Michelangelo Biography

Il Divino Michelangelo

“…those who knew him esteemed him more than his works and those who did not know him esteemed the least part of him, which was his works” – Vittoria Colonna of Pescara[1]

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni’s works have endured as some of the most beautiful and revered works in the history of art. His aesthetic communication through the mastery of sculpture, painting, drawing, architecture and poetry has never been rivaled. “He tackled single-handedly the kind of tasks that others approached with teams of assistants.”[2] An artist revered both in his own time and beyond, for possessing a divine understanding of the human condition and wielding the supernatural ability to capture it so purely.

  1. Introduction
  2. Young Michelangelo
  3. In the Garden with Lorenzo de Medici
  4. In Rome: The Bacchus & the Pieta
  5. In Florence: The David
  6. Tomb of Pope Julius II & the Sistine Chapel
  7. Michelangelo and the Medici in Florence
  8. The Last Judgment
  9. The Tragedy of the Tomb
  10. Michelangelo’s Architectural Works In Rome
  11. Il Campidoglio (Capitoline Hill)
  12. Michelangelo’s Last works in Rome
  13. The Death of the Divine Michelangelo
  14. References

The personification of the divine in the hand of Michelangelo is something that elicits a feeling of communion with God and Nature. According to Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo was favored by the Almighty as a man, perfect in every aspect of Art and Poetry, designed to inspire others to follow his artistic example.[3] As it was God who brought life to man, it was Michelangelo who immortalized man’s existence on canvas and in marble.

We can see in Michelangelo three fundamental aspects of his art that illustrate his brilliance and understanding of creating works that elicit an emotional reaction. The first is his use of nudity and an extra-sensory understanding of the human body, unparalleled and rarely equaled, even among artists today. Secondly, his use of grandeur and the creation of a monumental image is done as much for emotional impact as it is for the scientific study of the human body. The third aspect is the noticeable energy perpetually surging through his creations and the communion that has been established with the divine.[4]

It is without question that Michelangelo Buonarroti has had one of the most prestigious careers in the history of art; working with three popes, and the most influential patrons of the Renaissance. One only has to be in the presence of his masterpiece the David to know that there is magnificence in our universe and that Michelangelo has felt it and harnessed it for man. His work on the Sistine Chapel is a depiction of God touching Adam, but more than that, it is a means for all those who gaze upon it to be touched by the divine.

In his own words, Michelangelo shows us why he will always be hailed as the “Divine” and why he will never be rivaled as the ultimate Renaissance man.

“Beauty depends on purpose. It is in the elements best suited to their purpose or aim that beauty shines forth most strongly.” -Michelangelo [5]

“The very heavens, as much as his own desire, pulled him irresistibly to art, so that he could not stop himself from drawing, whenever he could steal a moment, and from seeking the company of painters.”-Ascanio Condivi[6]

In the family record of the Buonarroti family the birth announcement of Michelangelo read as follows:

“I record that on this day the 6th of March 1474 a son was born to me: I gave him the name of Michelangelo, and he was born on Monday morning, before 4 or 5 o’clock, and he was born to me while I was podesta of Caprese, and he was born at Caprese…he was baptized on the 8th day of the same month in the church of San Giovanni at Caprese.”- Ludovico Di Buonarroti di Simoni[7]

The family in which Michelangelo was born into is often described as an honorable family that was born into hard times. The lineage of his father Ludovico’s family could trace its decent back to the twelfth century and was considered a “privileged citizen” eligible for election into the Signoria. His mother Francesca di Neri was from the Rucellai family, a respected Florentine name who left their mark on the city with a palazzo that still stands today.[8]

When Michelangelo is a month old the office held by his father Ludovico comes to an end and his family returns to Florence. As was common among respected families in Florence at this time, Michelangelo did not return home with his family but was sent to Settignano, an area three miles outside of Florence where a wet-nurse would care for the infant. The nurse responsible for taking care of Michelangelo was married to a stone cutter, no doubt where Michelangelo first learned to work with stone. He is famously recorded by his friend and biographer Giorgio Vasari as saying: “Along with the milk of my nurse I received the knack of handling chisel and hammer.”[9]

Michelangelo stayed in Settignano until he was about ten years old, returning to Florence in 1485. According to several sources his mother dies when he is six years old and his father remarries Lucrezia Ubaldini. When Michelangelo returns he comes to live with his “father stepmother, four brothers and an uncle in a gloomy house in the Via Bentaccordi near Santa Croce.”[10]

It was at this time that Michelangelo was sent to the school of Francesco da Urbino to learn grammar and the art of writing. Ludovico di Buonarroti was hoping that Michelangelo would focus his efforts toward becoming a lawyer, or some other profession that would bring the family honor.[11]

The pursuit of Michelangelo’s artistic endeavors was not what Ludovico had envisioned for his son. These are the years in which Michelangelo started to show a strong desire to learn and art and to be surrounded by artists. It was at this time that he met and became friends with Francesco Granacci, a student of the famous Italian painter Domenico Ghirlandiao. The friendship between Granacci and Michelangelo was extremely important in the development of the young artists future because of the exposure he would receive to his artistic training. As Michelangelo’s truencies from his lessons began to increase, Ludovico became increasingly infuriated with his son’s disobedience. In a quote from Condivi, Michelangelo’s close friend and biographer he writes:

“he was beaten by his father and brothers for abandoning his studies (grammar and the study of letters) because they thought art as a profession to be a disgrace for their family, but Michelangelo did not turn back and was even motivated to push harder in the study of art.”[12]

It became clear in the year 1488 that Ludovico could not deny the incredible talent of his son Michelangelo, and his relentless pursuit of knowledge for art despite the beatings by his father. He had used his time to copy painting from churches and other famous painters while spending time with his friend Granacci. It was at this time that Michelangelo was apprenticed to Domencio Ghirlandiao, a respected Florentine painter who had been given several important commissions from the Medici in Florence. The terms of the apprenticeship were as follows:

“…this first day of April that I, Ludovico di Leonardo di Buonarrota, placed Michelangelo my son, with Domenico and David Ghirlandaio for three years next to come, on these terms and conditions, …shall remain with the above named persons…in order to learn to paint and exercise that vocation.” [13]

During the time Michelangelo was with Ghirlandaio is was evident to the master that his young student was a far better talent than any of the other boys apprenticed to him at that time. It is also said by Vasari that there was a certain jealousy by Domenico that the young Michelangelo was far better at drawing than he. Although Michelangelo would gain great tutorship with Lorenzo di Medeci, Michelangelo was involved in the commission given to Ghirlandaio to paint frescoes for the church of Santa Maria Novella.”[14] One of the earliest works by Michelangelo, the engraving of The Temptation of St. Anthony was probably done during this time, along with his other drawings after the masters Giotto and Masaccio.[15]

It will be at this time that Michelangelo will be introduced to Lorenzo de Medici, and be opened to a whole new world of masterpieces and where he will first come in contact with the world he will dominate, as the favorite of the wealthy and powerful patrons of Italy.

