The Agony and the Ecstasy: Book 11
Summary of Book 11:The Dome
At the end of his long life, Michaelangelo is named architect of St. Peter’s in Rome and designs a glorious dome. He dies just before his ninetieth birthday.
On Christmas Day of 1541 the Sistine Chapel is thrown open to the public with its completed Last Judgment altarpiece. The people are stunned by its magnificence. Artists and admirers stream to his studio to congratulate him. However, he does have enemies, Sangallo the architect and Cardinal Caraffa, who soon start trouble, claiming the naked figures are obscene. Artists crowd the Sistine to copy his figures, and Pope Paul supports him by asking him to paint frescos in the Pauline Chapel—a Conversion of Paul, and the Crucifixion of Peter.
With the help of his assistants, Rafaello and Urbino, he completes and installs the statues for the tomb of Julius, finally, with some design changes. The Moses is the greatest piece and enough of a tribute, as many have said. He gives Urbino his independence, and Urbino begins to save money so he can marry.
He has been writing to Vittoria, the love of his life, but her letters become fewer. She tells him they both must do their duties. He is crushed. He learns she is ill and rarely leaves her convent cell. His workshop is busy, so he keeps occupied.
Cardinal Caraffa brings the Inquisition to Rome and forms a committee on what books may be printed and sold. Vittoria Colonna returns to a convent in Rome. Michaelangelo fears for her safety. He presses for an audience with her, and he is shocked by her appearance. She has aged, and is emaciated. He tells her he will always love her and doesn’t care how she looks. She says that he has healed an old wound of hers with his love, but now she wants to make peace with the Church before she dies. He says the Inquisition has tortured her, and she says it is only her own mind that has done that. They part, and though they are still alive, he feels she speaks as though they are dead.
Sangallo begins to design St. Peter’s so it would tear down part of the Sistine Chapel and Michaelangelo’s fresco. Michaelangelo tells Pope Paul, who then stops work on the church, saying he is out of funds, but Sangallo knows it is Michaelangelo who has stopped the building. Baccio Bigio, Sangallo’s assistant, and Sangallo work with Cardinal Caraffa to control the approval of all art in Rome through his committee. Still, worshippers fall to their knees in the Sistine in front of Michaelangelo’s painting.
Pope Paul then has Michaelangelo critique the walls that Sangallo designed for the defense of the Vatican. Michaelangelo says they cover too much territory and would be hard to defend. The Pope agrees with Michaelangelo and appoints him as a consulting architect. Next Michaelangelo criticizes Sangallo’s design of the Farnese palace and draws a better design. It is said Michaelangelo wants to be the architect for St. Peter’s, but he denies it.
Conditions are extreme as usual. On the one hand, Caraffa is censoring the classics, and on the other, Michaelangelo’s poetry is being studied as serious literature, copied, and passed around. Michaelangelo puts Tommaso in charge of the Farnese palace. He is now a fine draftsman and architect, trained by Michaelangelo. He himself works on the Pauline chapel frescos, putting his portrait on Nicodemus, who helped take Christ down from the cross.
Another enemy shows up on the scene, Aretino, the blackmailer, who writes nasty letters accusing Michaelangelo of improper behavior with Tommaso. He feels ill; this is the first time in his seventy years he has been accused of this crime, though he had lived and worked with at least thirty apprentices. Aretino spreads these rumors in Rome, but Michaelangelo ignores them. Tommaso says he only worries about his master’s reputation. They do not let the rumors affect them.
Sangallo dies and Michaelangelo is appointed architect of St. Peter’s. Michaelangelo objects that he is over seventy and doesn’t know where he would get the energy, but he wants to rescue St. Peter’s and feels the original concept was his. He should complete it. He refuses to accept pay. He begins to paint the Pauline chapel in the morning and supervise the church in the afternoon. Many of the workers and contractors loyal to Sangallo oppose him, and no work is completed. Once the Pope and Michaelangelo clear out the workers who are opposed, the church rises quickly. The Pope asks him also to restore the Campidoglio. Michaelangelo is excited about restoring the glory of Rome. Tommaso is his assistant, and they draw the plans for the next fifty years of work, to be completed after Michaelangelo is gone.
