The Life of Michael Angelo/Death

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EPILOGUE

DEATH

… Et l’osteria
E morte. …[1]


Death, so long desired and so slow in coming—

c’a miseri la morte è pigra e tardi—[2]

came at last.

Notwithstanding a robust constitution, sustained by the monkish rigour of his life, he had not been spared from illness. He had never entirely recovered from his two bad attacks of fever of 1544 and 1546. Stone,[3] gout,[4] and sufferings of all kinds completed his ruin. In a sadly burlesque poem of his last years he draws a picture of his wretched body, undermined by infirmities.


“I live alone and wretched, confined like the pith within the bark of a tree. … My voice is like a wasp imprisoned within a sack of skin and bone. … My teeth rattle like the keys of a musical instrument. … My face is a scarecrow… There is a ceaseless buzzing in my ears—in one a spider spins its web, in the other a cricket chirps all night. … My catarrh, which causes a rattle in my throat, will not allow me to sleep. … This is the end to which art, which promised me glory, has brought me. Poor, overwhelmed old man, you are destroyed, unless death comes quickly to your aid. … Fatigue has quartered, torn and broken me, and the hostelry which awaits me—is Death. …”[5]


“My dear Messer Giorgio,” he wrote to Vasari in June 1555, “you will recognise from my handwriting that I have reached the twenty-fourth hour. …”[6]


Vasari, who came to see him in the spring of 1560, found him extremely weak. He hardly ever went out, and slept very little. Everything led people to presume that he had not long to live. In becoming weaker he became more tender and easily gave way to tears.


“I have been to see my great Michael Angelo,” wrote Vasari. “He did not expect my visit, and showed as much emotion as a father would have done on finding a lost son. He threw his arms around my neck and weeping with pleasure (‘lacrymando per dolcezza’) kissed me a thousand times.”[7]


He had lost nothing, however, as regards lucidity of mind and energy. On the occasion of the visit related by Vasari he conversed at length with him on various artistic subjects, gave him advice concerning his work, and accompanied him on horseback to St. Peter’s.[8]

In the month of August 1561 he had an attack. Having sat for three consecutive hours with naked feet, drawing, he was suddenly seized with pains and fell into convulsions. His servant Antonio found him unconscious. Cavalieri, Bandini and Calcagni hastened to his house, but on their arrival Michael Angelo had come to himself. A few days afterwards he began to go out again on horseback and to work on the drawings for the Porta Pia.[9]

The intractable old man would, under no pretext whatsoever, allow people to look after him. His friends were continually tortured by the thought that he was alone with negligent and unscrupulous servants and at the mercy of a fresh attack.

His heir Leonardo had formerly received such rude rebuffs when he had wished to come to Rome to watch over his uncle’s health that he no longer dared to risk the journey. In July 1563 he inquired of him through Daniello da Volterra if he would like to see him, and, in view of the suspicions which his visit might inspire in Michael Angelo’s distrustful mind, added that his affairs were prospering, that he was rich and had no longer need of anything. The roguish old man replied that, since this was so, he was delighted, and that he would give the little he possessed to the poor.

A month later Leonardo, by no means satisfied with the reply, returned to the charge and expressed the anxiety he felt on the subject of his health and those who surrounded him. This time Michael Angelo sent him a furious letter, which shows the astonishing vitality of this man of eighty-eight—six months before his death.


“I see from your letter that you believe certain envious rascals, who, because they can neither rob me, nor do what they like with me, write you a budget of lies. They are a band of scamps; and you are so stupid that you place faith in them on the subject of my affairs, as though I were a child. Send them about their business, they are people who bring only trouble with them, who inspire but envy, and who live the life of beggars. You say that I suffer from the point of view of service; but I tell you that, as regards servants, I could not be more faithfully served nor better treated in every way. And as to the fears of robbery to which you allude, I tell you that the people who are in my house are such that I can rest in peace as regards that, and have confidence in them. Therefore, think of yourself and not of my business. For I know how to defend myself in case of need and am not a child. Keep well!”[10]


Leonardo was not alone in feeling anxious over the heritage. All Italy was Michael Angelo’s heir, especially the Duke of Tuscany and the Pope, who were very desirous not to lose the drawings and plans relative to the constructions of San Lorenzo and St. Peter. In June 1563, at the instigation of Vasari, Duke Cosimo charged his ambassador, Averardo Serristori, in view of Michael Angelo’s physical decline, to enter into a secret understanding with the Pope, to the effect that a strict watch should be exercised over his servants and all who frequented his house. In case of sudden death an inventory of all his possessions—drawings, cartoons, papers, and money—was immediately to be drawn up, so that nothing, in the disorder, should be carried off. They took very good care, of course, not to let Michael Angelo know anything of this.[11]


These precautions were not useless. The hour had come.

