The Italian Michelangelo Buonarotti, almost certainly the most famous artist produced by Western civilization and arguably the greatest, is universally viewed as the supreme Renaissance artist (see Renaissance art and architecture). He created monumental works of painting, sculpture, and architecture and left an additional legacy of numerous letters and poems. Through this vast and multifaceted body of artistic achievement, Michelangelo made an indelible imprint on the Western imagination.
A member of an old and distinguished Florentine family, Michelangelo was born near Arezzo, Italy, on Mar. 6, 1475, and he died on Feb. 18, 1564, in Rome–a record of longevity that was as unusual as his precocity as an artist. Like his compatriot Donatello, Michelangelo to the end of his life saw himself primarily as a sculptor, once avowing that he drank in with his wet-nurse’s milk the love of the stonecutter’s tools. Always a Florentine patriot, even after he had expanded his art into a universal language, he exemplified the character of his native city: a passionate, proud, and independent man, he saw art as a sacred calling through which the dignity of human beings should be enhanced and celebrated. His lifelong fascination with the sublime form of the human body arose from this thoroughly Florentine sensitivity to the inherent worth and nobility of individuals.
Michelangelo’s Florentine education hinged on three salient attitudes that dramatically shaped his own outlook. From the age of 13 he received a firm grounding in the traditional techniques and practices of painting and sculpture under the tutelage of the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio and the sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni (c.1420-91). While still in his adolescence, he was given equally extensive exposure to the art and thought of the ancient world as a privileged protege of Lorenzo de’Medici, in whose palace he encountered a celebrated collection of classical works of art and conversed with the leading humanist poets and philosophers of the day, notably Marsilio Ficino and Angelo Poliziano (see Politian). After absorbing the humanist and classically oriented doctrines of Neoplatonism espoused by Poliziano and Ficino, Michelangelo found his belief in rationalistic humanism tempered by the fiery sermons of the Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola, whose fundamentalist attacks on pagan culture and corrupt church practices struck a responsive chord in the deeply religious young artist.
These early experiences gave Michelangelo a clear sense of the development of Tuscan art from Giotto de Bondone through Masaccio to Donatello, of the relationship of that tradition to classical art and thought, and of the need to come to grips with the seemingly paradoxical moral and aesthetic views of classical rationalism and the Christian faith. His entire artistic output reflects a subtle and complex commingling of these disparate attitudes. A dichotomy is also reflected in his political views. Despite his close association with the Medici family, his independence of mind led him to harbor republican sentiments, which took active form in his defense of the Florentine Republic in 1530.
The impact of Michelangelo’s education and the scope of his artistic potential are lucidly illuminated in his first relief, the Madonna of the Stairs (1489-92; Casa Buonarroti, Florence), executed while the artist was still less than 20 years of age. The subject of the seated Mother nursing the Infant Christ was a traditional one, and the schiacciato (flattened relief) style directly recalls Donatello’s technique, which the young artist here emulated. Yet the depiction of the Child’s muscular right arm extended behind him, the compression of the space, and the mood of sadness that permeates the piece convey a compositional and psychological tension that mark much of Michelangelo’s later work. The relief remained unfinished in detail–another hallmark of the artist’s more mature production.
Michelangelo’s first response to the majesty of classical Roman art is found in his larger-than-life statue of Bacchus the god of wine (1496-97; Bargello, Florence). In this, his first mature masterpiece, Michelangelo amplified the classical ideal of beauty in a sensual and compositionally complex rendering of the human form that echoes Donatello’s bronze David (c.1440-42; Bargello, Florence).
Michelangelo was above all a carver in marble whose ability to extract animate form from a block of stone remains unsurpassed. Two of his most famous statues, carved while he was in his twenties, movingly attest to his capabilities. The Pieta (1498- 1500; Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome) epitomizes a grace and finish that are unmatched even in his later work. The suppleness of Christ’s naturalistically modeled torso is emphasized by the Virgin’s flowing drapery, by the serene features of the two youthful faces, and by the large pyramidal composition that rises to a natural apex at the head of the Mother of God.
The sweet tenderness of the Pieta gave way to power and monumentality in the marble David (1501-04; Accademia, Florence), a colossal (4.34-m/14.24-ft) evocation of athletic prowess and dynamic action. This marble giant was carved in Florence as a symbol of the proud independence of the Florentine republic, whose existence was being threatened by more powerful states. Depicted just before his historic battle with Goliath, David reveals a psychologically charged state of mind that is reflected in the contrapposto of his pose. In this heroic work Michelangelo successfully fused classical inspiration with Florentine humanism and enhanced this fusion through his own depiction of the male nude.
Julius II and the Sistine Ceiling
The remainder of Michelangelo’s career was largely controlled by his relationship with the papacy, and from 1505 to 1516 the Vatican became the focal point of his artistic endeavors. Initially called to Rome to sculpt an enormous tomb for Pope Julius II, Michelangelo completed only a fraction of the proposed sculptural program, including the magnificent Moses (c.1515; San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome) and the fascinating nude studies known as the Dying Slave and the Rebellious Slave (both c.1510-13; Louvre, Paris). A major reason for his inability to finish Julius’s tomb was the immense project he undertook (1508 -12) to execute on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a pictorial cycle devoted to the biblical history of humanity.
