Miscellanea Curiositae Michelangelae: A Steep Tariff, a Half Dozen Horses, and Yards of Taffeta

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THERE IS SUCH AN abundance of documentary information about the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti that we necessarily are selective in our use of the primary sources: nearly 1,400 letters to and from the artist, more than three hundred published pages of his personal and professional ricordi, and an extensive correspondence among members of his immediate family. In addition to what they tell us about the artist and his commissions, these primary sources offer a rich and detailed picture of everyday life in Renaissance Italy.(1) The following miscellany is offered as diverse glimpses into the world and work of Michelangelo, a sort of micro-historical view of a major historical figure.

"They wanted Christ to pay duty to enter Rome" quipped Michelangelo's assistant Pietro Urbano in a letter describing his difficulties with the Rome customs officials who wanted to charge duty on the Risen Christ (fig. 1). Problems with the sculpture began long before its arrival in Rome and have continued to our own day, for the Christ is probably the least admired of Michelangelo's marble sculptures. While many modern observers have found fault with the statue, it satisfied its patrons enormously, it was highly praised by contemporaries, and it did finally arrive at its destination despite a checkered history and an arduous final journey.(2)

The history begins in 1514 when a trio of Roman patrons commissioned Michelangelo to carve a lifesize marble Christ for the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.(3) Michelangelo worked on the figure in Florence until the marble block revealed a disfiguring black vein that prompted him to abandon it. After much prodding from Metello Vari, the principal agent in the commission, a new block was quarried in 1518 and Michelangelo carved a second version. He reported having finished the sculpture in April 1520, which elicited from Rome expressions similar to "God be praised" and "I thought I would never see the day."(4) It had been almost six years since Michelangelo first received the commission. Yet another year and a half would pass before the sculpture was finally unveiled in the Roman church. Michelangelo refused to ship the completed statue until he had received his final payment. The patrons sent the payment in early 1521, with hopes that the sculpture would arrive in Rome in time for Easter celebrations. But, literally, it still had a long way to go.(5)

In mid-February 1521 the finished statue was carted to the riverport of Signa on the Arno, loaded onto a barge, and floated down river to Pisa where it was offloaded onto a seagoing vessel.(6) Michelangelo's assistant Pietro Urbano was to accompany the sculpture to Rome to supervise its installation, put on finishing touches, and repair any damages. Urbano went with the sculpture to Pisa and arranged on March 12 for its shipment to Rome.(7) The squeamish Urbano, however, did not want to hazard the sea voyage, preferring instead to go by land and meet the ship on its arrival in Rome.(8) Michelangelo's friends in Rome, Leonardo Sellaio and Federigo Frizzi, a minor Florentine sculptor to whom Michelangelo entrusted the carving of a tabernacle for the Christ, eagerly awaited the arrival of the new sculpture.

On March 24 Sellaio reported that Urbano had arrived but "la fighura per anchora non e arivata."(9) The latter became a refrain in the almost weekly correspondence between Rome and Florence during the next two months. At the end of March we learn that the ship was delayed by turbulent seas and Urbano was still awaiting its arrival "chon divotione."(10) Easter came and went.(11) On April 18 Pietro wrote with increasing impatience about the bad weather that was preventing the arrival of the ship. He now awaited it "chon passione."(12) Three days later we learn that it was at Civitavecchia more than fifty kilometers north of Rome and still delayed "pel maltempo."(13)

We do not know exactly when the ship finally arrived at the Ripa, the riverport of Rome, but it was more than three months in transit from Pisa and it had been at least four months since it departed Michelangelo's studio in Florence. …