Michelangelo

The Divine Master

Michelangelo Buonarroti, a towering genius in Western art’s rich tapestry, excelled as a painter, sculptor, architect, and poet. He is universally recognized as one of the brightest stars of the Italian Renaissance and among the greatest artists of all time. Although he is best known for the iconic frescoes on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, the artist considered himself primarily a sculptor.

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was born on March 6, 1475, in Caprese, Italy. His father served the Florentine government, and shortly after Michelangelo’s birth, his family returned to Florence, a city he would forever regard as his true homeland.

Michelangelo Buonarroti by Daniele da Volterra, c. 1545

Michelangelo Buonarroti by Daniele da Volterra, c. 1545

Becoming an artist was viewed as a social step down, and Michelangelo commenced his apprenticeship relatively late, at the age of 13, possibly after persuading his father to overcome his objections. He started training under the tutorship of Domenico Ghirlandaio, the city’s most eminent painter, with a planned three-year commitment. However, he departed after just one year, having exhausted the lessons available to him.

His exceptional talent caught the attention of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the city’s ruler, who took Michelangelo under his patronage. This invaluable support allowed Michelangelo to study with the esteemed sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni and introduced him to prominent poets, scholars, and erudite humanists.

Shortly after moving to Rome in 1498, Michelangelo received a significant assignment that would shape his career. Cardinal Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas, acting on behalf of the French King Charles VIII to the pope, commissioned him to create a sculpture of Mary holding the lifeless Jesus on her lap, known as Pietà. At that time, Michelangelo was just 23 years old.

Pietà by Michelangelo. St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City.

Pietà by Michelangelo. St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City.

In less than a year, Michelangelo carved the Pietà from a single block of marble, skillfully capturing the fluidity of the fabric, the positions of the subjects, and the lifelike texture of the skin.

Interestingly, it’s the only work that carries Michelangelo’s name. Legend has it that he overheard pilgrims wrongly attributing the work to another sculptor. In response, he boldly carved his signature into the sash across Mary’s chest.

Between 1501 and 1504, Michelangelo assumed a commission from the Florentine government to create a statue of “David,” a project that had been previously undertaken and abandoned by two other sculptors.

David by Michelangelo. Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy.

David by Michelangelo. Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence, Italy.

Michelangelo transformed the 17-foot (5 meters) block of marble into a figure with flawless anatomy. David, captured at the very moment he makes the decision to face Goliath, stood as a representation of Florentine liberty.

Michelangelo’s unparalleled skill in chiseling an entire sculpture from a solitary marble block remains unrivaled. He once expressed, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” He was the sculptor who could breathe life into stone.

In 1505, Pope Julius II handed Michelangelo a grand task: carving a magnificent tomb with 40 life-sized statues. Eagerly, the artist began this monumental work. But as the Pope got tangled in military disputes and faced dwindling funds, his focus shifted from the project.

Nonetheless, in 1508, Julius summoned Michelangelo once more. This time, it was for a less costly but still ambitious venture: painting the 12 apostles on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, a place of great sanctity in the Vatican where new popes are elected and inaugurated.

This project set Michelangelo’s creative spirit ablaze. The initial plan of painting 12 apostles soon transformed into an astonishing array of over 300 figures adorning the chapel’s ceiling. Dismissing all his assistants, whom he considered inadequate, Michelangelo worked relentlessly, lying on his back for countless hours, vigorously safeguarding the project until its completion.

The interior of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City showing the ceiling in relation to the other frescoes

The interior of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City showing the ceiling in relation to the other frescoes

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

The resulting masterpiece stands as a transcendent emblem of High Renaissance art. It seamlessly weaves together the symbolism, prophetic elements, and humanist ideals of Christianity that Michelangelo absorbed during his youth.

Unlike many artists of his time, Michelangelo achieved both fame and wealth during his lifetime. He had the unique privilege of witnessing the publication of two biographies chronicling his life.

Marriage never entered Michelangelo’s life. His temperament, characterized by a contentious nature and a quick temper, often led to strained relationships, especially with his superiors. This disposition not only caused trouble for Michelangelo but also fueled a relentless pursuit of perfection, making compromise nearly impossible.

If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.

Michelangelo

Michelangelo’s poetic inclinations, previously expressed through his sculptures, paintings, and architectural works, gradually found literary expression in his later years. Starting from his 50s, he penned around 300 poems, many infused with the philosophy of Neo-Platonism. These verses conveyed the belief that a human soul, driven by love and ecstasy, could ultimately reunite with the divine.

In 1564, at the age of 88, Michelangelo passed away following a brief illness, surpassing the life expectancy of his era by a considerable margin. The appreciation for his artistic mastery has persisted across the centuries, and his name has become synonymous with the pinnacle of the humanist tradition of the Renaissance.

Words of wisdom

“Genius is eternal patience. ” —Michelangelo

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” ―Michelangelo

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” —William Shakespeare

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” ―Kurt Vonnegut

Bibliography

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