“As Athens had led the way among the Greek city states, to the glory that was Greece, so Florence had led the way among the Italian city-states in the revival of learning, The Renaissance…and they were living in the Golden Age [and it was Lorenzo the Magnificent that presided]”[16]

It quickly became obvious that the talent of the young artist was far superior to the other students apprenticed to the workshop of Ghirlandaio. This coupled with the notoriety of the Michelangelo’s master would gain the attention of Bertoldo, a student of Donatello, who was the master of the ‘school for sculptures’ in the garden of Lorenzo de Medici.[17] The school patronized by Lorenzo de Medici was set up to foster the abilities of the most promising painters and sculptors as he was one of the most ardent supporters of the arts. It was well known that Lorenzo had one of the largest and most beautiful collections of sculptures and artifacts from Classical Antiquity, which would prove to be a magnetic factor for Michelangelo.[18]

“From the moment Michelangelo first beheld the sculpture collection of the Medici he never again set foot in a painter’s studio…The ancient statues held him completely enthralled.”[19]

The contract that had been signed between Domenico Ghirlandaio and Michelangelo’s father, Ludovico, was for a period of three years but early in the year of 1489 Michelangelo would break that contract.[20]
The school headed by Bertoldo and funded by Lorenzo de Medici would become the temporary home of Michelangelo as “he ‘had unlimited opportunities to cultivate himself and learn his art.’ In his garden were a vast array of subjects in miniature (because there was no photographic evidence of statues from classical antiquity) which makes it all the more impressive that Michelangelo was able to train his eye to see in the monumental without physical evidence of large-scale masterpieces.”[21]

While under the tutorship of Bertoldo, Michelangelo gained the attention of Lorenzo de Medici not only because of Lorenzo’s worry that he had far more talented painters than he did sculptors but because of the clear “genius” that was already evident in his work. In an anecdote about one of the early interactions between Michelangelo and Lorenzo, there is the story of a sculpture he is asked to re-create from the collection of the Medici.

“Michelangelo, who had never yet touched marble or chisels, succeeded so well in counterfeiting [the head of the faun], that the Magnificent Lorenzo was astonished.”[22]

The story famously continues that Lorenzo joked with the young Michelangelo that he had made the faun old and left him all of his teeth. Lorenzo said to Michelangelo: “Don’t you know that old men of that age are always missing a few [teeth]? As soon as Lorenzo left the Michelangelo he removed the top tooth as if it had fallen out from the root and couldn’t wait for his master to return so that he may show him the change. When he returned he laughed at the boy’s eagerness to please and the goodness of his intentions. It was at this point that Lorenzo asked Michelangelo to join his household and to live as one of his children, in an effort to “help and encourage such great genius.”[23]

Lorenzo de Medici was Michelangelo’s first protector and patron, a role he cherished the way a father would cherish a son. While in the house of Lorenzo de Medici, Michelangelo will carve two of his earliest works, marble reliefs:The Madonna of the Stairs, and Battle of the Centaurs. The relief of the “Virgin” is carved in the style of mezzo-rilievo, or low relief, a style which had been used by Donatello.[24] This piece was probably an assignment given by Bertoldo and was carved on a valuable slab of white marble.

“From the moment Michelangelo leaves off copying and invents his own compositions, his personality is such that he is “bound to identify his emotions with his ideas.” [Michelangelo] treats the age old theme of the Madonna and Child in ways that are astonishingly unconventional, and yet the carving suggests that it represents the boy’s first independent conception.”[25]

With the carving of the Battle of the Centaurs, we can see one of Michelangelo’s first attempts at recreating the body and his early mastery of the human form. According to Vasari, Michelangelo was permitted to dissect human bodies to learn the human anatomy. His access at the church of Santo Spirito was granted to him by the clergy because of his work on a crucifix he was commissioned to create for the church.[26]This relief was suggested by Poliziano, a humanist poet that spent time with the artists and scholars under the patronage of Lorenzo de Medici. This relief shows

“athletic male nudes linked in close embrace, with set faces and sensually expressive bodies…and is a virtuoso exercise in the portrayal of the lineaments and facets of the human body.”[27]

On April 8, 1492 Michelangelo would mourn the loss of Lorenzo de Medici, the first patron and supporter of his genius. After the death of Lorenzo, Piero de Medici asks Michelangelo to stay in the Medici palace where he will create a life size statue of Hercules and a wooden crucifix. After a short two years with Piero, Michelangelo flees to Bologna then to Venice due to the invasion of Charles VIII and his french army.[28]It is also at this time that the Medici are flee from Florence because of the ever increasing support for the powerful man of God, Savonarola. Due to a lack of work in Venice, Michelangelo will return to Bologna, where he became employed by Messer Giovan Francesco Aldovrandi. In his employ he would carve an Angel holding a candlebrum and a statue of Saint Petronio for which he was paid thirty ducats.(Vasari, 221)[29]

When the atmosphere in Michelangelo’s native city of Florence had calmed down, he returned to the city of his birth where his commissioned once again by the Medici. Lorenzo Pierfrancesco de Medici asks Michelangelo to sculpt a statue of St. John and Eros.It was at this time that only the powerfully rich were patronizing the arts because of the influence of Savonarola and the disparagement of the arts. The opportunity for art commissions in an environment such as this would prove to be harder and harder to come by. In spite of this fact Michelangelo created carved a sculpture of the Cupid. Because Michelangelo needed money Pierfrancesco de Medici suggested that he:

“had contacts in Rome who could sell his sculpture, Sleeping Cupid, for nearly as much as an antiquity. Whether the Cupid was made before or after Lorenzo proposed this deception is a moot point…but the plan went off like clockwork. Within weeks Michelangelo pocketed thirty ducats.”[30]

Later that year a man would come to Michelangelo because of his increasing reputation as a master sculpture. The man asked for a drawing as proof of his talent and Michelangelo drew the exact Cupid he had sculpted and sold unwittingly as a fake to Cardinal Raffaele Riario The man, probably, Jacopo Galli, was appalled that that sculpture was a “Florentine fake.”[31]

This deception would infuriate Michelangelo and in June of 1496 Michelangelo would go to Rome to try in vain to get his sculpture back. The statue would be sold to Cesare Borgia, and would later end up in the collection of Isabella d’Este. Nevertheless, Michelangelo would stay in Rome and begin a career that will rival his contemporaries.[32]

The early works of Michelangelo are milestones on the “early road toward the kind of perfection that moves, ennobles and enriches the mind, not only of the individual, but of mankind. It is in Michelangelo’s Pieta,…that profound sentiment and exalted mastery are blended.”[33]

Once in Rome Michelangelo started his career in the service of Cardinal Raffaele Riario , based on the recommendation of the banker and patron of the arts Jacopo Galli. In a letter to Pierfrancesco de Medici Michelangelo stated that he had introduced himself to the bankers Poalo Ruccellai and Cavalcanti on the commendation of Lorenzo de Medici after being received positively by Cardinal Riario.[34] These relationships would prove to be beneficial and even inspiring to Michelangelo in his early time in the former center of the Roman Empire. In Florence Michelangelo could not hope for the rich commissions and opportunities to study the unrivaled collections of antiquities as he could in Rome.[35]

