Michelangelo Buonarroti – one of the most famous names in the history of arts. The name of this man became a synonym to the word “masterpiece”. His life was an amazing story of achievements that are even more amazing taking into account the ages he would live in.
However, one should not forget that in the time he lived the art and beauty were also highly dependant on patronage. Michelangelo was not an exception. His life and work were caught between two main powers: Medici dynasty that ruled Florence at that time and the pope’s power. It was only his incredible talent that allowed him to create all his magnificent works and not to be destroyed by either of powers in the very beginning of his life as an artist.
Birth and Youth
“Today March 6, 1475, a child of the male sex has been born to me and I have named him Michelangelo. He was born on Monday between 4 and 5 in the morning, at Caprese, where I am the Podesta.” (Bonner, 2001)
This note was made by his father on the day of his birth. Despite the fact that Michelangelo was actually born in a small village, he, as well as his father, always considered himself as the son of Florence.
His mother was too ill to nurse him so he was given to the wet nurse it the family of stonecutters where he soaked in love to art together with the milk he drunk. It is possible that this fact played the major role in his future life (Summers, 1981).
In a course of time his father recognized his intelligence and eagerness to learn and sent him to the school of Francesco Galeota from Urbino who taught grammar at that time. It was there where he meat Francesco Granacii – a six years older boy who studied art and became a good friend of his. It was he who encouraged Michelangelo to fallow his own vision in art.
By the time the boy was 13 his father became one of the minor officials in Florence and hoped that the studies of his son would make him a businessman or merchant and preserve the social status of the family. Thus he was extremely angry when the boy said that he arranged to apprentice in the painter’s workshop.
After a year of study at the workshop he went to study sculpture in the Medici gardens. Shortly after that, he was invited in the household of the Florence ruler – Lorenzo the Magnificent. There he maid acquaintances with some of the younger Medici (who became popes afterwards) and some people of art of that time (Wilde, 1978).
At the same gardens the great artist studied human anatomy. Since, the studies of corps were strictly forbidden by the church the wooden Crucifix became the price for the permission to conduct those studies. However, the studies of dead bodies caused the boy some health problems once in a while and he had to stop those studies from time to time.
By the age of 16 Michelangelo produces his first two sculptures. My first work was a small bas-relief, The Madonna of the Stairs. Mary, Mother of God, sits on the rock of the church. The child curls back into her body. She foresees his death, and his return on the stairway to heaven. “My second work, another small relief. My tutor read me the myth of the battle of the Lapiths against the Centaurs. The wild forces of Life, locked in heroic combat.” (Bonner, 2001).
The death of Lorenzo the Magnificent put the end to the political stability in Florence and resulted in the change of the regime. As the result the reaction party came into power and many works of art and rare books were destroyed.
Michelangelo moved to Rome, where he studied ancient art and ruins. It was there where he produced his first large-scale sculpture. Bacchus over life-size was more a pagan then a Christian work and reflected all the classical features of antique (Ackerman, 1986).
It was also around that time when Michelangelo created his famous Pieta which was finished before he was even 25. This work became the only signed work of the author due to the pride that seized him when he heard the rumors that the work was produced by another author.
The work is often reffered to as the greatest work of the sculpture. Giorgio Vasari commented on it:
It would be impossible for any craftsman or sculptor no matter how brilliant ever to surpass the grace or design of this work, or try to cut and polish the marble with the skill that Michelangelo displayed. For the Pieta was a revelation of all the potentialities and force of the art of sculpture.
Among the many beautiful features (including the inspired draperies) this is notably demonstrated by the body of Christ itself. It would be impossible to find a body showing greater mastery of art and possessing more beautiful members, or a nude with more detail in the muscles, veins, and nerves stretched over their framework of bones, or a more deathly corpse. The lovely expression of the head, the harmony in the joints and attachments of the arms, legs, and trunk, and the fine tracery of the veins are all so wonderful that it is hard to believe that the hand of an artist could have executed this inspired and admirable work so perfectly and in so short a time. It is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh.”
Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists, first published 1550, 2nd edition 1558 (Bonner, 2001)
When the political situation stabilized Michelangelo came back to Florence where he was hired to create the statue of David. To understand the meaning that the statue head for Michelangelo and what he tried to express through it one should have a look at the political situation Florence was in (Tolnay, 1975).
At that time the city was endangered by many threats and people had to stay alert to be able to deal with those constant threats. Michelangelo, being in favor of republic, took every effort to express his position as a citizen and tried to explain to the people of Florence their role in the society and their responsibilities.
Here’s how the author himself reflects on the statue: “When I returned to Florence, I found myself famous. The City Council asked me to carve a colossal David from a nineteen-foot block of marble — and damaged to boot! I locked myself away in a workshop behind the cathedral, hammered and chiseled at the towering block for three long years. In spite of the opposition of a committee of fellow artists, I insisted that the figure should stand before the Palazzo Vecchio, as a symbol of our Republic. I had my way. Archways were torn down, narrow streets widened…it took forty men five days to move it. Once in place, all Florence was astounded. A civic hero, he was a warning…whoever governed Florence should govern justly and defend it bravely. Eyes watchful…the neck of a bull…hands of a killer…the body, a reservoir of energy. He stands poised to strike.” (Bonner, 2001)
Pope Jullius II
Similar challenges in Michelangelo’s life were believed to be current because of his nontraditional lifestyle and his unorthodox methods. Raphael was favored by the church, because he was an example artist that the church can point out, while there were suspicions about Michelangelo’s sexual preferences and routine. Michelangelo’s arrogant behaviors towards other artists and members of the church created attention on him. Yet, he challenged the church with his work when Michelangelo reflected the Renaissance in the central panels on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. A particular portion of ceiling showed how Adam and God became members of the same race of super beings, reflecting a combination of Greek mythology and Christianity (Ventura, Piero 1989)
It is believed that the pope was advised to give this task to Michelangelo by the artists working for his court who did not take kindly to Michelangelo. “And this thing they did with malice, to distract the pope from matters of sculpture; and since they were sure that he, either by not accepting this undertaking, would turn the pope against him, or by accepting it would do much less creditable work than Raphael of Urbino, to whom, out of hatred for Michelangelo, they gave every support.” (Bonner, 2001).
However, it should be mentioned that during the work both he and pope became absorbed with the paintings and the work was productive. Pope even became somewhat influenced with the works of Michelangelo.
It should be mentioned that Jullius II was not the only one who was influenced by Michelangelo’s paintings. Raphael, who was painting text to him, was so influenced with his works that it effected his own stile of painting adding some sculptural features to it.
The work at The Sistine Chapel strongly effeced the author himself. “After four tortured years, more than 400 over life-sized figures, I felt as old and as weary as Jeremiah. I was only 37, yet friends did not recognize the old man I had become.” (Bonner, 2001)
Michelangelo returned to the work over the pop’s tomb. He redesigned it and endowed the tomb with more modern features. He created one of his best sculptures to decorate the tomb and turned it into the real masterpiece.
The Laurentian library
Michelangelo also tried himself as an architect. The first skills of architecture were required during the pop’s tomb production, but he really tried himself in the field when he designed the fine entrance to the Laurentian library. Despite the fact that the library was completed decades later it was he who put the basis for its future forms and stile (Kostof, 1995).
Another political crisis forced the artist to stop working on all his projects. On the request of the newly established republic he became one of the 9 members of the commission responsible for fortification and defense of Florence since it was threatened by German troops.
Despite some of his planes worked, he believed that military invasion in Florence is inevitable and flee the city. Being proclaimed the traitor first he was later forgiven by the pope Clement VII and returned to the city to continue work on Lauretian library and the Medici Tomb.
The Medici Tomb
The Medici Tomb was build by Michelangelo in the entirely untraditional way. Before him, all the authors created the tombs with the traditional religious images and widely used arabesques (which he himself used it the tomb of Julius II) (Cole, 2003).
Having abandoned traditional practices he used unusual forms and design of the tomb. Instead of portraying saints he portrays human and his suffering to the eyes of viewers. Each statue on the sarcophagi has a name: Dawn, Dusk, Day and Night. However, those names are nothing but words. The true meaning lies in the picture of human suffering that are presented by the statues. Michelangelo aimed to express the state of his sole. The beauty and life in those statues are expressed in the suffering that can be seen. Perhaps, only Michelangelo himself managed to find the proper words to describe it.
“It is my pleasure to sleep and even more to be stone:
As long as shame and dishonor may last,
My sole desire is to see and to feel no more.
Speak softly, I beg you, do not awaken me.” (Bonner 2001)
The work on the tomb continue even when the master lest Florence never to return.
The Last Judgment
The fresco was commissioned by Clement VII just before his death and became the biggest fresco painted at a time. The work became rather controversial at many points and the author was put under pressure. The scandal arose even before the fresco was officially opened. It was created mainly by church moralists and suggested that those pictures of naked bodies would better feat in the both or a pub then in the chapel. Michelangelo took revenge by depicting one of his abusers in hell next to Satan. Nevertheless, the fresco wasn’t changed till the last months of Michelangelo life.
One can continue the story of Michelangelo eternally. Many books were written about his personality, his works, his doings, his character and relations with others. Many critics are harsh about Michelangelo as a person. Many rumors exist over his sexual life and persuasion. However, nothing of this can change his geniality.
One should admit that his talent was unique and influenced the entire Western culture from the day he was born as the artist to the current moment.
Controversial as he was, he managed not only to survive and live a long and productive life in the hard times he used to life, but also to balance between church and civil power and create eternal pieces of fine art that amaze human minds and soles for half a century.
His genius deserves admiration and his personality can be forgiven for any weaknesses now even more then he was in his times. One of his contemporary could hardly do anything with him since he was too talented and its up to us to admire his talent, try to understand his works an the life he lived with proper respect.
D. Summers, Michelangelo and the Language of Art (1981)
Wilde, Johannes, Michelangelo: six lectures (1978)
James S. Ackerman, The Architecture of Michelangelo (1986)
Charles De Tolnay, Michelangelo: Sculptor, Painter, Architect. Princeton University Press (1975)
Kleiner, Tansey. Gardner’s Art through the Ages Tenth Edition II Renaissance and Modern Art. (1996)
Michael Cole. Michelangelo and the Reform of Art/Painting in Renaissance Florence, 1500-1550 The Art Bulletin. New York: Mar 2003.Vol.85, Iss. 1,192
Spiro Kostof, Gregory Castillo, and Richard Tobias, A World History of Architecture (1995)
Ventura, Piero. Michelangelo’s World. Canada: Milan (1989)
Umberto Baldini. The Sculpture of Michelangelo (Rizzoli, 1982)
Neil R. Bonner, ed., Michelangelo Buonarroti Website, 14 December 2001, Michelangelo.COM, Inc., <http://michelangelo.com/buonarroti.html>