Michelangelo was an Italian sculptor, painter, architect, engineer, and poet, personified the highest aspirations o the Renaissance. Dominating Italian art for 60 years, he summed up all the artistic discoveries of the 15th and early 16th centuries and determined their future directions. Both devout and exceptionally learned, he sought to be combine traditional Christian beliefs with the classical ideals revived in the new philosophy of humanism. His volcanic spirit experienced an equal passion for physical and spiritual beauty (Morgan, 2000), thus embracing both the humanist emphasis on the whole man and the Christian concern for his soul.
Thesis Statement: This paper intent to scrutinize the life of Michelangelo and his influences on art, sculpture and architecture.
A. Life of Michelangelo
Early years. Michelangelo di Buonarotti Simoni was born on March 6, 1475, in the Tuscan village of Caprese, where his father, Lodovico, was temporarily mayor. Because his mother, who died early, was frail, Michelangelo was raised chiefly in the family of a stonemason at Settignano. After his father remarried in 1485, the boy joined the family in Florence and finally began school (Creighton 2003).
Florence at that time was rich and powerful, and graced with a new cathedral, churches, and palaces, adorned with sculptures by Donatello, Ghiberti, and Verrocchio and with painting by Giotto, Masaccio, Fra Angelico, and Botticelli. Michelangelo began to sketch these works. He spent time with art students, such as Francesco Granacci, who smuggled drawings out of his master’s workshop for his friend to copy. Lodovico, clinging to impoverished nobility, was aghast at his son’s announced desire to learn a “trade.” After three years of arguments and thrashings (Ackerman 2001), he reluctantly apprenticed the boy to Granacci’s master, the muralist Ghirlandaio, in 1488.
In 1489, Ghirlandaio sent the two boys to the Medici gardens, where Lorenzo the Magnificent, patron of art and scholarship and unofficial ruler of Florence, had established a school for artists. There under Bertoldo, a pupil of Donatello, Michelangelo learned the rudiments of sculpture. For two more years he lived in the Medici palace, absorbing the neoplatonist doctrines of outstanding humanists and classical style from Lorenzo’s fine art collection (De Tolnay 2004). During this period he produced his first two sculptures, reliefs of the Christian Madonna of the Stairs and the classical Battle of the Centaurs (both Casa Buonarotti, Florence).
Rise to Fame—Flight from Florence. After Lorenzo’s death in 1492, Michelangelo returned to his father’s house. Eager to learn more about anatomy, he dissected corpses supplied by the hospital of the Convent of Santo Spirito, foe whose prior he carved a wooden crucifix. He also worked on a large marble Hercules (now lost).
Returning to an austere Florence in 1495, he carved only two figures (now lost)—a young St. John the Baptist and a Sleeping Cupid based on an ancient original and suitably weathered (Ackerman 2001).
First Roman Period. Michelangelo sold the Cupid to a dealer for 30 ducats, bit on learning that the dealer asked 200 ducats from a Roman cardinal, who had then discovered the deception; he went to Rome to reclaim his work. He stayed there five years. For the banker Jacopo Galli he carved the life-sized wine god Bacchus, treated not as a drunken sot but as the Greek god of death and rebirth, inspired wine. Galli persuaded a French cardinal to order the St. Peter’s Pieta, a young mother holding her dead son (Condivi 2004). It was the Vatican’s main attraction at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
The Renaissance produced other great artists but none who achieved such heights in all three principal media. Raphael ignored sculpture and borrowed heavily in other arts. Neither architecture nor sculpture by Leonardo has survived, and his painting expresses his own personality rather than the age. It is Michelangelo who was truly the artist of universal genius (Ackerman 2001).
Sculpture. Michelangelo always insisted that his profession was sculpture, and he found three-dimensional qualities much more appealing than the flat surfaces of painting. His style evolved in both form and content. In his earliest works he was concerned with technical control of his medium, trying in the Madonna of the Stairs the very delicate low relief of Donatello and in the Battle of the Centaurs a broad, bold projection of his own. In the Bacchus and the St. Peter’s Pieta he faced the problems of immaculate finish and in the David the distortions necessary for a colossus. After mastering these problems, he henceforth regarded them as secondary (Morgan, 2000).
His concern with ideas, however, remained dominant all his life. At first he kept classical and Christian ideas apart, although he liked to work on both at the same time. But beginning with the David, which houses medieval emotion within the classical body of Hercules, he fused the two. Only in the Rondanini Pieta does the disembodied Christian ideal emerge as an entity.
