Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882). The Complete Works. 1904. Vol. XII. Natural History of Intellect and Other Papers
VI. Michael Angelo
NEVER did sculptors dream unfold
A form which marble doth not hold
In its white block; yet it therein shall find
Only the hand secure and bold
Which still obeys the mind.
MICHAEL ANGELOS Sonnets.
NON ha l ottimo artista alcun concetto,
Ch un marmo solo in sè non circoscriva
Col suo soverchio, e solo a quello arriva
La man che obbedisce all intelletto.
M. ANGELO, Sonnetto primo.
FEW1 lives of eminent men are harmonious; few that furnish, in all the facts, an image corresponding with their fame. But all things recorded of Michael Angelo Buonarotti agree together. He lived one life; he pursued one career. He accomplished extraordinary works; he uttered extraordinary words; and in this greatness was so little eccentricity, so true was he to the laws of the human mind, that his character and his works, like Sir Isaac Newtons, seem rather a part of Nature than arbitrary productions of the human will. Especially we venerate his moral fame. Whilst his name belongs to the highest class of genius, his life contains in it no injurious influence. Every line in his biography might be read to the human race with wholesome effect. The means, the materials of his activity, were coarse enough to be appreciated, being addressed for the most part to the eye; the results, sublime and all innocent. A purity severe and even terrible goes out from the lofty productions of his pencil and his chisel, and again from the more perfect sculpture of his own life, which heals and exalts. He nothing common did, or mean,2 and, dying at the end of near ninety years, had not yet become old, but was engaged in executing his grand conceptions in the ineffaceable architecture of Saint Peters.
Above all men whose history we know, Michael Angelo presents us with the perfect image of the artist. He is an eminent master in the four fine arts, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture and Poetry. In three of them by visible means, and in poetry by words, he strove to express the Idea of Beauty. This idea possessed him and determined all his activity. Beauty in the largest sense, beauty inward and outward, comprehending grandeur as a part, and reaching to goodness as its soul,this to receive and this to impart, was his genius.
It is a happiness to find, amid the falsehood and griefs of the human race, a soul at intervals born to behold and create only Beauty. So shall not the indescribable charm of the natural world, the great spectacle of morn and evening which shut and open the most disastrous day, want observers. The ancient Greeks called the world [kosmos], Beauty; a name which, in our artificial state of society, sounds fanciful and impertinent. Yet, in proportion as man rises above the servitude to wealth and a pursuit of mean pleasures, he perceives that what is most real is most beautiful, and that, by the contemplation of such objects, he is taught and exalted. This truth, that perfect beauty and perfect goodness are one, was made known to Michael Angelo; and we shall endeavor by sketches from his life to show the direction and limitations of his search after this element.
In considering a life dedicated to the study of Beauty, it is natural to inquire, what is Beauty? Can this charming element be so abstracted by the human mind as to become a distinct and permanent object? Beauty cannot be defined. Like Truth, it is an ultimate aim of the human being. It does not lie within the limits of the understanding. The nature of the beautifulwe gladly borrow the language of Moritz, a German criticconsists herein, that because the understanding in the presence of the beautiful cannot ask, Why is it beautiful? for that reason is it so. There is no standard whereby the understanding can determine whether objects are beautiful or otherwise. What other standard of the beautiful exists than the entire circuit of all harmonious proportions of the great system of Nature? All particular beauties scattered up and down in Nature are only so far beautiful as they suggest more or less in themselves this entire circuit of harmonious proportions. This great Whole the understanding cannot embrace. Beauty may be felt. It may be produced. But it cannot be defined.
The Italian artists sanction this view of Beauty by describing it as il più nell uno, the many in one, or multitude in unity, intimating that what is truly beautiful seems related to all Nature. A beautiful person has a kind of universality, and appears to have truer conformity to all pleasing objects in external Nature than another. Every great work of art seems to take up into itself the excellencies of all works, and to present, as it were, a miniature of Nature.
