Pope Julius II died in peace on the 21st of February 1513 - three and
a half months after the dedication of the frescoes in the Sistine
Chapel. The news reached Florence very soon and cardinal Giovanni
de'Medici - son of Lorenzo il Magnifico and most promising candidate
for the now vacant Holy See - instantly traveled with his cousin
Giulio to Rome.
After Julius' death the quarrels about his tomb continued with his heirs. For three long years Michelangelo devoted himself to work at this in Florence. In the end, he finished two figures of slaves, then he started to work on "Moses" and the "Resurrected Christ".
On the 11th of March 1513 cardinal Giovanni de'Medici was elected as the new pope and chose the name Leo X. No doubt the cardinals reckoned on his early death because Giovanni was much too fat and it was known he suffered from ulcers and a fistula. Otherwise they would never chosen such a young man: Giovanni was 38 years old. But his friendship to the Medici was a pleasant contrast to the waspishness of the late Julius, and so the majority of the curia voted for the Medici.
Leo's entry into the Eternal City on the 11th of March was marked with a triumphal procession. He rode on a white Arabian warhorse. Altars were erected in the streets he passed proceed to Via Alessandrina into earthly triumph bows. All over the family coat of arms could be seen to demonstrate who the new ruler was and which interests were now paramount: the money-politics of the banker's family.
The antique streets echoed with the calls for "Leone!" and "Palle!" [palle means the balls of the Medici coat of arms]. Antique statues stood beside contemporary works of art, Christ and Apollo vied for the appreciation of the cheering crowd. The decorations were filled with lions, diamond rings and feathers, the palle spat water and wine. Mercury and Pallas Athena as Gods of Freedom held out the prospect of a new epoch of civilization: a golden era. With bare, golden coins his camerlengo threw into the crowd, Leo X tried to hook the folk. The Angel's Bridge was hung with silken carpets.
It really looked as if the Medici would provide a leading role again on Italy’s stage. Pope Leo made his cousin Giulio cardinal and archbishop of Florence. His younger brother Giuliano became Gonfaloniere of the Roman Church - a military post he wasn't exactly happy about for he was a peaceable man. Despite all his nepotism, though, Leo was a good pope. He lowered the taxes, he was polite and tactful, he was conscientious in his religious deeds, remained humane and took away people’s shyness by making little jokes. His foreign politics were wise and reserved. And - like his father - he was a great connoisseur of Art in all fields. He commissioned Raphael for ten boards as a design for carpets and paid him with a hundred golden Ducats for each model of it. The carpets are still to be seen in the Vatican Museums but the boards of design for them appeared in the 19th century at Paris flea markets.
In the same year Raphael painted his "Madonna di San Sisto", called the "Sistine Madonna". It's possible that this painting was intended for Julius II's tomb. Raphael immortalized Pope Sixtus I on this painting, thus the name. In 1754 it came to Dresden/Germany to King August the Strong, where it is still to be seen.
Leo X tried to bind Michelangelo to the triumph of Leo's family. His epicurean mind couldn't comprehend Michelangelo's sad genius, thus all Leo's marks of favours went for Raphael, the sanguine young man. But the painter of the Sistine Chapel belonged the Italy's Glory and Leo liked to make him subservient. Leo never lacked flattering words, but actually Michelangelo frightened him. He felt awkward in his presence. In 1520 Sebastiano del Piombo [a young friend and admirer of Michelangelo and painter too] wrote to his friend: "If the Pope is talking about you, it is as if he is speaking about one of his brothers, he almost has tears in his eyes. He told me that you both were risen up together, and he claimed to know and love you, but you frighten everybody - even the Popes."
In 1514 Bramante died aged 70 years and was laid to rest in the grottos of St. Peter. With his death the big vault over the pillars of new St. Peter were not closed and connected. Great plans but not the half of them was realized. On the first of August 1514 Leo X appointed Raphael as the new master architect of St. Peter and he was commissioned to work as protector of monuments to care for the antique buildings and archaeological diggings and to protect them against exploitation and the loss of precious funds.
