The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson - by R.W. Emerson Institute, Jim Manley, Director -

Never did sculptor’s dream unfold
A form which marble doth not hold
In its white block; yet it therein shall find Only the hand secure and bold
Which still obeys the mind.

Non ha l’ ottimo artista alcun concetto,
Ch’un marmo solo in se non circoscriva
Col suo soverchio, c solo a quello arriva
La man che obbedisce all’ intelletto.
M. ANGELO, Sonnetto primo.


Few lives of eminent men are harmonious; few that furnish, in all the
facts, an image corresponding with their fame. But all things recorded
of Michael Angelo Buonarotti agree together. He lived one life; he
pursued one career. He accomplished extraordinary works; he uttered
extraordinary words; and in this greatness was so little eccentricity,
so true was he to the laws of the human mind, that his character and
his works, like Sir Isaac Newton’s, seem rather a part of nature than
arbitrary productions of the human will. Especially we venerate his
moral fame. Whilst his name belongs to the highest class of genius, his
life contains in it no injurious influence. Every line in his biography
might be read to the human race with wholesome effect. The means, the
materials of his activity, were coarse enough to be appreciated, being
addressed for the most part to the eye; the results, sublime and all
innocent. A purity severe and even terrible goes out from the lofty
productions of his pencil and his chisel, and again from the more
perfect sculpture of his own life, which heals and exalts. “He nothing
common did, or mean,” and dying at the end of near ninety years, had
not yet become old, but was engaged in executing his grand conceptions
in the ineffaceable architecture of St. Peter’s.

Above all men whose history we know, Michael Angelo presents us with
the perfect image of the artist. He is an eminent master in the four
fine arts, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture and Poetry. In three of
them by visible means, and in poetry by words, he strove to express the
Idea of Beauty. This idea possessed him and determined all his
activity. Beauty in the largest sense, beauty inward and outward,
comprehending grandeur as a part, and reaching to goodness as its soul,
– this to receive and this to impart, was his genius.

It is a happiness to find, amid the falsehood and griefs of the human
race, a soul at intervals born to behold and create only beauty. So
shall not the indescribable charm of the natural world, the great
spectacle of morn and evening which shut and open the most disastrous
day, want observers. The ancient Greeks called the world kosmos,
Beauty; a name which, in our artificial state of society, sounds
fanciful and impertinent. Yet, in proportion as man rises above the
servitude to wealth and a pursuit of mean pleasures, he perceives that
what is most real is most beautiful, and that, by the contemplation of
such objects, he is taught and exalted. This truth, that perfect beauty
and perfect goodness are one, was made known to Michael Angelo; and we
shall endeavor by sketches from his life to show the direction and
limitations of his search after this element.

In considering a life dedicated to the study of Beauty, it is natural
to inquire, what is Beauty? Can this charming element be so abstracted
by the human mind, as to become a distinct and permanent object? Beauty
cannot be defined. Like Truth, it is an ultimate aim of the human
being. It does not lie within the limits of the understanding.  ” The
nature of the beautiful,” – we gladly borrow the language of Moritz, a
German critic, – “consists herein, that because the understanding in
the presence of the beautiful cannot ask, ‘Why is it beautiful? for
that reason is it so. There is no standard whereby the understanding
can determine whether objects are beautiful or otherwise.’  What other
standard of the beautiful exists, than the entire circuit of all
harmonious proportions of the great system of nature? All particular
beauties scattered up and down in nature are only so far beautiful, as
they suggest more or less in themselves this entire circuit of
harmonious proportions.”

This great Whole, the understanding cannot embrace. Beauty may be felt.  It may be produced. But it cannot be defined.
The Italian artists sanction this view of beauty by describing it as il
piu nnell’ uno, “the many in one,” or multitude in unity, intimating
that what is truly beautiful seems related to all nature. A beautiful
person has a kind of universality, and appears to have truer conformity
to all pleasing objects in external nature than another. Every great
work of art seems to take up into itself the excellencies of all works,
and to present, as it were, a miniature of nature.

