Michelangelo (1475-1564), Italian painter, sculptor, architect, and poet whose artistic accomplishments exerted a tremendous influence on his contemporaries and on subsequent European art. Michelangelo considered the male nude to be the foremost subject in art, and he explored its range of movement and expression in every medium. Even his architecture has a human aspect to it, in which a door, window, or support may refer to the face or body, or the position of architectural elements may suggest muscular tension.
Michelangelo continually sought challenge, whether physical, artistic, or intellectual. He favored media that required hard physical labor—marble carving and fresco painting. In painting figures, he chose poses that were especially difficult to draw. And he gave his works several layers of meaning, by including multiple references to mythology, religion, and other subjects. His success in conquering the difficulties he set for himself is remarkable, but he left many of his works unfinished, as if he were defeated by his own ambition.
Michelangelo Buonarroti was born in the small village of Caprese and grew up in Florence. Florence was the artistic center of the early Renaissance, a period of outstanding artistic innovation and accomplishment that began in the early 1400s. In many ways the masterpieces that surrounded Michelangelo were his best teachers—ancient Greek and Roman statuary, and the paintings, sculpture, and architecture of early Renaissance masters Masaccio, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello, Jacopo della Quercia, and Filippo Brunelleschi. As a child he preferred drawing to his schoolwork, despite his father's stern disapproval.
Eventually his father relented and allowed 13-year old Michelangelo to be apprenticed to Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. Michelangelo's time in Ghirlandaio's workshop was marked with conflict, and his training there ended after only a year. Although he later denied that Ghirlandaio had any influence on him, he surely learned the technique of fresco painting from him, and his early drawings show some evidence of drawing methods used by Ghirlandaio.
From 1490 to 1492 Michelangelo lived in the house of Lorenzo de' Medici (known as Lorenzo the Magnificent), then the leading art patron of Florence. The Medici household was a gathering place for artists, philosophers, and poets. During this time Michelangelo met and perhaps studied with Bertoldo di Giovanni, an aging master who had trained with Donatello, the greatest sculptor of 15th-century Florence. Other members of the Medici circle inspired in Michelangelo a love of literature that he would develop in his poetry (a significant, if less-accomplished art form for him). They also taught him the ideas of Neoplatonism—a philosophy that regards the body as a trap for a soul that longs to return to God. Scholars interpret many of Michelangelo's works in terms of these ideas, in particular, his human figures that appear to break free from the stone that imprisons them.
Lorenzo de’ Medici wished to revive the art of sculpture in the classical manner of the ancient Greeks and Romans (see Classic, Classical, and Classicism), and he had a collection of ancient art that Michelangelo doubtless studied. Classical art provided an inspiration and a standard of excellence that Michelangelo hoped to surpass. Some of his earliest sculptures imitated classical works so closely that they were passed off as Roman originals. Later, Michelangelo was on hand in Rome for the excavation of a massive ancient sculpture of Laocoön (probably a Roman copy of a Greek original from the 2nd century bc, Vatican Museums, Vatican City). This powerful grouping of the Trojan prince Laocoön and his two sons, as they struggle to free themselves from huge snakes, provided a model of tense and twisting bodies that Michelangelo used in many of his late works, including the Last Judgment (1536-1541, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City).
Michelangelo was a very religious man, but he expressed his personal beliefs most clearly in his late works. His late drawings are introspective meditations on Christian themes such as the crucifixion, and in some works he inserted his own image as an onlooker in a religious scene.
Throughout his career Michelangelo came in contact with learned and powerful men. His patrons were wealthy businessmen, civic leaders, and church officials, including popes Julius II, Clement VII (born Giulio de’ Medici, nephew of Lorenzo), and Paul III. Michelangelo strove to be accepted among his patrons as a gentleman, producing a large body of poetry and constructing a myth of noble ancestry. At the same time, he seemed to take pride in the physical work of making art. For example, he preferred the dirty and exhausting art of marble carving to that of panel painting, which he saw as something one could do in fine clothing. This is one of many contradictions in his life, but it is also an indication of the changing status of the artist—from craftsman to genius—that Michelangelo himself helped to bring about.