For Michelangelo Leo had the commission finally to create a façade for San Lorenzo in their hometown Florence, the church of the Medici's. From then on he spent the months in the quarries of Pietrasanta. At the end of September 1518 Michelangelo became ill with overexertion and trouble. He knew that his health and his dreams would be weakened by this donkey work. He was obsessed with the desire finally to start with his work. And he feared he wouldn't be able to manage it. Back in Florence he waited for the arrival of the marble transport. But the Arno river was dried out, the barges loaded with the marble couldn’t travel up the river. Four of six of the monolithic pillars broke on the way, one in Florence. Pope and Cardinal Giulio de'Medici were getting impatient because he had spent so much pointless time in the quarries and on muddy ways. It was the 10th of March 1520 before the pope released Michelangelo from all contracts. Michelangelo was severely hurt. And he quarrelled with himself. San Lorenzo still has no façade today.
Raphael died the same year and was buried at the Pantheon. Michelangelo was disconsolate. He himself had had not worked between 1515 and 1520, but had his power wasted, while Raphael had painted the Vatican, the loggias, had been architect of St. Peter, lead the excavations, arranged feasts and ruled Art. So, Michelangelo again turned towards one of his unfinished projects: The Resurrected Christ. The contract had demanded he depict Christ in "humilitas" - in humble nakedness. When it was finished he was accused that the statue resembled more the pagan Apollo than the son of God. Well, I can't object. Where's the difference between an immortal Greek God and an immortal Christian God? The muscular body with its stressed contra post reminds us indeed more of a glorious Hellenistic statue or of a successful sportsman than of the pain of the Saviour. But that's as may be. The statue was set up in the church Santa Maria sopra Minerva where it is still to be found. For modesty's sake the figure was covered with a bronze loincloth, and much later also a bronze shoe because it was pretty battered by the kisses of the believers.
With the same enthusiasm Michelangelo worked at the four marble sculptures we call today "prisoners". Originally they were intended for the memorial of pope Julius II, but this project shrivelled with each year from a gigantic architectural feature to the minimum Michelangelo could work. For the rest of his life they remained at his workshop in Florence until his nephew Lionardo gave them to Grand duke Cosimo who brought them into a grotto in the Florentine Boboli-park. Of course they suffered there but it was only in 1909 when they were brought to the Academia where they now accompany "David". Two of the figures are in the Paris' Louvre [The best worked like "The dying slave" for instance].
Now, what did he want to express with his "prisoners"? The opinions of the experts are varied. Some of them say he just hadn't time to finish them. Others say he wanted them exactly this way. There are "Matthew", the "Atlant", the "Awakening" and "The Bearded One". At least we gain a glimpse of Michelangelo's working process. Like the Greek sculptors he started with the front and lifted - like a relief - one layer after layer. Vasari compared this procedure with draining off water from a basin a statue is lying in. The figure - the inner picture - freeing itself by and by from stone, tries to free itself from the prison of matter. That's the actual theme for the "prisoners" because two of them trying to slip off their fetters. They rebel against their fate to fail in the end. I agree with the experts who say that Michelangelo made them exactly this way. Like no one before him the artists had suffered under the attachment of existence to matter. The free will, the platonic "divine soul" is "delivered to time and imprisoned in this brittle and tired cover."
Also 1521 he started with the sculpture "Genius of Victory", likewise designed for the Julius-monument in Rome. In 1534 he left this group unfinished in his workshop at the Via Mozza before he went to Rome for good. But before this he had another plan cooking: The start of the building of the Bibliotheca Laurenziana in San Lorenzo/Florence. In 1523 pope Leo decided to have a place for his precious books- and scripts-collection, so he commissioned Michelangelo to undertake this task (opened in 1571). The sculptor drew the plans. The library contained the most individual rooms ever finished because nothing seems to fit with anything else: there is no architectural context, the room is extremely steep, the over dimensional steps has no moderate proportion to the area of the room. The pillars are IN the walls instead in front of them. And yet it's worthwhile looking at in all its coolness.
In 1527 not one single statue for the Medici-chapels was finished. No wonder, considering what happened in his hometown Florence. Michelangelo joined the national uprising in Florence. Despite his reluctance and circumspection his soul was ardently republican.
