Who is Michelangelo? Biography and Works of Michelangelo


Who is Michelangelo? Information on sculptor Michelangelo biography, life story, works, paintings and facts.

Michelangelo; Italian sculptor, painter, architect, and poet : b. Caprese, Tuscany, Italy, March 6, 1475 ; d. Rome, Feb. 18, 1564. A Florentine, he was active mainly in Florence and Rome.

Although he was briefly apprenticed to the painters Ghirlandaio (1488/1489), from the first the young Michelangelo felt a kinship not with the elegant craftsmen of the later 15th century but rather with the titans of earlier Tuscan art. His first extant works are drawings after the frescoes of Giotto and Masaccio. Soon he began to work as a sculptor in a kind of free art academy maintained in the Medici gardens and supervised by Donatello’s follower, the sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni. Lorenzo de’ Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent) took him into his household (1490-1492), where he became acquainted with the finest intellects of the time, such as the poet Politian, and absorbed the Neo-Platonism with which his art is saturated. His earliest surviving sculpture is the relief, the Madonna of the Stairs (c. 1490-1492; Florence, Casa Buonarroti), a disconcertingly youthful work for a boy in his teens. Here he looks back past all the charming Madonna compositions of the later 15th century and finds inspiration in the grander tragedy of Donatello’s reliefs.

The twisting, muscular forms of the heroic Christ Child and the struggling youths in the background, prophetic of the expressive figure style of Michelangelo’s later years, are a foil for the towering, impassive profile of the Madonna. Soon afterward, this style was considerably developed in the tumultuous tangle of nude bodies that filled the relief, the Battle of the Centaurs and Lapitlis (c. 1492; Casa Buonarroti). Here already is the essence of Michelangelo’s art. The exclusive vehicle of his communication is the human body. But Michelangelo, far from accepting the harmonious reconciliation of spirit and flesh attained by his contemporaries of the High Renaissance, felt a torturing ambivalence toward the body. He loved it with the passionate intensity which would permit his skill to master its representation as never before, and would make his genius create definitive paragons of human perfection. Yet to the Christian mystic in him, the body was “the earthly prison of the soul” (a phrase from his own poetry) ; its perfections are of no avail, and serve Michelangelo only in the delineation of its doom. Even in this early relief, though the heroic forms are marvelously beautiful, their furious struggle seems curiously inconclusive and unavailing, and the tragic figures of the falling and the fallen, in which Michelangelo achieves unforgettable images of despair, already adumbrate the devastating pessimism of his maturity.


Michelangelo (Source : wikipedia.org)

In Rome (1496-1501) the rapidly developing Michelangelo produced monumental marble statues: the Bacchus (Florence, Museo Nazionale), inspired by the antique, the subtle unbalance and trancelike appearance of which tactfully suggest a state of release through wine, as in the mystic rites of ancient Dionysiac cults; and the beautiful Pieta, or Madonna with the Dead Christ (Rome, St. Peter’s), two interlocking curved figures composed with all the clarity and logic of the classic art of the High Renaissance, and with its characteristic idealism, its amplitude of forms, and its harmonious calm; but Michelangelo’s deep melancholy repudiates the predominant optimism of the period. This classic phase of Michelangelo’s art is continued in the marble Madonna of Bruges, Belgium (c. 1501; except for two models, all of his extant sculpture is in marble), and in three circular compositions in which, as a typical artist of the High Renaissance, he eloquently orders equilibrated masses within a round frame: two Madonna reliefs (c. 1504-1506; Museo Nazionale and London, Royal Academy) and the Doni Madonna (c. 1504; Florence, Uffizi), his only painting that has survived except for his frescoes.


This classic phase culminated in the colossal David, a splendid nude figure 14 feet high (1501-1504; Florence, Accademia), which established Michelangelo in the opinion of his contemporaries as the greatest artist who had ever lived. In it he provided the modern Occident with a new standard of physical beauty. The familiar “at ease” pose of antique sculpture, with weight primarily on one leg and with the whole figure therefore pleasingly relaxed yet securely balanced, produces, ‘ as in ancient statuary, a composition in which a single view, the front, is wholly predominant. But now Michelangelo begins to complicate the simple clarity of classic art, since the observer must then move to a compositionally very secondary view in order to read the meaning of the work, the furious defiance that flames forth from the heroic face. The dramatic contrast of posture suggesting external calm and physiognomy suggesting internal turmoil, developed from Donatello, is also at odds with the principles of classic art.

