In the opening years of the sixteenth century the art of painting had attained such a pitch of excellence that unless carried onward by a supreme genius it could hardly hope to escape from the common lot of all things in nature, and begin to decline. After Botticelli and Leonardo, the works of Andrea del Sarto, "the perfect painter" as he has been called, fall rather flat; and no less a prodigy than Michelangelo was capable of excelling his marvellous predecessors, or than Raphael of rivalling them.

Vasari prefaces his life to Andrea del Sarto (1486-1531) with something more definite than his usual rhetorical flourishes. "At length we have come," he says, "after having written the lives of many artists distinguished for colour, for design, or for invention, to that of the truly excellent Andrea del Sarto, in whom art and nature combined to show all that may be done in painting when design, colouring, and invention unite in one and the same person. Had he possessed a somewhat bolder and more elevated mind, had he been distinguished for higher qualifications as he was for genius and depth of judgment in the art he practised, he would beyond all doubt have been without an equal. But there was in his nature a certain timidity of mind, a sort of diffidence and want of strength, which prevented those evidences of ardour and animation which are proper to the highest characters from ever appearing in him which, could they have been added to his natural advantages, would have made him truly a divine painter, so that his works are wanting in that grandeur, richness, and force which are so conspicuous in those of many other masters.

"His figures are well drawn, and entirely free from errors, and perfect in all their proportions, and for the most part are simple and chaste. His airs of heads are natural and graceful in women and children, while both in youth and old men they are full of life and animation. His draperies are marvellously beautiful. His nudes are admirably executed, simple in drawing, exquisite in colouring—nay, they are truly divine."

And yet? Well, let us turn to Michelangelo.

"While the best and most industrious artists," says Vasari, "were labouring by the light of Giotto and his followers to give the world examples of such power as the benignity of their stars and the varied character of their fantasies enabled them to command, and while desirous of imitating the perfection of Nature by the excellence of Art, they were struggling to attain that high comprehension which many call intelligence, and were universally toiling, but for the most part in vain, the Ruler of Heaven was pleased to turn the eyes of his clemency towards earth, and perceiving the fruitlessness of so many labours, the ardent studies pursued without any result, and the presumptuous self-sufficiency of men which is farther from truth than is darkness from light, he resolved, by way of delivering us from such great errors, to send to the world a spirit endowed with universality of power in each art, and in every profession, one capable of showing by himself alone what is the perfection of art in the sketch, the outline, the shadows, or the lights; one who could give relief to painting and with an upright judgment could operate as perfectly in sculpture; nay, who was so highly accomplished in architecture also, that he was able to render our habitations secure and commodious, healthy and cheerful, well-proportioned, and enriched with the varied ornaments of art."

A more prosaic passage follows presently, occasioned by the innuendoes of Condivi as to Vasari's intimacy with Michelangelo and his knowledge of the facts of his life at first hand. Vasari meets this accusation by quoting the following document relating to the apprenticeship of Michelangelo to Domenico Ghirlandaio when fourteen years old. "1488. I acknowledge and record this first day of April that I, Lodovico di Buonarroti, have engaged Michelangelo my son to Domenico and David di Tommaso di Currado for the three years next to come, under the following conditions: That the said Michelangelo shall remain with the above named all the said time, to the end that they may teach him to paint and to exercise their vocation, and that the above named shall have full command over him paying him in the course of these three years twenty-four florins as wages...."

Besides this teaching in his earliest youth, it is considered probable that in 1494, when he visited Bologna, he came under influences which resulted in the execution at about that time of the unfinishedEntombment and the Holy Family, which are two of our greatest treasures in the National Gallery. As he took to sculpture, however, before he was out of Ghirlandaio's hands, there are few traces of any activity in painting until 1506, when he was engaged on the designs for the great battle-piece for the Council Hall at Florence. The one easel picture of which Vasari makes any mention, the tondo in the Uffizi, is the only one besides those already noted which is known to exist. "The Florentine citizen, Angelo Doni," Vasari says, "desired to have some work from his hand as he was his friend; wherefore Michelangelo began a circular painting of Our Lady for him. She is kneeling, and presents the Divine Child to Joseph. Here the artist has finely expressed the delight with which the Mother regards the beauty of her Son, as is clearly manifest in the turn of her head and fixedness of her gaze; equally evident is her wish that this contentment shall be shared by that pious old man who receives the babe with infinite tenderness and reverence. Nor was this enough for Michelangelo, since the better to display his art he has grouped several undraped figures in the background, some upright, some half recumbent, and others seated. The whole work is executed with so much care and finish that of all his pictures, which indeed are but few, this is considered the best."

