Michelangelo entered Rome for the first time on June 25, 1496, when he was 21 years old. The purportedly “Eternal City” that greeted him on that day was vastly less impressive than the one the storied ancients had known; ditto the one that the starry-eyed tourists of later Modernity would travel from far and wide to see. The once and future largest city in Italy may have had a population of as few as 30,000 people at this time — one-seventh that of Naples, one-sixth that of Venice, half or less that of even Florence. Rome was a living diorama of Petrarch’s conception of a long “Dark Ages” from which Europe was just beginning to awake: its people lived like ants amidst the leavings of their ancient betters, crawling in and over the ruins of Antiquity. What with their numbers being no more than a few percent of what they had been at Rome’s ancient peak, whole swaths of the city lay simply abandoned, a ghost town haunted by the faded glory of a semi-mythical past.
Rome’s one remaining source of vitality — the only reason it was still a city of consequence at all — was the Church. But even that sacred institution’s outward appearance had been allowed to deteriorate dramatically. Although the pope’s palace in the Vatican was suitably opulent, Saint Peter’s Basilica, Western Europe’s foremost house of worship, was on the verge of collapsing entirely. Constructed by Emperor Constantine in the wake of his conversion, it was now 1200 years old, and looked every day of it. Parts of it were in as deleterious a condition as a long-abandoned ancient leaving like the Colosseum, despite its ongoing service to Christ.
The moral and spiritual architecture of Rome wasn’t any more impressive. Being stuffed to the gills with the Church’s servants, its population’s percentage of unwed men was quite possibly higher than that of any other city in the world. Yet this didn’t mean that nobody was having sex there — far from it. Under Pope Alexander VI — described by one of his own cardinals as “a very carnal man” — Rome was doing a fine job of living up once again to the Book of Revelation’s venerable condemnations of it as the “Whore of Babylon,” as it was to the fresher invective that Girolamo Savonarola was hurling its way from Florence. Children with a curious surfeit of “uncles” among the clergy and a mysterious lack of fathers had long been a staple of Roman life. By now, though, even the pretense of clerical celibacy had been all but dropped, as clerical bastards filled the city’s residences and schools, then went on to assume many of its leading positions of power. Meanwhile the sale of indulgences lined the pockets of the clergy even as it made virtually any conceivable sin venial at worst, as long as sufficient gold was paid before or after its commission.
The most common female occupation by far was that of prostitute. “Rome has always been and always will be the city of whores,” wrote the poet Pietro Aretino. One contemporary report claimed that more than one-third of the city’s women were “in service,” so to speak. They arrived in scores for lavish entertainments held at the papal palace — dances that turned into stripteases and finally into orgies under the approving gaze of His Holiness. A plague of syphilis killed more people in Rome during the 1490s than had any disease since the Black Death.
Whatever Michelangelo’s other faults may have been, hypocrisy in regard to his faith was not among them; he was a deeply, sincerely religious man who was all too aware of the debauchery that now surrounded him in Rome. We know this because he wrote letters back to his father and his brothers pining for the healthier air of the city in which he had grown up, and because he likewise put pen to paper to describe Rome’s corruption in verse.
Here one sees chalices beaten into helmet and sword,
and the blood of Christ sold by the gallon,
so that even his patience wears thin.
Yet Michelangelo was also an ambitious man, who knew that, for all its outward shabbiness, Rome offered him opportunities that he would be able to find nowhere else in the world. For, after years of gazing resolutely outward, allowing their own home to fall to wrack and ruin, the focus of this latest generation of popes was shifting. They would never enjoy the temporal political power of their Medieval precursors, who had been able to marshal huge international armies in the cause of the Church and direct them to fight and die in the Holy Land, who had been able to depose kings and emperors and lay serious claim to the title of God’s chosen ruler of the entire world. But if they could no longer be caesars, they could still live like them, at the center of a refurbished imperial city that looked the part. Over the course of the next century or two, they would transform Rome from a falling-down shadow of ancient greatness to the opulent capital that the tourists of today know. To do so, they would need architects, sculptors, and painters in unprecedented quantities. And Michelangelo was to one extent or another all three of these.