Michelangelo’s next statue, the unfinished St. Matthew (1506; Accademia), constitutes a violent rejection of classic art. The pose that had traditionally expressed balanced repose, as still in the David, is now wrenched into the violent torsion called contrapposto, which expresses the opposite extreme, a painful and frustrating tension. Now the Michelangelesque tragedy has its protagonist.

These were the heroic forms and expressive powers which Michelangelo brought to the superhuman task now imposed upon the unwilling sculptor by the great pope of the High Renaissance, Julius II : the frescoing of the Sistine Chapel ceiling (133 by 45 feet; 1508-1512). The program of the earlier frescoes on the walls below, which had opposed equivalent episodes of the lives of Moses and Christ, surmounted by figures of the early popes, was now to be made universal by Michelangelo’s additions of the essentials of the Old Testament, and eventually, by Raphael’s tapestries of later New Testament material and by Michelangelo’s Last Judgment on the altar wall. The ceiling frescoes reduce Genesis to nine scenes of the Creation and of Noah and the Flood; at the sides are colossal Hebrew prophets and gentile sibyls who foretold the Coming, such proto-saviors as David and Esther, and the ancestors of Christ. Even in Michelangelo’s painting, everything is concentrated in the human body, and here, in astounding variety and quantity, its expressive possibilities were infinitely multiplied. Landscape and even space itself are reduced to an unprecedented minimum.

Pietà, St Peter's Basilica (1498–99)

PietĂ , St Peter’s Basilica (1498–99) (Source : wikipedia.org)

Michelangelo is more interested in massive three-dimensional form than in the color which serves primarily for the further clarification of this form.

It is appropriate that the text which says God created man in His own image should occasion Michelangelo’s most sublime figure, the Adam whose human beauty thus partakes of the divine—a concise visual epitome of the Renaissance; yet Adam, doomed by his own iniquities, is also the archetype of Michelangelesque tragedy. The immense accomplishment of the Sistine Chapel expanded the scope of art to incalculably broader dimensions.

As early as 1505 Michelangelo had conceived as his principal masterpiece a great tomb project for Julius II, the 40 huge figures of which would have constituted a compendium of Christianity and its church. A reduced form, undertaken only after the pope’s death in 1513, was to have included the so-called Bound and Dying Captives (Paris, Louvre), which illustrate the terrible intensity of the fully developed Michelangelesque contrapposto. Ultimately the tomb was cut down to pitiful dimensions (completed 1545; Rome, San Pietro in Vincoli) that seem scarcely adequate to contain the titanic seated figure of Moses (c. 1515).

The Medici Tombs in Florence (mainly 1520-1534; San Lorenzo, New Sacristy) were planned under the Medici pope, Leo X, as an unprecedented unity of architecture, sculpture, and painting by a single artist (the frescoes were abandoned). The wholly idealized figures of the Medici dukes, which are rather representatives of mankind than portraits, are conceived as liberated by death from the bonds of place (to have been symbolized by bronze river gods) and of time (symbolized by four anguished nude figures of Night, Day, Morning, and Evening), and turning from their tombs at the sides of the room to their holy intercessors on the end wall (two patron saints by assistants, and the Madonna), they seek unity with the divine (the Christ Child). The Medici tombs are the complete fulfillment of Renaissance Neo-Platonism— a creative synthesis of pagan antiquity and Christianity. Meanwhile, in an independent statue of Apollo (c. 1530; Museo Nazionale), Michelangelo indicated a solution to the problem of the freestanding statue with multiple views by disposing the body in a spiral that impels the observer to follow the continuity of views around the figure.