Leo X died and his successor was his cousin Giulio, now pope Clement VII (Clement was by the way the bastard-son of Giuliano de' Medici who had been murdered by the Pazzi-conspiracy, Easter 1452). His pontificate was troubled with many inept decisions that led to wars involving the whole of Europe. The worst of all was the so-called "Sacco di Roma", Rome's conquest by the troops of candidate No 1 for Europe's emperor-throne: Charles V, still Spanish king. Clement VII himself sat between two stools when he founded the League of Cognac that consisted of Italian towns, France (under King Francis I) and England (under King Henry VIII) against the emperor's realm, represented by Charles V, King of Spain. Sure enough Charles was angry. Who was No 1 in the world? The pope or the emperor? Whose word weighed more? And who was to crown whom? (still the question of all questions even after the investiture-quarrel of Henry IV vs. Gregor VII)
Back to Florence. It was in 1527 when Michelangelo's "David" was almost destroyed, and here's the reason: The Spanish king Charles V's daughter was married to Alessandro de' Medici - the bastard-son of pope Clement VII. Now, this Alessandro was the governor of Florence. Unfortunately he didn't possess the usual amiability of his family, but he was unpopular, bad, deceitful and wasted the town's money. The people called him "il Moro" - the Negro, because his mother had gypsy-blood and he was fairly dark.
At this time there was a confrontation between the emperor Charles V and the French king Francis I. Francis was defeated by the Spanish king in the race about the emperor-position because Charles had been supported by the money of the Medici and of the Fugger-family in Augsburg, Germany. Pope Clement didn't know what to do. He didn't want to fall out with both important rulers who wanted to rule south Italy and gain the crown of Naples. Finally Clement VII preferred French king Francis I so Charles V decided to punish the Pope.
He stormed Bologna with 30.000 soldiers and actually stood in front of the gates of Florence. In the town a civil war started. The riders of the Duke of Urbino - allied with Alessandro de' Medici - came to help and stormed Palazzo Vecchio where the Signoria had gathered and barricaded themselves to bar the hated Alessandro and to expel him. They threw everything they could get out of the windows, down to the soldiers of the Duke of Urbino: desks, tables, chairs, crockery. Until a heavy wooden bench was thrown.
Michelangelo saw from a distance that the bench was directly aimed at David, standing under it. He shouted but it was too late. The bank hit the arm that held the sling. It broke off, fell to the ground and broke into three pieces. There was an eerie silence all of a sudden. Everybody stared alternately from the arm to its creator. Then everything went fast. The sobered up people were ready to negotiate, Alessandro fled and Charles V didn't conquer Florence but went on to Rome where he staged the "Sacco di Roma", the most terrible plundering Rome had ever experienced; not even the Huns nor the Vandals has left such a disaster.
It was Giorgio Vasari, by then 12 or 13 years old, who picked up the broken arm. He saved it and gave it Michelangelo later. This was when their lifelong friendship started.
Back to Rome and the conquest: As the thick mist of dawn on the 6th of May 1527 lifted, the united forces of Germany, Spain, Alsace, Milano and Burgundy invaded through the vineyards on Vatican Hill. The commander was Duke Charles of Bourbon. The defending of Castle Sant'Angelo took over the acclaimed goldsmith and adventurer Benvenuto Cellini, who was "enjoying the diabolic exercise". In his biography he claims to have shot the Duke from the wall himself [which was simply stupid because then the troops were leaderless and nobody stopped their unrestrained activities]. Charles V wanted a systematic storming but his mercenaries had plundering and rape on their minds, calling Rome "Babylonian Whore" and the pope the Antichrist. No house was saved. Nunnery after nunnery was emptied and the inhabitants enslaved, they ripped off their clothes, raped them in front of a drunken audience, then they were taken over by the troops... Priests and young monks who weren't exactly their taste, were killed and thrown into the Tiber, until the river was overflowing with dead bodies.
The Swiss Guard was having its baptism of fire. It sacrificed itself to the last man to allow the pope to flee into the impregnable Castel Sant'Angelo. When evening fell, Rome was in the hand of the conquerors.
Almost all churches were destroyed. For eight long days Rome was plundered barbarically, while Clement VII had to watch from the tower of the castle until the troops starting to calm down. Those who could, started to flee.
Only the appearance of the plague and the biggest fire since Nero, expelled the army in February 1528. And of course after the allocation of the first payment of the enormous reparation. There was a strange, eerie silence. A contemporary wrote: "There's no bell to be heard, no church is open and there's no mass held." Circa 90 percent of all the treasures were destroyed or taken away.
