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Michael Angelo

The Boy of the Medici Gardens: 1475-1564

The Italian city of Florence was entering on the Golden Age of its history toward the end of the fifteenth century. Lorenzo, called the Magnificent, was head of the house of Medici, and first citizen of the proud Republic. He was himself an artist, a poet, and a philosopher; he loved the beautiful things of life, and had gathered about him a little court of men of genius.

Florence at that time was also a great business city, and among the prominent merchant families was that of the Buonarotti. Ludovico Buonarotti had several sons, and he had named his second child Michael Angelo, and had planned that he should follow him in trade. Fortunately for the world, however, the boy had a will of his own.

Even while he was still in charge of a nurse, and was just beginning to learn to use his hands, he would draw simple pictures and paint them whenever he had the chance. His father had little use for a painter, and sent the boy to the grammar school of Francesco d’Urbino, in Florence, thinking to make a scholar of him. There were, however, many studios in the neighborhood of the school, and many artists at work in them, and the boy would neglect his studies to haunt the places where he might see how grown men drew and painted.

Watching the artists, young Michael Angelo soon formed a lasting friendship with a boy of great talent a few years older than himself, by name Francesco Granacci. This boy was a pupil of Domenico Ghirlandajo, a very great painter. The more Michael Angelo saw Granacci and his work in the studio the more he longed for a chance to study painting. He could think of nothing else; he begged his father and uncles to let him be an artist instead of a merchant or a scholar. But the father and uncles, coming from a long line of successful merchants, treated the boy’s requests with scorn.

Michael Angelo was determined to be an artist, however, and finally, though with the greatest reluctance, his father signed a contract with Ghirlandajo by which the boy was to study drawing and painting in his studio and do whatever other work the master might desire. The master was to pay the boy six gold florins for the first year’s work, eight for the second, and ten for the third.

The young Buonarotti found plenty of work to be done in his master’s studio. Besides the regular day’s work he was constantly painting sketches of his own, and trying his hand at a dozen different things. His eye and hand were most surprisingly true. Time and again the master or some of the older students, coming across the boy at work, would be held spellbound by his skill.

One day when the men had left work the boy drew a picture of the scaffolding on which they had been standing and sketched in portraits of the men so perfectly that when his master found the drawing he cried to a friend in amazement, “The boy understands this better than I do myself!”

There was little in the world about him that this boy failed to see. He soon painted his first real picture, choosing a subject that was popular in those days, the temptation of St. Antony. All kinds of queer animals figured in the picture, and that he might get the colors of their shining backs and scales just right he spent days in the market eagerly studying the fish there for sale. Again the master was amazed at his pupil’s work, and now for the first time began to feel a certain envy of him.

This feeling rapidly increased. The scholars were often given some of Ghirlandajo’s own studies to copy, and one day Michael Angelo brought the artist one of the studies which he had himself corrected by adding a few thick lines. Beyond all doubt the picture was improved. It was hard, however, for the master to be corrected by his own apprentice, and soon after that the boy’s stay in the studio came to an end. Fortunately his friend Granacci had already interested the great patron, Lorenzo de’ Medici, in the young Buonarotti and he was now invited to join the band of youths of talent who made the Medici’s palace their home.

In Lorenzo’s palace young Michael Angelo was very happy. He was fond of the Medici’s sons, boys nearly his own age; like almost all the rest of Florence he worshiped the citizen-prince whose one desire seemed to be that Florence should be beautiful; and he was happiest of all in the chance to study his own beloved art.

In May of each year Lorenzo gave a pageant, and the spring in which Michael Angelo came to the palace Lorenzo placed the carnival in charge of the boy’s friend, Francesco Granacci. Day by day the boys planned for the great procession. At noon they were free from their teachers, and then they would scatter to the gardens.

One such May noon, when the sun was hot, a group of them ran out from the palace, and threw themselves on the grass in the shade of a row of poplars. They were all absorbed in the one subject; their tongues could scarcely keep pace with their nimble fancies.

“What shalt thou go as, Paolo?” said one. “I heard Messer Lorenzo say that thou shouldst be something marvelously fine; but what can be so fine as Romulus in a Roman triumph?”