In relation to this element of Beauty, the minds of men divide
themselves into two classes. In the first place, all men have an
organization corresponding more or less to the entire system of nature,
and therefore a power of deriving pleasure from Beauty. This is Taste.
In the second place, certain minds, more closely harmonized with
nature, possess the power of abstracting Beauty from things, and
reproducing it in new forms, on any object to which accident may
determine their activity ; as stone, canvas, song, history. This is Art.

Since Beauty is thus an abstraction of the harmony and proportion that
reigns in all nature, it is therefore studied in nature, and not in
what does not exist. Hence the celebrated French maxim of
Rhetoric, Rien de beau que le vrai; “Nothing is beautiful but what is
true.” It has a much wider application than to Rhetoric; as wide,
namely, as the terms of the proposition admit. In art, Michael Angelo
is himself but a document or verification of this maxim. He labored to
express the beautiful, in the entire conviction that it was only to be
attained unto by knowledge of the true. The common eye is satisfied
with the surface on which it rests. The wise eye knows that it is
surface, and, if beautiful, only the result of interior harmonies,
which, to him who knows them, compose the image of higher beauty.
Moreover, he knew well that only by an understanding of the internal
mechanism can the outside be faithfully delineated. The walls of houses
are transparent to the architect. The symptoms disclose the
constitution to the physician; and to the artist it belongs by a
better knowledge of anatomy, and, within anatomy, of life and thought,
to acquire the power of true drawing.  “The human form,” says Goethe,
“cannot be comprehended through seeing its surface. It must be stripped
of the muscles, its parts separated, its joints observed, its divisions
marked, its action and counter action learned; the hidden, the
reposing, the foundation of the apparent, must be searched, if one
would really see and imitate what moves as a beautiful inseparable
whole in living waves before the eye.” Michael Angelo dedicated himself, from his childhood to his death, to a
toilsome observation of nature. The first anecdote recorded of him
shows him to be already on the right road. Granacci, a painter’s
apprentice, having lent him, when a boy, a print of St. Antony beaten
by devils, together with some colors and pencils, he went to the
fish-market to observe the form and color of fins and of the eyes of
fish. Cardinal Farnese one day found him, when an old man, walking
alone in the Coliseum, and expressed his surprise at finding him
solitary amidst the ruins; to which he replied, “I go yet to school
that I may continue to learn.” And one of the last drawings in his
portfolio is a sublime hint of his own feeling; for it is a sketch of
an old man with a long beard, in a go-cart, with an hour-glass before
him; and the motto, Ancora imparo, “I still learn.”

In this spirit he devoted himself to the study of anatomy for twelve
years; we ought to say rather, as long as he lived. The depth of his
knowledge in anatomy has no parallel among the artists of modern
times. Most of his designs, his contemporaries inform us, were made
with a pen, and in the style of an engraving on copper or wood; a
manner more expressive but not admitting of correction. When Michael
Angelo would begin a statue, he made first on paper the skeleton;
afterwards, upon another paper, the same figure clothed with muscles.
The studies of the statue of Christ in the Church of Minerva at Rome,
made in this manner, were long preserved.

Those who have never given attention to the arts of design, are
surprised that the artist should find so much to study in a fabric of
such limited parts and dimensions as the human body. But reflection
discloses evermore a closer analogy between the finite form and the
infinite inhabitant. Man is the highest, and indeed the only proper
object of plastic art. There needs no better proof of our instinctive
feeling of the immense expression of which the human figure is capable,
than the uniform tendency which the religion of every country has
betrayed towards Anthropomorphism, or attributing to the Deity the
human form. And behold the effect of this familiar object every day!
No acquaintance with the secrets of its mechanism, no degrading views
of human nature, not the most swinish compost of mud and blood that was
ever misnamed philosophy, can avail to hinder us from doing involuntary
reverence to any exhibition of majesty or surpassing beauty in human

