Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), the Italian sculptor, painter, architect, engineer, and poet, achieved such renown in his lifetime that he was celebrated as “Il Divino,” or the Divine One. In 500 years his fame has scarcely diminished. Michelangelo is universally recognized to be among the greatest artists of all time. He set new and still unsurpassed standards of excellence in all fields of visual creativity—sculpture, painting, architecture—and was, in addition, an accomplished poet and engineer. Along with Dante and Shakespeare, Mozart and Beethoven, he stands as one of the giants of Western civilization. During a long and productive career, Michelangelo fashioned some of the key images of Western Christianity.

Michelangelo’s life spanned from the humanist culture of Renaissance Florence to the first stirrings of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. He lived through the reigns of 13 popes and worked for 9 of them. Although his art occasionally was criticized (he was accused of impropriety in the Last Judgment), Michelangelo’s influence and reputation have always been acknowledged. Many of his works—including the Pietà, David, Moses, and the Sistine Chapel ceiling—are ubiquitous cultural icons. Despite the familiarity of Michelangelo’s art, the large quantity of primary documentation (more than any previous artist), and a voluminous secondary literature, many aspects of Michelangelo’s art and life remain open to interpretation.

In contrast to the romantic conception of the artist as a lone genius, contemporary scholars tend to view Michelangelo in a broad historical and social context. He firmly believed that he belonged to a noble family who traced an ancient lineage from the medieval counts of Canossa. It is scarcely important that we now doubt the claim as it was firmly believed by contemporaries, and it deeply informed Michelangelo’s life and art. His proud ancestry was affirmed in the opening lines of the biography written by his friend and pupil, Ascanio Condivi (published in 1553): “Michelangelo Buonarroti … traced his origin from the counts of Canossa, noble and illustrious family of the territory of Reggio. … ” Michelangelo’s concerns with family lineage and social status place him squarely in a contemporary milieu, sharing the most cherished values of his fellow citizens. At the same time, these concerns distinguish him from most of his fellow artists, few of whom could claim noble origins, a coat of arms, or even a proper family name. The tension between his patrician birth and his fundamentally manual profession occasionally caused Michelangelo to experience doubt about his art (best expressed in his poetry) and to encounter conflict with his patrons.

From early in his career, Michelangelo made art as a privileged commodity for a few select persons. His oeuvre is marked by a series of unique objects that are never repeated and scarcely imitable: Bacchus, Pietà, David, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the Last Judgment, the tomb of Julius II, and New St. Peter’s. Like Leonardo da Vinci before him, Michelangelo attempted to live as a sort of artist-courtier where mutually beneficial and reciprocal relations blurred the distinction between artist and patron, between professional and personal obligations. In his final years, Michelangelo considered it unseemly to be paid a daily wage for his work at St. Peter’s. Instead he accepted remuneration as a favor from the pope, mostly in the form of lucrative benefices.

While preoccupied with worldly matters of social standing and “raising up the family,” Michelangelo was simultaneously a profoundly religious person. Although he carved, painted, and drew works with pagan subject matter (e.g., Battle of the Centaurs, Bacchus, Leda), the majority of his artistic production is sacred in content and character. Manifesting the spirit of Neoplatonic humanism in which he was raised, Michelangelo’s art is a fusion of Christianity and pagan antiquity. On the Sistine Chapel ceiling, for example, nude youths (ignudi) frame scenes from Genesis—a joining of diverse elements that suggests the munificence of God’s creation.

Early Life.

Michelangelo was born on 6 March 1475 in the small town of Caprese in rural Tuscany. His father, Lodovico Buonarroti, was a minor Florentine official and the local governor (podestà) of Caprese and nearby Chiusi. After his six-month term of office, Lodovico moved his family back to Florence, where they owned a good-size farm in the village of Settignano on the outskirts of Florence. Here, Michelangelo was first exposed to the local crafts of stone and marble carving. In this small world of interrelated and neighboring families, Michelangelo learned the rudiments of sculpture and became acquainted with many of his future assistants.

Much of Michelangelo’s life is colored by myth, especially the undocumented early years. The contemporary biographies written by the artist/writer Giorgio Vasari (first published in 1550) and Michelangelo’s pupil/assistant Ascanio Condivi (first published in 1553), are fictionalized accounts tinged by the self-fashioning recollection of an artist more than 70 years old and at the height of his international fame. Employing literary topoi, rhetorical description, and anecdote, the biographies were written primarily to praise Michelangelo’s genius and unprecedented achievements. Their evidential value as primary documents, therefore, should be qualified by recognition of their status as works of literature. It is notable, however, that within his lifetime, Michelangelo inspired a considerable body of writing; in addition to the biographies by Vasari and Condivi, he figures prominently in dialogues written by Francisco de Hollanda, Donato Giannotti, and Lodovico Dolce.

