segreto_ of antique fresco, does
assuredly not do so because the draughtsman's hand faltered in pious
dread or pious aspiration. Nevertheless, Ruskin is right in telling us
that no Italian modelled a female nude equal to the Aphrodite of
Melos, or a male nude equal to the Apoxyomenos of the Braccio Nuovo.
He is also right in pointing out that no Greek sculptor approached the
beauty of facial form and expression which we recognise in Raffaello's
Madonna di San Sisto, in Sodoma's S. Sebastian, in Guercino's Christ
at the Corsini Palace, in scores of early Florentine sepulchral
monuments and pictures, in Umbrian saints and sweet strange
portrait-fancies by Da Vinci.

The fact seems to be that Greek and Italian plastic art followed
different lines of development, owing to the difference of dominant
ideas in the races, and to the difference of social custom. Religion
naturally played a foremost part in the art-evolution of both epochs.
The anthropomorphic Greek mythology encouraged sculptors to
concentrate their attention upon what Hegel called "the sensuous
manifestation of the idea," while Greek habits rendered them familiar
with the body frankly exhibited. Mediaeval religion withdrew Italian
sculptors and painters from the problems of purely physical form, and
obliged them to study the expression of sentiments and aspirations
which could only be rendered by emphasising psychical qualities
revealed through physiognomy. At the same time, modern habits of life
removed the naked body from their ken.

We may go further, and observe that the conditions under which Greek
art flourished developed what the Germans call "Allgemeinheit," a
tendency to generalise, which was inimical to strongly marked facial
expression or characterisation. The conditions of Italian art, on the
other hand, favoured an opposite tendency--to particularise, to
enforce detail, to emphasise the artist's own ideal or the model's
quality. When the type of a Greek deity had been fixed, each
successive master varied this within the closest limits possible. For
centuries the type remained fundamentally unaltered, undergoing subtle
transformations, due partly to the artist's temperament, and partly to
changes in the temper of society. Consequently those aspects of the
human form which are capable of most successful generalisation, the
body and the limbs, exerted a kind of conventional tyranny over Greek
art. And Greek artists applied to the face the same rules of
generalisation which were applicable to the body.

The Greek god or goddess was a sensuous manifestation of the idea, a
particle of universal godhood incarnate in a special fleshly form,
corresponding to the particular psychological attributes of the deity
whom the sculptor had to represent. No deviation from the generalised
type was possible. The Christian God, on the contrary, is a spirit;
and all the emanations from this spirit, whether direct, as in the
person of Christ, or derived, as in the persons of the saints, owe
their sensuous form and substance to the exigencies of mortal
existence, which these persons temporarily and phenomenally obeyed.
Since, then, the sensuous manifestation has now become merely
symbolic, and is no longer an indispensable investiture of the idea,
it may be altered at will in Christian art without irreverence. The
utmost capacity of the artist is now exerted, not in enforcing or
refining a generalised type, but in discovering some new facial
expression which shall reveal psychological quality in a particular
being. Doing so, he inevitably insists upon the face; and having
formed a face expressive of some defined quality, he can hardly give
to the body that generalised beauty which belongs to a Greek nymph or

What we mean by the differences between Classic and Romantic art lies
in the distinctions I am drawing. Classicism sacrifices character to
breadth. Romanticism sacrifices breadth to character. Classic art
deals more triumphantly with the body, because the body gains by being
broadly treated. Romantic art deals more triumphantly with the face,
because the features lose by being broadly treated.