Our knowledge of its highest expression we owe to the Fine Arts. Not
easily in this age will any man acquire by himself such perceptions of
the dignity or grace of the human frame, as the student of art owes to
the remains of Phidias, to the Apollo, the Jove, the paintings and
statues of Michael Angelo, and the works of Canova. There are now in
Italy, both on canvas and in marble, forms and faces which the
imagination is enriched by contemplating. Goethe says that he is but
half himself who has never seen the Juno in the Rondanini palace at
Rome. Seeing these works true to human nature and yet superhuman, “we
feel that we are greater than we know.” Seeing these works, we
appreciate the taste which led Michael Angelo, against the taste and
against the admonition of his patrons, to cover the walls of churches
with unclothed figures, “improper” says his biographer,  “for the
place, but proper for the exhibition of all the pomp of his profound

The love of beauty which never passes beyond outline and color, was too
slight an object to occupy the powers of his genius. There is a closer
relation than is commonly thought between the fine arts and the useful
arts; and it is an essential fact in the history of Michael Angelo,
that his love of beauty is made solid and perfect by his deep
understanding of the mechanic arts. Architecture is the bond that
unites the elegant and the economical arts, and his skill in this is a
pledge of his capacity in both kinds. His Titanic handwriting in marble
and travertine is to be found in every part of Rome and Florence ; and
even at Venice, on defective evidence, he is said to have given the
plan of the bridge of the Rialto. Nor was his a skill in ornament, or
confined to the outline and designs of towers and facades, but a
thorough acquaintance with all the secrets of the art, with all the
details of economy and strength.

When the Florentines united themselves with Venice, England and France,
to oppose the power of the Emperor Charles V, Michael Angelo was
appointed Military Architect and Engineer, to superintend the erection
of the necessary works. He visited Bologna to inspect its celebrated
fortifications, and, on his return, constructed a fortification on the
heights of San Miniato, which commands the city and environs of
Florence. On the 24th of October, 1529, the Prince of Orange, general
of Charles V, encamped on the hills surrounding the city, and his
first operation was to throw up a ram-part to storm the bastion of San
Miniato. His design was frustrated by the providence of Michael Angelo.
Michael made such good resistance, that the Prince directed the
artillery to demolish the tower. The artist hung mattresses of wool on
the side exposed to the attack, and by means of a bold projecting
cornice, from which they were suspended, a considerable space was left
between them and the wall. This simple expedient was sufficient, and
the Prince was obliged to turn his siege into a blockade.

After an active and successful service to the city for six months,
Michael Angelo was informed of a treachery that was ripening within the
walls. He communicated it to the government with his advice upon it;
but was mortified by receiving from the government reproaches at his
credulity and fear. He replied, “that it was useless for him to take
care of the walls, if they were determined not to take care of
themselves,” and he withdrew privately from the city to Ferrara, and
thence to Venice. The news of his departure occasioned a general
concern in Florence, and he was instantly followed with apologies and
importunities to return. He did so, and resumed his office. On the 21st
of March, 1530, the Prince of Orange assaulted the city by storm.
Michael Angelo is represented as having ordered his defence so
vigorously, that the Prince was compelled to retire. By the treachery
however of the general of the Republic, Malatesta Baglioni, all his
skill was rendered unavailing, and the city capitulated on the 9th of
August. The excellence of the works constructed by our artist has been
approved by Vauban, who visited them and took a plan of them.

In Rome, Michael Angelo was consulted by Pope Paul III in building the
fortifications of San Borgo. He built the stairs of Ara Celi leading to
the Church once the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus; he arranged the
piazza of the Capitol, and built its porticoes. He was charged with
rebuilding the Pons Palatinus over the Tiber. He prepared, accordingly,
a large quantity of blocks of travertine, and was proceeding with the
work, when, through the intervention of his rivals, this work was taken
from him and intrusted to Nanni di Bacio Bigio, who plays but a pitiful
part in Michael’s history. Nanni sold the travertine, and filled up the
piers with gravel at a small expense. Michael Angelo made known his
opinion, that the bridge could not resist the force of the current;
and, one day riding over it on horseback, with his friend Vasari, he
cried, “George, this bridge trembles under us; let us ride faster
lest it fall whilst we are upon it.” It fell, five years after it was
built, in 1557, and is still called the “Broken Bridge.”