In relation to this element of Beauty, the minds of men divide themselves into two classes. In the first place, all men have an organization corresponding more or less to the entire system of Nature, and therefore a power of deriving pleasure from Beauty. This is Taste. In the second place, certain minds, more closely harmonized with Nature, possess the power of abstracting Beauty from things, and reproducing it in new forms, on any object to which accident may determine their activity; as stone, canvas, song, history. This is Art.
Since Beauty is thus an abstraction of the harmony and proportion that reigns in all Nature, it is therefore studied in Nature, and not in what does not exist. Hence the celebrated French maxim of Rhetoric, Rien de beau que le vrai; Nothing is beautiful but what is true. It has a much wider application than to Rhetoric; as wide, namely, as the terms of the proposition admit. In art, Michael Angelo is himself but a document or verification of this maxim. He labored to express the beautiful, in the entire conviction that it was only to be attained unto by knowledge of the true. The common eye is satisfied with the surface on which it rests. The wise eye knows that it is surface, and, if beautiful, only the result of interior harmonies, which, to him who knows them, compose the image of higher beauty. Moreover, he knew well that only by an understanding of the internal mechanism can the outside be faithfully delineated. The walls of houses are transparent to the architect. The symptoms disclose the constitution to the physician; and to the artist it belongs by a better knowledge of anatomy, and, within anatomy, of life and thought, to acquire the power of true drawing. The human form, says Goethe, cannot be comprehended through seeing its surface. It must be stripped of the muscles, its parts separated, its joints observed, its divisions marked, its action and counteraction learned; the hidden, the reposing, the foundation of the apparent, must be searched, if one would really see and imitate what moves as a beautiful, inseparable whole in living waves before the eye. Michael Angelo dedicated himself, from his childhood to his death, to a toilsome observation of Nature. The first anecdote recorded of him shows him to be already on the right road. Granacci, a painters apprentice, having lent him, when a boy, a print of Saint Antony beaten by devils, together with some colors and pencils, he went to the fish-market to observe the form and color of fins and of the eyes of fish. Cardinal Farnese one day found him, when an old man, walking alone in the Coliseum, and expressed his surprise at finding him solitary amidst the ruins; to which he replied, I go yet to school that I may continue to learn. And one of the last drawings in his portfolio is a sublime hint of his own feeling; for it is a sketch of an old man with a long beard, in a go-cart, with an hour-glass before him; and the motto, Ancora imparo, I still learn.
In this spirit he devoted himself to the study of anatomy for twelve years; we ought to say, rather, as long as he lived. The depth of his knowledge in anatomy has no parallel among the artists of modern times. Most of his designs, his contemporaries inform us, were made with a pen, and in the style of an engraving on copper or wood; a manner more expressive but not admitting of correction. When Michael Angelo would begin a statue, he made first on paper the skeleton; afterwards, upon another paper, the same figure clothed with muscles. The studies of the statue of Christ in the Church of Minerva at Rome, made in this manner, were long preserved.
Those who have never given attention to the arts of design are surprised that the artist should find so much to study in a fabric of such limited parts and dimensions as the human body. But reflection discloses evermore a closer analogy between the finite form and the infinite inhabitant. Man is the highest, and indeed the only proper object of plastic art. There needs no better proof of our instinctive feeling of the immense expression of which the human figure is capable than the uniform tendency which the religion of every country has betrayed towards Anthropomorphism, or attributing to the Deity the human form. And behold the effect of this familiar object every day! No acquaintance with the secrets of its mechanism, no degrading views of human nature, not the most swinish compost of mud and blood that was ever misnamed philosophy, can avail to hinder us from doing involuntary reverence to any exhibition of majesty or surpassing beauty in human clay.