Education and Training.

It is uncertain when Michelangelo first aspired to be an artist, but it is understandable that his father opposed such a predilection since painting and sculpture were considered manual crafts and lowly occupations. Thus, not until age 13 was Michelangelo apprenticed to Domenico Ghirlandaio, the most fashionable painter in Florence. Ghirlandaio ran a large and successful workshop (bottega) where Michelangelo learned drawing and painting, in both tempera and fresco. Although he later denied learning much from his pedestrian teacher, Michelangelo’s early drawings and his first generally accepted efforts in painting (the Doni Tondo and the Sistine ceiling) offer evidence that the young apprentice learned his lessons well. At the same time, it is also true that he never completed his apprenticeship with Ghirlandaio, nor did he ever own or operate a conventional artist’s workshop.

Through Michelangelo’s grandmother, the Buonarroti were distantly related to the Medici, the de facto rulers of Florence and the greatest patrons of the Renaissance. Michelangelo’s father exploited this distant family tie in order to place his son in the entourage of the great Renaissance Maecenas, Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449–1492). Here he was introduced to some of the finest works of ancient and modern art and some of the most important literary and intellectual figures of the day, including Marsilio Ficino, Angelo Poliziano, Cristoforo Landino, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.

Michelangelo spent nearly two years in the Medici household (ca. 1490–1492). Almost unique among artists, he received the beginnings of a humanist education. He never mastered Latin, but he was exposed to a world of books, learning, and refined culture alongside two of his future patrons, Giovanni de’ Medici (Pope Leo X) and Giulio de’ Medici (Pope Clement VII). Michelangelo’s skills as a letter writer and poet and the subtlety of his thinking bespeak the formative influence of these years.

In such learned company, Michelangelo would have considered himself non lactinantes, that is, he had learned the rudiments of Latin grammar (lactinare) but not enough to read literature (auctores). Outside the formulas of church worship and business contracts, he admitted his limitations: “I should be ashamed, being so much in your company, not sometimes to speak in Latin, albeit incorrectly,” he once confessed to his friend Luigi del Riccio. Both Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci lived at a time when Latin was the lingua franca of educated individuals; however, neither mastered this traditional aspect of learning.

Michelangelo grew up with the Bible and surely read Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch. His poetry amply attests familiarity with the great tradition of Tuscan vernacular writing. His knowledge of Dante was celebrated by his contemporaries and was a cornerstone of his learning. In Lorenzo de’ Medici’s house, Michelangelo was exposed to many books firsthand, and via the learned discussions that leavened its intellectual life he was introduced to many more. Lorenzo possessed manuscripts and printed editions of many classics and the traditional curricular favorites: Ovid, Virgil, Seneca, and Cicero as well as Statius, Terence, Juvenal, Plautus, Horace, Sallust, and Boethius’s much-loved Consolation of Philosophy. Of course, most of these were in Latin, and one wonders if Michelangelo actually read these precious volumes. He most likely gained familiarity with these authors from the bright minds and scintillating conversation of Lorenzo’s household, especially since he had a “tenacious memory,” which was an important yardstick of learning. In a culture saturated with printed words and images, we sometimes forget the importance of oral transmission; books were read aloud and discussed, poetry was recited at length, sermons explained and elaborated, street and court performances made works of “literature” accessible to a wide public.

If we concoct a list of books that scholars have supposed Michelangelo knew or read, we would be inventing an unlikely pedant and an impossibly extensive library. Such a list may not constitute Michelangelo’s reading, but it does suggest the world of learning in which he was nurtured. Two years in the Medici household, guided in his studies by such humanists as Angelo Poliziano, Marsilio Ficino, and Cristoforo Landino, was worth more than a college education. The experience profoundly broadened Michelangelo’s intellectual horizons. In the Renaissance, it was not the quantity of reading but its mastery that constituted learning. A few books committed to memory were more important than the swift, unsystematic, and comparatively superficial reading of modern times. The Bible and vernacular religious texts—the lives of the saints, the letters of St. Paul, the writings of St. Francis and St. Bernardino—constituted the core of Michelangelo’s religious education.

Early Work.

Among Michelangelo’s surviving early works are exercises in low relief (Madonna of the Stairs, Casa Buonarroti) and higher relief (Battle of the Centaurs, Casa Buonarroti), respectively revealing the artist’s emulation of Donatello and classical antiquity. After the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1492, Michelangelo actively sought patronage among the Strozzi and he carved a life-size marble Hercules once owned by the family (lost). Without a regular artistic practice or steady patronage, however, Michelangelo’s future and economic security remained tenuous. When the Medici were expelled from Florence in 1494, he elected to follow the family to Bologna, where he lived for nearly a year (1494–1495) in the household of the Bolognese patrician Giovanni Francesco Aldovrandi, a position that he secured because of his Medici connections. Aldovrandi encouraged Michelangelo’s interest in vernacular literature, especially Dante and Petrarch, and arranged for the 20-year-old artist to carve several small statuettes for the still incomplete tomb of St. Dominic (S. Petronius, S. Proclus, and an angel candelabrum in San Domenico, Bologna).