Versatility of talent in men of undoubted ability always awakens the
liveliest interest ; and we observe with delight, that, besides the
sublimity and even extravagance of Michael Angelo, he possessed an
unexpected dexterity in minute mechanical contrivances. When the
Sistine Chapel was prepared for him that he might paint the ceiling, he
found the platform on which he was to work, suspended by ropes which
passed through the ceiling. Michael demanded of San Gallo, the Pope’s
architect, how these holes were to be repaired in the picture ?

San Gallo replied; “That was for him to consider, for the platform
could be constructed in no other way.” Michael removed the whole, and
constructed a movable platform to rest and roll upon the floor, which
is believed to be the same simple contrivance which is used in Rome, at
this day, to repair the walls of churches. He gave this model to a
carpenter, who made it so profitable as to furnish a dowry for his two
daughters. He was so nice in tools, that he made with his own hand the
wimbles, the files, the rasps, the chisels and all other irons and
instruments which he needed in sculpture; and, in painting, he not
only mixed but ground his colors himself, trusting no one.

And not only was this discoverer of Beauty, and its teacher among men,
rooted and grounded in those severe laws of practical skill, which
genius can never teach, and which must be learned by practice alone,
but he was one of the most industrious men that ever lived. His
diligence was so great that it is wonderful how be endured its
fatigues. The midnight battles, the forced marches, the winter
campaigns of Julius Caesar or Charles XII do not indicate greater
strength of body or of mind. He finished the gigantic painting of the
ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in twenty months, a fact which enlarges,
it has been said, the known powers of man. Indeed he toiled so
assiduously at this painful work, that, for a long time after, he was
unable to see any picture but by holding it over his head. A little
bread and wine was all his nourishment; and he told Vasari that he
often slept in his clothes, both because he was too weary to undress,
and because he would rise in the night and go immediately to work. “I
have found,” says his friend, “some of his designs in Florence, where,
whilst may be seen the greatness of his genius, it may also be known
that when he wished to take Minerva from the head of Jove, there needed
the hammer of Vulcan.” He used to make to a single figure nine, ten, or
twelve heads before he could satisfy himself, seeking that there should
be in the composition a certain universal grace such as nature makes,
saying, that “he needed to have his compasses in his eye, and not in
his hand, because the hands work whilst the eye judges.” He was
accustomed to say, “Those figures alone are good, from which the labor
is scraped off, when the scaffolding is taken away.”

At near eighty years, he began in marble a group of four figures for a
dead Christ; because, he said, to exercise himself with the mallet was
good for his health.

And what did he accomplish ? It does not fall within our design to give
an account of his works, yet for the sake of the completeness of our
sketch we will name the principal ones. Sculpture, he called his art,
and to it he regretted afterwards he had not singly given himself. The
style of his paintings is monumental; and even his poetry partakes of
that character. In sculpture, his greatest work is the statue of Moses
in the Church of Pietro in Vincolo, in Rome. It is a sitting statue of
colossal size, and is designed to embody the Hebrew Law. The lawgiver
is supposed to gaze upon the worshippers of the golden calf. The
majestic wrath of the figure daunts the beholder. In the Piazza del
Gran Duca at Florence, stands, in the open air, his David, about to
hurl the stone at Goliah. In the Church called the Minerva, at Rome, is
his Christ; an object of so much devotion to the people, that the
right foot has been shod with a brazen sandal to prevent it from being
kissed away. In St. Peter’s, is his Pieta, or dead Christ in the arms
of his mother. In the Mausoleum of the Medici at Florence, are the
tombs of Lorenzo and Cosmo, with the grand statues of Night and Day,
and Aurora and Twilight. Several statues of less fame, and bas-reliefs,
are in Rome and Florence and Paris.

