Tomb of pope Julius II, San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome

(beg. 1505)
   In 1505, Pope Julius II summoned Michelangelo to Rome to work on his tomb. It is not clear where Julius intended it to be placed; some art historians have suggested the crossing (where the nave and transept cross) of New St. Peter's. Not only is the intended location unknown, but the details of the commission in general are sketchy. Michelangelo's original design called for a large freestanding monument with three levels and some 40 life-sized figures. The lower level was to include niches filled with statues of Victories flanked by bound and struggling male captives who, according to Giorgio Vasari, were to represent the provinces conquered by the pope. Others have suggested that they were to symbolize the liberal arts bound and dying after losing their greatest patron. On the second level, Moses, St. Paul, and allegorical representations of the Neoplatonic active and contemplative lives were to be included. The third level, Vasari informs, was to feature bronze reliefs, putti, and the pope's sarcophagus supported by allegorical figures of heaven and earth, the one smiling at the thought of Julius' attainment of salvation and the other crying over his loss. The actual body of the pope would be kept in a crypt below the monument.
   In 1506, for unknown reasons, the pope halted the project and Michelangelo returned to Florence to continue work on the Battle of Cascina in the Palazzo Vecchio (1504-1506). Julius died in 1513 and his heirs asked Michelangelo to change the freestanding monument to the more traditional wall tomb format. The lower level would still feature niches, Victories, and captives, but now with significantly fewer figures. The pope's body would be placed in a sarcophagus on the second level, not a crypt, and his effigy would either be raised from or lowered into it by angels. Moses, Paul, and the active and contemplative lives were to surround the sarcophagus while a Virgin, Child, and standing saints would surmount it. Michelangelo worked on this new scheme for three years, completing the figure of Moses, the Dying Slave, and the Bound Slave; these last two are now in the Louvre in Paris. In 1527-1528, he also carved one of the Victories (Florence, Palazzo Vecchio) and began work on four more captives (Florence, Accademia).
   By 1532, the work was still unfinished and Julius' heirs took Michelangelo to court where the details of a third design were fleshed out. The wall tomb format was retained, but now with only four captives and one Victory, a bier with reclining effigy flanked by Moses and another seated figure in the center of the second tier, and a standing Virgin and Child contained in an arch surmounting the structure. As the tomb stands today (1545) at San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome, Julius' titular church, Moses is in the center of the lower tier, flanked by Leah and Rachel who respectively personify the active and contemplative lives. The reclining effigy with two seated figures occupies the middle tier, and a standing Virgin and Child are above them. The four captives begun in 1527-1528 were neither completed nor included in the final design. These provide insight into Michelangelo's creative process as they seem to be struggling to free themselves from the stone. Though the tomb as built is quite disappointing, especially when evaluated vis-à-vis Michelangelo's original scheme, Moses stands out as one of the most powerful figures the artist created. His commanding presence and intense gaze befit the portrayal of the man who led the Israelites out of slavery.

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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