NovelGuide: The Agony and the Ecstasy: Book 4
Summary of Book Four: The Flight
This period covers the artist’s life from the age of 17 to 21. Michaelangelo tries to make it for a while in Florence, but due to political pressures, he flees to Bologna and finds refuge with a patron there.
After two years of being pampered in the palace, Michaelangelo has to return to his father’s uncomfortable house. His father has decided he should join the Money Changer’s Guild and build up a business with his brother, Buonarroto. On the other hand, his old master, Ghirlandaio, wants to see him. He offers twice the money he paid before if Michaelangelo will go back to painting frescos. Confused, Michaelangelo goes to the Topolinos and cuts stone to think about his future.
He sees that he cannot follow his father’s aim, and he cannot go back to Ghilandaio, for that would undo everything he has learned. He manages to find an alternative life for himself. He is friends with Father Nicola Bichiellini from Santo Spirito hermitage, a self-sustaining monastery with a library where he can read. This prior is one of the Medici friends, one of the few reasonable minds left in Florence, and Michaelangelo is delighted to have the use of a great library and to discuss issues with a learned man, as he did in the Medici palace. In addition, he can sketch the art works there.
The city is tense, for Piero de’ Medici, now the ruler, does not win the people’s love as his father did. Lorenzo had met with the Signoria, the elected Councils, and Piero ignores them. An opposition forms, including the Medici cousins and Savonarola. Michaelangelo would like to make a sculpture of Hercules to honor Lorenzo’s memory, for he sees him as the ideal ruler.
He buys a piece of marble himself from Beppe, a foreman in the workshop of the Duomo. Contessina asks her brother Piero if Michaelangelo can work in the old sculpture garden, but he does not answer. Michaelangelo pretends to his father that he has a commission, and works with Beppe in his workshop. It will be his first large sculpture in the round. He wants his Hercules to be a strong man, but he laments he does not know anatomy. He goes to Ficino, who was trained to be a doctor, and tells him he needs to dissect a corpse. Ficino is shocked, and reminds him he would be hanged.
He realizes he must find poor dead people without family, and the idea comes to go to the hospital at Santo Spirito. He approaches his friend, Father Bichiellini, with the request to be allowed into the dead room of the hospital. The prior says, let us never bring up the topic again. Michaelangelo feels he has lost a friend, but one day it occurs to him that the prior keeps leaving a key in the books he is reading. He decides to see if it is the hospital key and sneaks through the city at midnight. The key fits the door, and he begins his dissection of dead bodies at night. Night after night he dissects corpses by candlelight, alternately sickened and exhilarated by the knowledge he gains. His father sees him coming home late and assumes he is out on the town and chastises him.
Ghirlandaio suddenly dies, and Michaelangelo decides to make a gift for the Santo Spirito chapel by way of thanks to Father Bichiellini for his support. The prior asks for a wooden crucifix above the altar. Michaelangelo does not like the other images of Christ and the crucifixion he has seen. He makes a very human image, rather than an ethereal one.
Piero de’ Medici asks Michaelangelo to move back into the palace, after attending a family birthday party where he sculpts a snow man. He brings the Hercules and continues work on it. Piero, however, gives him no other work, just wanting him to wait around in the palace. Michaelangelo wants to give the Hercules to Contessina for a wedding present, but Grannaci convinces him that is improper, and besides he has a customer who will buy it.
Piero throws a huge wedding celebration for Contessina, ignoring the mood of the city against excess. It is the turning point for Florence to embrace Savonarola’s teachings. Michaelangelo’s brothers are Savonarola’s supporters. His brother Lionardo continues to lecture him on the evil of his art, and Giovansimone is a captain in the Army of Boys who takes the jewels and finery of women on the street for the bonfires.
The French King, Charles VIII, comes to Italy to claim his inheritance in Naples and threatens Florence. Piero is not equal to stopping him, and some Florentines prefer the French King. Michaelangelo feels stopped in his career and is in danger in the palace. One day he finds the palace emptied and the mobs from Savonarola coming to destroy the art works, for the Signoria had banned the Medicis from the city. Michaelangelo hides what manuscripts, books, and art works he can, but much is destroyed. He takes his friends Jacopo and Bugiardini with him, and they escape on horseback on their way to Venice.
In Bologna, the young men are arrested for not paying the travel tax, but they are rescued by a friend of the Medicis, Gianfrancesco Aldovrandi, who had once offered to show Michaelangelo the sculpture of Jacopo della Quercia in Bologna. He urges Michaelangelo to stay with him, and he does, while the friends return to Florence.
