The Agony and the Ecstasy: Book 10
Summary of Book 10: Love
The artist paints the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel and finds love in his old age.
Michaelangelo and Urbino return to Rome. His statues have not been harmed, but the house is in shambles and has to be repaired. Two days after returning, Pope Clement dies, and there is rejoicing even during the funeral, for he was hated. Michaelangelo feels a pang, for he was the last Medici he grew up with. The Florentines hope that Alessandro, Clement’s son, who rules Florence, will be ousted now. Michaelangelo is warmly welcomed to Rome by Florentines and young artists who admire him, as well as his old friends, Balducci and Leo Baglioni.
He receives a visit from the Duke of Urbino who once again presses the old suit for the completion of Julius’s tomb that had seemed settled. Michaelangelo plans to work on the tomb, but the new Pope Paul III is an art lover and insists Michaelangelo work on the Sistine Chapel. Once more he is the pawn of Popes. He explains about the contract for the Duke of Urbino, but Pope Paul and Cardinal Gonzaga, the art authority in the Vatican, visit his studio and declare his contract to the Duke is completed with the statues he has finished.
He wonders where he, in his sixties, will get the energy to finish such a gigantic project as the Sistine altar mural. He won’t be on his back, but it will take five years to finish. When he passes the building going on at St. Peter’s, he is disgusted. It is obvious the new church is being botched. He finally goes to visit Tommaso ‘de Cavalieri, the young man he had met two years before.
The moment they meet, there is mutual love and friendship, and he feels rejuvenated. Tommaso takes Michaelangelo as his maestro and spends every morning drawing with him in his studio. Michaelangelo considers him to be his Adam come alive, for the young man is beautiful and has talent. Michaelangelo writes sonnets to him and acts like a man in love. They are inseparable and are invited everywhere together. Michaelangelo begins to change and soften, enjoying company now.
He begins work on the Last Judgment in the Sistine by thinking about what it means. He hates the usual interpretations and has to make the theme his own. He thinks of it as man’s judgment of himself. He mixes socially with the Florentines who plan Alessandro’s downfall in Florence such as the gentle Cardinal Ippolito, whom the Florentines would like for a ruler and Contessina’s son, Cardinal Niccolo. They want Michaelangelo to meet with the Holy Roman Emperor to bribe him with a work of art, so he will be on their side. They are tremendously proud of their great artist, and Michaelangelo loves being appreciated for once.
Michaelangelo tries to tell Pope Paul that Sangallo’s nephew is destroying St. Peter’s, but the Pope tells him to mind his own business; he is in danger of creating an enemy of Sangallo as he had Bramante. The Florentines press Michaelangelo to meet Vittoria Colonna, the widowed Marchese di Pescara, who is a friend of Charles V. They still think he can persuade the Emperor to help Florence.
Vittoria is the first lady of Rome, beautiful, virtuous, learned, and a poet. She was married at nineteen and widowed, but though forty-six, she is stunningly beautiful, has a religious temperament, reads the sermons of Savonarola and wants to reform the church. She spends her time writing poetry and doing charitable projects. When Michaelangelo meets her he falls instantly in love with her. They are attracted, though he cannot understand why she flatters him and his art, yet keeps him at arm’s length.
He writes her sonnets, and he loves both her and Tommaso at the same time, though in different ways. She tells Michaelangelo God chose him to be his artist, but her friends tell Michaelangelo to leave pursuit for she has married Jesus. He reads one of her sonnets and realizes there is something wrong. He has Leo Baglioni do research on her past.
The Marchese’s husband basically abandoned her and took a number of other lovers. He was poisoned in an intrigue, not killed in a war. Michaelangelo realizes she wants to be married to Jesus, not because her marriage was perfect, but because it was so bad. He thinks of approaching her gently. They become close, but always she refuses intimacy. Suddenly, he realizes that her marriage was never consummated, and that she is still a virgin, half nun. He decides to enjoy the relationship platonically, for she has a great spiritual presence. She inspires his work and her likeness is in his portrayal of the Virgin in the Last Judgment.
Cardinal Ippolito joins the Emperor in battle, hoping to be named ruler of Florence, but Alessandro’s agents kill him with poison. The Florentines in Rome are stunned. Pope Paul, trying to give Michaelangelo security, names him “Papal Sculptor, Painter, and Architect for the Vatican” with a regular salary.
Sangallo thinks it was Michaelangelo’s idea to take his job away and comes to his house to threaten him. Michaelangelo goes to see St. Peter’s and is appalled. At least Bramante had a beautiful, simple design. Sangallo has complicated it so there will be no light in the building.