Still, he would always be a wayward artist, no one’s mere hired hand in a civic rebuilding project. He demonstrated this from the start, when he was requested by Cardinal Riario to create more statuary in the mold of the forgeries of ancient works that had brought him to his new patron’s attention in the first place. Michelangelo agreed to sculpt a statue of Bacchus, the pagan god of wine and revelry. But when he delivered the finished statue, it wasn’t quite what the good cardinal had expected. For, unlike the lustily imposing god of old, this Bacchus was visibly intoxicated in an all too mortal way, lurching queasily as he lifted his cup for another swig; he looked as if he would fall over in another moment or two, collapsing as likely as not into a pile of his own vomit. It is hard not to see the statue as a not-so-subtle commentary on the current life of Rome, on the undignified wages of debauchery. This was not at all what Cardinal Riario, an enthusiastic participant in the papal revels, had been imagining for his garden. There ensued a long wrangle before another wealthy Roman gentleman of less conventional tastes agreed to accept the statue instead.
The same gentleman, whose name was Jacopo Gallo, recommended Michelangelo to another, higher-ranking cardinal, who was looking for a new piece of sculpture to adorn a shrine attached to Saint Peter’s Basilica. Michelangelo soon signed a contract to create “a Pietà out of marble — that is, a Virgin Mary, clothed, with the dead Christ in her arms, as large as a true man.” He promised that it would be “the most beautiful marble [sculpture] that there is in Rome today, and that no other living master will do better.”
He fulfilled that promise. Finished in 1499, Michelangelo’s Pietà was his first mature masterpiece. It is a haunting work of art whose extraordinary technical accomplishment seems almost too picayune to mention, given how the pathos of Jesus’s broken body and Mary’s grieving face burrows its way deep into the soul. Like all of the greatest art, it is universal, simultaneously a loving tribute to Michelangelo’s Christian faith and to every mother everywhere who has ever had to bury a son.
This eternal work of empathetic beauty moved Michelangelo into the highest ranks of Italian artists. Just a few years removed from earning a meager living by knocking out trendy forgeries, he now watched as his fame spread up and down the Italian Peninsula; never again would he lack for patrons or commissions. From now on, he would have the rare luxury of creating his art entirely on his own terms. Or so it seemed at the time.
For example, when the government of Florence asked Michelangelo to return to his hometown to do something with a massive column of uncarved marble that had been lying about the place for more than 30 years, having been abandoned there by another sculptor with bigger plans than talents, it didn’t place too many strictures on his work. He was simply to produce a “giant” of a scale suitable to the marble block; the rest was up to him. He chose as his subject the future King David of the Old Testament, standing naked with his sling slung casually over his shoulder as he prepares to do battle with Goliath.
The city fathers saw the statue as a way to advertise that Florence was back — to signify that, having put the recent difficulties involving Savonarola behind it, it was ready to resume its former place as the singular leading light of European culture. The rehabilitation would prove only partially successful; the diaspora of brilliant Florentine exiles had already reached too many other places — not least Rome — and the genie couldn’t be stuffed back into the bottle. But by way of compensation, the statue which Michelangelo completed in 1504 would go on to become the most recognizable one in the world. It would gaze over the Piazza della Signoria until 1873, when it would be moved to an indoor gallery in the name of protection and preservation. (A replica stands in its old location today.) If less ineffably moving than the Pietà, David is undeniably majestic, standing as he does fully seventeen feet (5 meters) tall. More so than any religious feeling, the statue evokes the humanism of the Renaissance, a manifestation of the belief that people are metaphorical giants, capable of the most astounding feats. Michelangelo’s David has since become nothing less than the Modern archetype of male beauty. In this sense, he makes an interesting contrast with the females of Renaissance art; while they tend to look a bit too soft and plump for the Hollywood ideal, his washboard abs and bulging biceps are straight out of Central Casting.
While Michelangelo was back in Florence creating this, his second widely acknowledged masterpiece, changes were underway in Rome. The lecherous old Pope Alexander VI died in 1503, to be replaced by Pius III, who managed to hold the office for all of seventeen days before following his predecessor to his final rest. He was in turn replaced by Julius II on November 1, 1503.
