Who Was Michelangelo?
Widely considered one of the most brilliant artists of the Italian Renaissance, (indeed, of all time) Michelangelo was the epitome of a 'Renaissance man'. During his remarkable career, Michelangelo created lasting masterpieces as a painter, a sculptor, an architect and a poet. Many of his works are considered to be among the greatest work of art of all time. Even in his own time, he was already famous for his artistic virtuosity. In fact, Michelangelo was the very first Western artist to have his biography published while he was still alive.
Michelangelo, the second of five sons, was born March 6, 1475, in the small village of Caprese, Italy. But the family returned to Florence when Michelangelo was still an infant. Although he always considered himself a Florentine, Michelangelo actually spent most of his life in Rome.
His father, a magistrate had initially expected Michelangelo to run the family financial business. But due to Michelangelo's mother being ill during his early years, he ended up being placed with a family of stonecutters. As it turned out, Michelangelo was less interested in schooling, and more in observing the painters working on nearby churches, and then drawing what he saw. His father agreed to apprentice him, at the age of 13, with the fashionable Florentine painter, Ghirlandaio. It was there that Michelangelo was first exposed to the technique of fresco mural painting.
The Medici Influence
After spending a year at Ghirlandaio’s workshop, he was recommended by his mentor to Florence's powerful Medici family. From 1489, Michelangelo studied classical sculpture at the Medici palace gardens, until Lorenzo Medici's death in 1492. This must have been a truly exciting time for Michelangelo, as he studied under the respected sculptor, Bertoldo di Giovanni. It was also at the Medici palace that Michelangelo became exposed to prominent poets, scholars, and the learned humanists of the times. For insight into anatomy, he also obtained special permission from the Catholic Church to study cadavers . Unfortunately though, this exposure had an adverse effect on his health that dogged him for the rest of his life.
His Move to Rome
Political strife, in the aftermath of Lorenzo de' Medici’s death, led Michelangelo to leave Florence and flee first to Venice, then to Bologna. He returned to Florence briefly in 1495, but moved to Rome in 1496, at the age of 21, where he lived for most of the remainder of his life.
Michelangelo's brilliant mind and talents certainly earned him the regard of the wealthy and powerful men of Italy. But he also had his share of detractors, in part, due to his contentious personality and quick temper. Michelangelo was also very resentful of Florentine artist, Leonardo da Vinci, more than 20 years his senior. He claimed to have had no friends, and sometimes fell into spells of depression, as recorded in many of his literary works. He once wrote, "I am here in great distress and with great physical strain, and have no friends of any kind, nor do I want them". In his youth, Michelangelo had taunted a fellow student, and received a blow on the nose, that disfigured him for life. This contributed to further life-long discomforts. He documents, for example, the tremendous physical strain that he endured while painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
In 1498, soon after Michelangelo's move to Rome, cardinal Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas, commissioned "Pieta," a sculpture of Mary holding the dead Jesus across her lap. Michelangelo, who was just 25 years old at the time, finished the work in less than a year. The statue was erected in the church of the cardinal's tomb. It has been moved five times since, and presently holds a place of prominence at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City. Curiously, it is the only work to bear Michelangelo’s name.
Between 1501 and 1504, Michelangelo accepted a commission to finish the statue of 'David'. Two prior sculptors had abandoned the project. Originally commissioned for the cathedral of Florence, the Florentine government instead installed the statue in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. It now lives in Florence’s Accademia Gallery.
In 1508, Pope Julius II asked Michelangelo to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The project fueled Michelangelo’s imagination, and the original plan for 12 apostles morphed into more than 300 figures on the ceiling of the sacred space. Michelangelo fired all of his assistants, whom he deemed inept, and completed the 65-foot ceiling alone, spending endless hours on his back and guarding the project jealously until completion. The work ended up taking four years to complete. His amazing composition spans over 500 square metres of the ceiling.
St. Peter's Basilica
Although Michelangelo continued to sculpt and paint throughout his life, upon completion of his painting of the Sistine Chapel, he turned his focus toward architecture. He continued to work on the tomb of Julius II for the next several decades. He also designed the Medici Chapel and the Laurentian Library. Located opposite the Basilica San Lorenzo in Florence, these buildings are considered to be a turning point in architectural history. However, Michelangelo's crowning glory in this field came in 1546, when he was made chief architect of St. Peter's Basilica. His design for its dome is considered by some historians to be "the greatest creation of the Renaissance".
Michelangelo died at his home in Rome on February 18, 1564, just weeks before his 89th birthday.