Late in 1495, Michelangelo returned to Florence, then under the sway of the fiery Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola. In a frenzy of reform, the populace consigned books, clothes, and works of art to the infamous “bonfire of the vanities.” More than 50 years later, Michelangelo claimed that he still retained the memory of the friar’s living voice. In need of a patron, Michelangelo curried favor with Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, a member of the cadet branch of the Medici family. For Lorenzo, Michelangelo carved a marble St. John the Baptist and a Sleeping Cupid (both lost). The cupid so successfully imitated the antique that Lorenzo suggested passing it off as authentic. This “forgery” and Lorenzo’s recommendation opened doors to persons of wealth and power, including Cardinal Raffaele Riario, nephew of Pope Sixtus IV and one of the richest and most powerful men in the Roman curia. Thus, armed with letters of introduction, the 21-year-old Michelangelo arrived in Rome for the first time in the summer of 1496. The earliest extant letters from the artist date from this first Roman sojourn.

The ancient monuments of Rome must have been a revelation, inspiration, and challenge to Michelangelo, for he immediately attempted some extremely audacious works, beginning with the Bacchus (Bargello, Florence). He carved this all’antica figure at the behest of Cardinal Riario, but it ended in the collection of the Roman banker, Jacopo Galli, who encouraged and supported the artist. Galli guaranteed the agreement Michelangelo made with the French cardinal, Jean Villiers de La Grolais (1497–1499) to carve a Pietà (St. Peter’s, Rome). A tour-de-force of aesthetic design and technical realization, the two-figure Pietà composition was created from a single, large block of Carrara marble. It is the only work Michelangelo ever signed.

Florence, 1501–1508.

Despite the success of the Pietà and evidence for an aborted painting commission for the church of Sant’Agostino, Michelangelo had few opportunities in Rome. He therefore readily accepted a commission from Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini to carve some missing marble statuettes for the Piccolomini altar in Siena. He completed small figures of Saints Peter and Paul, but his interest in the commission waned when, in 1501, he was offered a large and partly worked marble that had lain abandoned in the Florentine cathedral workshop for some 40 years. From the narrow block he carved the David (Accademia, Florence). In this figure, Michelangelo successfully combined the classical and Christian traditions, conceiving the youthful biblical hero on the scale of an ancient nude colossus and endowing him with immanent physical movement and intense mental alertness. With the twin successes of the Pietà in Rome and the David in Florence, Michelangelo firmly established his public reputation, and he would never again lack for commissions.

Michelangelo

Michelangelo’s Pietà (1498–1499). The two-figure sculpture was created from a single, large block of Carrara marble.

Manuel Cohen/The Art Archive at Art Resource, N.Y.

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Between 1501 and 1508, Michelangelo sustained an astonishing level of productivity in a variety of media, including the David, the Bruges Madonna (Notre-Dame, Bruges), the St. Matthew (Accademia, Florence), marble tondi for the Taddei and Pitti families (Royal Academy, London, and Bargello, Florence), a painted tondo for Agnolo Doni (Uffizi, Florence), a bronze David sent to France (lost), a monumental bronze statue of Pope Julius II for Bologna (destroyed), and a commission for a giant fresco, The Battle of Cascina (never completed). The number, stature, and international character of Michelangelo’s patrons during these years are equally impressive. They included a cardinal and a pope; the head of the Florentine government (Piero Soderini); four prominent Florentine families; the Florentine Cathedral Board of Works (Opera del Duomo); a company of rich Flemish merchants, and the French minister of finance. Michelangelo’s biographer, Ascanio Condivi, asserts that the artist even considered accepting an invitation from the Sultan of Turkey to construct a bridge across the Bosporus at Constantinople. The French king, Francis I, and the Signoria of Venice also attempted to attract Michelangelo’s services, prompting Condivi to remark that such things “do not happen except in instances of singular, outstanding talent, like that of Homer, for whom cities contended.”

In a successful bid for artistic preeminence, Michelangelo appears to have refused no one. The first years of the sixteenth century—a period sometimes called the High Renaissance—were therefore characterized by a prodigious production for an extremely diverse Florentine and international clientele. Even before the commission to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo was firmly on a world stage. Yet his simultaneous commitment to an impossible number of commissions inevitably meant that many were destined to remain incomplete—a fact that would haunt the artist later in life.

