Summary of Michelangelo
It is universally accepted that Michelangelo is one of the greatest artists in the history of art. His phenomenal virtuosity as a sculptor, and also as a painter and architect, is married to a reputation for being hot-tempered and volatile. He was central to the revival in classical Greek and Roman art, but his contribution to Renaissance art and culture went far beyond the mere imitation of antiquity. Indeed, he conjured figures, both carved and painted, that were infused with such psychological intensity and emotional realism they set a new standard of excellence. Michelangelo's most seminal pieces: the massive painting of the biblical narratives on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the 17-foot-tall and anatomically flawless David, and the heartbreakingly genuine Pietà, are considered some of the greatest achievements in human history. Tourists flock to Rome and Florence to stand before them.
- Michelangelo's early studies of classical sculpture were coupled with research into human cadavers. Having been granted access to a local hospital, he gained an almost surgical understanding of human anatomy. The resultant musculature of his figures is so naturalistic and precise they have been expected to spring to life at any moment.
- Michelangelo's dexterity with carving an entire sculpture from a single block of marble remains unmatched. He once said, "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free." He was known as the sculptor who could summon the living from stone.
- The fact that he considered himself first and foremost a sculptor, didn't stop Michelangelo from producing what is perhaps the most famous fresco in the history of world art. Featuring scenes from the Old Testament, his sublime achievement, which adorns the ceiling of the Vatican's holy Sistine Chapel, attracts millions of visitors to Rome each year. The task of painting the ceiling is at the heart of Michelangelo's legend. It is the tale of a disgruntled artist working for four years, in uncomfortable and cramped conditions atop a scaffold structure, on a commission that he never wanted.
- Michelangelo is one of the greatest artists in history and was the first to have had his biography published while still working. The great Renaissance biographer, Giorgio Vasari, confirmed Michelangelo’s genius in his legendary book, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550).
- The artist's feisty and tempestuous personality is legendary. He often abandoned projects midway through or expressed his defiance through controversial means such as painting his own face on figures, or by putting in the faces of his enemies (in mocking fashion). One infamous attack was aimed at a high-ranking Vatican priest, Biagio de Cesena, who had complained about the level nudity in Michelangelo's Last Judgment fresco. In an act of revenge, the artist painted Minos (judge of the dead in Greek mythology) with Cesena's face, giving him donkeys ears, and with his testicles being bitten by a serpent.
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 he sculpted came alive with physical and psychological power, making him the most famous sculptor in history.
Important Art by Michelangelo
Bacchus, Michelangelo's first surviving large statue, depicts the Roman god of wine precariously balancing on a rock in a state of intoxication. He wears a wreath of ivy and holds a goblet in one hand, raised up toward his lips. In the other hand, he holds a lion skin, which is a symbol of death as derived from the myth of Hercules. From behind his left leg peeks a satyr, significant to the cult of Bacchus as often representing a drunken, lusty, woodland deity. The art historian Creighton E. Gilbert writes, "The Bacchus relies on ancient Roman nude figures as a point of departure, but it is much more mobile and more complex in outline. The conscious instability evokes the god of wine and Dionysian [relating to the sensuous and the orgiastic] revels with extraordinary virtuosity. Made for a garden, it is also unique among Michelangelo's works in calling for observation from all sides rather than primarily from the front."
The work caused considerable controversy when it was unveiled. 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 duly sold it to his banker, Jacopo Galli.
Despite its checkered past, the piece is early evidence of Michelangelo's genius. His excellent knowledge of anatomy is seen in the androgynous figure's body which biographer Giorgio 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 for David. Although intended to mimic classical Greek sculpture Michelangelo remained true to what it means to be drunk; the unseemly swaying body was unlike any depiction of a god previously. 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 his call, carving the work in two years out of a single block of marble.
Although the work continued a long tradition of devotional images, stretching back to 14th century Germany, the depiction was unique to Italian Renaissance art of the time. Many artists were translating traditional religious narratives in a more humanist vein, blurring the boundaries between the divine and man by humanizing biblical figures and by taking liberties with expression. Mary was a popular subject, portrayed in myriad ways, and in this piece Michelangelo presented her, not as a mother in her fifties, but as a figure of 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 interpretation 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, presenting her instead with a profound sense of maternal tenderness. Christ too, shows little sign of his recent crucifixion with only slightly discernible nail marks in his hands and through the small wound in his side. Rather than a dead man, he looks as if he is sleeping in the arms of his mother while she waits for her son to awaken.
A pyramidal structure, signature to the time, was also adopted here: Mary's head at the top and then the gradual widening through her layered garments towards the base. The folds of the draped clothing give credence to Michelangelo's mastery of marble, as they retain a sense of flowing movement, and an incredible standard of polished sheen, that is so difficult to achieve in 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.
