He knocked at the Pope’s door and was shown in. “Well, at least he’s going to see me,” Michelangelo told himself. “Maybe you were making too much of the sour face he put on last time. Probably everything is all right.”
The Pope, however, didn’t smile when he saw Michelangelo—not that he usually smiled. But Michelangelo knew him well enough to recognize some irritation in his expression. “So this is going to be it,” Michelangelo thought. “Well, all right—I’m ready. I actually hope it happens. It probably should have happened long ago.”
He skipped his usual gallant manner and good humor. “I want to go home for the San Giovanni fair,” he said. “Could your Holiness advance me a little money for my few expenses and to give my old father?”
The Pope didn’t say anything. He didn’t look at Michelangelo. “How long have you been working on my uncle’s chapel [the Sistine] now?” he asked him.
“Your Holiness knows better than I do,” said Michelangelo. “I’ve been working so long I don’t even know what day it is.”
“You seem to have remembered San Giovanni without any problem.”
Michelangelo instantly reddened with rage but he controlled himself. “My whole family will be home then—it will be a good occasion to see them. Also, to tell your Holiness the truth, I need a break. So much painting with my head turned up and my eyes so close to the ceiling has affected my vision. I’m starting to worry that….”
“Oh, that’s nothing,” said the Pope. “We all have little aches and pains. I’m wondering when that chapel will be finished. Could you tell me?”
The Pope’s bad habit
“It’ll be finished when I can,” said Michelangelo dryly.
“Oh, ‘when I can, when I can’!” said the Pope, who knew that answer by heart. And he struck Michelangelo with his staff, just as Michelangelo had seen him strike a bishop in Bologna. There was an instant when the two men’s eyes met: Michelangelo’s didn’t flinch. He did not stoop to dodge the Pope’s staff. The Pope saw something in his eyes that frightened him and made him repent his little staffwork. He had gone too far. In a flash he remembered all too clearly what had happened the last time he had angered Michelangelo—the flight from Rome, how hard it was to get him to come back, even threatening him with prison. If he took off now, who would finish the chapel? Though he poked along, what he had painted up to now was sensational—ten times better than the Botticelli frescoes on the walls.
But the Pope’s thoughts were not exclusively practical. Michelangelo, he realized now, had become his friend and he was horribly sorry to have hurt him. He talked to Michelangelo in a way he could never talk to anyone else. He liked those little moments when he could slip into Michelangelo’s studio or climb the scaffolding and chat with him without silly, fawning, gossiping counsellors and court people around. Michelangelo was a good listener and had instant grasp of the problems in the Pope’s world, which was vast and complex—strange in a man who had spent so much of his life chipping stone. The Pope was often surprised to see himself in Michelangelo, a man as proud, as stubborn, as much a victim of his rage. He was funny sometimes too, and the Pope and he would laugh together like old buddies.
There was also the miracle of his genius. How could those great perfect figures in stone or paint come out of Michelangelo’s head and hand as though he were the instrument of God—a sort of human angel? Watching Michelangelo work always made the Pope tame with wonder. What he saw was so much above his own abilities that there was no envy, just awe. He loved and respected Michelangelo and now he remembered it—too late, damn it.
When their eyes met Michelangelo saw the repentance and, though he had to fight down his own rage, he knew the Pope hadn’t “meant” to hurt him. Clobbering servants around him was a stupid habit the Pope had, which no one was big enough to stop; and it had gotten out of hand. Michelangelo knew he wouldn’t have to go through with his contingency plan—the Pope would come around, would come begging. Still, he wanted to punish him and so he made the most of the moment and glowered with a look that was meant to pierce the Pope’s heart. And it did. The Pope would have given a lot to undo his staff-blow, to apologize, and reach out and touch Michelangelo in contrition. But he couldn’t. He was the Pope, he was the ruler of the world.
A little make-up present
Michelangelo asked permission to leave and stalked away with stagy self-control and solemn decision. He wasn’t home half an hour before the Pope’s chamberlain came knocking at his door with an envelope full of money—five hundred crowns—and an apology through which, even second-hand, you could hear the worry and the desperate contrition: the tears. Whether these five-hundred crowns—a hundred more than Michelangelo had received from the Gonfalonier for his colossal David—were part payment according to the contract for the ceiling or a sumptuous gift from the Pope is not clear: but in the Vasari biography especially, it looks like the latter.
Vasari ends the story like this: “Then Michelangelo, because he understood the Pope’s nature and, after all, loved him dearly, laughed it off, seeing that everything redounded to his profit and advantage and that the Pope would do anything to keep his friendship.”
It is hard to imagine Michelangelo laughing this off or even smiling. But neither is it likely that he frowned at those five hundred crowns.