Italian Painter, Sculptor, Poet, and Architect
Summary of Michelangelo
Michelangelo is one of art history's earliest true "characters." He was a polymath genius who is widely considered to be one of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance period even while acquiring a reputation for being temper driven, fickle, and difficult. He was part of the revival of classical Greek and Roman art, yet his unique contributions went beyond mere mimicry of antiquity. His work was infused with a psychological intensity and emotional realism that had never been seen before and often caused quite a bit of controversy. Despite his rebelliousness, he managed to find lifelong support by the era's most renowned patrons and produced some of the world's most iconic masterpieces that continue to be revered, and even devotionally prayed upon, today.
- His early studies of classical Greek and Roman sculpture, coupled with a study of cadavers, led Michelangelo to become an expert at anatomy. The musculature of his bodies is so authentically precise that they've been said to breathe upon sight.
- Michelangelo's dexterity with carving an entire sculpture from a single block of marble remains unparalleled. He once said, "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free." He was known as one who could conjure real life from stone.
- The artist's feisty and tempestuous personality is legendary. He often abandoned projects midway through or played out his pride or defiance of conventionality through controversial means such as painting his own face on figures in his work, the faces of his enemies in mocking fashion, or unabashedly portraying sacred characters in the nude.
- Michelangelo's most seminal pieces: the massive painting of the biblical narratives in the Sistine Chapel, the 17-foot-tall testament to male perfection David, and the heartbreakingly genuine Pietà are considered some of the world's most genius works of art, drawing large numbers of tourists to this day.
The Life of Michelangelo
"The sculptor's hand can only break the spell to free the figures slumbering in the stone," Michelangelo famously said. Carved from a single block of marble, each figure came alive with physical and psychological power, making him the most famous sculptor of all time.
Progression of Art
This statue of Bacchus depicts the Roman god of wine precariously perched on a rock in a state of drunkenness. He wears a wreath of ivy and holds a goblet in one hand, brought up toward his lips for a drink. In the other hand, he holds a lion skin, which is a symbol for death derived from the myth of Hercules. From behind his left leg peeks a satyr, significant to the cult of Bacchus often representing a drunken, lusty, woodland deity.
The work, one of Michelangelo's earliest, caused much controversy. It was originally commissioned by Cardinal Riario and was inspired by a description of a lost bronze sculpture by the ancient sculptor Praxiteles. But when Riario saw the finished piece he found it inappropriate and rejected it. Michelangelo sold it to his banker Jacopo Galli instead.
Despite its colored past though, the piece is evidence of Michelangelo's early genius. His excellent knowledge of anatomy is seen in the androgynous figure's body which Vasari described as having the "the slenderness of a young man and the fleshy roundness of a woman." A high center of gravity lends the figure a sense of captured movement, which Michelangelo would later perfect even further for David. Although intended to mimic classical Greek sculpture and distressed toward an antique appearance, Michelangelo remained true to what in visual human terms it means to be drunk; the unseemly swaying body was unlike any depiction of a god in classical Greek and Roman sculpture. Art historian Claire McCoy said of the sculpture, "Bacchus marked a moment when originality and imitation of the antique came together."
Marble - National Museum of Bargello, Florence
This was the first of a number of Pietàs Michelangelo worked on during his lifetime. It depicts the body of Jesus in the lap of his mother after the Crucifixion. This particular scene is one of the seven sorrows of Mary used in Catholic devotional prayers and depicts a key moment in her life foretold by the prophet, Simeon.
Cardinal Jean de Bilhères commissioned the work, stating that he wanted to acquire the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better. The 24-year-old Michelangelo answered this call, carving the work in two years out of a single block of marble.
Although the work continued a long tradition of devotional images used as aids for prayer, which was developed in Germany in the 1300s, the depiction was uniquely connotative of Italian Renaissance art of the time. Many artists were translating traditional religious narratives in a highly humanist vein blurring the boundaries between the divine and man by humanizing noted biblical figures and taking liberties with expression. Mary was a common subject, portrayed in myriad ways, and in this piece Michelangelo presented her not as a woman in her fifties, but as an unusually youthful beauty. As Michelangelo related to his biographer Ascanio Condivi, "Do you not know that chaste women stay fresh much more than those who are not chaste?"