Michelangelo would get one of his first major commissions to sculpt a life size statue of the classical god, Bacchus during this first trip to Rome. It is unsure as to who commissioned the work of Michelangelo’s Bacchus reports are divided between Cardinal Riario, which Michelangelo may have lived for a year while in Rome, or Jacopo Galli, Michelangelo’s banker and friend. According to Linda Murray in her book, Michelangelo:

“It is possible that the statues [Bacchus and Eros] may have been commissioned for the cardinal, who possibly relinquished to his friend, since he apparently had little taste for ‘modern’ antiquities. “Galli placed this statue of Bacchus in his garden along with his many other Roman statues and fragments; where it had been mutilated by the removal of an arm, apparently to make it look more antique.”[36]

“…[my] marble Bacchus ten palmi in height whose form and appearance correspond in every particular to the description of the ancient authors. The face of the youth is joyful in the eyes,…are like the eyes of those who are too much possessed by the love of Wine.” These words were written by Condivi and approved by Michelangelo in 1533 to describe the drunken Bacchus created for, according to Condivi, “Galli, a Roman gentleman of fine intelligence.” Michelangelo goes on to describe the composition if the sculpture by saying that the Bacchus “holds the cup in his right hand, as if about to drink, and gazes at it like one who takes pleasure that liquor which was invented.” Michelangelo tells Condivi that it is this reason that he has wreathed the head with a garland of vine leaves. He also explains that the reason he has draped a tiger skin over his left shoulder is to show that this is the beast that is dedicated to him. Michelangelo explains to Condivi that: “[he] represented the skin instead of the animal to signify that he who allows his senses to be overcome by that appetite for that fruit and its liquor, ultimate loses its life to it.” The theme of the statue is perfectly explained in Michelangelo’s own words to Condivi. His thought is that “with drunkenness replacing blood lust as a vice that reduces men to beasts.”[37]

Michelangelo’s statue of the Bacchus is considered to be “technically among the artist’s most splendid achievements. Michelangelo was not enthusiastic about the subject. Abstemious himself, he found no pleasure in wine, and yet the figure of Bacchus was quite uncongenial to his thinking. Yet that did not stop him from creating a masterpiece, if a somewhat repellent one.” Previous statues of Bacchus glorify him as a God of Wine and exuberance but Michelangelo has portrayed him as the God of Gluttony.[38] The issues surrounding the terms of the commission and the payment for the Bacchus are left to speculation, but it is widely accepted that Michelangelo had problems collecting payment for the statue. This coupled with the deceitfulness of Pierfrancesco de Medici left the young artist in need of a new patron.[39]

See photos and read more about Michelangelo’s Bacchus.

“It is a miracle that a stone without shape should have been reduced to such perfection.”-Giorgio Vasari[40]

Jacopo Galli, model patron that he was, wanted to share his joy in Michelangelo’s work with other men of sensibility. This is why in 1497 Michelangelo is introduced to French Cardinal Jean Bilheres de Lagraulas who after being the papal emissary for Rome realized that Rome would be his final resting place and that he wanted to leave something behind for posterity. The Cardinal wanted to leave behind a souvenir of himself and his country which is why he asked Michelangelo to create a Pieta for his tomb. It was Galli who vouched for the young artists genius, and the reason Michelangelo was chosen for such a prestigious commission.[41]

The French Cardinal had set his final resting place to be St. Petronillo, an ancient mausoleum adjacent to St. Peter’s, Later converted into a chapel under the protection of the French Crown.[42] The French Cardinal asked Michelangelo to create a Pieta which literally means the “pity.” This was typically a French treatment of the Madonna and her slain son, not typically depicted in this manner in Italy until Michelangelo’s Pieta. Jacopo Galli would construct a contract with the French Cardinal for the creation of the Pieta where he promised:

“that the Pieta would be finished within a year, and that it would be the finest statue in Rome-such that no living artist could better it.”[43]

Michelangelo could not wait to get started on this project, so in 1498 Michelangelo would go to the town of Carrara to acquire a perfect piece of marble for the Pieta. The reason that Michelangelo needed to travel all the way to Carrara for marble is that the marble in Rome was mediocre at best, showing noticeable veins or was unusable.[44] While in Carrara Michelangelo “saw for the first time the marble quarries that were to preoccupy him so deeply and take up such an inordinate share of his precious time.[45]

When Michelangelo returned to Rome with the marble he would use for the Pieta, “which would be very important in acquiring the official contract from Cardinal Bilheres. The contract is “a legal document that makes a cultural statement.” The contract would be brokered by Jacopo Galli and signed by the Michelangelo and the French Cardinal in 1498. The main points of the contract read as follows:

“Be it known and manifest to all who shall read this present writing that the most revered Cardinal di San Dionisio has agreed that Maestro Michelangelo,…shall at his own proper costs make a Pieta of marble that is to say a draped figure of the Virgin Mary with the dead Christ in her arms, the figures being life-sized,…to be finished within the term of one year.”[46]

When Michelangelo returned to Rome it took Michelangelo not the agreed upon one year to finish the Pieta, but he would not finish the statue until two years after he started the project. The French cardinal would not see the Pieta in its completion as he died before Michelangelo could give him a finished sculpture.[47]

The reception to Michelangelo’s Pieta was that of dual opinion. Many thought the work to be the work of a divine hand and without error. Others questioned Michelangelo’s choices for some of the aspects in the sculpture. One main question of Michelangelo’s contemporaries had for the young artists was why he had made the Virgin younger in appearance than her dead son. In a conversation between biographer Condivi and Michelangelo on the objection to why the Virgin is so young, Michelangelo says:

“Don’t you know that women who are chaste remain much fresher than those who are not? How much more so a virgin who was never touched by even the slightest lascivious desire which might alter her body? Indeed, I will go further and say that this freshness and flowering of youth, apart from being preserved in her in this natural way, may also have conceivably have been given divine assistance in order to prove to the world the virginity and perpetual purity of the mother. This was not necessary with the son.”[48]

Michelangelo goes on to say that to show that Christ was a real man, the human embodiment of god, it was important to show his real age, and that he submitted to all the ordinary things that a man undergoes, except sin. Therefore Michelangelo says his decision to show the mother younger than the son is explainable and unarguable from a theological viewpoint.

The reception of the Pieta would make Michelangelo a force to be reckoned with in the art world. “Though it showed that Michelangelo was still using the drill as well as the chisel, but the Pieta was technically brilliant. Life studies and dissection had so deepened Michelangelo’s understanding of anatomy…he imparted unprecedented physical verisimilitude and grace.”[49] After the Pieta was finished, the year was 1500, and under the Borgia papacy no commissions were given to Michelangelo. It was at this time that Michelangelo started to write his own poetry based on his readings mainly of Petrarch in Galli’s Library.[50]

Michelangelo would return to Florence at the request of his father due to the economic hardship that had fallen on the family. “In the spring of 1501, the artist was back home , after an absence of four years. He returned as one who, with a single masterpiece, had proved that at the age of twenty-six he could lay claim to being the foremost sculptor of his country and age, even though at the time a superhuman like Leonardo da Vinci was still living and working.” [51]

See photos and read more about Pieta.

