As a diversion, Michelangelo took the chisel and created in 1540 his "Brutus". This is Michelangelo's last work of primarily political significance. The bust of Brutus was fashioned for Cardinal Niccolo Ridolfi, who, in 1530, had fled Florence for Rome like many other Florentines; although Michelangelo might well have been thinking of Lorenzino Medici, the well-known "Modern Brutus" who had killed Duke Alessandro de'Medici in 1537, this is clearly an idealized portrait of the patron. In the head, which shows strength of will in the way it is turned to the right, a cold tranquillity and great energy blend fascinatingly with hatred, wrath and bitter contempt. (Museum of the Bargello, Florence)
Already in 1535 Michelangelo had met Vittoria Colonna. She was the daughter of the great Federico da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino. This family was one of the most noble in Italy. She was passionately intellectual and suffered under the unfaithfulness of her husband. But he had died in 1525 and she found refuge in religion and poetry. Michelangelo was 63 when they met, Vittoria 46. It was the meeting of two kindred spirits, a platonic love.
His poems were being passed around Rome from hand to hand. The greatest contemporary composers set them to music. Varchi, his biographer, read and explained them 1546 in the Accademia of Florence. He found within the poems the honestl and serious thoughts of a Dante. Michelangelo knew his work almost word by word.
Between 1537 and 1540, Antonio da Sangallo the Younger had built the Pauline Chapel (Cappella Paolina) in the Vatican, as Pope Paul III's private chapel. In 1541 Michelangelo was asked to decorate the central parts of the two longer walls with two frescoes. The first, "The Conversion of Saul", was begun in 1542; the second, the "Martyrdom of St. Peter", was painted between 1546 and 1550. They would be his last paintings. Before this, no one had ever attempted to place these two themes next to each other. Michelangelo portrays, what is by this time, his plan of life: death for the faithful must follow conversion and be its confirmation. To Paul, who has fallen and has been forced to shut his eyes because of the brilliance of divine light, he gives his own likeness and makes Peter, nailed to the cross, in the supreme tension of the last moment of life, forcefully look at the spectator.
The Conversion of Saul
"The conversion of Saul" is the best-known and most widely represented of the Pauline themes. On the road to Damascus, where he was going to obtain authorization from the synagogue to arrest Christians, Paul was struck to the ground, blinded by a sudden light from heaven. The voice of God, heard also by Paul's attendants, as artists make clear, said, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?' They led him to the city where, the voice had said, he would be told what he had to do. According to a tradition and, connected with the medieval Custom of representing pride as a falling horseman, Paul made the journey on horseback. He lies on the ground as if having just been thrown from his horse, prostrate with awe, or unconscious. He may be wearing Roman armour. Christ appears in the heavens, perhaps with three angels. Paul's attendants run to help him or try to control the rearing horses.
The high-lighted glow on the head of Saul and on the horse's head confirms the symbolic meaning; the dim awareness of fallen man is touched by the lightning flash of grace, and as universal consciousness awakens in him, he loses his animal torpor and gains true knowledge.
In January 1545 Pope Julius' II tomb was finally erected. Not, as Julius had planned at St. Peter's, but at S. Pietro in Vincoli, a relatively unknown, but yet very old church near Nero's Domus Aurea. Michelangelo had delivered his finished statues. The two slaves he had chiselled no longer fit anymore into the reduced tomb. He gave them to Ruberto Strozzi, a Florentine merchant and friend, ardently republican and at Florence not welcomed anymore. After countless years he was finally released from the nightmare of his life.
A look back: The Pope had commissioned him to build in the course of five years a tomb for himself. Forty (!) life-sized statues were to surround the tomb which was to be 7 meter wide, 11 meter deep and 8 meter high; it was to be a free-standing tomb and to contain an oval funerary cell. Never, since classical times, had anything like this, in the West, been built for one man alone.
According to the iconographic plan, which we are able to reconstruct from written sources, this was to be an outline of the Christian world: the lower level was dedicated to man, the middle level to the prophets and saints, and the top level to the surpassing of both former levels in the Last Judgement. At the summit of the monument, there was to have been a portrayal of two angels leading the Pope out of his tomb on the day of the Last Judgement.
