The Agony and the Ecstasy: Book 9
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Summary of Book 9: The War
These are Michaelangelo’s autumn years, his fifties. Again, he is besieged by papal wars as he finishes the tombs for Julius and the Medici.
Michaelangelo has nothing now but a small piece of work in his Florentine studio. He works on the Risen Christ for a Roman patron. In his mind Christ never died, so he portrays him as virile. He has his artist friends in Florence, the Company of the Cauldron, so despite hardship, Michaelangelo is happy. The family continues to complain and to drain him. Buonarroto has a third child on the way, his father has medical bills, and the brothers want to keep their wool shop and social status, which he is forced to fund. He hears disturbing news that da Vinci has died in France, Raphael is ill, and Pope Leo unable to cope with the rising influence of Martin Luther’s rebellion.
He continues to work on the marbles for Julius’s tomb since that contract is long overdue. Meanwhile Pope Leo and Cardinal Guilio ignore the contract they broke with Michaelangelo and badger him to work on a sacristy for the family church, with statues. He refuses thinking he will finish the Julius—Rovere contract in two years. The Pope insists, and Michaelangelo, worrying about money and the future accepts the offer. The quarry he had opened in Pietrasanto is closed down, and the marbles are left lying there. Instead he uses the Carrara marble and local pietra serena for the Medici sacristy.
He makes the plans and models, but by then, Pope Leo has died, and a new Pope, Adrian, is elected. Adrian, being a friend of the Rovere family presses a lawsuit on Michaelangelo for damages since he did not fulfill their contract for the tomb of Julius. Even if Michaelangelo sold all his property he could not meet the expense. He is in deep trouble, so distraught, he cannot work. The lawsuit is one of revenge, for he is willing to finish the marbles. He wanders around Florence ill, like a ghost. Granacci tells him, “Last out the bad times” (p. 629). He is right, for after a two-year court battle, Pope Adrian dies and another Medici, Cardinal Guilio is elected. He becomes Clement VII, and Michaelangelo goes back to work on the sacristy.
In 1525 Michaelangelo turns fifty. He works with a vengeance as usual, never knowing how fast things will change. “Work was its own reward . . . All else was illusion” (p. 631). The lawsuit for Julius’s tomb is temporarily settled. Michaelangelo has some new apprentices and a manager of the sacristy, Giovanni Spina. At what is left of the Plato Academy he hears Machiavelli read from his new work. The Plato Academy is at the heart of the movement to bring back the Republic to Florence, so Michaelangelo is courting both sides of the fence, the Republic and the Medici, as he has before.
When the Holy Roman Emperor marches on Pope Clement in Rome, the Florentines rise and throw out the Medici ruler there, Cardinal Passerini. In the riots, debris is hurled and breaks off an arm of the statue of David. Giorgio Vasari, one of Michaelangelo’s apprentices, saves the pieces.
Pope Clement has to flee while Rome is sacked and many works of art are destroyed. Michaelangelo worries about his Roman work and his studio there. The Medici church is locked, and Michaelangelo is not allowed to work on the project. Florence however becomes prosperous again as a Republic. It is a time of change with Europe looking for a Reformation of the Church and the plague periodically cropping up.
Clement still wants Michaelangelo to work for him, but the artist cannot take Medici money while he lives in the Republic of Florence. The plague comes to Florence and takes Buonarroto, his favorite brother, whom he nurses. Not sure of whether he himself will get it, he makes his will to provide for his family and niece and nephews. Now that Clement is in power again, he sends an army to destroy Florence.
Michaelangelo is commanded by Florence to be a war engineer and build a wall to keep out the invaders. He is elected to the Militia Nine, one of the military commanders of Florence. He studies the fortifications of the Duke of Ferrara and promises him a painting in return; he successfully builds a defense for Florence. Yet he suspects that one of the generals, Malatesta, is a traitor and will sell them out. No one believes him. Thinking Malatesta is trying to assassinate him, he flees to France for seven weeks and then returns, as it proves a groundless suspicion. When his defense holds, he wins back his honor and paints a “Leda and the Swan” for the Duke of Ferrara. Then he slips into the sacristy secretly and carves by candlelight, finding what moments he can for art.
The war resumes, but Florence mainly battles starvation and the plague. Five thousand die in Florence, and Malatesta betrays the Republic, as Michaelangelo had warned. Most of the Militia Nine are executed, but Michaelangelo hides out in a bell tower until it is safe. He thinks about his turbulent fifty-five years. He has nothing much to show for his life since the Medicis came into power, and his existing work has been damaged, like the David, which now seems symbol for the defeated Republic. Pope Clement, victorious, pardons Michaelangelo and asks him to continue work on the church.