Our knowledge of its highest expression we owe to the Fine Arts. Not easily in this age will any man acquire by himself such perceptions of the dignity or grace of the human frame as the student of art owes to the remains of Phidias, to the Apollo, the Jove, the paintings and statues of Michael Angelo, and the works of Canova. There are now in Italy, both on canvas and in marble, forms and faces which the imagination is enriched by contemplating. Goethe says that he is but half himself who has never seen the Juno in the Rondanini Palace at Rome. Seeing these works true to human nature and yet superhuman, we feel that we are greater than we know. Seeing these works, we appreciate the taste which led Michael Angelo, against the taste and against the admonition of his patrons, to cover the walls of churches with unclothed figures, improper, says his biographer, for the place, but proper for the exhibition of all the pomp of his profound knowledge.
The love of beauty which never passes beyond outline and color was too slight an object to occupy the powers of his genius. There is a closer relation than is commonly thought between the fine arts and the useful arts; and it is an essential fact in the history of Michael Angelo that his love of beauty is made solid and perfect by his deep understanding of the mechanic arts. Architecture is the bond that unites the elegant and the economical arts, and his skill in this is a pledge of his capacity in both kinds. His Titanic handwriting in marble and travertine is to be found in every part of Rome and Florence; and even at Venice, on defective evidence, he is said to have given the plan of the bridge of the Rialto. Nor was his a skill in ornament, or confined to the outline and designs of towers and facades, but a through acquaintance with all the secrets of the art, with all the details of economy and strength.
When the Florentines united themselves with Venice, England and France, to oppose the power of the Emperor Charles V., Michael Angelo was appointed Military Architect and Engineer, to superintend the erection of the necessary works. He visited Bologna to inspect its celebrated fortifications, and, on his return, constructed a fortification on the heights of San Miniato, which commands the city and environs of Florence. On the 24th of October, 1529, the Prince of Orange, general of Charles V., encamped on the hills surrounding the city, and his first operation was to throw up a rampart to storm the bastion of San Miniato. His design was frustrated by the providence of Michael Angelo. Michael made such good resistance that the Prince directed the artillery to demolish the tower. The artist hung mattresses of wool on the side exposed to the attack, and by means of a bold projecting cornice, from which they were suspended, a considerable space was left between them and the wall. This simple expedient was sufficient, and the Prince was obliged to turn his siege into a blockade.
After an active and successful service to the city for six months, Michael Angelo was informed of a treachery that was ripening within the walls. He communicated it to the government with his advice upon it; but was mortified by receiving from the government reproaches at his credulity and fear. He replied that it was useless for him to take care of the walls, if they were determined not to take care of themselves, and he withdrew privately from the city to Ferrara, and thence to Venice. The news of his departure occasioned a general concern in Florence, and he was instantly followed with apologies and importunities to return. He did so, and resumed his office. On the 21st of March, 1530, the Prince of Orange assaulted the city by storm. Michael Angelo is represented as having ordered his defence so vigorously that the Prince was compelled to retire. By the treachery, however, of the general of the Republic, Malatesta Baglioni, all his skill was rendered unavailing, and the city capitulated on the 9th of August. The excellence of the works constructed by our artist has been approved by Vauban, who visited them and took a plan of them.
In Rome, Michael Angelo was consulted by Pope Paul III. in building the fortifications of San Borgo. He built the stairs of Ara Celi leading to the church once the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus; he arranged the piazza of the Capitol, and built its porticos. He was charged with rebuilding the Pons Palatinus over the Tiber. He prepared, accordingly, a large quantity of blocks of travertine, and was proceeding with the work, when, through the intervention of his rivals, this work was taken from him and intrusted to Nanni di Bacio Bigio, who plays but a pitiful part in Michaels history. Nanni sold the travertine, and filled up the piers with gravel at a small expense. Michael Angelo made known his opinion that the bridge could not resist the force of the current; and one day riding over it on horseback, with his friend Vasari, he cried, George, this bridge trembles under us; let us ride faster lest it fall whilst we are upon it. It fell, five years after it was built, in 1557, and is still called the Broken Bridge.