: The David

“Sculpture is made by taking away, while painting is made by adding.”-Michelangelo to Benedetto Varchi[52]

After the turn of the century, Florence experienced a surge of intellectual renewal. The Italian city state fought hard to re-institute its “constitutional balance and vigour, its territorial authority, and an environment that welcomed the best artists into its service.”[53] It the expulsion of the religious leader of Savanorola, and the renewal of the Florentine Republic which made returning to Florence an attractive move for Michelangelo.

During the time of Savonorola there was a negative attitude toward the arts because the puritanical religious leader saw the movement of many artists and thinkers toward Neoplatanism as sinful. This was a much different than the attitude of the Medici controlled Florence where the arts flourished. Savonorola had so much influence that he had the Medici expelled, defied the Pope and burned precious works of art, jewelry, cosmetics, and heretical writings in the Bonfire of the Vanities.[54]

The influence of Savonorola was a large catalyst in Michelangelo’s decision to go to Rome in the late 1400’s and ultimately why he stayed for 5 years. In a grand gesture by the people of Florence, Savonorola and two of his supporters were arrested at the Church of San Marco by an angry mob. Savonarola was imprisoned for six weeks in the Palazzo della Signorina, and under extreme torture finally signed a document confessing that all of his revelations were false. In 1948, Savonorola would be burnt at the stake Palazzo della Signoria along with his two supporters and Florence would finally declare themselves a free Republic.[55]

It would be in this new era of Florentine revival that Michelangelo would create the larger than life statue of the David. It would be this statue that would represent the resilient city-state’s symbol of pride and its message to the world that Florence would be a force to be reckoned with. It would be in 1501 that the Florence Cathedral building committee would ask Michelangelo to work on a great block of marble left over from an earlier aborted commission.[56]

According to Michelangelo’s friend Condivi, The commission for the statue the Florentines called the Giant would come about in this way:

“The operai of Santa Maria del Fiore owned a block of marble nine braccia high, which had been bought from Carrara a hundred years earlier by an artist who, from what one could see, was not as experienced as he should have been…he had roughed it out in the quarry but in such a way that neither he or anyone else ever had the courage to lay a hand to it to carve a statue.”[57]

In a note in the margin of Michelangelo’s contract with the Opera del Duomo it states that:

“Michelangelo began to work and carve the Giant on 13 September 1501, a Monday. Previously on the 9th, he had given it one or two blows with his hammer to strike off a certain knot that it had on its chest…which must have been an earlier remnant of the earlier sculptor’s attempt. By knocking it off, Michelangelo declared his independence from the block’s past.”[58]

Michelangelo was well aware of the Republican symbolism of the David. He knew that the intent of the statue was not only to elicit pride from Florentines but to bring a sense of Republican obligation to fight for the Italian city-state. “The David has a long symbolic heritage derived not only from Biblical history but also from the antique in its echoes of Hercules triumphing through strength over the labors inflicted upon him by tyranny… [where Michelangelo] had made a new statement of an old theme, given a new monumentality.”[59] Michelangelo knew that this sculpture was important to not only the physical ambiance of Florence but as a symbolic message to the rest of the world that Florence would not be beaten with out a fight.

The monumental sculpture has been described as:

“Youth, full of latent energy and strength, with huge limbs and a watchful uncertain expression on his sharply delineated features. One massive hand dangles against the right thigh the other raised to hold the sling, so that the long line of the open left-hand silhouette contrasts with the closed forms on the right.”[60]

One aspect of the David which would have stood out to the Renaissance contemporaries of Michelangelo is the scowl of the young hero. In the Bible David was the ‘Lion of Judah,’ and the ancient symbol for Florence was the Lion. In the scowl on Davids face, Michelangelo was using this link to create not just a beautiful piece of art, but a theological statement about Florence. In an article by David Summers he states that: “a cloudy brow signifies self-will as in the Lion” This was a well known fact among Renaissance artists and Michelangelo exploited this artistic attribute. Summers goes on to say that: “the clouded-brow, as seen on the David, is the vice of those who little consider the difficulty of some great act, [such as killing Goliath], and presuming too much of their own powers, believe they will easily attain their end.”[61]

As a study in the human form and the Classical nude Michelangelo created in the Davidthe perfect man. His study of human anatomy, in drawing and as a young adult dissecting bodies in Florence no doubt prepared him to complete the masterpiece. Michelangelo has captured the energy of the moment in the marble while using the anatomy of the young hero to express the emotion in this tense moment.

“His rugged torso, sturdy limbs, and large hands and feet alert the viewers to the strength to come. Each swelling vein and tightening sinew amplifies the psychological energy of the monumental David’s pose.”[62]

The reception of Michelangelo’s David in 1504 was received with great gratitude and appreciation from the Florentines. But Michelangelo had completed several other important works during this time including the sculptures of: the Bruges Madonna with the Christ Child, the Tondo Pitti, and the Tondo Taddei. In addition to these sculptures, Michelangelo created one of the only surviving paintings on Canvas; the Doni Tondo where Michelangelo paints the Holy family.[63]

The Bruges Madonna with the Christ child was commissioned by the Flemish merchant Alexandre de Mouscron. This marble sculpture would come five years after the Vatican Pieta and would bear striking similarities, mainly the young appearance of the Madonna. This sculpture was carved from a single piece of Carrara marble, and is an interpretation of the popular scene in which “Michelangelo evokes from a drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci in order to reject it. In this version Mary makes no attempt to restrain her son from the mission foretold in her prayer book.” Michelangelo portrays the virgin with a ‘face of stone,’ not to question the love of her child but to show that “her self restraint makes her exemplary of virtuous stoicism in the face of pain.”[64]

The Doni Tondo was a round painting made for Agnolo Doni, a Florentine citizen, by Michelangelo around the same time as the Bruges Madonna. According to Condivi Michelangelo took the commission “in order not to abandon painting altogether.”[65] It is clear that is painting is the work of a sculptor, not only because of the draping of the material on the holy family but because of the male nude figures in the background. The work is monumental and hard edged, much like many of Michelangelo’s sculptures. It is also evident that the three figures of the Madonna, Christ child and Joseph seemed to be painted as if they were carved from the same piece of stone. This painting is significant because it is the only surviving paintings that was not done directly onto a wall or ceiling.[66]

After this sojourn in Florence Michelangelo would once again return to Rome to begin on what is said to be his life’s masterpiece; The Sistine Chapel.

