Michelangelo - A master of Renaissance art
One of my favorite artist and sculptor and also favorite Renaissance Man is the great and masterful Michelangelo. Just hearing the name conjures up visions of beautiful frescos and alive-like statues. He lived a long life for this time period - 88 years and had the greatest influence on western art of any artist before or since his lifetime. His works are the most famous in existence and I have visited Italy to view them.
Michelangelo de Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was an Italian Renaissance sculptor, painter architect, poet and engineer. He lived during his lifetime between Rome and Florence and his greatest works were created in these two cities. He had a highly personal and impassioned style and never hesitated to voice his impassioned opinion about his art to the powerful, including the popes themselves. His two greatest sculptures, David and the Pieta he sculpted before he was thirty years old. He was truly an artistic genius. He became so great that he was a legend during his lifetime and was known only as Michelangelo then and throughout history and into today.
I first saw the Pieta in 1964 at the New York World's Fair with my grandparents and was awed by the experience. The sculpture of Mary holding her dead Son captivated me and I thought it would come alive it looked so real. I have been interested in Michelangelo since I was ten years old and saw the Pieta and I have poured over his sketches, paintings and sculptures in books ever since then. When I became an adult, I was able to travel to Italy to see the real art objects. Each one I have viewed has taken my breath away,
And, his genius stretches across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Here is his vision of the Book of Genesis from the Bible painted in frescos and are the greatest and most influencial works in the history of Western art. His vision of the Last Judgment is painted in frescos down the altar wall in the Sistine Chapel.
And, at the young age of 74, he took over as architect of St. Peter's Basilica and designed and helped to build the dome and the western end of the Basilica. He died before it could be completed, but his influence on the structure is embedded in it forever.
Michelanglo was born in Settigano, a small Italian town where his father owned a marble quarry. He was raised in Florence where his father was a judicial administrator. After his mother's death when he was six years old, Michelangelo was sent to live with a stone cutter and his family. Here he learned how to cut stone and became a stone mason. Here he learned the beginnings of the beautiful sculptures he would fashion out of a stone block of marble.
At age 13, Michelangelo apprenticed with the great Italian painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio. From 1490-92, he attended the Humanist academy founded and run by Lorenzo de' Medici and studied sculpture there under Bertoldo di Giovani.
In 1492, after Lorenzo de' Medici's death, Micheangelo returned to his father's house. In 1494 he returned to the de' Medici court under Piero (Lorenzo's son) but when the de' Medici's were expelled from Florence by the rise of Savonarola, Michelangelo moved to Venice and then to Bologna to live.
In 1497, the French ambassador to Italy comnissioned the Pieta. Michelangelo carved it in 1499 when he was only twenty-four years old. Michelangelo has always maintained that the figurines of his sculptures were already placed in the block of marble by God and it was his God given talent to free it from the block.
Michelangelo completed his most famous work, the statue of David in 1504 in marble from the Carrara mountains in Italy near Florence. Here was his majestic interpretation of the David and Goliath story from the Bible. David stands naked in all his glory with his sling shot thrown over his shoulder. Michelangelo's sculptures of men were many times done in the nude because he revered the body God had created for man and wanted to show it in all its glory.
Michaelangelo considered himself a sculptor first and a painter and designer second. He would have been very happy and content to sculpt for the rest of his life. His intricate detail in his sculpture is beautiful and smooth and were it not for the white alabaster color of the marble his sculptures would look like real, alive people. Michelangelo was always puzzled as to why so many people revered his marble sculptures of David and the Pieta as he felt they were not perfectly done. He always felt the hands and feet of David were out of proportion with the rest of his body. And, he felt the body of Jesus was also out of proportion - the legs were too long for the body of Jesus and the body of Mary. But, nonetheless, the statues are magnificent works of art and the imperfections quaint. Remember, he sculpted both of these statues before he was thirty years old.
Because he was Italy's greatest sculptor, Pope Julius II in 1505 comissioned Michelangelo to build his tomb to reside in St. Peter's Basilica. He began to sculpt the tomb and had been working on it for several years when he was interrupted by the Pope to work on other things, one of them the Sistine Chapel. It took Michelangelo forty years to complete the tomb and he was so frustrated with the Pope that he and the Pope had many serious conflicts over the years about his works.
During this time, the Pope commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which took four years to complete from 1508-1512. Michelangleo was not a happy man at this time because he preferred to work on his sculptures, but Pope Julius preferred that he paint the chapel. Michelangelo did not consider himself to be a great painter and so to infuse some competition into the mix, Pope Julius commissioned the painter Rafael, Michelangelo's contemporary, to paint the side wall panels and other paintings in the chapel. Many arguments ensued between Michaelangelo, Rafael and the Pope during these four years as Michelangelo labored over (or under) the ceiling of the chapel.
Because he saw Rafael as his greatest competitor in painting, Michelangelo fought with the Pope to paint a different and more complex scene on the ceiling than what the Pope originally wanted. Michelangelo wanted to paint the creation and downfall of man and the promise of salvation. Michelangelo won out on this account and did paint the Sistine Chapel in this form.
Michelangelo's ceiling contains over 300 figures and in the center of the ceiling are nine episodes from the Book of Genesis divided into three groups:
- God's creation of earth
- God's creation of man (and woman) and their fall from God's grace
- Noah and his family to represent the state of humanity
Michelangelo also painted twelve men and women who prophesized the coming of Jesus, the seven prophets of Israel and five sibyls, prophetic women of the classical world. And he did this by lying on his back on the scaffolding to paint the ceiling. Painting frescos is not easy, and the drawings had to be traced onto the ceiling and then painted and completed quickly before the plaster dried out. This was a labor intensive process that caused so many literal aches and pains for Michelangelo.
Behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo painted the fresco of the Last Judgment which was commissioned by Pope Clement VII. Here is the story brought alive of the second coming of Christ and the apocalypse as invisioned by Michelangelo. The souls of humanity rise and are assigned to their various fates as judged by Christ who is surrounded by saints. Michelangelo had the audacity to depict Christ and Mary naked, which was considered sacrilegious at the time and after Michelangelo's death clothes were painted on them.
Michelangelo never married during his lifetime, but the love of his life was a noble widow, Vittoria Colouna, who tried to assuage his frustrations and anger with the Pope over the painting of the Sistine Chapel.
His greatest sculptures were of David and the Pieta, his greatest painting was the Sistine Chapel and his greatest designs and architecture were the dome of the Cathedral in Florence. Michelangelo made many more paintings, sculptures, designs and sketches, but these four items were the greatest of his illustrious career and the most influencial to Western art and architecture.
After viewing the Pieta at the New York World's Fair in 1964, Michelangelo became my favorite artist of all time. I do not believe anyone will every surpass his brilliance and genius. Picasso, Calatrava, Frank Lloyd Wright, are geniuses too at what they do, but Michelangelo was such a genius in so many areas. Painting, sculpture, designing and engineering, and even a poet was he. He even outshines Da Vinci in my opinion as the epitome of the Renaissance man. His art and works will live on forever.
See the movie of Michelangelo's life
Readings about Michelangelo
© 2012 Suzette Walker