Not only was Pietà the first depiction of the scene in marble, but Michelangelo also moved away from the depiction of the Virgin's suffering which was usually portrayed in Pietàs of the time, instead presenting her with a deep sense of maternal tenderness for her child. Christ too, shows little sign of his recent crucifixion with only slightly discernible small nail marks in his hands and the wound in his side. Rather than a dead Christ, he looks as if he is asleep in the arms of his mother as she waits for him to awake, symbolic of the resurrection.
A pyramidal structure signature to the time was also used: Mary's head at the top and then the gradual widening through her layered garments to the base. The draped clothing gives credence to Michelangelo's mastery of marble, as they retain a sense of flowing movement, far removed from the typical characteristic of stone.
This is the only sculpture Michelangelo ever signed. In a fiery fit of reaction to rumors circulating that the piece was made by one of his competitors, Cristoforo Solari, he carved his name across Mary's sash right between her breasts. He also split his name in two as Michael Angelus, which can be seen as a reference to the Archangel Michael - an egotistical move and one he would later regret. He swore to never again sign another piece and stayed true to his word.
The Pietà became famous immediately following its completion and was pivotal in contributing to Michelangelo's fame. Despite an attack in 1972, which damaged Mary's arm and face, it was restored and continues to inspire awe in visitors to this day.
Marble - Vatican City
This 17-foot-tall statue depicts the prophet David, majestic and nude, with the slingshot he will use to kill Goliath, slung over one shoulder.
The piece was commissioned by the Opera del Duomo for the Cathedral of Florence, a project that was originally meant to be a series of sculptures of prophets for the rooftop. Although David's familiarity stems from the classic religious tale, the statue became not only a rendition of the tale, but a symbol for the new Florentine Republic of its defiant independence from Medici rule.
Considered one of Michelangelo's great masterpieces. An exquisite example of his knowledge of anatomy can be seen in David's musculature, his strength emphasized through the classical contrapposto stance, with weight shifting onto his right leg. A sense of naturalism is conveyed in the way the body stands determined, a confident glare on the young man's face. The top half of the body was made slightly larger than the legs so that viewers glancing up at it or from afar would experience a more authentic perspective. The realism was seen as so powerful that Vasari praised it as Michelangelo's "miracle...to restore life to one who was dead."
During the Early Renaissance, Donatello had revived the classical nude as subject matter and made a David of his own. But Michelangelo's version, with its towering height, is unmistakably the most iconic version. As was customary to Michelangelo and his work, this statue was simultaneously revered and controversial.
The plaster cast of David now resides at the Victoria and Albert Museum. During visits by notable women such as Queen Victoria, a detachable plaster fig leaf was added, strategically placed atop the private parts.
On another occasion, a replica of David was offered to the municipality of Jerusalem to mark the 3,000th anniversary of King David's conquest of the city. Religious factions in Jerusalem urged that the gift be declined because the naked figure was considered pornographic. A fully clad replica of David by Andrea del Verrocchio, a Florentine contemporary of Michelangelo, was donated instead.
Marble - Gallery of the Academy of Florence
Doni Tondo (Holy Family)
Holy Family, the only finished panel painting by the artist to survive, was commissioned by Agnolo Doni for his marriage to Maddalena Strozzi, daughter of a powerful Tuscan family, which gives it its name. It portrays Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and an infant John the Baptist. The intimate tenderness of the figures governed by the father's loving gaze emphasizes the love of family and divine love, representing the cores of Christian faith. In contrast, the five nude males in the background symbolize pagans awaiting redemption. The round (tondo) form was customary for private commissions and Michelangelo designed the intricate gold carved wooden frame. The work is believed to be entirely by his hand.
We find many of the artist's influences in this painting, including Signorelli's Madonna. It is also said to have been influenced by Leonardo's The Virgin and Child with St Anne, a cartoon (full scale drawing) that Michelangelo saw while working on his David in 1501. The nude figures in the background are said to have been influenced by the ancient statue of Laocoön and His Sons (the Trojan priest) attributed to the Greek sculptors Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydorus, which was excavated in Rome in 1506 and publicly displayed in the Vatican.
