The Agony and the Ecstasy: Book 6
Summary of Book 6: The Giant
This chapter treats primarily of the years when Michaelangelo is in Florence, carving his David from the Duccio column.
Michaelangelo returns to Florence with no commissions or funds but straightens out the family properties for his father. The other brothers are not doing well, and so he alone must support the family and keep up their position. He is glad to be in Florence again where he knows every stone. He visits the Topolinos and then Contessina’s family. She and her husband are banished to a peasant hut and all their property confiscated for supporting Piero, her brother. The city is now ruled by Piero Soderini, a mayor of the Republic of Florence, with the Signoria, or City Council. He is a man who can make peace with all factions, and Michaelangelo trusts him. Florentine artists are returning from exile after the Savonarola tyranny.
Jacopo Galli is still trying to get him commissions in Rome, but he is interested in getting the 17-foot tall Duccio block from the Wool Guild contest. Some favor giving it to Leonardo da Vinci, whom Michaelangelo has not met. Many consider him to be the best artist in Italy, so he goes to view some of his drawings on exhibit. He is moved by the force of the figures and is sure Leonardo must have dissected, as he had. Leonardo rejected the Duccio block because he felt sculpture was an inferior art. This makes Michaelangelo seethe, but he is glad not to have the competition. He imagines his David that he will carve will be a symbol for Florence.
Galli sends a contract for Michaelangelo to sign for Cardinal Piccolomini for small draped figures. He would be able to take no other contract for three years. Because of the family finances, he must take it unless the Duccio block is awarded. Soderini tells him that project is on hold because Florence had to use its money to bribe Caesar Borgia not to attack the city.
Prior Bichiellini advises him to hold out for his real work, not to take what he doesn’t want to do: “Do the best that is in you, or nothing at all” (p. 369). Granacci tells him he is pitiful without work, and he should carve something. If the David comes, he can find a way to get out of the other work. But he can only think of the David. He looks at all other statues and drawings of David and reads the Bible. The other versions show a young and pretty boy, but he believes David was a heroic man. He had faced lions and bears. He looks at the stone, and the foreman, Beppe, says no figure will fit the gouged Duccio block. Michaelangelo, however, can see how to swivel the hips so it would work.
Meanwhile a courier arrives from Galli in Rome with the Piccolomini contract and an advance of 100 ducats. The contract, however, specifies that he would have to finish fifteen small statues, including a statue of St. Francis started by Torrigiani, his old enemy. Michaelangelo goes to Soderini in one last desperate attempt to get the David contract. Soderini says he can’t force it, so Michaelangelo gives up, rents a studio and starts hurriedly turning out the fifteen statues for Piccolomini. He does two in one month and then goes to Siena to finish the Torrigiani statue.
He loves the beauty of the Tuscan countryside as he rides to Siena, where he gazes lovingly at the great art treasures there, then his heart sinks as he sees the Torrigiani St. Francis without any life in it. He does what he can to rectify the saint’s image. When he returns to Florence, Soderini tells him he has the David contract. The Signoria decided no Sienese Cardinal should take their native artist. They want to restore the glory of Florence as in the days of Il Magnifico.
The first place Michaelangelo goes to celebrate is to the Topolinos. He stays all night and works the stone in the morning. Then he walks to Contessina’s cottage, which is forbidden for any Florentine. Contessina is nursing a baby while the six-year-old is playing nearby. Piero Ridolfi is bitter in exile because he is not yet thirty and had not participated in the conspiracy he is accused of. Contessina is accepting, and Michaelangelo gives the boy a lesson in carving stone. Michaelangelo and Contessina love one another still, always friends.
Michaelangelo goes last to his family with his news, for his father is difficult, always wanting big money for his son’s work. It will take him two years to carve David, and the other contract will be postponed. Granacci organizes a party to celebrate, and all the artists in the Company of the Cauldron honor him. One of the members is Leonardo da Vinci. The mayor and Signoria come too. It is the first major art work since Savonarola, and all agree it is a new era for Florence. Michaelangelo is elected as one of the twelve artists of the Cauldron.