As he grew older, Michelangelo developed certain mannerisms such as dynamic coiling in contrapposto (opposition of parts of the body) and an emphasis on the torso, whence the term “Mannerist style.” He also achieved a simultaneous approach to the block from all sided and an ability to conceive the figure completely within the confines of the marble (Morgan, 2000).
For lack of time and interest, Michelangelo often entrusted the finishing process to assistants, with unfortunate results, as in the overly polished Risen Christ. But his unfinished surfaces, ever since Rodin inspired a cult for texture as such. Michelangelo has been called the greatest sculpture of all time. For skill, production, influence, and time-honored acceptance, it would be difficult to find his equal.
Painting and Drawing. Michelangelo’s painting is virtually unique. As in sculpture, he preferred classical nudity to express the highest Christian ideals. Huge forms embody the grand scale of his thoughts, and they acquire superhuman force through his use of powerful line. So impressive was his style that its effect on his contemporaries sometimes proved disastrous. Raphael adopted its scale without its energy (De Tolnay 2004). Bronzino and other mannerists elegantly imitated its surface peculiarities. Titian, Tintoretto, and, later, Rubens and Delacroix, however, had the vitality to employ it successfully.
Although Michelangelo’s monumental style was effectively conveyed in slow tempera technique on small wood panels, it was best suited to rapid fresco on murals. It is also evident in his drawings, at first in ink and after 1508 in red or black crayon. About 250 survive—quick sketches and careful studies—and many copies (De Tolnay 2004).
Architecture. Early involved in architecture, Michelangelo at first regarded it as a setting for sculpture and painting. Not until he took charge of St. Peter’s was he concerned with buildings and spaces for their own sake. From the beginning he anticipated the Baroque style. From the beginning he anticipated the Baroque style. It is already apparent in the broken planes and cornices of early versions of the Julius tomb and the simulated architecture of the Sistine Ceiling (Creighton 2003). Later, the restless, contrasting forms of St. Peter’s show his rapid development away from the modified Classicism of Bramante and Sangallo.
St. Peter’s. The structure and decoration of this great church, except for the façade and first two bays of the nave, are indelibly Michelangelo’s. Rejecting most of the work already done, he adopted Bramante’s central plan, a cross with equal arms and cannibalized such parts of Raphael’s and Sangallo’s masonry as he needed to strengthen the great piers at the crossing. Instead of Bramante’s hemispherical dome on a single drum, he placed on two drums an enormous pointed dome rising more than 400 feet (122 meters) (Creighton 2003).
The construction, a double shell of brick built around 16 stone ribs, is an engineering triumph. Roman arches, double pilasters, and ceiling coffers form the main decoration of the interior of the basilica, whose vast size is impossible to appreciate except during major ceremonies. The changing planes of pilasters and recessions on the exterior contrast shadow with light. The mighty dome, with looms over the city from miles away (Condivi 2004), has influenced the domes of the Invalides (Paris), St. Paul’s (London), and the U.S. Capitol.
The Artist. Receptive to and contributing to the successive currents of renaissance humanism, the Protestant reformation, and the catholic Reformation, Michelangelo was totally identified with one of the great periods of history. Consequently, his impact on posterity has greater weight than that of any other artist with the possible exception of Phidias of the 5th century B.C. Although the 17th century deplored his insistence on nude forms, it could only exaggerate his architecture and recreate his fingers on respectable clothing. The 18th century found the scale and force of his works uncomfortably opposed to the exquisite standards of Rococo art, and Victorian moralists were dubious about his nudes. But through such figures as Charles Garnier in architecture, Rodin in sculpture, and Delacroix in painting, his influence continued for three centuries (Condivi 2004).
As conclusion, a sensitive man with a stormy personality, Michelangelo expressed his intense emotions in his art. He concentrated on the human figure, and used it as his vehicle to portray the strivings and sufferings of man. His paintings, sculptures, and drawings show a thorough understanding of anatomy and a mastery of form and movement. Like his contemporary Leonardo ad Vinci, he left some of his greatest works unfinished.
Although he thought of himself as a sculptor primarily, Michelangelo produced paintings and buildings that are among the most treasured in the Western world. In painting and sculpture he created a style that laid the foundation for the Mannerist and Baroque periods. His reflective, emotional sonnets made him one of the outstanding lyric poets of the 16th century. His great versatility, and the grandeur and vastness of his works, led Michelangelo’s contemporaries to regard him as a genius.
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Creighton, G. Complete Poems and Selected Letters from Michelangelo (Random House, 2003)
De Tolnay, C. The Art and Thought of Michelangelo (Pantheon 2004)
Morgan, C.H. The Life of Michelangelo (Reynal 2000)