“A passionate desire for posthumous glory was a leading motive for men of the Renaissance, whatever their calling. The example of antiquity-and of Roman eulogies-taught that great men became immortal through either words or monuments.”[67]

In 1505 Michelangelo would once again leave Florence for Rome, at the request of Pope Julius II. “It was Giuliano da San Gallo who had called the Pope’s attention to Michelangelo, whom he had known ever since the days the half-grown youth enjoyed the favor of Lorenzo de Medici.”[68] Michelangelo and Julius II would have many discussions about his tomb as it was very important for a papal leader to leave behind a legacy. In April of 1505 the pope would approve one of Michelangelo’s drawings for the tomb, and in a quote, Michelangelo said that:

“the papal mausoleum would surpass in beauty and pride, richness of ornamentation, and abundance of statuary, every ancient Imperial tomb.”[69]

It was discussed that the tomb was to portray Julius as the patron of learning and the seven liberal arts- grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music- as well as painting, sculpture and architecture. It was agreed that the tomb would be finished within five years and that the tomb would consist of a large marble edifice and include over forty statues. With excitement for the project Michelangelo would leave for Carrara at once to obtain the finest marble for the project.[70]

When Michelangelo first started the tomb Pope Julius was extremely excited about the project and it was reported that he would check in on the artist from time to time to check on the progress. To make it easier to visit the “Pope even had a movable bridge built to Michelangelo’s work room… so that he could see him at his work in his rooms.”[71] But for Michelangelo the project would turn out to be more work that he had anticipated. Michelangelo was managing everything by himself and being pulled in several different directions. He had to deal with money, coordinating workers, securing workspace, and living Quarters. Before this had all been taken care of for him by his patron. In addition to the strain on Michelangelo from internal problems, the pope would soon become uninterested in seeing the tomb come to fruition and Michelangelo would once again flee Rome.[72]

At the outset of the planning for the tomb it was agreed that it would be placed inside St. Peter’s Basilica. But at this time the church was dilapidated and needed to be restored. Pope Julius would hire the architect Bramante for the new St. Peters, and lose interest in the tomb he commissioned from Michelangelo. It was clear that Julius became strangely uninterested in the tomb, advanced no money to Michelangelo for expenses and soon Michelangelo would see less and less of the Pope.[73] In 1506 Michelangelo is invited to dinner with Pope. He overhears the Pontiff tell the jewelry maker that “he did not wish to spend one baiocco more on small stones or large ones.” This was no doubt a play on words and a subtle comment to Michelangelo.[74]

Shortly after this dinner, Michelangelo went to Julius to obtain payment for all the marble he had quarried for the project and the work done so far and Julius refused to see Michelangelo. Julius had insulted Michelangelo so much, that he left Rome by horseback for Florence without alerting the Pope. When San Gallo wrote to Michelangelo to ask why he had left Rome in such a hurry, he explained that his patience had run out. In Michelangelo’s eyes the Pope had humiliated him. In the letter Michelangelo describes the incident that would lead to his departure.

“I asked the Pope for part of what I needed in order to pursue the work. His Holiness answered that I should return on Monday. And I did return on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday…Finally on Friday morning I was sent away, or rather driven out, and the person who sent me packing said he knew me but he was under orders.”

He goes onto tell San Gallo to give a message to the Pope.

“Let his Holiness understand that I am disposed more than I ever was to pursue the work, and if he himself is absolutely determined to build the tomb it should not annoy him wherever I do it…So if his Holiness wishes to proceed, let him make me over the deposit here in Florence…And I would send the things as I made them…so that His Holiness would be able to enjoy them just as much as if I had been in Rome.”[75]

According to Condivi, “during the months Michelangelo stayed in Florence three papal briefs were sent to the Signori, full of threats, commanding that he should be sent back by fair means or by force.”[76] In 1506 Michelangelo would go to Bologna to meet with Julius as the pope was there to occupy the city in the course of his war against Perugia and Bologna. While in Bologna Michelangelo begs the Pontiff for his actions and hasty retreat from Florence. The Pope pardons Michelangelo and gives him a commission to create a bronze statue of himself to commemorate his exploits as a successful warrior pope.[77]

“What one has most to work and struggle for in painting is to do the work with a great amount of labour and sweat in such a way that it may afterwards appear, however much it was laboured, to have been done quickly and almost without any labour, and very easily, although it was not”-From Four Dialogues on Painting by Francisco de Hollanda[78]

After his stay in Bologna, Michelangelo went back to Florence, but was summoned again by the Pope in 1508 to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Pope Julius II had lost fervor for the tomb project as he wished to create a new St. Peters, along with the painting of the Sistine Chapel. This project would be very important to Julius because the building and frescoes already finished in the Chapel had been a family project, begun by his uncle Pope Sixtus IV.[79] As San Gallo, had suggested that Michelangelo take on the tomb for the Pope, he would also suggest that the artist decorate the ceiling of the chapel by way of compensation, setting the fee at fifteen thousand floren.[80]

Michelangelo disappointed that he could not finish the tomb project that he had devoted so much time to, reluctantly went to to Rome, not wanting to fall out of favor of the pope. According to Condivi:

“Michelangelo, who had not yet used colors and who realized that it was difficult to paint a vault, made every effort to get out of it…pleading that this was not his art and that he would not succeed; and he went on refusing to such an extent that the Pope almost lost his temper. But, when he saw that the pope was determined, he embarked on that work which is to be seen today in the papal palace to the admiration and amazement of the world…”[81]

Michelangelo contracted to begin the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, wrote in his Journal:

“I record how on this day, the 10th of May, 1508, I, Michelangelo, sculptor, have received from the Holiness our Lord Pope Julius II, 500 ducats of the Camera…on account of the painting of the vault of the Sistine Chapel, on which I begin to work.”[82]

Almost immediately Michelangelo realized that there were some very visible obstacles in undertaking such a momentous task as painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Of the most daunting would be: his inexperience with the fresco technique, the ceilings dimensions, the height above the pavement (almost 70 feet), and the complicated perspective problems presented by the vault’s height and curve.[83]

One of these obstacles would manifest itself very early on as Michelangelo made the mistake applying the plaster too wet while painting the scene of the Flood, described in the Old Testament. Michelangelo would run in to problems with applying the plaster too wet, ruining his work. Michelangelo claiming he was to inexperienced with plaster, tried in vain to ask the pope to give the commission to his contemporary Raphael. The pope denied Michelangelo’s request primarily because he wanted Michelangelo on the project, but secondly because the problem of the plaster was pointed out to him, and relayed to the reluctant artist.[84]

The Sistine chapel ceiling is:

“a symphony of human forms. They are coordinated or subordinated, superimposed and rhythmic, on different scales from giant to child, some naked, some clothed, in marble, bronze or flesh-forms which present themselves in isolation or in groups, acting simultaneously, but always dominated by the strict lines of the architectural framework.”

The barrel vault design of the chapel has several architectural facets, an attribute Michelangelo would use to his advantage. He used the shape of the vault as inspiration as opposed to other artists that tried to camouflage the shape.[85]

The overall theme of the chapel includes: “The Creation, Fall, and Redemption of Humanity. “Michelangelo spread a colossal decorative scheme across a vast surface, weaving together more than 300 figures in an ultimate grand drama of the human race.” Michelangelo
was able to complete a monumental fresco incorporating the patron’s agenda, Church doctrine, along with his own interests.[86]

In the beginning Michelangelo had sent for assistants for the project as many well respected artists of the time would. But shortly after the work began Michelangelo he sent them away and shut himself away in the chapel, determined to do the work on his own. This was characteristic of Michelangelo to do the work himself, while other artists were having helpers Michelangelo knew that to do every part himself and not delegating simpler details that it would be the genius of his work because it meant something to him to be a part of every aspect.[87]

