Page images
PDF

often on men's lips as the names of Dantr and Raphael, but this is only because he employed his genius on those works of wonderful proportion and majesty which must be visited, in order that they may be known. Dante will come to us at any moment, and overawe our spirits with his shapes and words of terror; nor is it very difficult to obtain a knowledge of some of Raphael's most charming forms, colors, and inimitable lines; but he who has not seen the Sistine Chapel, evidently has not known Michael Angelo; he who has not seen what he himself spoke of as the "Pantheon hung in the air''—St. Peter's, at Rome—has not known Michael Angelo; and he who has not seen those vast man-els in stone, the Moses, the Dawn, and the Night, has not known Michael Angelo. We suppose criticism in general places him next to Raphael. We never could understand why the spirit of the mighty painter, sculptor,, and architect was in close relationship to his whom he loved so much—Dante. It was a soul capable only of sublime attempts and exploits; it moved with familiarity and ease among terrors, and majesties, and daring conceptions, which would make even lofty genius dizzy. That was a noble tribute pronounced to his memory by Sir Joshua Reynolds, in his last discourse before the Royal Academy, when he said "I feel a self-congratulation in knowing myself capable of such sensations as he intended to excite. 1 reflect, not without vanity, that these discourses bear testimony of my admiration of that truly divine man, and I should desire that the best words which I should pronounce in this Academy, and from this place, might be the name of Michael Angelo." These were Sir Joshua's last words, and they were simply worthy of the speaker and his'subject. There are moot matters of discussion as to the influence exercised by this great Italian upon the history of art. That he changed the aspect of it, is undoubted. He influenced, and healthfully influenced, the mind of his great rival, Kaphael. That he was equal in his development of the tender and gentle as of the terrible and the strong, can never be asserted; only, we suppose, in two or three rare instances have the women he has portrayed possessed a feminine tenderness; he gave to them an animal, yet New Sbkies—Vol. II., No. 1.

goddesslike grandeur, and'it needed, perhaps, that strange passion which blazed through his old heart for Vittoria Colonna, that romance which, like that of Dante and Beatrice, and Petrarch and Laura, invests his name with speculation and poetry, to reveal to his stern and lonely nature the undreamed-of probabilities and instructions from congenial aud sympathizing womanhood. Unlike so many who have followed art, his life is itseif statuesque arid perfect, undesecruted by meanness or sensuality—a glorious whole. We suppose no other name could be mentioned as so perfect a cosmos of art. He was great in every department m whieii the artist can excel, lie quite contradicts the impression that versatility must be inferiority, for, excepting in poetry, while he is great here, we see not how lie could have been greater in either of the aits he especially espoused. Of some of his po wers he must have been very greatly unconscious. The wonderful paintings of the Sistine Chapel were works to wiiicli he was compelled by Pope Julius II. against his own persuasions and entreaties, and these the impatient Pope would not allow to be completed as the painter designed, so desirous was he that the scaffolding should be removed, that they might be exhibited to the people. He was an intense student, aud the extremes of his life unite themselves sublimely together, when we find him as a boy in the tish-market, studying the form aud color of the fins and tne eyes of the fish, and as an old man walking in the Cohsseum, solitary amidst the ruins, where the Cardinal .b'arnese met him and expressed surprise at seeing him alone, he said, "I no yet to school tnat I may continue to learn." Jtle was probably nearly ninety when he sketched that one of his last drawings, found in his portfolio, of an old man with a long beard, in a gocart and an hourglass before him, with the motto, ancora impara—I still learn. It is in truth a life sublimely edifying to the extent to which few lives are so. He was the Dante and Milton of his art, as Raphael probable was the Shakspeare. Earnest, sublime, and truth-loving, to read his life is to be drawn assuredly beneath the influence of great powers and impressions. We are therefore heartily glad that English readers have now, through the admirable 3

pages of Herman Grimm, a better opportunity than they had before of studying it.

Let us notice a few points and epochs in the career of this stupendous man. He was born near Florence, in the year 1476; it was the great age of Florentine history—hi politics, religion, and art. j Florence was, as was natural, the city of merchandise; the Medicis, who were its masters, were, or had been, merchants. The brothers of Michael were intended to be merchants, and, with this design, probably he was sent to the grammar school of Francesco d'Urbino; but the impression was that he idled his time away in drawing, and in frequenting the studios and easels of painters. He seems to have been treated by his father and uncles with considerable harshness; they were men who knew the difference between trading and painting; but genius would not be warped; and so in 1488, he was articled to study as a painter beneath the masters Domenico and David j Grillandaji. One of his first drawings: drew from one of his masters the exclamation, "He understands more than I do myself!" But this seems only to have produced envy even in the minds of his masters. Then we find that as he had neglected the grammar school for drawings and paintings, so a sight he had of the statues in the gardens of San Marco j inspired him, for their sakes, to slight the atelier of his*masters; but even at this very early age some pieces of his ] workmanship in marble caught the omniscient eye of the great Lorenzo de Medici, and this circumstance gave that happy meed of influence which even greatest minds seem to need in order that they may be placed in circumstances favorable to their development and fame.