Yet influences aside, the piece is distinctly Michelangelo, an example of his individualism, which was considered very avant-garde for the time. It was a significant shift from the serene, static rendition of figures depicted in classical Roman and Greek sculpture. Its twisting figures signify enormous energy and movement and the vibrant colors add to the majesty of the work, which were later used in his frescos in the Sistine Chapel. The soft modelling of the figures in the background with the focused details in the foreground gives this small painting great depth.
This painting is said to have laid the foundations of Mannerism which in contrast to the High Renaissance devotion to proportion and idealized beauty, preferred exaggeration and affectation rather than natural realism.
Tempera on panel - The Uffizi Gallery, Florence
The Creation of Adam
This legendary painting, part of the vast masterpiece that adorns the Sistine Chapel, shows Adam as a muscular classical nude, reclining on the left, as he extends his hand toward God who fills the right half of the painting. God rushes toward him, his haste conveyed by his white flaring robe and the energetic movements of his body. God is surrounded by angels and cherubim, all encased within a red cloud, while a feminine figure thought to be Eve or Sophia, symbol of wisdom, peers out with curious interest from underneath God's arm. Behind Adam, the green ledge upon which he lies, and the mountainous background create a strong diagonal, emphasizing the division between mortal he and heavenly God. As a result the viewer's eye is drawn to the hands of God and Adam, outlined in the central space, almost touching. Some have noted that the shape of the red cloud resembles the shape of the human brain, as if the artist meant to imply God's intent to infuse Adam with not merely animate life, but also the important gift of consciousness.
This was an innovative depiction of the creation of Adam. Contrary to traditional artworks, God is not shown as aloof and regal, separate and above mortal man. For Michelangelo, it was important to depict the all-powerful giver of life as one distinctly intimate with man, whom he created in his own image. This reflected the humanist ideals of man's essential place in the world and the connection to the divine. The bodies maintain the sculptural quality so reminiscent of his painting, carrying on the mastery of human anatomy signature to the High Renaissance.
Many subsequent artists have studied and attempted to imitate parts of the work for what art historians Gabriele Bartz and Eberhard König called its "unprecedented invention." It is also one of the most parodied of Michelangelo's works, seen as humorous inspiration for The Creation of Muppet by artist James Hance in homage to Muppets creator Jim Henson; used in the title sequence of the television arts program The Southbank Show; borrowed from for the promotional poster for Steven Spielberg's movie ET; and derived from for artist TasoShin's The Creation of Mario in homage to Miyamoto's contribution to Nintendo games.
Fresco - Vatican City
This grand, epic-sized statue depicts Moses seated regally to guard the tablets written with the Ten Commandments. His expression is stern, reflecting his anger at seeing his people worshipping the golden calf on his return from Mount Sinai.
Michelangelo's reputation following the sculpture of David reached Pope Julius II in Rome who commissioned the artist to come and work on his tomb. The ambitious artist initially proposed a project of over 40 figures. Yet In the final structure the central piece became this sculpture of Moses. Not only has he rendered the great prophet with a complex emotionality, his work on the fabric of Moses' clothes is noted for its exquisite perfection and look of authenticity. Again, he managed to craft a visage of seeming real life out of stone.
Pope Julius II famously interrupted Michelangelo's work on the tomb so that he could paint the Sistine Chapel. The final tomb wasn't finished until after the Pope's death in 1513, to be finally completed in 1545.
This sculpture has been at the center of much analysis, with Sigmund Freud having purportedly spent three weeks in 1913 observing the emotions expressed by the sculpture, concluding it was a supreme vision of self-control. Part of the controversy hinged around what appear to be horns protruding from Moses' head. While some see them as symbolic of his anguish, others believe them to hearken to a Latin mistranslation of the Bible in which instead of rays of light illuminating the radiance of Moses, he appears to be growing horns. This can stem from the Hebrew word Keren, which can mean 'radiated light' or 'grew horns.'
The work was eventually housed in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome where Pope Julius II had been Cardinal.