His paintings are in the Sistine Chapel, of which he first covered the
ceiling with the story of the creation, in successive compartments,
with the great series of the Prophets and Sibyls in alternate tablets,
and a series of greater and smaller fancy-pieces in the lunettes. This
is his capital work painted in fresco. Every one of these pieces, every
figure, every hand and foot and finger, is a study of anatomy and
design. Slighting the secondary arts of coloring, and all the aids of
graceful finish, he aimed exclusively, as a stern designer, to ex-press
the vigor and magnificence of his conceptions. Upon the wall, over the
altar, is painted the Last Judgment.

Of his designs, the most celebrated is the cartoon representing
soldiers coming out of the bath and arming themselves; an incident of
the war of Pisa. The wonderful merit of this drawing, which contrasts
the extremes of relaxation and vigor, is conspicuous even in the
coarsest prints.

Of his genius for Architecture, it is sufficient to say that he built
St. Peter’s, an ornament of the earth. He said he would hang the
Pantheon in the air; and he redeemed his pledge by suspending that
vast cupola, without offence to grace or to stability, over the
astonished beholder. He did not live to complete the work; but is
there not something affecting in the spectacle of an old man, on the
verge of ninety years, carrying steadily onward with the heat and
determination of manhood, his poetic conceptions into progressive
execution, surmounting by the dignity of his purposes all obstacles and
all enmities, and only hindered by the limits of life from fulfilling
his designs? Very slowly came he, after months and years, to the dome.
At last he began to model it very small in wax. When it was finished,
he had it copied larger in wood, and by this model it was built. Long
after it was completed, and often since, to this day, rumors are
occasionally spread that it is giving way, and it is said to have been
injured by unskilful attempts to repair it. Benedict XIV, during one
of these panics, sent for the architect Marchese Polini, to come to
Rome and examine it. Polini put an end to all the various projects of
repairs, by the satisfying sentence; “The cupola does not start, and
if it should start, nothing can be done but to pull it down.”

The impulse of his grand style was instantaneous upon his
contemporaries. Every stroke of his pencil moved the pencil in
Raphael’s hand. Raphael said, “I bless God I live in the times of
Michael Angelo.” Sir Joshua Reynolds, two centuries later, declared to
the British Institution, “I feel a self-congratulation in knowing
myself capable of such sensations as he intended to excite.”

A man of such habits and such deeds, made good his pretensions to a
perception and to delineation of external beauty. But inimitable as his
works are, his whole life confessed that his hand was all inadequate to
express his thought. ” He alone” he said, “is an artist whose hands can perfectly execute what his mind has conceived;” and such was his own mastery, that men said, “the marble was
flexible in his hands.” Yet, contemplating ever with love the idea of
absolute beauty, he was still dissatisfied with his own work. The
things proposed to him in his imagination were such, that, for not
being able with his hands to express so grand and terrible conceptions,
he often abandoned his work. For this reason he often only blocked his
statue. A little before he died, he burned a great number of designs,
sketches, and cartoons made by him, being impatient of their defects.
Grace in living forms, except in very rare instances, did not satisfy
him. He never made but one portrait (a cartoon of Messer Tommaso di
Cavalieri), because he abhorred to draw a likeness unless it were of
infinite beauty.