This brings me back to Mr. Ruskin, who, in another of his treatises,
condemns Michelangelo for a want of variety, beauty, feeling, in his
heads and faces. Were this the case, Michelangelo would have little
claim to rank as one of the world's chief artists. We have admitted
that the Italians did not produce such perfectly beautiful bodes and
limbs as the Greeks did, and have agreed that the Greeks produced less
perfectly beautiful faces than the Italians. Suppose, then, that
Michelangelo failed in his heads and faces, he, being an Italian, and
therefore confessedly inferior to the Greeks in his bodies and limbs,
must, by the force of logic, emerge less meritorious than we thought


To many of my readers the foregoing section will appear superfluous,
polemical, sophistic--three bad things. I wrote it, and I let it
stand, however, because it serves as preface to what I have to say in
general about Michelangelo's ideal of form. He was essentially a
Romantic as opposed to a Classic artist. That is to say, he sought
invariably for character--character in type, character in attitude,
character in every action of each muscle, character in each
extravagance of pose. He applied the Romantic principle to the body
and the limbs, exactly to that region of the human form which the
Greeks had conquered as their province. He did so with consummate
science and complete mastery of physiological law. What is more, he
compelled the body to become expressive, not, as the Greeks had done,
of broad general conceptions, but of the most intimate and poignant
personal emotions. This was his main originality. At the same time,
being a Romantic, he deliberately renounced the main tradition of that
manner. He refused to study portraiture, as Vasari tells us, and as we
see so plainly in the statues of the Dukes at Florence. He generalised
his faces, composing an ideal cast of features out of several types.
In the rendering of the face and head, then, he chose to be a Classic,
while in the treatment of the body he was vehemently modern. In all
his work which is not meant to be dramatic--that is, excluding the
damned souls in the Last Judgment, the bust of Brutus, and some keen
psychological designs--character is sacrificed to a studied ideal of
form, so far as the face is concerned. That he did this wilfully, on
principle, is certain. The proof remains in the twenty heads of those
incomparable genii of the Sistine, each one of whom possesses a beauty
and a quality peculiar to himself alone. They show that, if he had so
chosen, he could have played upon the human countenance with the same
facility as on the human body, varying its expressiveness _ad

Why Michelangelo preferred to generalise the face and to particularise
the body remains a secret buried in the abysmal deeps of his
personality. In his studies from the model, unlike Lionardo, he almost
always left the features vague, while working out the trunk and limbs
with strenuous passion. He never seems to have been caught and
fascinated by the problem offered by the eyes and features of a male
or female. He places masks or splendid commonplaces upon frames
palpitant and vibrant with vitality in pleasure or in anguish.

In order to guard against an apparent contradiction, I must submit
that, when Michelangelo particularised the body and the limbs, he
strove to make them the symbols of some definite passion or emotion.
He seems to have been more anxious about the suggestions afforded by
their pose and muscular employment than he was about the expression of
the features. But we shall presently discover that, so far as pure
physical type is concerned, he early began to generalise the structure
of the body, passing finally into what may not unjustly be called a
mannerism of form.

These points may be still further illustrated by what a competent
critic has recently written upon Michelangelo's treatment of form. "No
one," says Professor Bruecke, "ever knew so well as Michelangelo
Buonarroti how to produce powerful and strangely harmonious effects by
means of figures in themselves open to criticism, simply by his mode
of placing and ordering them, and of distributing their lines. For him
a figure existed only in his particular representation of it; how it
would have looked in any other position was a matter of no concern to
him." We may even go further, and maintain that Michelangelo was
sometimes wilfully indifferent to the physical capacities of the human
body in his passionate research of attitudes which present picturesque
and novel beauty. The ancients worked on quite a different method.
They created standard types which, in every conceivable posture, would
exhibit the grace and symmetry belonging to well-proportioned frames.
Michelangelo looked to the effect of a particular posture. He may have
been seduced by his habit of modelling figures in clay instead of
going invariably to the living subject, and so may have handled nature
with unwarrantable freedom. Anyhow, we have here another demonstration
of his romanticism.


The true test of the highest art is that it should rightly represent
the human form. Agreed upon this point, it remains for us to consider
in what way Michelangelo conceived and represented the human form. If
we can discover his ideal, his principles, his leading instincts in
this decisive matter, we shall unlock, so far as that is possible, the
secret of his personality as man and artist. The psychological quality
of every great master must eventually be determined by his mode of
dealing with the phenomena of sex.

