Michelangelo was one of the most inspired creators in the history of art and, with Da Vinci, the most potent force in the Italian High Renaissance. As a sculptor, architect, painter, and poet, he exerted a tremendous influence on his contemporaries and on subsequent Western art in general.
A Florentine-although born March 6, 1475, in the small village of Caprese near Arezzo-Michelangelo continued to have a deep attachment to his city, its art, and its culture throughout his long life. He spent the greater part of his adulthood in Rome, employed by the popes; characteristically, however, he left instructions that he be buried in Florence, and his body was placed there in a fine monument in the church of Santa Croce.
Early Life in Florence
Michelangelo's father, a Florentine official named Ludovico Buonarrotiwith connections to the ruling Medici family, placed his 13-year-old son in the workshop of the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. After about two years, Michelangelo studied at the sculpture school in the Medici gardens and shortly thereafter was invited into the household of Lorenzo de' Medici, the Magnificent. There he had an opportunity to converse with the younger Medici, two of whom later became popes (Leo X and Clement VII). He also became acquainted with such humanists as Marsilio Ficino and the poet Angelo Poliziano, who were frequent visitors.
Michelangelo produced at least two relief sculptures by the time he was 16 years old, the Battle of the Centaurs and the Madonna of the Stairs (both 1489-92, Casa Buonarroti, Florence), which show that he had achieved a personal style at a very early age. His patron Lorenzo died in 1492; two years later Michelangelo fled Florence, when the Medici were temporarily expelled. He settled for a time in Bologna, where in 1494 and 1495 he executed several marble statuettes for the Arca (Shrine) di San Domenico in the Church of San Domenico.
First Roman Stay
Michelangelo then went to Rome, where he was able to examine many newly unearthed classical statues and ruins. He soon produced his first large-scale sculpture, the over-life-size Bacchus (1496-98, Bargello, Florence). One of the few works of pagan rather than Christian subject matter made by the master, it rivaled ancient statuary, the highest mark of admiration in Renaissance Rome.
At about the same time, Michelangelo also did the marble Pieta (1498-1500), still in its original place in Saint Peter's Basilica. One of the most famous works of art, the Pieta was probably finished before Michelangelo was 25 years old, and it is the only work he ever signed. The youthful Mary is shown seated majestically, holding the dead Christ across her lap, a theme borrowed from northern European art. Instead of revealing extreme grief, Mary is restrained, and her expression is one of resignation. In this work, Michelangelo summarizes the sculptural innovations of his 15th-century predecessors such as Donatello, while ushering in the new monumentality of the High Renaissance style of the 16th century.
First Return to Florence
The high point of Michelangelo's early style is the gigantic (4.34 m/14.24 ft) marble David (Accademia, Florence), which he produced between 1501 and 1504, after returning to Florence. The Old Testament hero is depicted by Michelangelo as a lithe nude youth, muscular and alert, looking off into the distance as if sizing up the enemy Goliath, whom he has not yet encountered. The fiery intensity of David's facial expression is termed terribilita, a feature characteristic of many of Michelangelo's figures and of his own personality. David, Michelangelo's most famous sculpture, became the symbol of Florence and originally was placed in the Piazza della Signoria in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, the Florentine town hall. With this statue Michelangelo proved to his contemporaries that he not only surpassed all modern artists, but also the Greeks and Romans, by infusing formal beauty with powerful expressiveness and meaning.
While still occupied with the David, Michelangelo was given an opportunity to demonstrate his ability as a painter with the commission of a mural, the Battle of Cascina, destined for the Sala dei Cinquecento of the Palazzo Vecchio, opposite Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari. Neither artist carried his assignment beyond the stage of a cartoon, a full-scale preparatory drawing. Michelangelo created a series of nude and clothed figures in a wide variety of poses and positions that are a prelude to his next major project, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.
The Sistine Chapel Ceiling
Michelangelo was recalled to Rome by Pope Julius II in 1505 for two commissions. The most important one was for the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Working high above the chapel floor, lying on his back on scaffolding, Michelangelo painted, between 1508 and 1512, some of the finest pictorial images of all time. On the vault of the papal chapel, he devised an intricate system of decoration that included nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, beginning with God Separating Light from Darkness and including the Creation of Adam, the Creation of Eve, the Temptation and Fall of Adam and Eve, and the Flood. These centrally located narratives are surrounded by alternating images of prophets and sibyls on marble thrones, by other Old Testament subjects, and by the ancestors of Christ. In order to prepare for this enormous work, Michelangelo drew numerous figure studies and cartoons, devising scores of figure types and poses. These awesome, mighty images, demonstrating Michelangelo's masterly understanding of human anatomy and movement, changed the course of painting in the West.
The Tomb of Julius II
Before the assignment of the Sistine ceiling in 1505, Michelangelo had been commissioned by Julius II to produce his tomb, which was planned to be the most magnificent of Christian times. It was to be located in the new Basilica of St. Peter's, then under construction. Michelangelo enthusiastically went ahead with this challenging project, which was to include more than 40 figures, spending months in the quarries to obtain the necessary Carrara marble. Due to a mounting shortage of money, however, the pope ordered him to put aside the tomb project in favor of painting the Sistine ceiling. When Michelangelo went back to work on the tomb, he redesigned it on a much more modest scale. Nevertheless, Michelangelo made some of his finest sculpture for the Julius Tomb, including the Moses (circa 1515), the central figure in the much reduced monument now located in Rome's church of San Pietro in Vincoli.
