The Last Judgment: Michelangelo and the Death of the Renaissance

The Last Judgment: Michelangelo and the Death of the Renaissance

by James A. Connor


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Painted on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, 28 years after Michelangelo completed the glorious and hopeful ceiling, The Last Judgment is full of stark images depicting the End of Days. Here, James Connor uncovers the secrets behind the fresco, and details the engrossing stories of conspiring kings, plotting popes, and murderous rivalries between noble families who were vying for control over Michelangelo and his art. This book combines enchanting storytelling with incisive historical detective work, demonstrating how Michelangelo was inspired by Copernicus and how the Counter-Reformation arose from the ashes of the Renaissance.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780230623897
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/03/2010
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

James A. Connor is a professor of English at Kean University and a former Jesuit priest. He is the author of three books: Silent Fire, Kepler's Witch and Pascal's Wager. He lives in Rahway, NJ.

Read an Excerpt

The Last Judgment

Michelangelo and the Death of the Renaissance

By James A. Connor

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2009 James A. Connor
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-62267-8


The Great Commission

The story of the Last Judgment began many years before that last meeting between Pope Clement VII and his favorite artist from Florence, and like so many Renaissance stories, it begins in a garden. Michelangelo's first teacher, Domenico Ghirlandaio, an accomplished fresco painter, began to teach the thirteen-year-old boy the art of buon' fresco, though Michelangelo's real talent as a sculptor soon emerged. Realizing this, one of Ghirlandaio's students, Francesco Granacci, took him to see the Medici sculpture garden at San Marco, which Lorenzo had commissioned in order to adorn the Medici library. While there, Michelangelo so greatly admired a sculpture—the Head of a Faun, which depicted an ancient faun, its mouth open wide with laughter, and its tongue hanging over its teeth—that he decided to copy it. He begged a bit of marble and some tools from the workmen, and set about carving the stone. However, instead of merely copying the original statue, Michelangelo changed its shape to suit himself, drawing the tongue back into the mouth, and exposing the teeth.

Lorenzo de Medici loved to walk in the garden every morning and evening in order to check on the progress of the work he had commissioned. One morning he came across the bent-nosed teenaged boy polishing a bust of an ancient faun. Lorenzo admired the work and was amazed at the boy's talent. He joked that Michelangelo must have known nothing of old men, because he had carved the figure with a full set of teeth, when anyone knows that by the time men reach old age many of their teeth are gone. Michelangelo waited impatiently for Lorenzo to leave, and when he was alone, he took a hammer and knocked a front tooth out of the sculpture, and then drilled a hole into the gum. Later that evening, Lorenzo walked through the garden again and discovered what Michelangelo had done. He laughed at the boy's cleverness, and in the following days arranged with both Ghirlandaio and Michelangelo's father, Ludovico Buonarroti, to allow the boy to live in the Medici palace with his own children and be raised along with his sons.

* * *

During the next forty years, Michelangelo established himself as one of the greatest artists in Europe. He carved the titanic statue of David in Florence, painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, lived in Florence, Rome, Bologna, and Venice, all the while absorbing new techniques and new artistic ideas. Before and after the siege of Florence in 1528 and the fall of the short lived republic in 1530, Pope Clement had commissioned him to work on the New Sacristy, which sat opposite the Old Sacristy, of the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence, as well as the Medici chapel and library.

The Medici chapel was a family tomb, and Michelangelo carved two of his most famous sculptures for that project—a statue of a nude reclining man entitled Day and of a nude reclining woman entitled Night. Both were melancholy figures, which fit Michelangelo's mood after the violent death of the republic, but it was the sculpture Night that seemed most mournful, reminding all who saw it of the quick approach of death and the long silence of the tomb.

Clement micromanaged all of these projects from the Vatican, shooting off a letter nearly every day. He directed Michelangelo about which type of wood (walnut) was to be used for the library ceiling and which colors to choose for the walls. He wanted the ceiling of the library vaulted rather than with wooden beams "lest some drunkard, not uncommon with priests, sets fire to the room, spreading to the library." However, he doubted that Michelangelo's plan to put skylights in the library ceiling would work because it would require the hiring of at least two friars to regularly wipe off the dust. His enthusiasm for Michelangelo's art often overflowed its boundaries. At times, Clement would be possessed by a new idea and demand that Michelangelo drop everything and attend to it.

Overcome by work, the artist had grown increasingly despondent and he began to think more about death—his favorite brother, Buonarroto, had died of plague during the siege of Florence, and his father died three years later, leaving Michelangelo to manage the illtempered Buonarroti clan on his own. Eventually Clement had to order Michelangelo to take a break and rest. Clement communicated most of the time through Sebastiano Luciani, also called Sebastiano del Piombo.

