During his stay in Florence, between 1499-1505, Michelangelo worked in several commissions. Between them are the Madonna and Child (1501-1504), a private commission for a Flemish merchant named Alexander Mouscron and that was shipped to Bruges in 1506; the statues of Sts. Paul, Peter, Pius and Gregory (between 1501 and 1504) for the Piccolomini Altarpiece in the Cathedral of Siena; the Pitti Tondo (1503-1505); the Taddei Tondo (1504-1505) and the unfinished St. Matthew (1505-1506) for the choir niches of the Florence Cathedral.
Cardinal Giuliano Della Rovere, who was elected Pope with the name of Julius II, invited Michelangelo back to Rome in 1505 and commissioned him with his funerary monument, a commission that would become the great sculptor’s torment for the rest of his life, “la tragedia del sepolcro” (‘the tragedy of the tomb’), as Condivi called it. Julius II, violent and extreme in every one of his endeavors, wanted for himself a gigantic tomb, so for some time it was thought to place it at the very center of St. Peter’s Basilica, then being projected by Bramante, in the very place occupied by the tomb of Saint Peter. Later, the Pope accepted a less ambitious project, according to which his tomb would be a kind of rectangular monument attached to the wall, and thus projecting only three facades. Condivi gave the dimensions and details of this first project of the tomb by Michelangelo. The monument was to include 40 statues and be finished in five years. The projecting body of the tomb would have a front façade, the shorter one will include the door to enter the burial chamber. In the lateral facades, of double-length than the frontal one, there would be niches with statues of virtues and prisoners, of which Michelangelo only executed two, which are currently kept in the Louvre. At the top of the funerary monument, in the center, two angels would be placed holding a mock funeral, as well as four prophets seated at the corners. One of them is the famous Moses, the only statue totally completed by Michelangelo that was to adorn the final grave of Julius II.
Soon the papal bureaucracy had to disappoint Michelangelo’s sincere, somewhat primitive soul. Back in Rome, the numerous marble blocks destined for the Pope’s funerary monument, were waiting for Michelangelo in Rome’s pier. At once, Michelangelo immediately wanted to fulfill his commitments and pay the freight, eager to begin the works on the monument, but difficulties begun to arise. Later the payments became more and more difficult, until, finally, having appeared several times to collect what was promised, the artist was denied entry into the pontifical chamber. Furious and disappointed, he decided to leave Rome, taking the post to go faster, fearing the Pope would send emissaries to stop him. Michelangelo didn’t stop until reaching Poggibonsi, already on Florentine land. Although Michelangelo worked on the tomb for 40 years, it was never finished to his satisfaction.
In November of the same year (1506), the Pope and the sculptor were reconciled in Bologna, but Julius II, with his own commissions, was the first to delay the works of his funerary monument. First, he commissioned Michelangelo a bronze statue for Bologna, in which the artist lost two years, because very soon the Bolognese destroyed it. Later, also by imposition of Julius II, Michelangelo undertook the decoration of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, in which he spent four years, and thus the execution of the tomb kept delayed.
The Popes who succeeded Julius II, especially the two Medici, Leo X and Clement VII, who were also fond to commission projects for new personal works, didn’t take great interest in the execution of their predecessor’s tomb, and occupied Michelangelo with other numerous commissions.
On their part, the testamentary executors of Julius II pestered Michelangelo to fulfill his commitments for the completion of the funerary monument. They were influential figures, and the sculptor was committed to them by formal contracts. Under Leo X it seems that Michelangelo had some respite years, and during this time he completed the Moses (ca. 1513-1515). Later, as the new commissions didn’t allow him time to work on the tomb of Julius II, the Popes gradually forced the executors of the deceased pontiff to content themselves with an increasingly reduced project. Finally, after 30 years, in 1542, the final plan for the monument was set: the tomb, instead of being a monument projected outside the wall, filled with statues and allegories, would be a simple wall decorated with three statues made by Michelangelo: the Moses and the figures of Lea and Rachel.
In 1513, the successor of Julius II, Pope Leo X commissioned Michelangelo to reconstruct the façade of San Lorenzo and to adorn it with sculptures, a church built by Brunelleschi in Florence. Michelangelo designed the models for the façade, but this project also ended badly, since it was never started, and the efforts Michelangelo went through to gather the Carrara marbles were useless; the building is still devoid of a façade today. He spent three years creating drawings and models for the façade, as well as attempting to open a new marble quarry at Pietrasanta specifically for the project. Michelangelo, in one of his letters, describes the dangers of bringing the great blocks of marble from down the top of the mountain, an operation that he personally supervised. Instead, the project of the second Medici Pope had a better ending: the common burial for his ancestors located in a sacristy of San Lorenzo itself.
In 1520 the Medici commissioned Michelangelo with another grand project, a family funerary chapel in the same Basilica of San Lorenzo. This project occupied Michelangelo for much of the 1520s and 1530s, and even if he didn’t get to finish it with his proposed plan, he did sculpt two of the tombs and a Virgin. Altogether, they total seven completed statues, perhaps the most perfect work by the great sculptor. The Pope wanted four tombs, one on each of the walls of the square chapel; the Virgin, now placed on a wall, between Saints Cosme and Damien, should have occupied the center, on an altar.
The old Cosimo and his sons have been already honorably buried in a tomb executed by Verrocchio. The other members of the Medici clan that Clement VII wanted to glorify with a funerary monument were Lorenzo the Magnificent, father of Leo X, and Giuliano, Lorenzo’s brother and father of Pope Clement himself. These two belonged to the generation that we could call ‘heroic’ or ‘glorious’ of the Medici, and for them Michelangelo would surely have executed their tombs gladly, for he could not forget the hospitality he received from them as a child and the lessons and affection of Lorenzo the Magnificent, his first protector. But the Pope also wanted two additional graves for two other Medici, also called Lorenzo and Giuliano, although unworthy successors of the first two, and these were the ones that Michelangelo had to execute then, precisely when the Medici were fighting against Florence.
Vasari pompously described, given his position as court artist, these two Medici tombs: “The one, the pensive (il pensieroso) Duke Lorenzo, with a face of wisdom, meditates, crossed his legs admirably; the other, Duke Giuliano, raises his fierce head, with eyes and profile divine”. Beneath each of these portraits are the sarcophagi, with a curved lid, on which the allegories of Day and Night, Dawn and Sunset are leaning, as if to give an idea of the passing of time which drags us into eternity. The Night seems to sleep like a tired giantess who rests. “On this stone,” wrote Carlo Strozzi, “life sleeps; touch it, if you doubt it, and it will begin to speak to you.” Michelangelo, as if summarizing his sadness before that corrupted century, spoke through the mouth of the Night in some famous verses from one of his sonnets dedicated to the statue: “Dear to me is sleep, and dearer to be of stone while wrongdoing and shame prevail; not to see, not to hear, is a great blessing: so do not awaken me; speak softly.” The figure of the Day raises its halfway-finished head over its shoulder, like the sun’s halo, whose contour the eyes can’t distinguish with clarity.