“So near to death, so far from God” – Michelangelo

Critics who have studied Michelangelo’s Medici Sacristy in San Lorenzo have observed that as your eye moves upwards from the floor to the coffered domed ceiling one journeys from corporeal, earthbound figures into stylized abstract architectural forms which symbolize the celestial. The contrasting notion of the active life versus the contemplative life is generally accepted as the guiding principle of the six large-scale sculptures.


Michelangelo tomb

This same divine path to salvation is promoted in Vasari’s pyramidal scheme for the Michelangelo Tomb. The final forms of the three figures of the Michelangelo Tomb most likely suggest the active intervention of Vasari, who received the commission from Duke Cosimo I de’Medici to lead a team of artists to create a tomb for the revered artist whose body was stolen from Rome and brought to Florence, only twenty days after his death. The entire work is a collaborative conjunction of the visual arts; it is prototypical of the orchestrated dramas promoted by the reformers of the Catholic church during the late sixteenth century. The four artists responsible for the decoration of the tomb had ties to Michelangelo through Vasari.

Giovanni Battista Naldini, student of Pontormo, was a leading Mannerist painter, recruited by Vasari. Naldini assisted Vasari with the fresco decorations in the Palazzo Vecchio and with the Studiolo designed for Duke Francesco I de’ Medici, now re-assembled in the Palazzo Vecchio.

We have become accustomed to the startling white of Michelangelo’s highly-polished surfaces, and the expressive chiseled portions of his marble works.  How different this monument, at first glance, seems to be!

The purple-tinged marble sarcophagus is a direct quote from the Medici tombs. The use of colored stones, however, was avoided by Michelangelo. But what is most startling is the blending of Naldini’s colorful fresco setting for the life-size sculptures and Vasari’s imaginative architectural setting.  It would seem that the combination of painting and sculpture runs counter to Michelangelo’s practice of tomb design. But, in fact, drawings survive of projected fresco paintings for the upper walls of the Medici Sacristy.

Photo copyright Luovre Museum
After Michelangelo, drawing for a Medici tomb. Louvre, Cabine des Dessins

Had not the convulsive political troubles in Florence and Rome prevented the artist from completing the Medici Sacristy, closer parallels could be drawn between the Michelangelo Tomb and the conceived designs for the Medici tombs. The project was abandoned when Pope Paul III forced Michelangelo to return to Rome. If left to his own devices, we would have a space in which monumental sculpture and architecture merge with painting, not at all dissimilar from the illusionistic settings realized in the side niches of the Sistine Ceiling (see Howard Hibbard, Michelangelo, London, 1975, pg. 180-81).

The schemata for the Michelangelo tomb is first suggested in an engraved frontispiece for Giorgio Vasari’s second edition (1568) of the Vita di Michelagnelo Buonarroti, published four years after the artist’s death.Michelangelo Vite portrait

In this design the three female allegorical figures, holding attributes which identify them, personify the three arts in which Michelangelo excelled, painting, sculpture and architecture. They surround a portrait likeness close to extant portraits of the artist in an imaginary architectural setting. The arrangement of the three figures is similar to the original project of the tomb, which was later modified as can be seen in the actual monument. ‘Painting,’ the central figure was produced by G.B. Lorenzi and follows a conventional pose for figures in deep mourning.


Lorenzi also produced the bust portrait of Michelangelo. The image of ‘sculpture’ on the left was carved by Valerio Cioli and ‘architecture’ on the right was executed by Giovanni dell’Opera, (Bandini). Two studies exist, both in London collections, for these outside figures (Giovanni Baldini, Allegory of Architecture, terracotta, Sir John Soane’s Museum; Giovanni Battista Lorenzi, Allegory of Sculpture, Victoria and Albert Museum)

Image copyright V&A Museum.
Battista Lorenzi, Allegory of Sculpture, Victoria and Albert Museum

The poses of the bodies differ appreciably from those assumed in the monument as seen today. All three sculptures with their energized bodies and draperies pay tribute to the figura serpentinata (serpentine figures) favored by Michelangelo during his late career.

A square frame in the upper center of the tomb shows an image of the Lamentation over the dead body of Christ. Though referred generally to as a pieta, in fact, it does not comport with the established iconography of a pieta where the body of the crucified Christ is held by one of His followers, a formula encountered in the several attributed pietas by Michelangelo.

Image copyright Opera di Santa Croce

The nude Christ in this painting has slipped to the ground on His knees. Three mourning figures surround him. In the distant landscape on the right can be read the rock-cut tomb and the stone which will seal the final resting place until the Resurrection. On the left are the bases of the three crosses that surmount Mount Golgotha.

Image Copyright Luovre Museum

A preparatory study in pen and ink for Naldini’s Lamentation is in the Museum of Beaux Arts in Marseilles. The putti, who lift back the rich fabrics of the drapery to reveal the dramatic miracle before us, are echoed in a drawing in the so-called ‘Baldinucci Sketchbook’ in the Louvre.

Michelangelo, in his late life, was haunted by sense of unworthiness and the jeopardy of his soul. In his anguished poems he confesses his fear of God’s judgement:

“O Flesh, O blood, O cross! O pain extreme!

By you may those foul sins be purified,

Wherein my fathers were and I was born!

Lo! Thou alone art good, let Thy supreme

Pity my state of evil cleanse and hide-

So near to death, so far from God, forlorn.”

Flanking the bust of Michelangelo, Vasari presents three interlocked triumphant laurel wreaths symbolizing the cose mirabili (miraculous things) Michelangelo united in his unique achievements in painting, sculpture and architecture. The Michelangelo Tomb serves as a tribute both to the artist’s merit as a man and artist. He is celebrated as a ‘divine’ genius beyond measure.

Text by Prof. Anthony Lacy Gully who is retired from Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, USA. For three decades he directed the ASU history of art program in Florence and Tuscany.


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