Marble - San Pietro Vincoli, Rome
The Last Judgement
This fresco covers the entire altar wall of the Sistine Chapel and is one of the last pieces in the seminal building that was commissioned by Pope Clement VII when Michelangelo was 62. In it we see the Second Coming of Christ as he delivers the Last Judgement. The monumental work took five years to complete and consists of over 300 individual figures. The scene is one of harried action around the central figure of Christ, his hands raised to reveal the wounds of his Crucifixion. He looks down upon the souls of humans as they rise to their fates. To his left, the Virgin Mary glances toward the saved. On either side of Christ are John the Baptist and St Peter holding the keys to heaven. Many of the saints appear with examples of their sacrifices. Particularly interesting is St Bartholomew, martyred by the flaying of his skin, the face on which is said to be a self-portrait of Michelangelo. The saved souls rise from their graves on the left helped by angels. On the right, Charon the ferryman is shown bringing the damned to the gates of Hell. Minos, assuming the role Dante gave him in his Inferno, admits them to Hell. Another noteworthy group are the seven angels blowing trumpets illustrating the Book of Revelation's end of the world.
In usual Michelangelo fashion, the artist depicted the traditional scene with elements of controversy, particularly by rendering its subjects nude with extremely muscular anatomies. His rendition of a beardless Christ was unusual for the time, as was the use of figures from pagan mythology. Vasari reports that the Pope's Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, called it a disgrace "that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully." Michelangelo, angry at the remark, is said to have painted Cesena's face onto Minos, judge of the underworld, with donkey's ears. Cesena complained to the Pope at being so ridiculed, but the Pope is said to have jokingly remarked that his jurisdiction did not extend to Hell.
Fresco - Vatican City
This piece is not only sculpturally complex and indicative of Michelangelo's genius, but it carries layers of meaning and has sparked multiple interpretations. In it, we see Christ the moment after the Deposition, or being taken down from the cross of his crucifixion. He is falling into the arms of his mother, the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene, whose presence in a work of such importance was highly unusual. Behind the trio is a hooded figure, which is said to be either Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus, both of whom were in attendance of the entombment of Christ, which would follow this event. Joseph would end up giving his tomb for Christ and Nicodemus would speak with Christ about the possibility of obtaining eternal life. Because Christ is seen falling into the arms of his mother, this piece is also often referred to as a pietà.
The multiple themes alluded to in this one piece: The Deposition, The Pietà, and The Entombment are further emphasized by the way Michelangelo carved it. Not only is it life like and intense with realism, it was also sculpted so that a person could walk around to observe and absorb each of the three narratives from different perspectives. The remarkable three-dimensionality allows the group to interact within each of the work's meanings.
The work is also a perfect example of Michelangelo's temperament and perfectionism. The process of making it was arduous. Vasari relates that the artist complained about the quality of the marble. Some suggest he had a problem with the way Christ's left leg originally draped over Nicodemus, worrying that some might interpret it in a sexual way, causing him to remove it. Perhaps Michelangelo was so particular with the piece because he was intending it for his own future tomb.
In 1555, Michelangelo attempted to destroy the piece causing further speculation about its meaning. There is a suggestion that the attempted destruction of the piece was because Nicodemus, by reference to his conversation with Christ about the need to be born again to find everlasting life, is associated with Martin Luther's Reformation. Michelangelo was known to be a secret sympathizer, which was dangerous even for someone as influential as he was. Perhaps a coincidence, but his Lutheran sympathies are given as one of the reasons why Pope Paul IV cancelled Michelangelo's pension in 1555. One of Michelangelo's biographers Giorgio Vasari also mentions that the face of Nicodemus is a self-portrait of Michelangelo, which may allude to his crisis of faith.
Although Michelangelo worked on this sculpture over a number of years he was unable to complete it and gave the unfinished piece to Francesco Bandini, a wealthy merchant, who commissioned Tiberio Calcagni, a friend of Michelangelo's, to finish it and repair the damage (all except for replacing Christ's left leg).
Marble - Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence
Pietà Rondanini is the last sculpture Michelangelo worked on in the weeks leading up to his death, finalizing a story that weaved through his many Pietàs and now reflective of the artist's reckoning with his own mortality. The depiction of Christ has changed from his earlier St. Peter's Pietà in which Christ appeared asleep, through to his Deposition, where Christ's body was more lifeless, to now, where Christ is shown in the utter pain and suffering of death. His mother Mary is standing in this piece, an unusual rendition, as she struggles to hold up the body of her son while immersed in grief.