This Pietà became famous immediately following its completion and was pivotal in contributing to Michelangelo's fame. The sculpture was loaned to the 1964 World's Fair in New York City. It was transported there by sea in a 2.5 ton buoyant and waterproof plexiglass case that contained a radio transmitter (so, should the ship sink, the sculpture could still be located and recovered). Despite an attack in 1972 (by a mentally unstable Hungarian-Austrian geologist, who cried out "I am Jesus Christ, risen from the dead!") which damaged Mary's arm and face, it was restored, placed behind a bulletproof crystal wall, and continues to inspire awe in visitors to this day.
Marble - Vatican City
The sculptor Donatello had revived the classical nude by sculpting a bronze version of David (1440-60). It would become a masterpiece of the Early Renaissance. But Michelangelo's towering marble figure overtook it as the most accomplished and iconic version of the story in the history of Western art. Michelangelo's majestic 17-foot-tall statue depicts the prophet David, with the slingshot he will use to slay Goliath, slung over his left shoulder. Michelangelo took the unusual decision to depict David before battle (in contrast, Donatello's triumphant David stands with his foot on top of his enemy's severed head). In fact, David's great foe (Goliath) is not referenced in the work at all.
Michelangelo was commissioned to produce the sculpture for the Opera del Duomo at the Cathedral of Florence. It was to be one of a series of statues to be placed in the niches of the cathedral's tribunes (some 80 meters above ground). He was asked by the consuls of the Board to complete a project, abandoned previously by Agostino di Duccio and Antonio Rossellino, both of whom had rejected the enormous block of marble due to the presence of too many "taroli" (imperfections). The block of marble had stood idle in the Opera's courtyard for some 25 years. In his oft-cited biography, Ascanio Convidi wrote that it was known (from archive documents) that Michelangelo worked on David "in utmost secrecy, hiding his masterpiece in the making up until January 1504". He added that "since he worked in the open courtyard, when it rained he worked soaked" but, that rather than let the rain disturb him, it inspired Michelangelo's working method in which he created a wax model (of David) and submerged it in water. As he worked, he would lower the level of the water, revealing the wax figure bit-by-bit. As Convidi explains, "using different chisels [he then] sculpted what he could see emerging". So engrossed was he in the project, Michelangelo is said to have "slept sporadically, and when he did he slept with his clothes and even in his boots still on, and rarely ate".
The finished work is an exquisite example of Michelangelo's mastery of anatomy. This is most evident in David's musculature; his strength emphasized through the classical contrapposto (asymmetrical) stance, with weight shifting onto his right leg. The top half of the body was made slightly larger than the legs so that viewers glancing up at David from below, or from afar, would experience a more realistic perspective. Such was the figure's authenticity, Vasari proclaimed: "without any doubt this figure has put in the shade every other statue, ancient or modern, Greek or Roman."
While the statue was widely revered, it was also reviled for its sexual explicitness. For instance, during the late nineteenth century, a plaster cast of David was exhibited at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. So as not to offend the tastes of noble women, Queen Victoria ordered that a "detachable" plaster fig leaf be added to the figure to protect David's modesty. 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 clothed replica of David by Andrea del Verrocchio, a Florentine contemporary of Michelangelo, was accepted in its place.
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 (which gives it its name) to commemorate his marriage to Maddalena Strozzi, daughter of a powerful Tuscan family. The inclusion of the infant St. John further suggests it was intended for mark the news of Maddalena's pregnancy (the couple's first child, Maria, was born in 1507). Moreover, botanists have identified the plant on the left as a clitoria plant that, like Mary's braid, was a symbol of fertility. The painting 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 full scale drawing that Michelangelo saw while working on his David in 1501. The nude figures in the background are thought to have been influenced by the ancient statue of Laocoön and His Sons attributed to the Greek sculptors Agesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus, which was excavated in Rome in 1506 and publicly displayed in the Vatican.
Yet these influences aside, the piece is an example of the artist's individualism, which was even considered avant-garde in its time. The painting represented a significant shift from the serene, static rendition of figures depicted in classical Roman and Greek sculpture. Michelangelo's twisting figures signify great 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 modeling of the figures in the background with the focused details in the foreground gives this small painting its great depth.
This painting might be said to anticipate the Mannerist style which, in contrast to the High Renaissance commitment to proportion and idealized beauty, showed a preference for exaggeration and affectation over naturalism.
Oil and tempera - The Uffizi Gallery, Florence
The Creation of Adam
This legendary image, part of the vast masterpiece that adorns the ceiling of the Vatican City's 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 (first woman) 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 man 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 have a sculptural quality that replicate the mastery of the artist's command of human anatomy.
While acknowledging that Michelangelo painted the ceiling alone, laying on scaffolding on his back, and looking upward, the famous art historian E H Gombrich wrote that this feat of physical endurance was "nothing compared to the intellectual and artistic achievement. The wealth of ever-new [Renaissance] inventions, the unfailing mastery of execution in every detail, and, above all, the grandeur of the vision which Michelangelo revealed to those who came after him, have given mankind a quite new idea of the power of genius."
