The Agony and the Ecstasy: Book 8
Book 8: The Medici
This period of about three years depicts Michaelangelo’s struggles with yet another Pope, worse than the last.
Pope Julius II dies soon after the Sistine is completed. Michaelangelo turns to carving the statues for his tomb to complete the contract to the Duke of Urbino, the Pope’s heir. The new Pope is Leo X, formerly Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, who is liked by everyone and has no enemies. Michaelangelo is relieved, for the Pope is a Florentine, a Medici, who is a friend. He attends the lavish celebration, riding a horse in the procession in the streets of Rome. For the moment, he is happy, installed in a studio once more, with apprentices, working on marble. He works on the Moses and some of the captives for the tomb, carving several blocks at once.
Now his Sistine Chapel is famous, drawing artists to copy what he has done. Only a group associated with Raphael derides his achievement, saying the figures are distorted and obscene. Michaelangelo does not fight back directly, but he helps a painter Sebastiano by giving him designs to paint. Sebastiano wins commissions away from Raphael, thus popularizing Michaelangelo’s style. Contessina, who now lives in Rome and serves as the Pope’s hostess, asks him why he perpetrates such a hoax. He says now people are saying that his style is profound, not distorted. Leonardo da Vinci praises his work as perfect.
Leo begins to assemble a court in the Medici tradition with all the great poets, artists, and scholars. His dinners and feasts are lavish, and he soon begins to spend more than he has in the Vatican treasury. Guiliano, the youngest Medici son, and the only one that Michaelangelo loves, is ruling Florence well, but is suddenly pulled out and made a Baron of Rome. Another hated Medici, son of Piero, is put into power in Florence, destroying the councils and constitution. Leo replaces Julius’s dynasty with his own family. He makes the illegitimate Guilio legitimate and a Cardinal. Guilio becomes the power behind the Pope.
Bramante the architect dies and so the Sangallo family, father and son, take charge of St. Peter’s again. Raphael is to join in too. Michaelangelo is happy that Raphael will be out of his hair. Da Vinci is given a commission by the Pope, but he spends his time on his own interests, his inventions, and finally abandons his project.
Meanwhile, Contessina calls Michaelangelo to her deathbed. She is dying of consumption. They confess their love for each other since they were children. He is shaken by her death, for they had been close even when apart. His brother Buonarroto marries, giving the only hope there will be a continuing family line. Pope Leo has been kind to the Buonarroti family in Florence, giving them honors, so when Leo calls Michaelangelo to see him, the artist is grateful and anxious to please him. However, the Pope announces he does not want Michaelangelo to continue carving the tomb of a rival family, the Roveres. He wants him to drop that and make a façade for the family church in Florence.
Michaelangelo is thwarted once again and begs time to finish the tomb before starting the façade. He has all the plans in his head and is in the middle of creation. He is forced to quit and, desperate for someone to ease his pain, he stays with a prostitute who makes him sick. Balducci gives him medicine, and then he travels north to the Alps to find stone for the new project.
Michaelangelo earns the respect of the Carrarini, the quarrymen who take the Carrara marble from the mountains. He works with them, lives with them, but when he is not satisfied with any pieces they quarry, they grumble. He stays with the apothecary, di Pelliccia, who becomes a friend. When the horn sounds, it means someone has been injured, and Pelliccia goes to attend the injured. Michaelangelo buys what pieces he can. He is invited to dine with the Marquis of Carrara who lives in a palace called The Rocca.
He explains that Michaelangelo needs to give contracts to the quarrymen, for they work hard for barely enough food, and the work is dangerous.
Michaelangelo tries to design the façade but is uninterested. He worries about all his unfinished work, and his father continues to give him problems. When he delivers the plans to the Pope, the Medici like them but have a new stipulation: they want him to use only Pietrasanta marble, not Carrara marble. The Carrarini oppose the Pope, and the Pietrasanta marble would be almost free since the Pope owns the land. Michaelangelo gasps and explains no one can get that marble out of the mountain. There are no roads, and it has never been done, not even by the Romans.
When he goes back he buys cartloads of marble from Carrara, despite orders, and despite the rumors that are circulating about his getting the marble from Pietrasanta. He assures the Marquis of Carrara that it will never happen, but just so he can report the truth, he takes a guide into the dangerous Pietrasanta country. He finds the purest marble he has ever seen at Monte Altissimo. The Carrarini no longer talk to him when he returns. If the new quarry opens, they will be ruined. Michaelangelo promises he will report that the mountain cannot be mined, and this is true, for there are no roads. Meanwhile, word reaches him that other artists have been awarded contracts to work on the San Lorenzo church with him. He is furious, for he cannot work with others on a group project. He blames himself for not getting a model to the Pope earlier.