But Michelangelo was lucky. His Pietà, standing in the chapel of the unfinished building of St. Peter, was untouched. Nobody had dared to lay a hand on God's son in his mother's lap. But Rome was flattened to the ground, deep in a shock. The pope hed fled to Orvieto in Umbria.
In 1530 Charles V was crowned in Bologna by Clement VII finally. It was the last coronation by a pope. A reflection of this gloomy period is illustrated by Michelangelo's "Final Judgement" in the Sistine Chapel. The positive image of humankind - that accompanied the era of the Renaissance - was broken completely. But more about this later.
Florence had survived the first attack but then the town waited for the
followers of Charles V. They knew nobody would stop them on their retreat
from Rome. The plague broke out, but Michelangelo stayed. His brother
Buonarroto died in his arms. In October 1528 Michelangelo attended the
consultations about the defending of the town. The preparations never came
too early. The new Gonfaloniere Francesco Garducci tried everything to
protect the town by taking loans and supplies of grain. And he hired two
military commanders: Malatesta Baglioni from Perugia (an irreconcilable
friend of the Papacy since Leo X had executed his father) and Stefano
Colonna from the ancient Roman noble family, never endure with pope
On 6th of April 1529 Michelangelo became general of Florence defences. He inspected the constructions of Pisa and the bastions of Arezzo, Livorno and Ferrara. Supreme commander of the Florentine troops was Malatesta Baglioni. Michelangelo had a very bad feeling in his guts whenever he saw the ugly, deceitful looking man. And he would be proved to be right.
In Summer 1529 king Charles gave the order to his commander Philibert of Orange to attack Florence. As this news arrived in the town, an ambassador was sent to Charles to try to save the republic of Florence. Charles was not interested and relegated them to Pope Clement. Michelangelo meanwhile denounced Malatesta in front of the signoria but only because he felt that, if he hadn't done so, Malatesta would have killed him. Michelangelo fled to Ferrara, in September to Venice. He rejected the help of the signoria and stood on the isle of Giudecca. He wrote a letter to the French king Francis I who was all too willing to invite him into his court. Then the Venice' Council of the Ten offered him 600 Ducats to stay in Venice and any price at all for each work of Art he was willing to do for Venice.
Michelangelo hesitated. He had heard that the government of Florence had decided to treat all refugees as traitors who wouldn't return to Florence before the 7th of October. His patriotism gained the upperhand, and of course his vanity. Why should he be second in Venice when he could be first in Florence and Rome, considering that the first place in Venice was occupied by Titian and Sansovino? He returned to Florence and the signoria forgave.
Meanwhile the Prince of Orange and his army under the banner of emperor Charles and pope Clemens (who was mad because of the expulsion of his son Alessandro) invaded Tuscany and occupied several towns.
In the middle of October the troops camped in front of the walls of Florence and a second army joined them. The inhabitants were anxious to fight. The siege started pn the 24th of October with a bombarding of the church of San Miniato. But Michelangelo hadn't been lazy and saved the clock tower with bales of wool and mattresses. Then he invented new machines and fixed the walls across the hills.
In December Venice, Genoa, Milan, Ferrara and Urbino fell to emperor Charles V and Florence was now alone, the last republican town of Italy.
In 1530 the situation hasn't changed. There’s a new mayor, staunch follower of the Republic and enemy of the pope. Another delegation went to Rome to ask for pity, but Pope Clement treated them with disdain and refused to listen to them. Another plan to gather each man in Tuscany willing to fight for the Republic fails in a battle against the Prince of Orange.
Meanwhile, the besieged town held on. With utmost discipline they kept the shops open, people gathered on the streets, law was spoken. But within the town walls, the pain was great. Precious pieces of church-interior and women's jewels had already been sold to support the costs of defense. Window frames and doors were burnt in the long winter. Little cabbages and anything that had grown in the roof gardens had been eaten. The town had food for only three days more. The dream of a last desperate defense was over. The desperate idea to burn the houses, kill women and children and to decline in a complete inferno was finally turned down.
Malatesta Baglioni remained as commander of the troops because he swam with the tide. He spoke about freedom to one group, to the next he talked about peace. A third group heard him talking about the virtues of the Pope. So it came to be that: on the second of August 1530, Malatesta betrayed Florence. The hired Condottiere from Perugia had united furtively with the Spaniard and turned the guns. In the middle of the panic caused by the news of the lost battle against the Prince of Orange, Malatesta started to negotiate with the allies of the Emperor and the Pope. When the Republican police of Florence tried to catch the traitor he turned his guns on them.