Michael Angelo's last letter is dated December 28, 1563. For a year past he had written hardly a line himself; he dictated and signed. Daniello da Volterra looked after his correspondence.

He still worked. On February 12, 1564, he spent the whole day on his feet, working at his "Pietà."[12] On the 14th he was seized with fever. Tiberio Calcagni, informed of what had happened, hastened to his house, but found that he was out. Notwithstanding the rain he had gone for a walk in the Campagna. When he returned Calcagni told him that he had been unreasonable in going out in such weather.


"What matter?" replied Michael Angelo. "I am ill and nowhere can I find repose."


The unsteadiness of his speech, the look in his eyes, and the colour of his face made Calcagni very anxious. "The end may not come immediately," he wrote at once to Leonardo, "but I fear it is not far off."[13]

The same day Michael Angelo begged Daniello da Volterra to come and remain with him. Daniello sent for the doctor, Federigo Donati, and, on the 15th, at Michael Angelo's request, wrote to Leonardo to say that he could come to see him, “but in taking every precaution, since the roads were bad.”[14]


“I have just left him,” he added, “a little after eight o’clock, in full possession of his faculties and tranquil in his mind, but overwhelmed by a persistent torpor. He was so inconvenienced by it this afternoon, between three and four o’clock, that he tried to go out on horseback, as he was accustomed to do every evening when it was fine. But the cold weather, combined with the weakness in his head and legs, prevented him, so he turned back and sat in an armchair—which he much preferred to his bed—near the chimney.”


The faithful Cavalieri was by his side.

It was not until the day before his death that he would consent to go to bed. Fully conscious and surrounded by his friends and servants, he dictated his will. He bequeathed “his soul to God and his body to the earth.” He requested to be allowed “to return at least dead” to his dear Florence. Then he passed

Da l’orribil procella in dolce calma.[15]

It was a Friday in February, about five o’clock in the afternoon.[16] Evening was drawing in. … “The last day of his life, the first in the kingdom of peace! …”[17] had come.

He had found rest at last. He had attained the object of his desires—he had left time behind him.

Beata l’alma, ove non corre tempo![18]

Such was this life of divine sorrow.

Fuss’ io pur lui! c’ a tal fortuna nato,
Per l’aspro esilio suo con la virtute
Dare’ del mondo il piu felice stato![19]


  1. “Poems,” lxxxi.
  2. “For, to wretched men, death is lazy” (“ Poems,” lxxiii, 30).
  3. In March 1549. He was recommended the waters of Viterbo, which he found did him good (Letters to Leonardo). He again suffered from stone in July 1559.
  4. In July 1555.
  5. A free translation (see Appendix, xxvii) (“Poems, lxxxi).
  6. Letter to Vasari (June 22, 1555). “I am not only old,” he had already written to Varchi, in 1549, “but I count among the dead” (“Non solo son vecchio, ma quasi nel numero de’ morti”).
  7. Letter from Vasari to Cosimo de’ Medici (April 8, 1560).
  8. He was eighty-five years of age.
  9. It was then that he recollected the contract he had made, sixty years before, with the heirs of Pius III., for the Piccolomini altar of Sienna, and wished to carry it out.
  10. Letter to Leonardo (August 21, 1563).
  11. Vasari.
  12. The unfinished "Pietà" of the Rondanini Palace (Letter from Daniello da Volterra to Leonardo, June 11, 1564).
  13. Letter from Tiberio Calcagni to Leonardo, February 14, 1564.
  14. Letter from Daniello da Volterra to Vasari (March 17, 1564).
  15. “Poems,” clii.
  16. Friday, February 18, 1564. Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, Daniello da Volterra, Diomede Leoni, the two doctors Federigo Donati and Gherardo Fidelissimi, and the servant Antonio del Franzese were present at his death. Leonardo did not reach Rome until three days afterwards.
  17. De giorni mie’ …
    L’ultimo prima in piu tranquilla corte …

    (“Poems,” cix, 41)

  18. “Happy is the soul, where time runs no longer” (“Poems,” lix).
  19. “Poems,” cix, 37.