Versatility of talent in men of undoubted ability always awakens the liveliest interest; and we observe with delight that, besides the sublimity and even extravagance of Michael Angelo, he possessed an unexpected dexterity in minute mechanical contrivances. When the Sistine Chapel was prepared for him, that he might paint the ceiling, he found the platform on which he was to work suspended by ropes which passed through the ceiling. Michael demanded of San Gallo, the popes architect, how these holes were to be repaired in the picture. San Gallo replied: That was for him to consider, for the platform could be constructed in no other way. Michael removed the whole, and constructed a movable platform to rest and roll upon the floor, which is believed to be the same simple contrivance which is used in Rome, at this day, to repair the walls of churches. He gave this model to a carpenter, who made it so profitable as to furnish a dowry for his two daughters. He was so nice in tools that he made with his own hand the wimbles, the files, the rasps, the chisels and all other irons and instruments which he needed in sculpture; and in painting, he not only mixed but ground his colors himself, trusting no one.
And not only was this discoverer of Beauty, and its teacher among men, rooted and grounded in those severe laws of practical skill, which genius can never teach, and which must be learned by practice alone, but he was one of the most industrious men that ever lived. His diligence was so great that it is wonderful how he endured its fatigues. The midnight battles, the forced marches, the winter campaigns of Julius Cæsar or Charles XII. do not indicate greater strength of body or of mind. He finished the gigantic painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in twenty months, a fact which enlarges, it has been said, the known powers of man. Indeed he toiled so assiduously at this painful work, that, for a long time after, he was unable to see any picture but by holding it over his head. A little bread and wine was all his nourishment; and he told Vasari that he often slept in his clothes, both because he was too weary to undress, and because he would rise in the night and go immediately to work. I have found, says his friend, some of his designs in Florence, where, whilst may be seen the greatness of his genius, it may also be known that when he wished to take Minerva form the head of Jove, there needed the hammer of Vulcan. He used to make to a single figure nine, ten, or twelve heads before he could satisfy himself, seeking that there should be in the composition a certain universal grace such as Nature makes, saying that he needed to have his compasses in his eye, and not in his hand, because the hands, because the hands work whilst the eye judges. He was accustomed to say, Those figures alone are good from which the labor is scraped off when the scaffolding is taken away.
And what did he accomplish? It does not fall within our design to give an account of his works, yet for the sake of the completeness of our sketch we will name the principal ones. Sculpture, he called his art, and to it he regretted he had not singly given himself. The style of his paintings is monumental; and even his poetry partakes of that character. In sculpture, his greatest work is the statue of Moses in the Church of Pietro in Vincolo, in Rome. It is a sitting statue of colossal size, and is designed to embody the Hebrew Law. The lawgiver is supposed to gaze upon the worshippers of the golden calf. The majestic wrath of the figure daunts the beholder. In the Piazza del Gran Duca at Florence, stands, in the open air, his David, about to hurl the stone at Goliath. In the church called the Minerva, at Rome, is his Christ; an object of so much devotion to the people that the right foot has been shod with a brazen sandal to prevent it from being kissed away. In Saint Peters, is his Pietà, or dead Christ in the arms of his mother. In the mausoleum of the Medici at Florence are the tombs of Lorenzo and Cosmo, with the grand statues of Night and Day, and Aurora and Twilight. Several statues of less fame, and bas-reliefs, are in Rome and Florence and Paris.
His paintings are in the Sistine Chapel, of which he first covered the ceiling with the story of the Creation, in successive compartments, with the great series of the Prophets and Sibyls in alternate tablets, and a series of greater and smaller fancy pieces in the lunettes. This is his capital work painted in fresco. Every one of these pieces, every figure, every hand and foot and finger, is a study of anatomy and design. Slighting the secondary arts of coloring, and all the aids of graceful finish, he aimed exclusively, as a stern designer, to express the vigor and magnificence of his conceptions. Upon the wall, over the altar, is painted the Last Judgment.
Of his designs, the most celebrated is the cartoon representing soldiers coming out of the bath and arming themselves; an incident of the war of Pisa. The wonderful merit of this drawing, which contrasts the extremes of relaxation and vigor, is conspicuous even in the coarsest prints.