“I am to be the thrice-gifted Apollo, dressed as your Athenians saw him, with harp and bow, and the crown of laurel on my head. That will be a sight for thee, Ludovico mio, and for the pretty eyes of thy Bianca also.” Paolo laughed as one who well knew the value of his yellow locks and blue eyes in a land of brown and black. “What art thou to be in Messer Lorenzo’s coming pageant, Michael?”

The young Michael, a slim, black-haired youth, was lying on his back, his head resting in his hands, his eyes watching the circling flight of some pigeons.

“I?” he said dreamily. “Oh, I have given little thought to that, I shall be whatever Francesco wishes; he knows what is needed better than any one else.”

As he spoke a tall youth came into the garden and sat down in the middle of the group. He had curious, smiling eyes, and hands that were fine and pointed like a woman’s. He answered all questions easily, telling each what part he was to play in the triumphal procession of Paulus AEmilius that was to dazzle the good people of Florence on the morrow. He had become chief favorite in the little court of young people that the Medici loved to have about him, and his remarkable talent for detail had made him the leader in all entertainments.

The boy Michael listened for a time to the flowing words of young Granacci, then rose and wandered to where some stone-masons had lately been at work. He stopped in front of a block of marble that was gradually taking the form of the mask of a faun.

Near the block stood an antique mask, a garden ornament, and this the boy studied for a few moments before he picked up one of the mason’s deserted tools and began to cut the stone himself.

The gay chatter under the poplars went on, but the boy with the chisel, lost in thought, his heavy brows bent into a bow, chipped and cut, forgetful of everything else. A half hour passed, and a long shadow fell across the marble. Michael looked up to see his patron, Lorenzo, standing beside him. The boy glanced from the fine, keen face of the Medici to the marble mask of the old faun in front of him.

“Well, sirrah,” said Lorenzo, half seriously, half in jest, “what wilt thou be up to next?”

Jacopo, one of the builders, gave me a stone,” answered the boy, “and told me I might do what I would with it. Yonder is my copy, the old figure there.”

“But,” said Lorenzo, critically, “your faun is old, and yet you have given him all his teeth; you should have known in a face as aged as that some of the teeth are wanting.”

“True,” said the young sculptor, and taking his chisel, with a few strokes he made such a gap in the mouth as no master could have improved.

The Medici watched, and when the change was made, broke into laughter. “Right, boy!” he cried. “’Tis perfect; Praxiteles himself could not have bettered that!” Then, with a quizzical smile, he looked the youth over. “I knew thou wert a painter; and now a sculptor; what will thy clever hand be doing next?”

“Bearing arms in your worship’s cause, an’ the saints be good!” exclaimed the boy, his deep eyes, full of admiration, on his patron’s face.

“Ah,” said Lorenzo, “so? Well, perhaps the day will come. Florence is like a rose-bed, but I cannot cure the city as I would of thorns.” He fell into thought, then roused again. “But thou, young Michael Angelo, dost know what a time I had to make thy father let thee be a painter, and now thou addest to thy sins and cuttest in marble. Where will be the end of thy infamy?”

The boy caught the gleam in his friend’s eyes, and his serious face broke into smiles.

“In Rome, Signor Lorenzo, in the Holy Father’s house. There I shall go some day.”

“And why to Rome?”

“Every one goes to Rome; thy marvelous pageants are Roman; art lives there.”

“Yes,” mused Lorenzo, “Rome on its hills is still the Eternal City. And yet in those far days to come I doubt if thou wilt be as happy as in Lorenzo’s gardens. How sayest thou, boy?”

“I know not,” was the answer. “Only I know that I shall go.”

The laughter of the other boys came to their ears, and Lorenzo turned. “Thy faun is done; to-morrow will I speak with Poliziano of our new sculptor. What is Granacci saying over there? Come with me and listen.” So, the prince’s arm resting affectionately on the boy’s shoulder, they crossed the garden to the noisy group.

Life was gay then in Florence. Lorenzo de’ Medici was ruling the turbulent city by keeping it occupied with merrymaking, by beautifying its squares with priceless treasures, by helping its poor but ambitious children to win their heart’s desires, by mingling with the citizens at all times, and writing them ballads to sing, and giving them masques to act. His house was open to the great men of Italy; on his entertainments he lavished his wealth, set no bounds to the means he gave Granacci and the others to make the pageants gorgeous, and superintended everything with his own wonderfully keen eye for beauty.

