Michelangelo’s Stands Up to the Pope

One of the most memorable adventures in the whole Michelangelo legend is his famous flight out of Rome after Pope Julius refused to pay him.

Pope Julius II (left),  attributed to Giovanni Candida, 1493-97  The British Museum, London

He had gone to see the Pope to ask to be reimbursed for the money he had paid out of his own pocket to the workmen who had brought his marble blocks into St. Peter’s Square. Those blocks were going to become the statues for Julius’ tomb. Up to then he had always had easy access to the Pope’s chambers but suddenly one day he was told that the Pope was too busy to receive him. He went back to the papal palace several times and was turned away each time. Finally a groom told him that he had orders from the Pope not to admit him. This made Michelangelo so uncontrollably angry that he decided right there to quit working for Julius, to sell his things in Rome, and to clear out immediately that night. He would not be treated by anyone like that, not even by the most powerful man in Christendom.

Vasari says Michelangelo set out on post-horses and rode all night until he reached a town called Poggibonzi in the territory of Florence, outside the Pope’s jurisdiction, where he felt safe. But soon five papal couriers turned up with orders to bring him back.

This far the story is the same in both biographies—it anyway follows Michelangelo’s own account which he gave in a letter to the Pope’s representative. Both Vasari and Condivi say Michelangelo, finally caught-up-with and cornered as he was in Poggibonzi, still refused to go back to Rome with those couriers. He was a tough customer, that Michelangelo.

But to make him even tougher, Condivi puts in this: “The couriers had come upon him in a place where they could do him no violence and, as Michelangelo threatened to have them killed if they attempted anything, they resorted to entreaties.” Is that right? Did he? Would he have? Who would do the killing?

After reading Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography you start to believe almost anything about Renaissance Italy. Men walked around with swords that they really drew in anger occasionally, and daggers too that they unsheathed when a quiet murder was required. The whole country was a jungle with fierce human animals at large. Cellini made glorious reading but you didn’t want to cross him. And now here we have Michelangelo threatening to kill five men, five emissaries of a very Renaissance Pope, if they don’t leave him alone. Liar though that old Benvenuto was, his homicides seem to have been real. Do we take Michelangelo—that is, Condivi his scribe—at his word here?

Portrait of Michelangelo, perhaps based on his death mask. Photo by Giovanni Dall Orto

We should not. Most likely, the threat to kill the couriers was a later accretion to the story as Michelangelo told it over and over again to Condivi. It was warmed-over bluster, meant to show how brave Michelangelo was and how immovable in defense of what he considered right. “I stood up to the whole bunch of them (the couriers),” he told the wide-eyed Condivi at sandwich time in the shop. “I told them I’d kill the first one who laid a hand on me. You should have seen them look at each other. They knew I meant it. None of them was prepared to die—they hadn’t counted on a fight with a lion. They’d figured they would find a whining, penitent, artist-coward, begging for mercy. Well, they saw another side of Michelangelo Buonarroti.”

Vasari passed over this part of the adventure. He evidently did not believe it or felt that it would be indiscreet to put it in his book. It does shock. Michelangelo let it stand, perhaps because he had told it to Condivi so often he felt silly about retracting it. He was strong and proud and he had a temper. He certainly did things he regretted afterwards. But he was afraid of Pope Julius: both Vasari and Condivi say so. Look how he hesitated to go to Bologna to meet Julius finally and receive his punishment. Or how he hurriedly took down the scaffolding and quit painting the Sistine Chapel though he considered his fresco unfinished, because the pope had beaned him with his mace and threatened to have him thrown down if he didn’t.

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6 Responses to Michelangelo’s Stands Up to the Pope

  1. wpm1955 says:

    So what happened after this showdown? Did the Pope just give up?

    Madame Monet

  2. 100swallows says:

    Madame Monet:
    Michelangelo ran home to Florence and asked the city boss Soderini to please protect him against the Pope. Soderini was the one who had given him the block for the big David and had ordered another smaller David for himself. He was also the one who would give him the commission to paint the wall of the town Council Hall—a real patron friend. But of course this was a very delicate proposition for him.

    The Pope wrote to Soderini several times and asked him to turn over Michelangelo. He didn’t—a VERY good friend. Finally the Pope seems to have made it clear that any further dragging of his feet would be considered open defiance, gravely affecting their relations; and Soderini began to fear that the Pope, who had an army outside of Bologna, might actually use the matter as a casus belli and declare war on Florence. So he told Michelangelo he’d have to go to the Pope. Michelangelo said he was afraid. Soderini said he had a plan. He would send Michelangelo as an ambassador of the city of Florence and as such he would have diplomatic protection. “Julius will do what he wants to, diplomatic protection or not,” said Michelangelo.
    “I’ll send my brother, Cardinal Soderini, along to present you to the Pope. He will calm him down.”

    So nine months after his flight to Florence Michelangelo went to surrender himself to the Pope, who was with his army at Bologna.
    When he saw Michelangelo the Pope at first put on such a terrible face that Michelangelo thought he was a goner. “Instead of coming to me as I ordered you to do, you’ve made ME come to YOU,” Julius told him. Michelangelo blurted out the apology he had prepared. A bishop who was present, thinking he was helping Michelangelo, said: “Oh, Holiness, don’t go too hard on these silly artists. They are all a bunch of ignorant fools, worthless except for their art.”
    The remark angered the Pope so much that he struck the bishop with his staff and had him driven out of the room. “It’s you who insult him in a way we would never dream of.”
    When his anger was spent he gave Michelangelo his blessing and gave him a new commission: a bronze statue of himself, Julius, ten feet high.

  3. iondanu says:

    Michelangelo had a temper, that’s for sure! Cellini also. And Carravaggio was even worst! an exceptional talent and a proved murderer… Seems that living dangerously is a must for an artist to do exceptional jobs… Maybe…

  4. 100swallows says:

    All in all, Danu, I think a temper is a bad thing. It is colorful and makes good stories but the bad-tempered people I know are slaves to it and they regret what they do. As for living dangerously, if that means taking big risks and rejecting comfortable advantages, I go along. I am proud of every little bold or brave thing I ever did. Unfortunately, they were all little.

  5. wrjones says:

    Good story – what is a post-horse? Is that like a bus?

    I think a normal man could get angry enough to kill if he were insulted after being accepted as a great artist, and not paid to boot. The other thought is that he might threaten to kill the couriers as a cornered rat. It would be very scary going back to face the Pope.

  6. 100swallows says:

    Bill: post horse: a horse kept at an inn or post house for use by mail carriers or for rent to travelers.
    I guess more like a rent-a car than a bus. Michelangelo in his letters talks about hopping on a horse to go from Rome to Florence. There was a time when he had his own but for most of his life he must have rented them at post-houses. Did you ever rent one? They are terrible beasts–spoiled by bad riders and hard to manage.

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