Verse > Henry Wadsworth Longfellow > Complete Poetical Works
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882).  Complete Poetical Works.  1893.
Michael Angelo: A Fragment
Part Third.
V. Macello de’ Corvi

SO, Benvenuto, you return once more
To the Eternal City. ’T is the centre
To which all gravitates. One finds no rest
Elsewhere than here. There may be other cities
That please us for a while, but Rome alone        5
Completely satisfies. It becomes to all
A second native land by predilection,
And not by accident of birth alone.
I am but just arrived, and am now lodging
With Bindo Altoviti. I have been        10
To kiss the feet of our most Holy Father,
And now am come in haste to kiss the hands
Of my miraculous Master.

                        And to find him
Grown very old.

                You know that precious stones
Never grow old.

                Half sunk beneath the horizon,
And yet not gone. Twelve years are a long while.
Tell me of France.

                    It were too long a tale
To tell you all. Suffice in brief to say
The King received me well, and loved me well;
Gave me the annual pension that before me        20
Our Leonardo had, nor more nor less,
And for my residence the Tour de Nesle,
Upon the river-side.

                    A princely lodging.
What in return I did now matters not,
For there are other things, of greater moment,        25
I wish to speak of. First of all, the letter
You wrote me, not long since, about my bust
Of Bindo Altoviti, here in Rome. You said,
“My Benvenuto, I for many years
Have known you as the greatest of all goldsmiths,        30
And now I know you as no less a sculptor.”
Ah, generous Master! How shall I e’er thank you
For such kind language?

                        By believing it.
I saw the bust at Messer Bindo’s house,
And thought it worthy of the ancient masters,        35
And said so. That is all.

                        It is too much;
And I should stand abashed here in your presence,
Had I done nothing worthier of your praise
Than Bindo’s bust.

        What have you done that ’s better?
When I left Rome for Paris, you remember
I promised you that if I went a goldsmith
I would return a sculptor. I have kept
The promise I then made.

                        Dear Benvenuto,
I recognized the latent genius in you,
But feared your vices.

                    I have turned them all
To virtues. My impatient, wayward nature,
That made me quick in quarrel, now has served me
Where meekness could not, and where patience could not,
As you shall hear now. I have cast in bronze
A statue of Perseus, holding thus aloft        50
In his left hand the head of the Medusa,
And in his right the sword that severed it;
His right foot planted on the lifeless corse;
His face superb and pitiful, with eyes
Down-looking on the victim of his vengeance.        55
I see it as it should be.

                        As it will be
When it is placed upon the Ducal Square,
Half-way between your David and the Judith
Of Donatello.

                Rival of them both!
But ah, what infinite trouble have I had
With Bandinello, and that stupid beast,
The major-domo of Duke Cosimo,
Francesco Ricci, and their wretched agent
Gorini, who came crawling round about me
Like a black spider, with his whining voice        65
That sounded like the buzz of a mosquito!
Oh, I have wept in utter desperation,
And wished a thousand times I had not left
My Tour de Nesle, nor e’er returned to Florence,
Nor thought of Perseus. What malignant falsehoods        70
They told the Grand Duke, to impede my work,
And make me desperate!

                        The nimble lie
Is like the second-hand upon a clock;
We see it fly, while the hour-hand of truth
Seems to stand still, and yet it moves unseen,        75
And wins at last, for the clock will not strike
Till it has reached the goal.

                        My obstinacy
Stood me in stead, and helped me to o’ercome
The hindrances that envy and ill-will
Put in my way.

                When anything is done
People see not the patient doing of it,
Nor think how great would be the loss to man
If it had not been done. As in a building
Stone rests on stone, and wanting the foundation
All would be wanting, so in human life        85
Each action rests on the foregone event,
That made it possible, but is forgotten
And buried in the earth.

                        Even Bandinello,
Who never yet spake well of anything,
Speaks well of this; and yet he told the Duke        90
That, though I cast small figures well enough,
I never could cast this.

                    But you have done it,
And proved Ser Bandinello a false prophet.
That is the wisest way.