Michelangelo immediately began his preparations for this task, but the capricious Pope, in doubt of finding an appropriate place in which to erect his tomb, planned something even more grandiose: the restoration and remodelling of St Peter's Basilica. Thus Michelangelo was ordered to make other commissions, first in Bologna then in Rome with his profound work -- the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
After the death of the Pope in 1513 Michelangelo and the Pope's heirs reached a new agreement concerning the tomb. It was decided that the tomb was to be smaller and placed against a wall. The slaves (four in Florence and two in Paris) were intended for the lower level, while the Moses for the middle level.
Three sculptures are completely from his own hand: Moses, Rachel and Lea.
The statue of Moses (2,35 meters high) is the summary of the entire monument, planned but never fully realized as the tomb of Julius II. It was intended for one of the six colossal figures that crowned the tomb. Elder brother to the Sistine Prophets, the Moses is also an image of Michelangelo's own aspirations, a figure in de Tolnay's words, "trembling with indignation, having mastered the explosion of his wrath".
Inspired perhaps by the medieval conception of man as microcosm, Michelangelo brought together the elements in allegorical guise: the flowing beard suggests water, the wildly twisting hair, fire, the heavy drape, earth. In an ideal sense, the Moses represents also both the artist and the Pope, two personalities who had in common what is known as "terribilità". Conceived for the second tier of the tomb, the statue was meant to be seen from below and not as it is displayed today at eye-level.
And why does Moses have little horns? From the 12th century, Moses is occasionally shown with horns. These are explained by a mistranslation in the Vulgate (not followed in the Authorized Version of the Bible). In the Book of Exodus (34:29), it is written that Moses shone brightly when he came down from Sinai after he had been given the Tables of Law. St Jerome translated the Hebrew verb for shine, similar to the word 'geren' (horn), by 'cornatus', horned: "Videbant faciem Moysi esse cornatum (They saw that Moses' face was horned)".
What has Rolland to tell? "A supernatural and wild appearance. Pagan? Christian? You never know. Half-animal, half-divine. Two horns piercing his skull. A stream-like beard flowed down his face, falling to his knees, like a parasite grow of plants that had covered a tree. He appears calm, but in his terrible jaw with the pressed teeth and the stuck out under lip trembles scorn that breaks and crunches… An adamant, murderous power. A riot of anger and disdain rumbles in the silent of this arrogant being with the broad upper body and the swelling arms, with the beautiful and strong hands and the bent back left leg. This being will get up the next minute and hit. The clothes are barbarian. No work of Michelangelo is so perfect. You feel that he has more than thirty years lived with this work without being able to decide to part from it. He could watched himself like in a magic mirror, showing him the divine face of his own soul..."
Martyrdom of St Peter
1546-50, Fresco,625 x 662cm
Cappella Paolina, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican
According to tradition, Peter was, at his own wish, crucified upside down, either on the Janiculum hill or in a circus arena between two metae, the pair of turning-posts or conical columns set in the ground at each end of the course. Artists have used both settings, depicting Peter on the cross at the moment of being lifted by soldiers, often surrounded by onlookers, or already raised in position, with a small group of women standing by in allusion to the similar group at Christ's crucifixion.
In Michelangelo's composition everything is centred in the fearful event; in triumph over pain and suffering. Solace comes from the spectacle of fortitude, confidence and will-power; the intrepid character of Saint Peter. As in the fresco of St Paul, the main protagonists fit into an ellipse placed in the centre of the cross, extended on four sides by the disposition of the figures. This device lends to the design a clarity and strength which is absent from the restless Damascus scene, because there the fallen Saul appears suspended in mid-air at the lower edge of the picture, and the accompanying figures occupy different levels of space. In the Crucifixion, on the other hand, most of the figures are vertical; only those near the centre give the impression of rotating round the martyr. Their features betray the utmost horror, especially those of the women on the lower right who tremble with terror, and several onlookers seem on the verge of madness.
On the first of January 1547 Michelangelo was declared by Pope Paul III to
the supreme site manager and prefect of St. Peter’s Basilica. Michelangelo took it as God's order and didn't want money for.
