Michelangelo’s Last Audience

What—No Place to Lie?

Pope Julius was pleased enough with Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine chapel. His uncle Sixtus could lie in his grave with a smile now, knowing that the world had such a monument to him. But what about himself—Julius?

Pope Julius II by Raphael

He was getting old and weak and he still didn’t have any impressive monument to himself. St. Peter’s was far from finished and what if after all his grand ideas they finally just stuck him in a niche in the wall like any other forgettable pope? Maybe he shouldn’t have ordered that damned ceiling fresco before Michelangelo had finished his tomb. Maybe there was still time to have him finish it.

So he called in Michelangelo. “Do you think you can still handle a chisel, old friend?” he said with a smile. “I’m still going to need a tomb.”
His voice was weak now—he had aged very much in the last years. He was ill all the time. Death couldn’t be far off. “As you can see for yourself, I’m no longer in condition to handle all the details with you, so I’ve put my nephew, Cardinal Urbino, in charge—he and Cardinal Santi Quattro.”

There was nothing Michelangelo wanted more than to pick up a chisel again. That was all he ever wanted. And the tomb project was the one he loved above all the rest. Many times on the scaffolding in the Sistine Chapel he had dreamed of the lost tomb and sighed to think that such a fine thing was never to be. He had spent hundreds of his best hours thinking about it, drawing sketches, making models for the giant figures. And what about the months in Carrara, cutting the marble blocks out of the mountain? He had even roughed out a couple of the statues in Rome. No wonder he had almost gone mad with rage and disappointment when the Pope suddenly called the whole thing off.

Now here was Julius, older and softer, ordering him one more time to do his tomb. It was a sheepish admission that he had been wrong to cancel the project in the first place.

“A tomb that magnificent takes a long time to complete,” Michelangelo told him with a touch of schadenfreude.

“Do you mean that I will croak before it’s finished? Well, then I will croak. What matters is that you live to finish it. They can always stash my old bones somewhere until it’s ready. I’ve set aside ten thousand crowns for the project. Do you think we can do something respectable with that?”

The tomb of Pope Julius, in San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome   (photo by Jean-Christophe BENOIST under GNU Free Documentation License)

Here was Julius back with his big-time projects. Michelangelo excitedly described for him the fabulous tomb. He knew it all by heart: Julius had given up the tomb project years before but he never had. He was too fond of it to let it go. “I will do something worthy of Your Holiness,” he said.

The Pope smiled to see Michelangelo’s old enthusiasm come back. “Fine,” he said. “I knew I could count on you.”
He dismissed him abruptly, though with an apology. “I hope we can see each other again, my friend.” Michelangelo watched the Pope’s servants help the old man rise from his chair and walk away. Tears came to his eyes as he realized that this was perhaps the last meeting with his great patron.

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7 Responses to Michelangelo’s Last Audience

  1. wrjones says:

    There simply are no happy endings.

  2. 100swallows says:

    Bill: I pulled the carpet out from under you. I eliminated the last two paragraphs of the post, which are necessary for your comment to be understood. Sorry. It just seemed that the story ended with the Pope being led away. The eliminated paragraphs were these:

    The Heirs Take Over

    When the Pope’s nephew and Cardinal Santi Quattro met with Michelangelo and saw his design, they shook their heads. “Too ambitious,” they said. “How about, instead of the free-standing marble room, we do only one of the sides and put that up against the wall of St. Peter’s? You can carve as many figures as will fit on that wall.”

    “So,” says Condivi, “Michelangelo entered once again upon the tragedy of the tomb, which turned out no more happily for him than the first one; indeed, it turned out far worse, bringing him innumerable difficulties, disappointments, and anxieties, and, worse yet, through the malice of certain men, it brought him disgrace of which he has barely rid himself after many years.”

  3. iondanu says:

    No matter which ending paragraph, swallows, Bill still is right: no happy endings, anyway…

    That get to my mind a very concise and beautiful (though sad) formulation of this truth, by a Romanian writer, helas! quasi anonimous:

    He said:” Anything that isn’t eternal is worthless. Nothing is eternal.”

  4. iondanu says:

    I just saw your counter! 46000 +! And I was bragging about my lousy 10000! But you deserve it…

  5. 100swallows says:

    Ah, yes, Danu, but with a general art blog like mine that’s easy. Imagine–I write on many of the most famous names and works. Many of my hits are from school kids.

  6. wpm1955 says:

    Dear 100 Swallows,

    Why did this tomb bring disgrace to Michaelangelo? I think a minor point is left out at the end…would you mind clarifying that for me?

    Best Regards,
    Madame Monet

  7. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Madame Monet, for pointing out such an important omission in my story.
    The “Tragedy of the Tomb”, as Michelangelo himself called it, went on for forty years—Michelangelo’s whole creative life. Pope Julius’ heirs signed three contracts with Michelangelo, and each of them reduced its scale, partly because the della Rovere family became impoverished, partly because they came to believe that Michelangelo would never finish a more magnificent version, and partly because Popes Leo and Clement obliged Michelangelo to spend time working for them. They were at odds with Julius’ heirs and Michelangelo was caught in between. There were periods of tension, when the della Roveres threatened to take Michelangelo to court unless he returned money that had been advanced to him. Michelangelo complained in a letter that they treated him like a crook. The worst was that he truly loved the original tomb project and little by little saw it reduced to a very mediocre monument (except for the statue of Moses). And after all the mental torture and heartbreak, he had to hear his enemies accuse him of dishonesty in his dealings with the della Rovere family.

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