Michaelangelo had been told of da Vinci by Rustici, a mutual friend. Da Vinci is a serious artist, though he dresses like an aristocrat. He has dissected and has notebooks of anatomical drawings. Yet Michaelangelo is deeply angry at da Vinci’s scorn for sculpture and for spreading his opinions in Florence, thus undermining his work.
Michaelangelo sets up in the Duomo workshop and lives with his David while sculpting it. The block is 2,000 pounds in weight. He decides to make his David the incarnation of what Lorenzo stood for, the humanist ideal of man. His David is strong and heroic.
Sangallo the architect returns and makes a revolving platform for the David, so the artist can turn the column. This is his most sublime experience in marble yet, and he works twenty hours a day. Michaelangelo lets the Signoria view his unfinished work to get more money for his father. His friends are astonished at his passion and how even a hairbreadth mistake in a stroke could shatter it, but he is confident, feeling the marble fluid, not rigid. The only thing that bothers the artist is his ongoing argument about the merit of painting vs. sculpting with da Vinci. And then, Michaelangelo is disgusted when da Vinci joins Caesar Borgia’s army so he can test some of his new inventions. Rustici says the two artists are like two mountains around other men.
Michaelangelo pleads for Contessina to be able to go home for the birth of her next baby, but Soderini says not to bring up her name again. Soderini says that the Council wants to make Michaelangelo the official sculptor of Florence with his own house. They have many works for him. He is twenty-eight years old, but after the freedom of working on David, he doesn’t know if he wants to commit to more contracts. Sangallo reminds him that artists have to have a patron. Michaelangelo would prefer to create his own works, then try to sell them. He signs the contract, however, out of need. His family is incensed when he tells them the new house will be only for him and his studio. Now he is pressured by the city to cast a bronze copy of Donatello’s David for the French court, whose protection is needed for Florence. He hates this political job but is forced into it.
Next he is pushed into a bargaining contest with Agnolo Doni, who commissions a painting for his wedding. Michaelangelo does not like to paint, especially with drapery, so he puts in nude bathers in the background with the Holy Family in front. Doni is morally outraged and refuses the painting, but eventually, Michaelangelo wins, then he returns to feverish activity to finish the David before he is forced into returning to his outstanding contract.
When the David is finished, it takes some time to move it to the spot where it will stand, and it lies open in the street overnight. Michaelangelo sleeps with it and catches vandals trying to stone it and break it. They are arrested. When the David is erected, all the citizens rejoice, for the pride of the city is restored. He settles to a happy period of working in his own studio, respected as he wanted to be. He is thirty.
Suddenly, he seems relegated to second place with the rise of Leonardo Da Vinci’s popularity. When Da Vinci returns from the wars, he is given a commission to paint a mural for the council chamber for 10,000 florins, more than Michaelangelo received for the David. He works on an epic battle scene, and it is the talk of the town. Michaelangelo decides to compete with Da Vinci by getting the other wall to paint, and he decides to do a nude battle scene, when the Florentine soldiers were surprised while bathing in a river. This gives Michaelangelo a chance to combine his nudes and the war theme. His gigantic cartoons attract other apprentices and artists, like Raphael, who want to learn from him. The older and revered artist, Perugino, however, calls Michaelangelo’s art obscene, raises a feud, until the Signoria steps in to make peace.
Just then, Michaelangelo is summoned to Rome by the new Pope Julius II. Florence has to yield up their artist, and Michaelangelo drops everything. Julius wants an elaborate tomb with sculptures in St. Peter’s. Jacopo Galli, his banker friend in Rome, is dying, but insists on drawing up the contract so Michaelangelo will not be cheated. He is told that Julius has a temper and is unreasonable. When Michaelangelo shows him the sketches and the contract to sign, the Pope does not reply. Julius has been discussing the tomb with the architect Sangallo, but suddenly, another architect, Bramante, is there also, whom the Pope wants Michaelangelo to consult. Sangallo tells Michaelangelo the old St. Peter’s is too small for the tomb; they need a new building, and he will design it. Michaelangelo does not know how to interpret Bramante’s strange expression.
