Home  »  library  »  prose  »  Critical and Biographical Introduction

C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Michaelangelo (1475–1564)

THE MOST famous of Florentine artists, whose literary fame rests on his sonnets and his letters, was born in Caprese, Italy, March 6th, 1475. His father was Ludovico Buonarotti, a poor gentleman of Florence, who loved to boast that he had never added to his impoverished estates by mercantile pursuits. The story of Michaelangelo’s career as painter, sculptor, and architect, belongs to the history of art. Under the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Angelo Doni, Pope Julius II., and Pope Paul III., his genius flowered. In the decoration of the Sistine Chapel he seems to have put forth his greatest energy both as poet and as painter. He described the discomforts of working on this ceiling in a humorous sonnet addressed to Giovanni da Pistoja; on the margin of which he drew a little caricature of himself, lying upon his back and using his brush. For a long time after these paintings were completed, he could read only by holding the page above his head and raising his eyes. His impaired sight occasioned a medical treatise on the eyes, which is preserved in the MSS. of the Vatican. The twelve years between 1522 and 1534 he spent in Florence, occupied with sculpture and architecture, under the capricious patronage of the Medici family.

His fine allegory of Night, sculptured upon the Medici tomb, was celebrated in verse by the poets of the day. To Strozzi this quatrain is attributed:—

  • “La Notte, che tu vedi in si dolci atti
  • Dormire, fu da un angelo scolpita
  • In questo sasso: e perche dorme, ha vita;
  • Destala, se no’l credi, e parleratti.”
  • [This Night, which you see sleeping in such sweet abandon, was sculptured by an angel. She is living, although she sleeps in marble. If you doubt, wake her: she then will speak.]
  • Michaelangelo replied thus:—
  • “Grato mi e il sonno, e piu d’esser di sasso;
  • Mentre che il danno e la vergogna dura,
  • Non veder, non sentir m’e gran ventura;
  • Pero non mi destar; deh! parla basso.”
  • [It is sweet to sleep, sweeter to be of marble. While evil and shame live, it is my happiness to hear nothing and to feel nothing. Ah! speak softly, and wake me not.]
  • In 1535 he removed to Rome, where he spent the rest of his life; dying there in 1564 at the ripe age of eighty-nine. During this period he executed the ‘Last Judgment,’ and built the Farnese Palace.

    Although Symonds considers his literary work merely “a scholastic exercise upon the emotions,” and says that “his stock in trade consists of a few Platonic notions and a few Petrarchian antitheses,” the Italian critics place Michaelangelo’s sonnets immediately after those of Dante and Petrarch. It may be mentioned here that the sculptor was a devoted student of Dante, as his sonnets to the great poet show. Not only did he translate into painting much symbolical imagery of the ‘Inferno,’ but he illustrated the ‘Divina Commedia’ in a magnificent series of drawings, which unfortunately perished at sea. The popular interest in so universal a genius lies not in descriptions of his personality and traits of character, but in his theories of art and life, and in those psychological moods which explain the source of the intellectual and spiritual power expressed in his mystical conceptions. These moods have free utterance in his poems, written at all periods of his life.

    The name most frequently associated with his poetry is that of Vittoria Colonna, Marchesa di Pescara, whom he met in Rome after he had passed the meridian of life. She had been for two years a widow; and refusing to reward Michaelangelo’s devotion by the gift of her hand, finally entered a convent. Their friendship lasted from 1527 to her death in 1547. Whether she was the Egeria of his spiritual life, or a romantic love, has long been the subject of critical speculation. The first editor of Michaelangelo’s poems attributed most of his sonnets and madrigals to her inspiration; but only a few may be thus credited with certainty. His extravagant admiration for Tommaso dei Cavalieri, a young Roman gentleman of extraordinary physical beauty and grace of manner,—the only person of whom Michaelangelo ever drew a cartoon portrait,—is expressed with as much devotion. Symonds speaks thus of Michaelangelo’s ambiguous beauty-worship: “Whether a man or a woman is in the case (for both were probably the objects of his æsthetical admiration), the tone of feeling, the language, and the philosophy do not vary. He uses the same imagery, the same conceits, the same abstract ideas, for both sexes; and adapts the leading motive which he had invented for a person of one sex to a person of the other when it suits his purpose.” In his art too is found no imaginative feeling for what is specifically feminine. With few exceptions, his women, as compared with those of Raphael, Correggio, Titian, and Tintoretto, are really colossal companions for primeval gods; such as, for example, his Sibyls and Fates, which are Titanic in their majesty. Although tranquil women of maturity exist by means of his marvelous brush and chisel, to woman in the magic of youthful beauty his art seems insensible. The inference is, that emotionally he never feels the feminine spirit, and reverences alone that of eternal and abstract beauty.

    The literature that clusters around the name of Michaelangelo is enormous. The chief storehouse of material is preserved in the Casa Buonarotti in Florence. This consists of letters, poems, and memoranda in Michaelangelo’s autograph; copies of his sonnets made by his grandnephew and Michaelangelo the younger; and his correspondence with famous contemporaries. In 1859 the British Museum purchased a large manuscript collection of memoranda, used first by Hermann Grimm in his ‘Leben Michelangelos’ (1860), the fifth edition of which was published in Hanover in 1875. Public and private libraries possess valuable data and manuscripts, more or less employed by the latest biographers. To celebrate Michaelangelo’s fourth centenary, a volume of his ‘Letters’ was edited by Gaetano Milanesi and published in Florence in 1875. The first edition of the artist’s poems was published in 1623 by Michaelangelo the younger, as ‘Le Rime di Michelangelo Buonarotti’; and they were known only to the world in this distorted form until 1863, when a new edition was brought out in Florence by Cesare Guasti. This is considered the first classical and valuable presentation of his poetry. The earliest lives of Michaelangelo are by Vasari, in his first edition of the ‘Lives of Italian Artists,’ published in 1550, enlarged and republished in 1579; and by Condovi, who published his biography in 1553, while his master was still living. Other important biographies are by Aurelio Gotti in two volumes (Florence, 1875); by Charles Heath Wilson (London, 1876); and by John Addington Symonds (two volumes, London, 1892), which contains a bibliography, a portrait, and valuable guidance for research upon Michaelangelo’s genius, works, and character. The same author translated his sonnets, and published them with those of Campanella (London, 1878). His translations are used in the following selections.