The relationship between Michelangelo and Julius II was tumultuous to say the least. The pope was constantly asking Michelangelo when he would be able to unveil the chapel to the world, and this infuriated Michelangelo. It was recorded by Condivi in his biography that the pope would go to the Chapel and climb the scaffolding up to the ceiling where Michelangelo would lend him a hand at the top. It was also said that Michelangelo wanted to finish certain aspects of the chapel but because of the impatient nature of the pope he was unable to make these finishing touches.[88]

There were times when Michelangelo would takes breaks, usually when the the money ran out and Julius had to be asked for money.[89] Other than these short breaks Michelangelo would work for long periods of time, shutting himself inside that chapel. He would work so long that he complained about his eyes, as he would lay on his back and look up at the ceiling for ungodly amounts of time. He often complained that “to read a letter or other detailed things, hold them with his arms up over his head.”[90]

The most famous of the depictions of scenes from the Old Testament painted by Michelangelo are the central figures of God and Adam. Michelangelo chose to depict the exact moment that God brings Adam to being and creates man. Michelangelo in all his genius made a very conscious decision not to depict this scene as it had been traditionally painted by other artists. In essence Michelangelo depicted this, and the other figures from the Old Testament in a very humanistic way. The depiction of the Lord as the ruler of heaven in the Olympian pagan sense indicates how easily High Renaissance thought joined classical and Christian traditions. Yet the classical images do not obscure the essential Christian message.[91]

Michelangelo’s approach to the ceiling is based in the architectural framework by which he “divides the vault into three superimposed zones, and a threefold hierarchy of content corresponds with these three topographically and stylistically distinct areas.” In the first zone Michelangelo depicts humanity in the level of existence which is not yet spiritually conscious. In the second zone, sit the Prophets and Sibyls, who although they are part of the human race, are at the same time gifted with supernatural powers. The third zone contains the gradual revelation of the Divine perceived, by the figures in the second, while the first zone appears in the imperfect form of man imprisoned in his body. The function of this separation of zones assumes a progressively more perfect shape until it becomes a Cosmic being (God).[92]

On All Saint’s Day, October 31, 1512, the chapel was opened for public viewing. It was said by Vasari that:

“[The Sistine Chapel] was a lamp for our art which casts abroad luster enough to illuminate the world.” And had “put himself above the reach of envy.”[93]

“Let whoever may have attained so much as to have the power of drawing know that he holds a great treasure; he will be able to make figures higher than any tower, both painted and as statues, and he will find no wall or side of a building that will not prove narrow and small for his great imaginings.”-Michelangelo to Francisco de Hollanda[94]

In 1513, four months after the unveiling of the Sistine Chapel, Pope Julius II died. Soon after his death Michelangelo would sign a new contract, with the heir of Julius II, his nephew Cardinal Aginensis. It would be at this time that Michelangelo would have one of his longest periods of uninterrupted work. From 1513 to 1516 he worked on the tomb for Julius II almost without interruption. He Started to carve the famous statue of Moses
and Dying Slave and Rebellious Slave. Michelangelo also did much of the structural and architectural decoration for the base of the tomb.[95]

After Julius’ death, Michelangelo was “forced to reduce the scale of the project step-by-step until, in 1542, a final contract specified a simple wall tomb with fewer than one-third of the originally planned figures.”[96] The statue of Moses would eventually be the grand masterpiece of the tomb, and considered by many to be one of the artists most beautiful works.

Moses was a figure that Michelangelo had always been fascinated with; as he was a legendary prophet that was the liberator and founder of his people. Michelangelo chose to show us the seated Moses from the front, with his head turned to one side.

“Moses’ flaring anger at the faithlessness of his people provides Michelangelo with the motive for the contrast between the right and left halves of the body. There is in this figure an overwhelming surge of energy not even remotely equaled by any subsequent representation of Moses.”[97]

The horns on top of Moses head were placed there to be a symbol of “light”, a translation from the Hebrew bible which would be misinterpreted throughout the Renaissance. The horns referred to as the “horns of Illumination,” were probably used by Michelangelo to show that Moses had been bestowed divine favor immediately after he received the Tables of Law from the Lord on Mt. Sinai.[98]

According to Vasari: “there was no other work to be seen, whether ancient or modern, which could rival the [Moses].” Vasari goes on to say that the picturesque treatment of the hair “might lead one to believe that the chisel had become a brush.”[99]

To accompany the statue of the Moses for the tomb of Pope Julius II, Michelangelo also sculpted two statues of slaves, called the Rebellious Slave and the Dying Captive. It would be one of the tragedies of the tomb that these sculptures would not be used in the scaled back version of the tomb because there would not be enough room in the reduced design. According to Condivi:

“Between the niches there should have been statues who were bound like captives. These represented the liberal arts and in the same way painting, sculpture, and architecture, each statue with its attributes, making them easily recognizable. This was to signify that all the noble arts had died at the same time as Pope Julius II.”[100]

See photos and read more about Michelangelo’s Moses.

Shortly after the death of Julius II, Giovanni de Medici was elected Pope and he took the name Leo X. Shortly after his ascension to power Leo named his brother Guilio de Medici
the Cardinal of Florence, creating a Medici controlled Florence and Rome.

Leo X, being much like his father, Lorenzo de Medici, wanted to foster the artists of Italy for the glory of the Medici legacy. The new pope subsidized scholars, writers, poets, composers, and musicians. In addition he acquired classical and Christian manuscripts, founded a college, and supported archeological scholarship. Leo’s goal of keeping the beautification programs instituted by his predecessor, Julius II, were evident in the way he used the papal funds.[101]

At this time it was well known that church of San Lorenzo was the Medici church as it was where Lorenzo the Magnificent was buried, and located right behind the newly erected Palazzo Medici . The church was redone by Filippo Brunelleschi , the master architect responsible for the dome on top of the Florence Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore. It was also well known that Michelangelo was the undisputed master of painting and sculpture when the Medici took power, and “what the Pope really wanted was to harness the master’s genius to the greater glory of the house of Medici.”[102]

Leo X knew that he wanted Michelangelo to create works of art that would glorify his papacy and the Medici. He also knew that Michelangelo was contractually obligated to the heirs of Pope Julius II for the seemingly never ending tomb commission. Leo X wanting to enlist Michelangelo knew he had to wait for the tomb of Julius to be finished because of his close relationship to the former pope. The contract Michelangelo signed with the heirs of Julius included the stipulation that the artists may not take any other projects until the tomb was finished- a clause no doubt added to keep Leo X from monopolizing the artist. But in the end Leo would persuade Michelangelo, and Condivi writes that he had an attack of conscience;

“making all the resistance he could, saying he was bound to Julius’s executors and could not fail them.” and the pope replied: “Leave me to deal with them; I will content them…and he sent for them and made them release Michelangelo.”[103]

In 1516, Pope Leo X traveled to Florence for the celebration of St. Andrew’s Day and went of course to visit the grave of his father in San Lorenzo. It was said that he was “observed to shed some tears at the sepulcher of his father.” This emotional visit was undoubtedly one of the reasons that Leo decided that despite the lavish interior of San Lorenzo, a facade for the unadorned church was imperative to the Medici legacy in Florence. Of course the pope would turn his thoughts to Michelangelo to complete the sculptures and reliefs for the facade, but had no idea he would be so interested in the architectural aspects of the project as well.[104]

