Michelangelo, the man who made sculpture so lifelike, shaped the marble as if it breathed. One of the most famous artists of all time, he gave us the Sistine Chapel, the statue of David, the Pieta, and the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica. His unsurmountable talent as a sculptor, painter, architect, and poet, moved Pope Julius II to tears and earned him the nickname of Michelangelo ‘the divine’.
From humble beginnings, he became one of the richest men in Italy and was the first artist to have not one, but two biographies were written about him during his lifetime. Let’s start at the very beginning and take a look at what made Michelangelo so famous.
Michelangelo Buonarroti was born in 1475 in Caprese, just outside of Florence, to Ludovico Buonarroti and Francesca di Neri di Miniato del Serra. Unfortunately, his mother fell ill and he was sent to live with a family of local stonemasons. He later said in his diaries, “With my wet-nurse’s milk, I sucked in the hammer and chisels I use for my statues.”
In 1488 at the age of 13, Michelangelo began an apprenticeship to Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. This is where he mastered the fresco technique and famously received a broken nose following a dispute with a fellow artist. It is here that Michelangelo met the elite rulers of Florence, the Medici. The rest, as they say, is history.
Inside the Medici walls
By his teens, he was studying sculpture in the art academy located in the gardens of the powerful Medici family. One can only imagine the dinner parties inside the Medici palace walls, with wine and conversation flowing, and Botticelli and Michelangelo at the table.
Aged 18, Michelangelo made two relief sculptures, the Battle of the Centaurs and Madonna of the Steps. They display his exceptional early talents, distinctive style, and knowledge of the human form, something we see more of later on in the Sistine Chapel. His art teacher Ghirlandaio had studied history and had a great influence on Michelangelo’s appreciation of classical antiquity. For example, Mary’s classical Greek profile is reminiscent of ancient engravings known as stelai. Today, the works hang in the Casa Buonarroti, one of the most beautiful museums to visit in Florence.
After a brief period in Bologna, following the death of Lorenzo de Medici, he returned to Florence to continue working as a sculptor. The Medici were a major part of his world, when designing the tombs of Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici, he mourned them as he would his own family.
In 1498, Michelangelo began making the masterpiece that would forever take peoples breath away, the Pieta. Made from one piece of Carrara marble, it moved the ‘warrior’ Pope to tears. If you have not had the privilege of seeing this beautiful statue in St Peter’s Basilica, it’s a must. The subject matter, Mary holding her crucified son Christ, has been interpreted by so many artists. However, no doubt his own heartache having lost his mother at the tender age of six, contributed to the emotion of the statue. Mary’s beauty, elegance and grace are perfectly captured, whilst at the same time, a monumental mother figure in mourning.
Throughout his life he experienced depression and loneliness, and longed for the affection of a mother. There is no other statue of Mary comparable to date. It is also the only work signed by the artist. Michelangelo became the most in demand artist in Italy. This masterpiece secured him the job of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, as well as the commission for the tomb of Pope Julius.
Meanwhile in Florence, another masterpiece was about to be set free from the marble, the statue of David. Modestly, he said: “David was always there in the marble. I just took away everything that was not David.”
Michelangelo breaks the artistic tradition of showing David after the slaying of biblical giant Goliath. Instead, he shows him in pre stone throwing mode, thinking about the target, calmly assessing his next move. He appears determined, confident and exudes inner poise, and became a symbol of the city.
“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Michelangelo said.
As you approach the statue in the Accademia in Florence, David stops you in your tracks. Located under a domed skylight, he almost appears God like, although mortal. Well, marble. Marble, that is, from the Fantiscritti in the Miseglia district of Carrara.
His biggest project yet, was waiting in Rome.
The Sistine Chapel: The Creation of a lifetime
The Creation of Adam and scenes from Genesis that Michelangelo painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling is a full-on feast for the eyes. It’s hard to fathom how he accomplished a fresco cycle on such a grand scale. One of the most Googled images of all time and created in four years,1508-1512, it is of epic proportions.
A sculptor first and foremost, Michelangelo was a reluctant painter. ”I am bent like a bow and my back aches. Dear friend, rescue me now. I am not in a good place. And I am no painter.”
However, the ceiling was the ideal space to show off his special skills as an architect, painter and sculptor. The gigantic fresco combines all three arts, as he painted frames and optical illusions. Painted bronze medallions, muscular biblical figures and classical sibyls appear to pop out of the ceiling. In fact, there is so much going on that you could look at it 1000 times and still see something new each time. It seems humanly impossible to complete something like this in such a short time frame. The Sistine Chapel made Michelangelo a star of the Renaissance.
Back to Florence to make the Medici tombs
After falling out with Pope Julius over artistic differences in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo returned to his trusted Medici patrons. In 1524, he began on the Medici tombs commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici, the future Pope Clemens VII.
The tombs were for Lorenzo de Medici and his brother Giuliano and took 10 full years to create, until 1533. Sculptures of Night and Day, Dawn and Dusk, decorate the tombs, along with saints Cosma and Damian, the protectors of the Medici.
Just when you think all of this was impressive enough, he returns to Rome to start another larger than life fresco in the Sistine Chapel. In 1527, he started his Last Judgement altarpiece for the now Medici Pope Clemens VI. How could he say no? Frail and half-blind from all that dripping ceiling paint, he thought this would be his last work of art. So, added his only self-portrait, on the skin of the flayed Christian martyr Saint Bartholomew.
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After years as the chief architect of St Peter’s Basilica in his 70’s, he was then commissioned to do create its dome. In all its glory, it is the tallest structure on Rome’s skyline. You really have to see it to believe it! He worked through his 80s and survived both the sacks of Rome and Florence. Mind you he did design the defence walls, which helped matters.
In between creating all of these amazing works of art, he still had time to design Piazza di Campidoglio and the statue of Moses for the tomb of Pope Julius II, for the church of Saint Peter in Chains in Rome. Driven by passion, he was still chiselling away days before his death aged 88 in 1564.
Michelangelo’s tomb by legendary Florentine biographer Giorgio Vasari, in the Santa Croce church in Florence, says it all. It shows three sculptures personifying painting, sculpture and architecture, solemnly mourning the loss of the genius. How could art survive without him?