As Michelangelo put the finishing touches on the David, events were unfolding across the country that would change his life forever. He didn’t know it in 1503, but he was on a collision course with Rome.
It started with Cesare Borgia. The immediate threat of a pillaged Florence began to fade as Cesare moved his troops south from Bologna to Perugia, and the entire city breathed a sigh of relief. As Cesare headed south, Niccolo Machiavelli returned to Florence. He was followed shortly by Leonardo da Vinci.
Leonardo quickly regained his stature as the best artist in town when he began painting a small portrait of a woman with a mysterious half-smile, which intrigued all who saw it. Leonardo also thrilled the city with a plan he cooked up with Machiavelli to eliminate Florence’s greatest weakness — the city’s lack of access to the sea. Because of its continuing war with Pisa, Florence was blocked from reaching the Mediterranean.
The solution was unique: they would change the course of the Arno River to make it flow around Pisa. All that was needed was a trench, just one mile long, 64 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. Leonardo figured the work would take 54,000 worker days, which translated to roughly a month using 2,000 workers. The Gonfaloniere Piero Soderini loved the idea and gave it his full support.
The course of Italian history was about to be changed as well — along with Michelangelo’s life — because a deadly plot was afoot in Rome.
Cesare Borgia and his father, Pope Alexander, had both craved the wealth of Cardinal Adriano di Corneto. They schemed as only powerful and cruel men can, and they invited the cardinal to a dinner in the country where they planned to slip some arsenic into his flask of wine. Unfortunately for the dynamic duo, the steward, intentionally or not, delivered them the poisoned flask instead, and they drank from it.
Alexander became violently ill and died within a few days. Cesare survived, but he was so sickened that he couldn’t interfere with the election of the next pope. The cardinals quickly elected a safe choice in 64-year-old Francesco Piccolomini, who took the name Pius III. He lasted only a month, dying from seemingly natural causes.
The next papal conclave, the quickest in history, was deftly engineered by Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, who used his wealth and made certain promises to be elected. As pope, della Rovere chose to use his own Latinized name, Julius. No doubt he was thinking of Julius Caesar, for he had plans to restore Rome to its former glory.
When word of the new pope reached Florence, no one was happier than Michelangelo’s old teacher Giuliano Sangallo, who had been della Rovere’s personal architect. Long ago Sangallo had built the cardinal’s family palace and then spent several years working for him in France, where della Rovere had fled to escape several of Pope Alexander’s assassination attempts. Sangallo knew it would only be a matter of time until his old friend sought him out to work in Rome.
What Sangallo couldn’t have guessed was that one day he would also call on his pupil Michelangelo to help with that work. In just five years, Julius would force Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Michelangelo didn’t know how his life was about to change; he was spending all his time on the David. But as he prepared to unveil his grand statue, what he did know was that he quickly found himself once again being overshadowed by Leonardo da Vinci.