Parturiunt montes, nascetur ridiculus mus went the old Latin joke: The mountains labor and give birth to…a silly mouse!
Tomb of Pope Julius II in San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome. Photo by Jean-Christophe BENOIST
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The Pope Julius tomb in San Pietro in Vincoli is a ridiculous mouse if ever there was one. For thirty years the mountain labored. “If only it had been a mountain,” Michelangelo would say. “But the mountain was me. And it wasn’t mere labor, it was torture.”
The “mouse” came out so ugly that it is lucky Michelangelo’s reputation had already been secured by the time the tomb was shown to the public. They all went there to see his great statue—the Moses—and had to cover the rest of the tomb with their hand while they looked, just as we do now. The two ladies left and right of the Moses are also by the Master but they might as well have been by someone else. Michelangelo, lying now in his own grave, will probably wince once more to hear it mentioned that all the other figures in their tight niches, though executed (in both senses) by other sculptors, were made according to his drawings. And, whether he groans or not as I say it, that whole wall of a tomb was his design.
God knows he tried. “I lost the whole of my youth, chained to this tomb…,” he wrote; “….it was my ruin”. If it had been up to him, the tomb would have made the Mausoleum of Caria look like a pile of bricks. It would have been a kind of Sistine Chapel in sculpture, with forty statues like the Moses and the Slaves.