In Pheidias we find a large impartiality. His men and women are cast
in the same mould of grandeur, inspired with equal strength and
sweetness, antiphonal notes in dual harmony. Praxiteles leans to the
female, Lysippus to the male; and so, through all the gamut of the
figurative craftsmen, we discover more or less affinity for man or
woman. One is swayed by woman and her gracefulness, the other by man
and his vigour. Few have realised the Pheidian perfection of doing
equal justice.

Michelangelo emerges as a mighty master who was dominated by the
vision of male beauty, and who saw the female mainly through the
fascination of the other sex. The defect of his art is due to a
certain constitutional callousness, a want of sensuous or imaginative
sensibility for what is specifically feminine.

Not a single woman carved or painted by the hand of Michelangelo has
the charm of early youth or the grace of virginity. The Eve of the
Sistine, the Madonna of S. Peter's, the Night and Dawn of the Medicean
Sacristy, are female in the anatomy of their large and grandly
modelled forms, but not feminine in their sentiment. This proposition
requires no proof. It is only needful to recall a Madonna by Raphael,
a Diana by Correggio, a Leda by Lionardo, a Venus by Titian, a S.
Agnes by Tintoretto. We find ourselves immediately in a different
region--the region of artists who loved, admired, and comprehended
what is feminine in the beauty and the temperament of women.
Michelangelo neither loved, nor admired, nor yielded to the female
sex. Therefore he could not deal plastically with what is best and
loveliest in the female form. His plastic ideal of the woman is
masculine. He builds a colossal frame of muscle, bone, and flesh,
studied with supreme anatomical science. He gives to Eve the full
pelvis and enormous haunches of an adult matron. It might here be
urged that he chose to symbolise the fecundity of her who was destined
to be the mother of the human race. But if this was his meaning, why
did he not make Adam a corresponding symbol of fatherhood? Adam is an
adolescent man, colossal in proportions, but beardless, hairless; the
attributes of sex in him are developed, but not matured by use. The
Night, for whom no symbolism of maternity was needed, is a woman who
has passed through many pregnancies. Those deeply delved wrinkles on
the vast and flaccid abdomen sufficiently indicate this. Yet when we
turn to Michelangelo's sonnets on Night, we find that he habitually
thought of her as a mysterious and shadowy being, whose influence,
though potent for the soul, disappeared before the frailest of all
creatures bearing light. The Dawn, again, in her deep lassitude, has
nothing of vernal freshness. Built upon the same type as the Night,
she looks like Messalina dragging herself from heavy slumber, for once
satiated as well as tired, stricken for once with the conscience of
disgust. When he chose to depict the acts of passion or of sensual
pleasure, a similar want of sympathy with what is feminine in
womanhood leaves an even more discordant impression on the mind. I
would base the proof of this remark upon the marble Leda of the
Bargello Museum, and an old engraving of Ixion clasping the phantom of
Juno under the form of a cloud. In neither case do we possess
Michelangelo's own handiwork; he must not, therefore, be credited with
the revolting expression, as of a drunken profligate, upon the face of
Leda. Yet in both cases he is indubitably responsible for the general
design, and for the brawny carnality of the repulsive woman. I find it
difficult to resist the conclusion that Michelangelo felt himself
compelled to treat women as though they were another and less graceful
sort of males. The sentiment of woman, what really distinguishes the
sex, whether voluptuously or passionately or poetically apprehended,
emerges in no eminent instance of his work. There is a Cartoon at
Naples for a Bacchante, which Bronzino transferred to canvas and
coloured. This design illustrates the point on which I am insisting.
An athletic circus-rider of mature years, with abnormally developed
muscles, might have posed as model for this female votary of Dionysus.
Before he made this drawing, Michelangelo had not seen those frescoes
of the dancing Bacchantes from Pompeii; nor had he perhaps seen the
Maenads on Greek bas-reliefs tossing wild tresses backwards, swaying
virginal lithe bodies to the music of the tambourine. We must not,
therefore, compare his concept with those masterpieces of the later
classical imagination. Still, many of his contemporaries, vastly
inferior to him in penetrative insight, a Giovanni da Udine, a Perino
del Vaga, a Primaticcio, not to speak of Raffaello or of Lionardo,
felt what the charm of youthful womanhood upon the revel might be. He
remained insensible to the melody of purely feminine lines; and the
only reason why his transcripts from the female form are not gross
like those of Flemish painters, repulsive like Rembrandt's, fleshly
like Rubens's, disagreeable like the drawings made by criminals in
prisons, is that they have little womanly about them.

