Sick of those who had written untruths about Michelangelo, those who had made up stories having never once spoken to the man, Ascanio Condivi—painter, writer and Michelangelo’s friend—decided to set the record straight. He penned Vita di Michelagnolo Buonarroti that could well be considered the first “authorized” biography ever. Based on a myriad of conversations, the book was published in 1553, while the great Renaissance artist was still alive.
When Michelangelo was a boy in Florence, according to Condivi, his friend Francesco Granacci, the artist and disciple of Ghirlandaio, took him to sculpt in the gardens of the Medici ruler Lorenzo the Magnificent. “The Magnificent” took delight in Michelangelo’s talent and invited him via his father to live under his roof, to be treated like a prince, to have his skills nurtured. The father told the Magnificent, no son of mine is going to become a “stone-carver,” leaving Granacci to sputter that there’s more than a slight difference between cutting stone and sculpting marble. Michelangelo’s dad finally relented, and his son, now fifteen years old, moved into the Palazzo Medici.
Late-Fifteenth century Florence, however, was a hotbed of political intrigue. With the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent and the rise of his careless son Piero, Florentine control changed hands; the Medici family was forced into exile and Michelangelo was sent home. The years marched forward, eighteen of them, and the Medici found themselves not only back in Florence and in power, but also vying with Pope Julius for Michelangelo’s affection.
Having completed the vaulted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome for Julius, Michelangelo had no choice but to turn his attention to the Medici’s latest request, to design a chapel for their family—only to have his work interrupted. Efforts to free Florence from the Medici’s grasp resurfaced in the 1520s; Michelangelo sided with the Republic, getting himself into a bit of a jam with his patrons. The Medici family, however, said all was forgiven if he agreed to continue the work on the chapel, this time carving statuary to adorn the tombs. He proceeded with the commission, Condivi giddily reports, more out of fear than out of devotion.
Michelangelo worked steadily on the sarcophagi of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s grandson—also named Lorenzo—and son Giuliano di Lorenzo de’ Medici, both men who had died young. Each of the tombs would display the Medici seated, above and center. And below him, would be two times of the day, personified by a man and a woman: Dusk and Dawn for Lorenzo; Day and Night for Giuliano, the times of together would connote Time. Nevertheless the undercurrent of threats from the one family member, the Duke of Florence, who despised Michelangelo, kept the artist scared. So the instant the pontiff summoned him in 1534, he dropped his chisel and took off for Rome where he would spend the rest of his life—and talking apparently at length with his designated biographer.
Thus Michelangelo never finished the sculptures. He had planned to represent how Time “devours all things,” with a mouse, “seeing that that little animal continually gnaws and consumes” but the small rodent was left unrealized in a small chunk of marble on the tomb.
Sources: Ascanio Condivi, The Life of Michelagnolo Buonarroti; Edith Balas, Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel: A New Interpretation, 1995; Caroline Elam, “‘Che ultima mano!’: Tiberio Calcagni’s marginal annotations to Condivi’s ‘Life of Michelangelo,’” Renaissance Quarterly, July 22, 1998; James Fenton, “Marginal Benefit,” The Guardian, April 7, 2006.
(Image Tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici by Michelangelo, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)