Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti – Biography and works

one of the geniuses of the Renaissance, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, was born on 6 March 1475 in Caprese (Caprese Michelangelo), a village in the upper Val Tiberina today in the province of Arezzo, which at the time was part of the dominions of the Republic of Florence, from Francesca di Neri di Miniato del Sera and Ludovico, of an ancient Florentine family. Of great moral depth, he was a sculptor, painter, architect, and poet and exerted an unprecedented influence on the development of Western art.

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born into a family which, for several generations, belonged to a minor Florentine nobility but had lost its patrimony and status by the time of the artist’s birth. His father had only occasional government jobs and, at the time of Michelangelo’s birth, was the administrator of the small village of Caprese. A few months later, however, the family returned to their permanent residence in Florence.

For his family, becoming an artist was a downward social step, and Michelangelo became an apprentice relatively late, at 13. In any case, Michelangelo already, from an early age, had shown an extraordinary propensity for drawing, managing to overcome the resistance of his father, a “religious and good man, and rather of ancient customs” (at this time, in Florence, the painting was still considered a “mechanical” art and unworthy of a young man from a good family): in April 1488, when he was thirteen, he entered Domenico’s workshop as an apprentice Ghirlandaio was the most important painter in Florence at that time (from whom he learned the fresco technique).

The latter was working on the frescoes in the choir of the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella: but the first Buonarroti autographs (three pen drawings, datable to 1488-90, copies by Masaccio of the Church of Santa Maria Carmine and by Giotto of the Peruzzi Chapel in the Basilica of Santa Croce) testify that the fact “that the child was not satisfied with the expert painting of Ghirlandaio means neither more nor less the rejection of the subtle and nervous sensibility of the Florentine art of the third generation of the century, the annoyance for that spirit of episodic naturalism and ornamental elegance that characterized it and the need to return to the grandiose and synthetic spirit of the early fifteenth century” (Salvini). After only one year, he left Ghirlandaio’s workshop, having told (his future biographer Condivi) that he had nothing else to learn.

From the year 1490, in which Michelangelo begins to frequent the circle of Lorenzo the Magnificent (who, admiring his skills as a sculptor, treats him “no differently than as a son”) up to 1503, there remain no certainly autographed pictorial works: in the two tables with the Madonna and the Deposition of Christ, attributable to 1510 and kept in the National Gallery in London, critics have preferred to see the hand of an unknown artist, perhaps a friend of Michelangelo, who worked under his inspiration and assistance. Within the circle of the “Magnificent,” Michelangelo had access to the Medici art collection, dominated by fragments of ancient Roman sculpture. The bronze sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni, who looked after the collection, was closest to a master sculptor, but Michelangelo did not follow his approach. However, one of the two marble works that survive the artist’s early years is a variation on the composition of an ancient Roman sarcophagus. Bertoldo had produced a similar one in bronze. This composition is the Battle of the Centaurs (c. 1492). The action and power of the figures herald the artist’s later interests, much more so than the Madonna delle Scale (c. 1491), a delicate bas-relief reflecting the recent fashions of Florentine sculptors such as Desiderio da Settignano.

Florence, in this period, was considered the major center of art in existence, capable of producing the best painters and sculptors in Europe, and the competition between artists was stimulating. The city, however, no longer offered large commissions, and important Florentine artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Verrocchio, Leonardo’s teacher, had moved away to get better opportunities in other cities. The Medici were overthrown in 1494, and even before the end of the political turmoil, Michelangelo had left Florence for Bologna.

In the Emilian city, he was engaged to succeed a recently deceased sculptor and sculpt the last small figures needed to complete a large project in the Basilica of San Domenico, the tomb and sanctuary of San Domenico, the so-called Arca di San Domenico (1494-95 ). The young Michelangelo contributed some small but significant statues: that of San Petronio, of San Procolo, and the angel holding the candlestick on the right. The three marble figures are original and expressive. Building on the imaginative agility of his predecessor, he imposed seriousness on his images with a compactness of form that owes much to classical antiquity and the Florentine tradition from Giotto onwards. His choice of marble as a medium also reflects this emphasis on seriousness. The simplification of the masses accompanying it contrasts with the then-more-usual tendency to make the representations coincide as much as possible with the structure and detail of the bodies of humans. Of course, while these are constant qualities in Michelangelo’s art, they are often temporarily abandoned or modified due to other factors, such as the specific functions of the works or the challenging creations of other artists.