Lest these assertions should appear too dogmatic, I will indicate the
series of works in which I recognise Michelangelo's sympathy with
genuine female quality. All the domestic groups, composed of women and
children, which fill the lunettes and groinings between the windows in
the Sistine Chapel, have a charming twilight sentiment of family life
or maternal affection. They are among the loveliest and most tranquil
of his conceptions. The Madonna above the tomb of Julius II. cannot be
accused of masculinity, nor the ecstatic figure of the Rachel beneath
it. Both of these statues represent what Goethe called "das ewig
Weibliche" under a truly felt and natural aspect. The Delphian and
Erythrean Sibyls are superb in their majesty. Again, in those numerous
designs for Crucifixions, Depositions from the Cross, and Pietas,
which occupied so much of Michelangelo's attention during his old age,
we find an intense and pathetic sympathy with the sorrows of Mary,
expressed with noble dignity and a pious sense of godhead in the human
mother. It will be remarked that throughout the cases I have reserved
as exceptions, it is not woman in her plastic beauty and her radiant
charm that Michelangelo has rendered, but woman in her tranquil or her
saddened and sorrow-stricken moods. What he did not comprehend and
could not represent was woman in her girlishness, her youthful joy,
her physical attractiveness, her magic of seduction.

Michelangelo's women suggest demonic primitive beings, composite and
undetermined products of the human race in evolution, before the
specific qualities of sex have been eliminated from a general
predominating mass of masculinity. At their best, they carry us into
the realm of Lucretian imagination. He could not have incarnated in
plastic form Shakespeare's Juliet and Imogen, Dante's Francesca da
Rimini, Tasso's Erminia and Clorinda; but he might have supplied a
superb illustration to the opening lines of the Lucretian epic, where
Mars lies in the bed of Venus, and the goddess spreads her ample limbs
above her Roman lover. He might have evoked images tallying the vision
of primal passion in the fourth book of that poem. As I have elsewhere
said, writing about Lucretius: "There is something almost tragic in
these sighs and pantings and pleasure-throes, these incomplete
fruitions of souls pent within their frames of flesh. We seem to see a
race of men and women such as never lived, except perhaps in Rome or
in the thought of Michelangelo, meeting in leonine embracements that
yield pain, whereof the climax is, at best, relief from rage and
respite for a moment from consuming fire. There is a life elemental
rather than human in those mighty limbs; and the passion that twists
them on the marriage-bed has in it the stress of storms, the rampings
and roarings of leopards at play. Take this single line:--

_et Venus in silvis jungebat corpora amantum._

What a picture of primeval breadth and vastness! The forest is the
world, and the bodies of the lovers are things natural and unashamed,
and Venus is the tyrannous instinct that controls the blood in

What makes Michelangelo's crudity in his plastic treatment of the
female form the more remarkable is that in his poetry he seems to feel
the influence of women mystically. I shall have to discuss this topic
in another place. It is enough here to say that, with very few
exceptions, we remain in doubt whether he is addressing a woman at
all. There are none of those spontaneous utterances by which a man
involuntarily expresses the outgoings of his heart to a beloved
object, the throb of irresistible emotion, the physical ache, the
sense of wanting, the joys and pains, the hopes and fears, the
ecstasies and disappointments, which belong to genuine passion. The
woman is, for him, an allegory, something he has not approached and
handled. Of her personality we learn nothing. Of her bodily
presentment, the eyes alone are mentioned; and the eyes are treated as
the path to Paradise for souls which seek emancipation from the flesh.
Raffaello's few and far inferior sonnets vibrate with an intense and
potent sensibility to this woman or to that.