Rome, Florence, and Bologna, 1505–1516.

In 1505, at the recommendation of his friend and colleague Giuliano da Sangallo, Michelangelo was called to Rome to work for Pope Julius II. Together, the ambitious pope and equally ambitious artist conceived a giant tomb that would rival those of the Roman emperors. And so began the long, convoluted history of a project that Condivi aptly called “the tragedy of the tomb.” At least six designs, four contracts, and some 40 years later, a much reduced but still grand monument was installed in S. Pietro in Vincoli, the titular church of Pope Julius.

In characteristic fashion, Michelangelo began the tomb project in the marble quarries, supervising the selection and quarrying of a vast quantity of material needed to construct the giant mausoleum. Returning to Rome eight months later, Michelangelo discovered that the pope’s attention had turned elsewhere, mainly to war and the rebuilding of St. Peter’s, then more than a thousand years old. Incensed that papal attention and resources had been deflected from the tomb project, Michelangelo left Rome for Florence despite the pope’s intense displeasure and repeated efforts to lure him back. Not until Julius was on campaign in nearby Bologna was Michelangelo persuaded to appear before the pope and ask for forgiveness. Michelangelo then spent a trying year in Bologna (1507–1508) casting a monumental seated bronze of Pope Julius, which, just three years later, was destroyed by an angry mob. Thus was erased a chapter in Michelangelo’s career and his greatest achievement in the demanding medium of bronze.

Almost immediately after completing the statue in Bologna, Michelangelo was once again in Rome and once again given a task ill-suited to a marble sculptor: the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508–1512). As with many commissions that Michelangelo initially resisted, once he reconciled himself to the task, he devoted immense energy and creative powers to carrying it out in spectacular fashion. The ceiling—replete with narrative scenes from the book of Genesis, alternating male prophets of the Old Testament and female sibyls of pagan antiquity, a series of nude youths (ignudi), lunettes with representations of the ancestors of Christ, and a host of secondary figures and decoration—is a work that overwhelms most visitors and transcends facile description and interpretation. The ceiling was officially unveiled on 31 October 1512, just shortly before the death of Pope Julius in February 1513. Michelangelo was notably laconic about his achievement: “I have finished the chapel … the Pope is well satisfied.”

For a brief period, Michelangelo turned once again to the pope’s tomb (1513–1516). During these years he carved the Moses as well as the so-called Rebellious and Dying slaves (Musée du Louvre, Paris).

Florence, 1516–1534.

The newly elected pontiff, Giovanni de’ Medici (Pope Leo X, 1513–1521), was Michelangelo’s boyhood acquaintance from the Medici palace and the first Florentine ever elected pope. Although Leo’s tastes ran to painting and precious objects, he commissioned Michelangelo to design a façade for the Medici church of San Lorenzo in Florence. With little previous training in architecture, Michelangelo set out to create a magnificent all-marble façade that he promised to be “the mirror of architecture and sculpture of all Italy.” A large wooden model was constructed (Casa Buonarroti, Florence), and tons of marble were quarried and shipped to Florence. The project taxed Michelangelo’s organizational and logistical skills, yet he proved to be a skilled engineer and a capable businessman as well as an artistic genius. The ambitious undertaking, although never realized, prepared the way for Michelangelo’s subsequent architectural projects.

The exceptional cost of the façade may have contributed to its suspension in March 1520, but equally important was the pope’s urgent desire to turn Michelangelo’s attention to the creation of a Medici mausoleum at San Lorenzo. The untimely deaths of the two young scions of the family, Giuliano (d. 1516) and Lorenzo de’ Medici (d. 1519), served as the immediate impetus to build the Medici Chapel (1519–1534). Statues of Dukes Giuliano and Lorenzo now grace the chapel’s interior along with the Medici Madonna and the famous allegories of Night, Day, Dawn, and Dusk.

Michelangelo

Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses (ca. 1513–1515) is the centerpiece of the tomb of Pope Julius II (r. 1503–1513).

Scala/Ministero per i Beni e le Attività culturali/Art Resource, N.Y.

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In the midst of this project, Giulio de’ Medici was elected Pope Clement VII (1523–1534). Clement was another boyhood acquaintance of the artist and a highly astute patron. In addition to the chapel, Clement commissioned the Laurentian Library, a Reliquary Tribune balcony on the inside façade of San Lorenzo, and a number of other minor projects. For 16 years (1516–1534), Michelangelo devoted himself to the Medici commissions at San Lorenzo. In hiring and supervising hundreds of assistants, Michelangelo learned to collaborate effectively with his project managers (capomaestri) and a small army of skilled workers. During these same years, he carved the Risen Christ (Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome) and the highly enigmatic Victory (Palazzo della Signoria, Florence).