As historian R.A. Scotti writes, “Julius II demands hyperbole. Everything about him was outsized.” The Venetian ambassador to Rome was certainly taken aback by him, as he wrote in a dispatch to his government back home: “He has no moderation either in will or conception; whatever is in his mind must be carried through, even if he himself were to perish in the attempt.” A man of colossal ego and violent temper, Julius’s decision to take as his pontifical name that of ancient Rome’s most legendary general and statesman of all did not strike his underlings as coincidental. Indeed, he would spend much of his time as pope playing the role of a general, complete with silvery armor and a shining sword. His epithet “The Warrior Pope” was well earned.
His principal political objective was to cement his temporal as well as spiritual authority over the Papal States, which had been growing ever more wayward since the Avignon Papacy. They had come to exist in a sort of gray zone by now, neither fully obedient to Rome nor fully independent. As Machiavelli wrote, “these [popes] have dominions and do not defend them, have subjects and do not govern them, and, although their dominions are undefended, they are not taken from them, and their subjects, although they are not governed, pay no attention to the fact and do not, nor can they, quit the papal dominion.” Julius intended to change that ambiguous state of affairs, intended to become the king of a kingdom just like any other in addition to being the spiritual father figure for Western Christendom as a whole.
It says something about Julius that, almost as soon as he became pope, he started thinking about how he could best commemorate his reign for his posterity. He desired a breathtaking tomb, larger and more elaborate than that of any pope who had come before him. To make it for him, he thought of the man who was winning so much recognition as, if not yet the unassailable greatest living artist of all in Italy, at least the most promising up-and-comer on the scene: Michelangelo. He sent a messenger to Florence, asking Michelangelo to come to Rome as soon as possible.
At the time, the latter had become embroiled in Renaissance Florence’s equivalent of a reality show. A few years earlier, Leonardo da Vinci, who was twenty years Michelangelo’s senior, had returned to Florence after many years in Milan, lured back originally by a typically impractical scheme to divert the Arno River that flowed through the city to a course more congenial to its textile industry. When that plan inevitably fell apart, he set up a studio in town. Among the pieces he painted there was the Mona Lisa, a modestly scaled portrait of the wife of a prominent Florentine businessman that would go on in later centuries to become the most famous — and the most famously enigmatic, what with that odd half-smile on its subject’s lips — single work of visual art in the world.
Michelangelo vocally despised Leonardo, as he did almost all living artists with a talent big enough to admit comparison with his own. Naturally enough, Leonardo returned the sentiment in kind as soon as he learned what scurrilous things his rival was saying about him. This mutual loathing was the genesis of a rather magnificent idea on the part of the city fathers of Florence.
Some time ago, they had hired Leonardo to paint one wall of the Hall of the Great Council, the seat of government in Florence, with a scene from the Battle of Anghiari, which Florence had won against Milan in 1440, during one of the Italian Peninsula’s numerous internecine conflicts. (The fact that Leonardo himself had recently been snatched away from Milan was perhaps a factor in the choice of subject matter; this was an era when artists were objects of patriotic prestige, to be courted and squabbled over like any other trophy.) But, as often happened with Leonardo, an initial burst of enthusiasm for the project had been followed by an increasing ennui. Two years after signing the contract, he had yet to even begin to execute the proper mural. He was still futzing about desultorily with a “cartoon”: a life-sized draft of the finished work, to be used as a guide when painting started for real. A member of the government complained in a letter that Leonardo “has taken a good sum of money and given small beginning to a large work that he was to execute.”
Such were the perils of paying up front, as the leaders of a commercial city such as Florence ought by rights to have known. Clearly what was needed to save the situation now was another source of motivation than the financial. Looking around for same, the city fathers’ gaze fell upon the other long wall of the Hall of the Great Council, which was currently as blank as its companion. They decided to offer it to Michelangelo, who had just completed his amazing statue of David. Under most circumstances, he probably wouldn’t have accepted, being more invested in sculpting than painting. But the chance to show up his older rival — to create the clearly better work in direct competition with him, and then to leave the evidence of his superior talent visible for side-by-side comparison for all time in the Hall of the Great Council — was impossible to resist. He chose for his subject matter another, earlier battle, which Florence had won against Pisa in 1364. It was game on. Leonardo suddenly rediscovered his muse and redoubled his efforts, just as the city fathers had been hoping he would.