Michelangelo's "donna" might just as well be a man; and indeed the
poems he addressed to men, though they have nothing sensual about
them, reveal a finer touch in the emotion of the writer. It is
difficult to connect this vaporous incorporeal "donna" of the poems
with those brawny colossal adult females of the statues, unless we
suppose that Michelangelo remained callous both to the physical
attractions and the emotional distinction of woman as she actually is.

I have tried to demonstrate that, plastically, he did not understand
women, and could not reproduce their form in art with sympathetic
feeling for its values of grace, suavity, virginity, and frailty. He
imported masculine qualities into every female theme he handled. The
case is different when we turn to his treatment of the male figure. It
would be impossible to adduce a single instance, out of the many
hundreds of examples furnished by his work, in which a note of
femininity has been added to the masculine type. He did not think
enough of women to reverse the process, and create hermaphroditic
beings like the Apollino of Praxiteles or the S. Sebastian of Sodoma.
His boys and youths and adult men remain, in the truest and the purest
sense of the word, virile. Yet with what infinite variety, with what a
deep intelligence of its resources, with what inexhaustible riches of
enthusiasm and science, he played upon the lyre of the male nude! How
far more fit for purposes of art he felt the man to be than the woman
is demonstrated, not only by his approaching woman from the masculine
side, but also by his close attention to none but male qualities in
men. I need not insist or enlarge upon this point. The fact is
apparent to every one with eyes to see. It would be futile to expound
Michelangelo's fertility in dealing with the motives of the male
figure as minutely as I judged it necessary to explain the poverty of
his inspiration through the female. But it ought to be repeated that,
over the whole gamut of the scale, from the grace of boyhood, through
the multiform delightfulness of adolescence into the firm force of
early manhood, and the sterner virtues of adult age, one severe and
virile spirit controls his fashioning of plastic forms. He even
exaggerates what is masculine in the male, as he caricatures the
female by ascribing impossible virility to her. But the exaggeration
follows here a line of mental and moral rectitude. It is the
expression of his peculiar sensibility to physical structure.


When we study the evolution of Michelangelo's ideal of form, we find
at the beginning of his life a very short period in which he followed
the traditions of Donatello and imitated Greek work. The seated
Madonna in bas-relief and the Giovannino belong to this first stage.
So does the bas-relief of the Centaurs. It soon becomes evident,
however, that Michelangelo was not destined to remain a continuator of
Donatello's manner or a disciple of the classics. The next period,
which includes the Madonna della Febbre, the Bruges Madonna, the
Bacchus, the Cupid, and the David, is marked by an intense search
after the truth of Nature. Both Madonnas might be criticised for
unreality, owing to the enormous development of the thorax and
something artificial in the type of face. But all the male figures
seem to have been studied from the model. There is an individuality
about the character of each, a naturalism, an aiming after realistic
expression, which separate this group from previous and subsequent
works by Buonarroti. Traces of Donatello's influence survive in the
treatment of the long large hands of David, the cast of features
selected for that statue, and the working of the feet. Indeed it may
be said that Donatello continued through life to affect the genius of
Michelangelo by a kind of sympathy, although the elder master's
naivete was soon discarded by the younger.

The second period culminated in the Cartoon for the Battle of Pisa.
This design appears to have fixed the style now known to us as
Michelangelesque, and the loss of it is therefore irreparable. It
exercised the consummate science which he had acquired, his complete
mastery over the male nude. It defined his firm resolve to treat
linear design from the point of view of sculpture rather than of
painting proper. It settled his determination to work exclusively
through and by the human figure, rejecting all subordinate elements of
decoration. Had we possessed this epoch-making masterpiece, we should
probably have known Michelangelo's genius in its flower-period of
early ripeness, when anatomical learning was still combined with a
sustained dependence upon Nature. The transition from the second to
the third stage in this development of form-ideal remains imperfectly
explained, because the bathers in the Arno were necessary to account
for the difference between the realistic David and the methodically
studied genii of the Sistine.

