Several years ago, while conducting research on the religious art of Italian Renaissance painter, architect, and author, Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), I was both surprised and delighted to discover a previously unknown portrait of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) at the far left edge of Vasari’s painting depicting Christ Carrying the Cross (1568-72) in Santa Croce.
The large panel in question has stood on the altar that belonged to the Buonarroti family since its installation in December of 1572, but the once colorful surface of this crowded, drama-filled picture has long been obscured by dirt, candle smoke, and yellowed varnish. As a result, most visitors to the church understandably direct their attention to Michelangelo’s funerary monument, which stands to the immediate right of the Buonarroti altar.
The portrait of Michelangelo in Vasari’s painting is unmistakable. His signature curly hair, short beard, and once-broken nose closely match his other portraits, including the marble bust Battista Lorenzi sculpted for the adjacent funerary monument. But Michelangelo’s likeness is not the only contemporary portrait Vasari included in the painting, for the older, bearded man facing Michelangelo is the Florentine painter known as Rosso Fiorentino (1495-1540). Rather than painting the red hair that gave Rosso his nickname, Vasari depicted him wearing a red cap, whose bold color is an obvious clue to the portrait’s identity. The two Florentine artists are represented in the guises of biblical figures; Michelangelo, who shoulders a ladder, is the Pharisee Nicodemus. Rosso holds a tablet inscribed with the words “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin that will be placed atop Christ’s cross. He has a long, white beard that is particularly fitting for the elderly Joseph of Arimathea, who gave up his own tomb so that Christ could be buried in it.
But the question remains as to why Vasari included these portraits in his painting. Michelangelo and Rosso Fiorentino knew each other well and Vasari reported in his influential book of artist biographies known as the Lives of the Artists (1568), that Rosso was one of five fellow craftsmen whose companionship Michelangelo particularly enjoyed and to whom he was especially kind. For Vasari, Michelangelo and Rosso were paragons of artistic virtue whose works left an indelible mark upon the history of Italian Renaissance art and Vasari’s own paintings.
There are additional factors that can account for the presence of the two portraits—that of Michelangelo in particular—in the Buonarroti Altarpiece. To be specific, Michelangelo’s profile portrait is positioned in such a way that the great artist appears to look past Rosso and toward his own monument. His gaze links the two works and stresses that together they comprise the Buonarroti Chapel. The portrait also gave Vasari the opportunity to further honor an exceptional artist whose life and works he had lionized in word and paint for most of his career.
Indeed, in a letter of 25 October 1572, Vasari referred to the panel as “la tavola di Michelagniolo” (Michelangelo’s panel) and the portrait of Michelangelo as Nicodemus underscores the painting’s connection to the venerated Florentine artist, for Vasari was aware that Michelangelo had sculpted a portrait of himself as Nicodemus in the unfinished Pietà (c. 1547-55) now in Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Vasari also knew that Michelangelo had intended the Pietà to mark his own tomb and Vasari tried unsuccessfully to acquire the sculpture for Michelangelo’s monument in Santa Croce.
Thus, the portrait Vasari embedded in his altarpiece stands as a final personal and professional tribute to the revered senior artist and as a creative way to respect Michelangelo’s wishes for his final resting place.
Text by: Sally J. Cornelison, Professor & Director, Florence Graduate Program in Renaissance Art, Department of Art & Music Histories, Syracuse University