Of his genius for architecture it is sufficient to say that he built Saint Peters, an ornament of the earth. He said he would hang the Pantheon in the air; and he redeemed his pledge by suspending that vast cupola, without offence to grace or to stability, over the astonished beholder. He did not live to complete the work; but is there not something affecting in the spectacle of an old man, on the verge of ninety years, carrying steadily onward, with the heat and determination of manhood, his poetic conceptions into progressive execution, surmounting by the dignity of his purposes all obstacles and all enmities, and only hindered by the limits of life from fulfilling his designs? Very slowly came he, after months and years, to the dome. At last he began to model it very small in wax. When it was finished, he had it copied larger in wood, and by this model it was built. Long after it was completed, and often since, to this day, rumors are occasionally spread that it is giving way, and it is said to have been injured by unskilful attempts to repair it. Benedict XIV., during one of these panics, sent for the architect Marchese Polini, to come to Rome and examine it. Polini put an end to all the various projects of repairs, by the satisfying sentence: The cupola does not start, and if it should start, nothing can be done but to pull it down.3
The impulse of his grand style was instantaneous upon his contemporaries. Every stroke of his pencil moved the pencil in Raphaels hand. Raphael said, I bless God I live in the times of Michael Angelo. Sir Joshua Reynolds, two centuries later, declared to the British Institution, I feel a self-congratulation in knowing myself capable of such sensations as he intended to excite.
A man of such habits and such deeds made good his pretensions to a perception and to delineation of external beauty. But inimitable as his works are, his whole life confessed that his hand was all inadequate to express his thought. He alone, he said, is an artist whose hands can perfectly execute what his mind has conceived; and such was his own mastery that men said, the marble was flexible in his hands. Yet, contemplating ever with love the idea of absolute beauty, he was still dissatisfied with his own work. The things proposed to him in his imagination were such that, for not being able with his hands to express so grand and terrible conceptions, he often abandoned his work. For this reason he often only blocked his statue. A little before he died, he burned a great number of designs, sketches and cartoons made by him, being impatient of their defects. Grace in living forms, except in very rare instances, did not satisfy him. He never made but one portrait (a cartoon of Messer Tommaso di Cavalieri), because he abhorred to draw a likeness unless it were of infinite beauty.4
Such was his devotion to art. But let no man suppose that the images which his spirit worshipped were mere transcripts of external grace, or that this profound soul was taken or holden in the chains of superficial beauty. To him, of all men, it was transparent. Through it he beheld the eternal spiritual beauty which ever clothes itself with grand and graceful outlines, as its appropriate form. He called external grace the frail and weary weed, in which God dresses the soul which he has called into Time. As from the fire, heat cannot be divided, no more can beauty from the eternal. He was conscious in his efforts of higher aims than to address the eye. He sought, through the eye, to reach the soul. Therefore, as, in the first place, he sought to approach the Beautiful by the study of the True, so he failed not to make the next step of progress, and to seek Beauty in its highest form, that of Goodness. The sublimity of his art is in his life. He did not only build a divine temple, and paint and carve saints and prophets. He lived out the same inspiration. There is no spot upon his fame. The fire and sanctity of his pencil breathe in his words. When he was informed that Paul IV. desired he should paint again the side of the chapel where the Last Judgment was painted, because of the indecorous nudity of the figures, he replied, Tell the Pope that this is easily done. Let him reform the world and he will find the pictures will reform themselves. He saw clearly that if the corrupt and vulgar eyes that could see nothing but indecorum in his terrific prophets and angels could be purified as his own were pure, they would only find occasion for devotion in the same figures. As he refused to undo his work, Daniel di Volterra was employed to clothe the figures; hence ludicrously called Il Braghettone. When the Pope suggested to him that the chapel would be enriched if the figures were ornamented with gold, Michael Angelo replied, In those days, gold was not worn; and the characters I have painted were neither rich nor desirous of wealth, but holy men, with whom gold was an object of contempt.