We have already said it was the great age of Florence. Michael Angelo, as a youth and young man, heard Savonarola preach those searching, rousing sermons which stirred the city to its foundation, and anticipated the thundery of Luther. He was twenty-three years of age, when, on the 23rd May, 1498, the great preacher and monk was brought out into the square, hung and burned, and his ashes thrown into the arno from the old bridge. It is a joy to us to see in Michael Angelo one of Savonarola's adherents. We •

do not know to what extent he abandoned himself to the feelings of the Reformer; his was a religious nature, serious and stern as that of Savonarola himself; and it was no doubt partly owing to the death of his patron Lorenzo de Medici, and to the stormful state of the politics of the city that he left Florence and entered Rome, w"hich was to be, for the greater number of, the years of his life, his resting-place, and the scene of his most magnificent labors. We soon find him engaged in works which were to abide as the marks and tests of his genius. We notice especially his Madonna; and it has bee.ii remarked upon as wonderful, that at a period when the breaking up of all political, and moral, external and religious things was to be expected, in Rome, the center of all corruption, Michael Angelo could have produced, at twenty-four years of age, a work which, for purity and beauty, critics the most eminent placed among the master-pieces of Italy—a piece which, says Condivi, "makes its artist the first master in Italy, and even places him above the ancient masters." Artists, indeed, raised grave questions—questions which do not occur to us now, but which were the verylunges of critical acumen and observation, then. Mary, for instance, was considered too young in relation to her son, and Coudivi applied to Michael Angelo himself for his reasons for such an apparent inconsistency. We think the feeling, and thought, and prescience of the artist shine out very distinctly in his reply—

"Do yon iiot know," he answered me (says Condivi), "that chaste women remain fresher than those who are not so? How much more then a virgin who has never been led astray by the slightest sini'ul desire? But yet more, if such youthful bloom is thus naturally retained in her, we must believe that the divine power came also to her aid, so that the inaidenliness and imperishable purity of the mother of God might appear to all the world. Not so necessary was this in the Son ; on the contrary, it was to be shown how he hi truth assumed the human form and was exposed to all that can befall a mortal man, r'm only excepted. Thus it was not necessary here to place his divinity before his humanity, but to represent him at the age which, according to the course of time, he had reached. It must not therefore appear amazing to you if I have represented the most holy Virgin and mother of God much younger in comparison with her [ Son. tlyin regard to the ordinary maturing of | mau might have required, and that I have left | the Son at his natural age."

Michael Angelo sought work from Pope Julius II. He desired employment in his own favorite department of sculpture. It was an interesting period in the history of art in Rome. Raphael was there; Raphael also was the i'avorite of the Pope. St. Peter's was building— not the St. Peter's as we know it—that, as our readers know, was the dream and the realization of Angelo half a century after. The Basilica of St. Peter was a church—a vast work belonging to the earliest ages of Christendom: it had been enlarged; it possessed an abundance of art treasures; with the Vatican it formed a kind of ecclesiastical fortress; iu it the emperors were crowned, and great anathemas pronounced or revoked; it had wreaths of outbuildings round it, and cloisters and chapels, vast rows of antique pillars, and entrances adorned | with frescoes. It had been the ambition of many popes to rebuild it, or to give to the whole some grand consistent unity; j for this great place had been devised, j sketched, and submitted to the Pope Julius II., whose ambition was equal to any breadth of proposal. When Michael Angelo arrived in Rome, Bramante had presented plans, of which, in his old age, Angelo spoke as eminently perfect. He had, however, been preceded by San Gallo, whose plans, although at first receiving the warm commendation of Julius, had^been superseded, but San Gallo had brought Michael Angelo to Rome; what more natural than that Bramante should attempt to get rid of him? At the same time Raphael was employed in other departments of the building; and here eeems to be a simple solution of that partisanship and favoritism for two eminent men, in which it is not necessary to involve the chiefs. Who shall adjust the rival claims of Angelo and Raphael? During the same hours they were at work in different departments of the great ecclesiastical palace, they must frequently have met each other, although of such meetings we have no records; but who can adjust the differences of genius 1 Goethe is not Schiller, Milton is not Shakspeare, Ariosto is not Daute;

