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The Last Ancestors

After Michelangelo finished The Brazen Serpent he worked his way across the altar wall, painting the Ancestors of Christ on the two lunettes. He worked from right to left. The last of the ancestors he painted on the ceiling were also the first ones in the long line — the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Sistine Altar Lunettes

While he was painting these figures he learned of the sack of Prato. Then came rumors that Florence was about to suffer the same fate at the hands of the Spanish.

For two days he was paralyzed with fear for his family. He couldn’t work not knowing whether the Buonarroti had gotten out of Florence as he had told them to do.

When the news finally arrived that Soderini had left Florence and Cardinal de’ Medici had returned, he felt great relief. Yet he knew the danger was not over for his family — especially for his brother Buonarroto, who was not very politically astute.


I learned from your last letter that Florence was in great danger, and that grieved me greatly. Now they say that the Medici are back in Florence, and that everything is settled. For this reason, I believe that the danger with the Spanish is over. Therefore, live peacefully, and do not become friendly nor intimate with anyone, except God. Do not speak well nor evil of anybody, for one never knows how things end up; just mind your own business.


There was also his father to deal with. Thinking the danger was over, Lodovico wanted Michelangelo to send money so he could buy more property while the market was low.

The request infuriated Michelangelo. He was close to finishing a superb achievement, his years-long project, his dream of painting fresco — in a way unmatched by any other fresco painter. Lodovico had never helped support that dream. Lodovico had never cared about the painting, only the money it earned. Michelangelo’s family had never appreciated his art as anything more than a source of income.

At the same time Michelangelo feared for his father’s safety. For he knew Lodovico was bound to boast, possibly to the wrong people, about how his famous son had always been close to the Medici. He wrote a letter trying to communicate his complicated feelings.

Dearest Father,

One must have faith and ask God’s mercy and repent of his sins; for such adversities stem from nothing else, and especially pride and ingratitude. I never dealt with more ungrateful or more proud people than the Florentines. Therefore, if justice is coming, there is a good reason. I shall write a couple of verses for Giovanni de’ Medici and I shall enclose them in this letter: read them, and if you should like to take them to him do so.

I myself live miserably and do not care about honors and other worldly things; I live in the midst of the greatest hardships and of countless anxieties. I have been leading this sort of existence for about fifteen years, and I have not known one hour of well-being. I have done all I could to help you, and you have never acknowledged it or believed it. May the Lord forgive us all. I am prepared to continue doing what I have done as long as I can live, provided I can.

Your Michelangelo, sculptor in Rome

He felt better after sending the letters, and tried to have faith that his family would stay out of harm’s way. He returned to work and finished painting the ancestors.

Michelangelo could hardly believe it, but he had just two scenes left to paint before he could go home. These required him to be at his absolute best. For these were the two most important pieces of the ceiling. The ceiling was a puzzle, he thought, and the key to understanding it would be embedded in these last two scenes.

Next: The Punishment of Haman


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