                    And ah, that casting!
What a wild scene it was, as late at night,        95
A night of wind and rain, we heaped the furnace
With pine of Serristori, till the flames
Caught in the rafters over us, and threatened
To send the burning roof upon our heads;
And from the garden side the wind and rain        100
Poured in upon us, and half quenched our fires.
I was beside myself with desperation.
A shudder came upon me, then a fever;
I thought that I was dying, and was forced
To leave the work-shop, and to throw myself        105
Upon my bed, as one who has no hope.
And as I lay there, a deformed old man
Appeared before me, and with dismal voice,
Like one who doth exhort a criminal
Led forth to death, exclaimed, “Poor Benvenuto,        110
Thy work is spoiled! There is no remedy!”
Then with a cry so loud it might have reached
The heaven of fire, I bounded to my feet,
And rushed back to my workmen. They all stood
Bewildered and desponding; and I looked        115
Into the furnace, and beheld the mass
Half molten only, and in my despair
I fed the fire with oak, whose terrible heat
Soon made the sluggish metal shine and sparkle.
Then followed a bright flash, and an explosion,        120
As if a thunderbolt had fallen among us.
The covering of the furnace had been rent
Asunder, and the bronze was flowing over;
So that I straightway opened all the sluices
To fill the mould. The metal ran like lava,        125
Sluggish and heavy; and I sent my workmen
To ransack the whole house, and bring together
My pewter plates and pans, two hundred of them,
And cast them one by one into the furnace
To liquefy the mass, and in a moment        130
The mould was filled! I fell upon my knees
And thanked the Lord; and then we ate and drank
And went to bed, all hearty and contented.
It was two hours before the break of day.
My fever was quite gone.

                    A strange adventure,
That could have happened to no man alive
But you, my Benvenuto.

                    As my workmen said
To major-domo Ricci afterward
When he inquired of them: “’T was not a man,
But an express great devil.”

                        And the statue?
Perfect in every part, save the right foot
Of Perseus, as I had foretold the Duke.
There was just bronze enough to fill the mould;
Not a drop over, not a drop too little.
I looked upon it as a miracle        145
Wrought by the hand of God.

                            And now I see
How you have turned your vices into virtues.
But wherefore do I prate of this? I came
To speak of other things. Duke Cosimo
Through me invites you to return to Florence,        150
And offers you great honors, even to make you
One of the Forty-Eight, his Senators.
His Senators! That is enough. Since Florence
Was changed by Clement Seventh from a Republic
Into a Dukedom, I no longer wish        155
To be a Florentine. That dream is ended.
The Grand Duke Cosimo now reigns supreme;
All liberty is dead. Ah, woe is me!
I hoped to see my country rise to heights
Of happiness and freedom yet unreached        160
By other nations, but the climbing wave
Pauses, lets go its hold, and slides again
Back to the common level, with a hoarse
Death-rattle in its throat. I am too old
To hope for better days. I will stay here        165
And die in Rome. The very weeds, that grow
Among the broken fragments of her ruins,
Are sweeter to me than the garden flowers
Of other cities; and the desolate ring
Of the Campagna round about her walls        170
Fairer than all the villas that encircle
The towns of Tuscany.

                    But your old friends!
All dead by violence. Baccio Valori
Has been beheaded; Guicciardini poisoned;
Philippo Strozzi strangled in his prison.        175
Is Florence then a place for honest men
To flourish in? What is there to prevent
My sharing the same fate?

                        Why, this: if all
Your friends are dead, so are your enemies.
Is Aretino dead?

                    He lives in Venice,
And not in Florence.

                    ’T is the same to me.
This wretched mountebank, whom flatterers
Call the Divine, as if to make the word
Unpleasant in the mouths of those who speak it
And in the ears of those who hear it, sends me        185
A letter written for the public eye,
And with such subtle and infernal malice,
I wonder at his wickedness. ’T is he
Is the express great devil, and not you.
Some years ago he told me how to paint        190
The scenes of the Last Judgment.

                            I remember.
Well, now he writes to me that, as a Christian,
He is ashamed of the unbounded freedom
With which I represent it.

