This post is Part II of my long goodbye to my forever-in-progress novel Last Pietà. Part I, my previous post, consisted of historical information about Michelangelo’s life, the stunning facts that intrigued me so much that I just had to write Last Pietà. It introduced the sculpture of my book’s title, on which the artist worked until 6 days before his death. In Michelangelo’s lifetime it was known as the Deposition, now as the Rondanini Pietà.
This post is fiction, an excerpt from the last chapter of my book, in which Maddaluzza, a character in the book, tells the story of Michelangelo’s last days. If you want to know more about her and the other main characters of my book, you can skip to the end to see their portraits and read their backgrounds before reading the excerpt.
Excerpt from Last Pietà
“Death Makes Us Know Our Proper Selves”
One good thing came from the new Pope’s five years of dithering about Ser Michelangelo’s position as Chief Architect of the new St Peter’s: my master had time to again take his hammer and chisel to the Deposition he’d blocked out while Urbino and the Marchesa still lived. Him he’d loved like a son, her like the Holy Mother Herself. When the Marchesa had been too close to death to mind the danger, she’d whispered in my ear that Ser Michelangelo had accepted the Lutheran’s thesis that man could pray directly to God for forgiveness and need not go through the priests or the Pope. While during the months and years after the two souls so close to his heart were taken—a sign from the Pope’s God?—the old man agonized whether the Lutheran way would work now that their goodness no longer gave him strength. Between blows that sent marble chips flying every which way, while at table for his midday salad, or when good friends visited, he blurted forebodings about his “double death”: his flesh would die and his soul be damned in the same moment. At night, death horrors often launched him upright in his bed or sometimes onto the floor.
After Antonio or I coaxed him back to bed and I’d read him his favorite poetry—the lines from the Trionfi in which the poet was restored to God’s grace through the vision of his beloved Laura—he’d be asleep. When I returned to my bed, my mind would gravitate to the Holy Mother in the studio beneath my room, struggling to hold on to the Son whose weighty body drifted downward from Her side, His right arm swinging free as though Her grip could not contain Him. I imagined—dreamed?—what Michelangelo would do next: smooth the Christ’s legs from the knees upwards, using finer and finer claw chisels to erase the marks of the coarser tools, until His skin and muscles were brought to light? Then on to the torso, where he’d apply finer and finer grades of sand up to His neck, then maybe move on to the Mother, while beside him the boy Sandro would pumice the Son’s thighs and torso, paste on, paste off, paste on, past off until the newer parts attained the same silky feel as the glimmering calves? Or would he first refine His face, polish His cheeks, His curly hair, His shaggy beard?
At the start of the year when Ser Michelangelo would turn eighty-eight, however, all thought of sculpture ended in our house. On the feast of the Epiphany Pope Pius at last announced that no one but Michelangelo could be the Chief Architect and that His Holiness would release the money to continue the building works. Moreover, the messenger delivered 200 scudi as a gift, a cask of water from Viterbo for his kidney stones, and a woolen cloak hooded in fox fur and lined with red velvet for his comfort. Michelangelo’s black eyes again glowed with the hope for his salvation. “I seek night and day to make friends with death,” he told each person in our house, “if I die in His House, he will surely take me to Heaven.”
As for Michelangelo’s sins, being a woman who herself has known lust, I had no trouble interpreting the sounds that over the years emanated from the master’s studio or bedroom whenever a new beautiful and beardless Cecchino or Febo or Gherhardo moved in to pose or sketch or carve for him. Moreover, since my master declared after his 86th Saint’s Day that “Antiono’s scribbles are worse than my wetnurse who could not even write her name,” and called for me to scribe instead, I became the one who took down poems the likes of “my earthy flesh…in which the soul doth swell/ do yet attest how bold I was in bed/ when we embraced” or “luscious is/ the boon of winged promotion/ to the hill from where I topple and decay/ the feathers of his chest/ were wings, his hill the stair”—stanzas he’d order me to omit from the fair copy since it might fall in hands other than those of that day’s favored youth. If these intimacies be sins to be paid for, wouldn’t the Ceiling of Sixtus, the Last Judgment, Pope Julius’ tomb, the Pietà in the Basilica, and the many years he’d bent his back plumbing the Basilica drum constitute enough good deeds to save the soul of a sick old man who’d suffered like Christ on the cross while trying to please his never-sated God?