The idea that Michelangelo was less than happy about the commission was confirmed through correspondences in 1509 to his friend Giovanni da Pistoia. He wrote, "I've already grown a goiter from this torture, [my] stomach's squashed under my chin, [my] face makes a fine floor for droppings, [my] skin hangs loose below me, [and my] spine's all knotted from folding myself over". He concluded, "I am not in the right place - I am not a painter."
Fresco - Vatican City
Michelangelo's monumental (eight-feet tall) statue depicts Moses seated regally as he shields the tablets on which the Ten Commandments are written. His expression is stern, reflecting his power and his displeasure at seeing the Israelites worshipping the golden calf (a pagan idol) on his return from Mount Sinai. Not only has Michelangelo rendered the great prophet with a complex emotional expression, strong muscular definition, and a flowing beard, his work on the deep folds of the fabric of Moses's clothes carries exquisite detail that completes its authenticity. Indeed, Michelangelo has imbued his Moses with a sense of energy that is remarkable for a stone figure, let alone one which who is seated.
Michelangelo's reputation had reached new heights with his sculpture, David. This led to an invitation from Pope Julius II to come to Rome to work on a planned tomb. The artist initially proposed an (over) ambitious project featuring some 40 figures (the central piece being Moses). Much to the infuriation of the artist, however, Pope Julius II suspended work on the tomb so that he could paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (with the scaled-down tomb only completed in 1545 (32 years after Julius's death) and installed in San Pietro in Vincoli rather than the St. Peter's Basilica as originally planned).
The sculpture has been the subject of much analysis, especially with regard to the horns protruding from Moses's head. In medieval art, Moses was often depicted with horns, and this was generally considered a symbol of the "glorification" of his power. This reading stems in fact from a mistranslation of the Hebrew word, karan which means "shining" or "emitting rays". Karan was translated into the Latin Bible as "horn", with the relevant passage reading thus: "And when Moses came down from the Mount Sinai, he held the two tables of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord."
Legend tells that Michelangelo felt that Moses was his most life-like work and upon its completion he struck its knee, commanding "Now, speak!" The artist's pride in his achievement was fully warranted according to Vasari, who said of Moses that it was "a statue unrivaled by any contemporary or ancient achievement," adding that Moses's "long, lustrous beard, the strands of which are so silky and feathery that it appears as if the metal chisel has turned into a brush. The lovely face, like that of a prophet or a strong prince, seemed to require a veil to cover it, so magnificent and radiant is it, and so beautifully has the artist depicted in marble the purity with which he had bestowed that holy visage."
Marble - San Pietro Vincoli, Rome
The Last Judgment
This fresco covers the entire altar wall of the Sistine Chapel and is one of the last pieces to be made in the seminal building, and the first commissioned by Pope Paul III. Painted when Michelangelo was 62, we see the Second Coming of Christ as he delivers the message of salvation (through the Last Judgment). 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 presence of Christ, his hands raised to reveal the wounds of his Crucifixion, as he looks down upon the souls of humans as they rise to their fates. With this arresting tableau, Paul III was seeking to counter the Protestant Reformation by reaffirming the orthodoxies and doctrines of the Catholic Church, and the visual arts were to play a vital role in his plans.
To Christ's left, the Virgin Mary glances toward the saved. To either side of Christ are John the Baptist and St Peter holding the keys to heaven. On the right, Charon the ferryman is shown bringing the damned to the gates of Hell. Minos (ruler of Crete in Greek mythology), 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. Michelangelo's self-portrait appears twice in the painting, meanwhile, first in the flayed skin which the figure of St. Bartholomew is carrying in his left-hand, and second in the figure in the lower left-hand corner, who is looking at the saved souls rising up from their graves.
In typical Michelangelo fashion, the artist courted controversy, chiefly by rendering nude figures with pronounced muscular anatomies. One of the myths surrounding the fresco relates to the priest, and high-ranking Vatican official, Biagio de Cesena, whom Michelangelo portrayed as Minos following his public criticism of the (unfinished) painting. Cesena had complained that the painting contained so much nudity it was "more fitting for a tavern that the Sistine Chapel". Vasari reports that "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." Following a recent cleaning of the fresco, moreover, it has been revealed that Minos's testicles are being attacked by a serpent.
Interestingly, theologian John O'Malley, notes that in 1563 the Council of Trent pronounced that "iconoclasm is wrong" and that "images of sacred subjects […] should not contain any - sensual appeal or - seductive charm." Following the Council’s judgement, it was decreed that "The pictures in the Apostolic Chapel are to be covered..." On January 21, 1564, less than a month before Michelangelo's death, the decree was formally applied to The Last Judgment. So, next year, Michelangelo's friend, Daniele da Volterra, was commissioned to add clothing to the nude figures (earning Volterra the nickname "breeches-maker"). (O'Malley observes that "there is no instance of any other painting in Rome being defaced as a result of [the decree].") The Last Judgment was only restored to its original glory in the 1990s.
Fresco - Vatican City
This piece is not only sculpturally complex, 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 at the entombment of Christ (which followed the Deposition). Joseph would give up 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 three themes alluded to in this one piece - The Deposition, The Pietà, and The Entombment - are further emphasized by the way Michelangelo carved out his narrative. Not only is it intense in its realism, The Deposition was sculpted so that a viewer could walk around the piece and observe each of the three narratives from different visual perspectives and to possibly reflect upon how the stories might be interrelated.
The sculpture 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. It is also feasible that Michelangelo was so particular with the piece because he intended 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 rumored to be a secret sympathizer, which was dangerous even for someone as influential as he. Perhaps a coincidence, but his Lutheran sympathies are given as one of the reasons why Pope Paul IV cancelled Michelangelo's pension in 1555. Vasari also suggests that the face of Nicodemus is a self-portrait, which may allude to the artist's crisis of faith. Michelangelo gave the unfinished piece to Francesco Bandini, a wealthy merchant, who commissioned Tiberio Calcagni, a friend of Michelangelo's, to finish the work and repair the damage (but stopping short of 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 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 engulfed with grief.
What's interesting about this work is that Michelangelo abandoned his usual detail at carving the body, even though he worked on it intermittently for some 12 years. It was a departure that, coming 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 rest upon his laurels. The detached arm, the subtle sketched features of the face, and the way the figures almost blend into one other provide a more abstracted quality than was his norm, and prefigures a minimalist quality 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, and it almost entirely disappeared 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 di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, was born to Leonardo di Buonarrota and Francesca di Neri del Miniato di Siena, a middle-class family of bankers, living in the small village of Caprese (now known in his honor as Michelangelo Caprese), near Arezzo, Tuscany. His mother's unfortunate and prolonged illness, which led to her death while Michelangelo was just six years old, forced his father to place his son in the primary care of his nanny. The nanny was married to a stonecutter and legend tells it that this (forced) domestic situation would form the foundation for the artist's lifelong 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 Florentine studio of Domenico Ghirlandaio. The art historian E.H. Gombrich writes, "In his workshop the young Michelangelo could certainly learn all the technical tricks of the trade, a solid technique in painting frescoes, and thorough grounding in draftsmanship. But, as far as we know, Michelangelo did not enjoy his days in the painter's firm. His ideas about art were different. Instead of acquiring the facile manner of Ghirlandaio, he went out to study the work of the great masters of the past, Giotto, Masaccio, Donatello, and other Greek and Roman sculptors whose work he could see in the Medici collection".
After only a year in the studio, Lorenzo de' Medici, the de facto ruler of Florence, and renowned patron of the arts, asked Ghirlandaio to supply his two best students - Michelangelo and Francesco Granacci - to join the Medici's Humanist academy. It was a thriving time in Renaissance Florence when artists were encouraged to study the humanities, complementing their creative endeavors with knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman art and philosophy. Progressive artists were moving away from Gothic iconography and devotional work and evolving a Renaissance style that would foreground humanist ideals and celebrate man's primary role in shaping the modern world.
Michelangelo studied under the bronze sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni, bringing him exposure to the great classical sculptures in the palace of Lorenzo. But as Gombrich says, "Like Leonardo, [Michelangelo] was not content with learning the laws of anatomy secondhand, as it were, from antique sculpture. He made his own research into human anatomy, dissected bodies and drew from models, till the human figure did not hold any secrets for him." However, unlike Leonardo, for whom human anatomy was just one of the many "riddles of nature", Michelangelo "strove with an incredible singleness of purpose to master this one problem, but to master it fully."
During this period, Michelangelo obtained permission from the friars at the Church of Santo Spirito to study cadavers in the convent's hospital where he would gain a deep understanding of human anatomy. Michelangelo's uncanny ability to render the muscular tone of the body was evidenced in two surviving sculptures from the period: Madonna of the Stairs (1491), and Battle of the Centaurs (1492). The 17-year-old Michelangelo was given refuge at the convent following the death of his patron, Lorenzo di Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent) in 1492. By way of a "thank-you", Michelangelo carved a highly realistic wooden sculpture which hung over the main altar. (After the French occupation in the late 18th-century, the cross was recorded as lost but it had in fact been moved to another chapel where it was painted to disguise its origins. Once restored, it was on display at the museum of Casa Buonarroti, where it remained until 2000 before being returned to its original home at Santo Spirito.)
