The Agony and the Ecstasy: Book 7
Summary of Book 7: The Pope
This book depicts Michaelangelo in his 30s, working for Pope Julius II, primarily on the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
“His years of grace were over”(p. 457), when he could peacefully carve stone in Florence, and Michaelangelo in 1506 begins his private war with Pope Julius II. The architect, Bramante, has gained the Pope’s ear and convinced him to build a new St. Peter’s Basilica, so Michaelangelo’s original design for Julius’s tomb is on hold. He had spent all the money given to him on marble for it and shipping, but Julius would not give more money until he saw a finished statue. In addition, he is supposed to pay rent for a papal house given to him. Sangallo, who has been the papal architect, is confident Bramante will not win the competition for St. Peter’s because he doesn’t know how to build churches.
Michaelangelo borrows money from Balducci’s bank and unloads his marbles at the dock. He himself had picked the marble and supervised their loading, and now they are exposed and covered with silt from the Tiber. The marble is stained. He gets help setting up a studio, but he needs more money. Sangallo says the Pope is trying to raise money for St. Peter’s and is not in a spending mood.
The commission for St. Peter’s is given to to the young architect, Bramante, and Sangallo, who was the Pope’s own architect, is essentially finished. Bramante’s design is bolder and more modern, and he is the man of the hour. The Pope, not wanting to give Michaelangelo money, refuses him entrance to his palace, and the artist, not able to bear the insult, leaves Rome immediately. He considers the deal with the Pope off. On the road, he is overtaken by a party sent by the Pope to bring him back, headed by Leo Baglioni. They order his return. Leo reminds him that no one disobeys the Pope. He could be thrown in jail. He refuses: “I will not allow any man to treat me as dirt” (p. 465).
He returns to Florence and manages to evade the Pope for seven months, but everyone is nervous, because the city does not want to insult Julius. The other artists, however, think him a hero. Soderini, who has ruled Florence in peace, refuses to renew his sculpture contract in Florence, because of the political danger.
When Michaelangelo sees da Vinci’s mural in the Council Hall, he is shocked. The lower half of the fresco is ruined; the colors have run. His sympathy for this great loss wipes out his sense of competition, and he goes to da Vinci to express his sorrow. Da Vinci had been experimenting with an old technique, and it failed. They make up and admire one another’s work.
Soderini gets a letter from the Pope to return his artist to him, and Soderini tells Michaelangelo he cannot run from the Pope. Rosselli also sends a letter saying that the Pope has been convinced by Bramante it is not good luck to make a tomb before his death, and so the Pope wants Michaelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel instead. Michaelangelo is distraught, for it is death for him to be away from his marbles.
In the last visit he will receive from his brother Lionardo, the monk, they reconcile, Lionardo saying he now understands Michaelangelo’s devotion to God through carving, for his statues are magnificent. Contessina comforts him as his old comrade, but her husband asks that he visit no more, for political reasons.
Julius is a warlike Pope and takes his army out to conquer Bologna. He sends for Michaelangelo to join him in Bologna and to make a huge statue of him in bronze so the people will not forget their conquerer. Once again, Michaelangelo argues with the Pope, saying he knows nothing of bronze. Michaelangelo stays with his old friend, Aldovrandi, who comments that he and Julius are alike in their stubbornness.
Michaelangelo finds Clarissa, whom he has not seen for twelve years. They fall in love again, and he spends time with her, the only grace afforded him as he works on the statue of the Pope. He is not popular with the Bolognese who taunt him that they will melt down the bronze statue at the first opportunity, and it is true, they make it into a cannon at a later date.
Because Michaelangelo does not know how to cast in bronze, he sends for Lapo and Lotti, two bronze casters from Florence. He does not consider what he is doing real art, but as usual, he throws himself into making the 14-foot statue, even neglecting the woman he loves, Clarissa, in his obsession with spending every moment on his work. His father continues to ask for money. When Michaelangelo finds that Lapo is stealing from him, he sends the bronze makers home and finishes himself, having to learn how to work in bronze. He gets a cannon maker to help him with the last details. Julius is pleased, but it has cost Michaelangelo two years. He borrows a horse to ride to Florence but falls off the horse in exhaustion.
Michaelangelo tells Soderini that the five years he spent in Florence carving were the happiest of his life. Soderini offers him a huge Hercules to match the David, and he vows he will do nothing but carve the rest of his life. Soderini insists that before he starts work he must do a legal ceremony emancipating himself from his father, so his father may not touch his money. Lodovico is humiliated, for normally a son owes everything to a father until the father dies. Michaelangelo goes through with it but knows it will not change anything. Contessina’s situation has improved with her brother the Cardinal in Rome, and his old friend Granacci is finally a successful painter.
He resumes work on carving a St. Matthew, but he cannot find information about him. Prior Bichiellini tells him, “You must create your own Matthew,” (p. 498) expressing great faith in Michaelangelo’s religious vision. He decides Matthew represents man’s quest for God. He feels whole again carving marble and moves on to a Madonna. Just when he is settled in, the Pope sends for him again with “good news.” Thinking it means he will get to carve the tomb, he goes to Rome.
