Most Honorable Father,
I gather from your last letter that people in Florence say I have died. It’s of little import, since I’m still alive. Therefore, let people think what they wish, and do not speak of me with anyone for there are many bad individuals. I have nothing else to tell you. I am dissatisfied here, not in very good health, and working very hard; without anyone to care for me and without money. Yet I have the firm belief that God will help me.
With The Great Flood complete, Michelangelo began work on the scene next to it: the final Genesis scene.
The other eight scenes would show God making the heavens and the earth and creating man, offering people the freedom of choice to make of the world what they wished, and then punishing them for some of the bad choices they had made.
The ninth scene would depict Noah after he had been chosen to begin man’s second chance — but not in a moment of glory. The scene showed Noah after he had planted a vineyard, made some wine, and become so drunk he had fallen to the floor in a stupor. Ham, Noah’s son, has discovered him, while Ham’s brothers Shem and Japheth try to cover up their drunk father’s nakedness with a robe, without looking.
As Michelangelo prepared his materials he imagined what happened in the moment after the painting: Noah would wake up, find himself on the floor, his head and back aching, and learn that Ham had told the others. Michelangelo imagined that Noah would curse his son for that, for no good reason. It was what Michelangelo’s father had always done.
Lodovico liked to say that it was better to drink than to drown. He did his best to drink away his sorrows, to dress in fine red silk robes trying to be something he was not, and to blame all of his woes on his five sons.
Michelangelo started the ninth Genesis scene by painting Noah, lying on the floor. He used his father’s face for Noah. Then, over three successive days, he painted Noah’s sons in the likeness of his younger brothers: Buonarroto looking troubled as he tried to cover his father with a sheet, Gismondo with his back turned, arguing with Giovansimone and pointing down at his father as if to say What do we do about that? And Giovansimone, reaching an arm out to Buonarroto.
Once the central scene was painted, Michelangelo turned to the figures and decorations that would surround all five of the smaller Genesis scenes.
In the corners he painted the ignudi – young men in repose, naked, handsome, perfect. To Michelangelo they were reminders of God’s dream in the first creation story, of what people can be, not what they had become. In between the ignudi, on the sides, he painted bronze medallions that tell the stories of great kings.
They were quite a contrast to Noah. That was the point.
Next: Drunkenness of Noah (2)