A Message from Father Nick 88

From his place in the virile, turbulent world of Renaissance Italy, Michelangelo Buonarotti still shines brightly. A troubled spiritual genius, he excelled in sculpture, painting and architecture and was also a gifted poet. We remember him too for his so-called “terribilita” and solitary maleness.

Born in 1475 near Florence, he was taken into Domenico Ghirlandaio’s studio at the age of thirteen. From there he gained access to a sculpture school in the Medici gardens where Lorenzo “the Magnificent” saw him and was mightily impressed by him. The two became close friends.

Stubborn and headstrong, Michelangelo frequently lost his temper. On one occasion he quarrelled with a colleague, who punched him with great force, breaking his nose. (Michelangelo’s broken nose would become famous from portraits, but this is not our only record of violence towards the artist. The patron of his great work in the Sistine Chapel – an even more “terrible” person, Pope Julius II – also struck him in frustration.)

As a young man working in the sculpture garden near San Marco, Michelangelo had often heard Savonarola speak – sixty years later he would admit that he could still hear the friar’s living voice ringing out in his mind.

But, unlike Botticelli, he seems not to have been led to doubt his own artistic calling. Instead, he went on to produce many of the best loved images in Christian history. Some are Old Testament figures, like the great Sistine painting of Adam and the sculptures of Moses and David (his defiant David, in particular, would come to be seen as the personification of Florence).

Those figures are of course resolutely male, and Michelangelo is known for his appreciation of masculine beauty. But there is another, touching side to his story – which is very much someone else’s story too.

Vittoria Colonna was born into a famous Roman family in 1490 or 1492 and given a good, humanist education. It has been said that she grew up “about as free as any Renaissance woman could be”. Widowed in her thirties, she was moved by her deep spirituality to seek entry into religious life. But even this desire was thwarted by political forces. She was about to set up her own convent when the pope went to war with her family and their allies. Instead, she would become famous for her poetry.

Her vision was deeply personal. As Dr Abigail Brundin has said, “The way in which she’s using lyric poetry to write about her relationship with Christ is entirely new” – Vittoria imagines using nails from the cross dipped in Christ’s blood to write her poetry on his flesh.

Though such ideas seem startling to us, her character and thought profoundly affected Michelangelo. They met in 1537 and entered what has been called a “passionate friendship”. In fact, they seem to have been an inspiration to each other, having long conversations on art, poetry and faith and encouraging each other to keep writing and publishing. Michelangelo referred to her as “the soul and the heart of my fragile life.”

In Rome, they saw each other daily, spending hours in conversation. Away from each other they wrote letters – they even briefly discussed founding a convent together. When Vittoria died in 1547, Michelangelo was inconsolable, mourning her for months. From among his many male images, a few significant female images stand out: the Sistine Eve; the “young” Madonna of the St Peter’s Pieta (Michelangelo was six when his own mother died); and his drawing of Vittoria Colonna when she was 50 and he was 65.