The Sack of Rome in May 1527 and the subsequent expulsion of the Medici from Florence resulted in a curtailment of work at San Lorenzo. Michelangelo, a lifelong republican but also a Medici client, found himself in an extremely awkward situation. Despite Pope Clement’s efforts to dissuade him, Michelangelo elected to side with his native city against the combined forces of the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Michelangelo devoted himself to the design and construction of temporary fortifications for Florence (1529–1530). A series of drawings in the Casa Buonarroti amply attest his interest and inventiveness in military engineering. During these unsettled years, he painted a Leda for Duke Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara (lost), and he was commissioned for a never-realized statue of Hercules and Cacus that was intended as a pendant to his David in the Piazza della Signoria.

In 1530, the Medici were restored to power and Clement magnanimously forgave Michelangelo his defection. The artist turned once again to his Medici projects, albeit somewhat less enthusiastically. More work was relegated to assistants, and the artist spent more and more time in Rome. Between 1530 and his definitive move to Rome in 1534, Michelangelo carved the smallish figure of David/Apollo for Baccio Valori (Bargello, Florence), and he made a number of highly finished presentation drawings for his new friend, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. Increasingly disaffected with Florence, where the last vestige of Republican liberty was erased when Alessandro de’ Medici was declared duke in 1532, Michelangelo finally settled in Rome, where he spent the remaining 30 years of his life (1534–1564).

Rome, 1534–1564.

In 1534, the energetic and reform-minded Alessandro Farnese was elected Pope Paul III (1534–1549). Probably the greatest and most discerning of Michelangelo’s many patrons, Paul lost no time in employing the artist’s talents, first in the painting of the Last Judgment (1534–1541), which adorns the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. When Michelangelo protested that he was still under obligation to complete the tomb of Julius II, the pope is said to have burst out: “I have nursed this ambition for 30 years, and now that I’m Pope am I not to have it satisfied?” Thus, some 25 years after completing the ceiling decoration, Michelangelo painted an eschatological vision of the second coming for the altar wall of the same chapel.

What thoughts passed through the mind of the artist now painting in the midst of the Catholic Reformation, four popes and a quarter of a century later? This is a unique instance of an artist returning to an earlier masterpiece with the opportunity to create yet another and equally important masterpiece—something like Cervantes writing Part 2 of Don Quixote, or Milton following Paradise Lost with Paradise Regained. But, more than just an additional work, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment was a gigantic act of editing, in the most literal sense, since the artist painted over two lunettes from his earlier campaign, two narratives from the lives of Christ and Moses, and, most surprising of all, Pietro Perugino’s frescoed altarpiece, the Assumption of the Virgin. This is hubris and artistic license on a grand scale: an astonishing and courageous act of destruction and new making so successful that no one laments the complete erasure of the previous decoration.

Shortly after completing the Last Judgment, Michelangelo painted two large frescos, the Conversion of Saul and the Crucifixion of Peter, for the Pauline Chapel (1542–1550). Far less accessible and familiar than the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, those in the nearby Pauline Chapel are sometimes considered exemplars of the artist’s old age or “mannerist” style. Rather, they are profound meditations on matters of faith by the aged and deeply religious artist, painted for an equally sensitive patron.

Paul III also patronized Michelangelo as an architect, appointing him in 1547 to direct the construction of St. Peter’s. St. Peter’s was Michelangelo’s torment and final triumph: it is the largest church in Christendom, an imposing manifestation of papal authority, and a crowning achievement of Renaissance architecture. Despite numerous changes inflicted on the building during its approximately 150-year construction history, we properly think of the church as Michelangelo’s creation. In less than 20 years he corrected what had gone before and largely shaped what came afterward. Michelangelo devoted his final years to the project, despite intrigue, construction debacles, and the repeated efforts of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici to persuade him to return to his native Florence.

Also during the pontificate of Paul III, Michelangelo undertook to redesign and refurbish Rome’s Capitoline Hill (Piazza del Campidoglio, begun 1538), the geographical and ceremonial center of ancient Rome. As with many of Michelangelo’s architectural commissions, most of the Capitoline project was realized after the artist’s death, but the force and clarity of his design ensured that the final result largely reflects his intentions. During these same years, Michelangelo also found time to complete the reduced but still impressive tomb of Pope Julius II (S. Pietro in Vincoli, Rome).

Late Life.

With each successive pope, Michelangelo was confirmed in his position as supreme architect of St. Peter’s, all the while taking on additional responsibilities from select patrons. During the reign of Pius IV (1559–1565), Michelangelo designed the Porta Pia, transformed the Baths of Diocletian into the Christian church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and designed the Sforza Chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore. Thus did Michelangelo become an urban planner as well as an architect, helping to transform the face of Rome in ways that may be labeled proto-Baroque. Architecture was Michelangelo’s final and perhaps most influential legacy.

