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The Life of Michelangelo

Michelangelo (1475-1564), arguably one of the most inspired creators in the history of art. As a sculptor, architect, painter, and poet, he exerted a tremendous influence on his contemporaries and on subsequent Western art in general.

A Florentine—although born March 6, 1475, in the small village of Caprese near Arezzo—Michelangelo continued to have a deep attachment to his city, its art, and its culture throughout his long life. He spent the greater part of his adulthood in Rome, employed by the popes; characteristically, however, he left instructions that he be buried in Florence, and his body was placed there in a fine monument in the church of Santa Croce.

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Michelangelo’s father was a Florentine official named Ludovico Buonarrotiwith connections to the ruling Medici family, placed his 13-year-old son in the workshop of the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. After about two years, Michelangelo studied at the sculpture school in the Medici gardens and shortly thereafter was invited into the household of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Magnificent.

There he had an opportunity to converse with the younger Medici, two of whom later became popes (Leo X and Clement VII). Michelangelo produced at least two relief sculptures by the time he was 16 years old, the Battle of the Centaurs and the Madonna of the Stairs, which show that he had achieved a personal style at a very early age.

Michelangelo then went to Rome, where he was able to examine many newly unearthed classical statues and ruins. He soon produced his first large-scale sculpture, the over-life-size Bacchus (1496-98, Bargello, Florence). One of the few works of pagan rather than Christian subject matter made by the master, it rivaled ancient statuary, the highest mark of admiration in Renaissance Rome.

At about the same time, Michelangelo also did the marble Pietà (1498-1500), still in its original place in Saint Peter’s Basilica. One of the most famous works of art, the Pietà was probably finished before Michelangelo was 25 years old, and it is the only work he ever signed.

The youthful Mary is shown seated majestically, holding the dead Christ across her lap, a theme borrowed from northern European art. Instead of revealing extreme grief, Mary is restrained, and her expression is one of resignation. In this work, Michelangelo summarizes the sculptural innovations of his 15th-century predecessors such as Donatello. While ushering in the new monumentality of the High Renaissance style of the 16th century.

The high point of Michelangelo’s early style is the gigantic (4.34 m/14.24 ft) marble David which he produced between 1501 and 1504, after returning to Florence. The Old Testament hero is depicted by Michelangelo as a nude youth, muscular and alert, looking off into the distance as if sizing up the enemy Goliath, whom he has not yet encountered.

The intensity of David’s facial expression is terrible, a feature characteristic of many of Michelangelo’s figures and of his own personality. David, Michelangelo’s most famous sculpture, became the symbol of Florence and originally was placed in the Piazza Della Signoria in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, the Florentine town hall. With this statue Michelangelo proved to his contemporaries that he not only surpassed all modern artists, but also the Greeks and Romans, by infusing formal beauty with powerful expressiveness and meaning.

While still occupied with the David, Michelangelo was given an opportunity to demonstrate his ability as a painter with the commission of a mural, the Battle of Cascina, destined for the Sala de Cinquecento of the Palazzo Vecchio, opposite Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari. Neither artist carried his assignment beyond the stage of a cartoon, a full-scale preparatory drawing. Michelangelo created a series of nude and clothed figures in a wide variety of poses and positions that are a prelude to his next major project, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

Pope Julius II recalled Michelangelo to Rome in 1505 for two commissions. The most important one was for the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Working high above the chapel floor, lying on his back on scaffolding, Michelangelo painted, between 1508 and 1512, some of the finest pictorial images of all time. On the vault of the papal chapel, he devised an intricate system of decoration, that included nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, beginning with God Separating Light from Darkness and including the Creation of Adam, the Creation of Eve, the Temptation and Fall of Adam and Eve, and the Flood.

These centrally located narratives are surrounded by alternating images of prophets on marble thrones, by other Old Testament subjects, and by the ancestors of Christ. In order to prepare for this enormous work, Michelangelo drew numerous figure studies and cartoons, devising scores of figure types and poses. These awesome, mighty images, demonstrating Michelangelo’s understanding of human anatomy and movement, changed the course of painting in the West.

Before the assignment of the Sistine ceiling in 1505, Michelangelo had been commissioned by Julius II to produce his tomb, which was planned to be the most magnificent of Christian times. It was to be located in the new Basilica of St. Peter’s, then under construction. Michelangelo enthusiastically went ahead with this challenging project, which was to include more than 40 figures, spending months in the quarries to obtain the necessary marble. Due to a mounting shortage of money, however, the pope ordered him to put aside the tomb project in favour of painting the Sistine ceiling. When Michelangelo went back to work on the tomb, he redesigned it on a much more modest scale. Nevertheless, Michelangelo made some of his finest sculptures for the Julius Tomb, including Moses the central figure in the much-reduced monument now located in Rome’s church of San Pietro.

The muscular patriarch sits alertly in a shallow, holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments. He looks off into the distance as if communicating with God. Two other superb statues, the Bound Slave and the Dying Slave (both c. 1510-13), Louvre, Paris, demonstrate Michelangelo’s approach to carving. He conceived of the figure as being imprisoned in the block. By removing the excess stone, the form was released. Here, as is frequently the case with his sculpture, Michelangelo left the statues unfinished, either because he was satisfied with them as is, or because he no longer planned to use them.

While residing in Florence for this extended period, he designed two large wall tombs facing each other across the high, domed room. One was intended for Lorenzo de’ Medici, duke of Urbino; the other for Giuliano de’ Medici, duke of Nemours. The two complex tombs were conceived as representing opposite types. He placed magnificent nude personifications of Dawn and Dusk beneath the seated Lorenzo, Day and Night beneath Giuliano; reclining river gods (never executed) were planned for the bottom. Work on the Medici Tombs continued long after Michelangelo went back to Rome in 1534, although he never returned to his beloved native city.

In Rome, in 1536, Michelangelo was at work on the Last Judgment for the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, which he finished in 1541. The largest fresco of the Renaissance, it depicts Judgment Day. A decade later, as the cultural climate became more conservative. Michelangelo painted his own image in the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew. Although he was also given another painting commission, the decoration of the Pauline Chapel in the 1540s, his main energies were directed toward architecture during this phase of his life.

Michelangelo’s crowning achievement, as an architect was his work at St. Peter’s Basilica, where he was made chief architect in 1546. The building was being constructed according to Donato Bramante’s plan, but Michelangelo ultimately became responsible for the altar end of the building on the exterior and for the final form of its dome.

During his long lifetime, Michelangelo was an intimate of princes and popes, from Lorenzo de’ Medici to Leo X, Clement VIII, and Pius III, as well as cardinals, painters, and poets. Neither easy to get along with nor easy to understand, he expressed his view of himself and the world even more directly in his poetry than in the other arts. Much of his verse deals with art and the hardships he underwent.

The great Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto wrote succinctly of this famous artist: “Michael more than mortal, divine angel.” Indeed, Michelangelo was widely awarded the epithet “divine” because of his extraordinary accomplishments. Two generations of Italian painters and sculptors were impressed by his treatment of the human figure.

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