Sebastiano came from Venice and was a member of the Venetian school of art. He started his professional life as a musician, playing the lute before gatherings of the Venetian upper class, Although musicians were important in Italian society, the real glory was in the fine arts—painting, fresco, and sculpture. After making his name as a lutenist, Sebastiano turned to painting, and by 1511 he was working in Rome alongside Raphael on several mythological frescos. Raphael was a smooth character, handsome and beloved of women, who gathered around him as if he were a rock star. Michelangelo despised him as Bramante's protégé, and so encounters between Michelangelo and Raphael were not always cordial.

Sebastiano was part of the pilgrimage of painters who travelled there to study Michelangelo's wonderful Sistine ceiling, and ended up working with Raphael instead. When Sebastiano famously quarreled with Raphael, Michelangelo befriended him, and offered him designs that Sebastiano turned into finished paintings, particularly the Raising of Lazarus. Sebastiano realized that while he was a competent painter, he lacked that divine spark that set fire to Michelangelo's work, and that while his paintings would be celebrated in their own way, they could not contain the world of human emotions that his friend's did so naturally.

When Giulio de Medici became Pope Clement VII, he awarded Sebastiano the office of piombatore, the keeper of the seal of state. It was his job to secure apostolic briefs with the papal seal to ensure their legitimacy, and he acquired the title "del Piombo" from this office. In order to get the job, however, Sebastiano had to assume the habit of a friar, though not the habits of a friar. The job grossed approximately 800 scudi a year, and Clement split the income between the two men on the short list. Even though Sebastiano got the job, he was commanded to hand over 300 scudi a year to Giovanni da Udine.

While Michelangelo was in Florence, Sebastiano became the message bearer between Pope Clement and the artist, passing on Michelangelo's questions and complaints, and acting as interlocutor on the commission of the Last Judgment. In spite of this, Michelangelo's relationship with Sebastiano was never close; while he remained in Florence, Friar Sebastiano could befriend him in letters and act as his agent in the papal court, but the foundation of his friendship with Michelangelo was developing cracks. Cellini, the gossip of Rome, said that Sebastiano would disparage Michelangelo in front of others in their circle, a fact that eventually got back to the sensitive Michelangelo.

* * *

Like his uncle Lorenzo, Clement was more than tolerant with the touchy Michelangelo. He used to say that when Buonarroti came to visit, he always asked the artist to sit down because he would anyway, with or without permission. No one had ever treated Clement with as much cheek, which oddly enough seemed to please the pope. He read and reread letters Michelangelo sent to him, and whenever his artist sent a letter to someone else at the papal court, Clement insisted on reading it himself, sometimes pocketing the letter as if it were his own.

In 1518, during the reign of Pope Leo X, Michelangelo wrote to the future Clement, then Cardinal Giulio de Medici, outlining his adventures in purchasing marble for statues, and said: "They made me pay sixty ducats more for it than it's worth, pretending they regret it, but saying they cannot contravene the terms of the Bull of sale they had from the Pope. Now if the Pope is issuing Bulls granting license to rob, I beg Your Most Reverend Lordship to get one issued to me too." This was the artist's manner of speaking and writing to Clement even after he became pope. Clement, who was demanding, and even abusive at times with his servants, tolerated so much from Michelangelo and so little from everyone else.

In 1525, two years before the sack of Rome, Clement had the idea that he wanted Michelangelo to make a colossus in Florence, bigger than theDavid. At the time, the sculptor was busy working on another Medici commission but Clement insisted on this colossus to enhance his family's honor. It was partly Michelangelo's fault, for he had foolishly raised the notion of creating large statues by assembling and sculpting blocks of marble rather than sculpting one whole piece. Because these huge statues were hollow inside, unlike single piece sculptures, they could be constructed using architectural techniques, and could be built as large as any building. Clement wrote to Michelangelo through a mutual friend, Giovan Francesco Fattucci, a chaplain at Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, that he wanted his artist to begin work on a colossus at least 40 braccia (one braccio is equal to a forearm's length, about 28 inches) high, that would be made out of blocks. The pope was completely serious, and Fattucci took care to inform Michelangelo about this new commission. Instead of taking the idea to heart, however, the sculptor fired off a letter to Fattucci that treated the whole idea as a joke:

I thought that the figure might be sitting, which is hollow underneath, which can conveniently be done with blocks, its rear end coming at such a height that the barber's shop could go underneath, and the rent would not be lost ... Then I had another idea, a better idea, even though the figure would have to be much larger, which is still possible because it would be made of blocks. The head could be made hollow, so that it could serve as a campanile for San Lorenzo, much needed. With the bells clanging inside and the sound coming from its mouth, the colossus could be made to appear as if it were crying aloud for mercy.

The Pope didn't find it funny. Through his secretary Pietro Paolo Marzi, he insisted that Michelangelo drop everything and start the colossus. Michelangelo ignored the pope's demands, and the pope gradually became irritated over Michelangelo's continued refusal. For his part, the artist was growing impatient and exhausted due to Clement's ever-growing demands. Even when Marzi sent him a letter reminding him that the pope was serious about his colossus and did not appreciate Michelangelo's humor he ignored it.