there is something in each that is highest, not to be met with iu the other. It is so with these two great masters; we will not call them rivals—of that they were of course incapable, because they were masters; but the agitations to which we have referred will suggest the reason why our artist, who expected to work as a sculptor, found himself, as we have already intimated, coerced into the painting of the Sistine Chapel. The work was not to his mind; he told the Pope he had never done anything in colors. The Pope more pertinaciously insisted that he should paint the vault of the Sistine Chapel, so-called, because built by Sistine in 1473. If there were a covert design to pit his powers against those of Raphael, upon a ground not especially his own, his genius well abides the test. It has been well said that Michael Angelo painting this celebrated ceiling, enlarges our conceptions of the powers of the human mind, and the known powers of man. Not the battles of great generals, nor winter campaigns, nor midnight marches, furnish more striking illustrations of endurance. In twenty months the work was accomplished—the admiration of all succeeding artists and ages, whether regarded for its grandeur of imagination or happiness of execution. Before he could paint, a scaffolding had to be erected, but for this he had to contrive a design, which exhibited bis skill in minute mechanical contrivances. He wrought himself iu his work to a marvelous pitch of endurance, abstemiousness and self-denial: a little bread and wine was nearly all his nourishment, he often slept in his clothes because too weary to undress, or he rose in the night and hurried away at any hour to his toil. Nothing is more remarkably noteworthy in the life of Michael Angelo, than his indomitable power and might of work: and he appreciated work—industry—and hence in a criticism upon Raphael, after his death, he gave him also the palm because of his industry. We have seen how often he rose in the middle of the night if he could not sleep, and work; we believe it was at a later period of his life—that he might not be hindered while painting—he covered his head with a frail pasteboard helmet, on the top of which he placed a tallow can

die, -which would not drop like wax, to light him when at his work, and which was not in his way. Of course, the vault could only be painted by his lying on his back; and after the work was accomplished, for many months he could only read or see the thing he examined distinctly by holding his head back, and the book or object over rather than before his eyes. Then he had a troublesome old Pope to deal with, who was constantly coming to him on the scaffolding, ascending the ladder so that the painter had to hold out his hand for the last step—an impatient and irritable old Pope, perpetually asking him when he would come to an end, insisting on the removal of the scaffolding at any rate from one part. The last touches were still wanting, the gold for the different lights and ornaments had yet to be laid on, when the harsh old despot thundered, "You seem desirous that I should have you thrown down from this scaffolding!" It was a dangerous hint; the Pope was not nice in his moral notions when likely to be thwarted; the painter kne^ his man, and suspended his work ; the beams were removed. In the midst of the dust and confusion which , tilled the chapel, the Pope pressed forward admiring the work, and on All Saints day, 1509, Home crowded in to gaze upon the wonder of art which had risen like magic.

The limitations of our pages make it impossible for us to attempt either ourselves to characterize, or, what would be better, quote our author's very eloquent characterizations of the groups of the Sistine Chapel. One distinctiveness, however, we may mention, for it vividly presents the whole works of Michael Angelo, and indicates that in Avhich he was the creator of a new school and study of beauty; it was the movement of ideas. Every line, attitude, and aspect of these great frescoes would seem to be full of ideas. That sublime representation of God the Father brooding over the waters and dividing the light from the darkness, or that in which he, the Supreme, is calmly hovering; in the first he seems to be caught in an immense storm, and is so borne through infinite space, while he is yet compelling and controlling, the white beard of the Ancient of Days

waving, his arms commandingly outstretched, the worlds darting forth round him as he moves, like sparks from him the Living.

