Living comfortably in Lorenzo de Medici’s palace, the young Michelangelo began to draw and to carve with a purpose, a mission. He would be Beauty’s apostle or Beauty’s priest. This had the approval of all the learned men around him. Unfortunately, he was made to doubt, to feel ashamed of just this dedication by a man outside Lorenzo’s circle, who spoke, as it were, into his other ear.
Savonarola monument, Ferrara phtoto by ho visto nina volare
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
That man’s voice was shrill. It told Michelangelo to give it all up, that beauty was an illusion, a trap. Savonarola, a Dominican friar, at that time the prior of an important monastery in Florence, was preaching that Lorenzo de Medici and all the intellectuals in his palace were evil influences. They were leading people away from God. His sermons were so famous that Michelangelo one Sunday morning slipped out of the Medici palace and went to listen and size up Savonarola for himself.
He had heard preachers before but none like Savonarola. The man wasn’t really a polished orator but he spoke from his heart and he made good sense—too good. The charming ancient myths that Politian and the other learned men retold at Lorenzo’s table were entertaining, but the simple moral principles of the friar went deeper. What he said began to puzzle Michelangelo, and to worry him.
“What is all this pagan nonsense?” asked Savonarola. “Why rummage through the filthy pagan past for the truth we already know? Those old philosophers were lost—even they knew they could not satisfy. There is only one truth: the Truth of Christ. His way is a way of sacrifice, love, prayer. Where is that in the ancients? Where is that now in this sinful world around us? Those old myths of theirs are frivolous tales, more meant to excite immorality than virtue; and they are best left buried in old books, as well as all the statues and pictures about them.
“What is the one thing each of us has to worry about? His soul. His body is nothing—what is called beauty is nothing: it lasts a day. To run after beauty, to serve Beauty as if it were a god, is folly. The only beauty is the beauty of the soul; and that must be cultivated. How? With prayer, with constant sacrifice, with turning away from the world. Can’t you people see farther than a day? Already tomorrow will come a Day of Reckoning. Standing there in the remains of your disgusting flesh, when only your soul is on trial, then you will see what beauty means. God will decide how beautiful your soul is and reward you accordingly.”
Painting of Savonarola’s execution in the Piazza della Signoria.
Michelangelo left the church before the friar had finished his sermon and hurried away before the people came out. He didn’t want to be seen there. Back in the palace, while he put on the soft, scarlet robe Lorenzo had given him, he thought of Savonarola’s ashen friar’s habit. Savonarola lived the way he told others to live. He was so sure of himself. His message was clear enough: there was no doubt that if he was right, Lorenzo and the whole tableful of scholars were wrong.
The thing with Savonarola is exactly that: he was so sure of himself, he had no doubt whatsoever… Well, I not as old or as wise as that: I never could find a single thing or process or phenonmenon which was good ENTIRELY or bad ENTIRELY… I simply couldn’t find one…Still searching, though…