The Bacchus

The Bacchus
The Bacchus

This was the case with Michelangelo’s first large surviving statue, the Bacchus, produced in Rome in 1496-97 after a brief return to Florence and now in the Bargello Museum. (A recently discovered wooden crucifix, attributed by some scholars to Michelangelo and now housed in the Casa Buonarroti in Florence, has also been proposed as an antecedent of the Bacchus in the drawing by those accrediting it as a work by the artist). The Bacchus is based on ancient Roman nude figures as a starting point but is much more mobile and complex in profile. Conscious instability evokes the Dionysian god of wine, who enjoys himself with extraordinary virtuosity. Made for a garden, it is also unique among Michelangelo’s works in asking for observation from all sides rather than primarily from the front.

The Pietà

The Pietà
The Pietà

The Bacchus immediately led to the commission by the French cardinal Jean de Bilhères, in 1498, of the Pietà, one of the most famous works in the history of art, destined for the Chapel of Santa Petronilla (the chapel of the kings of France) in St. Peter’s Basilica. The name “Pietà” does not refer (as is often assumed) to this specific work but to a common traditional type of devotional image more common in northern Europe, of which it is the most famous example today. Extracted from narrative scenes of the lamentation after Christ’s death, the concentrated sculptural group of the two subjects was designed to evoke the viewer’s repentant prayers for the sins that required Christ’s sacrificial death. The most complex problem for the artist to face was that of extracting two figures from a block of marble, an unusual and very difficult undertaking in all periods. Michelangelo treated the group as a dense and compact mass with an imposing impact. Yet, he underlined the many contrasts present – of male and female, vertical and horizontal, clothed and naked, dead and alive – to clarify the two components. Michelangelo, when he sculpted the Pietà, was only 23 years old.

David of Michelangelo

The commission immediately strengthened the importance of the Florentine artist established by Pietà in 1501 David for the cathedral of Florence. For this gigantic statue, an exceptionally large commission in Florence, Michelangelo reused a block that had been left unfinished some 40 years earlier. The modeling was particularly close to the formulas of classical antiquity, with a simplified geometry suitable for the large scale but with a slight affirmation of organic life in its asymmetry. The majestic sculpture was the first affirmation of the Renaissance ideal of perfect humanity. Although it was originally intended for the buttress of the cathedral, the magnificence of the finished work convinced Michelangelo’s contemporaries to install it in a more prominent location, determined by a commission of leading artists and citizens. They decided that the David would be installed in front of the entrance to the Palazzo dei Priori (now Palazzo Vecchio) as the very symbol of the Florentine Republic.

David of Michelangelo
David of Michelangelo

In the same years (1501-04), Michelangelo produced several Madonnas for private houses, the basis of the work of the artists of the time. These include a statuette, two circular painting-like reliefs suggesting various levels of spatial depth, and the artist’s single easel canvas. While the statue (Madonna and Child) is frozen and motionless, the painting (Holy Family or Tondo Doni) and one of the reliefs (Madonna and Child with the infant Saint John) is full of movement; they show arms and legs of figures intertwined in actions involving movement through time. The shapes bear symbolic references to the future death of Christ, common in images of the Christ Child of the time; they also betray the artist’s fascination with Leonardo’s work. Michelangelo regularly denied that anyone had influenced him, and his statements were generally accepted without fear. But Leonardo’s return to Florence in 1500 after nearly 20 years was exciting for younger artists, and late 20th-century scholars generally agreed that Michelangelo was among the most affected people. Leonardo’s works were the most powerful and lasting external influences to shape his work. He could blend the artist’s ability to show momentary processes with his own to show weight and strength without losing any of these. qualities. The resulting images of massive bodies in vigorous action are those special creations that constitute the bulk of his most admired works.


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Il Tondo Doni

The so-called Doni Tondo, Michelangelo’s first certain painting, dates from the end of 1503. In this table, the not-yet thirty-year-old artist comes to experience and consume what will become his formidable conceptual and formal archetypes. The expanded and elusive substance of Leonardo’s image, which he had known from the cartoon of Sant’Anna exhibited in the city three years earlier, here becomes a decisive contour, a “functional line” (Longhi), defining in space a knot of figures now eminently sculptural, because, as stated by Carlo Giulio Argan, “… the concepts have no relationship with sensory experience”.

