Larger Than Life
In 1505, Pope Julius II called a much-admired Florentine sculptor named Michelangelo to Rome to create a huge, freestanding tomb with approximately 40 over-life-size marble statues, all to be made within five years. When the pope saw Michelangelo's design, he was so delighted that he dispatched the artist immediately to the stupendous marble quarries of Carrara, not far from the Italian coast in Tuscany, to find suitable stone.
While Michelangelo was considering the landscape, he was seized with the idea of carving a colossus out of a mountain that would be visible to seafarers from afar (one presumes comparable to the great Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world). Although 94 wagonloads of marble were quarried and shipped back to Rome, the papal tomb was never completed according to the original plan. Neither was a gigantic figure ever carved from the mountain face by the shores of Tuscany.
Michelangelo himself became the true Colossus of Tuscany. Sculptor, painter, poet, architect, and sincere Christian—he embodied the grand tensions, complexities, uncertainties, and achievements of his era. His name is synonymous with the glory of the Renaissance.
Michelangelo Buonarroti was born on March 6, 1475, in the tiny town of Caprese in the Apennine Mountains. He was the second of five sons of Lodovico di Lionardo Buonarroti Simoni, then 167th Florentine Podestà (commissioner) of that town. Just months after the birth of Michelangelo (who was named after an archangel), the family returned relatively impoverished to the Santa Croce district of Florence, where for centuries they had claimed residence and ancient nobility. Soon Michelangelo was sent to a wet nurse, a daughter and wife of a stonemason. In jest he always claimed to have imbibed with her milk the desire and propensity for shaping stone.
Michelangelo's mother died when he was six years old, and four years later his father remarried. His father and stepmother believed that his desire to become an artist (which he showed at an early age) was beneath the dignity of the family, since artists at that time were considered craftsmen and therefore working class. Ludovico eventually relented, however, and placed Michelangelo in the Florentine studio of the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio as an apprentice. But the teenage Michelangelo was not entirely happy in this position and came to prefer sculpture over painting. Through his friendship with another artist, he found his way to the artistic community working in the Medici Gardens near the convent of San Marco.
Here he shared in the intimate family circle of Lorenzo de' Medici the Magnificent (1449-1492), a remarkable statesman and patron of the arts who soon became a mentor to the young artist. Michelangelo was able to mingle with some of the sharpest minds and most gifted humanists of the period and to study many examples of classical art, as well the radical new styles of early Renaissance artists such as the painter Masaccio and the sculptor Donatello. The fertile creative atmosphere of the Medici community left Michelangelo free to develop his own personal style, and his great talents won him far-reaching admiration.
The voice of the preacher
This period of Michelangelo's life was as spiritually formative as it was artistically formative, due to the influence of the fervent Dominican friar and social reformer, Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498). As prior of the convent of San Marco, Savonarola preached against the Medici's abuse of power as well as the indulgent and immoral lifestyle of civil leaders and clergy alike, including the pope.
Savonarola became the leader of a Florentine republic for a brief time, but eventually he was excommunicated, tortured, charged with heresy, hanged, burned with two other followers in the main piazza of Florence, and his ashes dumped in the River Arno. Yet the memory of Savonarola's writings, even "the living voice" of his sermons, never left Michelangelo. The friar's criticism of the church's moral decay and external ceremonies and his preaching of salvation by faith continued to echo in the artist's mind. In these impressionable early years, the scene was set for a lifelong war in his soul between perfect physical beauty and perfect spiritual goodness.
Handy with a chisel
As Savonarola was being consigned to the flames in Florence, Michelangelo was well on his way to the highest ranks of ecclesiastical patronage in Rome. A French cardinal commissioned a Pietà. For this memorable work, which Michelangelo completed in 1499, he combined the conventional artistic theme of the Virgin Mary mourning over the dead body of Jesus with a classical style to create one of the most stirring yet serene works of devotional art in history.
From that point on, Michelangelo's reputation as a sculptor was sealed. In 1504, at the request of the city of Florence, he completed his towering statue of David, carved to perfection from a flawed marble block cast off by another sculptor—a stunning example of Michelangelo's uncanny ability to see the figure in the block of stone even before he started to sculpt. The artist's growing fame brought him to the attention of Pope Julius II, and the next year the ambitious young Michelangelo found himself in Rome with an enormous assignment: the pope's own tomb.