Michelangelo liked to picture himself as being torn away from his work on Julius’ tomb, but the evidence shows that he wanted the entire San Lorenzo commission for himself. As well as putting forward a design for the facade, he proposed to execute the numerous sculptures and decorations himself, rejecting the possibility of contributions from even his most distinguished contemporaries.[105] The agreement for the facade was made on January 19, 1518 and was for the adornment and decoration of the facade of San Lorenzo and stipulated that he should work continuously and finish the project within eight years, for the price of 40,000 gold ducats .
[106]

During the years of 1517-1518 Michelangelo would also make a wooden model for the facade which pleased Leo greatly.[107] Michelangelo in his usual fashion, became excited about the project, and knew that if it were to be great that he must do it all himself. He wrote to Leo saying:

“I feel it in me to make of this facade of San Lorenzo [a work] such that shall be a mirror of architecture and sculpture to all Italy.”[108]

After the agreement between Michelangelo and the Medici Pope, the artist would spend much time in the quarries trying to obtain the marble to be used for the project, and making drawings for the facade. But, Michelangelo would work on the project for three years with little to no progress. This delay was mainly due to the fiasco of the marble and where it would be quarried from. According to Condivi the pope had heard that there was a place in Tuscany called Pietra Santa , that had marble of the same beauty and quality as those at Carrara, Michelangelo’s preferred quarry. The pope wrote to Michelangelo and asked him to verify that these statements were true. According to Condivi, Michelangelo responded to the pope saying:

“That he found marbles that were very difficult to work with and not really suitable; and, even if they had been suitable, it was difficult and very expensive to transport them to the coast, as it was necessary to build a good many roads through the mountains…”[109]

In response the Pope said to build the road, and so Michelangelo had the road built. For several months Michelangelo worked on the task of obtaining the marble, but when he returned to Florence, the pope had lost interest in the project, and on March 10, 1520, Leo X canceled the facade project. This would not be unusual as the Medici pope was known for his erratic finances. In his own words Michelangelo writes a letter discussing the details of the abrupt end to the project.

“The Cardinal at the pope’s behest told me not to proceed further with the aforementioned work, because they said they wished to relieve me of the trouble of transporting the marbles,…and this is how the matter stands today.”[110]

Before Michelangelo would enter into a new contract with the Medici, he would sculpt The Risen Christ for the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. It was commissioned by Bernardo Cencio, Canon of St. Peter’s, Maria Scapucci, and Metello Vari in 1514, and was to be a nude standing figure holding a cross. The best parts of the statue are “the torso, in particular the abdomen and the whole of the back, the arms and the knees.” The project was started in 1514 but because of a black line in the marble the project was scrapped and a new piece of marble was obtained in 1519. The statue was finished in 1521 and sent from Florence to Rome to be installed in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.[111]

“The greatest artist has no concept which is not already contained within the marble, and it can be reached only by the hand which obeys the intellect.”[112]

Michelangelo would start on the work for the Medici Tombs in 1521, and would be commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici, with support from his brother Pope Leo X.[113] According to Giorgio Vasari: “Michelangelo wanted everything about the new building- the structural appearance, supporting elements, conception of space, architectural decoration and ornament- to be totally original and unexpected.” This would be something that Michelangelo would struggle with though, as he felt that he was severely restricted by the need to echo Brunelleschi’s scheme for the Old Sacristy as close as possible.[114]

The history of the tomb project goes back to Cosimo de Medici, as he was the grandfather of the Medici family. The Medici commissioned several works from Brunelleschi, the famous Florentine architect, for the construction of the Basilica of San Lorenzo, which would be the Medici church, exclusively. Cosimo had his own intentions for the church of San Lorenzo as a family mausoleum and may have made plans known to Brunelleschi for those plans in the 15th century. It is widely believed that long before Michelangelo was called into the Medici tombs project, the Basilica of San Lorenzo had a decisive funerary function for the Medici family.

The death of Giuliano de Medici in 1516 was the impetuous for the project of the tomb project. Leo and his brother Cardinal Giulio had future hope for the posterity of the family legacy. Michelangelo’s selection to create the tombs was due to his long-standing relationship with the Medici family, especially with most of the individuals either being celebrated or sponsoring the work.

“We must assume that Michelangelo had been hired to execute the final or third plank in Cosimio’s overall plan: to build the New Sacristy and to provide the appropriate monument for the generations that followed him, that of Lorenzo and of Giuliano, Cosimo’s grandson’s, and those of their sons and grandsons. Six generations, which by usual count constitute two hundred years.”[115]

Michelangelo had provided for a tomb for four persons to be erected in the middle of the chapel space, and was to be a free-standing monument. Cardinal Giulio de Medici gave Michelangelo a large amount of creative freedom for the project, saying: “we will agree with whatever you think appropriate.” But there would be concerns that the centralized tomb conceived by Michelangelo did lend itself to concern over whether or not it would fit in the space available. but “Evidently the idea of a centralized multiple tomb gave way to the placement of the tombs on the walls of the chapel, two sets of double tombs, located on facing lateral walls of the chapel.”[116]

“There were many unavoidable interruptions caused by the political situation and the dramatic events affecting Florence and the whole of Italy at the time, which directly involved his patrons’ family.” The major events were the Sack of Rome, the second banishment of the Medici from Florence, and the siege of Florence, by the Imperial Army.[117] One of the more important interruptions was the death of Pope Leo X 1523, where work was canceled until the new Pope, Clement VII, also a Medici, took power in Rome.[118] Clement would again authorize Michelangelo to work on the tomb project but would add the additional project of creating the Laurentian Library staircase and internal structures.[119]

The figures that accompany the tombs in the New Sacristy are “symbolic figures that have a universal significance. They represent the times of day and time itself, which dominates all human activity.” The underlying concept was that Time dominates human life, and the figures symbolize the relationship between man and time. The figures which symbolize these concepts of time are Dawn and Dusk and Night and Day and where created between the years of 1524 and 1531.

To accompany the statues symbolizing time, Michelangelo also created sculptures of the two Medici family member entombed in the New Sacristy, Giuliano de Medici and Lorenzo de Medici. Giuliano is portrayed seated on a stool covered with drapery in the manner of a victorious Roman general sitting in his triumphal chariot. He is wearing Roman armor…he is seen in a pose of a leader ready to assume command, and represents a man of action. While Lorenzo – is wearing armor of a victorious roman general and is seated on a ceremonial chair in a similar fashion.[120] When asked to why Michelangelo did not sculpt the statues in the likeness of the Medici depicted he said:

“Who will know what they looked like in a thousand years time?” This was a characteristic retort of Michelangelo, which might have meant he had done the Medici a favor by giving posterity such an ideal vision of them, but behind it lay the simple fact that Michelangelo disliked portraiture.”[121]

The Medici Chapels are an homage to one of the most influential families in the patronage of the arts and the Italian Renaissance. The New Sacristy, is a celebration of the Dynasty that will always be remembered as Florence’s ruling family during one of the most fruitful artistic time periods in history. Whatever had been personally executed for the project by Michelangelo himself, the conceptual notions he may have contemplated were essentially frozen after September 1534 when he left Florence for Rome, never to return.[122]