After political events led to the expulsion of the powerful Medici family from Florence in 1494, Michelangelo traveled to Venice, Bologna, and finally to Rome. He produced his first large-scale sculpture in Rome, a larger-than-life-size figure of a drunken Bacchus (1496-1498, Museo Nazionale, Bargello, Florence), the Roman god of wine. This sensual, nude youth is one of his few works of pagan rather than Christian subject matter and was based on ancient Greek and Roman statuary.
One of Michelangelo’s most memorable early works is a Pietà (1497-1500, Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican City). The Pietà theme shows Christ in his mother’s lap, just after he is taken down from the cross. The theme was popular in France and northern Europe. But the two figures typically appeared awkward in northern art, with the body of a grown man lying stiffly across the lap of a much smaller woman, and with the wounds of Christ exaggerated to elicit a strong emotional response from the viewer. In contrast, Michelangelo's version shows Mary grieving silently and makes Christ’s wounds barely visible. For intense emotionalism, Michelangelo substituted restrained but eloquent gestures—the Virgin calls our attention to her dead son with her left hand, while her right arm embraces him gently, lifting his arm slightly so that it hangs lifelessly before us. Mary's full robe forms a broad base for Christ's limp body, which curves slightly to wrap around hers, making the group graceful and compact.
Michelangelo originally intended for the piece to be placed within a shallow niche, and accordingly, he polished to a smooth finish all the surfaces that would have been visible and gave meticulous care to the drapery. This high degree of finish is rarely present in Michelangelo's work, and so probably reflects the tastes of the patron, a French cardinal who had commissioned the sculpture to be placed on his tomb. Michelangelo returned to the theme of the Pietà late in his life, in two of his most personal expressions: the Florentine Pietà (1547?-1555, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence), which he meant to have placed on his own tomb, and the Rondanini Pietà (1555-1564, Castello Sforzesco, Milan), a work that remained unfinished when he died.
Michelangelo returned to Florence in 1501 to work on David (1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence). The subject of this work is the Old Testament story of David and Goliath, in which the young David, future king of Israel, flings a stone from his slingshot to kill the giant Goliath, thereby saving his nation. The statue expresses not only the daring of the young hero, but also of Michelangelo himself, who established himself as a master with this work. This massive statue, which stands 5.17 meters (17 ft) tall, was carved from a block of stone that another sculptor had left unfinished. Michelangelo drew on the classical tradition in depicting David as a nude, standing with his weight on one leg, the other leg at rest (see contrapposto). This pose suggests impending movement, and the entire sculpture shows tense waiting, as David sizes up his enemy and considers his course of action.
While David reveals Michelangelo's expert knowledge of anatomy (he had been dissecting corpses for about five years), the head and hands are much too large in comparison with the torso. Critics have suggested several reasons for this inconsistency, but the most convincing is that the statue was originally intended for the roof of the Florence Cathedral, and exaggerating the head and hands made them more visible from a distance. The statue was never placed there, but set instead in front of the Palazzo della Signoria, the center of government in Florence. As a result its meaning changed: Rather than a religious image (it would have been one of several Old Testament figures on the cathedral), it became a symbol of the political strength of Florence against the forces of tyranny.
|C||The Tomb of Julius II|
In 1505 Michelangelo began work on a tomb for Pope Julius II that was to have stood in the apse of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Michelangelo’s earliest designs specify a freestanding structure with three levels: at the bottom, figures representing victory alternating with slaves; above them, four huge seated figures including Moses and Saint Paul; and finally, angels supporting either a coffin or an image of the pope. In all there would have been about 40 figures on a structure nearly as tall as a three-story building. But the scope of the work was drastically reduced as other projects delayed its completion.
In the end only three figures by Michelangelo's hand were placed on the tomb, which is now in Rome’s church of San Pietro in Vincoli. Of these, the most powerful figure is Moses (about 1515), a dynamic example of Michelangelo’s ability to infuse stone with a sense of movement and life. The muscular torso of Moses twists to the left, but his scowling face turns sharply to the right as if he has just seen the people worshiping their false god. His left leg is drawn back, as if he were about to rise to his feet in anger.
Two of the slave statues originally planned for the tomb, the Rebellious Slave and the Dying Slave (both about 1513-1516, Louvre, Paris, France), were also completed. They demonstrate Michelangelo’s approach to carving, in which cutting away excess stone appears to release an entrapped human figure. Here, as in many of his sculptures, Michelangelo left parts of the block of stone rough and unfinished, either because he was satisfied with the statues as they were or because he no longer planned to use them.
A major project preventing completion of the tomb of Julius II was a new commission from Julius himself, to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Between 1508 and 1512 Michelangelo created some of the most memorable images of all time on the vaulted ceiling of the papal chapel in the Vatican. His intricate system of decoration tells the biblical story of Genesis, beginning with God separating light and dark (above the altar), progressing to the story of Adam and Eve, and concluding with the story of Noah. Scenes from the biblical stories of David, Judith, Esther, and Moses are depicted in the corners, while images of prophets, sibyls (female prophets), and the ancestors of Christ are set in a painted architectural framework above the windows. Bright, clear colors enliven and unify the vast surface, and make the details more legible from the floor of the chapel.
The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Ceiling (1508-1512) is perhaps Michelangelo’s finest fusion of form and meaning. Adam’s pose echoes both the shape of the ground on which he reclines and the pose of God the Father, thus giving visual form to the biblical description of Adam as made from the earth in the likeness of God. We see Adam beginning to come to life, as he reaches listlessly toward the vigorous energy that the image of God embodies.
|V||CHURCH OF SAN LORENZO|
The Tomb of Julius II required architectural planning, but Michelangelo’s activity as an architect began in earnest with a plan for the facade of the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence (designed 1516-1520, but never executed). Michelangelo probably had no formal training as an architect, but during the Renaissance it was not unusual for artists to be given architectural commissions simply because they had demonstrated the ability to draw and create designs. Michelangelo envisioned the San Lorenzo facade as a two-story marble screen supporting as many as 40 statues.
By 1520 funding was discontinued for the San Lorenzo facade, but Michelangelo remained occupied with other projects for this church. The commission for a sacristy (1519-1534) for San Lorenzo included plans for Medici family tombs. As did many of Michelangelo’s designs, this one went through numerous changes before it was executed, but in the end it consisted of two large wall tombs facing each other across a high, domed room. One was intended for Giuliano de’ Medici (duke of Nemours), the son of Lorenzo the Magnificent; the other for Giuliano’s nephew Lorenzo (di Piero) de’ Medici (duke of Urbino). Michelangelo conceived of the two tombs as representing opposite types: Giuliano symbolized the active, extroverted personality, Lorenzo , the contemplative, introspective one. He placed nudes representing Day and Night beneath Giuliano; nudes representing Dawn and Dusk beneath a seated Lorenzo. Plans for reclining river gods at the base of each tomb were never executed.
The elegant Laurentian Library (designed 1524-1534), adjoining the Church of San Lorenzo, confirmed Michelangelo’s architectural abilities. In this and subsequent architectural projects, he combined classical motifs–columns, pediments, niches, and brackets—in new ways and distorted their relative proportions to give his architecture the surging energy of his sculpture and painting. In the entrance hall of the library, he invented new forms for the capitals of columns and tapered the pilasters (flattened pillars attached to walls) downward instead of upward. The curving contours of the central staircase seem to flow downward and outward, while rectilinear steps to its sides maintain a steady, upward march, giving a sense of checked energy.
|VI||THE LAST JUDGMENT|
Michelangelo was again called to work in the Sistine Chapel in 1534, when Clement VII (born Giulio de’ Medici, nephew of Lorenzo the Magnificent) commissioned him to paint the wall above the altar. The Last Judgment (1536-1541), with which Michelangelo covered the wall, depicts Christ's second coming at the end of the world. The enormous scene is focused on the impassive figure of Christ whose right arm is poised to strike down the damned, while the left arm seems gently to call the blessed toward him. At his side is the Virgin Mary, traditionally included as a figure of mercy at the Last Judgment; she quietly looks downward toward those who emerge from their graves. The nude bodies of the saints and the figures rising to heaven are massive, perhaps to emphasize the belief that their physical bodies would be revived in a glorified state. The scene of hell in the lower right corner does not show Satan or various hellish torments as was customary, but is based instead on the Inferno, part of an early 14th-century epic poem, The Divine Comedy, by Italian writer Dante Alighieri. This and many other aspects of the Last Judgment (especially the nudity) were sharply criticized soon after the fresco was unveiled and helped it become one of the most talked about and most frequently copied works of art in the 16th century.
|VII||PIAZZA DEL CAMPIDOGLIO|
Michelangelo’s designs for the Piazza del Campidoglio (begun 1539, completed later by others) and its surrounding buildings succeeded in restoring this public space to its former role as the civic and political heart of Rome. Michelangelo’s program for remodeling the Campidoglio (Italian for “capitol”) began with a commission to create a new base for an ancient Roman bronze statue of emperor Marcus Aurelius on horseback. His plans soon expanded to include the addition of a double staircase to the building behind the statue, Palazzo Senatorio (completed 1544-1552); new and identical facades for the buildings to the sculpture’s right and left, the Palazzo dei Conservatori (1563-1584) and the Palazzo Nuovo (1603-1650s); and finally a broad, ramplike stairway defines the uphill approach to the piazza.
The oval base Michelangelo designed for the statue of Marcus Aurelius became the basis for his design of the entire space. He placed the statue at the center of the piazza, which was paved in an oval pattern of radiating and interlocking lines. Approaching the piazza from the steps below, visitors are drawn into the receding space created by twin palaces, which angle subtly outward, and toward the staircase at either side of the Palazzo Senatorio. Perfect symmetry combines with flowing curves, traditional Roman forms with inventive new ones, to produce a unified and dynamic public space.
|VIII||SAINT PETER’S BASILICA|
In 1546 Michelangelo was given the task of completing the design for Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Pope Julius II first gave the commission to Michelangelo’s rival, Donato Bramante, in 1506. Bramante envisioned a church based upon a Greek cross (a cross with all four arms of equal length) and surmounted by a great dome. When Bramante died in 1514, only the enormous supports for the dome were in place, but these determined the scale and other elements of the design. At least three other architects contributed to the design before Michelangelo took over, with the most recent one having added a long nave to the church. Michelangelo returned to Bramante's plan, but made it more compact, strengthening the supports and unifying the exterior with gigantic pairs of pilasters with Corinthian capitals. The pilasters alternate with large openings topped with pediments (triangular forms). Around the base of the dome the line of the pilasters is echoed by fully rounded columns, which are in turn repeated on a smaller scale in the lantern at the top of the dome. The effect is one of great mass pushing upward, the forms varied in complex ways yet unified as a whole.
Throughout his life, Michelangelo produced drawings of all sorts, including quick pen sketches, composition drawings, careful studies of anatomy, and architectural plans and elevations. In a special category, however, are the highly finished presentation drawings, meant to be seen as complete works of art and given as gifts to his closest friends. Some of these drawings represent classical myths, but he selected these myths and sometimes reshaped them to reflect personal meanings or to express Neoplatonic ideas. Others represent idealized human beings. An example is the Divine Head (1530?, British Museum, London), a drawing of a female paired with the male Count of Canossa (original drawing lost). Using short strokes of chalk that are precisely modulated (varied in tone) and stippling (dots or flecks), Michelangelo creates an image of perfection. These are imaginative works, showing the skill of the artist both in the meticulous rendering of surfaces and in the wildly creative hairstyles or helmets he gives them.
Michelangelo's influence on his contemporaries and on later artists was profound. Mannerism was an art movement based on exaggeration of aspects of the style of Michelangelo and other artists of the late Renaissance. The mannerists were particularly drawn to the complex poses and elongated elegance of some of his figures. Later artists, including Annibale Carracci and Peter Paul Rubens, emulated the powerful strength of his figures but combined it with the graceful line of Raphael or the colors used by Titian, two of Michelangelo’s contemporaries. But perhaps Michelangelo's greatest legacy to later artists is the image of the genius that he and those around him fashioned. Brooding, isolated, challenging, temperamental—these are the words that described Michelangelo’s character and that we still use to describe artists seized by an inspiration that seems more than human.