Home  »  Complete Poetical Works by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow  »  Part Third. V. Macello de’ Corvi

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). Complete Poetical Works. 1893.

Michael Angelo: A Fragment

Part Third. V. Macello de’ Corvi


SO, Benvenuto, you return once more

To the Eternal City. ’T is the centre

To which all gravitates. One finds no rest

Elsewhere than here. There may be other cities

That please us for a while, but Rome alone

Completely satisfies. It becomes to all

A second native land by predilection,

And not by accident of birth alone.

I am but just arrived, and am now lodging

With Bindo Altoviti. I have been

To kiss the feet of our most Holy Father,

And now am come in haste to kiss the hands

Of my miraculous Master.

And to find him

Grown very old.

You know that precious stones

Never grow old.

Half sunk beneath the horizon,

And yet not gone. Twelve years are a long while.

Tell me of France.

It were too long a tale

To tell you all. Suffice in brief to say

The King received me well, and loved me well;

Gave me the annual pension that before me

Our Leonardo had, nor more nor less,

And for my residence the Tour de Nesle,

Upon the river-side.

A princely lodging.

What in return I did now matters not,

For there are other things, of greater moment,

I wish to speak of. First of all, the letter

You wrote me, not long since, about my bust

Of Bindo Altoviti, here in Rome. You said,

“My Benvenuto, I for many years

Have known you as the greatest of all goldsmiths,

And now I know you as no less a sculptor.”

Ah, generous Master! How shall I e’er thank you

For such kind language?

By believing it.

I saw the bust at Messer Bindo’s house,

And thought it worthy of the ancient masters,

And said so. That is all.

It is too much;

And I should stand abashed here in your presence,

Had I done nothing worthier of your praise

Than Bindo’s bust.

What have you done that ’s better?

When I left Rome for Paris, you remember

I promised you that if I went a goldsmith

I would return a sculptor. I have kept

The promise I then made.

Dear Benvenuto,

I recognized the latent genius in you,

But feared your vices.

I have turned them all

To virtues. My impatient, wayward nature,

That made me quick in quarrel, now has served me

Where meekness could not, and where patience could not,

As you shall hear now. I have cast in bronze

A statue of Perseus, holding thus aloft

In his left hand the head of the Medusa,

And in his right the sword that severed it;

His right foot planted on the lifeless corse;

His face superb and pitiful, with eyes

Down-looking on the victim of his vengeance.

I see it as it should be.

As it will be

When it is placed upon the Ducal Square,

Half-way between your David and the Judith

Of Donatello.

Rival of them both!

But ah, what infinite trouble have I had

With Bandinello, and that stupid beast,

The major-domo of Duke Cosimo,

Francesco Ricci, and their wretched agent

Gorini, who came crawling round about me

Like a black spider, with his whining voice

That sounded like the buzz of a mosquito!

Oh, I have wept in utter desperation,

And wished a thousand times I had not left

My Tour de Nesle, nor e’er returned to Florence,

Nor thought of Perseus. What malignant falsehoods

They told the Grand Duke, to impede my work,

And make me desperate!

The nimble lie

Is like the second-hand upon a clock;

We see it fly, while the hour-hand of truth

Seems to stand still, and yet it moves unseen,

And wins at last, for the clock will not strike

Till it has reached the goal.

My obstinacy

Stood me in stead, and helped me to o’ercome

The hindrances that envy and ill-will

Put in my way.

When anything is done

People see not the patient doing of it,

Nor think how great would be the loss to man

If it had not been done. As in a building

Stone rests on stone, and wanting the foundation

All would be wanting, so in human life

Each action rests on the foregone event,

That made it possible, but is forgotten

And buried in the earth.

Even Bandinello,

Who never yet spake well of anything,

Speaks well of this; and yet he told the Duke

That, though I cast small figures well enough,

I never could cast this.

But you have done it,

And proved Ser Bandinello a false prophet.

That is the wisest way.

And ah, that casting!