The competition between the old master and the young Turk was soon the talk of Florence and, indeed, much of the Italian Peninsula. It lured to the city another artist whom Michelangelo would come to hate with a (self-)righteous fury: the 21-year-old Raphael, who took a holiday from his position as an assistant painter in Siena just to see Leonardo and Michelangelo at work. The careful sketches of the David statue which he made on his visit have survived to reach us.
Alas, the contest petered out in an inconclusive anticlimax. Ever the inventor, Leonardo mixed new types of paint that he hoped would let him bring out more subtle gradations of color that was otherwise possible on the plaster wall of the hall. Like many of his experiments, this one was more ingenious than successful; his epic mural had already begun to peel off one end of the wall by the time he had finished painting the other. Within a few years, it would be no more than scattered fragments of pigment. In pique or in shame, Leonardo left Florence altogether, returning to Milan.
As for Michelangelo: he didn’t even get as far as beginning to paint his side of the wall. He was still working on his cartoon when Pope Julius II summoned him to Rome. For all that he would have loved to show up his hated rival in Florence, he knew what the knock of a real opportunity sounded like. He refunded the city fathers’ down payment and was gone in a flash.
Thus within a few months Florence lost both of its most prestigious artists to rival cities, a devastating blow to its civic pride. Michelangelo’s cartoon of his battle scene was displayed as a work of art in its own right for some years, but literally fell to pieces by the middle of the sixteenth century, having not been made for permanence. And so we are left with no evidence whatsoever by which to judge this clash of the Renaissance titans.
Michelangelo arrived in Rome in March of 1505, whereupon he was summoned to a personal audience with Julius. It was the first time he had met with a pope one on one, but it would by no means be the last.
The meeting commenced with Michelangelo kneeling down and kissing Julius’s velvet slipper, as the rules of papal decorum stipulated and this pope’s imperial demeanor demanded. But the two men found out quickly that, despite their extreme differences in age and background and profession and position, they had much in common. Both were absolutely convinced that they had been chosen by God personally to leave their mark on history, and both would stop at nothing to do just that. People applied to them both the Italian descriptor terribile, which translated into our Modern English lives somewhere between “awe-inspiring” and “awful.” When they united their prodigious personalities to pursue a common goal in harmony, the result might very well inspire awe. If these two titanic egos were ever to find themselves at cross-purposes, however, the consequences might just be awful for one or both, not to mention for those around them.
Luckily, they found themselves very much in agreement on this day: Julius wanted the most magnificent tomb ever seen in Rome for his personal glory, and Michelangelo wanted to make it for him, for his own. He envisioned a monument arranged as a ring of no fewer than 40 free-standing statues, each of them as big as his Florentine David, with the pope serenely enthroned atop a pyramid at the center of it all. “I shall produce the finest thing that Italy has ever seen,” he swore to his latest patron, the most august imaginable. Then he went off to the northwestern Tuscan town of Carrara, home of the largest and best marble quarries in all of Italy, to seek out and arrange for the shipment of the staggering amount of that material that he would need to bring off the grandiose conception.
But Michelangelo hadn’t reckoned with another side of Julius’s character: although he was ready to move heaven and earth in service of his whims, those whims were just that — disconcertingly changeable. “One cannot count on him, for he changes his mind from hour to hour,” wrote the Venetian ambassador. “Anything that he has been thinking of overnight has to be carried out immediately the next morning.” In short, Julius lost interest in his tomb. Perhaps he faced up to the harsh reality that a work of the sculptor’s art more than 40 times the scale of David was impossible for Michelangelo to achieve during his remaining lifetime, or perhaps even his ego shrank at last from the implications of so overweening a final memorial. It seems most likely of all, however, that his mercurial focus was simply captured by another, still more immense project that could serve as its own sort of final testimony to his holy majesty.
That project was nothing less then the razing and reconstruction of Saint Peter’s Basilica itself. Doing so had been tentatively discussed from time to time over recent decades, what with the hopelessly ruinous condition of the current building. Yet the idea had always been dismissed in the end as an impious overreach, given the basilica’s role in the history of Christianity; this was after all the church built by Constantine himself, the one that cradled in its foundation the (alleged) bones of the Apostle Peter, the one where 184 popes had been consecrated, the one where Charlemagne had become Holy Roman Emperor, the one that housed the tombs of dozens of the most hallowed of all Christian martyrs and saints.
