The Agony and the Ecstasy: Book 5
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Summary of Book Five: The City
This book covers almost five years of Michaelangelo’s first residency in Rome.
Cardinal Riario’s agent, Leo Baglioni, brings Michaelangelo to Rome for some possible commission. He is the one who had bought and liked the fake antique Cupid. Michaelangelo is shocked at the filth and ruin of Rome, compared to the beauty of Florence. There is wreck and disease and crime everywhere, and the rule of the corrupt Borgias sets the example. Yet people from all over the world come and settle, each in their own area, because of trade and money. He stays with Leo and examines the city, hearing about the Borgias. Caesar, the son of the Pope, is ambitious, trying to take over Italy with his army. Riaro receives Michaelangelo and tells him to view the art in the city. He is staggered by the number of ancient masterpieces there. Florence is the greatest producer of new works, but Rome still has the ancient works. The cardinal goes to the stoneyard with Michaelangelo and picks out a seven foot tall piece of marble, and invites the artist to live at his palace. He is not told what to carve or if he will get a salary. Soon he sees that it is not as in the Medici palace. Here he is considered a workman.
He meets Balducci, a Florentine who befriends him and introduces him to the other Florentines living in Rome in their own section of town. The Romans and Florentines hate each other, but the Florentines are successful merchants and bankers. Michaelangelo sees the Sistine Chapel and great works by contemporary artists working in Rome and asks Leo if he can sketch nude models here. Leo takes him to the Roman baths where Michaelangelo happily sketches nude men, his experience of dissection giving authority to the lines. His drawings have vitality. Leo asks if he would like to sketch women, but Michaelangelo is only interested in the male form. Balducci tries to interest him in women for pleasure, and he declines.
He hates Rome, for there is no real government or laws; each section rules itself. Architecture is crumbling, and the people are rude. Alexander VI, the Borgia Pope, is the debauched head of the church, criticized by Savonarola for his excesses. Two of the Pope’s children are the feared Caesar and Lucrezia. Michaelangelo shows sketches to Cardinal Riario but cannot get him to commit to a commission. Meanwhile, brothers of the Buonarroti family show up in Rome asking for help. The monk Lionardo is starving and wants money. Ludovico, the father, is in financial trouble and could end in debtor’s prison unless Michelangelo sends money. He sends what he has and then presents Riario with two possible themes: a Pieta or an Apollo. He cannot carve without permission, but the Cardinal ignores him.
In desperation, he goes to the sculpture studio of Andrea Bregno, the most successful studio in Rome. He is a prolific sculptor but without invention. He tells Michaelangelo that sculpture is merely a reproductive art. He says he will apprentice Michaelangelo, who refuses, saying he has already served as Bertoldo’s apprentice. Then, his brother Buonarroto comes to Rome looking for work and telling of the family misfortune, but he cannot find work and leaves again.
Piero de’ Medici is in Rome, trying to get troops and money to take back Florence from Savonarola. He tells Michaelangelo that he would commission a statue from him, but he is vague. At a New Year’s party, Michaelangelo presents clay models for the Cardinal to choose from, but he dismisses him, telling him to continue thinking about it.
Finally, the artist meets Guiliano da Sangallo, a Florentine architect who says he is working for the wrong cardinal. He takes Michaelangelo to all the ruins, and together they sketch how they would look restored. Piero meanwhile leads him on in the idea that he wants a Cupid, so Michaelangelo buys the materials and begins. Piero deftly backs out, but at least he has been able to satisfy his urge to carve, though he had to bear the expense himself.
A reign of terror in Rome ends in the death of Juan Borgia, killed by his own brother, Caesar. The court is in mourning, and Michaelangelo cannot approach Cardinal Riario about sculpture. Baglioni tells him to look for another patron. His brothers show up again, both asking for money, and his stepmother has died, leaving his father desolate. Riario gives him the marble to keep and dismisses him, and Michaelangelo gets a loan from a fellow Florentine, Paolo Rucellai, a distant relative. Balducci helps him sell the finished Cupid to his boss, the banker, Jacopo Galli. Michaelangelo has to send money to his father several times to save the family name. He is the main breadwinner of the family.
Galli and Michaelangelo hit it off, and the artist moves his block to Galli’s house to live with him and carve a Bacchus for him. Michaelangelo meets intellectual Romans at Galli’s and gains respect. Galli tells him his sculpture has soul, and after it is finished, throws a party where Michaelangelo receives great praise.