What a wild scene it was, as late at night,

A night of wind and rain, we heaped the furnace

With pine of Serristori, till the flames

Caught in the rafters over us, and threatened

To send the burning roof upon our heads;

And from the garden side the wind and rain

Poured in upon us, and half quenched our fires.

I was beside myself with desperation.

A shudder came upon me, then a fever;

I thought that I was dying, and was forced

To leave the work-shop, and to throw myself

Upon my bed, as one who has no hope.

And as I lay there, a deformed old man

Appeared before me, and with dismal voice,

Like one who doth exhort a criminal

Led forth to death, exclaimed, “Poor Benvenuto,

Thy work is spoiled! There is no remedy!”

Then with a cry so loud it might have reached

The heaven of fire, I bounded to my feet,

And rushed back to my workmen. They all stood

Bewildered and desponding; and I looked

Into the furnace, and beheld the mass

Half molten only, and in my despair

I fed the fire with oak, whose terrible heat

Soon made the sluggish metal shine and sparkle.

Then followed a bright flash, and an explosion,

As if a thunderbolt had fallen among us.

The covering of the furnace had been rent

Asunder, and the bronze was flowing over;

So that I straightway opened all the sluices

To fill the mould. The metal ran like lava,

Sluggish and heavy; and I sent my workmen

To ransack the whole house, and bring together

My pewter plates and pans, two hundred of them,

And cast them one by one into the furnace

To liquefy the mass, and in a moment

The mould was filled! I fell upon my knees

And thanked the Lord; and then we ate and drank

And went to bed, all hearty and contented.

It was two hours before the break of day.

My fever was quite gone.

A strange adventure,

That could have happened to no man alive

But you, my Benvenuto.

As my workmen said

To major-domo Ricci afterward

When he inquired of them: “’T was not a man,

But an express great devil.”

And the statue?

Perfect in every part, save the right foot

Of Perseus, as I had foretold the Duke.

There was just bronze enough to fill the mould;

Not a drop over, not a drop too little.

I looked upon it as a miracle

Wrought by the hand of God.

And now I see

How you have turned your vices into virtues.

But wherefore do I prate of this? I came

To speak of other things. Duke Cosimo

Through me invites you to return to Florence,

And offers you great honors, even to make you

One of the Forty-Eight, his Senators.

His Senators! That is enough. Since Florence

Was changed by Clement Seventh from a Republic

Into a Dukedom, I no longer wish

To be a Florentine. That dream is ended.

The Grand Duke Cosimo now reigns supreme;

All liberty is dead. Ah, woe is me!

I hoped to see my country rise to heights

Of happiness and freedom yet unreached

By other nations, but the climbing wave

Pauses, lets go its hold, and slides again

Back to the common level, with a hoarse

Death-rattle in its throat. I am too old

To hope for better days. I will stay here

And die in Rome. The very weeds, that grow

Among the broken fragments of her ruins,

Are sweeter to me than the garden flowers

Of other cities; and the desolate ring

Of the Campagna round about her walls

Fairer than all the villas that encircle

The towns of Tuscany.

But your old friends!

All dead by violence. Baccio Valori

Has been beheaded; Guicciardini poisoned;

Philippo Strozzi strangled in his prison.

Is Florence then a place for honest men

To flourish in? What is there to prevent

My sharing the same fate?

Why, this: if all

Your friends are dead, so are your enemies.

Is Aretino dead?

He lives in Venice,

And not in Florence.

’T is the same to me.

This wretched mountebank, whom flatterers

Call the Divine, as if to make the word

Unpleasant in the mouths of those who speak it

And in the ears of those who hear it, sends me

A letter written for the public eye,

And with such subtle and infernal malice,

I wonder at his wickedness. ’T is he

Is the express great devil, and not you.

Some years ago he told me how to paint

The scenes of the Last Judgment.

I remember.

Well, now he writes to me that, as a Christian,

He is ashamed of the unbounded freedom

With which I represent it.


He says I show mankind that I am wanting

In piety and religion, in proportion

As I profess perfection in my art.

