Michelangelo became very old. Did he go on doing good work right up to the end, like Titian—or like Marc Chagall in our time?
No. He grew depressed. Men oppressed him. The human body stopped looking so wonderful to him. He lost the sureness of his touch in drawing—his hand shook. And his sculpted figures lost their pride, their robustness. They were only memories of his good work. He couldn’t sleep at night—he would get out of bed and go downstairs to his studio and chip at a block of marble by the light of a candle in his hat. But the statue came out wrong. He broke the Duomo Pietà in anger when he realized that he couldn’t solve its problems. He burned many of his old drawings in disgust at their “errors”.
What saved Michelangelo was his intellect. He had been a thoughtful man all his life. He had listened to the great poets and thinkers at Lorenzo Medici’s palace as only a perceptive boy can listen; he was curious enough to sneak out of the palace to hear the sermons of Savonarola; he read and wrote poetry all his life. Dante and Petrarch were his models, his delight. Once he had felt like the divine man Pico della Mirandola spoke of—the one who could choose his own destiny—but he had suffered enough to know he could not depend on himself or others. He turned to Christ. He had always been religious. He even began to regret the great pursuit of his life. These are words from one of his late sonnets:
“…that passionate fantasy, which made
Of art a monarch for me and an idol,
Was laden down with sin, now I know well….”
A supposed self-portrait as Nicodemus, part of the Duomo Pietá (photo by sailko
under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 here)
His mind brooded on the unjustly Crucified; and he saw himself as both tormenter and crucified; and he longed for the rescue of death and the reward of heaven.