Michaelangelo finds out his cartoons of the Bathers in Florence has been destroyed by other artists copying or stealing parts of it. So there is now nothing left of the work he and Leonardo did for the murals in Florence. Prior Bichiellini dies, who was one of the few left who could give Michaelangelo spiritual comfort. The Pope insists that only marble from Pietrasanta will be used for the façade and if Michaelangelo can’t get it, he cannot carve. He is forced into trying to build a road into the mountains. The Wool Guild of Florence has to provide the materials and labor. In Carrara, the quarrymen gather in the square and stone Michaelangelo until blood runs down his face.
He has difficulty finding labor to help him, but takes a roadbuilding crew to Pietrasanta, including one of the loyal Topolinos. The roadbuilder will not take the road to the quarry site, so Michaelangelo becomes an engineer and builds the road himself, using his own money because they have run out of funds. He trains men to quarry the marble and brings down the first great block on logs. The block gets away and crushes one of the workers to death, and the marble is smashed. Michaelangelo goes into deep depression, and the Carrarini, now sorry, attend the funeral.
He attempts to carry on, building a studio in Florence, assembling his marbles. He has only to finish bringing down the Pietrasanta marble and he can retire to his studio in Florence to work. He manages to bring down five giant marbles from Pietrasanta, something never done before. Cardinal Guilio summons Michaelangelo and tells him that Leo has too many expenses and now needs the Pietrasanta marble for paving stones. Michaelangelo cannot believe his ears and upbraids the Cardinal, saying he has wasted three years of his life, and he only wants to be free! He is totally ruined.
Commentary on Book 8
The time working with Pope Leo X, Michaelangelo’s supposed Medici friend, is so heartbreaking it makes the previous stint with Julius look like a picnic. As usual, there is a contrast between the ecstasy of creating art and the difficult conditions surrounding his life.
Michaelangelo is happy creating the statue of Moses for Julius’s tomb. As with all his statues, a lot of thought goes into interpretation of the figure. He decides against an historical Moses for a “universal Moses who knew the ways of man and God” (p. 555). This Law Giver, the epitome of justice, holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments, contrasts to the political and chaotic rule of the Popes. It is only in his art that Michaelangelo can find the joy and stability of a world that reflects God and eternal values.
He is asked by a patron to do a Risen Christ. This appeals to him as a corrective to the crucified Christ, tortured and defeated: “Instead of the cross crushing Christ, Jesus would stand triumphant” (p. 568). The painter Sebastiano asks Michaelangelo where he gets his ideas, and he says that perhaps God put the ideas there (p. 559).
Though he is acknowledged to be a genius, even by da Vinci, he continues to be crushed in the political plans of Leo and his henchman, Cardinal Guilio. Signed contracts from Popes or noblemen seem to mean nothing in the see-sawing games of power. He has no control over his work, and he despairs as he sees the years go by. How can he do what Bertoldo told him he must do—create a body of work? Now he is forty-three, and the designs, crammed in his head, cannot be made. His father and family continue to drain him, and with no personal consolation, he even tries a prostitute for relief.
Always Michaelangelo looks for the heroic scope in each character he sculpts. He himself feels no heroic outlet in his life without his marble, but Prior Bichiellini tells him, “Try to think of your whole life as a unity, rather than as a series of unrelated fragments . . . each period grows out of the last” (p. 593). Interestingly enough, this is the way the author shapes his story of Michaelangelo’s life, each section tying into the last, showing him emerging as a giant, a god among men, overcoming tremendous odds, like his David.
It is now clear why he drives himself furiously: he never knows when conditions will change, and his work will be stopped. His frustration at his lost pieces also makes him feel he is not achieving his body of work. The bronze statue, taking two years to complete, was destroyed, as well as his famous cartoons for the Bathers.
Each task is harder than the last, his agony more extreme, but like his idea for the Risen Christ, he still stands. In this part of his life, he is asked to do the impossible, take stone from Pietrasanta. To do it, he has to round up his own help, bear the hostility of the people, and spend his own money. It is the most divine marble he has ever seen, and he achieves the task, having to become an engineer to do it, building his own road and getting the stone down the mountain. He is guilt ridden by the accident that kills a workman. He has been pushed by the Pope to do all this, to waste three years, labor, and lives and money, for nothing.
It has also become clearer why he wants to work alone. He mentions that “a work of art cannot be a symposium” when other artists are assigned to the Medici church behind his back; “it must have the organic unity of one man’s mind and hands” (p. 591). We saw in his very first fresco painting that this is true; his figures did not blend in with Ghirlandaio’s. He also longs for independence so that he is not tortured by the fickleness of patrons or other artists. Over and over, he has been pulled off one project for another because of war, change of rulers, competition with other artists, or money running out.
Even in such details as casting bronze or building a road, he cannot trust anyone except himself because of the common practice of cheating. When his iron rings break while bringing the marble down the mountain, he finds that his foreman bought cheap iron so he could pocket the difference. Never mind that this endangered lives! The foreman is not apologetic; it is his right to skim off the top, even as Bramante was taking money from St. Peter’s. The chapter ends with Michaelangelo ruined and in despair of achieving his life work.
Make it a good day!