Such was his devotion to art. But let no man suppose that the images
which his spirit worshipped were mere transcripts of external grace, or
that this profound soul was taken or holden in the chains of
superficial beauty. To him, of all men, it was transparent. Through it
he beheld the eternal spiritual beauty which ever clothes itself with
grand and graceful outlines, as its appropriate form. He called
external grace “the frail and weary weed, in which God dresses the soul
which he has called into Time.” “As from the fire, heat cannot be
divided, no more can beauty from the eternal.” He was conscious in his
efforts of higher aims than to address the eye. He sought, through the
eye, to reach the soul. Therefore, as, in the first place, he sought to
approach the Beautiful by the study of the True, so he failed not to
make the next step of progress, and to seek Beauty in its highest form,
that of Goodness. The sublimity of his art is in his life. He did not
only build a divine temple, and paint and carve saints and prophets.
He lived out the same inspiration. There is no spot upon his fame. The
fire and sanctity of his pencil breathe in his words. When he was
informed that Paul IV desired he should paint again the side of the
chapel where the Last Judgment was painted, because of the indecorous
nudity of the figures, he replied, “Tell the Pope that this is easily
done. Let him reform the world and he will find the pictures will
reform themselves.” He saw clearly that if the corrupt and vulgar eyes,
that could see nothing but indecorum in his terrific prophets and
angels, could be purified as his own were pure, they would only find
occasion for devotion in the same figures. As he refused to undo his
work, Daniel di Volterra was employed to clothe the figures; hence
ludicrously called Il Braghetone. When the Pope suggested to him that
the chapel would be enriched if the figures were ornamented with gold,
Michael Angelo replied, “In those days, gold was not worn; and the
characters I have painted were neither rich nor desirous of wealth, but
holy men, with whom gold was an object of contempt.”

Not until he was in the seventy-third year of his age, he undertook the
building of St. Peter’s. On the death of San Gallo, the architect of
the church, Paul III. first entreated, then commanded the aged artist,
to assume the charge of this great work, which though commenced forty
years before, was only commenced by Bramante, and ill continued by San
Gallo. Michael Angelo, who believed in his own ability as a sculptor,
but distrusted his capacity as an architect, at first refused and then
reluctantly complied. His heroic stipulation with the Pope was worthy
of the man and the work. He required that lie should be permitted to
accept this work without any fee or reward, because he undertook it as
a religious act; and, furthermore, that he should be absolute master
of the whole design, free to depart from the plans of San Gallo and to
alter what had been already done.

This disinterestedness and spirit, – no fee and no interference, –
reminds one of the reward named by the ancient Persian. When importuned
to claim some compensation of the empire for the important services he
had rendered it, he demanded, “that he and his should neither command
nor obey, but should be free.” However, as it was undertaken, so was it
performed. When the Pope, delighted with one of his chapels, sent him
one hundred crowns of gold, as one month’s wages, Michael sent them
back. The Pope was angry, but the artist was immovable. Amidst endless
annoyances from the envy and interest of the office-holders and agents
in the work whom he had displaced, he steadily ripened and executed his
vast ideas. The combined desire to fulfil, in everlasting stone, the
conceptions of his mind, and to complete his worthy offering to
Almighty God, sustained him through numberless vexations with unbroken
spirit. In answer to the importunate solicitations of the Duke of
Tuscany that he would come to Florence, he replies that “to leave St.
Peter’s in the state in which it now was, would be to ruin the
structure, and thereby be guilty of a great sin;” that he hoped he
should shortly see the execution of his plans brought to such a point
that they could no longer be interfered with, and this was the capital
object of his wishes, “if,” he adds, “I do not commit a great crime,
by disappointing the cormorants who are daily hoping to get rid of me.”

