The third installment of Michelangelo musings after reading Ross King‘s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling:
3. The influence of Savonarola. Giralomo Savonarola was, strange as it may seem, ahead of his time. I say ‘strange’ because it’s hard to think of someone who is best known for igniting ‘the bonfire of the vanities’ — whereby he encouraged Florentines to toss into the flames any books or works of art they deemed indecent — as ahead of his times. And yet, his goal was to cleanse Florence (and Christendom) of corruption; and some of his rhetoric is not so different from what we hear people say about Washington D.C. today. If he’d have been born about two decades later he would have fought for reform alongside Martin Luther; three centuries later and he would have been a Jonathan Edwards igniting the “Great Awakening” in America. But, as it happened, he was born into Renaissance Florence. Though he caught the attention of a great many of the citizens who were also fed up with the clerical abuses of the Church, it was a time and place where power was absolute (and held by Pope Alexander VI, a Borgia…not a good enemy to have…) and the Zeitgeist was shifting. Poet Heinrich Heine famously wrote that “where they have burnt books, they will end in burning human beings.” In our day and age, this is quote is usually trucked out to sum up the horrors of the Nazis, but it was true long before that, and ironic in this case: Florence’s own book-burners turned out to see the execution by hanging and fire of Savonarola. It is said that the Florentine crowds shouted curses at him as he mounted the scaffold; after he died from hanging, but before the fire burned his body completely, a burst of heat caused his arm to raise up as if he were blessing the angry mob, at which point many of those yelling curses began to weep.
I’ve gone on at length because I was surprised to learn from King’s book that Michelangelo was an ardent supporter of Savonarola (as was Botticelli, who is alleged to have burned some of his own works, although this may be apocryphal). It seems puzzling at first that an art-maker should be so keen to follow an art-burner, but maybe it speaks to Michelangelo’s melancholic nature and, perhaps, his desire to make the world more beautiful. Michelangelo was devout, but not a fan of the power structures of the Church. He didn’t have a lot of love for the Pope or for Rome, and, as King points out, when given full-control over the Sistine Chapel ceiling’s design, he chose somber scenes from the Old Testament of humanity’s transgressions and pain rather than the more uplifting scenes from the New Testament (“No Wedding of Cana or multiplying of loaves in this chapel!”). Jesus’ ancestors are painted along the perimeter of the ceiling, which was strange subject matter to begin with, but stranger still was the fact that, rather than painting them as kings and queens, he depicted them as regular people who toiled at work. In fact, other than the very famous central scene of the creation of Adam, the overall motif of the ceiling is suffering. Suffering was a favorite theme of Savonarola as well, and his sermons were said to be masterpieces of charismatic oratory on the matter. Perhaps that’s why Michelangelo seemed to think of him more as a kindred spirit than an enemy.