Once he begins painting he feels young again. He paints hundreds of people being judged, and they are all nude, as they will be naked on Judgment Day. He locks himself in the church so no one can see it before it is finished.
Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Francis I have declared war, and both Rome and Florence are in danger. Both cities have been recently sacked, so Pope Paul wisely decides not to get in the fight and receives the Emperor peacefully on the steps of St. Peter’s. Michaelangelo meets the Emperor at Vittoria’s and pleads for Alessandro to be removed as ruler of Florence. Charles, however, plans to marry his daughter to Alessandro and when he goes to Florence, he holds the wedding in the Medici chapel with Michaelangelo’s masterpieces present.
The artist is sickened by this travesty, and even more so, when Alessandro is assassinated and his body deposited in a crypt under Michaelangelo’s statues. Those Florentine nobles who had been planning another Republic with Alessandro out of the way get a big shock when the Emperor installs the young Cosimo de’ Medici. He executes hundreds of the finest men in Tuscany, including a number of young men Michaelangelo knew.
The artist is outraged, and paints his anger into his fresco as a group of the condemned in hell. Meanwhile, with the Inquisition and Counter-Reformation in full swing, Cardinal Caraffa, a fanatic who wants the Inquisition in Italy, has Vittoria Colonna banished for her reformist activities against the Church. She and Michaelangelo say good by. She will go to a convent. She warns him to be careful.
Michaelangelo cannot drive himself as he used to, and when he is tired, Urbino makes him stay home. Once he falls off the ladder and has to be taken home with a leg wound. Pietro Aretino, a blackmailer, begins writing and publishing letters about the content of Michaelangelo’s Sistine paintings. Pope Paul, however, becomes a good friend of the artist, and when he visits the Sistine to view the painting, he is in awe and kneels before it. His Master of Ceremonies, who is with him, says it is immoral with all the nudes and will one day be wiped off the wall for being sacrilegious. Michaelangelo puts a caricature of this man as a judge in hell, which infuriates him, but the artist puts his own caricature in the painting as well, as the dead skin in the hand of St. Bartholomew. Finishing the work, Michaelangelo sees it is good and is happy with it.
Commentary on Book 10
This book juxtaposes the two extremes of human nature, love and cruelty, even as Michaelangelo paints the Last Judgment of humanity by Christ. It is fitting that he puts in portraits of those he loves, Vittoria and Tommaso, as well as enemies like the Master of Ceremonies who thought his work immoral, as Dante had also done with friends and enemies.
Michaelangelo is still disturbed by the violence of Italian politics and the greed of human nature but is also hardened into knowing he must focus on work when he has a chance. He softens enough in this period to find and accept love, though it seems once more to be of the platonic variety. Yet it makes him feel young and inspired. He not only has recognition in this period of his life but affection and appreciation as well. Pope Paul at last seems to be a pope who understands and protects him. For all that he has been through, he does not seem politically cautious, and is openly scornful or frank with people who can hurt him. His courage is sometimes helpful, and sometimes puts him in danger.
Meanwhile, he continues to develop his art. The Last Judgment gives him the scope to look at humanity as a whole, both the beautiful and ugly, saints and sinners. He creates hundreds of individual portraits, drawn from people of all classes and races. He does not like conventional versions of this theme, which he finds too sentimental. He does not like the idea that the Judgment has already happened. He wants to “portray man’s agonizing appraisal of himself” for there is a “judge within” each person (p. 685). He likes to portray character at the moment of decision and here, Christ has just arrived on the scene, and each person is soul-searching. He realizes it is he, the artist, who is judging man.
Well might the Papal Master of Ceremonies be worried by the painting, for Michaelangelo does not think of himself as a religious painter at all:
“It was spiritual having to do with the eternality of the human soul, with the power of God to make man judge himself and hold himself accountable for his sin. He portrayed a single naked humanity struggling with the same fate” (p. 704).
The naked human body has always been beautiful to him, and the charges of immorality have never deterred his humanistic goal to paint a realistic and anatomically correct figure. Da Vinci warned him that no one can come after him, for he has created heroic proportions that could only be distorted by imitators. He finds his strength restored while he works, though he remembers in youth he was once so ambitious he wanted to carve the top of a mountain so the sailors at sea could see it. Amazingly, Michaelangelo has been like a mountain, in an Italy continually being destroyed by wars and plagues.
Michaelangelo’s sonnets are sprinkl