A Medici governor in Florence, Alessandro, is cruel and tries to make the artist work for him, but Michaelangelo is not cowed by him. He knows he has protection from Clement to work on the Medici tomb. He gives the painting of Leda and the Swan to his apprentice Mini to sell so he can marry. The Duke of Ferrara’s agent had said the painting was not significant enough for his master, so, insulted, Michaelangelo kept it and gave it to his apprentice, who knows it is worth a fortune. Mini is replaced by another apprentice, Urbino, who adores Michaelangelo and cares for him like a son.
Both his brothers trouble him. Giovansimone wants money to live in the style of a rich burgher, and Sigismondo wants to work on the family farm with his hands, thus damaging the family name. Always the family name and rank are important, and when Lodovico dies at the age of ninety in 1534, he tells Michaelangelo that he has helped him keep the honor of the family, and he dies contented. Michaelangelo feels happy that his father died with his honor intact, though he has been the only son who brought in money.
Becoming ill through overwork and not sure how much longer he will live, Michaelangelo goes to Rome to recover. There he meets another new apprentice, Thomasso de’ Cavalieri, with whom he has great rapport when they draw together. Cavalieri revives the artist’s spirit, and makes him feel young again.
Back in Florence, Michaelangelo has a studio of good sculptors to help him finish the Medici tomb, but under Alessandro’s bloody rule, the old Florence has vanished and many artists have left. After finishing work there, he packs up, and with Urbino, goes off to Rome, almost sixty years old now. Clement wants him to finish the Sistine Chapel with a mural of the Last Judgment. He does not know if he will return to his home, but the narrator says that an astrologer might tell him he still has before him a third of his years, two of the four loves of his life, a bloodier battle, and some of his finest work still to be achieved.
Commentary on Book 9
In each book, the opposing forces seem more extreme: the creative act versus the external obstacles. He remembers that Lorenzo de’ Medici had told him the destructive forces follow closely after creativity. All the popes have been difficult to deal with, but the Medici popes, ironically are the most difficult. They have been his family in a way, but then his own family has been equally difficult.
War is not only an interruption of his work but destroys the country and makes it weak. Florence comes back after each occupation, but is reconquered and finally falls in its glory. What war does not destroy, the plague does. Much has been made of the immortality of art, a way to preserve the memory of the popes or patrons in stone, and yet even stone may be destroyed in war. The ravaging of art works in Rome, the broken arm of the David, show the battle of time against life and art. Michaelangelo is so sickened by what happens to Florence, he doesn’t want to fix the arm of the David, for the broken statue is a symbol of his beloved city.
Michaelangelo contemplates time as it catches up to him in his autumn years. It takes away his youth and hope, but when he carves, he is the master of time, as he is the master of marble. When he works on the Madonna, for instance, time is “transmuted” and “foreshortened” (p. 664). Thus, it is the creative act itself, even more than even the finished product that conquers time: “the texture of time had altered for him, its arbitrary boundaries became indistinct” (p. 664).
The terrible toll of the wars, the plague, and deaths of family and friends, artists, rulers, are set against the continuing ecstasy of carving. But it is beginning to take its revenge on his body as he falls below 100 pounds. He gives all his life to the marbles and saves none for himself: “As the marbles grew throbbingly alive . . . he became correspondingly drained” (p. 661). Like the figure of the Creator on the Sistine Chapel giving life to Adam, he gives it to his figures: “it was from his own inner storehouse of will, courage, daring and breathe that the marbles were infused with their eternal energies” (p. 661).
For the first time he sculpts female figures that have sexual characteristics: Dawn and Night. How does he know about women? “All artists were androgynous” (p. 659). In his capacity as an artist, he has greater abilities than normal human beings. He tells Spina that he is fighting tyranny through his art.
Finally, he admits, “Every work of art is a self-portrait” (p. 621). When he sculpts the giant captives, he is like the “demigods” he carves (p. 620); the statue of Dusk, on the other hand, has his own aging face, “sunken-eyed, bony nosed” (p. 660).
Michaelangelo has outlived his rival great artists, Raphael and da Vinci, but he is also gathering around him a new generation of artists as his students (Vasari, Cavalieri, Urbino), and though he feels old, there is much to come in his life yet.