The morning after the news arrived, Michelangelo set out for the building works despite the freezing drizzle that encrusted the houses on the Macel’ dei Corvi and the trees and grape trellises in our kitchen garden. Antonio led him from his bedroom complaining that the master would only wear his old threadbare cape, the Pope’s new cloak being too good for such weather. Shrugging off Monna Cornelia’s soft breakfast bread as well as her scolding, the old man left with the two site overseers who lived with us and would lift him onto his horse. Animated by the prospect of site work, the trio went off, their voices puffing blurry speech scrolls as my master undoubtedly held forth about “Bramante’s ramshackle mule ramps for hauling bricks to the scaffolding” or the need for more windows to prevent “the sheltering of bandits, coining of money, or ravishing of nuns in the darkness caused by the garish ring of chapels Sangallo built around Bramante’s drum.”
As spring rolled to summer, the house filled with talk and laughter as in earlier days with friends from Rome and afar coming to celebrate Michelangelo’s reappointment. Daniel de Volterra, who had just been commissioned against his will to paint over the buttocks and privy parts of the artist’s Last Judgment, was among them, which caused the flow of many lewd jokes. Almost every day Tommasso dropped in, he whom my master loved more than Christ, since for the young man alone Michelangelo combined carnal desire with the transcendent love he had for them both. He could not hide this yearning: his gaze continuously caressed the young man’s angular jawline and body that looked like a model for his David statue; neither could he keep from brushing the Count’s youthful skin while they studied a sketch or building plan side-by-side. Despite my master’s sexual hunger, I knew their love was chaste because why else would the Count come to my bed when Il Divino continuously enticed him to his in all but words?
Not half a year had passed in this peaceful way when one day, just as the bells were chiming the Sext, a donkey cart pulled up at the door and we heard loud shouts from the overseers who’d assisted the master in the morning. Tiberio was sliding from the driver’s seat and Montelupo sat in the back with Michelangelo, writhing with pain, on his lap: in the permanent dusk of the Basilica, he’d tripped over a plank and into rubble that cut a bleeding gash in his head. While Antonio and the boy Sandro hurried outside to help carry him in, I ran for my medicine bag and Monna Cornelia for hot bricks wrapped in baize to unclench his aching back and limbs. He would not let us remove his high boots. “They help for the cramp,” he said. He appeared not to have broken any bones. His head wound I treated with a salve of rose honey and a bandage. In the morning, a worse malady came: the catarrh had invaded his head and chest. He would not swallow my liquorice brew for his lungs, so that his coughs robbed him of breath. The ooze from his nose caked his beard with a thick mucus that caused a terrible itch, trapped flies, and dried to a crusty mould because he would not suffer me to clean it.
Michelangelo’s ill health endured until the tomatoes had ripened, the aubergines and leeks swollen, the basil and sage dried, and Monna Cornelia cooked a ciambotta for the feast of the Holy Name of the Blessed Virgin Mary that finally lured him from his sickbed. When he at last let Antonio take off his boots, the skin was stuck to his breaches to the knees and came off with the fabric in strips like snakeskin. While the skin underneath was like that of a newborn, the man was but a phantasm of the broken-nosed, quick-witted, strong-muscled personage with bushy black hair, piercing eyes, and arrogant confidence whom I first got to know twenty years ago. Before he’d regained adequate strength, he declared that he was going back to work. In the morning, however, the efforts of all the men of our house could not fit his legs over the saddle for their stiffness.