On the 12th of August Florence surrendered. The French King Francis I, Henry VIII of England, the dukes of Urbino and Ferrara – had watched without offering help. Since the time of the great migration it was the first instance that a foreign, hostile army entered Florence. The conditions of the capitulation included 80.000 gold Florin in compensation for the victor and the return of each banned member of the Medici-family and their followers. The Pope declared Baccio Valori, the Papal General, his proconsul and appointed him as Papal Governor of Florence. Later Alessandro (il Moro) de'Medici was made Duke of Florence.
The emperor seceded the town to the Commissioner of the Pope. Then the executions started. Michelangelo’s best friends were the first. He hid himself in the clock tower of San Niccolò, and was brought sustenance by a priest.
Despite everything, Pope Clement had not lost his affection for Michelangelo who sat in hiding until the news came up to him that the Pope asked him to continue his work at the tombs of the Medici at the church of San Lorenzo. If he would do so they would release him and treat him well.
Michelangelo accepted. In Autumn of 1530 he made a marble figure of Apollo for Baccio Valori – the instrument of the pope and murderer of his friends. But what was he to do? The youthful figure of the "Apollino" turns his head to look behind itself. It is a "figura serpentinata". Michelangelo turned an unfinished sculpture of a "David" into an "Apollo". He could have hardly offered the victorious papal general "David" – the symbol of Republican freedom. But in the round rock under the youth's foot one can picture the head of Goliath: so once again Michelangelo has created his David. There is a blatant difference between this figure and the one which in 1504 rose to the position of the most powerful symbol of the Republic. In the place of Strength and Wrath, we have Melancholy, almost Regret. The victorious hero no longer celebrates his triumph; the blood that has been shed seems to have shown him the meaning of his actions and of their consequences. Michelangelo could not have admonished Baccio Valori in a deeper, more meaningful and yet more politically respectful way. The statue can be seen at the National Museum of Florence at the Bargello.
Then Michelangelo continues his work at the Medici-tombs. It is now called the "New Sacristy" in opposition to the “Old Sacristy” made by Brunelleschi and Donatello where the ancestors of the Medici have their rest.
It appears cool and grey-white. To the left and the right are the tombs of Giuliano and Lorenzo - the Dukes of Tuscany.
The funeral monuments were commissioned in 1520 by Pope Leo X when the main line of the Medici threatened to die out. In rapid succession his brother Giuliano (the Duke of Nemours and the youngest son of Lorenzo de'Medici. The amiable and liberal duke succumbed to tuberculosis in 1516.) and his nephew Lorenzo (Duke of Urbino, father of Caterina de' Medici and Alessandro, the current leader of Florence) also died. To consolidate the family's glory Leo had asked Michelangelo to equip the sacristy as a tomb chapel. He laboured for fourteen years and created, by connecting architecture with sculpture, an over-all work of art. But it was not finished for Michelangelo left Florence for good in 1534 to go to Rome. Michelangelo's pupils completed it after his departure.
The work contains two monumental groups, each being composed of a seated armed figure in a niche with an allegorical figure reclining on either side of the sarcophagus below. The seated figures, representing the two dukes, are not treated as portraits, but as types.
Lorenzo, whose face is shaded by a helmet, personifies the reflective man; lost in thought, representing the "vita contemplativa" He died mentally deranged.
Giuliano, holding the baton of an army commander and looking imperious, portrays the active man, the "vita activa". Under Giuliano is a sculpture that is identified without doubt: "Night". The hair band is decorated with a half moon, mask and owl are lying at her feet. The skin is polished to a mirror finish so that even a tiny moonbeam can be reflected - exactly as Michelangelo had made her due to the fact that all sculptures have been restored recently.
Another figure, "Day", is also present. It is a Herculean figure looking out from sleepy, deep sockets. In contrast, the marble is unpolished and dull.
