Michelangelo, the sculptor. Part III.

Risen Christ (Christ Carrying the Cross), marble, by Michelangelo, 1519-1521, 205 cm height (Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome). Although Michelangelo was completely focused on the project for the tomb of Pope Julius II, he completed this sculpture at the request of the young patrician Metello Vari in June 1514. A black vein in the marble prevented a first version from being delivered to the client. The second version shown here was sent by Michelangelo in 1521 from Florence to his assistants in Rome to be finished, the parts finished later are the right hand, parts of the face and the back. In this work, as in his Pietà of 1499, Michelangelo didn’t portray pain as redemption in the medieval way, but perfect beauty as the expression of its consequence. During the Baroque period a bronze floating loincloth was added to cover Christ’s sexual organs.

By 1530, the Medici were restored to power in Florence. At this time, Michelangelo fell out of favor with the young Alessandro Medici, then named the first Duke of Florence. Fearing for his life, the maestro fled to Rome, leaving assistants to complete the Medici chapel and other architectural works in the city. Michelangelo was welcomed by Pope Clement, and made a new contract with him over the works for the tomb of Pope Julius. The Medici tombs, executed between 1524 and 1531, are undoubtedly Michelangelo’s masterpiece. After them, his spirit seems more and more tormented by new commissions, which were rather burdens, inappropriate of his character, such as the fresco of the Last Judgment for the Sistine Chapel and the architectural works of St. Peter’s Basilica. Michelangelo was also deeply affected by the death of his dear friend and confidant, the poet Vittoria Colonna, widow of the Marquis of Pescara. We know about the Platonic relationship between these two noble spirits through their letters and Michelangelo’s verses, as well as the chronicles by Condivi and the aforementioned book by the Portuguese Francisco de Holanda. Condivi, authorized by Michelangelo, spoke of this relationship in the following terms: “In particular, Michelangelo greatly loved the Marchioness of Pescara, with whose divine spirit he was in love, being reciprocally loved by her dearly… She, many times, from Viterbo or from other places where she had gone for leisure or vacation, returned to Rome only to see Michelangelo; and he had so much love for her, that he often assured that he deeply regretted not having kissed her in the forehead, the same way he kissed her hand, when he went to see her on her deathbed “.

Vittoria Colonna died in 1547. Michelangelo, who was to survive her for 16 years, remained faithful to her memory. Their friendship seems to have been deep; they were both of middle age when they met, and she had the highest ideals of religion and art. Most of her time retired in a monastery in Viterbo, Michelangelo frequently wrote her letters and verses. She answered him kindly, telling him about their stable friendship, their deep affections, the sweet conversations between them, etc. There is no doubt that in these interviews the two would talk more about religion than about art, more about the love of God than about aesthetic doctrines.

Vittoria Colonna seems to have contributed much, with her life and death, to developing the mystical fever that attacked the sculptor in his older years, making him despise and even almost hate his art. “Already old and with many years, – to the ancient desire I return and return…”, he said, still remembering her. But the idea of ​​death worries him and asks God to fill him only with divine love. Above all, he is tormented by the fallacies of art: “At the end of this life of mine…, – of which I made of art an idol and a monarch, – I know well how much in error I lived… -No more painting, no more sculpting, no more condemn me, – the soul flies towards the divine love, – that opened its arms in the cross to save me! “. And indeed, during the first 17 years that followed his transfer to Rome in 1533, and from where he would not leave until his death (except for a brief escape in 1556, before the advance of the Spanish army), we only know a single sculpture: the bust of Brutus (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence), sculpted around 1538.

Brutus, marble, by Michelangelo, 1539-1540, 74 cm height (without base) (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence). This is Michelangelo’s last work of primarily political significance and his last commissioned sculpture. In this bust, Michelangelo gave Brutus an heroic aspect in keeping with political sentiment against tyranny at the time of its creation. Michelangelo carved Brutus a few years after the defeat of the Republic of Florence (1527–1531). As a supporter of the Florentine Republic, Michelangelo was a strong opponent of tyranny. In the Renaissance, Brutus came to be seen as a strong and defiant opponent of tyranny. In this sculpture, the viewer is confronted here with a massive broad shoulders under a classical cape, while the face shows strength of will in the way it is turned to the right, a cold tranquility and great energy that blends fascinatingly with hatred, wrath and bitter contempt. The face of the sculpture is asymmetrical, with the side turned away from the spectator showing more signs of emotion, including a flared nostril. The bust of Brutus was commissioned by a Medici opponent, the Republican Donato Giannotti, for Cardinal Niccolò Ridolfi as a symbol of Republican virtue. Michelangelo left the bust unfinished and it was completed by Tiberio Calcagni before the death of Cardinal Ridolfi in 1550.

However, that creative force that allowed Michelangelo to concentrate his highest thoughts on a piece of marble was reflected in his long and lonely old age. When Condivi published his story, Michelangelo was sculpting a Pietà group in which he had portrayed himself as Nicodemus. “This is a group of four figures,” says Condivi, “larger than life…, but it would be impossible to describe the beauty and feeling of each one of them, especially of the troubled Mother.” It seems that Michelangelo carved that group between 1547 and 1555, to be placed on his grave; but displeased with this artistic relapse, he ended up leaving it unfinished and even broke it into pieces. Vasari explains us how, later restored by Tiberio Calcagni a friend of Michelangelo (who perhaps had to completely sculpt the figure of the Magdalene), this group of the Pietà was for some time in the villa of Pierantonio Bandini until it was transferred to Florence. Its placement in the cathedral, where today is kept, dates only from 1722. This “Florentine Pietà” doesn’t seem to have been the only one that Michelangelo destroyed. In his last years, “the thorns and nails in one hand and the other…, the blood that washed away our sin” were the only contemplation and hope of Michelangelo as he grew older: “Your blood washed my wicked clothes, – and the more you fill me the older I am.” Among the sculptures found in his house during the inventory after his death, there is “another statue begun with a Christ and another figure above, stacked together, rough and unfinished”, which must refer to the sculpture that belonged to the Rondanini Palace of Rome, the most tragic and mysterious of all the works by Michelangelo: the so-called “Rondanini Pietà”, now kept at the Castello Sforzesco in Milan, a group in which the two vertical figures (the standing Mother holding the dead Son) formed a haunted and moving ensemble like no other.