A natural fruit of the nobility of his spirit is his admiration of
Dante, to whom two of his sonnets are addressed. He shared Dante’s “deep contempt of the vulgar, not of the simple inhabitants of lowly
streets or humble cottages, but of that sordid and abject crowd of all
classes and all places who obscure, as much as in them lies, every beam
of beauty in the universe.” In like manner, he possessed an intense
love of solitude. He lived alone, and never or very rarely took his
meals with any person. As will be supposed, he had a passion for the
country, and in old age speaks with extreme pleasure of his residence
with the hermits in the mountains of Spoleto; so much so that he says
he is “only half in Rome, since, truly, peace is only to be found in
the woods.” Traits of an almost savage independence mark all his
history. Although he was rich, he lived like a poor man, and never
would receive a present from any person; because it seemed to him that
if a man gave him anything, he was always obligated to that individual.
His friend Vasari mentions one occasion on which his scruples were
overcome. It seems that Michael was accustomed to work at night with a
pasteboard cap or helmet on his head, into which he stuck a candle,
that his work might be lighted and his hands at liberty. Vasari
observed that he did not use wax candles, but a better sort made of the
tallow of goats. He therefore sent him four bundles of them, containing
forty pounds. His servant brought them after night-fall, and presented
them to him. Michael Angelo refused to receive them. “Look you, Messer
Michael Angelo,” replied the man, ” these candles have well nigh broken
my arm, and I will not carry them back; but just here, before your
door, is a spot of soft mud, and they will stand upright in it very
well, and there I will light them all.” Put them down, then,”returned
Michael, “since you shall not make a bonfire at my gate.” Meantime he
was liberal to profusion to his old domestic Urbino, to whom he gave at
one time two thousand crowns, and made him rich in his service.

Michael Angelo was of that class of men who are too superior to the
multitude around them to command a full and perfect sympathy. They
stand in the attitude rather of appeal from their contemporaries to
their race. It has been the defect of some great men, that they did not
duly appreciate or did not confess the talents and virtues of others,
and so lacked one of the richest sources of happiness and one of the
best elements of humanity. This apathy perhaps happens as often from
pre-occupied attention as from jealousy. It has been supposed that
artists more than others are liable to this defect. But Michael
Angelo’s praise on many works is to this day the stamp of fame. Michael
Angelo said of Masaccio’s pictures that when they were first painted
they must have been alive. He said of his predecessor, the architect
Bramante, that he laid the first stone of St. Peter’s, clear,
insulated, luminous, with fit design for a vast structure. He often
expressed his admiration of Cellini’s bust of Altoviti. He loved to
express admiration of Titian, of Donatello, of Ghiberti, of
Brunelleschi. And it is said that when he left Florence to go to Rome,
to build St. Peter’s, he turned his horse’s head on the last bill from
which the noble dome of the Cathedral ( built by Brunelleschi) is
visible, and said, “Like you, I will not build; better than you I
cannot.” Indeed, as we have said, the reputation of many works of art
now in Italy derives a sanction from the tradition of his praise. It is
more commendation to say, ” This was Michael Angelo’s favorite,”than
to say, “This was carried to Paris by Napoleon.” Michael, however, had
the philosophy to say, “Only an inventor can use the inventions of

There is yet one more trait in Michael Angelo’s history, which
humanizes his character without lessening its loftiness; this is his
platonic love. He was deeply enamored of the most accomplished lady of
the time, Vittoria Colonna, the widow of the Marquis di Pescara, who,
after the death of her husband, devoted herself to letters, and to the
writing of religious poetry. She was also an admirer of his genius, and
came to Rome repeatedly to see him. To her his sonnets are addressed ;
and they all breathe a chaste and divine regard, unparalleled in any
amatory poetry except that of Dante and Petrarch. They are founded on
the thought that beauty is the virtue of the body, as virtue is the
beauty of the soul; that a beautiful person is sent into the world as
an image of the divine beauty, not to provoke but to purify the sensual
into an intellectual and divine love. He enthrones his mistress as a
benignant angel, who is to refine and perfect his own character.
Condivi, his friend, has left this testimony; “I have often heard
Michael Angelo reason and discourse upon love, but never heard him
speak otherwise than upon platonic love. As for me, I am ignorant what
Plato has said upon this subject; but this I know very well, that, in
a long intimacy, I never heard from his mouth a single word that was
not perfectly decorous and having for its object to extinguish in youth
every improper desire, and that his own nature is a stranger to
depravity.” The poems themselves cannot be read without awakening
sentiments of virtue. An eloquent vindication of their philosophy may
be found in a paper by Signor Radici in the London “Retrospective
Review,” and, by the Italian scholar, in the Discourse of Benedetto
Varchi upon one sonnet of Michael Angelo, contained in the volume of
his poems published by Biagioli, from which, in substance, the views of
Radici are taken.

