Michelangelo, his Paintings, and Sculptures
Michelangelo, born Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni in 1475, was the first artist to be recognised as a master of his craft within his own lifetime. He was the first western artist whose biography was published while he was still living. In fact, there were two biographies written, one by Giorgio Vasari, who lauded Michelangelo as being the peak of all artistry since the beginning of the renaissance. In fact, because of Michelangelo's reputation, he was often known as 'il divino', 'the divine one'. During the High Renaissance in Italy, he honed his abilities as a sculptor, architect, painter, poet, and engineer, and is widely credited with unparalleled influence on the development of art in the West. Michelangelo reached a highly accomplished level in many spheres but it is perhaps as a sculptor, and as painter of frescoes, that he is best known. It is fortunate that Michelangelo was so revered while he lived. That fact, along with his own prodigious and prolific output, means that he is the best-documented of all Sixteen Century artists.
Michelangelo first trained under the painter Ghirlandaio, who specialised in expansive frescos. Whilst apprenticed in the busy workshop, he learned the techniques involved in fresco painting and draughtsmanship. But Michelangelo was distantly related to the powerful Medici family, and from 1490-92 he lived with the Medicis and attended the neo-platonic Humanist Academy set up by the de facto ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de Medici. While there, Michelangelo was exposed to many of the great artists of past centuries, Giotto, Masaccio, Donatello, as well as the masterpiece antiquities of ancient Greece and Rome: works that were held in Medici's vast collection. He also mixed with many living artists, philosophers, writers and thinkers of the day, including Poliziano, Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. This melting-pot hot house of neo-platonic art and ideas strongly influenced Michelangelo's outlook and style. In particular, his love of the classical style and form, and reverence for antiquities, which was the hallmark of the Italian renaissance. The Medicis, and Michelangelo, were at the centre of this world.
It was while he was with the Medicis that Michelangelo completed his first two commissions as a sculptor: marble reliefs, Madonna of the Stairs, and Battle of the Centaurs. Both amazingly sophisticated and complex works for a teenager. Michelangelo became, during this time, an expert in portraying the human form, drawing from life and studying anatomy.
But after the death of Lorenzo de Medici, Michelangelo left the Court and, soon after, the arrival of Savonarola and the expulsion of the Medicis from Florence brought huge change for the young artist. After a short return to his father's house, Michelangelo left Florence during the political upheaval and, maintaining his links to his patrons, the Medicis, he followed them to Venice, then on to Bologna.
In Bologna, Michelangelo continued his work as a sculptor. He carved three statuettes for the Shrine of St. Dominic, an angel with a candlestick, and saints, Petronius and Proculus. Continuing to be heavily influenced and inspired by classical antiquities, Michelangelo also became involved in a scheme to pass off one of his sculptures, a marble cupid, as an ancient work. Allegedly, he was told by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici to make it look as though it had been dug up, so he could sell it in Rome. Cardinal Raffaele Riario, who bought the piece, discovered the deception, but was so impressed by the quality of the sculpture that he invited the artist to Rome.
Still only twenty-one years old, Michelangelo arrived in Rome in 1496. It was while in Rome, in his early twenties, that Michelangelo sculpted Pieta, now in St. Peters in the Vatican, in which the Virgin Mary weeps over the body of Jesus. Michelangelo went to the marble quarry and selected the marble for this exquisite piece himself. It was frequently said that Michelangelo could visualise the finished sculpture just be gazing at a block of stone.
He was now a man at the height of his creative powers, and, in 1504, back in Florence, he completed his most famous sculpture, David. David, depicted at the moment he decides to battle Goliath, was a symbol of Florentine freedom. It is said to be a masterpiece of line and form. A committee, including Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli, was created and decided on its placement, in front of the Palazzo Vecchio.
Michelangelo accepted many commissions, sculptures and paintings during his time in Florence, many of which went unfinished when, in 1505, he was called back to Rome to work on a Tomb for Pope Julius II. The tomb was a millstone round Michelangelo's neck, he worked on it (with frequent interruptions) for over forty years, and it seems it was never finished to his satisfaction. Fortunately, Michelangelo also completed some of his best, and most well-known work, during this time, most notably the fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
This grand fresco contains over three hundred figures over five hundred square meters of ceiling. It took Michelangelo four years, lying on his back, to complete this masterful work, which stands even today as a testament to this one man's dedicated and accomplished artistry. The scenes depicted are from the Book of Genesis, the most famous of which is The creation of Adam. The outstretched hands of God and Adam are an iconic image, perhaps the most widely known and imitated detail from any renaissance piece. Michelangelo, in this work, demonstrated his deep understanding of the human form, and how to depict it in a huge array of different poses.
The complex, twisting figures and vibrant colours of this work, and the sculptures with their writhing forms, played a huge role in the birthing of an entire artistic movement. Mannerism, largely derived from the work of Michelangelo, is a deliberately stylized form of sophisticated art, in which the human body is idealised. It can be characterised by often complex, and sometimes witty, composition and unnaturalistic use of vibrant colours. Without Michelangelo, the works of later Mannerist artists like, for example, Pontormo and Bronzino, would not exist. Raphael was also strongly influenced by Michelangelo, as were later ceiling painters in the Baroque period, and many others since. His influence on art over the past centuries cannot be understated. He is rightly viewed as a genius, and as the archetypal Renaissance man.
Michelangelo not only outshines all his predecessors; he remains the only great sculptor of the Renaissance at its best. What most Late Renaissance artists lacked was not talent but the ability to use their own eyes and share a vision with either their contemporaries or posterity. Michelangelo's extreme genius left little scope for works that escaped his influence, damning all his contemporaries to settle for aping him.
Appreciation of Michelangelo's artistic mastery has endured for centuries, and his name has become synonymous with the best of the Italian Renaissance. His works in architecture, painting and sculpture inspired numerous of his contemporaries, and he contributed much to art history with his unique style and techniques.