The vault of the Sistine shows Michelangelo's third manner in
perfection. He has developed what may be called a scheme of the human
form. The apparently small head, the enormous breadth of shoulder, the
thorax overweighing the whole figure, the finely modelled legs, the
large and powerful extremities, which characterise his style
henceforward, culminate in Adam, repeat themselves throughout the
genii, govern the prophets. But Nature has not been neglected. Nothing
is more remarkable in that vast decorative mass of figures than the
variety of types selected, the beauty and animation of the faces, the
extraordinary richness, elasticity, and freshness of the attitudes
presented to the eye. Every period of life has been treated with
impartial justice, and both sexes are adequately handled. The
Delphian, Erythrean, and Libyan Sibyls display a sublime sense of
facial beauty. The Eve of the Temptation has even something of
positively feminine charm. This is probably due to the fact that
Michelangelo here studied expression and felt the necessity of
dramatic characterisation in this part of his work. He struck each
chord of what may be called the poetry of figurative art, from the
epic cantos of Creation, Fall, and Deluge, through the tragic odes
uttered by prophets and sibyls down to the lyric notes of the genii,
and the sweet idyllic strains of the groups in the lunettes and

It cannot be said that even here Michelangelo felt the female nude as
sympathetically as he felt the male. The women in the picture of the
Deluge are colossal creatures, scarcely distinguishable from the men
except by their huge bosoms. His personal sense of beauty finds
fullest expression in the genii. The variations on one theme of
youthful loveliness and grace are inexhaustible; the changes rung on
attitude, and face, and feature are endless. The type, as I have said,
has already become schematic. It is adolescent, but the adolescence is
neither that of the Greek athlete nor that of the nude model. Indeed,
it is hardly natural; nor yet is it ideal in the Greek sense of that
term. The physical gracefulness of a slim ephebus was never seized by
Michelangelo. His Ganymede displays a massive trunk and brawny thighs.
Compare this with the Ganymede of Titian. Compare the Cupid at South
Kensington with the Praxitelean Genius of the Vatican--the Adonis and
the Bacchus of the Bargello with Hellenic statues. The bulk and force
of maturity are combined with the smoothness of boyhood and with a
delicacy of face that borders on the feminine.

It is an arid region, the region of this mighty master's spirit. There
are no heavens and no earth or sea in it; no living creatures,
forests, flowers; no bright colours, brilliant lights, or cavernous
darks. In clear grey twilight appear a multitude of naked forms, both
male and female, yet neither male nor female of the actual world;
rather the brood of an inventive intellect, teeming with
preoccupations of abiding thoughts and moods of feeling, which become
for it incarnate in these stupendous figures. It is as though
Michelangelo worked from the image in his brain outwards to a physical
presentment supplied by his vast knowledge of life, creating forms
proper to his own specific concept.

Nowhere else in plastic art does the mental world peculiar to the
master press in so immediately, without modification and without
mitigation, upon our sentient imagination. I sometimes dream that the
inhabitants of the moon may be like Michelangelo's men and women, as I
feel sure its landscape resembles his conception of the material

What I have called Michelangelo's third manner, the purest
manifestation of which is to be found in the vault of the Sistine,
sustained itself for a period of many years. The surviving fragments
of sculpture for the tomb of Julius, especially the Captives of the
Louvre and the statues in the Sacristy at S. Lorenzo, belong to this
stage. A close and intimate _rapport_ with Nature can be perceived in
all the work he designed and executed during the pontificates of Leo
and Clement. The artist was at his fullest both of mental energy and
physical vigour. What he wrought now bears witness to his plenitude of
manhood. Therefore, although the type fixed for the Sistine
prevailed--I mean that generalisation of the human form in certain
wilfully selected proportions, conceived to be ideally beautiful or
necessary for the grand style in vast architectonic schemes of
decoration--still it is used with an exquisite sensitiveness to the
pose and structure of the natural body, a delicate tact in the
definition of muscle and articulation, an acute feeling for the
qualities of flesh and texture. None of the creations of this period,
moreover, are devoid of intense animating emotions and ideas.