J He was able, in all these pictures, to convey thoughts which were even them[ selves like that touch which God gave to | Adam when he made him a living soul. The creation of man, the creation of Eve, and Abel, and Cain, and Noah, were all portrayed in this grand manner. His critic says of him that it was as if by his 1 imagination he had seen the birth of the giant generation of the Titans. Not less marvelous, perhaps even more so, were the figures of the sybils and prophets, occupying the side walls between the windows, twelve compartments, in which I he painted twelve immense figures, touch; ing with their heads Jhe cornices of the .^architectural effect he had contrived, and 'all drawn in strange and successful perspective, as if they were sitting round the interior of the marble temple, exarn! ining the subjects of the great ceiling i above them; the perspective stretched away to present all the legends of the lands of the early earth, those lew great legends which everlastingly impose themselves on {he spirit; "tew in number," says our critic, "but passing to and fro, walking over the untouched soil like "solitary horis.'' There were the woods. ! of Greece, the mountains of Olympus, streams rushing down its slopes to the distant sea, the pasture-lands of Asia, | and the flocks of Abraham. There seems, to our mind, in these mystical figures and clear perspectives, much of that same holy-human, holy-biblical maze of j mystery in which the soul of Dante was i caught and lost from his Purgatory to i his Paradise. The artist intended to represent the dreamy surmisings of things rising to the rapture and ecstacy of truth beheld and known, beginning with the Erythraean sibyl, the symbol of merely natural knowledge, a beautiful female turning the pages of a book upon a desk before her, a lamp in chains above her, lighted with a torch by a naked boy. The companion to this is the prophet ! Joel, unrolling his parchment, the muscles of his face indicating how he is weighing, mentally, what he has read; then Zachariah, absorbed; then the Delphic sibyl; followed by Isaiah; then the

Cnmean sibyl: followed by Daniel; then the Libyan sibyl; followed by Jonah. There were yet other paintings: Judith and Holofernes, and David and Goliath. But thirty years after the great artist completed his wonderful work in this chapel, by his representation of the Last Judgment; and this picture, while it seems to be the product of the ripest energies of his art and imagination—our author does not hesitate to say of some sections of this painting, that, "as regards the artistic work, it is a production so astonishing that nothing which has been executed by any painter, before or after, can be compared with it;" at the same time it hangs before the mind and sense a terror the imagination of the present age refuses to entertain or conceive; it is a monument of a past age1 and a strange people, whose ideas are no longer ours. We have forestepped the course of our notice, but for the purpose of making it evident to those who do not already know that the Sistine Chapel is monumental to the genius of Michael Angelo. Assuredly it is not merely one of the wonders of the world, it is still more marvelous as an illustration of the force of character in forming and compelling genius. With the exception of the "Last Judgment," we have seen in how brief a space of time the whole of .these works were executed. In ten months the half of the immense surface was filled with paintings by him, and, in one of his sonnets, he grotesquely describes himself as lying day after day on his back, while the colors dropped on his face. Severe bodily exhaustion was the daily lot, and still the royal will worked on. Moreover, he could get no pay from the Pope. He want«d rest: this of course was not permitted. His father and relatives in Florence do not seem to have been so successful with their merchandise as was he with his colors and marbles. We hear of constant remittances of money home, and sometimes money would not come; but "take care of your health," writes he to his father, "and do not let the grey hairs grow." Also, while he was high upon his scaffolding there, moving through chaos with the creating God, in far-off scenes of Grecian and Asian loveliness, with the brave men and the bright women of the young

world, all sorts of cliques and parties were forming against him below. Bramante, as if prophetic instincts spoke within him, was jealously determined to keep him from St. Peters. He seerns to have been one of those men who, with a certain capability of appreciating art when not interfering with his own selfishness, was, after all, one of that common crowd of vulgar tormentors genius usually has to endure. It suited him to patronise and wish well to Raphael. He and Raphael should be the greatest in Rome. It is not to be thought that he was able to appreciate the exquisite melody of Raphael's spirit; but, in the first place, so far as Raphael is regarded by us, he had that easy, and yet all mighty will, which is so pleasant, so graceful, absorbing, and overcoming, which never resists, yet always conquers; as we have said, a kind of Shakspeare; all harmonious, all inclusive. Moreover, his ambitions were not architectural. He dealt with colors and frescoes, not stones and buildings. Michael Angelo, on the contrary, we suppose to have had little of this easy, lovecompelling grace, this sunning of compliance and joyousness of manner. A stupendous architect was in his soul, and i while it does not seem that he especially pitted himself against the plans of San Gallo or Bramante, it is certainly probable enough that even there he saw all the future of St. Peter's hanging high in the infinite vault and chamber of his ! great soul. Braraante attempted vast 'things too; but when, in order to accomplish his work, he demolished the old columns of the old Basilica, Angelo became wroth, and poured out his indignation. "A million of bricks, said he, piled one upon the top of another, is no art, but it is a great art to execute one such column as these." Highest schemes, dreams, and conceptions of art lived in his mind. At a later period of life Vittoria Colonna truly said that "he who only admired his works, valued the smallest part of him." He turned easily and happily from the frescoes to which we have referred, to his work in marble. The rugged old Julius died (Angelo lived through many a papacy); the moment of his death found the sculptor engaged in work for his mausoleum. Men who have growled at each other over the exe

« PreviousContinue »