Two months later Michelangelo's confidante Vittoria Colonna died; a great loss for him. But there was more sorrow. Actually more sorrow than the old Michelangelo could bear: Again he was having trouble with the "Rabble of the Sangallo's". Now, what was the matter with them? Giuliano da Sangallo was one of Michelangelo’s best friends back in Florence. He had helped him greatly and had invented the clever fixing of a support structure of ropes so that "David" could be transported through the town to his final place. But Giuliano had been dead for a long time, and his nephew, Antonio, had already started his career. Two years earlier, both had presented their plans for the fortifying of the Borgo (the quarter that was connected to the Vatican area). Michelangelo had managed to see that Sangallo's plans were dismissed. The building of the palazzo Farnese (see below) had aleady been started by Sangallo and built up to the second floor. Michelangelo continued and finished the palazzo and substituted Sangallo's plans with his own.
From 1537 until his death in 1546, Sangallo was supreme site manager of St. Peter's. Michelangelo was his successor, but Sangallo's good connections still worked. Their head was the architect Nanni di Baccio Bigio, who spread the rumour that Michelangelo wouldn't know anything about architecture -- he would just waste the money and destroy the work of his predecessor.
Here's an outlook on the project for St Peter:
All extant documents and the results of modern research attest that the Old Basilica of Saint Peter's was a beautiful church and the joy of every pilgrim. But it was falling to pieces and the prevalent taste for the spectacular caused the Popes to pull down the venerable building and replace it with a new and more imposing church. Many plans were advanced and discarded; many changes made. Each Pope and each newly appointed architect criticized, chopped and changed the earlier plans. What emerged were bits and fragments, the most excellent being those left by Bramante, though artists like Raphael, Baldassare Peruzzi and Antonio da Sangallo the Younger had made their contributions. Weighty tomes were compiled recording the complicated history of this building. In 1547, Pope Paul III entrusted Michelangelo with the supervision of the plans, but years went by before he managed to introduce some order into them and impose unity on the inchoate mass of designs and materials. He reduced Bramante's elaborate plans to a central edifice and a mighty dome. This dome, finished after his death, became the largest in the world.
The central aisle has been spoiled by a nave and a façade whose cold secularity is redeemed solely by Bernini's magnificent colonnades. One must see Michelangelo's Saint Peter's from the west side to appreciate what was intended here; likewise one should cross the nave and, disregarding the bronze canopy and all later Baroque additions, look at the cruciform transepts and up towards the vaulted cupola.
Bramante had envisaged a square dome with four towers and a light, balanced arrangement of aisles and cloisters, the whole made up of autonomous and coordinated parts. Michelangelo's plan was grander and more simple, with an elliptical parabolic cupola dominating the whole design. The internal structure of the church is cruciform, with barrel vaulting in Bramante's manner, while the castle-like façade suggests worldly rather than spiritual dominion. The gallery at the base of the cupola is almost Gothic in character. The walls below, broken by superimposed windows in groups of two and three, wedged between steeply rising pilasters with angulate Corinthian capitals, support the architrave, the cornice and the powerful attic storey. All this is but a basis for, and a prelude to, the great dome which dominates and blesses the Campagna Romana, or what is left of it today.
Facade of the Farnese Palace, 1548
Antonio da Sangallo the Younger died in 1546, and the bulk of his unfinished work fell to Michelangelo. How he grappled with his task is evident from the palace which Cardinal Alessandro Farnese had long ago ordered Sangallo to build. Elected to the Papacy, Alessandro announced a contest for the cornice design, which Michelangelo won; whereupon he was left to finish the building. The master changed the character of the edifice completely by adding an impressive cornice with Farnese lilies and a superstructure to the uppermost storey. He also emphasized the centre storey with a noble window and balcony, surmounted by the family escutcheon. Two more crests on either side are a later addition.