Cardinal Caraffa is persecuting Vittoria Colonna’s family and acquaintances. She flees to another convent in Rome, and when Michaelangelo visits her, she sometimes does not say a word. She tells him she got special permission to see the Last Judgment in the Sistine, and her eyes come alive telling him about it, but her remaining days are few. She tells Michaelangelo she awaits her reunion with God in joy, and that he does not really need her, for his love is art, and he will go on with that.
When he views her dead body soon after, she looks young again, with a sublime look. Caraffa will not allow her to be buried in Rome. Her body is smuggled out and buried next to her husband’s in Naples. Michaelangelo thinks of the irony of that, since the marchese did not love his wife, but Vittoria was “the crowning love of his life” and he had “never been permitted to fulfill it” (p. 734).
Michaelangelo is the “Master” artist and architect in Rome and is offered many projects. Florence wants him back as well. He spends much of his time on the Pauline chapel, but to satisfy himself works on a Descent of Christ from the cross in marble. He thinks of it as going on his own tomb. In the times his energy fails, he becomes cantankerous. All his old friends have died: Granacci, Balducci, Baglioni, Sebastiano. His brother Giovansimone dies, and he urges his nephew Lionardo to marry and carry on the family name. Tommaso has married and has children.
Pope Paul dies, and it is expected Contessina’s son Nicolo will be the new Pope because he is loved. He is poisoned, however, and Michaelangelo can only console himself by carving. He had loved Nicolo as a son. The new Pope, Julius III, loves pleasure. Michaelangelo waits to be re-appointed to St. Peter’s, but the Pope delays. Baccio Bigio accuses the artist of keeping the plans secret and spending too much. The Pope demands a meeting, and Michaelangelo says it must be at St. Peter’s. He defends himself but refuses to share the designs, saying he is the only one who has been able to raise the walls, and he takes no salary. The Pope gives him the contract, but in a few months, he shuts off the project because he is using the money for his own pleasures.
While carving, Michaelangelo uncharacteristically makes a mistake and then angrily strikes the statue, breaking its arm. He begins the Descent from the Cross all over again. Then, Urbino says he has to leave to get married. Michaelangelo says he should bring his wife to Rome and fix the house for a family. Urbino has been a son to him, and he wants family around him. Urbino marries and has children; his nephew Lionardo marries and has children. Life goes on, and Michaelangelo is comforted. The friends and artists of Rome give him an eightieth birthday party in 1555.
Pope Julius dies and Cardinal Cervini, an enemy to Michaelangelo, is elected as Marcellus II. Immediately, Michaelangelo makes preparations to leave Rome for Florence, but this pope dies in three weeks, and Michaelangelo does not leave.
The next pope is worse: Caraffa, the fanatic from the Inquisition, becomes Paul IV. It is a violent reign of terror with the Inquisition torturing and burning people. Michaelangelo does not flee. He is summoned, and the Pope tells him his Last Judgment fresco will have to be destroyed. Michaelangelo defends himself: “The fresco is not evil. Never has there been a wall more permeated with a love of God” (p. 744). The Pope says the wall will be whitewashed, and he must paint something over his own work. Artists in Rome start a campaign to save the Last Judgment, and Daniele da Volterra, his student, tells Michaelangelo the deal he made with the Pope. He must paint coverings over the naked buttocks in the painting. He promises to take a long time, and to make the paint thin, so the painting can be later restored.
Sigismondo dies in Settignano, the last of his generation. Urbino, who lives with him as a son, also dies, and he helps the widow and children, but they move back to Florence. Now he is alone with failing health, and once, when he was ill in bed, a costly mistake was made on St. Peter’s, his first. It has to be torn down. Bigio claims he is too old to build the church, but Michaelangelo says that in the ten years he has worked on it, it has risen, and no one else could do it. That night Tommaso and other artists gather to insist that Michaelangelo build a model of the dome, the final touch before he dies. That way, it will ensure his design is completed.
His dome is his last major work of art: it must be an “image of the vault of heaven” (p. 748). He finally finishes the model. Pope Paul IV dies, and there is rioting in Rome, a storming of the Inquisition and release of prisoners. The new pope, Pius IV, finally brings peace and order not only to Italy but to Europe as well. Pope Pius reconfirms Michaelangelo’s position as architect of St. Peter’s. It is a race against time, but he doesn’t feel any “true diminishing of his power” (p. 751). Bigio is waiting in the wings for him to die so he can take over. He slyly starts taking down parts of the church and prepares a new design. Michaelangelo threatens to go home to Florence if the Pope does not interfere. The Pope looks into it, dismisses Bigio and decrees the plans of Michaelangelo may never be changed.
