Accessible Art History
Artist Spotlight: Michelangelo
Michelangelo Buonarroti is one of the most famous names in the history of art. Although he always considered himself a sculptor, his painting and architectural skills were equally impressive. In fact, he is one of the reasons the term “Renaissance man” was coined. Michelangelo’s abilities were so legendary that his contemporaries referred to him as “Il Divino" or the divine one. This led to him being the first artist to have his biography published while he was still living! In this blog post, I am going to explore his life and works, to show why he was worthy of such a title.
On March 6, 1475, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was born in Arezzo, Italy. It was a small town in the Republic of Florence. His family had been small scale bankers and nobles for generations, but their wealth and prestige had run out by the time he was born. In order to make ends meet, his father took a job in local government, which did afford him a few connections. Sadly, Michelangelo’s mother died when he was six years old.
This marked a turning point in Michelangelo’s life. His father sent him to live with a stonecutter and his wife. The exposure to marble quarries instilled a love for sculpture that would last for his entire life. It wasn’t long before his artistic talent was noticed. He was sent to Florence for training and entered into the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio at the age of 13. However, Michelangelo was so proficient, that one year later, he was working for the illustrious Medici family! One interesting fact about this time: when Michelangelo was 17, he got into a fist fight with another young artist. His nose was broken and was not set properly. This leads to the famous crooked nose that is seen in his surviving portraits.
Michelangelo continued to work for the Medici family until Lorenzo’s death in 1492. Two years later, he was expelled from Florence as a part of Savonarola’s crusade against vanities and pleasure. In order to escape further persecution, Michelangelo moved to Rome. This was when the first of his major pieces was commissioned: The Pietà.
Cardinal Jean de Bilhères instructed Michelangelo to create this piece as a part of his tomb. Pietà scenes were quite common in Renaissance Europe at this time. They are a part of the larger Lamentation story and show Mary cradling her Son Christ after He was crucified on the cross. However, unlike earlier depictions, Michelangelo chose to show the figures as serene and calm. This does not
show the pain and suffering of death. Instead, it shows the triumph over death. Each muscle and cloth fold was carefully calculated. To the viewer, it looks as if they are going to open their eyes at any moment! It’s a remarkable piece that sits in St. Peter’s Basilica today. In fact, Michelangelo was so proud of this work that it is the only one he ever signed.
Eventually, Michelangelo moved back to his hometown of Florence. He would work here for the next fifteen years or so. His projects were almost always connected to one of the major churches in the city. It was during this period that he sculpted another of his iconic pieces: David. Michelangelo took it as a personal challenge to create this work. The marble had been discarded over a decade prior, for being imperfect. But, by his hands, it became an icon of Western art.
David stands at a shocking seventeen feet high! He is nude, a Renaissance ideal. He is confident, brow furrowed as he surveys the scene before him. The slight tilt to his hip, called contrapposto, helps to make him seem more human. Viewers can tell that this was meant to be the moment right before the big battle between David and Goliath. If they look closely, they can see the rock held carefully in David’s hand, just waiting to be loaded into the slingshot. Michelangelo created this piece as a symbol of his beloved hometown. Florence saw itself as the underdog of the Italian peninsula, just as David was the underdog in his life.
It wasn’t long before Michelangelo’s talent caught the eye of the Papacy. In the early 1500’s , he was summoned by Pope Julius II to Rome. Julius II was an art lover, in fact, he founded the Vatican Museums! And he wanted the best of the best to design his tomb. But, he got a bit too zealous. In 1508, Julius II took Michelangelo away from the tomb project and had him paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo insisted that he was a sculptor, not a painter, but Julius wasn’t hearing it. To our eyes, it appears that Michelangelo was equally as talented with a brush as he was a chisel.
The sheer size of the Sistine chapel ceiling is staggering. Michelangelo, using all sorts of scaffolds and contraptions, had to paint over 5000 square feet of ceiling! The center shows scenes from the Book of Genesis, divided into three sections: The Creation, Adam and Eve, and the Great Flood. These scenes are surrounded by images of Jesus’ ancestors and the prophets that spoke of His coming. Michelangelo’s paintings are famous for their bright colors and extremely muscular forms. They are realistic in the sense of three dimensionality, but also ethereal from the way he portrays the human body.
For the rest of his life, Michelangelo bounced around between Florence and Rome. While in Florence, he continued to work for the ruling Medici family until they had a falling out. By that time, the Papacy had once again summoned him to beautify
the city. In the 1530’s, Michelangelo was once again working in the Sistine Chapel. This time, he painted a fantastic Last Judgment scene. It caused quite a bit of controversy due to the amount of nude holy figures and the fact that he painted a cardinal in hell, getting his private parts eaten by a snake.
In 1546, Michelangelo was named chief architect of the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica. The central plan topped by a magnificent dome. Not only was it beautiful, but it helped to stabilize the church, ensuring it would last for many centuries to come. In fact, this church is considered to be one of the most beautiful examples of Renaissance architecture in history.
Michelangelo continued to work until his death on February 18, 1564. He was 83 years old, a remarkable age for that time. Even then, he was remembered as a man of many talents. Despite his cranky and often off-putting attitude, it is clear that Michelangelo was a true genius.
This was only a short overview of Michelangelo’s life and work. I hope you enjoyed it and learned a lot about this Renaissance Man”!
Portrait of Michelangelo
Attributed to Daniele da Volterra
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
CC 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Sistine Chapel Ceiling
CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Gardner’s Art through the Ages, 12th edition by Fred S. Kleiner
Europe 101 by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw