Posted by Samantha Hughes-Johnson.
On this day, 18 February, 1564, Michelangelo Buonarroti died in Rome. According to his former pupil and biographer, the polymath, Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo’s body was quickly returned to Florence (by 11 March) and was laid in repose in the vault of the Confraternity of the Assumption at San Pietro Maggiore.
“Nothing was done that day, and then the next day, which was the second Sunday in Lent, all the painters, sculptors and architects secretly assembled by the church, where they had taken nothing more than a pall of velvet, richly decorated and embroidered wth gold, which they draped over the bier and the coffin, on which there lay a crucifix. Then at nightfall they gathered around the corpse, and the oldest and most distinguished masters each took one of a large number of torches brought for the purpose and the young men raised the bier at the same moment. They did this so eagerly that those who could approach near and get a shoulder under the bier could indeed count themselves fortunate, for they realised that in the future they would be able to boast of having carried the remains of the greatest man their arts had ever known.”
Vasari continues to extol “the magnificence of the occasion” and describes “a funeral procession with a sea of wax-lights, a great crowd of priests and acolytes, and mourners all clothed in black… [and] so many distinguished artists… gathered together round the body of Michelangelo to assist in the ceremonies with such love and devotion.”
Michelangelo’s body was eventually carried to Santa Croce, “where the monks performed the customary services of the dead. Shortly after the obsequies, Giorgio Vasari was commissioned to create a lavish tomb in commemoration of his former master. Michelangelo, given that he was a modest individual, may not have approved of the public spectacle that accompanied his last rights or the construction of a vast sepulchre that has seen countless pilgrimages of remembrance, from the time of the artist’s death until the present day. Nevertheless, if one judges his deep and complicated faith by way of his great works and erudite verse, Michelangelo, when he laid down his tools for the final time, would perhaps find the same measure of supernatural support for his immortal soul that he provided (in his guise as Nicodemus) to the body of Christ in his Deposition – upholding his faith (literally the corpse of Jesus Christ) for us all to see.
With a vexations heavy load put down,
O my dear Lord, and from the world set free,
I like a fragile craft turn to You, weary,
From fearful tempest into gentle calm.
The thorns and nails, the left and the right palm,
Your face, benign, humble, and filled with pity,
Pledge that for great repentance there is mercy,
To the sad soul give hope You will redeem.
Let not your holy eyes with justice watch
My past, and let not your immaculate ear
Make your unsparing arm stretch out to it,
Only your blood my trespass wash or touch
And more abound as my old age grows more,
With ready aid and pardon absolute.
Images: Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo’s Tomb, 1564 – 1575, Santa Croce, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Deposition (The Florentine Pieta), after 1550, marble, Museo del Duomo, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.
Detail of Nicodemus from Deposition (The Florentine Pieta), after 1550, marble, Museo del Duomo, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.
References: Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists (Vol. 1), A selection translated by George Bull, Penguin, London, 1965, pp. 436-437.
Frank Zöllner, Christof Thoenes and Thomas Pöpper, Michelangelo 1475 – 1564: Complete Works, Taschen, London, 2014, p.198.