Not until he was in the seventy-third year of his age, he undertook the building of Saint Peters. On the death of San Gallo, the architect of the church, Paul III. first entreated, then commanded the aged artist to assume the charge of this great work, which, though commenced forty years before, was only commenced by Bramante, and ill continued by San Gallo. Michael Angelo, who believed in his own ability as a sculptor, but distrusted his capacity as an architect, at first refused and then reluctantly complied. His heroic stipulation with the Pope was worthy of the man and the work. He required that he should be permitted to accept this work without any fee or reward, because he undertook it as a religious act; and, furthermore, that he should be absolute master of the whole design, free to depart from the plans of San Gallo and to alter what had been already done.
This disinterestedness and spiritno fee and no interferencereminds one of the reward named by the ancient Persian. When importuned to claim some compensation of the empire for the important services he had rendered it, he demanded that he and his should neither command nor obey, but should be free. However, as it was undertaken, so was it performed. When the Pope, delighted with one of his chapels, sent him one hundred crowns of gold, as one months wages, Michael sent them back. The Pope was angry, but the artist was immovable. Amidst endless annoyances from the envy and interest of the office-holders and agents in the work whom he had displaced, he steadily ripened and executed his vast ideas. The combined desire to fulfil, in everlasting stone, the conceptions of his mind, and to complete his worthy offering to Almighty God, sustained him through numberless vexations with unbroken spirit. In answer to the importunate solicitations of the Duke of Tuscany that he would come to Florence, he replies that to leave Saint Peters in the state in which it now was would be to ruin the structure, and thereby be guilty of a great sin; that he hoped he should shortly see the execution of his plans brought to such a point that they could no longer be interfered with, and this was the capital object of his wishes, if, he adds, I do not commit a great crime by disappointing the cormorants who are daily hoping to get rid of me.
A natural fruit of the nobility of his spirit is his admiration of Dante, to whom two of his sonnets are addressed. He shared Dantes deep contempt of the vulgar, not of the simple inhabitants of lowly streets or humble cottages, but of that sordid and abject crowd of all classes and all places who obscure, as much as in them lies, every beam of beauty in the universe. In like manner, he possessed an intense love of solitude. He lived alone, and never or very rarely took his meals with any person. As will be supposed, he had a passion for the country, and in old age speaks with extreme pleasure of his residence with the hermits in the mountains of Spoleto; so much so that he says he is only half in Rome, since, truly, peace is only to be found in the woods. Traits of an almost savage independence mark all his history. Although he was rich, he lived like a poor man, and never would receive a present from any person; because it seemed to him that if a man gave him anything, he was always obligated to that individual. His friend Vasari mentions one occasion on which his scruples were overcome. It seems that Michael was accustomed to work at night with a pasteboard cap or helmet on his head, into which he stuck a candle, that this work might be lighted and his hands at liberty. Vasari observed that he did not use wax candles, but a better sort made of the tallow of goats. He therefore sent him four bundles of them, containing forty pounds. His servant brought them after nightfall, and presented them to him. Michael Angelo refused to receive them. Look you, Messer Michael Angelo, replied the man, these candles have well-nigh broken my arm, and I will not carry them back; but just here, before your door, is a spot of soft mud, and they will stand upright in it very well, and there I will light them all. Put them down, then, returned Michael, since you shall not make a bonfire at my gate. Meantime he was liberal to profusion to his old domestic Urbino, to whom he gave at one time two thousand crowns, and made him rich in his service.