Commentary on Book 6
This book presents Michaelangelo’s breakthrough to respect and fame with the giant statue of David, set up as a symbol of the new Florence. It is not only his artistic genius but Michaelangelo’s gigantic passion and drive that make him successful. With the David, he creates his own full manhood and place in his society.
Like David, a symbol of freedom from tyranny, Michaelangelo too wants to be free as an artist to create his own work instead of what his patrons want. He outrages many of his “customers” like Doni by sticking in nude figures, or going against the stereotyped images of saints and Biblical figures. The irony of Doni’s rejection is apparent in hindsight as the painting Michaelangelo did for him is now a famous landmark of Renaissance painting, “the Doni Tondo”.
His David is not an effeminate boy with the head of Goliath. His David is shown before the battle, a confident man just picking up the stone to throw, mirroring the sculptor himself as he carves. Sangallo says to him, one wrong stroke will shatter the stone! Michaelangelo, however, “identified himself with the center of gravity of the block” (p. 400). He knows exactly how much he can shave off, as David knows how to put the stone in the sling.
Michaelangelo picks a moment of soul-searching for each subject—for Mary, for David, for St. Francis. The artist identifies with each subject he carves, whether it is David’s moment of courage, or Mary’s loneliness as she cradles Christ: “Was not the decision more important than the act itself, since character was more critical than action? For him, then, it was David’s decision that made him a giant, not his killing of Goliath” (p. 392).
The chapter is called “The Giant,” and the Florentines call the 17-foot David, “The Giant.” David through heroic action has made himself into Goliath, and this is what Michaelangelo feels is his own journey as an artist.
With Michaelangelo’s maturity comes his fight for his artistic principles. This is illustrated most vividly in the conflict with Leonardo Da Vinci, who seems, on the surface, to be totally different from Michaelangelo. Leonardo is suave, perfumed, social, and brags about how he always paints dressed up without getting dirty. His elegance is contrasted to Michaelangelo’s dirty, peasant ways. Michaelangelo slowly comes to respect da Vinci as an equal in art, even if he is irritated with his arrogance. As Rustici says, they are like two mountains compared to the rest.
Always, Michaelangelo has to fight for his vision of sculpture as noble and original. The popular idea, even mouthed by da Vinci, is that sculpture is a mechanical reproductive art, for workmen. There have always been class prejudices for him in his choice of craft. It is not as aristocratic or thoughtful or fluid as painting. A gentleman might paint or write poetry. He would never carve, a physically demanding work. Michaelangelo is thus eventually goaded into trying his hand at painting, which he will also prove to be brilliant at. Michaelangelo’s comment on how to place his statue away from buildings also comments on his position as an artist: “David had to stand alone” (p. 391).
Michaelangelo would like to stand alone like his David, in another sense. He is constantly restrained by the patronage system of art, in which he is no more than a workman for pay. He has to fight to put in the composition or figures he sees in his imagination. He prefers to make a piece and then sell it, the system of the independent artist. He does do that with smaller pieces, but art on the scale he practices it is expensive and public. He is thus somewhat constrained by what the public will accept, so that Perugino’s campaign against the immorality of his nude figures is a problem.
Another recurrent theme that pops up is Michaelangelo’s obsessed and ascetic life. Contessina says to him that perhaps one day he will have his own son. He shakes his head; he has chosen a “mendicant” lifestyle. She concludes, “Marble is your marriage” (p. 393). His ecstasy, described as he works on the David, seems hard for any woman or family to match. It is a divine intoxication that takes superhuman strength, and he seems to need this kind of heroic challenge to live up to his ability, as David needed Goliath as an adversary. He can spend his energy on nothing less.