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Final Pieces

Not long after the Sistine Chapel ceiling was completed, Pope Julius’s dream of a united Italy began to give way to reality when the Venetians and King Louis talked of forming a new alliance.

It was dream-crushing news for Julius, who took to his bed two months after the ceiling was finished, overcome by fever. He grew weaker and weaker, until Cardinal Riario gave him last rites in his bedchamber on February 20, 1513.

Pope Julius by Raphael

Pope Julius by Raphael

Julius invited the entire College of Cardinals to come see him. He implored them to elect a good pope, one who would unite the church and not divide it. Then he absolved all of his enemies.

Many of the cardinals wept, knowing this truly was the end. And it was. That night at the age of 69, Julius died peacefully.

Twenty-five cardinals met in the conclave to elect the new pope. The two leading candidates were both loyal friends and allies of Julius: Cardinal Riario and Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici. The two candidates met alone before the first vote, agreed on who should be chosen, and made their recommendation to the conclave. Soon enough the cardinals announced their choice.

On March 6, 1513, Giovanni de’ Medici was elected pope. He took the name Leo X.

Pope Leo X

Pope Leo X

The death of Pope Julius and the election of Pope Leo X led to many changes.

Michelangelo’s bitter enemy, Donato Bramante, whom Michelangelo always believed had plotted and hoped for his failure at the Sistine Chapel, was replaced as the architect for St. Peter’s. Bramante’s replacement was the man he had beaten for the commission: Giuliano Sangallo. It was a sweet victory for Sangallo and his old friend Michelangelo.

Giuliano Sangallo

Giuliano Sangallo

Three years later, when Sangallo died, the position was given to Raphael, who held it for four years until he died at the age of 37 after contracting a fever in a night-long session of lovemaking.

The position was then assigned to Giuliano Sangallo’s nephew Antonio, who held it for 26 years until his death in 1546.

Then the position of architect was given to Michelangelo, who reworked plans and designed the basilica’s massive dome, which is as we see it today.

Niccolo Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli

With the Medici solidly restored to power in Florence, Niccolo Machiavelli stayed on his farm a few miles southwest of the city. He shared Pope Julius’s hope of seeing Italy once again united under Italian rule. In reflecting on what he had seen and learned over the years, Machiavelli began to write a sort of guide for a leader, including some of his knowledge of the exploits of Cesare Borgia. He called it The Prince, and he dedicated it to Lorenzo de’ Medici in the hope of regaining favor in Florence. But Machiavelli never regained his office there. He died in 1527.

King Louis XII

King Louis XII

Pope Julius’s chief rival, King Louis XII, died less than two years after Julius did. Louis was succeeded by his cousin, King Francis I, who set out in 1515 to reenter Italy by capturing Milan — which he did. Leonardo da Vinci, who had returned to Rome after Julius died, left Italy to work for Francis in 1516. Leonardo died in France three years later.

Punishment of Haman by Michelangelo

Francesco Granacci, the loyal friend who helped Michelangelo become a painting apprentice and then a sculptor, died in 1543 at the age of 74. Giorgio Vasari wrote this of Granacci:

Recognizing, boy as he was, the great genius of Michelangelo, and what extraordinary fruits he was likely to produce when full grown, he could never tear himself away from his side, and even strove with incredible attention and humility to be always following that great brain, insomuch that Michelangelo was constrained to love him more than all of his other friends, and to confide so much in him, that there was no one with whom he was more willing to confer touching his own works or to share all that he knew of art at the time, than with Granacci.

Granacci painted his best works late in life, after Michelangelo finished painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. His most famous painting is the Entrance of King Charles into Florence, which marked the day the Medici were chased out of the city, two years after the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent.

King Charles enters Florence by Francesco Granacci

King Charles enters Florence by Francesco Granacci

Michelangelo’s immediate family all died before he did. His favorite brother, Buonarroto, died in 1528, followed by his father Lodovico in 1534, and then his brothers Giovansimone in 1548 and Gismondo in 1555.

As for Michelangelo, after he finished the ceiling he went back to work on Pope Julius’s tomb. But following Julius’s death, Leo X asked Michelangelo to return to Florence to carve the tomb of his father in San Lorenzo. Michelangelo was honored to comply.

Michelangelo and Pope Julius

Michelangelo and Pope Julius

For the next 30 years, Michelangelo worked intermittently on Julius’s tomb, or what he called the Tragedy of the Tomb, until he finished what was only a shell of the project he had once dreamed would become the greatest collection of statues in the history of man. It was placed in San Pietro in Vincoli instead of the new St. Peter’s.

Tomb of Pope Julius II by Michelangelo

Tomb of Pope Julius II by Michelangelo

Michelangelo painted two more fresco commissions after the Sistine Chapel.

At the age of 61, he returned to the Sistine Chapel to paint The Last Judgment on the altar wall. To do so, he had to destroy two frescoes already on that wall, one of which was by his teacher Domenico Ghirlandaio. He also had to destroy his own two lunettes above the altar, which included the first ancestors of Jesus: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It was painful to remove the existing frescoes, but in the end he was satisfied with his work.

Last Judgment by Michelangelo

The Last Judgment by Michelangelo

Then, at the age of 67, Michelangelo began painting two frescoes in the Pauline Chapel, just a short walk through the Sala Regia from the Sistine Chapel.

Conversion of St Paul by Michelangelo

Conversion of St. Paul by Michelangelo

Michelangelo died in 1564, three weeks short of his 90th birthday. Before his death he told his nephew, Buonarroto’s son Lionardo, to burn all of his remaining drawings. Lionardo followed his uncle’s orders, although a few scraps survived.

Felice della Rovere Orsini

Felice della Rovere Orsini

As for the original drawings of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo gave them away to someone who meant a great deal to him: Julius’s daughter, Felice della Rovere. He did so in part to recognize payments for Julius’s tomb that he had already received, but for which he had not yet delivered work.

No one knows what happened to those drawings. It is likely they too were destroyed at the request of the artist who never wanted his secrets to survive him.

Michelangelo's Last Self-Portrait

Michelangelo’s Last Self-Portrait


5 Responses to “Final Pieces”

  1. Debra Anderson November 8, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

    Thank you for your work! We’ve just finished reading it, my 10 year old son and I. He says, “It’s great! It makes me want to go see the Sistine Chapel.”

    • David November 8, 2012 at 2:25 pm #

      Thanks, Debra. Happy to hear that you and your son enjoyed the story. As for seeing the ceiling itself, no one said it better than Johann von Goethe: “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.” So tell him to put seeing it on his list of dreams to live someday. Best, Dave

  2. Ed November 14, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    Thank you for your great work in posting this book! Each week for months I looked forward to reading new chapters. A great story and the photos were excellent.

    Again thanks for sharing.

  3. Felicidad November 22, 2012 at 11:00 am #

    Wow, I am speechless, this is an amazing work. I was myself thinking of doing a Michelangelo blog someday… Fantastic work, I ‘ve always been fascinated by this artist and your blog it is so well written and easy to read that you can spend hours in it; picturing easily all the characters as if they were alive.

    Thank you very much for all your hard work!

    • David November 22, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

      You’re welcome, Felicidad. I do hope you find your way to write about Michelangelo someday as well. It’s a great way to get to know him better. Best, Dave

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