Michael Angelo was of that class of men who are too superior to the multitude around them to command a full and perfect sympathy. They stand in the attitude rather of appeal from their contemporaries to their race. It has been the defect of some great men that they did not duly appreciate or did not confess the talents and virtues of others, and so lacked one of the richest sources of happiness and one of the best elements of humanity. This apathy perhaps happens as often from preoccupied attention as from jealousy. It has been supposed that artists more than others are liable to this defect. But Michael Angelos praise on many works is to this day the stamp of fame. Michael Angelo said of Masaccios pictures that when they were first painted they must have been alive. He said of his predecessor, the architect Bramante, that he laid the first stone of Saint Peters, clear, insulated, luminous, with fit design for a vast structure. He often expressed his admiration of Cellinis bust of Altoviti. He loved to express admiration of Titian, of Donatello, of Ghiberti, of Brunelleschi. And it is said that when he left Florence to go to Rome, to build Saint Peters, he turned his horses head on the last hill from which the noble dome of the cathedral (built by Brunelleschi) is visible, and said, Like you, I will not build; better than you I cannot. Indeed, as we have said, the reputation of many works of art now in Italy derives a sanction from the tradition of his praise. It is more commendation to say, This was Michael Angelos favorite, than to say, This was carried to Paris by Napoleon. Michael, however, had the philosophy to say, Only an inventor can use the inventions of others.
There is yet one more trait in Michael Angelos history, which humanizes his character without lessening its loftiness; this is his platonic love. He was deeply enamoured of the most accomplished lady of the time, Vittoria Colonna, the widow of the Marquis di Pescara, who, after the death of her husband, devoted herself to letters, and to the writing of religious poetry. She was also an admirer of his genius, and came to Rome repeatedly to see him. To her his sonnets are addressed; and they all breathe a chaste and divine regard, unparalleled in any amatory poetry except that of Dante and Petrarch. They are founded on the thought that beauty is the virtue of the body, as virtue is the beauty of the soul; that a beautiful person is sent into the world as an image of the divine beauty, not to provoke but to purify the sensual into an intellectual and divine love. He enthrones his mistress as a benignant angel, who is to refine and perfect his own character. Condivi, his friend, has left this testimony: I have often heard Michael Angelo reason and reason and discourse upon love, but never heard him speak otherwise then upon platonic love. As for me, I am ignorant what Plato has said upon this subject; but this I know very well, that, in a long intimacy, I never heard from his mouth a single word that was not perfectly decorous and having for its object to extinguish in youth every improper desire, and that his own nature is a stranger to depravity. The poems themselves cannot be read without awakening sentiments of virtue. An eloquent vindication of their philosophy may be found in a paper by Signor Radici in the London Retrospective Review, and, by the Italian scholar, in the Discourse of Benedetto Varchi upon one sonnet of Michael Angelo, contained in the volume of his poems published by Biagioli, from which, in substance, the views of Radici are taken.
Towards his end, there seems to have grown in him an invincible appetite of dying, for he knew that his spirit could only enjoy contentment after death. So vehement was this desire that, he says, my soul can no longer be appeased by the wonted seductions of painting and sculpture. A fine melancholy, not unrelieved by his habitual heroism, pervades his thoughts on this subject. At the age of eighty years, he wrote to Vasari, sending him various spiritual sonnets he had written, and tells him he is at the end of his life, that he is careful where he bends his thoughts, that he sees it is already twenty-four oclock, and no fancy arose in his mind but DEATH was sculptured on it. In conversing upon this subject with one of his friends, that person remarked that Michael might well grieve that one who was incessant in his creative labors should have no restoration. No, replied Michael, it is nothing; for if life pleases us, death, being a work of the same master, ought not to displease us. But a nobler sentiment, uttered by him, is contained in his reply to a letter of Vasari, who had informed him of the rejoicings made at the house of his nephew Lionardo, at Florence, over the birth of another Buonarotti. Michael admonishes him that a man ought not to smile, when all those around him weep; and that we ought not to show that joy when a child is born, which should be reserved for the death of one who has lived well.
Amidst all these witnesses to his independence, his generosity, his purity and his devotion, are we not authorized to say that this man was penetrated with the love of the highest beauty, that is, goodness; that his was a soul so enamoured of grace that it could not stoop to meanness or depravity; that art was to him no means of livelihood or road to fame, but the end of living, as it was the organ through which he sought to suggest lessons of an unutterable wisdom; that here was a man who lived to demonstrate that to the human faculties, on every hand, worlds of grandeur and grace are opened, which no profane eye and no indolent eye can behold, but which, to see and to enjoy, demands the severest discipline of all the physical, intellectual and moral faculties of the individual?