While working as an architect in the public sphere, Michelangelo also plumbed the depths of his personal faith in poetry, drawings, and a few sculptures. For an artist who early in his career proudly signed himself “Michelangelo scultore,” in the last 30 years of his life he completed just three sculptures: the Rachel and Leah for the tomb of Julius II and the Bust of Brutus carved for Cardinal Niccolò Ridolfi (Bargello, Florence). The Florentine Pietà (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence) was destined for the artist’s own grave but was given away broken and unfinished, and the Rondanini Pietà (Castello Sforzesco, Milan) was worked so obsessively that it probably never could be brought to satisfactory completion. As the artist grew older, drawing and poetry became increasingly important vehicles of creative expression. His late religious drawings, especially the series of haunting and intensely worked Crucifixion sheets, are the visual equivalent to his deeply felt penitential poetry.

Social Circle.

During his lifetime, Michelangelo had a large circle of friends and acquaintances. Indeed, Michelangelo’s extensive correspondence—some 1,400 letters to and from the artist—offers a cross-section of Renaissance society in the first half of the sixteenth century. Acutely conscious of his claim to nobility, Michelangelo was particularly attracted to persons of intellect, fine sensibility, and high social station. His friendship with the young Roman nobleman Tommaso de’ Cavalieri inspired an outpouring of intense love poetry and some of the most remarkable drawings of all time. These highly finished “presentation” or gift drawings, most notably the Ganymede, Tityus, and Fall of Phaeton, attained instant fame thanks to their circulation among appreciative cognoscenti and their frequent reproduction in a variety of media. Michelangelo’s friendship with Cavalieri continued to the artist’s death, even if somewhat diminished from its initial passionate intensity. Two further friends, Donato Giannotti and Luigi del Riccio, encouraged Michelangelo to publish his poetry, a project that was suspended with del Riccio’s untimely death in 1546.

Michelangelo found sustained spiritual nourishment from his friendship with Vittoria Colonna, the scion of an old Roman family and an accomplished poetess whom he met while painting the Last Judgment. Colonna served as something of a spiritual guide and refuge during the tumultuous early years of the Counter-Reformation. Through Colonna, Michelangelo was exposed to the leading reform thinkers of his day, including Juan de Valdés, Bernardino Ochino, and the English cardinal Reginald Pole, persons who belonged to the “spirituali,” a group committed to church reform and individual salvation.

In the charged and more conservative atmosphere of the Council of Trent (1545–1563), which insisted upon religious orthodoxy, the climate turned decidedly chilly, and then dangerous, for many of these humanist reformers. By nature a cautious individual, Michelangelo was largely successful in avoiding political and religious controversy. Indeed, he worked successfully for patrons as diverse as the worldly Popes Julius II (1503–1513) and Leo X (1513–1521), and for the deeply conservative Pope Paul IV (1555–1559). In the last 30 years of his life, Michelangelo carved few sculptures and largely devoted himself to the building of New St. Peter’s, believing that he “was put there by God.” His late religious poetry reveals his changed sentiment: “The soul means more, the more the world means less; art and impending death don’t go together.”

Art and Faith.

Michelangelo’s artistic career spanned nearly 75 years and three distinct eras: he was born into a world dominated by a universal Catholic Church; he witnessed the splintering of that authority with the advent of the Reformation, and he lived long enough to become an instrument of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. His early work reflects his humanist upbringing; his late works, such as the Last Judgment, Pauline Chapel, and New St. Peter’s, are bold affirmations of a belief in saints, relics, and the dominion of the Catholic Church.

The subject of the Pietà occupied Michelangelo throughout his life. In the earliest version in St. Peter’s (1497–1499), the perfect beauty of Christ’s Adonis-like body is scarcely marred by wounds or suffering, and Mary’s unexpected youth confirms her immaculacy. We marvel at the miraculous transformation of marble into supple flesh and drapery. But more than just superior craftsmanship, the Pietà is a moving and deeply affecting portrayal of the Virgin and Christ, of a mother mourning the loss of her son. It is an eloquent devotional image that prompts us to reflect on our own mortality. Despite changes in location, and its harsh modern lighting, the Pietà remains one of the most admired and best loved sculptures of all time.

Many years later, Michelangelo turned again to the subject in carving the Florentine Pietà (1547–1555) as his own grave memorial. Nicodemus (a sculptor, secret follower of Christ, and self-portrait of the artist) plays a prominent role supporting the dead Christ, attesting Michelangelo’s reformist faith, which encouraged a personal identification with the Lord. And finally, his last sculpture, the Rondanini Pietà (1556–1564), reflects the ascetic climate of the Counter-Reformation. Michelangelo carved and recarved the emaciated forms as if he were trying to capture spirit in stone, ultimately turning from sculpture to poetry to give full expression to his faith.