Michelangelo’s organization of the Sistine ceiling frescoes represents perhaps the most complex composition in Western art. The space contains an intricate illusionistic architectural structure that serves as a frame for the disposition of the sculpturelike forms. Of the nine central narrative scenes illustrating events from the creation of the universe as told in Genesis, the most sublime scene is the Creation of Adam, in which Michelangelo’s new vision of human beauty, first articulated in the David, attains pictorial form. In the four years that it took to complete the ceiling, Michelangelo realized the full potential of the High Renaissance style; in the process, he changed the artistic vision of another great High Renaissance master, Raphael, and altered the course of Western art.
The supreme statements of the potential nobility of human beings expressed in the David and the Sistine ceiling frescoes gave way after 1520 to more complex, agitated, and ominous artistic creations. To a profoundly religious and humanistic Michelangelo the jolting breakup of the Roman church after 1517, the terrible sack of Rome by the troops of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1527, and the final crushing of the Florentine Republic in 1530 came as disillusioning blows. A radical change in the artist’s outlook is apparent in the masterwork of his middle age, the architectural and sculptural program of the Medici Chapel in Florence (1519-34). The overall architectural scheme of the chapel owes a great debt to Filippo Brunelleschi’s nearby Old Sacristy, but the overwhelming effect of Michelangelo’s squeezed niches, crowded windows, and nonsupporting members is as subtle and disconcerting as the earlier design is clear and rationalistic. The statues atop the tombs of Lorenzo and Giuliano de’Medici retain the human dignity inherent in all of Michelangelo’s works, but they strike a new note of sorrow and poignancy. In the intense spirituality of its overall design and the disturbing power of forms such as the figure of Dawn on one of the tombs, the Medici Chapel signals a dramatic shift in Michelangelo’s outlook and style, which hereafter takes on the highly artificial ideals of beauty that played a key role in the development of Mannerism.
Michelangelo’s seemingly inexhaustible powers of artistic invention made it possible for him in his final three decades to create an even more personal style. This last phase of his artistic career, spent almost entirely in Rome, is characterized by a militant and all-encompassing religious outlook and a relative subordination of sculptural to pictorial and architectural efforts. In his last frescoes, the Last Judgment (1536-41; Sistine Chapel, Vatican), the Conversion of St. Paul (1542-45; Pauline Chapel, Vatican), and the Crucifixion of Peter (1545-50; Pauline Chapel, Vatican), he replaced the rational compositional unity and beauty of the Sistine ceiling frescoes with a visionary world in which the compression of the figures and the violence of their actions take place in a supremely spiritual world. His human forms are as powerfully modeled as ever, but they are now contorted in physical agonies that imply the necessity of human suffering for the salvation of human souls.
Perhaps Michelangelo’s most interesting works of this period are the architectural commissions he executed in Rome in the last years of his life. His completion of Antonio da Sangallo’s Farnese Palace (1517-50) and his design for the Campidoglio, the plaza and its rebuilt classical structures atop the Capitoline Hill (begun 1538), both display an idiosyncratic reordering of the Renaissance architectural vocabulary around outsize and overwhelmingly powerful elements–the huge cornice of the Farnese and the gigantic, two-story Corinthian order of the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline. This projection of awesome power also marks Michelangelo’s completion and reinterpretation of Donato Bramante’s plan for Saint Peter’ S Basilica. Restoring Bramante’s Greek-cross plan for the church, Michelangelo went on to design a powerful exterior unified by a colossal double Corinthian order and the magnificent ribbed dome that crowns the structure.
In his very last years the aging artist returned to his first love, sculpture, executing the Pieta, or Deposition (c.1550; Cathedral, Florence) that he intended to have placed on his own tomb. The omnipresent power of death is revealed in this marble, unfinished and partially mutilated by Michelangelo in a fit of depression. The aged and resigned features of the figure of Nicodemus supporting the dead Christ constitute a self- portrait–the picture of an old and tired believer who willingly accepts the inevitability of his own death and the possibility of his soul’s salvation as he contemplates the features of the dead Christ. In this, his most intimate statue, Michelangelo manifests his deeply moral philosophy, his poetic expression, and the universality of his imagery; he identifies the divine source of that spark of creativity that sculpted him into one of the greatest of all artistic geniuses.
Alexander, Sidney, Michelangelo the Florentine (1985) and Nicodemus: The Roman Years of Michelangelo Buonarroti (1984); Buonarroti, Michelangelo, Complete Poems and Selected Letters, trans. by Creighton Gilbert, 2d ed. (1965; repr. 1980); Cambon, Glauco, Michelangelo’s Poetry (1985); Goldscheider, Ludwig, Michelangelo: Paintings, Sculpture, Architecture, 4th ed. (1964); Hartt, Frederick, Michelangelo (1965; repr. 1984) and Michelangelo: Drawings (1970); Hibbard, Howard, Michelangelo, new ed. (1978); Hirst, Michael, Michelangelo and His Drawings (1988; repr. 1990); Leites, Nathan, Art and Life: Aspects of Michelangelo (1986); Liebert, Robert S., Michelangelo (1983); Perrig, Alexander, Michelangelo’s Drawings (1991); Tolnay, Charles de, Michelangelo, 5 vols. (1943-60; repr. 1969-70); Wallace, William E., Michelangelo at San Lorenzo (1994).