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ROME — At the southern end of the Passeggiata del Gianicolo, a street that runs along the crest of the high Janiculan hill south of St Peter’s, leads out a gap cut into the city walls and the cars pour out into a main nearby artery, the via Aurelia. Unnoticed, the cars roar past a strange building, just a façade set into the hill. This is all that remains of the house of one of the greatest artists ever to have worked in Rome, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564 CE). Or is it? Because this is not really the place where Michelangelo lived and died, and behind this façade there is no house at all. Like many monuments big and small in Rome, the “house of Michelangelo” tells a story that is only in part the one we expect, and adds a dose of fantasy and wishful thinking to bricks, mortar, and stone.
Michelangelo spent the greater part of his life in Rome. Though he is claimed by Tuscany, whose grand duke ordered the smuggling of the artist’s body to Florence less than a month after his death, he could fairly be considered a Roman artist. Michelangelo’s legend as a solitary, sullen genius was not entirely undeserved. But the “tortured, lonely” artist we know from Charlton Heston’s performance in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) in reality had assistants mixing his plaster and paints, a staff of servants at home, friends visiting him (including the love of his later life, the Roman nobleman Tommaso de’ Cavalieri), and his brothers and nephews passing through frequently.
In 1513, the family of pope Julius II, the della Rovere, gave Michelangelo the use of a house in the part of central Rome called the Macel de’ Corvi, where a food and meat market was regularly held along the narrow streets. The della Rovere hoped to spur Michelangelo to finish the tomb of their pope. In the event, the tomb project lasted decades, and the house became more and more Michelangelo’s own. His earliest biographers, Ascanio Condivi and Giorgio Vasari, are frustratingly vague about the location of his house. However, no one could describe the Macel de’ Corvi as a prestigious address. It was noisy, for one thing, because during Michelangelo’s residency the nearby guild church of the bakers, S. Maria di Loreto, was going up, visible from his windows. The area stank, as it was full of the market’s garbage, including rotting meat and bones. Michelangelo himself, in his stingy and curmudgeonly old age, described his house in a poem (Rime, 267): “I’m here shut up like the pulp of a fruit enclosed by its peel, here poor and alone, like a genie in a bottle … where Arachne and her thousand workers [ie, spiders] make fuses of their threads. My front hall’s a toilet for giants, who eat [too many] grapes or took medicine, and the whole lot don’t go elsewhere to shit. I’ve learned to know urine and the channel from which it drips, thanks to those losers who buzz around me in the morning. [Dead] cats, carrion, vile mushrooms, cesspits…” His was not mere complaining: he viewed the physical world with horror and took solace in the spirit. So when we think about Michelangelo’s house, we shouldn’t think about an elegant palazzo, because that was not what he wanted. Other artists lived well: Raphael, for instance, his hated contemporary, inhabited a beautiful palace by Bramante near St Peter’s. Michelangelo was rich. He liked the squalor.
The Macel de’ Corvi house was irregular. Its main entrance, the “toilet for giants” he mentions above, was on a cross-street, via de’ Fornai. It was described as an irregular house with a courtyard and a little kitchen garden, made up of several low buildings where Michelangelo lived with his servants, and a self-contained tower in part of the property, probably a medieval hold-over. His workshop was on the ground floor of the house, with a little dining area. On the floor above, there were two bedrooms and the rooms for his servant-women, who he described as “whores and sows.” (He must have been a horrible boss.) The only person he trusted in his house was his valet, Francesco Urbino.
Fast-forward to after Michelangelo’s death in 1564. His heir, his nephew Leonardo [not the famed artist], took possession of the house, and lived in the tower, renting the rest to Michelangelo’s former pupil Daniele da Volterra, but the latter died only two years later, in 1566. In 1572, Leonardo Buonarroti sold the whole property. Michelangelo’s house passed through several different proprietors, each time undergoing alterations and improvements, but it was all wiped away after Rome became capital of the united kingdom of Italy in 1871. The whole area between piazza Venezia and via de’ Fornai, including the house, was demolished and a big neo-Renaissance office building was built over the site and its network of streets. Two plaques on the new building commemorate the house’s approximate location.
But the house of Michelangelo had an afterlife. An architect, Domenico Jannetti, saved a façade from Michelangelo’s city block, possibly the facing of the interior courtyard, and reconstructed it some time around 1880. He set it up as the front of his own house on the nearby via delle Tre Pile, a street graded for easy carriage traffic that took a hairpin turn to climb the Capitoline hill, next to the Michelangelo-designed ramp up to the piazza del Campidoglio. The façade stood at the hairpin turn, and Jannetti probably made significant alterations to it so it would conform to his pre-existing house there. Here it gained some fame as “the house of Michelangelo,” a recognizable landmark.
Even here, the façade found no peace. In 1930, Mussolini’s plans to isolate the slopes of the Capitoline hill brought the façade down again. In 1941, the city’s water system demanded an underground reservoir atop the Janiculan hill, and the project engineer got the stone arches and pilasters out of the city’s warehouses and rebuilt it as the street frontage of the new reservoir. That is where it is today.
One final twist. We don’t know, and can’t know, whether this façade ever had anything to do with Michelangelo’s actual house. When his via de’ Fornai/Macel de’ Corvi house was demolished, there was no paper trail, no plan of the building with which to compare this structure. It certainly came from the same block; it is convincingly like a house of the early sixteenth century. But it doesn’t have anything of the ramshackle quality that his contemporaries described. Even the plaque put up by the fascist Governatorate of Rome above one of the façade’s doorways describes it as the “house said to be of Michelangelo.” In the end, it’s the ghost of a house, the façade of an idea. Michelangelo, disdainer of his house as of all material things, might like that.
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