Unluckily, during all the years which intervened between the Sistine
vault and the Last Judgment, Michelangelo was employed upon
architectural problems and engineering projects, which occupied his
genius in regions far removed from that of figurative art. It may,
therefore, be asserted, that although he did not retrograde from want
of practice, he had no opportunity of advancing further by the
concentration of his genius on design. This accounts, I think, for the
change in his manner which we notice when he began to paint in Rome
under Pope Paul III. The fourth stage in his development of form is
reached now. He has lost nothing of his vigour, nothing of his
science. But he has drifted away from Nature. All the innumerable
figures of the Last Judgment, in all their varied attitudes, with
divers moods of dramatic expression, are diagrams wrought out
imaginatively from the stored-up resources of a lifetime. It may be
argued that it was impossible to pose models, in other words, to
appeal to living men and women, for the foreshortenings of falling or
soaring shapes in that huge drift of human beings. This is true; and
the strongest testimony to the colossal powers of observation
possessed by Michelangelo is that none of all those attitudes are
wrong. We may verify them, if we take particular pains to do so, by
training the sense of seeing to play the part of a detective camera.
Michelangelo was gifted with a unique faculty for seizing momentary
movements, fixing them upon his memory, and transferring them to
fresco by means of his supreme acquaintance with the bony structure
and the muscular capacities of the human frame. Regarded from this
point of view, the Last Judgment was an unparalleled success. As such
the contemporaries of Buonarroti hailed it. Still, the breath of life
has exaled from all those bodies, and the tyranny of the schematic
ideal of form is felt in each of them. Without meaning to be
irreverent, we might fancy that two elastic lay-figures, one male, the
other female, both singularly similar in shape, supplied the materials
for the total composition. Of the dramatic intentions and suggestions
underlying these plastic and elastic shapes I am not now speaking. It
is my present business to establish the phases through which my
master's sense of form passed from its cradle to its grave.

In the frescoes of the Cappella Paolina, so ruined at this day that we
can hardly value them, the mechanic manner of the fourth stage seems
to reach its climax. Ghosts of their former selves, they still reveal
the poverty of creative and spontaneous inspiration which presided
over their nativity.

Michelangelo's fourth manner might be compared with that of Milton in
"Paradise Regained" and "Samson Agonistes." Both of these great
artists in old age exaggerate the defects of their qualities.
Michelangelo's ideal of line and proportion in the human form becomes
stereotyped and strained, as do Milton's rhythms and his Latinisms.
The generous wine of the Bacchus and of "Comus," so intoxicating in
its newness, the same wine in the Sistine and "Paradise Lost," so
overwhelming in its mature strength, has acquired an austere aridity.
Yet, strange to say, amid these autumn stubbles of declining genius we
light upon oases more sweet, more tenderly suggestive, than aught the
prime produced. It is not my business to speak of Milton here. I need
not recall his "Knights of Logres and of Lyonesse," or resume his
Euripidean garlands showered on Samson's grave. But, for my master
Michelangelo, it will suffice to observe that all the grace his genius
held, refined, of earthly grossness quit, appeared, under the
dominance of this fourth manner, in the mythological subjects he
composed for Tommaso Cavalieri, and, far more nobly, in his countless
studies for the celebration of Christ's Passion. The designs
bequeathed to us from this period are very numerous. They were never
employed in the production of any monumental work of sculpture or of
painting. For this very reason, because they were occasional
improvisations, preludes, dreams of things to be, they preserve the
finest bloom, the Indian summer of his fancy. Lovers of Michelangelo
must dedicate their latest and most loving studies to this phase of
his fourth manner.


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