Early Training and Work
In 1494, as the Republic of Florence was under the threat of siege from the French. Michelangelo, fearing for his safety, moved, via a brief stop in Venice, to the relative safety of Bologna. In the city he was befriended by the wealthy Bolognese senator, Giovan Francesco Aldrovandi, who was able to secure the 19-year-old Michelangelo the commission to complete the remaining statuettes for the marble sarcophagus lid for the Arca of St. Dominic. The original lid, by Niccolò dell'Arca, was installed in 1473, with Michelangelo sculpting the few remaining figures, including Saint Proculus, Saint Petronio, and an angel with candelabra, in 1496. Still just 19 years old, Michelangelo overshadowed the work of the older sculptor through his fine detail in the folds of the cloth and drapery, and in the figure of Petronio to whom he brought a tangible sense of movement by representing him in mid-step.
Michelangelo returned briefly to Florence after the threat of the French invasion abated. He worked on two statues, one of St. John the Baptist, the other, a small cupid. The Cupid was sold to Cardinal Riario of San Giorgio, who had been duped into believing that it was an antique sculpture. Although angry on learning of the deception, Cardinal Riario was impressed by Michelangelo's skill and invited him to Rome to work on a new project. For this commission, Michelangelo created a statue of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, which was, on its completion, rejected by the Cardinal who thought it politically imprudent to be associated with a naked pagan figure. Michelangelo, who had already garnered a reputation for being volatile, was left incensed and many years later instructed his biographer, Condivi, to deny the commission came from the Cardinal at all, and to record it rather as a commission from his banker, Jacopo Galli (who had purchased the finished work).
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. Probably its most famous interpretation, Pietà was in fact a generic title applied to devotional works designed to prompt worshippers to engage in repentant prayer. What was unusual (although not unheard of) about Michelangelo's sculpture was that he realized two figures from a single block of marble. Moreover, his treatment of his subjects, which foregrounded the artist's acuity with emotion and realism, garnered Michelangelo much praise and many new admirers. Indeed, his Pietà was to become one of his most famous early carvings; one which the 16th-century biographer Giorgio Vasari, described as something "nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh."
Although his status as one of the period's most divinely gifted artists was now secure, Michelangelo didn't receive any major commissions for some two years. Financially, however, this shortage of work and/or money wasn't of primary concern to the artist. 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 Florentine Girolamo Savonarola became famous for his Bonfire of the Vanities, an event in which he and his supporters publicly burned art and books. Their actions caused an interruption to what had been a thriving period of Renaissance culture. Michelangelo would have to wait until Savonarola's ousting a year later before returning to his beloved Florence.
In 1501, his most majestic achievement in sculpture 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, completed in 1504, was a 17-foot-tall nude statue of the biblical hero David. The work - its importance to the history of sculpture, comparable, perhaps, to Leonardo's Mona Lisa and its place in the history oil painting - was a testament to the artist's unparalleled excellence at carving breathtakingly real human figures out of inanimate marble.
The art historian Creighton E. Gilbert said of the David, "It has continued to serve as the prime statement of the Renaissance ideal of perfect humanity. Although the sculpture was originally intended for the buttress of the cathedral, the magnificence of the finished work convinced Michelangelo's contemporaries to install it in a more prominent place, to be determined by a commission formed of artists and prominent citizens. They decided that the David would be installed in front of the entrance of the Palazzo dei Priori (now called Palazzo Vecchio) as a symbol of the Florentine Republic".
Several painting commissions followed David's completion. Michelangelo's only known surviving painting is, Doni Tondo (The Holy Family) (1504). Gilbert writes that the painting betrays "the artist's fascination with the work of Leonardo". He adds that Michelangelo "regularly denied that anyone influenced him, and his statements have usually been accepted without demur. But Leonardo's return to Florence in 1500 after nearly 20 years was exciting to younger artists there, and later scholars generally agreed that Michelangelo was among those affected."
During this time of the High Renaissance in Florence, rivalry between Michelangelo and his peers was fierce, with artists competing for prime commissions (and the accolades that came with them).
Leonardo was, at 23 years Michelangelo's senior, the most celebrated figure of all within the Florentine fraternity of Renaissance masters. But an unspoken rivalry between the two men was well known. In 1503, Piero Soderini, the lifetime Gonfalonier of Justice (a senior civil servant position akin to the role of Mayor), commissioned both artists to paint opposing walls of the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio. As Gombrich writes, "It was a dramatic moment in the history of art where these two giants competed for the palm, and all of Florence watched with excitement the progress of their preparations." Sadly, Soderini abandoned the commission and the paintings (Leonardo's The Battle of Anghiari and Michelangelo's The Battle of Cascina) were never finished. Leonardo returned to Milan, while Michelangelo was summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II.