Painter with a papal paycheck
Thirteen popes held office during the course of Michelangelo's life, and not all of them were scoundrels. But whether they were corrupt or charismatic, the popes of this period were unquestionably brilliant patrons of the arts and learning. Competition for papal patronage was fierce, with artists like Leonardo and Raphael vying with Michelangelo for attention.
Julius II, the warrior pope who put on armor and rode off to do battle for Italy and the Holy See, proved to be one of Michelangelo's most supportive —and cantankerous—patrons (a relationship immortalized by Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison in the 1965 film, The Agony and the Ecstasy). Michelangelo had barely finished a few individual statues for the proposed tomb when Julius had a change of heart, possibly because he had heard that it was bad luck to make one's own tomb while still alive. He ordered Michelangelo to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, built by his uncle Pope Sixtus IV. Michelangelo initially resisted this assignment, objecting that "painting was not my art." He was already deeply invested in the tomb project and anxious for it to proceed. However, the sculptor reluctantly traded his chisel for a paintbrush.
Michelangelo took four years to complete the ceiling, most of the time high above the ground on scaffolding he had designed himself. The impatient pope demanded to know when he would finish. When the artist cheekily replied, "When I can," Julius retorted, "You want me to have you thrown off the scaffolding!" But the wait was not in vain. As Michelangelo unveiled his work and the crowds poured in to see it, the result was so resplendent that he was proclaimed "the greatest living artist."
To be sure, Julius was not easily satisfied. "It really ought to be retouched with gold," he complained. "It will look poor." Not relishing the idea of rebuilding the scaffolding, Michelangelo answered, "Those who are depicted there, they were poor too." The ceiling stayed the way it was.
In the first few decades of the 16th century, while Europe was surging with radical religious reform and political unrest, Michelangelo was swamped with commissions that proved his skills not only as a sculptor and a painter but as an architect as well. A political republican, he even served as chief engineer of Florence's military defenses until Pope Clement VII and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V suppressed the Florentine republic in 1529-30. In 1535, the new pope Paul III commissioned him to paint a depiction of the Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel.
Around the time he was painting The Last Judgment, Michelangelo, now nearly 60, met two people who would have a profound personal impact on his life and faith: Tommaso de' Cavalieri (1516-1574) and Vittoria Colonna (1492-1547).
By all accounts, both Cavalieri and Colonna were of outstanding character and intelligence. Both came from ancient families. Tommaso was beautiful in appearance. Vittoria, widow of the Marchese of Pescara, radiated the inner beauty of a devout heart. Both inspired adoration in Michelangelo. In his own words, "Whenever I see someone who is good for something, who shows some power of the mind, who can do or say something better than the others, I am compelled to fall in love with him, and give myself to him as booty, so that I am no longer my own, but all his."
Words like these taken at face value (with little consideration for the ambiguity in the use of pronouns in Italian), along with his friendship with Cavalieri, have caused many people in recent times to argue that Michelangelo was a homosexual. Some of his own contemporaries suspected him of this, and he denied the charge.
His poetry attests to the fact that he was no stranger to lust and guilt, whether from acts or thoughts alone. The conflict between his deep admiration for earthly beauty and his yearning for a love that transcended physical desires—"the tension between nature passionately loved and grace passionately longed for," as Dixon puts it—was a source of tortuous inner struggles. However, as Michelangelo scholars John W. Dixon and James Beck have argued, there is no historical evidence that he ever had sexual relations with anyone, man or woman. He claimed he was married only to his art.
Loving others, for Michelangelo, was a way of loving God. Cavalieri and Colonna brought him nearer to Christ. In a madrigal addressed to Colonna, he wrote, "In your face I aspire to what I am pledged from heaven."
Vittoria Colonna was Michelangelo's intimate link to a wide range of reforming currents from Rome to Geneva. The learned Marchesa (who was also a poet) was close to the pulsing center of a circle of reform-minded Catholics at Viterbo known as the Spirituali. She read a commentary on Romans by Juan de Valdès and probably met the winsome Spaniard at his villa near Naples, where he gathered a group of the shakers and makers of his day around him to consider spiritual matters. Though he remained a Catholic, his ideas were not far from those of contemporary Protestant thinkers, especially concerning justification by faith.
The Capuchin friar and charismatic preacher Bernardino Ochino, a friend of Valdès, became Colonna's closest spiritual advisor until he broke with the Catholic church during the Roman Inquisition of 1542. Ochino helped bring a Christ-centered focus to her faith—a spiritual journey she shared with Michelangelo. According to Michelangelo's friend and biographer Ascanio Condivi, he "read the Holy Scriptures with great application and study, both the Old Testament and the New, as well as the writings of those who have studied them, such as Savonarola, for whom he has always had great affection and whose voice still lives in his memory."
