I was lying on the couch reading on my tablet on All Saints’ Day earlier this month and I read an almanac post saying that it was the day chosen by Pope Julius II back in 1512 to display Michelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for the first time. I thought “That’s a good topic for a post on Weekends in Paradelle.
I did a bit of checking on defining All Saints’ Day (AKA also known as All Hallows, Feast of All Saints, Hallowmas) which is celebrated on November first by the Catholic Church and some Protestant denominations in honor of all the saints, known and unknown.
I looked up Michelangelo Buonarroti because I recall hearing or reading somewhere that the story of him lying on his back to paint is largely a fictional creation. In this case, from the Hollywood version of history in the The Agony and the Ecstasy. I never read the the best-selling biographical novel of Michelangelo by Irving Stone and it may have come from there before the film. I watched the film as a kid and was very impressed by the story of those four years he spent completing the paintings that decorate the ceiling of the chapel.
But the other part of this post is that in starting to write this, WordPress reminded me when I created a link that I had already written about this last year! That’s disturbing to me.
These gaps in my memory are increasing lately. I wrote a poem on my daily poem site this past week and realized later that I had used the same title and a very similar experience for an earlier poem this year. Later, I discovered an even earlier version of the idea in a notebook from 6 years ago.
I did do some more research this time around on Michelangelo, and the memory of the film is new, so I can craft this post as being something different.
Michelangelo was 33 years old when he tried to point out to the pope that he was a sculptor, and not really a painter. Two of his best-known works, the Pietà and David, were sculpted before he turned thirty. The pope paid no attention and in the end art historians say that you can see his skills as a sculptor used to make the two-dimensional ceiling look like more a series of three-dimensional scenes. It was a technique that was relatively new at the time.
He worked on it from 1508 to 1512. He did work from a scaffold 60 feet above the floor, but spent much of that time standing. He covered about 10,000 square feet of surface. Every day, fresh plaster was laid over a part of the ceiling and Michelangelo had to finish painting before the plaster dried.
The German writer Wolfgang von Goethe wrote, “We cannot know what a human being can achieve until we have seen [the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel].”
The paintings are of scenes from the Old Testament, but many people only know the famous center section, “The Creation of Adam.” The chapel itself was built about 25 years earlier, and various Renaissance painters were commissioned to paint frescoes on the walls.
My aging memory and its lapses made me read more about the later years of Michelangelo’s life. It was news to me that he turned to writing poetry.
His sexuality is somewhat in question but it seems that he would be described today as bi-sexual. His sexuality is apparent in his poetry. He wrote over three hundred sonnets and madrigals. The longest sequence were written to Tommaso dei Cavalieri. He met Tommasso when he was 57 and Tommasso was 23 years old. Historians also point to his last sculptures as evidence of a focus during these later years on both the male figure and on the contrast of old age and youth.
The Tommasso sequence is the first large sequence of poems in any modern tongue addressed by one man to another. It’s a bit surprising to me to realize that Shakespeare’s sonnets to the “fair youth” were written only 50 years after Michelangelo’s sonnets.
This led me to find a copy of The Complete Poems of Michelangelo at the library.
In a poem to Cavalieri, he writes:
Nay, things that suffer death, quench not the fire
Of deathless spirits; nor eternity
Serves sordid Time, that withers all things rare.
And Cavalieri replied in a letter: “I swear to return your love. Never have I loved a man more than I love you, never have I wished for a friendship more than I wish for yours.”
Cavalieri remained devoted to Michelangelo until his death.
His homoerotic poetry was something that later generations were uncomfortable with and it never really came into popular books and films about his life. Michelangelo’s grandnephew, Michelangelo the Younger, published the poems in 1623 with the gender of pronouns changed to be feminine. The gender was restored to male in John Addington Symonds’ translation into English in 1893. in 1547. Scholars still dispute whether this was a homosexual or paternal relationship with Tommasso.
Late in life, Michelangelo nurtured a great love for the poet and noble widow Vittoria Colonna, whom he met in Rome in 1536 or 1538 and who was in her late forties at the time. They wrote sonnets for each other and their friendship remained important to Michelangelo until her death.
Following a brief illness, Michelangelo died on February 18, 1564—just weeks before his 89th birthday—at his home in Rome. A nephew bore his body back to Florence, where he was revered by the public as the “father and master of all the arts,” and was laid to rest at the Basilica di Santa Croce—his chosen place of burial.
ON THE BRINK OF DEATH
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)
Now hath my life across a stormy sea
Like a frail bark reached that wide port where all
Are bidden, ere the final reckoning fall
Of good and evil for eternity.
Now know I well how that fond phantasy
Which made my soul the worshiper and thrall
Of earthly art, is vain; how criminal
Is that which all men seek unwillingly.
Those amorous thoughts which were so lightly dressed,
What are they when the double death is nigh?
The one I know for sure, the other dread.
Painting nor sculpture now can lull to rest
My soul that turns to His great love on high,
Whose arms to clasp us on the cross were spread.