In Rome, Michelangelo made preparations for the Pope's tomb; a giant mausoleum that was to be completed within a five-year timeline. Having travelled to the famous quarries at Carrara, he spent some six months painstakingly searching out the perfect blocks of marble from which to conjure his figures. Much to his chagrin, Julius recalled Michelangelo to Rome where he learned that the building earmarked to house the tomb was to be pulled down and the project as a whole put on ice. Michelangelo was incensed and became convinced that there was a conspiracy to destroy him. Indeed, he believed that the architect of the new St. Peter's Basilica, Bramante, was hatching a plot to have him poisoned. In his anger, Michelangelo returned to Florence and wrote a letter to the Pope expressing disgust at his treatment in Rome.
Michelangelo found himself at the center of a tricky diplomatic standoff between Florence and Rome. As Gombrich writes, "The head of the city of Florence therefore persuaded Michelangelo to return to the services of Julius II and gave him a letter of recommendation in which he said that his art was unequalled throughout Italy, perhaps even throughout the world, and that if he met with kindness 'he would achieve things that which would amaze the whole world'."
Having produced a colossal bronze statue of the pope for the newly conquered city of Bologna (unceremoniously pulled down once papal occupiers had been repelled), Michelangelo was commissioned by Julius to complete a project already started by Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and others. The commission was to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and legend has it that Bramante had convinced the Pope that Michelangelo was the best man for the job, in the knowledge that Michelangelo was better known for his sculptures and was therefore almost certain to fail in this enormous undertaking.
Michelangelo would work on the Sistine Chapel for nearly four years. It was a job of extraordinary endurance in which (according to popular mythology) the artist painted the ceiling laying on his back atop a wooden scaffold structure (a task made even more difficult given that the tempestuous artist had dismissed all of his assistants, save one who helped him mix paint). What resulted, however, was a monumental work of stunning virtuosity illustrating stories from the Old Testament including the Creation of the World and Noah and the Flood. The finished work, which featured several nude figures (a fairly uncommon feature of the time) would become a towering masterpiece of human creation.
A serious rival to Michelangelo was a 26-year-old "upstart" named Raphael. He 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 him, Raphael assumed the role of Michelangelo's greatest rival. Because of Raphael's acuity in depicting anatomy, and his finesse for painting nudes, Michelangelo would accuse him of copying his own work. Although acknowledging a degree of debt to Michelangelo, Raphael resented such animosity toward him and responded by painting the artist with his sulking face in the guise of Heraclitus in his famous fresco The School of Athens (1509-11).
Once the Sistine ceiling was completed, Michelangelo returned to work on the earlier project for the tomb of Pope Julius. Between 1513-15 he carved Moses, in which many recognize a new level of detail and control in his work that can be traced back to the figures of the prophets he painted on the Sistine ceiling. He also carved two further figures, thought to be slaves or prisoners. These pieces were also intended for the Julius tomb project, but they remained in the artist's possession until old age when he gifted them to a family who had nursed him through an earlier bout of illness (they are now housed in the Louvre).
Following Pope Julius II's death in 1513, funds for his tomb were cut and Michelangelo was commissioned by the new Pope Leo X to work on the façade of the Basilica San Lorenzo, the largest church in Florence (and therefore dedicated to the legacy of the Medici clan rather than the papacy). Michelangelo spent the next three years working on it before the project was cancelled due to lack of funds. Florence was under the rule of Cardinal Giulio de' Medici (Pope Leo X's cousin) and the two men formed a close working relationship. Indeed, Michelangelo enjoyed great creative liberties under the Cardinal, and this allowed him to move further into the field of architectural design. A project for a parish church in San Lorenzo was never realized, but Michelangelo did work on a design for The Medici Chapel.
Michelangelo worked on the New Sacristy (complementing the Old Sacristy by Brunelleschi that sat on the opposite side of the church) between 1520 and 1534. In its own literature, the Medici Chapels describes how "Michelangelo worked on the sculptures of the sarcophagi, but the only ones actually completed were the statues of the Dukes Lorenzo and Giuliano, the allegories of Dawn and Dusk, Night and Day and the group of Madonna and Child placed above the sarcophagus of the two 'magnifici' and flanked by Saints Cosmas and Damian. The latter were executed by Montorsoli and Baccio di Montelupo, pupils of Michelangelo."
The figure of Night ranks for many as one of Michelangelo's finest works. In his entry, "The Life of Michelangelo", in The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550), Giorgio Vasari quotes an epigram by Giovanni Strozzi who said of the figure:
"Night, whom you see sleeping in such sweet attitudes
was carved in this stone by an Angel
and although she sleeps, she has life:
wake her, if you don't believe it, and she will speak to you."
