NOTE: I wrote this paper - Michelangelo, Equal of the Ancients - in university for the History of Interior Design
“It has been said (but I think this is just a story) that Michelangelo Buonarroti nailed some poor man to a board and pierced his heart with a spear, so as to paint a Crucifixion.” - Francesco Susinno repeating an early urban legend, quoted in the Faber Book of Art Anecdotes
“Today this sixth of March … there was born to me a male child; I named him Michelangelo and … he was born on Monday between four and five in the morning, at Caprese, where I am the Podesta.”
So the birth of this famous “son of Florence” was recorded – Michelangolo di Lodovico Buonarrotti Simoni. He is one of the greatest artists of all time, a man whose name has become synonymous with the word “masterpiece”. Michelangelo Buonarroti was unmatched as an artist, the creator of works of sublime beauty.
Michelangelo’s father, Ludovico, was a minor Florentine official with distant connections to the ruling Medici family. Taken when Ludovico was thirty, Podesta of Caprese was his first paying job. He was too proud to work, but too poor to live well. The family had been wealthy in Michelangelo’s grandfather’s day, and Ludovico was obsessed with preserving the remaining Buonarroti fortunes. He planned for his son to become a successful merchant or businessman, and had him sent to a wet nurse from a stonecutting family . Instead, 13 year old Michelangelo insisted he wanted to become an artist, enraging his father who said, “artists are laborers, no better than shoemakers”. Ludovico and his brother Francesco beat the boy viciously, but he would not be swayed. Finally, his father relented and on April 1, 1488 signed a grudging agreement to have Michelangelo apprenticed at the workshop of painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. He was apprenticed for a term of three years. Later, Michelangelo would state forcefully that he was an artist, not a craftsman, and took pains to hide his apprenticeship. He claimed that he had never had a teacher, and that the painter’s instruction had taught him nothing. In fact, he said, Ghirlandaio was jealous of his obvious talent. The boy did, apparently, correct some of Ghirlandaio’s work, so perhaps there is validity in this claim. Michelangelo also insisted, despite incredible talent at painting, that he was a sculptor, not a painter, and bemoaned the fact that he had not been apprenticed to a sculptor.
After spending only one year in the workshop learning the art of fresco, he went on to study at the sculpture school in the Medici gardens, apparently with the full cooperation of Ghirlandaio. Here Michelangelo attracted the attention of Lorenzo de Medici “the Magnificent”. He had found the head of a grinning, bearded old satyr in a garden shed. It was very damaged around the mouth. He copied it in marble in only a few days, using marble begged from Lorenzo’s masons. Lorenzo happened to be in the garden and, after praising the beauty of the work, told the boy that old men never had all of their teeth. Immediately, Michelangelo removed a tooth and drilled a hole for the root cavity. This, his first recorded sculpture, brought his eagerness and genius to the attention of Lorenzo. Michelangelo became a member of Lorenzo’s household, with his own room, allowance, maintenance, and a royal purple cloak.
Here he began to study human anatomy under the direction of Bertoldo di Giovanni. Michelangelo lived with the Medicis for the next three years.
By the time Michelangelo was sixteen, he had already finished two relief sculptures: The Battle of the Centaurs, and The Madonna of the Stairs.
In his personal diary, he describes these two works:
“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. Already at 16, my mind was a battlefield: my love of pagan beauty, the male nude, at war with my religious faith. A polarity of themes and forms… one spiritual, the other earthly, I’ve kept these carvings on the walls of my studio to this very day.”
Interestingly, although he did the Battle of the Centaurs, he never made a sphinx, Pan, or any other unnatural blend of human and animal, with the exception of a centaur in the Battle, and the little satyr behind his Bacchus. Both were done in his youth. Later he realized that he could say all he wished with the unadorned and unchanged human body.
Typical of his work, the Battle was left unfinished. It was also modeled upon an older sculpture – Bertoldo di Giovanni’s Battle relief – and the subject was an old one. With centaurs and the single woman disguised, it appears to be a mass of naked male bodies in violent action.
The Madonna of the Stairs - the image of the seated Mother nursing the infant Christ - was a traditional subject for sculpture, and the schiacciato style directly recalls Donatello's technique, which the young artist emulated in only this work. The Madonna has grandeur and gravity. She holds her son firmly, yet without any apparent affection. This is a trait characteristic of Michelangelo – her eyes do not even fall on the child. She uses beautiful hands to gather her robe around the child, who turns his strong neck and back towards the viewer. Like many of his later pieces, the relief remained unfinished in detail.
Lorenzo “the Magnificent” died in 1492. The inscription around his death mask records that the world fell apart at his passing. Certainly, an era ended, for Florence, Italy, and Michelangelo. Without a patron or regular income, Michelangelo waited for a year, following the Medicis to Bologna. He remained there for three years.
Michelangelo returned temporarily to his father’s house, so depressed that he could do nothing for days. His older brother, Lionardo, had become a Dominican friar, essentially making Michelangelo the eldest son. When he did begin to work again, he purchased an 18’ high block of marble that had been lying exposed for thirty-five years and was therefore inexpensive. He wished to create a statue of Hercules. This statue has been lost, but its sheer size challenged the talents of the ancients. The artist was not yet twenty years old.
In exchange for permission to study corpses in the mortuary (a practice strictly forbidden by the Church), Michelangelo created a wooden crucifix for the high altar of the Prior of Santo Spirito. It was thought that this was lost, but some believe it is the crucifix that still hangs in Santo Spirito. If so, the smooth lines of Christ are very uncharacteristic of his work.
Michelangelo then fled to Venice during the political unrest of the time. Here he completed several statues for the Arca di San Domenico in the Church of San Domenico. He then moved to Rome, studied the newly unearthed Roman ruins, and produced Bacchus, his first masterpiece. In Bacchus, he amplified the classical idea of beauty in a sensual human form.
Around this time, he also created La Pieta, his first large religious sculpture, showing Mary in her grief. The grace and finish in this piece are unmatched in any of his later works. Accustomed as modern eyes are to this piece, we are unable to see it with fresh eyes. It was, however, a novelty in 1500. The subject matter was an old French and German one, but the composition was bold and new. The problem of tiny Mary holding a large man had always been a problem. Michelangelo created a pyramid of marble with Mary’s robes, nestling her Son in the folds. It is interesting that this is his only signed sculpture.
The monumental marble David soon followed, in 1504, showing the Biblical hero waiting for Goliath. A symbol of the proud independence of the Florentine republic, David is a powerful evocation of athletic prowess and dynamic action.
By this time, Michelangelo was supporting his father and four brothers, although when he created La Pieta, he was penniless, ill, and lacking food. Lodovico never understood his son’s talent, even when Popes were demanding his work, except to realize that it brought money and prestige to the family.
As Michelangelo’s fame grew, he accepted more work than he could complete. This upset him, since he expected perfection from himself, and he became increasingly absorbed in his work. It is a popular myth that Michelangelo worked alone, but it is most definitely a myth. He claimed that he had no friends and wanted none. He viciously denounced almost everyone he knew, and it is said that he was unable to keep servants and assistants. The truth is that he never fired anyone, although he was known to dock pay. He employed many for ten, twenty, thirty or more years, paid them generously, and housed them.
Michelangelo probably created his famous painting Holy Family with the young Saint John (Tondo Doni) between 1505 and 1507, on the birth of Agnolo Doni and Maddalena Strozzi's first daughter. Very characteristic of his style, it shows the peculiar twisting of the limbs and the emphasis on muscles, a pattern that clearly appears in Michelangelo’s sculptures. Brightness of colours and lighting effects emphasize the sacred figures. The nudes on the background, whose poses and gestures are all connected to classical sculptures, symbolize the world before the coming of Christ. On the right, the little Saint John indicates the passage, through the baptism, from the pagan age to the Christian age. Michelangelo himself projected and perhaps worked the frame, where, as well as the Strozzi coat of arms (three half moon), are the Saviour’s head in the upper side and four heads explained as prophets, sybils or angels.
About a year after David, Pope Julius II summoned Michelangelo to Rome to work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo made every effort to get out of painting the vault of the Chapel. He pleaded that painting was not his art and that he would not be able to succeed. The Pope refused to listen. Like all of Michelangelo’s work, though, once he resigned himself to the job, he threw himself into it passionately. From 1508 until 1512, he laboured to paint nearly 10,000 square feet of a leaky, irregular vault. In these panels, he illustrated the Story of Genesis with scenes of God creating the world, the story of Adam and Eve, the story of Noah and the great flood.