Cursing like a Spaniard, he cuffed the horse, batted Antonio’s hand from his elbow, and shambled back inside, getting more foulmouthed with each shuffle toward his workshop. Antonio hurriedly gathered the master’s Basilica designs on the worktable. With Tiberio by his side, Michelangelo stared disconsolately at the conceptual sketches and blueprints that Pope Paul had approved many years before and that had already been the basis for eighteen years of construction. “What more do you want from me, my Lord?” he muttered. His spirit barely lifted when Daniele da Volterra or even his beloved Tommasso hastened to attend to him. He would never again be well enough to go to the building works. Even though the nearly completed drum would prevent future builders to deviate from his design, Michelangelo still fretted that his plans would be “altered and spoiled.” He summoned two carpenters to construct in wood a copy of the clay model he’d long ago made of the Dome he envisioned. Only after Tommasso had praised the carpenters for the “extreme nicety” with which it had been executed, and Michelangelo himself had faulted only the hairbreadth that the walls deviated from the blueprint, and the archetype had been handed into the keeping of Pius himself, would the old man find a modicum of peace.
When the pain of his kidney stones allowed, Michelangelo was able to work on the marble again. Hammer blows again looped through the house. “For exercise,” he’d explain, desperate to be held blameless, for while confined to his bed, he’d foresworn all art forever, “because it was not proper with my death so near.” He’d vowed to instead spend his last strength on God’s Church alone. As if reminding God that he was not to blame, he’d say under his breath, “If only I had a portable throne with twelve footmen to carry me about like His Holiness, I might still have been able to earn my salvation at the works.”
Unlike earlier times when Michelangelo was content to receive anybody’s praise—from the boy Sandro’s to the Cardinal’s—this time no-one except his assistants dared look at the Mother and Son. Not even Tommasso knew what changes he was advancing—his assistants covered the marble in a sheet of green baize as soon as anyone approached. “Vasari keeps looking at the Virgin’s leg,” he’d grumble. His work remained a secret until, very late one night, repeated whacks of his hammer wrenched the household from sleep. Antonio and Tiberio dashed down to the studio, but the master’s “Basta! Basta!” sent them scurrying away. I, too, had been startled awake. When the house was quiet again, I dozed fitfully, an unintelligible rhythm disturbing my dream. A new volley of whacks pulled me from sleep into a recognition: the bursts came from a heavy chisel rather than one of the fine finishing tools one would expect him to use. After I had drifted into sleep for what seemed like mere minutes, a loud crash catapulted me from bed. I darted down the stairs, my nightdress billowing behind me. In the studio, my eyes went straight to the marble: it was whole except that part of the Christ’s right shoulder and arm was gone. The remaining column of arm jutted like a ruined obelisk beside the torso from which it had been gouged, yet the vein beneath the elbow still pulsed with life. Michelangelo sat at the at the Christ’s feet, his legs splayed on the floor.
My nose registered the reek of burning hair. With dread tingling my spine, I rushed toward the old man, squatted beside him. Despite a tuft of singed hair, he did not look burned or injured, thank whatever god spared him. His eyes were closed and he was shaking. Between his spread legs, the severed shoulder pushed into his crotch. With both hands, he kept the arm end of the oddly shaped object from falling to the floor. He twitched and heaved. The marble clump bucked between his legs like what my husband, during our moments of fervor, used to call his “sparrow hawk with bells.”
I pried the old man’s hands from the marble arm, strained to lift the unwieldy castoff over his leg to his side. I slid him away from the Deposition until I could lay him down and ease his head onto my lap. He opened his eyes. At the sight of my face, his body unexpectedly relaxed. “I did not kiss you while you lived,” he said. From this I knew that he’d entered his rimbambito, his second childhood—he thought I was the Marchesa. As I spread the nearest baize cover over his body, he moved his hand out from underneath the cloth and over my nightdress up to my chest. When it reached my breast, he touched it lightly. Then, like a baby born too soon to suckle, he fell asleep.
