“Italian sculptor, painter, architect and poet. He was one of the founders of the High Renaissance and, in his later years, one of the principal exponents of Mannerism. Born at Caprese, the son of the local magistrate, his family returned to Florence soon after his birth. Michelangelo’s desire to become an artist was initially opposed by his father, as to be a practising artist was then considered beneath the station of a member of the gentry. He was, however, eventually apprenticed in 1488 for a three-year term to Domenico Ghirlandaio. Later in life Michelangelo tried to suppress this apprenticeship, implying that he was largely self-taught, undoubtedly because he did not want to present himself as a product of the workshop system which carried with it the stigma of painting and sculpture being taught as crafts rather than Liberal Arts.
Nevertheless, it was in Ghirlandaio’s workshop that Michelangelo would have learnt the rudiments of the technique of fresco painting. Before the end of his apprenticeship, however, he transferred to the art school set up by Lorenzo the Magnificent in the gardens of the Palazzo Medici. Here he would have had access to the Medici collection of antiques, as well as a certain amount of tuition from the resident master, Bertoldo di Giovanni. His work here included two marble reliefs, a Madonna of the Steps (Casa Buonarroti, Florence), carved in rilievo schiacciato and showing the influence of Donatello (Bertoldo’s master) and a Battle of the Centaurs (Casa Buonarroti, Florence), based on Bertoldo’s bronze Battle of the Horsemen, which itself appears to be based on an antique prototype. Either at this time, or when he was in the Ghirlandaio workshop, Michelangelo also studied from and drew copies of the frescos of Giotto and Masaccio.
“With the death of Lorenzo in 1492, the school broke up and Michelangelo was given permission to study anatomy at the hospital attached to Sto Spirito. In gratitude to the prior for allowing him this privilege he carved a wooden Crucifix (the one now in the Casa Buonarroti is considered by some scholars to be the work in question). In October 1494, Michelangelo transferred to Bologna and was awarded the cornmission for three marble figures to complete the tomb of St. Dominic in S. Domenico Maggiore, begun by the recently deceased Niccoló dell’ Arca. By June 1496 he was in Rome and here established his reputation with two marble statues, the drunken Bacchus (c 1496-7; Florence, Bargello) for a private patron and the Pietá for St. Peter’s (1498-9). The latter is generally considered to be the masterpiece of his early years, deeply poignant, exquisitely beautiful and more highly finished than his later works were to be. In creating a harmonious pyramidal group from the problematic combination of the figure of a full-grown man lying dead across the lap of his mother, Michelangelo solved a formal problem that had hitherto baffled artists. He returned to Florence a famous sculptor and was awarded the commission for the colossal figure of David to stand in the Piazza della Signoria, flanking the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio (1501-4, original now in the Accademia). Soon after this he was cornmissioned to paint a battle scene for the new Council Chamber of the Palazzo. On one wall he commenced the painting of the Battle of Cascina, while on the opposite wall his principal rival, Leonardo, was commissioned to paint the Battle of Anghiari. Although neither painting was ever finished, copies of a fragment of Michelangelo’s full-size cartoon, showing a group of nude soldiers reacting variously to the battle alarm that has interrupted their bathing, soon began to circulate (e.g. Earl of Leicester Collection, Holkharn Hall, Norfolk). These nudes, posed in a variety of turning and animated poses, established the Mannerist conception of the male nude as the principal vehicle for the expression of human emotions.
“Michelangelo abandoned this Florentine commission when Pope Julius II summoned him to Rome to design his tomb. What should have been the most prestigious commission of his career, a free-standing tomb with some 40 figures, to be located in St. Peter’s, became, in Michelangelo’s own words, the ‘tragedy of the tomb’. Julius died in 1513, the contract was redrawn several times over the following years with ever-diminishing funding, other demands were made on Michelangelo by successive popes, and the project was finally cobbled together in 1545, a shadow of its original conception, with much help from assistants, in S. Pietro in Vincoli Julius’ titular church). The tomb is now principally famous for the colossal figure of Moses (c 1515), one of Michelangelo’s greatest sculptures. Two slave figures, The Dying Slave and the Rebellious Slave (c1513), intended for the largest of the schemes for the tomb, are now in the Louvre in Paris, and four unfinished slaves, from an intermediate stage when the tomb had been only slightly reduced, are now in the Accademia in Florence. The four unfinished slaves reveal eloquently Michelangelo’s sculptural process: the figure would be outlined on the front of the marble block and then Michelangelo would work steadily inwards from this one side, in his own words ‘liberating the figure imprisoned in the marble’. As the more projecting parts were reached so they were brought to a fairly finished state with those parts further back still only rough-hewn: thus the figures of these slaves literally appear to be struggling to be free. The (unintentional) pathos specifically evoked by the unfinished state of figures such as these and the St. Matthew (Accademia, Florence) exerted a tremendous impact on Rodin who recognized in them expressive possibilities that would be lost in a ‘finished’ piece.
