On this day in 1564 Michelangelo Buonarroti died aged 88. He spent years painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, in the Vatican. The project was physically and emotionally devastating. Michelangelo recounts its effect on him with these words: “After four tortured years, more than 400 over life-sized figures, I felt as old and as weary as Jeremiah. I was only 37, yet friends did not recognise the old man I had become.”
Perhaps equally remarkable was that he didn’t much like painting anyway, considering sculpture to be an infinitely superior art. One of the qualities most admired by his contemporaries was his “terribilità”, a sense of awe-inspiring grandeur. Anyone who has seen his sculpture ‘David’ will understand why. During their lifetimes Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were rivals.
Opinions are still divided on who was superior, though Leonardo took himself off to France for the last years of his life on a series of commissions which put an end to the rivalry. Perhaps he suspected that he might not win the vote. It is however fruitless to sit in judgement on two such great artists and we should just be grateful for them both.
Here is a poem, Heraclitus by William Cory, about loss, that I think is justly admired for its underlying feeling of regret and nostalgia:
They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept, as I remembered, how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.
And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.
Today I give thanks for all the man-made beauty in the world and for the people who worked to produce it.