Profess perfection? Why, ’t is only men

Like Bugiardini who are satisfied

With what they do. I never am content,

But always see the labor of my hand

Fall short of my conception.

I perceive

The malice of this creature. He would taint you

With heresy, and in a time like this!

’T is infamous!

I represent the angles

Without their heavenly glory, and the saints

Without a trace of earthly modesty.

Incredible audacity!

The heathen

Veiled their Diana with some drapery,

And when they represented Venus naked

They made her by her modest attitude

Appear half clothed. But I, who am a Christian,

Do so subordinate belief to art

That I have made the very violation

Of modesty in martyrs and in virgins

A spectacle at which all men would gaze

With half-averted eyes even in a brothel.

He is at home there, and he ought to know

What men avert their eyes from in such places;

From the Last Judgment chiefly, I imagine.

But divine Providence will never leave

The boldness of my marvellous work unpunished;

And the more marvellous it is, the more

’T is sure to prove the ruin of my fame!

And finally, if in this composition

I had pursued the instructions that he gave me

Concerning heaven and hell and paradise,

In that same letter, known to all the world,

Nature would not be forced, as she is now,

To feel ashamed that she invested me

With such great talent; that I stand myself

A very idol in the world of art.

He taunts me also with the Mausoleum

Of Julius, still unfinished, for the reason

That men persuaded the inane old man

It was of evil augury to build

His tomb while he was living; and he speaks

Of heaps of gold this Pope bequeathed to me,

And calls it robbery;—that is what he says.

What prompted such a letter?


He is a clever writer, and he likes

To draw his pen, and flourish it in the face

Of every honest man, as swordsmen do

Their rapiers on occasion, but to show

How skilfully they do it. Had you followed

The advice he gave, or even thanked him for it,

You would have seen another style of fence.

’T is but his wounded vanity, and the wish

To see his name in print. So give it not

A moment’s thought; it will soon be forgotten.

I will not think of it, but let it pass

For a rude speech thrown at me in the street,

As boys threw stones at Dante.

And what answer

Shall I take back to Grand Duke Cosimo?

He does not ask your labor or your service;

Only your presence in the city of Florence,

With such advice upon his work in hand

As he may ask, and you may choose to give.

You have my answer. Nothing he can offer.

Shall tempt me to leave Rome. My work is here,

And only here, the building of St. Peter’s.

What other things I hitherto have done

Have fallen from me, are no longer mine;

I have passed on beyond them, and have left them

As milestones on the way. What lies before me,

That is still mine, and while it is unfinished

No one shall draw me from it, or persuade me,

By promises of ease, or wealth, or honor,

Till I behold the finished dome uprise

Complete, as now I see it in my thought.

And will you paint no more?

No more.

’T is well.

Sculpture is more divine, and more like Nature,

That fashions all her works in high relief,

And that is sculpture. This vast ball, the Earth,

Was moulded out of clay, and baked in fire;

Men, women, and all animals that breathe

Are statues and not paintings. Even the plants,

The flowers, the fruits, the grasses, were first sculptured,

And colored later. Painting is a lie,

A shadow merely.

Truly, as you say,

Sculpture is more than painting. It is greater

To raise the dead to life than to create

Phantoms that seem to live. The most majestic

Of the three sister arts is that which builds;

The eldest of them all, to whom the others

Are but the handmaids and the servitors,

Being but imitation, not creation.

Henceforth I dedicate myself to her.

And no more from the marble hew those forms

That fill us all with wonder?

Many statues

Will there be room for in my work. Their station

Already is assigned them in my mind.

But things move slowly. There are hindrances,

Want of material, want of means, delays

And interruptions, endless interference

Of Cardinal Commissioners, and disputes

And jealousies of artists, that annoy me.

But I will persevere until the work

Is wholly finished, or till I sink down

Surprised by Death, that unexpected guest,

Who waits for no man’s leisure, but steps in,

Unasked and unannounced, to put a stop

To all our occupations and designs.

And then perhaps I may go back to Florence;

This is my answer to Duke Cosimo.