Aldovrandi’s home is joyous and congenial, for the Bolognese love food and celebration and luxury. Della Quercia, the great former sculptor of Bologna, has done work that inspires Michaelangelo with the vitality of the human figure. Dell’Arca is the recent sculptor of that city who had just died and left his work unfinished. Michaelangelo is awarded his work.
Michaelangelo falls in love with Clarissa Safi, the mistress of Aldovrandi’s nephew. He makes love to her and writes her sonnets. He works on his statues while Charles enters Florence and occupies the palace, finally turning the government over to Savonarola. Piero flees to Bologna and tries to make Michaelangelo be an engineer for his army, but the artist refuses and continues with his statues.
When he returns to Florence a year and a half later, Savonarola is declaring war on the Pope. The Medici cousins, Lorenzo and Giovanni Popolano, commission a St. John from the artist, and he visits Contessina to get her permission. She grants it. He carves the St. John but is not satisfied. Granacci gives him more marble to try another. This time he makes a child, and Lorenzo Popolano says it looks like an antique Cupid. He makes Michaelangelo age the statue and sells it fraudulently in Rome for an antique.
Savonarola holds his Bonfire of the Vanities in Florence and the people throw all their valuables including pieces of art into the fire. Michaelangelo is sickened and wishes he could leave. He is offered a chance to go to Rome, for the antique Cupid was bought by a Cardinal who wants to sponsor him.
Commentary on Book Four
Bichiellini is a Renaissance man, though in the church. His liberal thinking allows Michaelangelo a refuge from the turmoil in Florence and an important part of his artistic education: the chance to dissect human corpses to learn anatomy, forbidden at that time. The risk is great, for both men could be put to death. Bichiellini knows Michaelangelo’s talent and thirst for knowledge. Like the Medici Palace, Santo Spirito is a place of humanistic learning. The passages depicting Michaelangelo’s secret dissection of corpses are among the most chilling and suspenseful in the novel.
Bichiellini’s beliefs are the opposite of Savonarola’s. He says, “We believe that the human brain is one of God’s most magnificent creations. We also believe that art is religious” (p.195). The prior is another liberal father figure who will risk himself to help the young artist. Michaelangelo, like Leonardo da Vinci, is a great Renaissance artist, who cannot thrive in an atmosphere of restriction and fanaticism.
Michaelangelo thinks of the kindness of Father Bichiellini when he is trying to understand Christ. His Christ is human, and the prior comments, “Every artist’s Crucifixion is a self-portrait” (p. 224).
Bichiellini’s view of Florentine politics proves prophetic and balanced, closer to Michaelangelo’s own views than anyone else’s. The prior believes Savonarola has ambition to become Pope and even conquerer of the middle east and the orient. Bichiellini voices his humanistic view that he doesn’t necessarily want to see a Catholic world by force. He doesn’t trust the tyrant Savonarola who wants to “destroy the world’s mind to save its soul” (p. 237).
Piero tempts the artist in another direction. Piero wants Michaelangelo to be a war engineer, but he claims he will not wage war on Florence and destroy its beauty. Michaelangelo mourns Lorenzo’s spiritual death with the sacking of his palace and the destruction of art. He realizes it is the end of an era and wonders now where he fits in. Fortunately, his next patron is there in the figure of Aldovrandi, who not only lends out his home, his patronage, and friendship, but gets the artist the city commission for Dell Arca’s statues. Every night Aldovrandi and Michaelangelo read Dante together, and the artist draws illustrations in the margins of his host’s book as a thank you. The artist depends on like-minded men not only for patronage but friendship, and in this period he fortunately has Bichiellini and Aldovrandi.
He struggles in his art, however, for he is forced into making drapery on St. Petronius, the patron saint of Bologna, but he insists on making St. Proculus original, carving a muscular hero with his own face. Even the angel looks human. Michaelangelo is by nature and training the Renaissance artist who finds man the measure of the universe, and his religious feeling comes through the human form.
Bertoldo had told him to create a body of work, and Michaelangelo notes in frustration he has only created six works in four years, and of those he only considers the St. Proculus to be original and worthy. He is approaching his twenty-first birthday and feels he knows less than before. His great ambition has yet to be realized. With every advantage and break, he still lives in a very uncertain world, with constantly shifting politics and finances and patronage.