Similarly imposing, but far less violent, are the two companion figures reclining between sleeping and waking on the sarcophagus of Lorenzo. It's "Dawn" and "Dusk". "Night" and "Dusk" are the sole female sculptures Michelangelo showed naked (and thus they look pretty manly. I doubt that Michelangelo has ever seen a woman naked). "Dawn" and "Dusk" snuggles tightly to the windings of the volutes of the sarcophagus; they were meant to be there from the start. In the opposite, the allegories of "Day" and "Night" were considered for a plain ground. Since Michelangelo had his plans always in his head nobody knew afterwards what he wanted to do with the sculptures. So they lay around until Michelangelo's death. After this Vasari and Ammannati put them in their present place. According to Michelangelo's spare notes found in Casa Buonarrroti/ Florence he planned to chisel the sculptures of "Heaven" and "Earth" and place them in the niches beside Duke Giuliano. On one of the sketches Michelangelo wrote:
"Heaven and Earth - Day and Night... talking and telling: With our fast run we brought Duke Giuliano to death..."
But in 1534 nobody understood the meaning of the sculptures. When Giovanni Strozzi, a noble banker, saw the terrible "Night" he wrote a concetti:
Upon the wall behind the small white marble-altar are pencil-sketches by Michelangelo, protected by a sheet of glass. Lastly, beside the door are the two plain stony plates for Lorenzo il Magnifico and his murdered brother Giuliano, the father of the current pope Clement. They are easily overlooked because their tomb was never finished. They are guarded by the Madonna Medici, a work of imposing majesty, done completely by Michelangelo's own hand. They are also guarded by the Greek martyr-doctors Cosmas and Damian (made by his pupils). They were included because they were the patron saints of the family.
Michelangelo spoke in his poem of "...as long as misery and shame continues", and this was his sole expression for what he felt for the fall of his hometown. Florence was swallowed by the Papal States. Mind what the plundering of Rome (the Sacco di Roma) and the fall of Florence had meant for the souls of their time: a terrible bankruptcy of reason, a collapse.... It was a special tragedy for Michelangelo who was a fervent republican and had always treated rulers, dukes and popes as his equals - as Lorenzo de'Medici had taught him once, in the old days, when he was living in Lorenzo's palace.
The same year – Michelangelo was 59 years old - he was getting ill and he contemplated suicide in what would be considered a psychological crisis. Pope Clement VII was trying to soothe him. The artist was told by Clement’s secretary and Michelangelo's dear friend, Sebastiano del Piombo, he - Michelangelo - shouldn't outdo himself.... But one of his friend’s wrote:
"Michelangelo seems to be exhausted and skinny. I've talked lately with Bugiardini and Mini about him: we agreed he hasn't much longer to live when there's nobody who cares about him seriously. He's working too much, he's eating too little and is sleeping even less. For one year he's suffered terrible head- and throat ache..."
Pope Clement negotiated with the heirs of the late pope Julius II for a new, even smaller tomb, because Michelangelo was incapable of working more. It’s the bankruptcy of a huge project, failed of time and circumst-ances.
Michelangelo went to Rome to sign the new contract. And there he found the last love of his live: Tommaso de Cavallieri. He had been in love before -- Gherardo Perini first -- then it was Febo di Poggio. Later he fell in love with Cecchino dei Bracci [Cecchino, the son of a banned Florentine, died very young at Rom in 1544]. In his memory, Michelangelo wrote 48 tomb-inscriptions of an almost idolatrous and of august beauty.].
All of them seem to be platonic adoration of beauty. We don’t know if he ever dared to live out his fantasies. He met Tommaso, the young noble man, in the autumn of 1532. He wrote him flaming love declarations which greatly embarrassed Cavallieri. He felt he wasn't worthy to be adored by the greatest Italian artist of his time. But Cavallieri was worth it as three contemporary biographers - Varchi, Condivi and Vasari - stressed. Because "with him united unmatchable physical beauty with the grace of moral, a noble mind and such an amiable manner, that he was worthy to be loved the more you know him." Cavallieri remained faithful until Michelangelo's final hour, where he was present. He was the only man who had influence on Michelangelo. Michelangelo's friendship was like an insane love. He wrote Cavallieri enraptured letters. He made him big presents - mostly drawings and sonnets. Some of them were quoted soon in literary circles and were known in the whole of Italy.
In 1534 Michelangelo was still at Rome – a fortune for him, because Duke Alessandro de'Medici of Florence hated him. Alessandro's respect for the pope had stopped him from murdering the artist treacherously, the unbending republican. His enmity had grown to a new level when Michelangelo had refused to built a fortress around Florence to enslave his hometown.
In the same year Pope Clement died and Michelangelo was lucky to be in Rome. He would never return to Florence. This also meant the end of the Medici-chapel. To this day, it remains unfinished. Today, what we know under this name, has the slightest, pale similarity to what Michelangelo dreamt it to be. The four sculptures of rivers he wanted to realize, were never started. Later Michelangelo's pupils wanted to complete the chapel on the plea of duke Cosimo I and asked the master what he had planned for the wall paintings and all. Michelangelo couldn't remember. He had simply forgotten.
Here's a poem for the Madonna Medici:
"In darkness feverishly I remain alone,
when the sun robs the world its beams.
Others rest from lust, I lay in agony."
Romain Rolland wrote: "In the 21 years Michelangelo had lived at Florence he had created three unfinished sculptures for the grave of Julius II. Seven unfinished sculptures for the unfinished tomb of the Medici, the unfinished vestibule of the Laurenziana-library, the unfinished Christ for Santa Maria sopra Minerva/Rome, the unfinished Apollo for Baccio Valori. He had lost his health, his energy, his belief in art and home. He had lost his father and his favourite brother. He is sixty years old and his life seems to end. He is alone, he doesn't belief in his works of art anymore, he yearns to die, he has the passionate desire, finally to escape "the change of being and longing", the "violence of the hours", the "tyranny of the necessity and the fortune"."
"So it goes, if you wait too long
Like I did; time has elapsed from me,
Until I suddenly became a senile.
Aie, I search my whole life in my mind,
That disappeared from me.
Not one day of it was completely mine!"
At the first of September 1535 the new pope, Paul III Farnese, appointed Michelangelo to be the first architect, sculptor and painter of the apostolic palace. In April 1536 he agreed to paint the "Last Judgement", whose idea goes back to Clement VII and the year 1533. From April until November 1541 he worked restless in the Sistine Chapel. In 1539 he fell from his trestle and hurt his leg badly. Angry with himself he refused to see anybody for he hated doctors.
Michelangelo visualized dozens of figures to appear at the wall behind the small altar -- Jesus Christ in the centre of all it, next to him his mother, hiding her face with her veil not to see the shame and glory of humankind. Angels blowing to the dawn of doomsday, calling the good people up to the gate of heavens, the bad ones fall down into an abyss, grabbed by devilish figures. Michelangelo mixed Greek myths with Christian belief. There is Charon, the ferryman, shipping the lost souls over the Styx, where they are unload to see what is waiting for them.
Here's a legendary anecdote of Vasari: "Michelangelo had more of three quarters of the fresco finished, when Pope Paul came to look at it. Messer Biagio from Cesena, master of the ceremony and a very pedantic man, was with His Holiness, and answered the question, what he would think of this work, it would be against all sense of propriety to paint so many naked figures on this holy place, who were showing their nakedness in such an indecent manner. That would be no work for the chapel of the pope, he said, but for a bath- or a public house. This bored Michelangelo a great deal and to take revenge, he painted the master of the ceremony as soon as he had went away as Minos in Hell (the judge of the souls), the legs entwined by a big snake, biting him into the "place of all lust", surrounded by a crowd of devils. And there was no help for Messer Biagio that he pleaded the Pope and Michelangelo to take away his portrait, it remained there as memory of this story. Pope Paul said dryly: "when the painter had put you into purgatory I would had done everything to save you, but he has sat you into hell, so it's completely useless to ask me, because from there it’s no redemption.""
The theme of the "Last Judgement" is unusual for the wall of an altar, and with all urgency it makes clear the horror of the Judgement Day. Chaos and terror appoint the scene, outshone by a Jesus Christ who hasn't any forgiveness and sends the damned with angry gesture into the abyss. The intercessor Mary is helpless. This fresco shows plainly the end of the positive self-confidence of the Renaissance, that had formed Raphael's works of art. After the Sacco di Roma, the abased invasion of the emperor troops, a terrifying vision of doomsday became the theme of the papal chapel, planned by Clement VI who was witness to every thing. Adding to this is the fresco pierced by the bitter religiosity of the old Michelangelo. The expression of God’s kindness from the scene "Creation of Adam" was razed out twenty years later. The son of God is an inaccessible, almost pagan avenger, punishing the foolishness of humankind.