In the morning his hammering stared up at dawn, reverberated between the walls and ceiling beams through noon and until the moon lit up the night. He no longer kept anyone away. He saw only the Christ and His Mother. He slept hardly at all, ate less, drank only wine. When visitors came, he did not greet them but fixed his zeal his more intensely on the tip of his chisel. Everyone admitted remained silent, stupefied as, day by day, they watched him carve through the Christ’s polished abdomen into the stone that originally formed the Holy Virgin’s torso, until She birthed from Her body a grown Man. Standing on a stool, he carved a new head for the Christ from the Holy Mother’s rib cage and shoulder. He gave the Christ a short, full beard, as far as one could tell from the still rough-hewn head. His hair had the contours of a cap, a simple mass in contrast to His former curls. For the Holy Mother, he made a new head from the as-yet unremoved marble between the figures, turning it to face in the same direction as Her Son’s. Together they formed an upward-trending arc. He rounded the top of her head like a scarf until it echoed the curve of the Christ’s ill-defined hair. He worked and worked until the new year came with a clamor of bells. He worked and worked, standing up all day on the Saturday eighteen days before his eighty-ninth Saint’s Day. He worked through the next day until Monna Cornelia reminded him that it was the Lord’s Day.
Only after Michelangelo’s death—after the rest on Sunday dulled his health so that he could no longer sit up on the Monday and would speak only to the one he loved best: “O, Tomao, non mi abandonare”; after on the Tuesday he could no longer take wine from the silver bambino horn that was his gift to Monna Cornelia and Urbino’s first son, little Michelangelo, for whom he stood godfather; after on the Wednesday he could no longer speak at all; and after on the Thursday he fell into a torpor; and after on the Friday—six days before his eighty-ninth Saint’s Day—he released his soul to the mercy of God; and after his body had been laid to rest in the Santa Apistoli Church next to the Pallazo Colonna; and after Duke Cosimo de’ Medici instructed Michelangelo’s nephew and heir to transport the corpse to Florence for the honor of a state funeral and a proper tomb; and after Leonardo had stowed his remains in a cart of hay disguised as merchandise so that not even the Pope could frustrate the artist’s wish to be buried in the city of his youth—only then did I lift the green baize from the Christ and His Holy Mother, sat down on the plinth on which my master would never see his last work mounted, and reflected on his astonishing transformation of the Holy Pair at a pace that would put a younger man to shame.
Lit by a shaft of sun from a high window, the white marble form rose above me, seemingly suspended in air. The Christ and His Mother appeared fused together. His hands were hidden, His barely-suggested arms holding on to Her body behind him. Her forward-leaning torso seemed to rest on His backwards-tending one. Her chin lingered on His head. It seems that He supported Her rather than the other way round. When the original head and shoulders had slumped forward in keeping with the way the legs were bent, the Christ was a sad, sagging form barely held from falling by His Mother. Now He emanated the signs of rising from the dead.
Tears blurred my eyes as I understood that the sculpture embodied a rebirth not only in space—from close to far—but also in time—from then to now. The Son’s upper body, rising from the gloss of the legs into the blurred torso and head, was floating upward toward an ephemeral space above the high ceiling. I saw then, as clearly as one of the Marchesa’s visions, that my master’s last work was not only a Deposition, a Lamentation, a Pietà, but also a Resurrection that attested to its maker’s own ascension, through faith and marble, into the Eternal Life of the Spirit.
The Main Characters of Last Pietà.
1), Maddaluzza: a young woman of my imagination who educated herself by reading everything that came to her bookbinder father’s shop: poetry, art, history, philosophy, medicine. She loved drawing, copying famous art, and sketching her own ideas.
Maddaluzza’s self-portrait in oil, discovered in the servant’s room after Michelangelo’s death and her departure from Rome to make a living from her own art (ca. 1556-1558). Title unknown.
After Maddaluzza of Pistoia was widowed at a young age and lost all three of her children to cowpox, Vittoria Colonna (a historical figure, see below) takes the young widow to be employed by her friend Michelangelo in Rome, who was looking for a good woman from a poor family who needed help—a good deed he hoped would help expiate his sins. By the time Maddaluzza had lived five years in Michelangelo’s house without him even speaking to her, the artist noticed her exquisite writing on a recipe page while arranging every meal of the week with Monna Cornelia, the housekeeper. She becomes one of his scribes, as well as one of the people who read Dante or Petrarch or Savonarola’s Sermons to him calm down after one of his frequent nightmares. She applied her medical knowledge whenever Michelangelo fell sick and was present at his death. She lived in a servant’s room above the artist’s studio, a few doors from the artist’s own bedroom. A varying number of male assistants lived in other nearby bedrooms.
