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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Michaelangelo
By Jules Michelet (1798–1874)
 
From ‘The Renaissance’: Translation of Grace Elizabeth King

WHERE was the soul of Italy in the sixteenth century? In the placid facility of the charming Raphael? In the sublime ataraxy of the great Leonardo da Vinci, the centralizer of arts, the prophet of sciences? He who wished for insensibility, he who said to himself, “Fly from storms,” he nevertheless, whether he wished it or not, left in his ‘St. John,’ in the ‘Bacchus,’ and even in the ‘Jocunda,’ in the nervous and sickly memory that all those strange heads express on their lips—he has left a painful trace of the convulsing pains of the Italian mind; of the kind of Maremma fever, which was covered by a false hilarity; of the jesting, rather light than gay, of Pulci and Ariosto. There was a man in these times, a heart, a true hero. Have you seen in the ‘Last Judgment,’ towards the middle of the immense canvas, him who is disputing with demons and angels,—have you seen in that face and in others those swimming eyes struggling to look above; mortal anxiety of a soul in which two opposing infinities are struggling? True image of the sixteenth century, between old and new beliefs; image of Italy among nations; image of the man of the time, and of Michaelangelo himself.  1
  It has been marvelously well said, “Michaelangelo was the conscience of Italy. From birth to death, his work was the Judgment.” One must not pay attention to the first pagan sculptures of Michaelangelo, or to the Christian velleities that crossed his life. In St. Peter he had no thought of the triumph of Catholicism; his only dream was the triumph of the new art, the completion of the great victory of his master Brunelleschi, before whose work he had his tomb placed, in order, as he said, to contemplate it throughout eternity. He proceeded from two men, Savonarola and Brunelleschi. He belongs to the religion of the Sibyls, of that of the prophet Elias, of the savage locust-eaters of the Old Testament. His one glory and his crown—nothing like it before, nothing afterwards—is his having put into art that eminently novel thing, the thirst for and aspiration towards the good. Ah, how well he deserves to be called the defender of Italy! Not for having fortified the walls of Florence in his last days; but for having, in the infinite number of days that followed and will follow, showed in the Italian soul, martyred like a soul without right, the triumphant idea of a right that the world did not yet see.  2
  To recall his origin is to tell why he alone could do these things. Born in the city of judges, Arezzo, to which all others came to get podestàs, he had a judge for a father. He descended from the counts of Canossa, relatives of the Emperor who founded at Bologna, against the popes, the school of Roman law. We must not be astonished that his family at his birth gave him the name of the angel of justice, Michael, just as the father of Raphael gave him the name of the angel of grace. It was a choleric race. Arezzo, an old Etruscan city, petty fallen republic, was despised by the great banking city; Dante gave it a knock in passing. One of the most ordinary subjects of Italian farces was the podestà, representing the powerlessness of the law in stranger cities that called him, paid him, and drove him out. Again everybody in Italy made mockery of his justice. There was needed a heroic effort, like that of Brancaleone’s, to make the sword of justice respected. It needed a lion-hearted man, stranger and isolated as he was, to execute his own judgments disputed by all. Michaelangelo would have been one of these warrior judges of the thirteenth century. By heart and stature he belonged to the great Ghibellines of that time; to the one whom Dante honored on his couch of fire; to the other with the tragic face: “Lombard soul, why the slow moving of thine eyes? one would say a lion in his repose.” Not wearing the sword, under the reign of men of money, in its place he took the chisel. He was the Brancaleone, the judge and podestà, of Italian art. He exercised in marble and stone the high censure of his time. For nearly a century his life was a combat, a continual contradiction. Noble and poor, he was reared in the house of the Medici, where we have seen him sculpturing statues of snow. Republican, all his life he served princes and popes. Envy disfigures him, a rival has deformed him forever. Made to love and be loved, always he will remain alone.  3
  What was of great assistance to Michaelangelo was the fact that the Sixtine Chapel, the work of Sixtus IV., uncle of Julius IV., was only a second thought of the latter, who attached the glory of his pontificate to the construction of St. Peter’s. He obtained the favor of alone having the key of the chapel, and of not having any visitors. The visits of the Pope, which he dared not refuse, he rendered difficult by leaving no access to his scaffolding save by a steep step-ladder, upon which the old Pope had to risk himself. This obscure and solitary vault, in which he passed five years, was for him the cave of Mount Carmel; and he lived in it like Elias. He had a bed suspended from the arch, upon which he painted with his head stretched back. No company but the prophets and the sermons of Savonarola. It was thus, in the absolute solitude of the years 1507, 1508, 1509, 1510,—it was during the war of the League of Cambray, when the Pope gave a last blow to Italy in killing Venice,—that the great Italian made his prophets and his sibyls, realized that work of sorrow, of sublime liberty, of obscure presentments, of interpenetrating lights.  4
  He put four years into it. And I—I have put thirty years into interrogating it. Not a year at longest has passed without my taking up again this Bible, this Testament, which is never old nor new, but of an age still unknown. Born out of the Jewish Bible, it passes and goes far beyond it. One must take care not to go into the chapel, as is done during the solemnities of Holy Week and with the crowd. One must go there alone, slip in as the Pope sometimes did (only Michaelangelo would frighten him by throwing down a plank); one must confront it, tête-à-tête, alone. Reassure yourself: that painting, extinguished and obscured by the smoke of incense and of candles, has no longer its old trait of inspiring terror; it has lost something of its frightening power, gained in harmony and sweetness; it partakes of the long patience and equanimity of time. It appears blackened from the depths of ages; but all the more victorious, not surpassed, not contradicted. Dante did not see these things in his last circle. But Michaelangelo saw them, foresaw them, dared to paint them in the Vatican, writing the three words of Belshazzar’s feast upon the walls, soiled by the Borgias, the murderers of Robera. Happily he was not understood. They would have had it all effaced. We know how for years he defended the door of the Sixtine Chapel, and how Julius II. told him: “If you are slow, I will throw you down from the top of your scaffold.” On the perilous day when the door was at last opened, and when the Pope entered in processional pomp, Michaelangelo could see that his work remained a dead letter; that in looking at it they saw nothing. Stunned by the enormous enigma, malicious but not daring to malign those giants whose eyes shot thunderbolts, they all kept silence. The Pope, to put a good countenance upon it, and not let himself be subdued by the terrifying vision, grumbled out these words: “There is no gold in it at all.” Michaelangelo, reassured now and certain of not being understood, replied to this futile censure, his bitter tragic mouth laughing: “Holy Father, the people up there, they were not rich, but holy personages, who did not wear gold, and made little of the goods of this world.”  5
 
 
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