The triumphal procession of Paulus AEmilius on the morrow after the little scene in the gardens was an all-day revel. The good folk of Florence left their shops and homes and lined the streets, and for hours floats drawn by prancing horses and picturing great scenes in Roman history passed before the delighted people’s eyes. Among the warriors, the heroes, the nymphs and fauns, they recognized their neighbors’ children or their own sons and daughters; they were all parcel of it; it was their own triumph as well as Rome’s. Girls sang and danced and smiled, boys posed and cheered and played heroic parts, the whole youth of the city spent the day in fairy-land.

Chief among the boys was the little group of artists who were studying in Lorenzo’s mansion, and chief among these Granacci, who was Master of the Revels, Paolo Tornabuoni, who made a wonderful Apollo, seated on a golden globe playing upon a lyre, and the dark-browed Michael Angelo, clad in a tunic, one of the noble youth of early Rome. His father, Ludovico Buonarotti, and his mother, Francesca, were in the crowd that watched him pass.

“Yonder he goes,” cried the proud mother; “dost see thy son, Ludovico?” But her husband scowled; he had little use for a son of his who had rather be painter than merchant.

A year of happiness passed for the boys in the Medici gardens, and then the skies of Florence darkened. A monk from San Marco named Savonarola raised his voice to shame the gay people of their extravagance, and his bitter tongue sought out Lorenzo the Magnificent as chief offender. The boy Michael Angelo went to hear Savonarola preach, and came away heavy of mind and heart. He heard the beautiful things of the world assailed as sinful, and his beloved master called a servant of the Evil One. A winter of reproach came upon the city, and when it ended, and Lent was over, darkness fell, for Lorenzo lay dead at his summer home of Careggi, in 1492 the year when Columbus discovered America.

For a long time Michael Angelo, stunned by his patron’s loss, could do no work, and when at last he found the heart to take up his brush and palette it was no longer in the great house of the Medici, but in a little room he had arranged for himself as a studio under his father’s roof.

He was not long left to work there in peace; the three sons of Lorenzo, boys of nearly his own age, who had been playmates with him in the gardens, and had studied with him under the same masters, needed his help. The great Medici had said, long before, that of his three sons one was good, one clever, and the third a fool. Giulio, now thirteen years old, was the good one; Giovanni, seventeen years old, already a Prince Cardinal of the Church, was the clever one, and Piero, the oldest, now head of the family in Florence, was the fool.

The storm raised by Savonarola was ready to break about Piero de’ Medici’s head, and such friends as were still faithful to him he gathered about him at his house. Michael Angelo, his old playmate, was among the number, and so he again moved to the palace. For a brief time they sought to win back the favor of the people by a return to the old-time magnificence.

With no wise head to guide, the youths were soon in sore straits. Their love of art, their study of the poets, their attempt to revive the history of Greece and Rome were all scorned and mocked at as so much wanton dissipation. The boys drew closer together; the fate of their house hung trembling in the balance.

Then one morning a young lute-player named Cardiere came to Michael Angelo and, drawing him aside from the others, told him that in a dream the night before, Lorenzo had appeared to him, robed in torn black garments, and in deep, melancholy tones had ordered him to tell Piero, his son, that he would soon be driven out from Florence, never to return. Michael Angelo told the musician to tell Piero, but the latter was too frightened to obey.

A few days later he came again to Michael Angelo, this time pale and shaking with fear, and said that Lorenzo had appeared to him a second time, had repeated what he had said to him before, and had threatened him with dire punishment if he dared again to disobey his strict command.

Alarmed at the news Michael Angelo spoke his mind to Cardiere and bade him set off at once to see Piero, who was at Careggi, and give him his father’s warning. Cardiere, half-way to Careggi, met Piero and some friends riding in toward Florence. The minstrel stopped their way and besought Piero to hear his story. The young Medici bade him speak, but when he had heard the warning he laughed, and his friends laughed with him.