Instead, the Pope assigns him to paint the twelve apostles on the Sistine ceiling. He begs to carve instead, but the Pope insists he do this, and then he can carve. Bramante builds the scaffolding for him 60 feet in the air, but Michaelangelo sees that it will leave holes in the ceiling. He builds his own scaffolding. Granacci comes to Rome to help him assemble a studio of painters there, like Ghirlandaio’s. Michaelangelo believes that Bramante persuaded the Pope to give him this assignment and considers him an enemy.
His father asks for money, since his uncle Francesco died and his widow is suing for her dowry money. Michaelangelo, however, is running a studio with six assistants. Argiento takes care of them, and Michi grinds the colors. They get on well together and paint one section of the vault. He assigns each person a task. But secretly, he is not happy with the result. He feels it is mediocre. Sangallo tells him to do his best, finish the work and get on to his marble. The Pope will be happy with it. But Michaelangelo suddenly knows he must work alone. He is not cut out to be the head of a studio.
During the Christmas break, he sees Contessina, and their platonic love is still strong. She looks better, now able to visit her brother, Cardinal Giovanni in Rome. Michaelangelo climbs the mountains around Rome and sees the magnificent sea and sky, thinking what a great artist God is. He thinks of Genesis and then is inspired. He will paint Creation on the Sistine ceiling. He asks to see the Pope, and he proposes this new idea to him. The Pope is astonished. First the artist tries to get out of the task, then he proposes to make it much harder. The Pope agrees and doubles his salary.
Michaelangelo asks Granacci to dismiss the studio painters for him; he is too cowardly. He keeps Michi to grind colors and Rosselli to mix plaster. He insists on working alone with no interruptions. Granacci tells him, “As an artist, you have David’s courage” (p. 518).
Now begins the agony and the ecstasy of the Sistine ceiling. His imagination is teeming with the human figures that he, like God, will create. He paints as fast as he can, but the conditions are intolerable, for the chapel is cold, his body tortured by the position on the scaffolding, the paint dripping in his eyes until he is almost blind. He cuts himself off from all company and does nothing but paint, becoming emaciated. Troubles multiply. He runs out of money. Argiento and Rosselli leave. Only Michi helps him. When the plaster oozes, he feels he has failed, and is humiliated, but Sangallo shows him the plaster mixture is wrong for Rome. He fixes it and goes on. Sangallo, one of his few friends left in Rome, now prepares to leave, since his apprentices have joined Bramante. The young Raphael, who had copied his work in Florence, is now a popular and rich painter in Rome, and cuts Michaelangelo.
Michaelangelo is lonely, but he knows it is all self-imposed. Julius views what he has done, is pleased, and gives him some money. He is told his Pieta is being moved so Bramante can destroy the old St. Peter’s to build a new church. He is horrified that Bramante doesn’t try to save the ancient pillars or mosaic tiles but smashes them up. Michaelangelo feels someone is coming to the Sistine at night to see his work, which he has forbidden.
Michi watches one night and sees it is Raphael and Bramante who violate his privacy, spying on his work. Michaelangelo accuses Bramante to the Pope and has his key taken away. His former patrons, the Piccolomini family, insist he finish their project or return their money. His younger brother fights with his father and sets fire to the house, causing his father to ask for more money. He is so shaken by all this bad luck, he cannot work.
At that time, Cardinal Giovanni de’Medici sends for him and asks him to join his household. This will protect Michaelangelo from Bramante’s slanders. Michaelangelo refuses, saying he cannot play the courtier; he must work on his own, even if it is risky. The Cardinal asks him why it is that Raphael can be so successful and have a social life while Michaelangelo must suffer in poverty and overwork? Michaelangelo has no answer. He is a man obsessed. When he hears his brother Lionardo died in a monastery, he is not surprised. His brother was an ascetic like he is.
In 1510 the first half of the vault is finished, and the Pope orders the scaffolding down, so the public can view the results, over Michaelangelo’s protests that he is not ready to show his work. The Pope strikes the artist with his cane, and Michaelangelo is so insulted and alarmed, he orders Michi to pack. The Chamberlain comes to him to make peace and to offer him 500 ducats and an apology. Michaelangelo is assured the apology will get around, for he is proud and does not want to bear the stigma of the Pope’s reprimand.
The Pope going to war with the French stops him from returning to work, for he has to wait for permission to start again. He worries for the freedom of Florence that has been protected by the French. In 1511, he finally goes to Bologna to find the Pope, but he is too busy to see the artist, so he slips home to visit his family and take some of his savings. His father now has a political appointment and had already taken his son’s savings to which he had no legal right.
He returns to Rome empty-handed, but the Pope’s secretary gives him enough money to begin again. He starts on the most important part of the Sistine ceiling: God creating Adam. Meanwhile, Julius is defeated in war and has no more money. Michaelangelo works harder and faster, knowing his commission could be terminated at any time. Julius comes to look at his work and asks the artist if he really believes God is that benign. Michaelangelo affirms he does.