He says I show mankind that I am wanting
In piety and religion, in proportion
As I profess perfection in my art.
Profess perfection? Why, ’t is only men
Like Bugiardini who are satisfied
With what they do. I never am content,        200
But always see the labor of my hand
Fall short of my conception.

                            I perceive
The malice of this creature. He would taint you
With heresy, and in a time like this!
’T is infamous!

                    I represent the angles
Without their heavenly glory, and the saints
Without a trace of earthly modesty.
Incredible audacity!

                    The heathen
Veiled their Diana with some drapery,
And when they represented Venus naked        210
They made her by her modest attitude
Appear half clothed. But I, who am a Christian,
Do so subordinate belief to art
That I have made the very violation
Of modesty in martyrs and in virgins        215
A spectacle at which all men would gaze
With half-averted eyes even in a brothel.
He is at home there, and he ought to know
What men avert their eyes from in such places;
From the Last Judgment chiefly, I imagine.        220
But divine Providence will never leave
The boldness of my marvellous work unpunished;
And the more marvellous it is, the more
’T is sure to prove the ruin of my fame!
And finally, if in this composition        225
I had pursued the instructions that he gave me
Concerning heaven and hell and paradise,
In that same letter, known to all the world,
Nature would not be forced, as she is now,
To feel ashamed that she invested me        230
With such great talent; that I stand myself
A very idol in the world of art.
He taunts me also with the Mausoleum
Of Julius, still unfinished, for the reason
That men persuaded the inane old man        235
It was of evil augury to build
His tomb while he was living; and he speaks
Of heaps of gold this Pope bequeathed to me,
And calls it robbery;—that is what he says.
What prompted such a letter?

He is a clever writer, and he likes
To draw his pen, and flourish it in the face
Of every honest man, as swordsmen do
Their rapiers on occasion, but to show
How skilfully they do it. Had you followed        245
The advice he gave, or even thanked him for it,
You would have seen another style of fence.
’T is but his wounded vanity, and the wish
To see his name in print. So give it not
A moment’s thought; it will soon be forgotten.        250
I will not think of it, but let it pass
For a rude speech thrown at me in the street,
As boys threw stones at Dante.

                        And what answer
Shall I take back to Grand Duke Cosimo?
He does not ask your labor or your service;        255
Only your presence in the city of Florence,
With such advice upon his work in hand
As he may ask, and you may choose to give.
You have my answer. Nothing he can offer.
Shall tempt me to leave Rome. My work is here,        260
And only here, the building of St. Peter’s.
What other things I hitherto have done
Have fallen from me, are no longer mine;
I have passed on beyond them, and have left them
As milestones on the way. What lies before me,        265
That is still mine, and while it is unfinished
No one shall draw me from it, or persuade me,
By promises of ease, or wealth, or honor,
Till I behold the finished dome uprise
Complete, as now I see it in my thought.        270
And will you paint no more?

                    No more.

                            ’T is well.
Sculpture is more divine, and more like Nature,
That fashions all her works in high relief,
And that is sculpture. This vast ball, the Earth,
Was moulded out of clay, and baked in fire;        275
Men, women, and all animals that breathe
Are statues and not paintings. Even the plants,
The flowers, the fruits, the grasses, were first sculptured,
And colored later. Painting is a lie,
A shadow merely.

                    Truly, as you say,
Sculpture is more than painting. It is greater
To raise the dead to life than to create
Phantoms that seem to live. The most majestic
Of the three sister arts is that which builds;
The eldest of them all, to whom the others        285
Are but the handmaids and the servitors,
Being but imitation, not creation.
Henceforth I dedicate myself to her.
And no more from the marble hew those forms
That fill us all with wonder?

                            Many statues
Will there be room for in my work. Their station
Already is assigned them in my mind.
But things move slowly. There are hindrances,
Want of material, want of means, delays
And interruptions, endless interference        295
Of Cardinal Commissioners, and disputes
And jealousies of artists, that annoy me.
But I will persevere until the work
Is wholly finished, or till I sink down
Surprised by Death, that unexpected guest,        300
Who waits for no man’s leisure, but steps in,
Unasked and unannounced, to put a stop
To all our occupations and designs.
And then perhaps I may go back to Florence;
This is my answer to Duke Cosimo.        305

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