Bibbiena, one of Piero’s closest friends, and later to be the subject of one of Raphael’s masterpieces, cried aloud in scorn to Cardiere: “Fool! Dost think that Lorenzo gives thee such honor before his own son that he would thus appear to thee rather than to Piero?” With laughter at Cardiere’s crestfallen face the gay troop rode on, and the poor messenger of evil tidings returned slowly with his news to Michael Angelo.

By now the boy sculptor was thoroughly alarmed. Like almost every one else of that age he believed in portents and visions; he therefore took Cardiere’s story to heart, and in addition he could see for himself that the foolish, headstrong Piero was taking no steps to turn the growing discontent. He hated to leave his friends, but knew that they would pay no heed to his warnings. So, after much hesitation, he decided, with two comrades of about his own age, to go to Venice and seek work in that quieter city.

Ordinarily it would have taken the three boys about a week to ride from Florence to Venice, but at that time French troops were scattered through the country, and they had to follow a roundabout course to reach the city by the sea. They had very little money, and had gone only a short distance when this small amount was exhausted. By that time they had reached the city of Bologna, and there they turned aside.

Like most of the Italian cities Bologna tried to keep itself independent, and to this end the ruling family had made a strange law with regard to foreigners. Every stranger entering the city gates had to present himself before the governor and receive from him a seal of red wax on the thumb. If a stranger neglected to do this, he was liable to be thrown into prison and fined.

The boy Michael Angelo and his two friends knew nothing of this odd law, and entered the city gaily, without having the necessary wax on their thumbs. As soon as this was noticed they were seized, taken before a judge, and sentenced to pay six hundred and fifty lire. They had not that much money between them, and so for a short time were placed under lock and key.

Fortunately news of the boys’ arrest came to a nobleman of the city who was much interested in art and who had already heard of Michael Angelo’s ability. He at once had the boys set free, and invited Michael Angelo to visit him at his home. But Michael did not wish to leave his friends, and felt that it would be an imposition for the three of them to accept the invitation.

When he spoke in this fashion to the nobleman the latter was very much amused. “Ah, well,” said he, “if things stand so I must beg of you to take me also with your two friends to roam about the world at your expense.” The joke showed the boy the absurd side of the matter. He gave his friends the little money he had left, said good-bye to them, and accepted the invitation to stay in Bologna.

A very short time after, Piero de’ Medici, driven from Florence by an angry people, came to Bologna and met his old friend of Lorenzo’s gardens. For a short time the boys were together, then the young Medici set out to seek aid from other cities, in an attempt to rebuild his family fortunes.

Meanwhile the nobleman who had offered Michael Angelo a home was delighted with his young friend. He found him keenly interested in Dante and Petrarch, and equally gifted as a sculptor and painter. He gave him work to do in the Church of San Petronio, and Michael did so well there that the artists of Bologna grew jealous of him, and at the end of the year forced him to leave the city.

Then the boy artist went back to his home, only to find it changed unspeakably. Florence, that had been a city of delight, was now a city of dread. Savonarola held the people’s ear, and had taught them to destroy what Lorenzo had led them to love. The monks of San Marco made bonfires of their paintings, priceless manuscripts had met with the same fate, and Lorenzo’s house had been robbed of all its sculpture. The gardens were strewn with broken statues that had once been Michael Angelo’s delight. He walked through them sadly, and realized that he alone was left of that group who had found so much happiness there only a few years before. The words that he had spoken to Lorenzo on the day he chiseled the faun came back to him, “To Rome I shall go some day,” and thither he now set his face.

Thereafter the Eternal City claimed Michael Angelo. Cardinal after cardinal, pope after pope, employed his marvelous genius to beautify the capital of the world. As he had said, he found work to do in the Holy Father’s house. Whatever else they might do, the Italians of that age worshiped art, and there were two stars in their sky, Raphael and Michael Angelo.

Again Fate’s wheel turned, and at last Michael Angelo returned to Florence, loaded with honors, this time again the guest of a Medici, Giulio, the playmate of his youth, ruling as autocrat where his father had ruled as a mere citizen. A little later, and the shrewdest of the three boys, Giovanni, became Pope Leo X.

As men the friends of boyhood differed, but they were alike in their devotion to Florence and the things they had learned in her school years before. At the height of his power Michael Angelo turned his hand to the Medici Chapel and built there lasting monuments to their glory and his genius, a wonderful return for the rare days of his boyhood in their gardens.