The city of Florence, on the river Arno, still treasures the fame of this man. There, his picture hangs in every window; there, the tradition of his opinions meets the traveller in every spot. Do you see that statue of Saint George? Michael Angelo asked it why it did not speak.5Do you see this fine church of Santa Maria Novella? It is that which Michael Angelo called his bride.Look at these bronze gates of the Baptistery, with their high reliefs, cast by Ghiberti five hundred years ago. Michael Angelo said, they were fit to be the gates of Paradise. Here is the church, the palace, the Laurentian library, he built. Here is his own house. In the church of Santa Croce are his mortal remains. Whilst he was yet alive, he asked that he might be buried in that church, in such a spot that the dome of the cathedral might be visible from his tomb when the doors of the church stood open. And there and so is he laid. The innumerable pilgrims whom the genius of Italy draws to the city duly visit this church, which is to Florence what Westminster Abbey is to England. There, near the tomb of Nicholas Macchiavelli, the historian and philosopher; of Galileo, the great-hearted astronomer; of Boccaccio, and of Alfieri, stands the monument of Michael Angelo Buonarotti. Three significant garlands are sculptured on the tomb; they should be four, but that his countrymen feared their own partiality. The forehead of the bust, esteemed a faithful likeness, is furrowed with eight deep wrinkles one above another.6 The traveller from a distant continent, who gazes on that marble brow, feels that he is not a stranger in the foreign church; for the great name of Michael Angelo sounds hospitably in his ear. He was not a citizen of any country; he belonged to the human race; he was a brother and a friend to all who acknowledge the beauty that beams in universal Nature, and who seek by labor and self-denial to approach its source in perfect goodness.7
Note 1. I find the following entry in Mr. Emersons diary during his short visit to Italy in his younger days:
FLORENCE, 28th April, 1833.
I have been this day to Santa Croce, which is to Florence what Westminster Abbey is to England. I passed with consideration the tomb of Nicholas Macchiavelli, but stopped long before that of Galilias Galileo, for I love and honor that man,except in the recantation,with my whole heart. But when I came to Michael Angelo Buonarotti my flesh crept as I read the inscription. I had strange emotion; I suppose because Italy is so full of his fame. I have lately continually heard of his name and works and opinions. I see his face in every shop window, and now I stood over his dust.
In 1835, soon after his return, he gave before the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, in Boston, six lectures on Biography. The first of these was on the tests of Great Men,very possibly in part the chapter on the Uses of Great Men with which Representative Men opens,and then he treated of the lives of five, beginning with Michael Angelo the artist, followed by the reformer Luther, the preacher George Fox, the poet Milton, and the statesman and orator, Edmund Burke. Dr. Holmes says, Why Emerson selected Michael Angelo as the subject of one of his earliest lectures is shown clearly enough by the last sentence as printed in the Essay: He was not a citizen of any country; he belonged to the human race; he was a brother and a friend to all who acknowledged the beauty that beams in universal Nature, and who seek by labor and self-denial to approach its source in perfect goodness. Greatly as Mr. Emerson admired his work,a copy of The Fates always hung over his study mantel, and engravings of the Sibyls from the Sistine Chapel hung on the walls,the character and recorded utterance of the man interested him even more. In 1868 he wrote, I told W that I prize Michael Angelo so much, that, whilst I look at his figures, I come to believe the grandiose is grand. Thomas Gray, in poetry, has relations to Michael Angelo, and the like question between the grandiose and grand is suggested in reading his odes. The lecture was published in the North American Review in June, 1837; the present essay is a reprint of that article. [back]
Note 2. From Andrew Marvells Horatian Ode, on the Return of Cromwell:
Note 7. In the journal for 1864 Mr. Emerson quotes Niebuhr thus: Michael Angelo was the man to be first King of Italy, and adds, And I should say of Michael that the power of his pictures and works is not so much correct art as it is great humanity. I accept easily all the criticism I hear on his style. It does not lessen him. [back]