Depression Strikes Michelangelo

Michelangelo became very old. Did he go on doing good work right up to the end, like Titian—or like Marc Chagall in our time?

No. He grew depressed. Men oppressed him. The human body stopped looking so wonderful to him. He lost the sureness of his touch in drawing—his hand shook. And his sculpted figures lost their pride, their robustness. They were only memories of his good work. He couldn’t sleep at night—he would get out of bed and go downstairs to his studio and chip at a block of marble by the light of a candle in his hat. But the statue came out wrong. He broke the Duomo Pietà in anger when he realized that he couldn’t solve its problems. He burned many of his old drawings in disgust at their “errors”.

What saved Michelangelo was his intellect. He had been a thoughtful man all his life. He had listened to the great poets and thinkers at Lorenzo Medici’s palace as only a perceptive boy can listen; he was curious enough to sneak out of the palace to hear the sermons of Savonarola; he read and wrote poetry all his life. Dante and Petrarch were his models, his delight. Once he had felt like the divine man Pico della Mirandola spoke of—the one who could choose his own destiny—but he had suffered enough to know he could not depend on himself or others. He turned to Christ. He had always been religious. He even began to regret the great pursuit of his life. These are words from one of his late sonnets:

“…that passionate fantasy, which made
Of art a monarch for me and an idol,
Was laden down with sin, now I know well….”

A supposed self-portrait as Nicodemus, part of the Duomo Pietá (photo by sailko
under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2  here)

His mind brooded on the unjustly Crucified; and he saw himself as both tormenter and crucified; and he longed for the rescue of death and the reward of heaven.


This entry was posted in aesthetics, art, art history, Beauty, Chagall, great artists, Michelangelo, Renaissance, sculpture, stone carving and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Depression Strikes Michelangelo

  1. artis32
    Doug says:

    Thanks for sharing these great ideas. I’m bookmarking this for future reference. Some of these I already do, so the point resonated most strongly with me. Keep feeding the creativity.
    I am currently on holiday so, for this reason, I’ve nothing better to do than surf the web for art, lie around and update my blog. Well, more or less anyway.
    Doug C

  2. wrjones
    wrjones says:

    Getting old sucks whether you are a genius or mired in mediocrity. If you are religious you can look forward to a “better” place singing off key with some angels. For the rest of us it is simply no more Tootsie Rolls.

  3. erikatakacs – Canada – I am a figurative sculptor working in paper pulp.
    erikatakacs says:

    Sad. Old, alone, without family. It makes me really sad.

  4. iondanu – I am a visual artist of Romanian origin (a draughtsman, painter, photographer and digital artist) living now in Canada.
    iondanu says:

    Not entirely the picture I’ve read about, 100Swallows… Of course, old age did not improve neither his health, nor his temper…He was, sometimes, depressed. He was more religious also… but he was also greatly revered by the young artists, he had very faithful friends, the family she had (and never missed much: most of them simply were after his money; but he survieved not only his father but also his younger brothers and finally wasn’t all that depressed…when you are all the time depressed, old and alone you have no wish to live, you just wither and die…Or, he manage, despite his laments, despite his bad health, to live almost 90! IMHO it takes a lot of lust for life to do that…

  5. Pingback: depression » Blog Archive » Depression Strikes Michelangelo

  6. 100swallows says:

    Danu, you’ve made me wonder whether I’ve streamlined the picture too much. He was “old” for a long time. At 50 he was already calling himself old and tired, yet he lived to be 89. There were surely ups and downs. Michelangelo’s letters are full of tiredness and complaining. I can show you plenty of letters where he says he is tired of it all and ready to go, etc. But maybe in each one a case may be made for useful exaggeration, or that the depression was only a temporary reaction to the deaths of his brother, his helper and companion Urbino, or the Countess. Of course there was satisfaction from all the admiration he got. All the money must have felt good. Still, there are other signs: his bladder trouble, those poems, some very shaky drawings,the statue he destroyed. I see a decline in his powers already with the frescoes in the Pauline Chapel,especially the St. Peter, which he finished at 74 or 75. That Rondanini Pietá he was working on when he died is just (I think) pitiful.

  7. 100swallows says:

    Doug–thanks for coming in. I’m glad you get something out of my posts. I hope my points keep “resonating strongly” with you. Enjoy that vacation.

  8. Aryul says:

    Hey thanks for this new post 100swallows. I’m also an artist, and this is the perfect example of the term “burned out”. I’m pretty sure Michelangelo was very tired by then, and needed a break. Since that was pretty much all he did his whole life, I assume that he must have been terribly frustrated when he wasnt as inspired. This post also makes me feel better as well, now that I’m reassured that Michelangelo was human after all. =P

  9. 100swallows says:

    Aryul, those younger artists who knew Michelangelo admired him the way you (and I) do. They called him “divino” and nearly meant it.
    Now I’m going to put in a post about Vasari’s admiration for him.
    You are right–it must have been hell for a man who was used to relying on his Muse to see that she too was getting tired.

  10. O'Brian says:

    there is a lot of discussion about whether Michelangelo was a homosexual. what do you know about that?

Leave a ReplyCancel reply