The muscular patriarch sits alertly in a shallow niche, holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments, his long beard entwined in his powerful hands. He looks off into the distance as if communicating with God. Two other superb statues, the Bound Slave and the Dying Slave (both c. 1510-13), Musee du Louvre, Paris, demonstrate Michelangelo's approach to carving. He conceived of the figure as being imprisoned in the block. By removing the excess stone, the form was released. Here, as is frequently the case with his sculpture, Michelangelo left the statues unfinished (non-finito), either because he was satisfied with them as is, or because he no longer planned to use them.
The Laurentian Library
The project for the Julius Tomb required architectural planning, but Michelangelo's activity as an architect only began in earnest in 1519, with the plan for the facade (never executed) of the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence, where he had once again taken up residence. In the 1520s he also designed the Laurentian Library and its elegant entrance hall adjoining San Lorenzo, although these structures were finished only decades later. Michelangelo took as a starting point the wall articulation of his Florentine predecessors, but he infused it with the same surging energy that characterizes his sculpture and painting. Instead of being obedient to classical Greek and Roman practices, Michelangelo used motifs-columns, pediments, and brackets-for a personal and expressive purpose. Michelangelo, a partisan of the republican faction, participated in the 1527-29 war against the Medici and supervised Florentine fortifications.
The Medici Tombs
While residing in Florence for this extended period, Michelangelo also undertook-between 1519 and 1534-the commission of the Medici Tombs for the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo. His design called for two large wall tombs facing each other across the high, domed room. One was intended for Lorenzo de' Medici, duke of Urbino; the other for Giuliano de' Medici, duke of Nemours. The two complex tombs were conceived as representing opposite types: the Lorenzo, the contemplative, introspective personality; the Giuliano, the active, extroverted one. He placed magnificent nude personifications of Dawn and Dusk beneath the seated Lorenzo, Day and Night beneath Giuliano; reclining river gods (never executed) were planned for the bottom. Work on the Medici Tombs continued long after Michelangelo went back to Rome in 1534, although he never returned to his beloved native city.
The Last Judgment
In Rome, in 1536, Michelangelo was at work on the Last Judgment for the alter wall of the Sistine Chapel, which he finished in 1541. The largest fresco of the Renaissance, it depicts Judgment Day. Christ, with a clap of thunder, puts into motion the inevitable separation, with the saved ascending on the left side of the painting and the damned descending on the right into a Dantesque hell. As was his custom, Michelangelo portrayed all the figures nude, but prudish draperies were added by another artist (who was dubbed the "breeches-maker") a decade later, as the cultural climate became more conservative. Michelangelo painted his own image in the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew. Although he was also given another painting commission, the decoration of the Pauline Chapel in the 1540s, his main energies were directed toward architecture during this phase of his life.
In 1538-39 plans were under way for the remodeling of the buildings surrounding the Campidoglio (Capitol) on the Capitoline Hill, the civic and political heart of the city of Rome. Although Michelangelo's program was not carried out until the late 1550s and not finished until the 17th century, he designed the Campidoglio around an oval shape, with the famous antique bronze equestrian statue of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in the center. For the Palazzo dei Conservatori he brought a new unity to the public building facade, at the same time that he preserved traditional Roman monumentality.
Dome of St. Peter's Basilica
Michelangelo's crowning achievement as an architect was his work at St. Peter's Basilica, where he was made chief architect in 1546. The building was being constructed according to Donato Bramante's plan, but Michelangelo ultimately became responsible for the altar end of the building on the exterior and for the final form of its dome.
During his long lifetime, Michelangelo was an intimate of princes and popes, from Lorenzo de' Medici to Leo X, Clement VIII, and Pius III, as well as cardinals, painters, and poets. Neither easy to get along with nor easy to understand, he expressed his view of himself and the world even more directly in his poetry than in the other arts. Much of his verse deals with art and the hardships he underwent, or with Neoplatonic philosophy and personal relationships.
The great Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto wrote succinctly of this famous artist: "Michael more than mortal, divine angel." Indeed, Michelangelo was widely awarded the epithet "divine" because of his extraordinary accomplishments. Two generations of Italian painters and sculptors were impressed by his treatment of the human figure: Raphael, Annabale Carracci, Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino, Sebastiano del Piombo, and Titian. His dome for St. Peter's became the symbol of authority, as well as the model, for domes all over the Western world; the majority of state capitol buildings in the U.S., as well as the Capitol in Washington, D.C., are derived from it.
© M. E.
Art Encyclopedia A world history of art in articles.
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Sistine Chapel. High Renaissance Masterpiece.
Sistine Chapel. Book of Genesis.
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Sistine Chapel. Seven Prophets.
Sistine Chapel. Five Sibyls.
Sistine Chapel. Lunettes.
Sistine Chapel. Pendentives.
Sistine Chapel. The Ancestors of Christ.
Sistine Chapel. The Last Judgement.
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