The Laurentian Library (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana) was built into a cloister of the Basilica of San Lorenzo. The library contains manuscripts and early printed books donated by Cosimo the Elder and Lorenzo the Magnificent. It was built under the patronage of Pope Clement VII, who commissioned Michelangelo to design the architecture in 1524. Although often overlooked in surveys of his work, the stairwell (ricetto) features Michelangelo's original wall and floor decorations while the columns in the library's main chamber are concealed behind the walls (rather than in front as was typical of classical architectural design) allowing for the rows of desks to be placed in a rhythmic harmony with the windows. The library is considered an early example of the more decorative Mannerist style of High Renaissance art and architecture.
Following the capture and looting of Rome by the armies of Charles V in 1527, Florence, was declared a republic. However, the city came under siege in October 1529 before it finally fell in August 1530. In a new agreement between Pope Clement VII and Charles V, the Medici family was once more returned to power in the city. Having worked for the defense of the Florence (it is thought that Michelangelo had a profound love of the city rather that a belief in any religious/political cause) by designing fortifications, Michelangelo was re-employed by Pope Clement who gave him a new contract to re-commence work on the tomb of Pope Julius II.
In 1534, Michelangelo headed to Rome where he would live out the rest of his days. He sent many letters from Rome to family members (many relating to the marriage of a nephew and the preservation of the family name). His father and brother had recently passed, and Michelangelo reveals himself as someone becoming increasingly concerned about his own mortality.
At the age of 57, Michelangelo would establish the first of three close friendships. Tommaso dei Cavalieri was a 23-year-old Italian nobleman who is thought to have been the artist's young lover and a lifelong friend. However, some historians (Gilbert included) point out that Michelangelo's sexuality cannot be confirmed, and the fact that he had no heir, suggests that in Tommaso (the "light of our century, paragon of all the world" as the artist once described him) Michelangelo might have been seeking an adopted son. The belief that Michelangelo was homosexual is nevertheless reinforced by the knowledge that he penned over 300 poems and 75 sonnets, some so homoerotic in nature, that his grandnephew, upon publishing these as a collection in 1623, changed the gender pronouns to disguise their original context.
In Rome, Michelangelo turned to fresco panting once more, this time in the services of Pope Paul III. In 1534 he found himself again at the site of one of his greatest triumphs, painting a grand and dynamic salvation narrative for the altar wall in the Sistine Chapel. It would take him seven years to complete. The Last Judgment, with its theme of Jesus's "second coming", was part of the grand narrative of Roman Catholic teaching. Michelangelo's fresco represented an attempt on the part of the Pope to oppose the Protestant Reformation (in what was known as the Counter-Reformation or Catholic Reformation) which was sweeping Northern Europe and had challenged the authority of the Catholic church. Michelangelo still took subtle liberties with the traditional telling of the biblical story, such as the representation of a beardless Christ, and by omitting altogether his throne and the attendant wingless angels.
During this period, in which Michelangelo became an official Roman citizen in 1537, he found another close companion in the widow, Vittoria Colonna, the Marquise of Pescara. She too, was a poet. Indeed, the majority of Michelangelo's poetry is devoted to Colonna, and his adoration of her continued until her death in 1547. He also gifted her paintings and drawings, and one of the most beautiful to have survived is the black chalk drawing Pietà for Vittoria Colonna (1546). Colonna was the only woman to play a significant part in Michelangelo's life (his mother, we recall, died when he was just a small boy) and their relationship is generally believed to have been platonic. But in 1540, Michelangelo met Cecchino dei Bracci, the 12-year-old son of a wealthy Florentine banker, at the Court of Pope Paul III. The epitaphs Michelangelo wrote following Cecchino's death four years later strongly suggest a sexual relationship. In one, the artist wrote, "Do yet attest for him how gracious I was in bed. When he embraced, and in what the soul doth live."
During the late period of his career, Michelangelo worked more and more on architectural designs. These included plans for the plaza at the civic center at Capitoline Hill, (with Luigi Vanvitelli) the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli (construction from 1562), and the Sforza Chapel in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (1561-64). But it was for his work on the St Peter's Basilica that he is best remembered.
It was Pope Julius II who proposed demolishing the old Basilica and replacing it with what he called the "grandest building in Christendom." Although the design by Donato Bramante had been selected in 1505, and foundations laid the following year, little progress had been made since. By the time Michelangelo reluctantly took over the project from his nemesis (Bramante) 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 as Head Architect on the Basilica. His most important personal contribution to the project was his work on the design of the dome at the eastern point of the Basilica. He dismissed all the ideas of previous architects working on the project except for those of the original designs of Bramante who, like him, had envisioned a structure to outdo even Brunelleschi's famous dome in Florence. 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 final version of the dome remains true in essence to Michelangelo's majestic vision. Still the largest church in the world, the dome is both a Roman landmark (rather than just a functional covering for the building's interior) and a testament to Michelangelo's eternal connection to the city.
Michelangelo's last paintings, produced between 1542-50, were a series of frescos for the private Pauline Chapel in the Vatican. One of these paintings, The Crucifixion of St. Peter, features a horseman wearing a turban and restorers and historians believe that this was in fact a self-portrait of the artist. He continued to sculpt but did so privately for personal pleasure. 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.