The Doni Tondo was destined to profoundly renew the fifteenth-century Florentine tradition of the “tondo”, overcoming the perspective space of Masaccio or Domenico Veneziano and the rhythmic one of Botticelli (think of the Madonna of the pomegranate) in the affirmation of a universal space, “imagining a gigantic humanity that acts, but in collected and tight motions and as if jammed by the mass” (Roberto Longhi).

Central years in Michelangelo’s career

After the success of David in 1504, Michelangelo’s work consisted almost entirely of vast projects. These ambitious tasks attracted the artist and, at the same time, repelled the use of assistants, so most of these projects were impracticable and needed to be completed. Indeed, in the artistic circles of Rome and Florence, it was astounding that Michelangelo had not created his school or assistant workshop. Having many students meant the possibility of performing many works and earning more. Unlike his rival Raphael, the Florentine artist lived at times in hardship, isolated and solitary. But despite this, he was known, recognized, and admired. Not only did he have a closed temperament, but the more demanding work was, the more he enlightened and tormented to solve it and complete it in an infinite and repaid trust in his talent. His immense talent justified all his presumptions.

Battle of Cascina (Battaglia di Cascina)

From the autumn of 1504 to March of the following year, Michelangelo was engaged in a great, though never accomplished, pictorial undertaking: the fresco of the Battle of Cascina for the Sala del Maggiore Consiglio in the Palazzo della Signoria, celebrating the Florentine victory in 1364 against the Pisan army commanded by John Hawkwood, the famous Giovanni Acuto (the Italian name was attributed to him by Niccolò Machiavelli). The work was commissioned – as Giorgio Vasari informs – by “Piero Soderini, then Gonfaloniere, for the great virtue, that he saw in Michelagnolo” and went no further than the execution of the “cartoon” (i.e., the life-size drawing to be transposed on the wall before painting it), now lost and known to us through a copy of 1542 by Aristotle da Sangallo, as well as from a series of sketches and drawings by Michelangelo’s hand, which tends “towards the expression of absolute terror and the depiction of an equally absolute and total escape: as it will be in the Deluge, already here the lyrical motif is the total and desperate anxiety of salvation.” (Roberto Salvini).

Buonarroti’s fresco was to form a pair with another just begun by Leonardo da Vinci. Both frescoes depicted the city’s military victories, but each was also meant to be a testament to the much-vaunted special skills of the city’s artists. Leonardo’s project, the Battle of Anghiari, showed galloping horses; Michelangelo’s naked soldiers stop to swim and climb a river to respond to an alarm. Leonardo’s work also survives only in partial preparatory sketches and copies.

In 1505 the artist began work on a series of 12 marble apostles for the cathedral of Florence, of which only one, San Matteo, was even begun. His ecstatic movement shows the full blend of Leonardo’s fluid organic movement with Michelangelo’s monumental power. This is also the first of Michelangelo’s unfinished works that have captivated later observers. The figures of him seem to suggest that they are struggling to get out of the stone. This would imply that their incomplete state was intentional, but no doubt he intended to complete all the statutes. However, he wrote a sonnet about how difficult it is for the sculptor to bring the perfect figure out of the block in which it is potentially present. Thus, even if the works remained unfinished only due to lack of time and other external reasons, their condition nevertheless reflects the artist’s intense sensitivity to the tensions inherent in the creative process.

Pope Julius II’s appeal to Michelangelo to come to Rome ended both Florentine projects, the Battle of Cascina, and the sculptures of the 12 apostles for Florence Cathedral. The pope looked for a tomb for which Michelangelo would sculpt 40 large statues. Recent tombs had been increasingly large, including those of two popes by the Florentine sculptor Antonio Pollaiuolo, those of the Doges of Venice, and one later in construction for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. Pope Julius had an ambitious imagination, paralleling that of Michelangelo. However, owing to other projects, such as the new building of St. Peter’s and his military campaigns, he soon became disturbed by the cost. Michelangelo believed that Bramante, the equally prestigious architect of St. Peter’s, had influenced the pope to cut off his funds. He left Rome, but the pope pressured the city authorities in Florence to send him back. He was set to work on a colossal bronze statue of the pope in the newly conquered Bolognese city (which the citizens pulled down shortly after when they drove out the papal army) and then on the less expensive project of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-12).