The new St. Peter’s arises, and Michaelangelo is concerned, for he can see they are not building the walls correctly. He tells Bramante someone is robbing him, for the cement is too thin. He doesn’t listen so he tells the Pope, who in effect tells him to mind his own business. It turns out that Bramante needs money and is stinting on the materials.
The Pope fools everyone, recovers health and wealth and power, and he gives money to Michaelangelo to finish the chapel. Balducci sees how Michaelangelo lives and reproaches him for ruining his health. He takes some apprentices for a little more help as he finishes up the last panels.
The Pope decides to make war on Florence, which has been enjoying stability under Soderini’s Republic. The Pope backs Cardinal Giovanni de’Medici, who will kick out Soderini and take over the rule of Florence. Michaelangelo is torn. He loves the Republic and Soderini’s rule, but he is also loyal to the Medici family and respects the young Giovanni, who is close to his father Lorenzo in looks, temperament, and learning. Granacci tells him, “Be courageous in art, and a coward in the world of affairs” (p.548).
So Michaelangelo keeps painting, though the battles go first one way, and then the next. Finally, after four years, he has finished the Sistine Chapel, and Giovanni has won the rule of Florence. The Medici family is back home. Michaelangelo dresses up to go to the unveiling of his work in Rome, but at the last minute, he stays in his studio and picks up a piece of marble and begins carving, even in his good clothes. All his fatigue falls away. This was his promised reward, that he could go back to his beloved marble, and he cannot wait.
Commentary on Book 7
This is one of the longest books, containing Michaelangelo’s battle of will with Pope Julius II, resulting in his masterpieces in the Sistine Chapel. He became a man by carving the David, and here he is David against Goliath (Julius and the world), as he wins his own battle for art.
The Pope has to respect Michaelangelo, for though put into a project he hates, he will do nothing less than perfection. If he is compared to the David as he works on that figure, here, after working through all the saints, angels, and men on the Sistine ceiling, he comes to bear a likeness to the Creator Himself. He identifies with his subject as always, even God. With Matthew, he had identified with man’s quest for God. With the Sistine panels, he vows to show us the heart of God as He makes his creation, for He is the supreme artist, the model for Michaelangelo. God is “the most beautiful, powerful, intelligent and loving force in the universe. Since He had created man in His own image, He had the face and body of a man” (p. 539). He does not doubt that he can depict his Maker, for there is a relationship, and his painting shows it, as the Creator brings Adam to life.
Sangallo asks him why he makes everything so hard for himself? He could have satisfied the Pope with a fraction of the work, and with helpers. Michaelangelo explains to Sangallo that he cannot dishonor God or himself by doing a half way job on the Sistine ceiling. If he ever does less than he can, he says, then he has no self-respect and is through as an artist. In this way, he takes responsibility for his creation, as God does for His. There is too much at stake to play at being an artist. Most of the artists, even the talented ones like Raphael, are seen doing their art part-time between parties.
Only da Vinci, Rustici informs him, puts in as many hours as he does. Michaelangelo realizes his asceticism is as extreme as his brother’s—the monk in his cell. He loses the woman he loves because he cannot share his time with other people when his art demands all. Clarissa seems to hint for a moment, she would accept marriage, but Michaelangelo is never confused about his priorities. The most extreme example is when he paints in the same clothes for a month and when Michi takes off his boots, the skin comes off with them..
His integrity and pride go hand in hand. When the Pope refuses him entrance to the palace or hits him with a staff, he rebels, not caring if he is committing treason or could be locked up. He makes it clear that he cannot be an artist without his pride as a human being. Art is a godlike profession to Michaelangelo, and he cannot be treated as a workman or slave. We see him in the moment of inspiration, on the mountains overlooking Rome when the expanse of vista makes him feel “What a magnificent artist was God” (p. 515). Then he understands God’s need to create, and that primal passion is what he needs to express in his own art. How can the artist then be treated as a servant when he is equal to God?
Though Michaelangelo’s visions keep him going during the four-year ordeal of the Sistine Chapel with its physical and mental tortures, he knows he will bear the scars of this time, as he did when he cast the bronze statue of Julius. He did his best at both of these tasks, but they do not give him life or sustenance the way the marble does. After he finished the projects forced on him by Julius, “He felt nothing. Not even relief. He was dry, barren, used up” (p. 493). By contrast, when he cuts rock with the Topolinos or carves marble, he experiences “the fierceness of his joy sending the chisel through the block” (p. 498). Irving Stone aptly describes the artist’s will and indomitable spirit, but we are also shown his physical frailty in this chapter. He is only 5’ 4” and weighs 100 pounds, after getting little food, sleep, or warmth from the cold chapel. He is practically blind from the paint dripping in his eyes, and his body is racked from the tortured position on the scaffolding 60 feet in the air. It is self-imposed, like his brother’s fasting in a cell.
He is now in his late thirties, established, known as a genius, but not really enjoying the fruits of fame, as the other lesser artists around him are. He is frustrated, even after making a triumphal success of each task. This chapter shows the depth of the artist’s heart, of his agony and ecstasy, as he is utterly alone with God and his art. He pays a huge price to bring each work to life, but he also feels he is participating with God in bringing His glory out so others can see it.
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