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Michael Angelo

( Originally Published 1913 )



Michael Angelo Buonarroti, greatest of all sculptors, was born of Florentine parents in 1475. At his birth his father was living temporarily away from the city, but here Angelo spent the greater portion of his life.

It is said that the child drew as soon as he could use his hands. His family, however, belonged to the lesser nobility who had become important through mercantile pursuits, and Angelo's desire to study art was severely frowned upon. When thirteen, having steadfastly held to his purpose, the lad was allowed to enter the studio of a Florentine master. Not long after, he with a companion was sent to study in the gardens of the Medici. As we have frequently noted, the Medici did much to foster learning and encourage art in Florence. Artists were chosen to remain in their service and instruct those favored by their patronage. The years spent in the household of Lorenzo de Medici were probably the happiest of Angelo's life, His temperament was somewhat moody at best, and the lack of encouragement in his dearest desire on the part of his family embittered him while still young.

During Angelo's youth and for years before and after, the zeal for things ancient set men to digging for old Greek remains now and then brought to light from within the earth. Several of our most renowned pieces of statuary had been recovered and all were alert for other treasures. Angelo carved a Cupid so beautiful that someone urged him to have it buried and subsequently brought to light. The idea appears to have amused the young sculptor, who permitted it to be done. When brought to light it excited favorable comment and was purchased by a Roman cardinal. Thereupon Michael Angelo returned to him his money, acquainting him with the deception. Impressed with his integrity, the cardinal invited him to come to Rome. Thither Angelo went and here much of his work was done.

Returning to Florence after a brief visit to the Eternal City, the citizens turned over to Angelo a huge block of marble which they had previously given to one or two other artists who found the task too prodigious for them. They instructed him to produce something from it worthy of the city. Nothing daunted, he built a house over the marble and shut people out from his work until it was completed. When done and the shed removed, they beheld the statue of David. It was a colossal piece of labor and admirably executed. For centuries it stood in wind and weather, the pride of the City of Lilies. In comparatively recent times it was found that the elements were affecting it, and it is now enclosed.

Some time after, the chief officer of Florence asked Angelo and his rival at the time, Leonardo da Vinci, to produce frescoes for opposite sides of a public building. There was a healthy spirit of rivalry in the contest-for into such the task soon resolved itself. The paintings were never produced, but the cartoons-large paper drawings from which frescoes were to be made-were finished and long exhibited to the delight of all who saw them. Angelo chose the subject of a detachment of soldiers bathing in the Arno, suddenly surprised by a call to arms; Leonardo presented a mighty battle around a fallen standard. No one attempted to decide which was best conceived or delineated. All artists, even Raphael, spent as much time as possible in studying them both.

Michael Angelo's reputation was already well established when he received injunctions from Pope Julius II. to come to Rome. Arriving, he was immediately given the commission of building a tomb for His Holiness. Julius II. had been a soldier and his military characteristics clung to him. He gave orders and expected them to be carried out. He wished to make himself immortal by the erection of a mighty tomb, three stories high, covered with statues. Angelo was dispatched to Carrara to procure marble suitable for the purpose. For many months he busily marked out blocks suited to his use. When he began his work, Julius had a temporary bridge laid between Angelo's workshop and the Vatican, that he might watch developments.

Ill-wishers of the great sculptor soon convinced the Pope that it was an ill omen to build a tomb during one's life. Suddenly we find Angelo denied access to the Pope, and in the night he galloped away from the papal states, to a place of safety. Repenting of his folly, Julius sent imperious mandates after the flying artist, but in vain. Angela refused to return to Rome. Nevertheless, he was ultimately persuaded to do so, and there found to his amazement that he was summoned, not to complete the tomb, but to paint the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. In vain he remonstrated that he was a worker in stone-not colors; that he was a sculptor, not a painter. Julius II. was determined, and Angelo set about the task.

The Sistine Chapel was a room approximately 50 feet by 150. It was of simple architecture, but already remarkable for its frescoes. The side walls were divided into three divisions. Below, tapestries were to hang; the second tier was decorated with frescoes by famous Italian painters. These illustrated Old Testament stories. The third and highest tier was covered by portraits of the popes. Angelo's work was to make the ceiling-a great blue sky sprinkled over with stars-worthy of the rest. Angela conceived the idea of taking the general theme: the preparation of the world for the coming of Christ. Nine spaces he filled with scenes from the Bible exemplifying the creation of man and his history; the others, with the prophets and the sibyls of antiquity who were supposed to have foretold Christ's coming. The whole was wonderfully done, and has often been considered the most satisfactory project ever undertaken by a painter. Four years found it finished, but the strain upon the artist had been very great.

Angelo hoped at last to be left alone to complete the tomb for Julius, who had in the meantime died. Leo X. now filled the papal chair, and he was a Medici. He wished to erect a memorial chapel in connection with the San Lorenzo, for Lorenzo and Guiliano. In despair, Angelo finished his Moses and two other figures for Julius' tomb, while the whole was reduced to one-sixth of its original size and finished with the aid of others. Alas for the vanity of the pope who had St. Peter's torn down because it proved too small to contain his proud memorial! He does not rest today in St. Peter's at all.

The tombs of Lorenzo and Guiliano were made beautiful by Angelo's chisel. Someone criticised him, it is said, because in the statues made of either man, the features were not quite faithful. Angelo is reputed to have answered that in a thousand years none would care whether or not they were true likenesses. Instead, he ennobled them and made them models of manhood. Guiliano's tomb was ornamented by two recumbent figures-Day and Night. The artist carved them when he was in a most despondent mood concerning the future of his city. A contemporary, charmed with the figure Night, wrote something like this:

"The Night thou seest here, posed gracefully In act of slumber, was by an Angel wrought Out of this stone; sleeping, with life she's fraught: Wake her, incredulous Wight; she'll speak to thee."

But Angelo made answer:

"Dear is my sleep, but more to be merer stone, So long as ruin and dishonour reign; To hear naught, to feel naught, is my great gain; Then wake me not: speak in an undertone."

Lorenzo's tomb bears the figures called Twilight and Dawn. All four, together with the figures of the Medici, are among Angelo's masterpieces.

Paul III. commissioned Angelo to paint the Last judgment as an altar piece for the Sistine Chapel. This seemed a task congenial to one whose whole life had been one disappoint ment, whose friends had been removed by death, and whose country appeared to be on the verge of ruin. To understand its irrevocable doom, it is necessary to remember the artist's outlook at the time.

One friend enlightens the later years of Angelo's life-the Countess Vittoria Colonna. After a brief married life, her husband died, leaving her disconsolate. She and the great sculptor became fast friends. She utterly refused to consider his offer of marriage, and their friendship remained one of the most beautiful in history. Some of Angelo's most exquisite sonnets were written to Vittoria, and the interest she took in his work was comforting, indeed, to this unhappy man.



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