*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Over the course of human history, there have been a variety of phenomenal artists and one — Michelangelo Buonarroti — was born on March 6, 1475 in the small Tuscan town of Caprese, Italy. Famous for his work as a sculptor and the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, he is known the world over for the focus on form exhibited in his Renaissance masterpieces. To Italians of his day, he was simply Il Divino — “the divine one.”
At the time of his birth, Michelangelo’s family had seen success in the Florentine banking industry drift away, perhaps due to the rise of the Medicis in the city and poor financial management by his father, Ludovico. Though he worked for the local government in Caprese periodically, Ludovico eventually moved the Buonarroti clan back to the ancestral city of Florence. After the death of his mother, Francesca, Michelangelo lived off and on with a family in Settignano, a small town in the hills northeast of Florence where he was exposed to sculpture.
Though he enjoyed the pastoral setting and looked upon the time there fondly, he eventually moved to Rome for an education under Francesco da Urbino. He studied the paintings in local churches intently, practicing technique diligently — none of which fulfilled his duties as Urbino’s grammar student. Noticing his son’s attachment to the arts, Ludovico managed to negotiate with painter Domenico Ghirlandaio for Michelangelo to join his studio in Florence as an apprentice. The teenaged boy flourished, becoming so well-regarded by Ghirlandaio within a year that Ludovico convinced the master to give Michelangelo an artist’s salary at the age of just 14.
The same year, 1489, famous Florentine ruler and patron of the arts Lorenzo di Medici sent Ghirlandaio a letter requesting his best pair of students available for hire. Michelangelo was one of them, receiving an education in the Medici-owned Humanist school while he learned sculpting and improved his technique. By the age of 17, he had already carved his first two reliefs — one of them expressly for Lorenzo, who died later that year.
The next four years were filled with upheaval. The Medici were thrown out of Florence in 1494, two years after Lorenzo’s death, leaving Michelangelo to seek work elsewhere. At the same time, conflicts with King Charles VIII of France left Italy a fractured mess until his defeat. Unable to gain commissions in Florence due to the strict policies of the famous iconoclast friar Girolamo Savonarola, Michelangelo had little choice but to jump at the chance to work in Rome when invited in 1496.
Just 21 years old at the time, Michelangelo quickly received offers for work from Cardinal Raffaele Riario and the French ambassador to the Vatican. For the former, Michelangelo composed a sculpture of the Roman god of wine, which Riario rejected. (Bacchus ended up in the collection of another Roman.) The second assignment, on the other hand, resulted in one of the most famous masterpieces in history. Pieta, depicting the body of Jesus lying limply on the lap of his mother, Mary, after being pulled down from the cross, was completed in 1499. His friend and biographer, Giorgio Vasari, called it “a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh.”
With Savonarola executed in 1498, it was safe for Michelangelo return to Florence after completing Pieta. Once there, he immediately received an invitation to finish a sculpture begun four decades before for the Guild of Wool. Upon the debut of the Statue of David in 1504, Michelangelo’s place as the preeminent sculptor of the Italian Renaissance was sealed.
The following year, Pope Julius II asked him to return to Rome as the chief architect of the pontiff’s tomb. In 1508, after three years working on the task — often with interruptions — Julius requested Michelangelo put the burial place on hold and paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Though he would later claim his former student Raphael Sanzio, by then a rival, and architect Donato Bromante set him up to fail because of his lack of experience in fresco, there is no proof anything other than Michelangelo’s extraordinary artistic ability got him the job.
For the chapel ceiling, Julius told Michelangelo to design a portrait of the Twelve Apostles standing in front of a starry sky. The artist had other ideas, constructing a 300-plus subject work detailing the stories from the Book of Genesis taking up the center, with the triangular pendentives supporting the ceiling filled in with the twelve people who foretold the birth of Jesus. Following a grueling four years of work lying mostly on his back, Michelangelo revealed the magnificent end result on October 31, 1512.
Over the next fifty-plus, Michelangelo took on ambitious design projects for a number of cathedrals in both Florence and Rome while maintaining his prolific rate of sculpture production. In 1534, Pope Clement VII asked him to focus on the Sistine Chapel once again, ordering a fresco behind the altar wall. Overseen by Clement’s successor, the micromanaging Paul III, the massive scope of The Last Judgment — one of Michelangelo’s last major works — depicts the return of Jesus and final evaluation of those on Earth.
When he died on February 18, 1564, Michelangelo left behind an incredible wealth of sculpture, paintings, sketches and even some poetry. Already considered a master of the ages by his contemporaries, he was the first artist in history to have his biography published while still alive. Along with Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, he is considered among the Holy Trinity of Italian Renaissance Artists.
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