Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni

6th March 1475 – 18th February 1564 

In March1475 in the Tuscan town of Caprese, a child was born who was to become perhaps the greatest artist that the world has ever known, one whose work was to have a profound effect upon the development of Western art. 

A few months after Michelangelo’s birth the family, who claimed minor nobility through their descent from the Countess Mathilde of Canossa, moved back to their home in Florence, the greatest centre of the arts in Italy.

Six years later Michelangelo’s mother died after a long illness and he was sent to live with a nanny and her stone mason husband in the town of Settignano  The stone mason worked in a marble quarry owned by Michelangelo’s father and it was at his side that Michelangelo learned how to handle tools and work the marble that would eventually culminate in him producing the sculptural masterpieces for which he is renowned.

Michelangelo was not an academic and at the age of 13  was apprenticed for three years to  Domenico Ghirlandaio, the city’s most important painter noted for his detailed narrative frescoes and portraits. However, the apprenticeship was full of conflict and with two years of his apprenticeship still to complete, Michelangelo left his master feeling that he had nothing left to learn from him. For most of his life he preferred people to think that his skills were completely self-taught and not the product of a particular master or school. Fortunately, his talent was recognised by Lorenzo de’ Medici who then became his patron. 

Lorenzo de’ Medici was an avid art collector and through him Michelangelo was given access to the Medici art collection and its myriad of ancient Roman statuary. The Medici Sculpture Garden was an academy that was both a school and gathering place of immense importance for the period’s most promising artists. It was filled with ancient statues and it was here that artists studied, sculpted and painted according to their patrons’ whims. Bertoldo di Giovanni, a student of Donatello, became the curator of the Medici collection and a teacher at the academy towards the end of his life and it was he who took the young Michelangelo under his wing. Yet again though, Michelangelo stated quite clearly and vehemently that no one gave him any real training.

Lorenzo de' Medici's death on 8 April 1492 brought a volte face of Michelangelo's circumstances and an end to the security that he had been afforded. In 1494, when he was nineteen, the Medici family fell from grace in Florence forcing Michelangelo to leave the city. He travelled first to Venice and then to Bologna where he accepted a commission to complete the tomb and shrine of St Dominic after the previous sculptor died.

After the success of his David in 1504 Michelangelo was much in demand and he often had several quite ambitious commissions on the go at once. However, unlike many of his contemporaries he tended to scorn the help of assistants using them only to grind colours for his paints and prepare surfaces. Because of this many of his projects remained unfinished at the time of his death.

Although he thought of himself primarily as a sculptor, Michelangelo is also famous for his skills as an architect and painter, this was not unusual for the period as these skills were all based on design or drawing. 

At the age of seventeen he studied anatomy by dissecting and drawing cadavers obtained from hospitals and church graveyards, an activity thought so abhorrent at the time that it was illegal. He risked doing this so that he could get a better understanding of the human skeleton and musculature and ingest an air of reality into his pieces, something he certainly achieved. He is much lesser known for his poetry, but he did write more than three hundred sonnets and poets and composed a sonnet on the difficulty a sculptor experienced when trying to bring to life the perfect figure that he knew resided within a block of stone. 

By nature, a solitary and melancholy person, Michelangelo was an extremely devout Catholic whose faith only deepened as he got older. He preferred to live alone and despite having wealthy patrons and being by no means a poor man, he chose to live the life of an ascetic and was considered rough and uncouth by those who knew him. 

Whilst he had platonic relationships with women Michelangelo never married and speculation about his sexuality is rooted in his poetry, particularly in a poem he wrote to Tommaso dei Cavalieri who was thirty four years his junior. Cavalieri was a Roman nobleman who was said to have been exceptionally handsome and who seemed to epitomise Michelangelo’s ideal of masculine beauty. Although a married man with two sons, he swore to return Michelangelo’s love and remained devoted to him until the day Michelangelo died thirty two years later.

Michelangelo died in Rome, possibly from obstructive nephropathy, just three weeks before his 89th birthday in 1564 and was interred at the Basilica of Santa Croce in his beloved Florence. Although a contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael he was younger than Da Vinci by twenty three years and older than Raphael by eight years. Because of his solitary nature, he had little to do with either artist and survived them both by more than forty years.

Although a prolific artist with hundreds of sculptures, architectural masterpieces and paintings to his name, the most commonly known jewels in Michelangelo’s magnificent crown must be his sculpture, ‘David’ and his immense painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo worked on his marble statue of the Biblical figure David, from the story of David and Goliath, for nearly three years. Weighing six tons and standing 5.17 metres (17 feet) in its completed state, it was too heavy to lift to its intended position on the roof of Florence cathedral so in 1504 it was installed adjacent to the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio half a mile from Michelangelo’s workshop. The move from workshop to the palace took four days.

‘David’ began life much earlier than 1504. In 1410 work began on the first of twelve sculptures for the buttresses of Florence cathedral. The first sculpture was a terracotta statue of Joshua by Donatello. The next figure, again made from terracotta, was created many years later in 1463 by the Florentine sculptor Agostino di Duccio. Following this success Agostino di Duccio was commissioned the following year to sculpt the figure of David, this time in expensive Carrara marble. Agostina began working on the statue but didn’t get very far before all work on the project stopped in 1466 after the death of Donatello. Ten years later Antonio Rossellino was given the task of completing the work but again the project stalled when his contract was abruptly terminated. Twenty six years passed and the neglected, supine David lay totally exposed to the weather in the yard of the cathedral workshop. In 1501 the hunt began to find someone who would actually complete the project, so the block of marble was lifted upright allowing prospective sculptors to view it from all angles. Despite the many imperfections in the marble block that might fracture at the slightest strike of a mallet or chisel and despite only being twenty six years of age, Michelangelo wanted the commission and convinced the Operai (overseers of the office of works) to give it to him. He began carving the statue early in the morning on 13 September 1501. The finished piece is the magnificent sculpture that we are privileged to see today.

For centuries one of the functions of the Sistine chapel was to serve as the meeting place for cardinals of the Catholic Church when they were called to elect a new pope. Its ceiling was originally painted blue and was adorned with gold stars to represent the firmament whilst the walls had been painted by various artists. Wanting to change all of this, in 1508 Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to repaint the entire chapel. Seeing himself as a sculptor rather than an artist Michelangelo initially refused the commission as it involved painting 2000 square feet (almost 186 square metres) on a vaulted, or curved, ceiling in a medium with which he was not wholly at ease. Michelangelo had been recommended to Pope Julius by two of his rival artists, the architect Bramante and Raphael. There was no love lost between these two men and Michelangelo and they hoped that in attempting to do what had been asked of him he would fail dismally. However, over a period of four years, 1508 to 1512, it was clear to all who had seen his creation that Michelangelo had exceeded everybody’s expectations and had created a stunning, world class masterpiece.

Perched on a swaying wooden scaffolding sixty feet up in the air Michelangelo painted using a technique called fresco. To do this sand, water and lime were mixed together to form a plaster and then spread onto the surface to be painted; whilst the plaster  was still wet the paint was applied. Upon drying, the paint and the lime fused and became permanent. Fresco painting was challenging, tough work made harder by the fact all the materials had to be raised to the work platform and then the outline and finished painting done overhead. It is believed that Michelangelo stood and painted with his arm over his head rather than lying flat on his back, which, by the end of a day’s labour would have been backbreaking. The scaffolding, designed by Michelangelo himself, was not fixed rigidly, rather it was designed to be moved so that as one section of the painting was completed the scaffolding could be moved onto the next area to be done, thus cutting down the amount of work and time involved.

The paintings on the ceiling depict nine stories from Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, which narrates the primordial history of the world. The first fresco that Michelangelo tackled was the story of Noah but when he removed the scaffolding in order to survey his work and gain much needed perspective, he realised that the figures needed to be larger, so as the work progressed towards the altar side of the chapel they became larger and with a slightly more exaggerated expression of movement. The pictures showing God creating Adam and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden are probably the most famous of them all.

The work, for which Michelangelo received 3,000 ducats, a princely sum at the time, was finally completed in October 1512 and took four and a half years. Twenty five years later at the behest of another pope, Michelangelo painted the front wall of the same chapel and created ‘The Last Judgement’.

Michelangelo changed the concept of art throughout Europe and set new ideals and standards for painting, architecture and sculpture. A prolific artist his work was copied and his style imitated so often that it developed into its own movement called Mannerism. His immense talents as a painter and sculptor, and even as a poet, were unsurpassed in his day and his ability to sculpt in marble with such accuracy, sophistication and beauty has no known parallel in the western world.


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