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Talking of Michelangelo

12:00 AM, Aug 9, 1999 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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The incident that really made Michelangelo's name as a terribile was a set-to he had with Pope Julius II. The pope had commissioned Michelangelo to make him a tomb like nobody else's; the artist's design contained some forty full-size sculpted figures, and he was bold enough to assert that the tomb would be the most extraordinary work of art ever made. Making it, however, proved more difficult than drawing it. When Michelangelo returned to Rome after eight months in the marble quarries of Carrara, he went to the pope in order to be reimbursed for delivery of a shipment of stone; the pope left him cooling his heels for a week, until finally a guard told him that he had been ordered not to admit him. Michelangelo told the guard that if the pope ever wanted him, he should look elsewhere than in Rome; the next morning, Michelangelo headed back to Florence. Papal couriers overtook him on the way, and presented him with a letter from the pope ordering him back to Rome. Michelangelo refused to go. It would be six months before Michelangelo asked the pope to forgive his stalking off. The tomb was never completed in anything like the planned form.

Beck argues, not without cogency, that Michelangelo left Rome out of fear that Julius had lost interest in the tomb, which was true, and that his life was in danger, which was not true. However, Beck's contention that Michelangelo simply behaved like "a cautious, sensitive person worried about his security and his career" is too much to swallow. It is far more likely that fear and anger both played their part in this episode, as Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo's sometime apprentice and his first biographer, remarked in Lives of the Most Eminent Italian Architects, Painters, and Sculptors. By all accounts but Beck's, Michelangelo was a hothead. Vasari related that when someone -- possibly Pope Julius, in disguise -- sneaked into the Sistine Chapel as Michelangelo was still working on the ceiling, the painter hurled planks from the scaffolding down at the intruder.

On another occasion, the pope impatiently demanded to know when Michelangelo would finish the ceiling, and Michelangelo impatiently responded, "When I can, Holy Father." Furious at this insolence, the pope struck Michelangelo with a staff, and told him he would make him finish the job soon enough; however, Vasari wrote, Julius presently thought better of his outburst, and sent an emissary to the artist with an apology and a handsome sum of money "to calm him down, as he was afraid that he would react in his usual unpredictable way." Michelangelo forgave the pope, with a genial laugh, but he was not always so forgiving.

Pope Paul III's master of ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, observed of Michelangelo's nearly completed Last Fudgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel that, with its numerous nude figures, it would look better on the wall of a tavern or a bathhouse. Taking revenge as only an artist can, Michelangelo painted Biagio's face on the figure of Minos, Prince of Hell; a pair of ass's ears appear on the unfortunate churchman's head and a snake coiled about his legs clamps its mouth around his penis.

So Beck, who calls his book "an interpretation of the personality of Michelangelo," gets the proportions wrong in portraying his hero; his Michelangelo is positively swollen with goodness. Vasari, on the other hand, acknowledged his master's flaws and still honored him as the best of men: God "determined to give this artist the knowledge of true moral philosophy and the gift of poetic expression, so that everyone might admire and follow him as their perfect exemplar in life, work, behavior, and in every endeavor, and he would be acclaimed as divine."