Revolutionary innovations abound in Michelangelo’s architecture for the tombs, and, especially, in the Medici’s Laurentian Library (mainly 1524 -1534; San Lorenzo). Here the traditional antique forms with which the High Renaissance had sought to make architecture a rational and objective art are now given a radically subjective reinterpretation. In Michelangelo’s hands, architecture becomes an expressive medium no less intensely personal than any other art. An elaborate, oppressive vestibule hall is almost filled with confusingly intricate curved steps, and its walls are broken into so many different planes that as one approaches them their mass seems to disintegrate. Great columns, which would traditionally represent structural support, are sunk so deeply into the walls that they appear engulfed and impotent. Michelangelo has emphasized the forceful three-dimensionality of these contentious forms so that, when one moves up into the library hall, one is astounded by the suddenly contrasting calm and austerity of its flat, calculatedly monotonous architecture.

Tomb of Julius II, 1505-1545

Tomb of Julius II, 1505-1545 (Source : wikipedia.org)

In 1534 Michelangelo returned to Rome, never to leave.

Increasingly preoccupied with religion, he devoted his life to the service of his church and its pope. Paul III had him complete the Sistine Chapel by frescoing the whole altar wall with the vast and terrible Last Judgment (1534-1541). Its disheartening images, gigantically muscular yet curiously powerless, drift in clustering hordes about a vague and shifting space that has been subtly deranged by ambiguous variations in figure scale. In his last paintings, the frescoed Conversion of St. Paul and Crucifixion of St. Peter in the same pope’s Cappella Paolina ( 1542— 1550), Michelangelo is even more despondent. The aged ascetic ventures the deliberately un-pleasing—the visual equivalent of the mortification of the flesh. In these strange, bewildered people, the artist who had infinitely enlarged the variety of figure composition cultivates a disturbing monotony. The depths of his pessimism were plumbed in these last frescoes.

The troubled old man withdrew increasingly to the abstraction of architecture. The Roman Capitol, or Campidoglio (begun 1546?), with its separate buildings combined by a graduation of forms into an integrated unity, is a milestone in urban design, prefiguring the 17th century. With characteristic unorthodoxy, Michelangelo decided to exploit the fortuitous existing trapezoidal plan of a site upon which the preceding generation would have imposed rectangularity ; but the pavement is patterned in an ellipse. Michelangelo’s new colossal orders, which abolish the implied human scale of. earlier Renaissance architectural members here took the form in which they remained as an indispensable feature of post-Renaissance architecture. Most of St. Peter’s (excluding the later nave and façade) is by Michelangelo, who simplified and clarified the designs of his predecessors, impressing them with an austere and overwhelming monumentality. The low, brooding dome he had proposed was given instead a lighter, springing verticality. The most mysterious of Michelangelo’s works is his last building, the fascinating Porta Pia, a Roman gate undertaken in 1561. Here the fantastic detail, freely improvised in complete emancipation from tradition, is spare and brittle in the lateral parts of the façade, but burgeons cli-mactically in the harsh angularities and the volutes of the great portal.

In Michelangelo’s last sculptures the now deeply devout old artist turned again to the theme of the PietĂ .

During the very years (c. 1550— 1555) when Michelangelo was working on the four-figure group planned for his own modest tomb (but placed in the cathedral of Florence), Michelangelo had written a beautiful sonnet ending with the lines, “Neither painting nor sculpture can now quiet the soul turned to that Divine Love which spread arms out wide to take us, on the-Cross,” a poetic image which he translated into a series of moving drawings of the Crucifixion (especially the example in the British Museum). The terrible despair, the torturing ambivalences, seem at last to have been dispelled by the power of this Divine Love ; and in the same spirit, Michelangelo has carved .his self-portrait in the figure of Nicodemus, who tenderly lowers the broken body of Christ into the Madonna’s embrace. In the two-figure Rondanini PietĂ  (Milan, Castello), probably begun soon after the group in Florence, the theme is the tender intimacy of Mother and Son, expressed in a sparingly vertical composition of frailer forms ; but shortly before his death at almost 90, he began to revise it radically, making them very much frailer still—wraithlike forms that recall the art of the Middle Ages. And though even today the heroic physical ideal of the Occident has remained the one formulated by Michelangelo, the old man himself had at last renounced it and “turned to that Divine Love.”

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