Michelangelo’s youthful self-confidence is fully on display in his imagining David, the young shepherd-boy of the Bible, as a colossal marble nude. Perhaps in no other work are the worlds of pagan antiquity and the Christian Bible so completely merged. A symbol of Florence and the Renaissance, David paradoxically stands for the achievements of an entire era even as we recognize it as the creation of one remarkable individual. The artist’s biographer, Giorgio Vasari, attempting to capture in words the monumental grandeur of the sculpture, wrote: “Without any doubt this figure has put in the shade every other statue, ancient or modern, Greek or Roman.”

In carving a nude Risen Christ (1518–1520, S. Maria sopra Minerva) in marble, Michelangelo represented Christian divinity in the language of classical antiquity. To fashion a life-size naked Christ certainly was audacious but also decorous and theologically appropriate: Christ’s material presence is tangible proof of the Resurrection. The covering loincloth that was added in the seventeenth century and the widespread disregard of the sculpture (until recently) may be implicit criticisms of Michelangelo’s celebration of Christ’s human nature.

With Moses, Michelangelo fashioned our very image of the Old Testament prophet. Moses’s powerful gaze suggests the unseen presence of the Lord. If Moses were to stand, he would be nearly twice as tall as an average person, but his size is the least important measure of this figure’s awesome power and authority. The Moses is the centerpiece of the tomb of Pope Julius II (1505–1545, S. Pietro in Vincoli), which, despite many changes, remains one of the grandest (and most visited) funerary monuments of the Renaissance.

Like a handful of still extant monuments of the ancient and modern world—the pyramids, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Wall of China among them—the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508–1512) never fails to astonish. Here, Michelangelo has given us indelible images of God and His creation. Indeed, we picture Genesis—the first book of the Bible and the beginning of time—in Michelangelo’s terms. As God created Adam, so Michelangelo has forged the image of the Deity for all Christianity.

In many ways the ceiling is a compendium: of Michelangelo’s art, of the Renaissance, of Christian theology. Like Verdi’s Requiem or Milton’s Paradise Lost, the ceiling is a work of transcendent genius that will never be exhausted, despite its familiarity and varied interpretations. In the words of the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Until you have seen the Sistine Chapel, you can have no adequate conception of what man is capable of accomplishing.”

Twenty-five years later, Michelangelo returned to the chapel to paint the Last Judgment (1534–1541)—a shudder-inducing vision of the second coming and emphatic assertion of the Catholic belief in the resurrection of the body. The many nudes remind us that, on that final day, we all will appear naked before Christ. Yet, in the conservative atmosphere of the Council of Trent, the Last Judgment became a lightning rod of criticism, as the abundant nudity appeared inappropriate in such a holy place. The controversy scarcely detracts from the awesome power of Michelangelo’s fresco before which we are made painfully aware of our sins but also reminded that salvation is attainable through the intervention of Christ, Mary, and the saints.

In the Pauline Chapel (1542–1550)—the private chapel of the pope and one of the innermost sanctuaries of the Christian religion—Michelangelo painted the Conversion of Saul and the Crucifixion of Peter as unfolding sacred narratives that culminate at the altar. We are encouraged to become more than mere spectators of Christian history; rather, we are made responsible participants and are reminded that sacrifice is our Christian duty. These were Michelangelo’s last paintings and a moving testament to his profound religiosity.

Despite changes inflicted on the building during its approximately 150-year construction history, we rightly think of St. Peter’s (1547–) as Michelangelo’s masterpiece and the most magnificent church in Christendom. St. Peter’s is the most prominent symbol of papal authority and a crowning achievement of Michelangelo’s art and faith. It was, as he said, his best hope for the salvation of his soul.

Michelangelo

Detail of the upper half of the Last Judgment fresco (1534–1541).

Scala/Art Resource, N.Y.

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Legacy.

Living nearly twice the average Renaissance life span, Michelangelo witnessed the deaths of his entire family and most of his friends. At Michelangelo’s side during his final illness were his friends Tommaso de’ Cavalieri and Daniele da Volterra. Michelangelo died on 18 February 1564, just two weeks shy of his 89th birthday. After his body was surreptitiously transferred to Florence, he was given a magnificent funeral in the Medici church of San Lorenzo and was buried in Santa Croce. That same year Galileo and William Shakespeare were born.