What's interesting about this work is that Michelangelo abandoned his usual perfection at carving the body even though he worked on it intermittently for over 12 years. It was a departure that so late in his prolific career signified the enduring genius of an artist whose confidence would allow him to try new things even when his fame would have allowed him to easily rest upon his laurels. The detached arm, the subtle sketched features of the face, and the way the figures almost blend into each other provide a more abstracted quality than was his norm, and all precursors of a minimalism that was yet to come in sculpture. The renowned sculptor Henry Moore later said of this piece, "This is the kind of quality you get in the work of old men who are really great. They can simplify, they can leave out... This Pietà is by someone who knows the whole thing so well he can use a chisel like someone else would use a pen."
This sculpture's importance was ignored for centuries, including its disappearance from public discourse until it was found in the possession of Marchese Rondanini in 1807. It has since excited many modern artists. The Italian artist Massimo Lippi is quoted as saying that modern and contemporary art began with this Pietà, and the South African painter, Marlene Dumas, based her Homage to Michelangelo (2012) on this work.
Marble - Museo d'arte antica, Sforza Castle, Milan
Biography of Michelangelo
Michelangelo was born to Leonardo di Buonarrota and Francesca di Neri del Miniato di Siena, a middle-class family of bankers in the small village of Caprese, near Arezzo, in Tuscany. His mother's unfortunate and prolonged illness forced his father to place his son in the care of his nanny. The nanny's husband was a stonecutter, working in his own father's marble quarry.
When Michelangelo was six years old, his mother died yet he continued to live with the pair and legend has it this unconventional situation from childhood would lay the foundation for his later love affair with marble.
By the time he was 13 years old, it was clear to his father that Michelangelo had no aptitude for the family vocation. The young boy was sent to apprentice in the well-known studio of Domenico Ghirlandaio. After only a year in the studio, Lorenzo de' Medici of the renowned Florentine art patronage family asked Ghirlandaio for two of his best students. Michelangelo, along with Francesco Granacci, were chosen to attend the Medici family's Humanist academy. It was a thriving time in Renaissance Florence when artists were encouraged to study the humanities, accentuating their creative endeavors with knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman art and philosophy. Art was departing from Gothic iconography and devotional work and evolving into a grand celebration of man and his importance in the world. Michelangelo studied under the famous sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni, earning exposure to the great classical sculptures in the palace of Lorenzo.
During this time, Michelangelo obtained permission from the Catholic Church of Santo Spirito to study cadavers in their hospital so that he would gain an understanding of anatomy. In return, he carved them a wooden cross. His ability to precisely render the realistic muscular tone of the body resulted from this early education as evidenced in two sculptures that survive from that time; Madonna seated on a Step (1491) and Battle of the Centaurs (1492).
Early Training and Work
Following the death of Lorenzo di Medici in 1492 Michelangelo remained with relative security in Florence. But when the Florentine city became embroiled in political turmoil, the Medici family was expelled and the artist moved to Bologna. It was in Bologna that he received a commission to finish the carving of the Tomb of St. Dominic, which included the addition of a statue of St. Petronius, a kneeling angel holding a candlestick, and St. Proculus.
Michelangelo returned to Florence in 1494 after the threat of the French invasion abated. He worked on two statues, St. John the Baptist, and a small cupid. The Cupid was sold to Cardinal Riario of San Giorgio, passed off as an antique sculpture. Although annoyed at being duped, the Cardinal was impressed enough by Michelangelo's workmanship to invite him to Rome for another commission. For this commission, Michelangelo created a statue of Bacchus, which was rejected by the Cardinal who thought it politically imprudent to be associated with a pagan nude figure. Michelangelo was indignant - so much so that he later asked his biographer Condivi to deny the commission was from the Cardinal and instead to record it as a commission from his banker, Jacopo Galli. The artist's impetuous nature was already garnering him the reputation of being one who indignantly did what he wanted, oftentimes eschewing his patron's wishes or failing to complete work once started.
Michelangelo remained in Rome after completing the Bacchus, and in 1497 the French Ambassador, Cardinal Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas commissioned his Pietà for the chapel of the King of France in St Peter 's Basilica. The Pietà was to become one of Michelangelo's most famous carvings, which the 16th-century biographer Giorgio Vasari, described as something "nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh." His acuity with emotional expression and lifelike realism in the piece, garnered the artist much awe and attention.