One day for pleasure he begins to carve the Descent of Christ from the cross once more. He feels he is inventing a new form of scupture and wishes he had ten more years. Suddenly, he blacks out. He feels a numbness on one side of his body and cannot remember what happened. He is put to bed, but when no one is looking, he puts on his candle hat and keeps carving. Two days later, he has another attack.
People crowd his studio to say good-bye. He makes his will and asks to be buried in Florence. Tommaso says the Pope will want him buried in St. Peter’s. He promises to finish Michaelangelo’s work. Michaelangelo reviews in his mind all his achievements, his body of work, and then at the end, enters St. Peter’s in his mind, sees his dome and feels his soul leave his body, rising up to meet God.
Commentary on Book 11
These are the last years of the great maestro’s life. It is as crowded as the wall of the Last Judgment with people, Popes, family, artists, the history of an age, and his great works of art, who are his closest comrades. His last work is the planned dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, an attempt to recreate the heaven he ascends to. Even here, Michaelangelo invents something new: the giant pilasters that hold up the dome. It was the tallest dome in the world and the greatest building of that age. As he said in his defense to Bigio’s charge that he was too old to build, he was the only architect capable of raising the walls of St. Peter’s.
As he is dying he thinks, “Il Magnifico would be happy; for me, the forces of destruction never overcame creativity” (p.756). He has triumphed at last over intrigue, ignorance, poverty, and neglect. He has been recognized, loved, and has transformed art and even the faces of Rome and Florence.
His last years are as fraught with drama as the earlier years, for he works in Rome where popes die and are replaced rapidly and unexpectedly. He has enemies, Sangallo and Bigio, the architects, who try to destroy his work by destroying the chapels where his great murals are. They try to change his plans for the basilica.
Yet people stream to the Sistine to see his work and wonder. He tells Tommaso, “When it comes to me, there is no middle ground. I am either the master or monster of the world. The Sangallo crowd have formed an image of me out of the stuff of which their own hearts are made” (pp. 723-24). Because he is original, he attracts followers or enemies, and they see him as they are made themselves. They judge themselves, as he said The Last Judgment showed humans judging themselves in Christ’s presence.
The Inquisition in Rome under Pope Paul IV seems like a replay of Savonarola in Florence, and perhaps that is why Michaelangelo does not flee or respond. He is tired of this constant threat to art in the name of religion. As a compromise to having The Last Judgment whitewashed off the wall, his student, Daniele da Volterra, paints over the private parts in the painting in such a way that it could be restored at a later time (as it was in 1993).
We find other instances of Michaelangelo’s slowing down, though he claims his spirit and inspiration are undimmed. He has trouble getting around; he lets other apprentices and artists help him now. He gets cranky when he is too ill to work. He has kidney stone attacks. Most of his loved friends have died, except for Tommaso, making him lonely. He makes a mistake and ends up hitting his own statue of the Descent from the Cross, smashing it, and then starting again. These are all signs that he is older, though he is vital and clear to the last. He is finally done in by his beloved marble, for he may have enough strength to paint and make plans and models, but when, almost ninety, he takes chisel to stone, he apparently has a heart attack or stroke.
The question of whether Michaelangelo had homosexual affairs was brought up in his own time by enemies and now as a research question, though there is no concrete evidence for it. The author, Irving Stone, treats it as mere slander. It is known that Michaelangelo lived a very ascetic life, though a passionate man. His love of the nude figure, especially male, and his sonnets to men, claiming passionate love, were part of the classical and Platonic tradition revived in the Renaissance. Love of men for men or women for women could be both passionate and platonic, for friendship had a spiritual dimension. He loved both men and women, usually spiritually. Stone presents his love for Vittoria Colonna as his supreme love.
He lived among giants and was a giant. The last paragraph of the book imagines Michaelangelo thinking of the list of all his works as he is dying. This is significant, for he always feared he would not be able to create “a body of work” as Bertoldo had said he must.
If one wonders whether the author’s version of Michaelangelo’s life is true to fact, one has only to turn to the endnote and bibliography. Stone’s research was extensive, even to the point of learning the art of sculpture himself. He had Michaelangelo’s letters, and material never before seen, translated into English. All his research materials are now located in the Jean and Irving Stone Seminar Room at The Bancroft Library at Berkeley.