After relating the story of the artist's quarrel with his friend over the price of this masterpiece (for which he at first only asked sixty ducats), Vasari goes on to describe the now lost cartoons for the great fresco in the Council Hall at Florence, in substance as follows:—

"When Leonardo was painting in the great hall of the Council, Piero Soderini, who was then Gonfaloniere, moved by the extraordinary ability which he perceived in Michelangelo [he calls him in a letter a young man who stands above all his calling in Italy; nay, in all the world], caused him to be entrusted with a portion of the work, and our artist began a very large cartoon representing the Battle of Pisa. It represented a vast number of nude figures bathing in the Arno, as men do on hot days, when suddenly the enemy is heard to be attacking the camp. The soldiers spring forth in haste to arm themselves. One is an elderly man, who to shelter himself from the heat has wreathed a garland of ivy round his head, and, seated on the ground, is labouring to draw on his hose, hindered by his limbs being wet. Hearing the sound of the drums and the cries of the soldiers he struggles violently to get on one of his stockings; the action of the muscles and distortion of the mouth evince the zeal of his efforts. Drummers and others hasten to the camp with their clothes in their arms, all in the most singular attitudes; some standing, others kneeling or stooping; some falling, others springing high into the air and exhibiting the most difficult foreshortenings.... The artists were amazed as they realised that the master had in this cartoon laid open to them the very highest resources of art; nay, there are some who still declare that they have never seen anything to equal it, either from his hand or any other, and they do not believe that genius will ever more attain to such perfection. Nor is this an exaggeration, for all who have designed from it and copied it—as it was the habit for both natives and strangers to do—have become excellent in art, amongst whom were Raphael, Andrea del Sarto, Franciabigio, Pontormo, and Piero del Vaga."

In 1508 Michelangelo began to prepare the cartoons for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Space forbids me to attempt any description of these, but the story of their completion as related by Vasari can hardly be omitted. "When half of them were nearly finished," he says, "Pope Julius, who had gone more than once to see the work—mounting the ladders with the artist's help—insisted on having them opened to public view without waiting till the last touches were given, and the chapel was no sooner open than all Rome hastened thither, the Pope being first, even before the dust caused by removing the scaffold had subsided. Then it was that Raphael, who was very prompt in imitation, changed his manner, and to give proof of his ability immediately executed the frescoes with the Prophets and Sibyls in the church of the Pace. Bramante (the architect) also laboured to convince the Pope that he would do well to entrust the second half to Raphael.... But Julius, who justly valued the ability of Michelangelo, commanded that he should continue the work, judging from what he saw of the first half that he would be able to improve the second. Michelangelo accordingly finished the whole in twenty months, without help. It is true that he often complained that he was prevented from giving it the finish he would have liked owing to the Pope's impatience, and his constant inquiries as to when it would be finished, and on one occasion he answered, "It will be finished when I shall have done all that I believe necessary to satisfy art." "And we command," replied Julius, "that you satisfy our wish to have it done quickly," adding finally that if it were not at once completed he would have Michelangelo thrown headlong from the scaffolding. Hearing this, the artist, without taking time to add what was wanting, took down the remainder of the scaffolding, to the great satisfaction of the whole city, on All Saints' Day, when the Pope went into his chapel to sing Mass."

Michelangelo had much wished to retouch some portions of the work a secco, as had been done by the older masters who had painted the walls; and to add a little ultramarine to some of the draperies, and gild other parts, so as to give a richer and more striking effect. The Pope, too, would now have liked these additions to be made, but as Michelangelo thought it would take too long to re-erect the scaffolding, the pictures remained as they were. The Pope would sometimes say to him, "Let the chapel be enriched with gold and bright colours; it looks poor." To which Michelangelo would reply, "Holy Father, the men of those days did not adorn themselves with gold; those who are painted here less than any; for they were none too rich. Besides, they were holy men, and must have despised riches and ornaments."