Although his status as one of the period's most talented artists following the completion of the Pietà was secure, Michelangelo didn't receive any major commissions over the next two years. Financially, however this absence of work wasn't of much concern. Wealth didn't seem to affect the artist's lifestyle. As he would say to Condivi towards the end of his life, "However rich I may have been, I have always lived like a poor man."
In 1497, the puritanical monk Girolamo Savonarola became famous for his Bonfire of the Vanities, an event in which he and his supporters burned art and books in Florence, causing a cease to what had been a thriving period of the Renaissance. Michelangelo would have to wait until Savonarola's ousting in 1498 before returning to his beloved Florence.
In 1501, his most notable achievement was born through a commission from the Guild of Wool to complete an unfinished project begun by Agostino di Duccio some 40 years earlier. This project, finally completed in 1504, was a majestic, 17-foot-tall nude statue of the biblical hero David. The work was a testament to the artist's unparalleled excellence at carving breathtakingly precise depictions of real life out of inanimate marble.
Several painting commissions followed after David's completion. In particular, Michelangelo's only known finished painting that has survived, Doni Tondo (The Holy Family) (1504).
During this time of the High Renaissance in Florence, rivalries between Michelangelo and his artist peers abounded, each fighting for prime commissions and revered social status as noted masters of their fields.
Leonardo da Vinci had quickly risen to fame and the competition between he and Michelangelo was legendary. In 1503, Piero Soderini, the lifetime Gonfalonier of Justice (senior civil servant akin to a Mayor), commissioned them both to paint two opposing walls of the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio. Both paintings were never finished and are unfortunately lost. Leonardo's The Battle of Anghiari was painted over when Vasari later reconstructed the Palazzo. Michelangelo's work on The Battle of Cascina was interrupted in the preparatory drawing stage when Pope Julius II summoned him to Rome. Michelangelo was seduced by the flamboyant reputation of the patron Pope who was luring other artist peers such as Donato Bramante and Raphael to create exciting new projects. Never one to be bested by his rivals, he accepted the invitation.
In Rome, Michelangelo started work on the Pope's tomb, work that was to be completed within a five-year timeline. Yet, the artist would abandon the project after being cajoled by the Pope for another commission. The project was the painting of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling and rumor has it that Bramante, the architect in charge of rebuilding St. Peter's Basilica, was the one to convince the Pope that Michelangelo was the man for the job. Bramante was notoriously consumed by envy, and knowing that Michelangelo was better known for his sculptures rather than paintings, was certain that his rival would fail. He hoped this would cause the artist to fall out of popular favor. Michelangelo reluctantly accepted the commission.
Michelangelo would work on the Sistine Chapel for the next four years. It was a difficult job of extraordinary endurance, especially since the tempestuous artist had sacked all of his assistants save one who helped him mix paint. What resulted was a monumental work of great genius illustrating stories from the Old Testament including the Creation of the World and Noah and the Flood. Contrary to Bramante's hopes, it became (and remains) one of the greatest masterpieces of Western Art.
Another noted rival was the young 26-year-old Raphael who had burst upon the scene and was chosen in 1508 to paint a fresco in Pope Julius II's private library, a commission vied for by both Michelangelo and Leonardo. When Leonardo's health began to fail, Raphael became Michelangelo's greatest artistic adversary. Because of Raphael's acuity with depicting anatomy and his finesse for painting nudes, Michelangelo would often accuse him of copying his own work. Although influenced by Michelangelo, Raphael resented Michelangelo's animosity toward him. He responded by painting the artist with his traditional sulking face in the guise of Heraclitus in his famous fresco The School of Athens (1509-1511).
Following Pope Julius II's death in 1513 Michelangelo was commissioned by the new Pope Leo X to work on the façade of the Basilica San Lorenzo, the largest church in Florence. He spent the next three years on it before the project was cancelled due to lack of funds. In 1520, he received another commission for a Medici chapel in the Basilica of San Lorenzo on which he worked intermittently for the next twenty years. During those two decades, he would also complete an architectural commission for the Laurentian Library.
After the sack of Rome by Charles V in 1527, Florence was declared a republic and stayed under siege until 1530. Having worked prior to the siege for the defense of Florence, Michelangelo feared for his life and fled back to Rome. Despite his support for the republic, he was welcomed by Pope Clement and given a new contract for the tomb of Pope Julius II. It was also during this time he was commissioned to paint the fresco of the Last Judgement on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, a project that would take seven years.