Pietà (The Florentine Pietà), marble, by Michelangelo, ca. 1547-1555, 226 cm height (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence). Michelangelo’s last sculptures were two Pietàs, probably intended to decorate his tomb. In this interpretation of the Pietà, Michelangelo didn’t portray any precise historical moment, but a personal admonishment to himself. According to Vasari, this Pietà includes a self-portrait of Michelangelo as Nicodemus and had originally been intended to surmount his own tomb in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Without commission, Michelangelo worked tirelessly into the night with just a single candle to illuminate his work. Vasari wrote that he began to work on this sculpture to amuse his mind and to keep his body healthy. The statue shows the body of Christ just after his crucifixion, being assisted by a distraught Virgin Mary to his left and a cold and distant Mary Magdalene to his right. All three of these figures are in some way helped by the hooded figure in supporting Christ’s body. The hooded figure can be one of two people, or even both: Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus, the latter of which is most generally accepted by art historians. In this group, Nicodemus has taken the place of the Madonna and she, with Mary Magdalen now does what the angels did in previous works on the same theme: they support Christ’s body. After 8 years of working on this sculpture, one night in 1555, Michelangelo, in a fit of frustration, struck his work on and attempt to completely destroy it. His pupil, Tiberio Calcagni (1532-1565) continued the work, completed Mary Magdalene, restored the missing arm and prepared a replacement for the leg. Michelangelo then gave it to his servant Antonio in 1561. This “Pietà” represents an unconventional representation of the theme, since traditionally, a Pietà scene is only shared between the Virgin Mary and Christ’s body.
Pietà (The Florentine Pietà, detail), marble, by Michelangelo, ca. 1547-1555 (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence). According to Vasari, the Florentine Pietà includes a self-portrait of the artist as the hooded figure of Nicodemus.

All of Michelangelo’s acquaintances had preceded him in the grave: his siblings, his protectors, his dear friend, his faithful servant, as well as his friends and enemies; he had been left alone, but until the last time he remained strong and full of will. His last days were those of a titan that fades away. He worked all Saturday, and on Sunday, not remembering what day it was, he wanted to go to work. On Monday, February 15, the fever struck him, and feeling his head heavy, he wanted to try to clear it by riding a horse, as he was used to do every afternoon; but the cold and his weakness prevented him to do it, and thus he returned to sit near the fire, where he felt better than in bed. Three days later he died, on February 18, 1564; he was almost 90 years old. His nephew arrived from Florence when his body was already placed on a catafalque in the Church of the Holy Apostles, and with the excuse of having received direct instructions from the deceased (Michelangelo’s last request was to be buried in his beloved Florence), he sent at night almost secretly, the maestro’s mortal remains to Florence, so as not to draw the attention of the people of Rome, who didn’t want them to be taken away.

Rondanini Pietà (unfinished), marble, by Michelangelo, 1555-1564, 195 cm height (Castello Sforzesco, Milan). The name Rondanini refers to the fact that the sculpture stood for centuries in the courtyard at the Palazzo Rondanini in Rome. Michelangelo’s last sculpture, this work remained unfinished when the maestro died. More than 50 years separates this work from the Pietà in St. Peter’s: half a century of artistic evolution can be recognized here in its extreme poles. But a work like this also summarizes the development undergone by the whole European culture: from the Renaissance and 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 that was developing. Michelangelo was working tirelessly on this sculpture six days before his death. According to Vasari, he had already begun to work on it in 1555, before destroying the Florentine Pietà (see picture above). Michelangelo also destroyed the first version of this work too. In this work, Michelangelo presents us with the unity between Mother and Son in an even more intimate way. It is almost impossible to tell whether it is the Mother supporting the Son, or the Son supporting the Mother. The elongated figures of both Virgin and Christ are a departure from the idealized figures of Michelangelo’s earlier style, and have been compared more to the attenuated figures of Gothic sculpture than those of the Renaissance. The general look of this Pietà aligns with Michelangelo’s late tendencies away from naturalism and humanism and more toward a mystical Neoplatonism, in which he conceived of a sculpture as latent in the marble and requiring merely the removal of superfluous material; in this manner he seems to have deprived his figures of corporeal quality in an attempt to convey a purely spiritual idea.

In Florence, Michelangelo received solemn funeral services at San Lorenzo, and Vasari designed his mausoleum in the church of Santa Croce. Vasari, who described this funeral in which he played an important role, lists the names of the four most egregious artists of Florence at that time, chosen to arrange Michelangelo’s funeral and burial: Benvenuto Cellini and Bartolomeo Ammannati, sculptors, and Bronzino and Vasari himself as painters; certainly names that, while worthy, cannot be compared with those of the generation of artists that preceded them.

The tomb of Michelangelo in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, projected in 1578 by Giorgio Vasari.

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