More than any previous artist, Michelangelo’s success in forging a life as both artist and aristocrat was instrumental in advancing the social status of his profession. No other artist achieved as much in diverse fields of endeavor; few so completely embody our notion of genius. But more than just individual attainments, Michelangelo fashioned works of universal significance that still astonish and inspire us more than five hundred years later. In the words of his admiring contemporary, Pietro Aretino: “The world has many kings and only one Michelangelo.”

[See also DONATELLO and RENAISSANCE VISUAL ART.]

Bibliography

References

  • Ackerman, James S. The Architecture of Michelangelo. 2 vols. London: A. Zwemmer, 1961. Classic survey and catalog of Michelangelo’s architecture.
  • Barkan, Leonard. Michelangelo: A Life on Paper. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010. Analysis of words and images found on Michelangelo’s drawings.
  • Buonarroti, Michelangelo. The Letters of Michelangelo. 2 vols. Translated and edited by E. H. Ramsden. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1963. Reliable English translation of Michelangelo’s letters.
  • Buonarroti, Michelangelo. Il Carteggio di Michelangelo [The Correspondence of Michelangelo]. 5 vols. Edited by Giovanni Poggi, Paola Barocchi, and Renzo Ristori. Florence: Sansoni Editore, 1965–1983. A critical edition of all letters to and from Michelangelo, also online: fonti-sa.signum.sns.it/TOCBuonarrotiMichelangeloCarteggio.php.
  • Buonarroti, Michelangelo. I Ricordi di Michelangelo. Edited by Lucilla Bardeschi Ciulich. Florence: Sansoni Editore, 1970. Miscellaneous notes and records written by Michelangelo.
  • Buonarroti, Michelangelo. I Contratti di Michelangelo. Edited by Lucilla Bardeschi Ciulich. Florence: S.P.E.S. Editore, 2005. Critical edition of the artist’s contracts.
  • Chapman, Hugo. Michelangelo Drawings. Closer to the Master. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005. Well-illustrated narrative of Michelangelo’s lifelong devotion to drawing.
  • Condivi, Ascanio. The Life of Michelangelo. 2d ed. Translated by Alice Sedgwick Wohl, edited by Helmut Wohl. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999. Important contemporary biography by Michelangelo’s pupil/assistant.
  • Einem, Herbert von. Michelangelo. Revised English ed. Translated by Ronald Taylor. London: Methuen, 1973. An eminently reliable overview of Michelangelo’s life and works.
  • Hirst, Michael. Michelangelo and His Drawings. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988. Accessible survey of the artist’s drawings.
  • Hirst, Michael. Michelangelo: The Achievement of Fame. Vol. 1. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2011. First of two-volume biography of the artist.
  • Liebert, Robert S. Michelangelo. A Psychoanalytic Study of His Life and Images. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983. Biography of the artist written from a psychoanalytic perspective.
  • Parker, Deborah. Michelangelo and the Art of Letter Writing. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. A study of Michelangelo’s extensive correspondence and written expression.
  • Pope-Hennessy, John. Italian High Renaissance and Baroque Sculpture. London: Phaidon, 1963. An overview of sculpture by Michelangelo and his contemporaries.
  • Saslow, James, trans. The Poetry of Michelangelo: An Annotated Translation. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. Michelangelo’s poetry in facing Italian and English translation, with an excellent introduction.
  • Tolnay, Charles de. Michelangelo. Rev. ed. 5 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969–1971. Comprehensive examination of the artist’s life and work, excluding architecture.
  • Tolnay, Charles de. Corpus dei disegni di Michelangelo. 4 vols. Novara, Italy: Istituto Geografico De Agostini, 1975–1980. Catalog of all Michelangelo’s drawings, reproduced full-size, in color, both recto and verso.
  • Vasari, Giorgio. Lives of the Artists. Translated by George Bull. U.K. Baltimore: Penguin, 1965. Important contemporary biography, readily available in various Italian editions and English translations.
  • Wallace, William E. “Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564).” In Oxford Bibliographies, 2011. www.oxfordbibliographiesonline.com/view/document/obo-9780195399301/ obo-9780195399301-0103.xml. Fully annotated online bibliography of Michelangelo.
  • Wallace, William E., ed. Michelangelo: Selected Scholarship in English. 5 vols. New York: Garland: 1995. A collection of more than one hundred articles in English on all aspects of Michelangelo’s art and life.

Further Reading

  • Hibbard, Howard. Michelangelo. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. Accessible and readable one-volume introduction to the artist.
  • Symonds, John Addington. The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti. 3d. ed. 2 vols. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. Classic biography of the artist by the great Victorian writer/historian. First published 1893.
  • Tolnay, Charles. The Art and Thought of Michelangelo. Translated by Nan Buranelli. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964. Four general essays by the doyen of Michelangelo studies.
  • Wallace, William E. Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man and his Times. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Accessible modern biography of the artist and his social world.

William E. Wallace