Gilbert has observed that a "side effect of Michelangelo's fame in his lifetime was that his career was more fully documented than that of any artist of the time or earlier" and that he was in fact the subject of two important biographies: a first for a living artist. In the final chapter of his series on artists' lives (1550), Vasari "explicitly presented Michelangelo's works as the culminating perfection of art, surpassing the efforts of all those before him". Yet Gilbert explains that Michelangelo "was not entirely pleased" with Vasari's piece and "arranged for his assistant Ascanio Condivi to write a brief separate book (1553); probably based on the artist's own spoken comments". It is, nevertheless, Vasari's "lively writing" and the influence of the book (which was translated into many languages) that "have made it the most usual basis of popular ideas on Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists".
Gombrich notes that in his final years Michelangelo "seemed to retire more and more into himself [...] The poems he wrote show that he was troubled by doubts as to whether his art had been sinful, while his letters make it clear that the higher he rose in esteem in the world, the more difficult and bitter he became. He was not only admired, but feared for his temper, and he spared neither high nor low." His highly secretive and guarded nature, and an incident where, while working on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he threw wooden planks at an approaching Pope who he had mistaken for a spy, seems to suggest he suffered with feelings of paranoia. His great companion Tommaso remained with him until his death at home, in Rome, following a short illness in 1564, aged 88. Per his wishes, his body was returned to his beloved Florence and interred at the Basilica di Santa Croce.
The Legacy of Michelangelo
Michelangelo was the undisputed master of sculpting the human form, which he did with such technical aplomb that his marble seemed to almost transform into living flesh and bone. His dexterity with handling human emotions and psychological insights only enhanced his standing and brought him world-wide fame during his own lifetime. He complemented his Pietas, David, and Moses with what is the most famous ceiling fresco in the world, and has made the Vatican City's Sistine Chapel a site of pilgrimage for those with and without faith. Gombrich said of his cupola for St Peters, "As it rises above the city of Rome, supported, it seems, by a ring of twin columns and soaring up with its clean majestic outline, it serves as a fitting monument to the spirit of this singular artist who his contemporaries called 'divine'."
Historians have tracked Michelangelo's influence through the work of such luminaries as Raphael, Peter Paul Rubens, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and the last great sculptor to follow in his realist tradition, Auguste Rodin. Yet Gilbert makes the point that Michelangelo belongs to a very select and exalted group of artists, which includes William Shakespeare and Ludwig van Beethoven, who were able to capture "the tragic experience of humanity with the greatest depth and universal scope", and as such, their "influence on later art is relatively limited." Gilbert's point is that Michelangelo's works (like those of Shakespeare and Beethoven) carry "an almost cosmic grandeur [that] was inhibiting" for those artists who followed and who might aspire to emulate his achievements.
Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, meanwhile, likened his own song writing processes to those of Michelangelo. He said in a recent interview, "There's a Duff McKagan song called 'Chip Away,' that has profound meaning for me. It's a graphic song. Chip away, chip away, like Michelangelo, breaking up solid marble stone to discover the form of King David inside. He didn't build him from the ground up, he chipped away the stone until he discovered the king. It's like my own song writing, I overwrite something, then I chip away lines and phrases until I get to the real thing."
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Michelangelo
- Michelangelo: His Epic LifeBy Martin Gayford
- Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man and his TimesBy William E. Wallace
- Michelangelo: A BiographyBy George Bull
- MichelangeloOur PickBy Howard Hibbard
- Michelangelo: The Achievement of FameBy Michael Hirst
- The Life of MichelangeloBy Ascanio Condivi
- The Lives of the ArtistsBy Giorgio Vasari
- Michelangelo, God's Architect: The Story of His Final Years and Greatest MasterpieceBy William E. Wallace
- Michelangelo's Mountain: The Quest For Perfection in the Marble Quarries of CarraraBy Eric Scigliano
- Michelangelo's Notebooks: The Poetry, Letters, and Art of the Great MasterBy Carolyn Vaughan
- The Complete Poems of MichelangeloBy Michelangelo
- Michelangelo: The Complete Paintings, Sculptures and ArchitectureBy Frank Zöllner
- Michelangelo: A Life in Six MasterpiecesBy Miles J. Unger
- Michelangelo and the Pope's CeilingOur PickBy Ross King
- Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and DesignerOur PickBy Carmen C. Bambach
- Michelangelo's Tomb for Julius II: Genesis and GeniusBy Christoph Luitpold Frommel
- Michelangelo and the Reform of ArtOur PickBy Alexander Nagel
- From Marble to Flesh. The Biography of Michelangelo's DavidOur PickBy A. Victor Coonin
- Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the MasterBy Hugo Chapman