The facade of Michelangelo’s house, which, at the end of the 19th century, was preserved to front a new house in a different street. In Maddaluzza’s time, the house was in Via Macel de’ Corvi, a somewhat insalubrious street whose name translates as “the Slaughterhouse of the Crows.”
2), Count Tommasso Cavalieri, a historical character, was a wealthy Roman nobleman who met Michelangelo when he was 23 years old. The then 57-year-old artist fell passionately fell in love with the young man. While Tommasso’s “ideal masculine beauty” probably had a lot to do with it, the artist was also impressed with his goodness and intellect. While the young man did not return Michelangelo’s sexual feelings, they remained close friends until the artist’s death. Tommasso’s presence at his deathbed was the only thing the dying man desperately wanted at the end.
Portrait of Tommaso Cavalieri, not by Michelangelo. While the artist dedicated many sketches to Tommaso, this portrait is not among them.
3), Vittoria Colonna, the Marchesa di Pescara, is another historical character. The Marchesa came from an old and aristocratic family. After being betrothed at the age of 6, she eventually married her fiancé, Ferdinando d’Avalos, Marquis of Pescara, when she was 17. She had obtained great wealth from her own family and his after his early death. During a self-imposed ten-year mourning period, she remained at her husband’s palace on the island of Ischia. At age 46, she came out of mourning and moved to Rome, where she lived in various convents, from where she held Sunday salons attended by the leading intellectuals of her day. Influential, wealthy, and highly educated, Vittoria corresponded with leading churchmen and humanists of the age. She admired Michelangelo and followed his work. By the time she’d been a widow for 11 years, she reached out to befriend Michelangelo (1536), four years after he had fallen in love with Tommasso. She was forty-six, Michelangelo over sixty. She was the only woman with whom he ever had a sustained relationship: he was smitten with her when they met, an infatuation that would last 12 years, until her death at age 68. He was in awe of her learning and spirituality and loved her “for her mind,” as is evident from their correspondence, the poems her wrote for her, and the religious sketches he showered upon her. She, too, seemed to have had no romantic feelings for Michelangelo. Her “purity” and strong faith, indeed, were the magnet that attracted him.
Vittoria Colonna in a portrait by Gulielmo Muzianod in 1520, sixteen years before she met Michelangelo.
Vittoria’s death left Michelangelo “in a state of near unconsciousness and derangement.” While he had almost all his life spoken and thought about death, he now became obsessed with it. He told his biographer Vasari, “I wrestle with death, there exists no thought within me in which death is not sculpted.” While mourning Vittoria and agonizing about his own edeath and damnation, he started a pietà, The Florentine, which he intended as his own funerary monument.
Though they did not meet until 1536, Vittoria and Michelangelo had—since the early 1530s— both belonged to an illicit group of intellectuals who leaned toward the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on salvation by God’s grace alone. This dangerous view invalidated the Catholic Church’s teaching that salvation is to be earned through good deeds and the purchase of indulgences. While they both subscribed to the Protestant notion of the forgiveness of sins by grace alone, Vittoria was nevertheless concerned about Michelangelo’s possible damnation for his sin of having sex with men. (The high-minded group’s members were apparently not above gossip.) Michelangelo, however, who would benefit immensely should it be true, embraced this idea of salvation wholeheartedly. It was a way to bypass the Church’s judgement that would go to hell. From the time he met Vittoria, his poetry showed a sudden and profound grasp of salvation by grace, not by works. Sadly, with the Counter-Reformation beginning in the 1540s all the members of the group were persecuted or driven into exile. Vittoria Colonna herself had been forced to recant under threat of torture.
Bonus info: For those of you have read this far, your reward is the “truth” about Maddaluzza’s portrait (detail) in the featured image as well as the complete painting that accompanies her character description. If you thought Maddaluzza looked a bit like me, you’re right—this is a a portrait of me as Maddaluzza taken in the mid-90s by Sean Graff, the incredibly talented friend and photographer who also took the cover photo on my first book, Blessings on the Sheep Dog (2002), a collection of short stories.