The vertical edges of the building were reinforced by rustic work. The windows of the upper storey, with Romanesque arches surmounted by detached triangular cornices, lend an air of organic growth and lightness to the otherwise massive and portentous palace. Where Sangallo had wavered between a unity composed of many harmonious elements, and a single, dominant theme, Michelangelo brought everything under a common denominator. The airy, charming arcades of the courtyard were surmounted by stern walls with angulate pilasters and exceptionally beautiful windows with detached cornices.
Piazza Campidoglio, 1548
Unique among Michelangelo's achievements was the architectural conquest of the Capitoline hill, that is to say, the depression between the ancient temple of Juno Moneta - who had survived as the Madonna of Aracoeli - and that of Jupiter Capitolinus. This was indeed the heart of the Roman Imperium.
In his earlier great works Michelangelo had repeatedly expressed himself in cosmogonic allusions and metaphors. On the Capitol he devised a complete plan of Creation, attested to by the strange floor mosaics of the Capitol, laid in 1940 after etchings made from his long-forgotten designs. On the top of the sacred hill the master created in effect a model of the timeless, spaceless ideal universe. The three palaces demonstrate the mystery of divine Revelation. The magnificent downward sweep of the double staircase with its platform and its statues of river-gods symbolizes the divine descent from Truth into Goodness and Beauty, in other words, into Light and the Word, indicated by the polarity of the two lateral palaces which flank the square at a slightly diagonal angle.
The master's project was accepted, but subsequently modified in places. The central Palazzo del Senatore was begun in 1546. Michelangelo is responsible for the outside staircase only, and in 1588 a new bell tower was added. The Palazzo dei Conservatori was completed in 1568 by Prospero Bocca Paduli and Tommaso Cavalieri. Giacomo del Duca enlarged it later and transformed the central window into a balcony. The Museo Capitolino lying to the left, close to Aracoeli, was built 1644-55, under Innocent X. Michelangelo lived to supervise the building of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, but the changes wrought in the original project by his successors were not to its advantage. Giacomo del Duca had destroyed the hieratic concord of seven porticoes with pillars, surmounted by seven windows ranged like archangels. And it was a mistake to smother the sides of the Cordonata, the gently rising staircase of the Capitol, with all manner of plants.
Michelangelo set the seal on his plan by removing the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, which the Romans had long believed to be Constantine the Great, from the Lateran, and placing it on a pedestal of his design in the centre of the Capitoline hill.
As emblem of the Imperial power of Rome, the Caesar holding sway over a limitless area rises from the centre of the sun, whose twelve rays branch out into a linear pattern of multiple dimensions; by means of intersecting lines six times twelve concentric fields are obtained. It is clear that in conjunction with the twelve-pointed sun upon which he rides, represents the planets (which designation includes sun and moon), passing through the twelve mansions of the Zodiac. As an assiduous reader of the Divine Comedy Michelangelo may have come by these ideas, familiar to other medieval minds, Dürer among them. The monarchic idea, too, derives from Dante. The whole design fits into an ellipse, which represents the earthly correspondence to the divine sphere, but it is an oval which contains two focal points because dualism in the world had displaced the true centre. It is no accident or artist's whim that the number seven is the key theme of the Capitol. It is found in the mystical speculation of all ages.
c.1550, Marble, height: 2,26 meter
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence
Michelangelo' last sculptures were two Pietàs. Some of them were probably planned to decorate his tomb. According to Vasari, the artist's wish was to be buried in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, at the feet of the Pietà on which he had worked between 1547 and 1553; this was before he smashed it in 1555, because one leg had broken off and because the block of marble was defective. This is the Pietà, which is now in Florence Cathedral Museum. After having broken the statue, he let his servant take the pieces. Later the servant sold them and the new owner had it reconstructed following Michelangelo's models, so that the work has been preserved.
Michelangelo, in this Pietà, did not portray any precise historical moment; instead he erected a personal admonishment to himself, "One does not think how much blood it costs." He had once written this line from the Divine Comedy on a drawing for a Pietà, and from the composition of this drawing he took this marble group. Nicodemus has taken the place of the Madonna and she, with Mary Magdalene, now does what the angels did - supports the body. There is no longer only the mother, but three people are now surrounding the body, and Christ's deadness is expressed more effectively by the falling movement in which he is caught halfway. The figures are not isolated from the emaciated dead body: they are blended, in their fear, desperation and pain, into a single setting. The bodies are denied any independent power and there is nothing to point to a higher meaning of this suffering, such as redemption.