Julius, though, seldom evinced any fear of overreaching. He had fallen under the sway of an architect named Donato Bramante, a man with a sense of destiny to rival his own and that of Michelangelo, who promised he could construct a new Saint Peter’s Basilica that would make the old one look quaint. He began digging the foundation of the new one behind the old in the fall of 1505. Going forward, he would demolish the existing cathedral in stages, whenever he needed more space to continue his work, shifting tombs and holy artifacts about like so much dusty furniture in a second-hand shop. The conservative establishment of Rome could only look on in dismay, dubbing him Il Ruinante: “The Wrecker.”
This Wrecker became another of Michelangelo’s lifelong enemies in April of 1506, when he appropriated the first shipment of the Carrara marble that the artist had scouted for Julius’s tomb. A furious Michelangelo rushed to the Vatican to complain to the pope personally, only to be denied entrance. It was now abundantly clear which project was in and out of favor. Boiling with the anger of a proud man scorned, he left a peremptory note to Julius: “This morning I was turned out of the palace by your orders. Therefore I give you notice that from now on, if you want me, you will have to look for me elsewhere than in Rome.”
True to his word, he left Rome for Florence as quickly as he could pack his things; he would later say that he suspected that “if I stayed in Rome my own tomb would be finished and ready before the pope’s.” Julius, incensed at least as much at the tone of the note Michelangelo had left as he was by his breaking of the terms of his contract to remain in Rome while he constructed the papal tomb — never mind that Julius no longer wanted said tomb — sent messengers to him in Florence ordering his return in the severest possible terms. And when these failed to secure their object, Julius turned to the Florentine government that was, in his view, giving his fugitive artist a sort of asylum. The threat to be found in his letter may be veiled, but it is no less palpable for that.
Michelangelo the sculptor, who left us without reason and in mere caprice, is afraid, we are informed, of returning, though we, for our part, are not angry with him, knowing the humors of such men of genius. In order then that we may lay aside all anxiety, we rely on your loyalty to convince him in our name that, if he returns to us, he shall be uninjured and unhurt, retaining our apostolic favor in the same measure as he formerly enjoyed it.
Florence had lived through an open rupture with a pope all too recently under Savonarola; it had no desire to live through another such again. Suddenly the artist Florence had been so sad to lose became its least popular citizen. “You have braved the pope as the king of France would not have done,” he was told. “We do not wish to go to war with him on your account and risk the state, so prepare yourself to return.” Pope Julius actually took to the field at the head of an army during this tense period, although the declared objective of his campaign was not Florence; he was rather leading it to subdue rebellions against his authority as the head of the Papal States in Perugia and Bologna. Still, might he add Florence to his list of targets to effect the return of his recalcitrant artist? The notion of going to war over a single artist may seem absurd to us, but these were very different times from our own.
In the end, though, it didn’t come to that. On November 28, 1506, Michelangelo was persuaded to leave Florence for Bologna, where Julius was holding court at the time. “I was forced to go there,” he would remember bitterly decades later, “with a rope around my neck, to ask his pardon.” Savoring his triumph, Julius prescribed a humiliating penance: Michelangelo was to cast a statue of Julius in bronze, his least favorite material, right there in Bologna, a city prestigious among scholars rather than artists. He gritted his teeth and set to work.
He labored for more than a year in Bologna on this statue he didn’t want to make, chafing all the while about the insult to his artist’s dignity that it represented. At last, on February 21, 1508, it was hoisted into place on the city’s main square. We are unable to evaluate the quality of this work done under duress because it is one of the rare finished Michelangelo creations that has not come down to us. Within a handful of years, after Julius was dead and the winds of papal politics had shifted against his faction, it would be pulled down by the people of Bologna and sold for scrap. Michelangelo never expressed any particular regret at this turn of events.
Yet he wasn’t finished working for the pope whom the misbegotten statue was intended to honor. For, with Michelangelo’s penance duly completed, Julius now had another project in mind for him. Hardly had Michelangelo returned to Florence then Julius dispatched another messenger summoning him to Rome. The Sistine Chapel awaited him.
Did you enjoy this chapter? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)