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Little Journeys To the Homes of the Great, Volume 4 (of 14)
Little Journeys To The Homes Of Eminent Painters
Printed and made into a Book by The Roycrofters, who are in East Aurora, Erie County, New York
How can that be, lady, which all men learn
By long experience? Shapes that seem alive,
Wrought in hard mountain marble, will survive
Their maker, whom the years to dust return!
Thus to effect, cause yields. Art hath her turn,
And triumphs over Nature. I, who strive with sculpture,
Know this well: her wonders live
In spite of time and death, those tyrants stern.
So I can give long life to both of us
In either way, by color or by stone,
Making the semblance of thy face and mine.
Centuries hence when both are buried,
Thus thy beauty and my sadness shall be shown,
And men shall say, "For her 'twas wise to pine."
"Call me by my pet name," wrote Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in one of those incomparable sonnets of which the Portuguese never heard. And the task yet remains for some psychologist to tell us why, when we wish to bestow the highest honor, coupled with familiar affection, we call the individual by a given name.
Young men and maidens will understand my allusion; and I hope this book will not suffer the dire fate of falling into the hands of any one who has forgotten the days of his youth.
In addressing the one we truly revere, we drop all prefix and titles. Soldiers marching under the banner of a beloved leader ever have for him a name of their own. What honor and trust were once compressed into the diminutive, "Little Corporal" or Kipling's "Bobs"; or, to come down to something even more familiar to us, say, "Old Abe" and "Little Phil"!
The earth is a vast graveyard where untold millions of men lie buried, but out of the myriads who pass into forgetfulness every decade, the race holds a few names embalmed in undying amber.
Lovers of art, the round world over, carry in their minds one character, so harmoniously developed on every side of his nature that we say twenty centuries have never produced his equal. We call him "Leonardo"-the one ideal man. Leonardo da Vinci was painter, poet, sculptor, architect, mathematician, politician, musician, man of science, and courtier. His disposition was so joyous, his manner so captivating, his form and countenance so beautiful, that wherever he went all things were his. And he was so well ballasted with brains, and so acute in judgment, that flattery spoiled him not. His untiring industry and transcendent talent brought him large sums of money, and he spent them like a king. So potent was his personality that wherever he made his home there naturally grew up around him a Court of Learning, and his pupils and followers were counted by the score. To the last of his long life he carried with him the bright, expectant animation of youth; and to all who knew him he was "Leonardo-the only Leonardo."
But great as was Leonardo, we call the time in which he lived, the age of Michelangelo.
When Leonardo was forty, and at the very height of his power, Michel Agnola Buonarroti, aged twenty, liberated from the block a marble Cupid that was so exquisite in its proportions that it passed for an antique, and men who looked upon it exclaimed, "Phidias!"
Michel Agnola became Michelangelo, that is to say, "Michel the Angel," in a day. The name thrown at him by an unknown admirer stuck, and in his later years when all the world called him "Angelo" he cast off the name his parents had given him and accepted the affectionate pet name that clung like the love of woman.
Michelangelo was born in a shabby little village but a few miles from Florence. In another village near by was born Leonardo. "Great men never come singly," says Emerson. And yet Angelo and Leonardo exercised no influence upon each other that we can trace. The younger man never came under the spell of the older one, but moved straight on to his destiny, showing not the slightest arc in his orbit in deference to the great luminary of his time.
The handsome Leonardo was social: he loved women, and music, and festivals, and gorgeous attire, and magnificent equipage. His life was full of color and sweeping, joyous, rainbow tints.
Michelangelo was homely in feature, and the aspect of his countenance was mutilated by a crashing blow from a rival student's mallet that flattened his nose to his face. Torrigiano lives in history for this act alone, thus proving that there are more ways than one to gain immortality.
Angelo was proud, self-centered, independent, and he sometimes lashed the critics into a buzzing, bluebottle fury by his sarcastic speech. "He affronted polite society, conformed to no one's dictates, lived like an ascetic and worked like a packmule," says a contemporary.
Vasari, who among his many other accomplishments seems to have been the Boswell of his time, compares Leonardo and Michelangelo. He says, "Angelo can do everything that Leonardo can, although he does it differently." Further, he adds, "Angelo is painter, sculptor, engineer, architect and poet." "But," adds this versatile Italian Samuel Pepys, somewhat sorrowfully, "he is not a gentleman."
It is to be regretted that Signor Vasari did not follow up his remarks with his definition of the term "gentleman."
Leonardo was more of a painter than a sculptor. His pictures are full of rollicking mirth, and the smile on the faces of his women is handed down by imitation even to this day. The joyous freedom of animal life beckons from every Leonardo canvas; and the backgrounds fade off into fleecy clouds and shadowy, dreamy, opiate odor of violets.
Michelangelo, however, is true to his own life as Leonardo was to his-for at the last the artist only reproduces himself. He never painted a laugh, for life to him was serious and full of sober purpose. We can not call his work somber-it does not depress-for it carries with it a poise and a strength that is sufficient unto itself. It is all heroic, and there is in it a subtle quality that exorcises fear and bids care begone.
No man ever portrayed the human figure with the same fidelity that Angelo has. The naked Adam, when the finger of the Almighty touched him into life, gives one a thrill of health to look upon, even after these four hundred years have struggled to obliterate the lines.
His figures of women shocked the artistic sense of his time, for instead of the Greek idealization of beauty he carved the swelling muscles and revealed the articulations of form as no artist before him had ever dared. His women are never young, foolish, timid girls-they are Amazons; and his men are the kind that lead nations out of captivity. The soft, the pretty, the yielding, were far from him. There is never a suggestion of taint or double meaning; all is frank, open, generous, honest and fearless. His figures are nude, but never naked.
He began his artistic work when fourteen years old, and he lived to be eighty-nine; and his years did not outlast his zeal and zest. He was above the medium size, an athlete in his lean and sinewy strength, and the whipcord quality of his body mirrored the silken strength of his will.
In his old age the King arose when Michelangelo entered the Council-Chamber, and would not sit until he was seated at the right hand of the throne; the Pope would not allow him to kneel before him; when he walked through the streets of Rome the people removed their hats as he passed; and today we who gaze upon his work in the Eternal City stand uncovered.
* * * * *
Michelangelo was the firstborn in a large family. Simone Buonarroti, his father, belonged to an ebbtide branch of the nobility that had lost everything but the memory of great ancestors turned to dust. This father had ambitions for his boy; ambitions in the line of the army or a snug office under the wing of the State, where he might, by following closely the beck and nod of the prince in power, become a magistrate or a keeper of customs.