In the Florentine Pietà, Michelangelo returned to a theme which he had already treated (in drawings) for Vittoria Colonna, with whom he had been associated in a Christian and mystical friendship. The alternation of polished surfaces with a rough texture that softens the harsh light allowed the artist to express the great spirituality of the closely-bound figures. Resting against the scarcely outlined face of his mother, Christ's head is radiant with an inner light. All trace of human suffering has disappeared, replaced by heavenly bliss.
Finally he found the time to start with another undertaking, the model for the dome of St. Peter. He started in 1560.
In his eighty-fifth year or thereabouts, Michelangelo ordered a large wooden model of the dome. It has been preserved (at the Vatican Museums), and proves that his successors kept more or less closely to the original.
Here, more than in any of his other works, the medievalist tastes of the aged Michelangelo, still so fertile of mind, shining through the 'draperies' of antiquity. Saint Peter's is a medieval dream; in its every rhythm it aspires to heaven and glorifies God. The cupola is the apotheosis of the Romanesque and the Gothic arch, with a lantern that in spite of its classical columns and candelabra reminds us of a belfry studded with mysterious carvings. This archetype of a Baroque church is made of the stuff of Gothic cathedrals and is the ultimate perfection of Brunelleschi's pointed cupola.
Giorgio Vasari cared often for Michelangelo. In August 1561, Michelanelo had a fit. He stood for three, straight hours, barefoot, working at a drawing, when he received great pain and cramps. His servant Antonio found him unconscious. His dear friend Cavalieri and others rushed to come but the tough old man was recovering quickly. Three days later he rode on his horse into the Campagna and worked on his drawings for the Roman Porta Pia, a large town gate. Michelangelo was 86 years old – a biblical age for these times. But the stubborn old man didn't want to be looked after. This was a permanent nightmare for his friends.
In 1563 Vasari furtively sorted out Michelangelo’s matters. He registered his his models, his cartoons, drawings, money and possession. He knew that the whole of Italy would be Michelangelo’s heir.
Michelangelo's enemies didn't give up. In 1563 Michelangelo's most faithful worker Gaeta was thrown into prison because of the false accusation that he committed a robbery. His supreme attendant Cesare da Casteldurante was stabbed. Michelangelo responded by appointing Gaeta to the post of Cesare. But the administrative committee dismissed Gaeta and appointed Michelangelo's number one foe: Nanni di Baccio Bigio. Out of control due to
his anger, Michelangelo refused to come back to St. Peter's. Rumours were made that the master wanted to resign all his charges, and the committee gives him Nanni as his representative. Nanni acted as the master himself. He wanted to ruin the ill and miserable old man of 88 years.
But Michelangelo met the pope and threatened to leave Rome for good. He demanded another survey, won and Bigio had to leave Rome instead. Filled with new energy, he starts the final works of his years: The work at the Capitol Hill, and he built the church Santa Maria degli Angeli into the old bathes of emperor Diocletian.
Dome of St Peter's
In architecture, detail is everything: the curves and outlines of the almost rhomboid cupola surpass all other silhouettes of its kind, even that of Brunelleschi's cupola for the Duomo in Florence and those of the great mosques of Istanbul and Cairo. If one views the dome of Saint Peter's from the south or west, whence the weaknesses of later architects are not apparent, its impact, the testament of the aged Michelangelo, makes one wonder what the secret of this dome can be. Theoretically, it should not have been difficult to design. In fact only one man was capable of devising it and granted the inspiration to carry it out. In harmonizing elements which are eternally and fundamentally opposed, his genius drew upon the accumulated wisdom of his life. The pointed cupola reveals the mystery of the universe; the miracle of reconciliation between God and man. Shining above the Eternal City, the silver-grey dome radiates love.