Realizing that his demands were accomplishing nothing, Clement sent Michelangelo another letter through Marzi about the importance of existing commissions on the New Sacristy and Library, adding a long postscript in his own hand, using the familiar form of address as they had done as boys. Still irritated, he reminded Michelangelo that popes do not live forever, but he also promised him that he, the pope, would remain patient. Clement ended by promising Michelangelo his friendship and loyalty. Such a personal note coming from an irritated pope to an artisan with such a promise was almost unheard of. Anyone else would have been summarily dismissed for not responding promptly to the pope, but not Michelangelo. After that letter, Clement dropped the entire project and never mentioned it again.

* * *

By 1533, Michelangelo wanted to get out of Florence and to begin work in Rome. He had gradually lost enthusiasm for the Medici library and chapel project. His mournful statues of Day and Night were roughed out and nearing the final stages, but he left them and the tomb statues of the Medici forebears, the magnifici, Lorenzo and Giuliano, for others to finish. Clement had run out of money for the project anyway, so the events coincided nicely. Michelangelo was also increasingly concerned about the attitude of Duke Alessandro, the pope's illegitimate son and heir. Alessandro had a tyrannical personality, a vicious temper, and forgave nothing. Despite Pope Clement's pardon for Michelangelo's loyalty to the Florentine Republic following the sack of Rome and temporary ouster of the Medici, Alessandro was openly hostile to the artist because of his participation in the rebellion. If Clement, whose health had been deteriorating since the sack of Rome, died while Michelangelo was in Florence, the duke would have had no qualms about assassinating him. It would be far safer for Michelangelo to be in Rome when Clement passed away. In addition, on one of his trips to Rome the previous year, Michelangelo had met and fallen deeply in love with a young nobleman named Tommaso de Cavalieri.

Michelangelo met Cavalieri in the late autumn of 1532 on his first trip to Rome since he had reconciled with Clement following the rebellion and the siege of Florence and he had returned to Florence. Clement had allowed him to travel to Rome four months of the year to work on the tomb of Julius II, but demanded that he return to Florence and the library for the rest of the year. Sometime in those four months, Michelangelo met Cavalieri and was taken with the young man, who was then around twentythree years old and a great admirer of the older artist. Michelangelo fell deeply in love with handsome Tommaso, whose face was perfection and whose manners were always flawless. Here was the perfect man, intelligent, artistically talented, well-educated, and the talk of Roman society.

Cavalieri was a Roman nobleman, half Michelangelo's age, and was at first uncertain about the amorous advances of the great man who, for all his fame, still rode around the city on a mule and at the end of the day, slept in his boots. Cavalieri was more conventional than Michelangelo, and wanted a home and family—he married in 1548. However, he soon overcame his fears and reached out to Michelangelo by letter.

In spite of the danger of this romance—what people whispered in the corners could end up as charges of heresy or worse, sodomy— Michelangelo did not try to hide his affection for the young man, writing him letters and passionate poems that he intended for publication.

When Michelangelo returned to Florence to work on the library following the pope's orders, he started a long correspondence with Tommaso, expressing a fire that grew hotter with time and distance, and with the discovery that Tommaso shared his affection. In a letter, Michelangelo wrote to his beloved: "I could not forget your name any more than I can forget the food on which I live, because it nourishes only my body, while your name nourishes both my body and my soul." Michelangelo wrote several drafts of this letter and, typical of the time, cast his passion for Tommaso into terms of religious sentiment. If questioned, he would have said that he was first in love with Cavalieri's soul, and only then in love with his beauty. While in Florence, Tommaso became Michelangelo's source of health, love, and, he believed, his everlasting salvation. In August, the young man wrote back to Michelangelo: "I am certain you can not forget me. Please return as soon as you can and release me from prison, for I keep away from bad companions and want only you."

Over the next few months, they exchanged letters through the mediation of Bartolomeo Angiolini, a Florentine businessman living in exile, and the central figure of a group of exiles opposed to Duke Alessandro de Medici. While Michelangelo was still living in Florence, Angiolini became his business manager in Rome, and arranged to have the letters carried from Rome to Florence and back again. In this time, partly because of their rising passion, both Michelangelo and Cavalieri, who was an artist in his own right and a talented musician, experienced a flurry of creativity. Michelangelo wrote some of his most passionate poetry, mostly directed to Tommaso with an unabashed fervor bordering on the mystical.


Excerpted from The Last Judgment by James A. Connor. Copyright © 2009 James A. Connor. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: Standing in the Sistine * Introduction: The Dying Pope * The Great Commission * Clement's Brainstorm * Pope Julius' Tomb * The Altar Wall * Colors * The Children of Savonarola * Vittoria Colonna * Sol Invictus * The Naked and the Dead *The Damned * Censoring the End of the World * The Last Days of Michelangelo Buonarotti

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