Although a late bloomer relationship wise, at age 57, Michelangelo would establish the first of three notable friendships, sparking a prolific poetic output to add to his cadre of artistic talents. The first in 1532 was a 23-year-old Italian nobleman, Tommaso dei Cavalieri, who was not only the artist's young lover but remained a lifelong friend. The art historian, Howard Hibbard, quotes Michelangelo describing Tommaso as the "light of our century, paragon of all the world." The passionate affair provoked Michelangelo to produce a number of love poems so homoerotic in nature that his grandnephew, upon publishing the volume in 1623, changed the gender pronouns to disguise their homosexual context.
In 1536, Michelangelo found another lifelong object of affection, the widow, Vittoria Colonna, the Marquise of Pescara, who was also a poet. The majority of his prolific poetry is devoted to her, and his adoration continued until her death in 1547. He also gave her paintings and drawings, and one of the most beautiful to have survived is the black chalk drawing Pietà for Vittoria Colonna of 1546. She was the only woman who played a significant part in Michelangelo's life and their relationship is generally believed to have been platonic. During this period, he also worked on a number of architectural commissions including the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli and the Sforza Chapel in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, as well as the Capitoline Hill. He also received commissions for two frescos in the Cappella Paolina; the Conversion of St Paul, and the Crucifixion of St Peter.
In 1540, Michelangelo met Cecchino dei Bracci, son of a wealthy Florentine banker, at the Court of Pope Paul III, who was only 12 years old. The epitaphs Michelangelo wrote following Cecchino's death four years later reveal the extent of their relationship, suggesting they were lovers. In particular one, which includes the graphic allusion, "Do yet attest for him how gracious I was in bed. When he embraced, and in what the soul doth live."
It was Pope Julius II who, in 1504, proposed demolishing the old St Peter's Basilica and replacing it with the "grandest building in Christendom." Although the design by Donato Bramante had been selected in 1505, and foundations lain the following year, not much progress had been made since. By the time Michelangelo reluctantly took over this project from his noted rival in 1546 he was in his seventies, stating, "I undertake this only for the love of God and in honor of the Apostle."
Michelangelo worked continuously throughout the rest of his life on the Basilica. His most important contribution to the project was his work upon the dome in the eastern end of the Basilica. He combined the design ideas of all the prior architects who had given input on the work, which imagined a large dome comparable to Brunelleschi's famous dome in Florence, and coalesced them with his own grand visions. Although the dome was not finished until after his death, the base on which the dome was to be placed was completed, which meant the design of the dome could not be altered significantly in its completion. Still the largest church in the world, it remains a testament to his genius and his devotion. He continued to sculpt but did so privately for personal pleasure rather than work. He completed a number of Pietàs including the Disposition (which he attempted to destroy), as well as his last, the Rondanini Pietà, on which he worked until the last weeks before his death.
It's been said that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become world class in any field. Michelangelo epitomized this ideal as he started his career as a mere boy and continued working until his death at 88 years old.
His great love Tommaso remained with him until the end when Michelangelo died at home in Rome following a short illness in 1564. Per his wishes, his body was taken back to Florence and interred at the Basilica di Santa Croce.
The Legacy of Michelangelo
Along with Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, Michelangelo is regarded as one of the three giants of the Renaissance, and a major contributor to the Humanist movement. Humanity, in both its relationship to the divine and non-secular reality was central to his painting and sculpture. He was a master at depicting the body with such technical accuracy that marble was seemingly transformed into flesh and bone. His adeptness with human emotionality and expression inspired humility and veneration. The psychological insight and physical realism in his work had never been portrayed with such intensity before. His Pieta, David, and the Sistine Chapel have been maintained and preserved and continue to draw crowds of visitors from all over the world. His lifetime achievements give credence to the title commonly bestowed to him of Il Divino (The Divine).
Michelangelo's influence on other artists was profound and has continued from Raphael in his time to Rubens, through to Bernini, and the last great sculptor to follow his tradition of realism, Rodin.
His fame, established when he was in his early twenties, has continued to our time. As for his genius look to Galileo, who claimed he was born a day earlier, to coincide with the day Michelangelo died, alluding to the assertion that genius never dies.