Michelangelo projected a dome in a slightly pointed form, and this was the shape adopted by the builders. As with Brunelleschi's Florence dome, the pointed shape exerts less thrust, and it was this which was decisive when, between 1585 and 1590, it was built by Giacomo della Porta with the assistance of Domenico Fontana. Fontana was probably the best engineer of the day.
The dome, finished after Michelangelo's death, became the largest in the world. The central aisle has been spoilt by a nave and a façade whose cold secularity is redeemed solely by Bernini's magnificent colonnades. One must see Michelangelo's Saint Peter's from the west side to appreciate what was intended here; likewise one should cross the nave and, disregarding the bronze canopy and all later Baroque additions, look at the cruciform transepts and up towards the vaulted cupola.
Add to all this Michelangelo wanted to connect with a bridge the gardens of the Farnese-family with the Villa Farnesina at Trastevere (built by Raphael). What is left is one elegant bow of a bridge at Via Giulia.
He still worked at the plans for Porta Pia and the church for the Florentine community at Rome, San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. Duke Cosimo and many Florentine had begged him to start with this church, so he excitedly agreed. He made a wooden model that was accepted without any alterations. The building was begun, but after 5.000 Scudi had been used, the money was gone and so the church remained unfinished. Many years later the community got their own church (but the model was missing). It is his last work. They closed the works on Capitol Hill after he did not live anymore.
Pietà Rondanini , (unfinished)
Castello Sforzesco, Milan
The Pietà Rondanini was the last sculpture of the artist. It remained unfinished when he died.
More than half a century separates this work from the Pietà in San Pietro, half a century of artistic evolution are here recognizable in their extreme poles. But this also marks the development undergone by the whole of European culture: from the Renaissance, from the revival of Antiquity and the rediscovery of nature, to the splitting up of the Christian Church, the return of faith after the Counter Reformation and the Manneristic art of El Greco. Only the figures of this Spanish artist, glowing signs of faith, can in some way be compared to the work which Michelangelo fashioned up to six days before his death: the Pietà Rondanini.
According to Vasari, he had already begun to work on it in 1555, before smashing the Florentine Pietà. He destroyed the first version of this, too, as can be seen in the second face of Christ in the final version. This version, still unfinished at the artist's death, was probably begun not much later then 1555. The unity between Mother and Son is even more intimate. It is almost impossible to tell whether it is the Mother supporting the Son, or the Son supporting the Mother, overcome by despair. Both are in need of help, and both hold themselves up in the act of invocation and lament before the world and God.
"De giorni mi'e... L'ultimo primo in piu tranquilla corte"
On the 12th of February 1564 Michelangelo worked for the whole day at his Pieta. Two days later he was feverish. Tiberio Calcagni, another young adorer, came, but didn’t find the master at home. Despite the rain Michelangelo had walked by foot through the Roman Campagna. It was as if he wanted to say good bye.
Final day of life, the first that brings peace to me.
Tiberio waited. When Michelangelo returned he was chided. The same evening Daniele da Volterra was asked to stay with him. Daniele calls for the doctor and then it was Tommaso de Cavalieri who stays with him until the end.
Friday, 18th of February, 17 pm. Cavalieri and two doctors are with him as he dies at the age of 89 years.
"Acquit of burden
I moaned to carry,
Loosened from every earthly desire,
I turn, a weak boat, o Lord,
My bow to you,
From storms into the gentle sea."
Finally Michelangelo Buonarroti was unchained from time.
“My wife is the art – and this more than enough – because she's tormented me a life long. And my kids are the works I will leave. And even if they shouldn't be much worth, they will live for a while."
He was buried first at the church of SS. Apostoli. The pope wanted to have him have his last rest at St. Peter's Basilica, but Michelangelo had wished it otherwise. Other Florentines wished it to be different also. Although the greatest artist of their hometown hadn’t been there for over thirty years, he was by no means forgotten.
It's not just a legend that his nephew stole the corpse and rode with him furtively at night and fog home to Florence. With huge sympathy he was laid out at Santa Croce while Giorgio Vasari hurried to realize his tomb.
At Rome the Capitol buildings were finished by Giacomo della Porta under the severe attention of Tommaso de Cavalieri.
As final word let us hear the master himself, in his typical, cool understatement: