Planning to improve your knowledge of Rennaisance art by admiring artworks by Michelangelo, but unsure what famous artwork you should see? Don’t worry: we are Michelangelo experts, so we have you covered. Here are the most famous paintings you should not miss when trying to understand Michelangelo!
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The 11 Most Famous Accomplishments By Michelango
Before we learn about Michelangelo’s accomplishments, I will give you a brief overview of him as an artist. Context is very important to comprehend art. Michelangelo was born 6th of march 1475 in the province of Arezzo (Tuscany). His full name was Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. According to historian Eugene Müntz, Michelangelo saw himself primarily as a sculptor, referring to himself always as a scultore. This is what he excelled at, and that is why he is considered the best sculptor of the renaissance.
The best characteristics that describe Michelangelo’s work are sobriety and conciseness. Also, he excelled at expressing classical beauty, movement, and the overall expression of the human body. According to Tamra B. Orr, one of the reasons his work was so prolific and his fame lasted so long is because he enjoyed a much longer life than many of his contemporaries, dying at 88 in 1564.
Finally, as historians, we know a lot about him because he wrote hundreds of letters. These give us great insight into his mind as a person and artist. Unfortunately for Michelangelo, we also know that he had an abrasive character. In fact, his fellow artist Pietro Torriagnise often said that Michelangelo came across as arrogant.
These aspects of his life, work, and personality help us understand better the results of Michelangelo’s artwork. Now that you know this, let’s dig into his accomplishments!
11. Prolific Poet
Pen & Chisel | Sonnets & Madrigals
I wanted to start this article with a huge accomplishment for Michelangelo that not many people are aware of. He wrote over 300 poems! Michelangelo loved literature and took his passion as another form of self-expression. According to Chris Ryan, Michelangelo admitted he was not the best with his use of language, but that did not stop him from trying to cultivate this art form.
The quality of these poems is still open to interpretation. A few of them were actually published during his lifetime. The evidence suggests some were published without his knowledge by admirers or potentially people looking to ridicule him.
Ambra Moroncini states Michaelangelo’s poems reflect his religious journey from traditional catholicism to Neoplatonism. Several pieces include theological discourse that we have seen reflected in his painting and sculpture. However, Glauco Cambon argues Michelangelo used humor and transgression in the early years. Nonetheless, this changes as he gets older. Amid his frenetic artistic career, having the time to elaborate on such a volume of literature pieces is definitely an accomplishment worth talking about!
10. Best Patronage
c.1492 | Marble relief | Casa Buonarroti (Florence)
The Battle of the Centaurs is the last work he does for his patron Lorenzo de Medici, as Lorenzo dies shortly after. It depicts the Greek myth where the centaurs are invited to the wedding of the Lapiths. The centaurs, drunk on wine, start fighting, which causes them to be banished from Thessaly. The fact that Michelangelo had secured such a valuable patron at such a young age is a huge accomplishment. Many art historians concur that Lorenzo liked Michelangelo because he saw a bit of himself in the young artist. They were both fearless.
According to Gabriella di Cagno a friend of Michelangelo, Poliziano, suggested the topic to the artist. The meaning behind the topic is the victory of human reason, symbolised by the Lapiths who controlled themselves, against the brute force of the centaurs.
An achievement Michelangelo accomplishes with this carving is that it creates a sense of depth on a flat surface. By making all the bodies mangled amongst themselves, it creates volume. Moreover, it creates shines and shadows that give more depth by keeping the figures at the front more polished than those at the back.
Besides, this work is significant because Michelangelo uses a chisel instead of a bow drill to carve the figures. A bow drill is a tool that allows to carve delicate shapes. By using the chisel Michelangelo gives the whole composition more of a roughness. According to Gabriella di Cagno the chisel effect increases the brutality of the topic.
9. One Man’s Junk Is Another’s Treasure
1496-1497 | Marble sculpture | Museo Nazionale del Bargello (Florence)
I wanted to highlight Bacchus as a proper accomplishment. I think so because it already sets the tone for how the young artist would operate. After all, not every patron was Lorenzo de Medici! According to Lilian H. Zirpolo, it seems that the inspiration for this Bacchus came from Pliny the Elder’s description of a sculpture by Praxiteles of a drunken Baccus.
It seems that Michelangelo’s original patron for this piece, Cardinal Riario invited the artist to take inspiration from his personal collection of mythological pieces. Then, Michelangelo, who was deeply taken by Green and Roman art, took this inspiration and gave it a twist.
This depiction of Baccus as a drunken person, with his mouth agape to take yet another sip of wine, is rather uncommon. In fact, this controversial take and depiction are likely what makes the cardinal reject the piece and the reason why it ends in the possession of the banker Jacopo Galli, according to Zirpolo. That on its own is a huge accomplishment for an artist like him. He decided to stay true to his vision regardless of the consequences.
8. International Superstar
1501-1504 | Marble sculpture | Onze Lievre Vrouwekerk Church of Our Lady (Bruges)
The Madonna of Bruges is a great example of Michelangelo’s fame even in his early years. In addition, it highlights the influences artistic or otherwise that mingled in Florence during the 15th and 16th centuries. According to Müntz, there were strong trading links between Flanders and Florence.
Besides, important Flemish artists left their mark in Florence, such as Jan van Eyck or Hans Memling. This Madonna was, in fact, bought by Flemish merchants. Furthermore, it seems he took some inspiration from Flemish art that, according to Müntz, actually moved him to tears, unlike Italian art.
The sculpture itself depicts the classic topic of the Virgin with the child. However, the child is almost standing upright without any support from the Virgin. In addition, she appears to be looking away from the child. This is probably a borrowing from his Pieta alongside the Flemish influences.
However, the most remarkable thing about this sculpture is that it became the first of his artworks to leave Italy during his lifetime. This suggests his work was good enough to receive international recognition, which many of his fellow contemporaries did not achieve. Finally, the piece appears in the film The Monuments Men as it was one of the stolen artworks by the Nazis.
7. Of Horns and Tombs
1513-1515 | Marble | San Pietro in Vincoli (Rome)
This statue of Moses with horns is one of the most controversial pieces Michelangelo did. It is supposedly based on a description of Moses in the Vulgate Bible. The statue itself is part of a larger composition. This is a sculptural piece for the tomb of Pope Julius II. The tomb itself was not finished until 1545 because of Michelangelo’s busy agenda. In fact, he had to bring several of his assistants to finish the project.
According to Müntz, this tomb collective reflects all of Michelangelo’s innovations. He uses allegorical figures as the center of his pieces as they stimulated his imagination. This is the case of Moses himself and the reason behind this peculiar depiction. However, in Italy at the time, these allegorical forms were background noise.
Therefore, he was breaking the norms of composition in sculpture pieces. Moreover, the colossal tomb displays such a degree of high spiritualism. This makes sense as we know Michelangelo was a deep and devoted catholic. It adds a dramatism that was not mirrored by other contemporary artists.
Furthermore, Müntz states that the importance of representing movement in renaissance art also changes the way effigies and tombs are made. Artists such as Michelangelo ditch the ever restful poses of the deceased to bring them “back to life”. All these innovations in just one piece make this sculptural group such an achievement for Michelangelo.
6. Mannerism Architectural Explosion
1523-1571 | Historical Library | Florence
The Laurentian Library, (called Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana or BML), was a great accomplishment for Michelangelo and his patron. Although Michelangelo didn’t finish the construction himself, he designed the whole complex. In addition, guided the architects that took over from him. The complex counts with a vestibule or ricetto, a grand staircase, and a reading room over 46 metres long. It is the epitome of Mannerism architecture.
Michelangelo used cleverly familiar architectural pieces, such as classical columns. Moreover, he used them in a traditional structural way and as decorative elements. This causes a great contrast perceived as an artistic transgression. According to Fazzio and Moffett, the staircase also disrupts the traditional renaissance style. It adds a sense of drama as it pours over into the vestibule, reducing the space almost as if it was lava. This is another transgression where looks take over the function. In contrast, the large reading room offers a quiet and serene space appropriate for a man of the Renaissance.
Regarding the patron of this building, we cannot ignore the message he was sending. The commissioner was Pope Clement VII. He was a member of the Medici family for whom Michelangelo had worked previously. Now that he was pope, this building represented the increase in status for the Medici. These were no longer ambitious Florentine bankers: they were holy envoys seated at the Papacy.
5. Sculptor Turned Painter
1508-1512 | Fresco | Sistine Chapel (Vatican)
Interestingly, when Michelangelo was 13, he went to study with an art instructor, Ghirlandaio, who taught him the basic skills a painter needed during the Renaissance. Most importantly, he learnt how to paint frescoes. An anecdote, I will share with you is that Michelangelo wrote himself that, he left Ghirlandaio because he didn’t think he had learned much from him at all. However, according to Tim McNeese, the instruction Michelangelo received in this workshop was crucial for his performance at the Sistine Chapel.
In fact, Ghirlandaio painted one of the wall paintings in the Sistine Chapel, almost 20 years before Michelangelo started on the famous ceiling. McNeese explains Michelangelo struggled in his youth with his patrons because he was often restricted by them. Furthermore, Ulrich Pfisterer argues that Michelangelo probably did not have any freedom on the content and narrative of the fresco. Instead, he likely just had a choice on the form and presentation.
Therefore, Michelangelo painted the nine famous scenes from the Book of Genesis on the ceiling of which The Creation of Adam and Eve is the most famous. On this ceiling, Michelangelo achieved a degree of dynamism and storytelling without comparison or precedent in art.
This is funny if we think of the high regard we hold for him currently as a painter and how he never considered himself anything but a sculptor. In fact, his work at the Sistine Chapel as a painter will push him further towards Mannerism, of which he became a leading figure for future artists. For all the praise it received from its contemporaries, the importance it had for his future career and for art history as a whole, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is one of Michelangelo’s greatest accomplishments.
Seeing the Sistine Chapel is a must while in Rome. You can quickly run through the museums on your own or fall in love with art by joining a guide.
4. Inducing the Fear of God
1536-1541 | Fresco | Sistine Chapel (Vatican)
According to Sue Tatem, the are a total of 391human figures in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. According to Lilian H. Zirpolo, where Michelangelo excelled in this piece was in creating an imposing unified picture. The Last Judgement was a common religious art piece throughout the renaissance. However, normally the artist would depict this scene as compartmentalised compositions and groups. Instead, Michelangelo puts Jesus in the centre, surrounded by the apostles and the virgin at his side. Then, he exchanged the compartmentalisation by creating hierarchies by using different sizes for the different figures in the painting.
However, this became perhaps one of the most controversial things he painted. Firstly, unlike the work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, this piece caused the destruction of previous artworks on the altar wall where it currently lives. Moreover, Blunt and Khan explain the nudity in the painting caused religious discontent.
In addition, the mixing of pagan elements with such a somber Christian myth was also polarising. Furthermore, Freedberg defended that the theme of the Last Judgment in traditional Italian art was less exuberant and full of excitement. This also caused mixed readings and reactions.
This contributed to the strange rivalry that Michelangelo cultivated with Raphael. Raphael, who admired Michelangelo, was considered very divine and decorum appropriate. However, despite being extremely religious, Michelangelo’s interpretation and constant spiritual turmoil created radically different versions of the Christian myth. Contemporary writer Vasari explains that Michelangelo’s Last Judgement has a sense of terrabilita: terror-inducing emotions.
Seeing the Sistine Chapel is a must while in Rome. You can quickly run through the museums on your own or fall in love with art by joining a guide.
Not ready to book a tour? Find out if a tour of the Sistine Chapel is worth it.
3. First Public Comission and Signature
1498-1499 | Marble sculpture | St. Peter’s Basilica (Vatican)
La Pietà is important because it was Michelangelo’s first piece of public art. It was originally commissioned as the funerary monument for Cardinal Jean de Bilhères: the French ambassador in Rome. Furthermore, according to Pina Ragionieri, this is the only piece with his signature.
There is a story around this signing which is hard to determine if it is true or just a legend. Apparently, some visitors who went to see the piece, stated this was the work of another artist. When Michelangelo found out, he took offense and went back to sign the statue. Considering what we know of his character, this would not be so surprising.
But, this piece is an accomplishment for many other reasons. According to Antonio Forcellino, Michelangelo captured the sense of devotion and melancholy needed for striking imagery of the Madonna holding the deposed body of Christ. You can see this grief in the Virgin’s face and the tortured body of Jesus. The psychology behind this sculpture is beyond comparison.
Moreover, according to Pina Ragionieri, the technical execution of the fabric and the anatomical bodies already demonstrated that Michelangelo was an excellent artist. Finally, he depicted the Virgin Mary as a youthful woman instead of the older matriarch, as it was traditional. This is another unique trait of this piece.
The Pieta is inside the St. Peter’s Basilica and captivating to witness, but what makes it better than other statues? Find out with a guide.
2. He Finished St. Peter’s Basilica
1547-1564 | Basilica & Dome | Vatican
According to William E. Wallace, the biggest achievement of Michelangelo is St Peter’s Basilica “giant order”. By doing this, the architect gives the building an impressive vertical thrust which, from the outside perspective, covers up the pastiche work of previous designers and architects, giving it some cohesion and grandeur. For this building, he used Brunelleschi and Florence Cathedral as inspiration.
It is important to understand the impact of Michelangelo’s work as an architect here. By the time he takes over, the basilica was in a depressing state. According to William E. Wallace, there was a lot of unfinished work: an open roof on the nave, scaffolding everywhere, and damages to many artworks already in place. So when in 1547 he became the supreme architect, he would dedicate the rest of his artistic career to complete this project.
Moreover, the dynamic between patron and artist is important here. According to Wallace, Pope Paul III wanted exclusivity over Michelangelo to complete this work. Therefore, the artist had to forgo many other projects. However, this gave Michelangelo a lot of freedom to carry out his design as a compromise for taking him away from the rest of his commissions.
The St. Peter’s Basilica Dome by Michelangelo is one of the largest dome’s on Earth. It also has a staircase to the top! Yep, Michelangelo built a massive dome and said, “maybe tourists will want to climb this in 500 years — ill build a staircase!” Understand more about Michelangelo and his Dome with a guided tour.
Not ready to book a tour? Find out if a tour of St. Peter’s Dome is worth it.
1. 30 Year Old Damaged Marble Turned into Masterpiece
1501-1504 | Marble sculpture | Galleria dell’Accademia (Florence)
There are entire books written about Michelangelo’s David. But a lot of people do not know that this 5.17 metre statue sat in the wet and cold for 30 years, waiting for its master. According to Miles J Unger, the block of Carrara marble that eventually became the David had been in the courtyard of the cathedral workshop exposed to the elements since the late 15th century. The story behind this incident goes like this.
The marble came from Carrara for works happening at Florence Cathedral. Donatello worked on some statues, and so did Agostino di Duccio. He was the first to work on this marble and marked it to start sculpting. However, he left the project shortly after Donatello’s death and Antonio Rosselino took over. But he did not last long. Unfortunately, the marble stood outside, waiting, as a consequence of the delays. Yet, despite all inconvenience and after 4 years of constant work, Michelangelo turned it into a masterpiece.
According to Eugene Müntz, the contrapposto of the David is so good because Michelangelo studied anatomy. Like Leonardo, Michelangelo examined autopsies of dead bodies to learn more about the human form. With this knowledge, he created more realistic sculptures. This position where David is holding all his weight on one foot makes him look like he is about to move.
Michelangelo wasn’t even 30 when he made this statue and he had already such a mastery of a key renaissance technique. This is what made the David a masterpiece of the Renaissance. As a result, he received many commissions in Florence from other patrons. In fact, this became one of the busiest artistic periods of his life.
Not ready to book a tour? Read our tips for how to visit the Accademia Gallery.