Towards his end, there seems to have grown in him an invincible
appetite of dying, for he knew that his spirit could only enjoy
contentment after death. So vehement was this desire that, he says,
“my soul can no longer be appeased by the wonted seductions of painting
and sculpture.” A fine melancholy, not unrelieved by his habitual
heroism, pervades his thoughts on this subject. At the age of eighty
years, he wrote to Vasari, sending him various spiritual sonnets he had
written, and tells him he “is at the end of his life, that he is
careful where he bends his thoughts, that he sees it is already
twenty-four o’clock, and no fancy arose in his mind but DEATH was
sculptured on it.” In conversing upon this subject with one of his
friends, that person remarked, that Michael might well grieve that one
who was incessant in his creative labors should have no restoration.
“No,” replied Michael, “it is nothing; for, if life pleases us, death,
being a work of the same master, ought not to displease us.” But a
nobler sentiment, uttered by him, is contained in his reply to a letter
of Vasari, who had informed him of the rejoicings made at the house of
his nephew. Lionardo, at Florence, over the birth of another
Buonarotti. Michael admonishes him that “a man ought not to smile,
when all those around him weep; and that we ought not to show that joy
when a child is born, which should be reserved for the death of one
who has lived well.”

Amidst all these witnesses to his independence, his generosity, his
purity and his devotion, are we not authorized to say that this man was
penetrated with the love of the highest beauty, that is, goodness;
that his was a soul so enamored of grace, that it could not stoop to
meanness or depravity; that art was to him no means of livelihood or
road to fame, but the end of living, as it was the organ through which
he sought to suggest lessons of an unutterable wisdom; that here was a
man who lived to demonstrate that to the human faculties, on every
hand, worlds of grandeur and grace are opened, which no profane eye and
no indolent eye can behold, but which to see and to enjoy, demands the
severest discipline of all the physical, intellectual and moral
faculties of the individual?

The city of Florence, on the river Arno, still treasures the fame of
this man. There, his picture hangs in every window; there, the
tradition of his opinions meets the traveller in every spot. ” Do you
see that statue of St. George? Michael Angelo asked it why it did not
speak.” – “Do you see this fine church of Santa Maria Novella ? It is
that which Michael Angelo called ‘his bride.” – ” Look at these bronze
gates of the Baptistery, with their high reliefs, cast by Ghiberti five
hundred years ago. Michael Angelo said, “they were fit to be the gates
of Paradise.’ ” – Here is the church, the palace, the Laurentian
library, he built. Here is his own house. In the church of Santa Croce
are his mortal remains. Whilst he was yet alive, he asked that he might
be buried in that church, in such a spot that the dome of the cathedral
might be visible from his tomb when the doors of the church stood open.
And there and so is he laid. The innumerable pilgrims whom the genius
of Italy draws to the city, duly visit this church, which is to
Florence what Westminster Abbey is to England. There, near the tomb of
Nicholas Machiavelli, the historian and philosopher; of Galileo, the
great-hearted astronomer ; of Boccaccio, and of Alfieri, stands the
monument of Michael Angelo Buonarotti. Three significant garlands are
sculptured on the tomb; they should be four, but that his countrymen
feared their own partiality. The forehead of the bust, esteemed a
faithful likeness, is furrowed with eight deep wrinkles one above
another. The traveller from a distant continent, who gazes on that
marble brow, feels that he is not a stranger in the foreign church;
for the great name of Michael Angelo sounds hospitably in his ear. He
was not a citizen of any country; he belonged to the human race; he
was a brother and a friend to all who acknowledge the beauty that beams
in universal nature, and who seek by labor and self-denial to approach
its source in perfect goodness.

1 Reprinted from the North American Review, June, 1837.

The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson