Or: The art guy, or the cartoon turtle?

Despite the undeniable impact upon history attributable to the latter, the former has, for those whose parents and teachers took initiative beyond switching on the television, left some of the world's most renowned works of sculpture, painting, and architecture for our continued awe and admiration, of which David and the Sistine Chapel are only two of the most easily recognized.

All this while navigating the often perilous waters of Popes, Medicis, and the general hullabaloo of the Italian Renaissance.

Meanwhile, I continue to write brief, wise-cracking essays about great men during gaps in the monotony of my atrophy-inspiring day-job.

Now then. What follows is not comprehensive artistic analysis--I'm a "likes-what-I-likes" museum goer--but more Renaissance scuttlebutt and muckraking. Settle down, and get comfortable.

You know. Like Cher.

Art history recognizes more than one right-brainer with the appellation "Michelangelo," though very few will not know which you mean when referring to this one by first name alone.

But for the record, his birth certificate, if he had one, would read Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. Michelangelo Buonarroti to his acquaintances, Michelangelo to his friends, and McB to Julius II.

From finger-painting to paint-by-numbers

The Ludovico Buonarroti comes from, appropriately, Ludovico Buonarroti, Michelangelo's father. Minor official in the city of Florence, Ludovico owned land both there and in the provinces, where his gubernatorial aspirations held somewhat more significant sway. He was the governor, or podesta, of Chiusi and Caprese, two small villages near the Appenine Mountains in Tuscany.

It was in the second of those two villages where on March 6, 1475, Michelangelo was born, not quite yet to his father's disappointment.

Following the conclusion of his terms and the death of his wife, Ludovico moved Michelangelo and his four brothers back to their farmlands overlooking Florence. Surrounded by quarry-filled hills, Michelangelo grew up with little more to do than attend latin school and carve his name into rocks, indulging his nascent interest in sculpture. But growing up with a politically-minded father with even distant blood ties to one of the world's most powerful banking families is bound to be difficult to one with such inclinations--especially when the chosen course was considered a manual craft quite low on the ladder of social esteem.

Maybe if his father had spent a little more time with Michelangelo, he wouldn't have ended up an...artist.

I Was a Teenage Art Student

In 1488, at the age of thirteen, Michelangelo had his first great success in proving it's not necessarily what you know, but who you know. His father gave up the struggle of wills and secured for Michelangelo an apprenticeship to one of the most highly fashionable painters you've never heard of: Domenico Ghirlandaio.

Under Domenico's instruction, Michelangelo picked up some drawing and painting skills in both tempera and fresco. The two didn't exactly get chummy, and despite Michelangelo's later protestations to the contrary, his painting technique indicates that he did in fact learn a thing or two from his master.

Ghirlandaio of course ended up playing Salieri to Michelangelo's Mozart. The apprenticeship lasted less than two years, when Michelangelo departed for the greener pastures of the Medici gardens.

Top Tip: If your name has "The Magnificent" after it, you're in good shape

You'll certainly have the chance to extend generous patronage to untold numbers of artists. Lorenzo de Medici (a.k.a. Lorenzo the Magnificent), was the patron to end all patrons--his coffers coughed up lira aplenty for those types who now lose funding to high school football teams and defense spending.

  • 1490: Lorenzo takes Michelangelo in, encourages him in his work and exposes him to a thoroughly humanist education. The young artist takes his espresso over Dante and Petrarch--never having quite mastered latin--and discusses his thoughts with gentlemen such as Giovanni and Giulio de Medici, later Popes Leo X and Clement VII.
  • 1490-1492: As one might expect, these are some of Michelangelo's happiest years. By the age of seventeen, he finishes two remarkable relief sculptures: Battle of the Centaurs and the Madonna of the Stairs.
  • 1492: Lorenzo the Magnificent becomes Lorenzo the Deceased, leaving Michelangelo without a meal ticket to punch. The much less appreciated Piero de Medici--the "Rat Bastard," (ratto bastardo) in many an unspoken thought, no doubt--takes the familial reigns...
  • 1494: ...and manages to get the whole clan booted out of Florence and into political exile. Michlangelo goes with them to Bologna.

Top Tip Number Two: hitch yourself to stars on their way up, not on their way out.

In Bologna Michelangeo took up with nobleman Gianfrancesco Aldovrandi, who had him carve some statues for a church--but Michelangelo returned to Florence as soon as he could.

Nobody likes change

Florence was not as he left it. In the absence of the fun-loving, rich, indulgent, ruthless Medicis, the city came under the almost theocratic sway of Girolamo Savonarola, a preacher heaven-bent on asking anyone he could get to stand still long enough why they spent all their time reading and studying the arts when they could be wearing drab clothes and praying.

  • 1495: Michelangelo attaches himself to leftover branch of the Medici family tree, the house of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici. Patronage is thin these days, so Lorenzo sets him to work on a forgery--a statue of Sleeping Cupid aged to look like an antique. That, and a few letters of introduction, open the doors to another city of hopefully greater advantage.

So, arts and crafts lesson the third--cheat.

Rome is where the art is


Michelangelo's first trip to Rome, at the age of 22, puts him in enviable stead.

  • 1496: Michelangelo reaches into the deep pockets of the Catholic Church and pulls out a commission from Cardinal Raffaele Riario, second only to the Pope in pomp. The Cardinal is just starting construction on the Cancelleria, which is going to want more than its fair share of statues. Given a block of marble to demonstrate his prowess, Michelangelo chips it away into the Bacchus.

    The Cardinal rejects it straight into the hands of a Roman banker, who likes it enough to recommend Michelangelo to a French Cardinal who commissions from him a pieta to be displayed in the basilica of St. Peter's. Take that, first Cardinal's beliefs!

  • 1501: Another Cardinal, another commission. This time, it's Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini (a name well worth making fun of--perhaps why he later had it changed to Pius III) that places an order--fifteen statuettes to adorn an altar in his name, left incomplete by the first artist. Michelangelo does four, then blows off the gig--and the city of Rome--to take up another, much more rewarding unfinished task.

Is it cold in here, or is it just you?

By late 1501, a gigantic slab of marble had stood gathering dust in the workshop of a Florentine cathedral for nearly forty years. The Renaissance sculptor Agostino de Duccio left it there, only partially worked, where locals referred to it as "the Giant," and deemed it little more than a future ruin.

Enter our hero, to whom the head of the Florentine government entrusted the glorified brick, and who over the next four years carved it into the quintessential example of towering, ripple-muscled, Hellenistic contrapposto man-sculpture that it now is. Comments on David's slightly dysplasic proportions may be countered by the possiblity of the artist intending him to be viewed from below, though that of course does not quite explain all of the statue's shortcomings.

In any event, David was the intended symbol of Florence's power as a republic, and the statue secured permanent acclaim for Michelangelo, who would never lack for paying work again. He remained in Florence for another four years, in which time he wore down many a chisel and had a high time of the High Renaissance. Eighteen commissions in all (several of which have been lost--see the above writeups) from bronze daggers to grandiose tombs, coming from Popes, Kings, and at least one Sultan of Turkey who wanted a bridge across the Bosphorus. Not that he finished them all, of course...

What have the Romans ever done for us?

In the one hand, you have a shot at an artistic face-off with another of the world's greats, Leonardo Da Vinci. You get to battle him, scalpel to scalpel, on opposing frescoes in the Sala del Gran Consiglio in the Palazzo della Signoria, the Florentine Hall of State. In the other, you have a scroll from the Pope du jour telling you to get on the next wagon to Rome where once again massive renovations are underway.

What do you do? You go to Rome.

  • 1505: Pope Julius II, newly elected pontiff with a penchant for self-aggrandizement, realizes you can't take it with you, but you can damn well pile it up on your point of departure. He commissions Michelangelo to construct a papal tomb the likes of which hubris hadn't been seen since Lucifer took a shot at the Big Chair.
  • 1505-1506: Michelangelo spends eight months going from quarry to quarry looking for just the right marble to render the pope's eventual death immortal.
  • 1506: He finds it, but gets back to Rome only to discover serious deficiencies in the papal attention span. Julius II has refocused his energies on St. Peter's crumbling basilica--causing Michelangelo to take his business back to Florence.
  • 1507: If only for a year. A holy campaign in Bologna puts Michelangelo back in the Pope's way, and following the completion of a bronze statue of him, the sculptor extraordinaire again returns to Rome on the highest of orders--as a painter.

Things are lookin' up.

