How many ways are there for a patron to mistreat an artist?
He can keep him without work, which is what Michelangelo’s first sponsors did.
He can give him work to do for months or even years and then cancel the project, as Pope Julius did with his tomb.
He can give the artist a task for which he is not prepared (painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling), as Julius also did.
He can neglect to pay him, thus keeping him worried and even hungry. This was one of Julius’s favorites.
Pope Leo, chose the second option.
He grandly gave Michelangelo the second biggest commission of his life. “I want you to make a facade for our church,” he told him. He meant the Medici family church in Florence, the San Lorenzo, which had been standing around for two hundred years with no face. It was the design of a legendary architect named Brunelleschi but he had never finished it. As it stood, the great building was an eyesore.
“We’d like something magnificent. We saw your design for Pope Julius’s tomb, and we were thinking you could make us a lot of nice statues like those and put them in niches all over the facade.”
Michelangelo tried to decline. He had been afraid of just this kind of order. “As Your Holiness may know, I am very busy right now.”
“Busy?” Leo’s temper flared. You don’t refuse to work for the pope of Rome.
“I have to finish Pope Julius’ tomb, your Holiness.”
Pope Julius had ordered the world’s most magnificent tomb, sent Michelangelo to Carrara for the marble, had him work for more than a year on the statues, then called the whole thing off. His way of informing Michelangelo was to simply turn him away at the papal residence.
Then just before he died he asked Michelangelo to take it up again. Julius’ nephew, the Duke of Urbino, made a new contract with Michelangelo to finish the tomb; and now Michelangelo had been working hard the past two years designing and blocking out the major figures, such as the Slaves, now in the Louvre, and the Moses. From the beginning he had loved that tomb project and wanted nothing better than to finish it. Now here was the new pope threatening to interfere.
He did interfere. He made a deal with Julius’ nephew: they would share Michelangelo.
So for the next three and a half years Michelangelo tried to serve both patrons. He spent most of 1517 in Carrara, getting marble for both projects. But in 1518 Pope Leo complicated things for him: he told Michelangelo to stop going to Carrara for his marble. From now on, for the San Lorenzo church, he should quarry in Pietrasanta, which was under Florentine jurisdiction. So Michelangelo had to spend 1518 and 1519 partly in Carrara, getting marble for the Julius tomb and partly in Pietrasanta, getting marble for the San Lorenzo church. When he was not in the quarries he worked in Florence and Rome on the figures for both projects.
In 1520 Pope Leo suddenly annulled the contract for the San Lorenzo facade. He never gave Michelangelo a reason. He called him in again and dangled a new project before him: “We’d like you to make some fine figures for the tombs of my family,” he told Michelangelo, smiling. “We are sure you could do something worthy of those great men.”
When Michelangelo got home he found a letter from Pope Julius’s heirs. They said they were out of patience. If he didn’t finish their tomb in a hurry they would take him to court. What had he been doing the last three years?