Sistine Chapel ceiling

Between March 1505 and the end of 1507, the “tragedy of the burial” unfolds the story of the tormented commission of the funeral monument of Julius II, destined to mark and darken the artist’s soul deeply. But in May 1508, he signed in Rome, with Julius II himself, the contract for the decoration of the vault of the Sistine Chapel: expanding the iconographic program foreseen by the pontiff (“… he gave me a new commission that I should do on the vault what I wanted”, he would later write in a letter) Michelangelo completed the fresco in four years of solitary and relentless work.

In the shape of the vault, he inserts the majestic figures of the Prophets and of the Sibyls, of the Ignudi and the Stories of Genesis, giving life, in the spandrels, in the ribs and the lunettes with the Miraculous salvations of Israel to an epic representation of Humanity “ante legem” and “sub lege.” The whole immense, exciting structure, which has become the “symbol” of Renaissance art, lives on the Neoplatonic identity between Good and Beautiful and reflects, in its speculative substratum, the concept of divine radiance in the human soul through the different degrees of knowledge (the Prophets and the Sibyls) and of the advent of Christian Revelation as the final goal of man’s spiritual history.

Michelangelo’s work represents, according to Longhi, “… the last great expression of drawing as a functional line vibrating in masses of collected plasticity”: of this expression, the Sistine vault constitutes the highest outcome before the Last Judgment, frescoed between 1536 and 1541 on the wall of the altar. This second, shocking representation goes beyond the limits and spatial measure as well as the traditional iconography of the theme: in it, “…Michelangelo cannot paint the blessed who ascend to heaven flying without weight but only bodies who scale the sky propping themselves up with difficulty on the solid clouds like rocks; and more willingly than blessed he paints the damned between the grips of the devils” (Longhi). In a vision as lofty as it is desperate, the Judgment overwhelms, with the formal ideals, even the moral and intellectual certainties of the “Renaissance,” marking its dramatic conclusion and at the same time preparing, beyond any doctrinal guarantee, the ground for modern consciousness.

Thus the two frescoes, the Conversion of Saint Paul and the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, executed between 1542 and 1550 in the Pauline Chapel, live “in an airless space, full of an arid and almost sandy light (…), represent, in short, the moment of Michelangelo’s religious lyric, that is, the moment in which poetry, whether verbal or visual, appears to him as a spiritual exercise, a real ascetic practice. Shortly, Giordano Bruno will call “contractio animi” (Argan).

Sistine Chapel ceiling
Sistine Chapel ceiling

Michelangelo was considered the greatest living artist of his era (and what an era! The Renaissance) and has since entered the Olympus of the greatest artists of all time. A side effect of Michelangelo’s fame in his lifetime was that his career was more widely documented than any artist of the time or earlier. He was the first Western artist whose biography was published while still alive. There were two rival biographies. The first was the final chapter in the Life of Artists series (1550) by another great Renaissance genius, the painter and architect Giorgio Vasari. It was the only chapter on a living artist and explicitly presented Michelangelo’s works as the culminating perfection of art, surpassing the efforts of all who preceded him. Despite such praise, Michelangelo was not entirely satisfied and had his assistant Ascanio Condivi write a separate short book (1553); probably based on comments made by the artist himself, this account shows him as he intended to appear.

After Michelangelo’s death, Vasari, in a second edition (1568), changed and improved his biography. While scholars have often preferred Condivi’s authority, Vasari’s lively writing, the importance of his book, and its frequent reprinting in many languages have made it the more usual basis for popular ideas about Michelangelo and others. Renaissance artists. Michelangelo’s fame also led to preserving countless memorabilia, including hundreds of letters, sketches, and poems – again more than any other contemporary.

The last twenty years of Michelangelo’s life are directed above all to architecture and sculptural problems: some drawings from the extreme years have the Crucifixion and Deposition as their themes; in them, every search for finitude or formal beauty is resigned or subordinated to meditation on the sacrifice of Christ as a catharsis and redemption of man’s drama. Michelangelo Buonarroti died in Rome on February 18, 1564, after having “… a thousand times asked God for that ale / with which our mortal / career intellect rises to heaven”: his surly, sometimes experimental research and his fifty-year mastery will constitute for entire generations of artists, up to the threshold of the 18th century, a legacy as problematic as it is inescapable.

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