When he stopped painting to work on Pope Julius II’s tomb, it was on a more modest scale than originally planned. Still, it contained some of his finest work. He felt much pressured by his patrons. “I cannot live under pressures from patrons, let alone paint.”
In 1519, Michelangelo was asked to design the Laurentian Library and his skills as an architect came into play. Much of his work was inspired by Greco-Roman style, but he used his creative vision to expand on this.
Between 1519 and 1534, while residing in Florence once again, Michelangelo accepted the commission of the Medici Tombs for the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo. His design called for two large wall tombs facing each other across a high, domed room. One was intended for Lorenzo de Medici, duke of Urbino, the other for Giuliano de Medici, duke of Nemours. Magnificent nude personifications of Dawn and Dusk were placed beneath the seated Lorenzo; Day and Night beneath Giuliano. Reclining river gods were planned for the bottom but were never executed.
He returned to the Sistine Chapel to paint the Last Judgement over the altar, between 1535 and 1541, commissioned by Pope Paul III.
In 1546, at age 71, Michelangelo was made chief architect for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica. This was the largest and most spectacular building in Western Christendom. It was also a great source of headaches for Michelangelo. He complained that many mistakes were made because he, old and sometimes incapacitated, was not always able to come to the construction site. Although Duke Cosimo de Medici tried to convince him to return to Florence, Michelangelo devoted the last twenty years of his life to the magnificent Basilica.
On a cold, rainy day in 1564, he went riding in the countryside and returned with a fever. Six days later, just two weeks shy of his eighty-ninth birthday, he was dead.
Unlike great artists before his time, Michelangelo did not hide his personality behind the art. His personality, pride and independence manifest through his work. Michelangelo’s art is more individual than any other artist of his time or before.
Medieval art appeared ashamed of the body. The body was sinful, hidden behind long robes. The Renaissance rejected this, but never so strongly as did Michelangelo Buonarroti. To him, man’s body was the pinnacle of creation, the embodiment of beauty, and the true and proper object of ideal art. The nudes and pagan elements in Renaissance art – and especially that of Michelangelo – were not a deliberate challenge to the Church. Instead, they were meant to break with tradition, and showed a naïve enchantment with nature. Even in his later years, Michelangelo added masses of nudes to his Last Judgement – not realizing that the tide had turned and people viewed his innocent nudes as obscene. Cardinals and papal officials were so offended that they hired artists to paint garments over some of his figures.
There are three basic aspects to Michelangelo’s art:
1. Nudity – Expression is not limited to the face, but extends to the entire body. Each figure has internal tension, and all are in constant motion. His secret was “contrapposta”: the twisting of one part of the body in the opposite direction from the other (i.e., legs to the left, chest and arms to the right) He rejected symmetry in the posing of bodies.
2. Grandeur – This means both loftiness and heroic stature, and both apply. He shows a preference for superhuman dimension. The little shepherd boy David becomes a giant. He once expressed a desire to carve a whole mountain into a statue. Sheer physical size, though, is immaterial. Every piece of work is stamped with mastery; his slightest sketch has a life of its own.
3. Energy – All of his art has pathos and surges with energy. Passion may be leashed or unleashed, but it is always present. Beginning works breathe harmony and serenity, but as his creative character develops, violence bursts forth.
It is easy to be overwhelmed by Michelangelo’s work, to see the grandeur and energy but ignore the mundane details.
Carving marble is difficult work. David and La Pieta did not gradually emerge from the stone as a figure raised out of water, as Michelangelo’s biographer, Giorgio Vasari, said. Marbling carving is loud, dirty, and hard work. It is also unforgiving. With no goggles to protect his eyes, Michelangelo had to strike the stone at exactly the right place, in the right angle and with the right amount of force, tens of thousands of times for each sculpture.
Had Michelangelo carved only David, or painted only the Sistine Chapel, or erected only St. Peter’s, he would have made an everlasting mark on history. Instead, he created all three and many more. He lived through the reign of thirteen Popes and worked for nine of them. Giorgio Vasari accurately wrote about him that “the ancients are surpassed by the beauty and grace of what his divine genius has been able to achieve.”
Michelangelo Buonarotti – the equal of the ancients.