Painfully conscious of his own sinfulness and beginning to doubt his earlier preoccupation with ideal beauty and the grandeur of humanity, Michelangelo became more and more focused on Christ's redeeming sacrifice as the years went on. In one of his last poems, he prayed, "My dear Lord, thou alone dost clothe and strip, / And with thy blood purge and heal the souls / From the infinite human sins."
The man and his mission
Michelangelo's personality was as gigantic as his reputation and as complex as his creations. Fiercely independent in his creativity and fiercely loyal in his friendships, he defies the stereotype of the tortured, solitary genius that many have made him out to be. He had an enormous amount of love for a wide circle of friends and a staunch commitment to the welfare his family, financially supporting his aging father, several brothers, a niece, and a nephew.
By the end of his life he had enough money to afford the luxurious lifestyle of other famous artists of the day, but instead he lived like a poor man. Though he rarely accepted gifts, he often gave away artwork to friends and in later years he provided dowries for poor girls otherwise unable to marry.
Ironically, for one who spent his life depicting humanity so exquisitely, he was remarkably careless about his own body. His lifestyle was austere. He drove himself into exhaustion and illness, ate little and slept little. Sometimes he rose in the middle of the night to work, wearing a paper hat with a candle in the middle of it so that he could see while keeping his hands free. He cared little about his clothes and often wore his boots for months at a time, so that when he finally removed them the outer layer of skin came off as well. Michelangelo had his faults, but personal vanity was not one of them.
He did not take kindly to criticism or restrictions on his art. Michelangelo's early biographer Georgio Vasari relates that when a prudish papal employee complained about the nudity in the unfinished Last Judgment, Michelangelo painted him into the scene as the Prince of Hell. Who ever heard of the dead being raised wearing their clothes?
The artist was never completely satisfied with his own work, however, striving relentlessly toward the ideal that eluded his earthly materials. Vasari wrote, "His imagination was so powerful and perfect that he often discarded work in which his hands found it impossible to express his tremendous and awesome ideas." Michelangelo is recorded as saying, "For those who feel it, nothing makes the soul so religious and pure as the endeavor to create something perfect; for God is perfection, and whoever strives after it, is striving after something divine. True painting is only the image of the perfection of God, a shadow of the pencil with which he paints, a melody, a striving after harmony."
In 1547, Paul III appointed the 72-year-old Michelangelo chief architect of the new St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. It was one of his last major public commissions and occupied him for much of the remainder of his life, though it would fall to others to finish building what he had planned. The replacement for the old Constantinian basilica had gone through the hands of several popes and designers and foundered in confusion. For the aged master, it was a matter of recovering truth to set things right. He made modifications to a previous architect's design and capped it off with a design for a dome that is today famous around the world.
Michelangelo would accept no payment for the work. He explained, "Because I am old and have nothing else to leave after me, I have not wished to give it up, and also because I serve for the love of God and in Him have all my hope."
As Michelangelo neared the end of his life's journey, echoes of Savonarola's voice can still be heard in one of the artist's last sonnets:
The voyage of my life at last has reached, amidst a stormy sea, in a fragile boat,
the common port where one crosses
rendering account for every deed wicked
So that the passionate imagination
that made art an idol and sovereign to me, I now recognize well how it was laden with error
like all things men desire against
What will become of my amorous thoughts, once happy and vain, as two deaths approach me?
The one I know certainly, the other threatens me.
Neither painting nor sculpture now can calm
the soul turned toward that divine love
that opens his arms on the cross to take us in.
The Colossus of Tuscany worked right up to the end. Though seriously weakened, he was still carving the poignant Rondanini Pietà until days before his death on February 18, 1564, less than a month before his 90th birthday. In the hour of his death he desired his friends only to remember the death of Christ.
In the words of the late John W. Dixon, "Michelangelo's faith never wavered. Beyond tragedy, beyond despair, there was always hope, for, in his faith, God himself had taken human despair into himself. What could not be said in words could be shown in the formed image, both the tragic despair and the Way beyond despair. With hope there was the possibility of love. The largeness of his love is something of the measure of his greatness."
Laurel Gasque is a cultural historian, author, and lecturer who works with faculty and graduate students for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship of Canada.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History & Biography magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History & Biography.
Support Our Work
Subscribe to CT for less than $4.25/month