Michelangelo did not rate himself a painter. The chosen representative of God on earth, did. If you want to know how Michelangelo felt about having to paint the Sistine Chapel, take a look at the following vitriolic sonnet:

I've already grown a goiter from this toil
as water swells the cats in Lombardy
or any other country they might be,
forcing my belly to hang under my chin.
My beard to heaven, and my memory
I feel above its coffer. My chest a harp.
And ever above my face, the brush dripping,
making a rich pavement out of me.
My loins have been shoved into my guts,
my arse serves to counterweigh my rump,
Eyelessly I walk in the void.
Ahead of me my skin lies outstretched,
and to bend, I must knot my shoulders taut,
holding myself like a Syrian bow.

Clearly the man had no love of the labor, which took him from 1508 to 1512. We appreciate it now far more than he ever did, and in doing so likely do him a dishonor. How often do we reverance anyone else for making a living by lying on their back?

What's a pope or two, among friends?

Everything. Julius II didn't live much past the completion of the chapel, which paved the way for a couple of Michelangelo's old cronies to get new names and add to them new numbers. Good times, for an old Medici friend...

  • 1513: Remeber Giovanni de Medici from the gardens? This year marks his turn wearing the pointy hat as Leo X, and he puts Michelangelo to the task of building a monumental facade for the Medici church of San Lorenzo.
  • 1520: The money runs out. The pope cancels the contract, but inspires Michelangelo to two other great feats of architecture. He'd get started on them under his other boyhood friend, Clement VII, but would first have to take a break to defend the city of his childhood.

Anyone who remembers Castles II knows it takes some major stones to attack the Pope. Nevertheless, in 1527 the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome, ousted the Medici family from Florence, which declared itself once again a republic, and saw Michelangelo hunkering down in Orvieta for another two years. When Pope and HRE buried the hatchet in 1529, Florence decided it likes things the way there were, thanks very much, and Michelangelo found himself between a Pope and a hard place. Biting the hand that fed him, Michelangelo sided with Republican Florence against the combined powers of Pope and Emperor.

  • 1529: Artist, sculptor, and poet Michelangelo is created Governor and Procurator General of the Florentine fortifications. As a military engineer, he oversees the city's enormous defense effort. Hey, I have a BFA. Maybe I should apply for a job at the Pentagon!
  • 1530: Michelangelo's Herculean effort is no match for a ten month siege. Florence falls, and only the magnanimity of an old pal saves Michelangelo from the witch hunts that serve to pave the way for the reinstatement of the Medicis. Clement VII gets him off the hook.
  • 1534: Two years of Republican erasure under the tyrannical Duke Allesandro de Medici are enough for Michelangelo to close up shop in Florence permanently. He packs his bags for the last time, and heads back to Rome.

Shouldn't he be dead by now?

Pretty much. By the age of sixty, Michelangelo was already respectably past life-expectancy, and still nowhere near the end. The ninth pope he saw ascend was Paul III, a reformer who clawed his way to religious supremacy in 1534 and gave Michelangelo fifteen years of uninterrupted patronage. And Michelangelo outlived him, as well.

The Last Judgement, the Sistine Chapel's altar wall, two large frescoes in the Pauline Chapel, and a reduced version of Julius II's tomb were all the results of this period, a time when he would be more expected to break a hip than a fresh chunk of marble. But sculpture fell a bit to the wayside as his interest in architecture and poetry increased. He only produced three--Rachel and Leah for Julius II's tomb, and the bust of Brutus--in the last thirty years of his life.

Under Pius IV, urban planning was the order of the day, especially for the now octogenarian artist suffering from kidney stones in a time when a course of leeches was at the forefront of medicine. He rebuffed invitations to return to Florence sent by Cosimo de Medici, and grumbled a great deal about the kids these days with their damned newfangled theses. He also kept up correspondence with his extended family, having no wife or children of his own.

Well, it's about time.

Michelangelo was still working days before his death, chipping away at the Rondanini Pieta in his shop in Rome. Attended by his doctor, one or two old friends and a loyal student, Michelangelo did as all men must on February 18th, 1564.

Throughout, he maintained the temperment of a true artist, by which I mean he was on occasion an unutterable bastard. Exacting and demanding, passionate and stubborn, Michelangelo kept his stable of assistants and artisans slaving away on meticulous details, wondering why they didn't go to business school like their fathers wanted them to. As an answer they had the man himself. If we have learned anything from the life of Michelangelo, it must surely be that. Also that they don't make popes like they used to.

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