So PBS’ Secrets of the Dead this evening featured a fascinating program on Michelangelo — rooted specifically in the theory of Italian art historian Antonio Forcellino that Michelangelo was a member of an informal 16th-century Italian reform movement called the Spirituali.
While studying Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses, part of the Tomb of Julius II, Forcellino began to notice certain “anomalies” that gave him pause. Further research, especially in the Vatican archives, led him to the relationship between Michelangelo and Cardinal Reginald Pole, Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga, and Vittoria Colonna, a noblewoman.
What these folks had in common was a desire to reform the Catholic Church from within. In fact, Pole’s views on justification, like Gaspar Contarini’s, bears a striking resemblance to Luther’s, although not identical to it.
Forcellino believes a tortured and conflicted Michaelangelo began to ask that question that seemed to be in the 16th-century air: “What must I do to be saved?” “Grace cannot be purchased,” Michelangelo wrote to Colonna in light of the indulgences controversy, and, influenced by the Spirituali and their Christocentric discussions of reform and renewal, the work of il Maestro began to focus increasingly on Christ and a direct relationship with God, rather than on the insitutional church, its clergy, and its sacraments.
By 1547, Pole, then a papal governor in northern Italy, was at the center of a network of reformed-minded clergy, laity, and artists. They were educated, wealthy, and sympathetic to many of the same concerns as the Protestants, although they themselves were not Protestants.
Pole was seen as a man who could bridge the divide between Rome and the Reformers. Michelangelo, a member of this network, began to produce images “that mirror these ideas,” says one scholar in the Secrets documentary.
But the Spirituali began making the authorities nervous, and Cardinal Caraffa, a nobleman from Naples, became Pope Paul III’s top heresy hunter, Inquisitor General for Rome. He despised anything that smacked of Lutheranism, and to him the Spirituali were secret Lutherans.
And that included, believe it or not, Michelangelo. Caraffa denounced the master painter’s Second Coming of Christ, not only because of the rampant nudity, but also because it focused too much on man and his relation to Christ, not the church.
With Gonzaga and Pole relatively protected because of their high status, Caraffa went after Vittoria Colonna’s favorite preacher, Bernardino Ochino, and other lesser known reform-minded Italians. Ochino fled north to Switzerland. “They want to reform the church starting with my death. Now I can take off the mask and speak the truth,” he later wrote to Colonna, who, strangely, betrayed him and turned the letter over to Caraffa, which enflamed his mission to stamp out heresy, pushing the Spiritualli underground.
According to the program, “The Benefit of Christ’s Death” would be the lasting work of the Spirituali, the supreme expression of their belief that reform of the Church meant a focus on Christ and the Cross. While good works are important, justification by faith is the key to salvation. The Church, its clergy, and its sacraments, again, are nowhere to be found.
The book was published anonymously, but it fell into Caraffa’s hands and was immediately banned. Once again, Michelangelo’s name comes up in connection with the nascent reformation movement and its chief work. Letters written by members of the Spirituali and confiscated by “Caraffa’s spies” — and available today in the Vatican archives – include one by Colonna in which she mentions that Michelangelo “was in attendance” when publication of the infamous “Benefit of Christ’s Death” was mentioned.
However, the only references I could find to “The Benefit of Christ’s Death” are to the publication by Fontanini and Flaminio, members of Juan de Valdes’ circle, which would indeed overlap with the Spirituali. (As would Peter Martyr Vermigli, a signal figure in the Reformation who would go on to write a history of the movement that would be a standard reference text literally for centuries.)
Despite having given Caraffa the power to persecute those suspected of heresy, Pope Paul III wanted none other than Reginald Pole to succeed him as pope. As the program tells it, Caraffa would have none of it. Upon Paul III’s death, Caraffa managed to convince a sufficient number of cardinals that Pole was a heretic, and the reformed-minded Englishman came up one vote short of a victory. (A more standardized version of this story has Pole’s defeat more about politics — imperial vs. French — than about supposedly heretical beliefs.)
Upon the death of Edward VI in England, Pole returned to England, where he joined Mary Tudor in an attempt to restore the Roman Church’s property and hold on the people of England. In time, that included the persecution of Protestants, which, ironically, virtually guaranteed a Protestant England in the long run. When Mary died, Pole returned to Italy, only to be imprisoned by Caraffa — then Pope Paul IV — as a suspected Lutheran. Pole died in prison awaiting exoneration.
As for the statue of Moses that makes up part of Pope Julius II’s tomb, the one that so intrigued art historian Forcellino, the head is turned to the left. Originally, the head was to face forward, toward the altar, where the priest says Mass. Michelangelo, supposedly influenced by Spirituali reform, wanted Moses looking away from the celebrant. The great lawgiver is searching for the light — “for a direct contact with God.” The priesthood is again de-emphasized.
How did Michelangelo — whose pension had already been suspended by Paul IV — manage to save his own life? According to Forcellino, by reinterpeting aspects of his own sculptures to deflect attention from their original reformist theological symbolism to that which would be considered innocuous. And by accepting one last commission — helping to salvage St. Peter’s, and thus contribute to the glory of the institutional church.
Adding to the mystery of Michelangelo’s “secret faith” is the sculpture he intended for his own tomb, a unique Pieta in which he depicts himself as Nicodemus — the man who visits Jesus at night, in secret, unable to express his faith publicly. (Alas, Michelangelo abandoned this project, and another sculpture altogether adorns his tomb.)
The great Renaissance artist, it is said, died in bed with his Bible — which was in an illegal Italian translation.
His remains were returned to Florence, his true home. He finally was free of Rome.
Whether Forcellino’s interpretations of the hidden theological import of Michelangelo’s work and the artist’s true spiritual leanings prove true, only centuries-long scholarly debate will tell. (Wake me when they come to a conclusion.) Other scholars have wrestled with these same images and questions and come to somewhat different conclusions.
The leanings of Caraffa, however, are not up for dispute. As Pope Paul IV, he strengthened the Inquisition in Rome, brought the Index of Forbidden Books to Venice (where printing presses were humming), and created the Jewish ghetto.
What would have happened had Pole been elected pope? Would reform along Protestant lines have taken place within the Catholic Church? Pole’s activities in England argue otherwise. He was a company man to the end. Study Luther’s Smalcald Articles — and the extent of the reforms sought by Luther and his contemporaries — and one can hardly believe even the Poles and Contarinis would have gone as far, even if the Caraffas had been marginalized.
But then again, once faith is understood as the sole channel through which the benefits of Christ’s Cross are imputed to us, there’s no telling the theological ripple effect.
Now why invent nonsense about a nonexistent Illuminati (certainly nonexistent in the time of Galileo, as Dan Brown would have it) when the stuff of history is rich enough for any thriller?