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.
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.
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.
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.