The Cardinal Goslaye of San Dionigi sees the Bacchus and praises its vitality. He commissions a sculpture for a niche in the Chapel of the Kings of France. Michaelangelo begins on his Pieta, the dead Christ in the arms of Mary, choosing to rent a place on his own for a studio and home. The Florentines in Rome are happy with Savonarola in Florence for defying the Borgia Pope, but civil war breaks out in Florence, and eventually Savonarola is hanged. Michaelangelo is shaken, but too happy in his art to pay much attention to politics.
His brother Buonarotto helps to fix up his new Roman studio and finds him a young apprentice to cook and care for him, Argiento, a boy from Florence, who proves to be loyal and helpful. He finds Jewish men to sketch for the Christ, and he decides on a young face for the ageless Virgin. He tries to work quickly, for the Cardinal is frail and may not live to see the work completed. Michaelangelo makes a hat with a candle on it so he can work at night. He has another reason to hurry, for Florence is announcing a competition to carve the great Duccio column, which Michaelangelo would die to get. Torrigiani, his old enemy, is also going to compete.
Galli tells him that the finished Pieta, which has taken two years, is the most beautiful statue in Rome, but because the Cardinal has just died, they will have to install it quietly. This is a letdown for Michaelangelo, for there is no publicity, or public appreciation. He overhears a few people in the chapel where it has been installed, wondering who made the statue, and he comes back at night to carve his name on the band across the Virgin’s breast: “Michaelangelo Buonarroti of Florence made this.” He and Argiento leave for Florence for the Duccio competition.
Commentary on Book Five
There is a constant contrast between the filth of Rome and the beauty of Florence. The Florentines seemed fickle, choosing the fanatic Savonarola over the lavish Medicis, but the Church of Rome is so corrupt that one understands why Savonarola became popular at this time. He opposed the Pope and promised to reform the Church and government. However, we also get the gory details of Savonarola’s execution in Florence. He failed because he was as extreme in his fanatic Puritanism as the Pope in excess. The Florentines did not want to continue to destroy all the beauty of their traditions.
At this time there are separate city-states in Italy, fighting for power among each other. The Borgia Pope did not just rule over the Church but had an army as well, and his son Caesar Borgia threatened Florence and other cities. The Florentines and Romans are not only cultural enemies, but often political ones as well. Michaelangelo’s career weaves between strands of political intrigue and the arrogance of possible patrons like Piero de’Medici and Cardinal Riario who consider an artist to be a workman. He faces great challenges in getting commissions, getting paid, and in the freedom to pursue his art as he sees fit. Everywhere he goes, he is dependent on sympathetic and educated patrons. In Rome, it is Jacopo Galli, the banker.
This book goes into more detail on Michaelangelo’s process of creating art. He is enchanted by the power and beauty of the male form, and though nude models are difficult to come by, he manages to get them at the Roman baths, and to get the Rabbi to allow semi-clad Jewish men to pose for his Christ. Once he begins work, he is ascetic in the extreme to the outer eye, refusing to eat and sleep or change his clothes. Carving, however, is ecstasy, a dynamic creative process that uses all his life force: “It was his task to impregnate the marble with manifest spirit” (p. 355). Sangallo tells him the way he did Bacchus was “a dangerous, and courageous, experiment in construction” (p. 333). It is a very physical and demanding act to chisel the marble, and one wrong move can destroy the stone.
Michaelangelo goes into hyperawareness of his marble, knowing every atom of it like his own body. There are constant comparisons between carving and making love. In fact, his carving seems to be a substitute for women, for he has no need of them when he is working. While we get his tremendous sympathy for the Virgin Mary, his own mother, and his friend, Contessina, he does not seem attracted much to women. All his themes involve virile and active male bodies.
Yet much is made of the serenity inherent in his work: “He would not sculpture agony . . . There was no sign of violence” in his crucified Christ (p. 355). The figures show great movement and energy, but there is peace at the core. He wants to portray “the harmony of God’s universe” (p. 355), and yet all his figures, including religious ones, look like real human beings.
Michaelangelo has a few loyal friends, but he is always different from his fellow artists, for they like to have a good time. He does not socialize, drink, gamble, have women, or spend money. He spends any spare time thinking of art, reading, or occasionally writing poetry. In Florence, for recreation, he cuts marble with his friends, the Topolinos. He is a good son, however, handing over all his money to his father. He explains to his brother that they now are the Bounarrotis, and they must protect the family name. The family seems to use him, and that is another drag on his creative spirit.
The many conversations of Michaelangelo with other artists give a hint of how differently he views his art. Bregno, for instance, believes sculpture is a reproductive art, as Ghirlandaio had believed of fresco painting. Michaelangelo is sometimes admired, often criticized for his belief that art should be original and up to the artist’s imagination.