“While in the early stages of work on the Tomb, Julius also commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo was evidently reluctant to abandon his sculptural project for one of painting (always much less satisfying to him), but he nonetheless began work in 1508, completed the first half by 1510 and the whole ceiling by 1512. Dissatisfied with traditional methods of fresco painting and mistrustful of assistants who could not meet his evolving demands, he dismissed his workshop at an early stage and completed the monumental task almost single-handedly. The main scenes – the histories – in the centre of the shallow barrel vault, alternate larger and smaller panels and represent the opening passages of the Bible, from the Creation to the Drunkenness of Noah with, at each of the corners of the smaller panels, idealized nude youths, variously interpreted as angels or Neoplatonic perfections of human beauty. The histories are treated like quadri riportati with a horizon parallel to the picture plain. The ignudi, however, inhabit a different reality – one created by the fictive architecture which also forms the shallow space occupied by the enthroned prophets and sibyls (those who foretold Christ’s coming) located towards the sides of the vault. Lower down still, in the Nunettes above the windows, are the ancestors of Christ and, at the four corners of the ceiling, Old Testament scenes that prefigure Christ’s Crucifixion and thus humanity’s salvation. The programme of the ceiling, life before the establishment of the Mosaic Law, relates it to the frescos of the lives of Moses and Christ by Perugino and other artists on the walls below. Michelangelo gives a poignant account of his gruelling task, painting bent over backwards, his neck permanently arched to look up, his arm stretching upwards to wield his brush, in one of his sonnets. The break in work in 1510 allowed him to see the effect of the fresco from the ground (hitherto hidden by scaffolding) and in the second half (that closest to the altar wall) there is a perceptible simplification of detail and a corresponding monumentalization of figure style. Always heralded as the supreme example of Florentine disegno, the recent restoration has also revealed Michelangelo to have been a brilliant colourist.
“In 1516, the new pope, Leo X (Giovanni de’Medici) commissioned Michelangelo to design a facade for San Lorenzo, the Medici parish church in Florence. The commission came to nothing (the facade is unfinished to this day), but this unfulfilled scheme led to his two earliest architectural masterpieces, the Medici Chapel (or New Sacristy) attached to San Lorenzo and the Laurentian Library. Again neither was to be finished. Nevertheless, the ‘molten’ stairway and the architectural elements of the entrance hall to the library, whose positioning deliberately contradicts the structural function of their prototypes, are seminal in the foundation of architectural Mannerism. The Medici funerary chapel (planned from 1520, abandoned when the Medici were temporarily expelled from Florence in 1527, recommenced in 1530 and left incomplete in 1534) was intended to be a fusion of architecture and sculpture accommodating the tombs of four members of the family. The idea was that looking from the altar, moving past the tombs, one’s gaze would be directed by the gaze of the tomb figures who turn towards the far wall and the Madonna holding upon her lap the Christ child, whose sacrifice had made possible the Resurrection of the soul of the faithful to everlasting life – the climax to the iconographical programme of the mausoleum. Only two tombs were completed and the Madonna and Child was half completed. Beneath the seated figure of Giuliano (‘vita activa’) are reclining figures of Day and Night and beneath that of Lorenzo (‘vita contemplativa’), Dawn and Evening. These reclining figures symbolize mortality through the passage of time.
“In 1534 Michelangelo departed for Rome, never to return to Florence. From now on he worked mainly for the papacy. Soon after his arrival Pope Clement VIII commissioned him to paint the fresco of the Last judgement for the Sistine Chapel (work commenced under Pope Paul III in 1536, completed in 1541). The spirit of the work is totally different from that of the ceiling unveiled 29 years earlier. In the interim, the Church had been torn apart by the Reformation, Rome had been sacked (1527), and Michelangelo’s fresco breathes the new militancy of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The optimism and confidence of the ceiling is replaced by the pessimism and emotional turmoil of the altar wall: saints swarm around the Apollo-like figure of Christ, wielding their instruments of martyrdom, seemingly demanding righteous judgement on the sinners stirring to life from the bare earth at the bottom of the picture. The Last judgement was intended as the climax of the chapel’s account, represented in coherent stages, on the ceiling and walls, of the Christian history of the world. This was Michelangelo’s most controversial work to date and was as much condemned (for its nudity) as it was praised (for its artistry). After the death of Michelangelo, the fresco was nearly destroyed, but the Church authorities settled for Daniele da Volterra painting draperies over the offending nudity.
“Following the Last Judgement Paul III commissioned from Michelangelo his two last major frescos for the Capella Paolina, the Conversion of St. Paul and the Martyrdom of St. Peter (1542-50). The same troubled spirit imbues Michelangelo’s sculpture from this time, the Pietá (now Florence, Cathedral Museum), intended for his own tomb shows himself as Nicodemus – again, a comparison with the St. Peter’s Pietá is eloquent testimony to the spiritual uncertainty of these later years. In the year of his death, his 89th year, he was working on yet another pietá, the Rondanini Pietá. In 1546 Michelangelo was appointed Chief Architect to St. Peter’s and charged with the completion of the new church, the most prestigious architectural commission in Christendom. Rebuilding had almost ceased with the death of Bramante in 1514, but Michelangelo, as reluctant to engage in architectural commissions as he had been with painting, had brought the work almost to completion (as high as the drum of the dome) by the time of his death. The dome was erected after his death, to his designs but with some modifications (e.g. Michelangelo’s hemispherical profile was made much steeper). Also the nave was lengthened in the 17th century changing Michelangelo’s Greek cross plan to a Latin cross plan, and consequently the majesty of the dome is much obscured by the balustrade of the Baroque facade.
“Whether in painting, sculpture or architecture, Michelangelo’s influence has been immense. Although he restricted himself to the nude in painting, his expressive use of the idealized human form had a tremendous impact on contemporaries and future generations – even Raphael was not above directly referring to the Sistine Chapel sibyls, with his fresco of Isaiah in Sant’ Agostino. Furthermore, there was not a major Italian sculptor of the 16th century whose style was not formed under the influence of Michelangelo, or in direct reaction against him (e.g. Bandinelli). He was the first artist to be the subject of two biographies in his lifetime – those of Condivi and Vasari – with the latter doing much to promote the view of Michelangelo as the consummation of a progression towards artistic perfection that had begun with Giotto.”
From: The Bulfinch Guide to Art History