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Michelangelo Buonarroti

Updated on August 21, 2009

Born Michelangelo Buonarroti, at Caprese (now Caprese Michelangelo), Italy, Mar. 6, 1475. Michelangelo was a sculptor, painter, architect, poet, and engineer.

Michelangelo's finest achievements were in sculpture and painting, although he was also an accomplished architect, poet, and engineer. In his depiction of the human body he achieved a vigor and a monumentality of form that have been unsurpassed in the history of art. Outstanding examples are the statues David and Moses and the magnificent frescoes of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome. In these and other works, Michelangelo represents the peak of Italian Renaissance art and culture.

Early Life and Works

When he was only 13, Michelangelo was enrolled in the workshop of the famous Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. A year later, Michelangelo left to study sculpture in an academy established by the famous patron of the arts Lorenzo de' Medici. Michelangelo's copy of a Classical statue greatly impressed Lorenzo, and the young artist was soon invited to live at the Medici Palace. There he met the leading intellectuals of his day. The attempts of the intellectuals to combine pagan and Christian ideas greatly influenced Michelangelo's thought and later inspired a similar effort in his art.

A more direct influence on Michelangelo's development was the grand, but severely simple, style of the early Florentine artists, notably the painter Luca Signorelli and the sculptor Donatello. The influence of Donatello was especially notable in one of Michelangelo's most important early works, the relief sculpture Battle of Centaurs (Casa Buonarroti, Florence). In this work he established the nude human body as the basis of his art.

In 1496, Michelangelo went to Rome, where, during the next five years, he produced his two early masterpieces in sculpture, the Bacchus (Bargello, Florence) and the Pieta (St. Peter's Basilica, Rome). Both works have the realistic detail, high finish, and perfect harmony that were characteristic of Classical art.

The Pieta made Michelangelo famous, and when he returned to Florence in 1501, he was offered numerous commissions. His huge marble figure David (Accademia, Florence) brought him into rivalry with Leonardo da Vinci as the leading artist of his time. The statue captures the youthful vigor of the Biblical hero, although it represents him in a relaxed and balanced pose.

During this period one of Michelangelo's most important commissions was a wall painting, The Battle of Cascina, for the Palazzo Vecchio. A similar assignment for a battle scene had also been given to Leonardo. Although the murals were never finished, the two masters made cartoons, or preliminary paintings, which young artists throughout Europe came to study. At this time, Michelangelo also executed his only surviving easel painting, the Holy Family (Uffizi Gallery, Florence).

Middle Years

In 1505, Michelangelo was summoned to Rome to build a great mausoleum for Pope Julius II. Michelangelo's plans for the tomb, including about 40 figures, were accepted, but the project was eventually abandoned by the Pope. Instead, in 1508, the artist was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. For the next four years, lying on his back on a special scaffolding, he worked virtually unassisted on the vault, which measured 128 feet by 45 feet. The final work, based mainly on the Old Testament, is a strikingly complex composition of 343 more-than-life-size figures.

After the death of Pope Julius in 1513 his heirs revived the project of building his tomb. Although Michelangelo had begun the project in 1505, he did not complete it until 40 years later. In comparison to his original scheme the final work was probably the most disappointing in his career. Only the monumental Moses (San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome) and the two writhing figures known as Bound Slaves (also known as Captives, the Louvre, Paris) justify the great expense of time and effort. From about 1521 to 1534, Michelangelo worked in Florence on the memorial chapel and tombs of the Medici (San Lorenzo). Although it is unfinished, the chapel is famous for its integration of architecture and sculpture. Below the idealized statues of two Medici princes are the allegorical figures Day, Night, Dawn, and Evening. Strained in pose and distorted in proportion, the statues are in contrast to the Classical harmony and repose of Michelangelo's early works. In the carving Day, Michelangelo introduced into sculpture the revolutionary idea of leaving parts of the stone unworked.

The Medici Chapel exemplified Michelangelo's talents as a sculptor and as an architect. During the same period he designed the Laurentian Library (San Lorenzo). Its vestibule is one of his boldest architectural conceptions. In 1529 he participated as an engineer in defending the besieged city of Florence.

Later Career

In 1534, Michelangelo left Florence and settled permanently in Rome. The distorted postures and anguished mood of the Medici tomb sculptures were intensified in his next great project, the Last Judgment. Painted on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, it consists of groups of swirling nude bodies, often violently foreshortened, which rise from the grave to Paradise or descend in agony to Hell.

While working on the Last Judgment, Michelangelo developed a close friendship with the poetess Vittoria Colonna. He wrote her a number of poems, notably some of his most moving religious sonnets. He also dedicated a number of sonnets to a young nobleman, Tommaso Cavalieri. Although far less important than his art, Michelangelo's poetry was greatly admired by his contemporaries and provides a valuable insight into the tensions and conflicts of his personality.

After completing the Last Judgment, Michelangelo was commissioned to decorate the Pauline Chapel (Vatican) with the frescoes Conversion of Paul and Martyrdom of Peter. Thereafter his most important commissions were architectural. Major projects included the Farnese Palace, the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and the facades and court of the palace group on the Capitoline Hill. However, his greatest architectural accomplishment was his design for the majestic dome of St. Peter's Basilica.

The sculptures and drawings of Michelangelo's old age were more deeply religious than any of his earlier works. They were also increasingly abstract and expressionistic. Notable examples of his final style are the Pietd (Duomo, Florence) and the Rondanini Pietd (Castello Sforzesco, Milan). In this last work, discovered in Michelangelo's studio after his death, the frail, tragic, and almost fleshless figures of Christ and the Virgin recall the mysticism of Medieval art.

Importance. Michelangelo is often considered the greatest artist who ever lived. His immediate influence was on the Mannerist painters of the 16th century, many of whom mistakenly tried to imitate the emotionalism and distortions of his later style without understanding its essence. He also influenced the Baroque movement of the late 16th and 17th centuries and, in fact, all subsequent artists whose main interest was the dynamism of the human body. However, Michelangelo's genius defied all imitation, and his work remains a unique achievement.

Michelangelo died in Rome, Italy, Feb. 18, 1564.


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    • theartist331 profile image

      theartist331 7 years ago from USA

      absolutely beautiful:) art like this cannot be matched with anything!

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      peacenhim 7 years ago

      Amazing!! You just don't see ART WORK like this anymore!! When I visited the Sistine Chapel it was closed, the ceiling was under temporary construction, re-vamping, and re-touching. Would have loved to have seen this amazing ceiling in person. Enjoyed the history lesson!