The first impression we have when faced with the "Last Judgment" is that of a truly universal event, at the centre of which stands the powerful figure of Christ. His raised right hand compels the figures on the left hand side, who are trying to ascend, to be plunged down towards Charon and Minos, the Judge of the Underworld; while his left hand is drawing up the chosen
The figures who, in the depths of the scene, are rising from their graves could well be part of the prophet Ezechiel's vision. Naked skeletons are covered with new flesh, men dead for immemorable lengths of time help each other to rise from the earth. For the representation of the place of eternal damnation, Michelangelo was clearly inspired by the lines of the Divine Comedy:
We know that many figures are portraits of Michelangelo's contemporaries. The artist's self-portrait appears twice: in the flayed skin which Saint Bartholomew is carrying in his left-hand, and in the figure in the lower left hand corner, who is looking encouragingly at those rising from their graves. The artist could not have left us clearer evidence of his feeling towards life and of his highest ideals.
The painting is a turning point in the history of art. Vasari predicted the phenomenal impact of the work: "This sublime painting", he wrote, "should serve as a model for our art. Divine Providence has bestowed it upon the world to show how much intelligence she can deal out to certain men on earth. The most expert draftsman trembles as he contemplates these bold outlines and marvellous foreshortenings. In the presence of this celestial work, the senses are paralysed, and one can only wonder at the works that came before and the works that shall come after".
On the 25th December of 1541 the fresco was revealed. They came from the whole of Italy, France, Germany and Flanders to see it.
It's not only Biagio who thought the fresco indecent. Suddenly Italy appeared to be prudish. There was no lack of people crying "scandal". The loudest of all was Pietro Aretino, author, chronicler and writer of pamphlets, the self-named "whip of the princes" whose acid comments left nobody untouched. If you know "The Sun" or the German "BILD-Zeitung" you know what I mean. Now his favourite victim was Michelangelo, though everybody knew he did it out of revenge. Aretino had tried for long to wheedle some of his work of arts out of Michelangelo, in vein of course. Additionally, he had the cheek to tell Michelangelo a program for the "Last Judgement". The artist had politely refused, and Aretino’s time for pay back had come.
Aretino accused Michelangelo of depicting things that would cause everybody to "close their eyes in shame, even in a brothel" and he denounced Michelangelo's beliefs in front of the new founded Inquisition. He prompted Paul IV to destroy the fresco. With his denunciations for Lutheran behaviour, Aretino connected nasty innuendos about Michelangelo's custom (of course he meant Michelangelo's friends Perini and Cavallieri) and to make it worse he accused the artist to have robbed Pope Julius II.
And what happened to the nudity of almost all figures? Those "indecent" parts were over painted in 1559 by Daniele da Volterra. Daniele was Michelangelo's favourite pupil – one of the very rare pupils the master had shown adoration openly to. Daniele tortured himself with a lot of pangs of conscious but he couldn’t oppose the papal order of the new pope Paul IV. He promised though to Michelangelo that he would paint as thinly as he could, so that they could be removed in better times. He did as he promised and gained the nickname "Braghettone" – panty-painter.
Well, it was 400 years before the panties and clothes were washed away. The restoration of the complete Sistine Chapel lasted from 1988 until 1994. And what appeared especially at the "Last Judgement", is breathtaking. The restorer had decided to take away the over paintings. But they left the ones made by Volterra, because those belong to the history of the fresco. During the centuries painters often had made "improvements", restorations due to the dripping rain, or to refresh the colours that were darken by black candle soot.
Also the loin cloth of "Minos" had been removed. The snake, winding around his body, is biting Minos directly into his penis. Michelangelo's all-consuming disdain for Messer Biagio now lies naked in front of us. For the blue background of the fresco Michelangelo used the purest Lapis lazuli; and Jesus appears again as Hercules with the face of Apollo.
I think it was a grand work of the restorers. Others didn't think so. The complete 19th century was based upon Michelangelo-interpretations of his dark, staid colours. Contemporary copies though, that sparkled with colours, had been brushed aside as strange work of pupils. Then, after the restoration, there appeared a complete new Michelangelo: fresh and colourful. The leading restorer of the Vatican expressed it this way: "It's like travelling to the moon. After that the world will be changed." But historians of arts, who had devoted often a whole scientist's life to the interpretation of the "dark Michelangelo", felt cheated.