Michelangelo’s efforts on the Laurentian Library were created intermittently as he worked on the Medici tomb project. The Library was meant to be in the church of San Lorenzo to house the Medici collection of books and manuscripts, but would not be finished by Michelangelo. The staircase of the library was designed by Michelangelo and executed to his specifications. When asked by Vasari about the stairs he said:

“I recall a certain staircase, as it were in a dream, but I do not think it is exactly what I thought of then, because it is a clumsy affair.” When Vasari asked about when it would be finished and for details he said that “he made a clay model and sent it of to Florence in a box to be built.”[123]

The staircase would be unparalleled to the time period, “Aiming in true High Renaissance fashion for gravity and grandeur, he employed columns, arches, domes, pilasters, cornices and all other features that Renaissance artists had taken over from ancient Rome.”[124]

From the years 1521 to 1534, Michelangelo would work on the Medici tombs and the Laurentian Library, along with the tomb of Pope Julius II, spending his time spread between Florence and Rome.[125]
During this time “Michelangelo worked slowly because he was affected by a feeling of creative fatigue, a sign of the immense mental and physical effort needed to release the inner, perfect idea and transform it into an image.”[126] In 1534 Michelangelo leaves for Rome never to return to Florence.

Although all of the individual statues are to some extent unfinished, the two tombs remain coherent units, and so too does the total concept of the chapel.[127] In 1534 Michelangelo receives the commission to paint the Last Judgment and works on the tomb of Julius. His assistants are left to finish the staircase of the Laurentian Library and the Medici chapels are left unfinished.[128]

“A good painting is nothing other than a shadow of the divine perfection and emulation of his painting, a music and a melody that only a noble spirit can perceive, and that only with great effort.”-From Francisco de Hollanda in conversation with Michelangelo[129]

In 1534 Michelangelo left Florence for the last time to spend the rest of his personal and professional life in Rome. Again Michelangelo would be brought into the service of the Pope and the Holy Roman Church. For his first commission and undoubtedly one of the most important of his later works, Michelangelo would be commissioned by Pope Clement VII, sometime between the fall of 1533 and the spring of 1534 to paint the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, with the depiction of the Last Judgment as described in Revelation.[130]

The death of Clement VII in 1534, only two days after Michelangelo arrived in Rome, put the project on hold for a short time. But with the coronation of the new Farnese Pope Paul III , would reinstate the project because of the strong desire of the Popes to leave an artistic legacy to the church. During the period of time Michelangelo was also engaged in constant renegotiation with the heirs of Pope Julius II to finish the Tomb he had started so many years before. But Pope Paul III would insist that Michelangelo work on the Sistine Chapel wall putting of the heirs of the previous Pope.[131]

It is said that Pope Paul III a Farnese, had waited 30 years to have Michelangelo in his service. He like his predecessors Leo X and Clement VII told Michelangelo that he was to complete the projects for his papacy and ignore the work on the tomb of Julius II. It was difficult for Michelangelo the constant guilt over the scaled down Tomb would again be affected by the Popes demands on the artist, but the reverence toward Paul III would be rewarded with greatly. Michelangelo was rewarded by taking the Last Judgment by being named “Chief Architect, Sculptor, Painter, to the Vatican Palace”- an “unprecedented title that emphasized his uniqueness and bound him to the papacy.”[132]

The Last Judgment was painted during a very turbulent time in the history of the Catholic Church. The church had been fighting the effects of the Protestant Reformation in Europe and trying to regain its authority with the Counter or Catholic Reformation.[133]

“The fresco was to be a huge painting that draws the worshiper’s eye…as he approaches the altar “overwhelms him with a tumultuous, fearful vision of judgment. It is a painting intended to bring men to their knees.”[134]

After preliminary work Michelangelo waited to start until the freezing weather ended, but as early as 1537, Paul III was impatient with the progress. When he finally started, Michelangelo worked from the top down to the bottom, where the altar for the chapel sits. Michelangelo was a deeply spiritual man and his own beliefs were evident in his work on the Last Judgment. Bull writes: “Michelangelo’s powerful interpretation of the Day of Judgment and the resurrection of the dead attested to his belief in the importance of faith and the power of the divine will.”[135]

The depiction of the human body in its purest form is something we see over and over again in Michelangelo’s work, and many assert that the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, are divine examples of this talent. It is Condivi that points out:

“In this work Michelangelo expressed all that the art of painting can do with the human figure, leaving out no attitude or gesture whatever…and apart from the sublime composition of the narrative, we see represented here all that nature can do with the human body.”[136]

From the beginning the fresco was as demanding as the ceiling. It required the destruction of frescoes by Perugino and others, as well as two of Michelangelo’s own lunettes for the ceiling; the blocking up of two windows, the rebuilding of the entire wall, the erection of the scaffold, and six years of labor.[137] The preparatory work for the fresco took two years, begun in 1534, but not begun until 1536. After preliminary work Michelangelo waited to start until the freezing weather ended, but as early as 1537, Paul III was impatient with the progress.[138]

Michelangelo, like the majority of his other works, panted the Last Judgment entirely by himself. The only help he received was from an ordinary color grinder. The upper portion was completed in 1540 and the rest finished a year later.

The Fresco is arranged in three zones. The top is the kingdom of heaven, with Christ as the judge of the world enthroned and with the Virgin next to him. Along with him in the first zone are the Prophets, Apostles, Patriarchs, Martyrs, Hosts of angels, The Passion of Christ, and the Cross. In the Middle zone is the realm of those who have been judged. On the left ascend the saved and on the right descend the damned, while in the center the angels of the Lord blow their trumpets. The lowest zone is the realm of the demons, the Resurrection of the dead and the arrival in Hell. The lowest portion is right above the altar.[139]

Condivi describes the some detail of the work:

“In the central part of the air, near the earth, are the seven angels described by St. John in the Apocalypse, who with trumpets at their lips summon the dead to judgment from the four corners of the earth.”[140]

One of the most supreme details of despair is “the supreme portrayal of the soul’s despair in the history of art, a man with arms crossed and hand over one eye, already so tormented with a realization of damnation that he makes no attempt to resist the grinning demons who drag him down. He portrays Christ as naked and beardless in the Classical manner, not bearded and robed in his capacity of a judge, yet he radiates wrath. Mary at his side, cannot intercede now that the end of the world has come.[141]

Michelangelo was said to say pertaining to the fresco:

“I live in sin, I live dying within myself,” and cried out to God “Oh, send the light, so long foretold for all.”[142]

Pope Paul III was so overcome by the awesomeness of the fresco that he immediately broke into prayer saying:

“Lord charge me not with my sins when Thou shalt come on the Day of Judgment.”[143]

The complete painting was unveiled on October 31, 1541, 29 years after the unveiling of the ceiling paintings.[144] There is no doubt that the Last Judgment coupled with the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are the works of a divine genius, and these works give us a small glimpse into the mind of the painter. “The turbulence and contrarieties of Michelangelo’s own state of mind filled his imagination with innumerable varieties of gesture, form and expression, embodied in hundreds of figures in the void between heaven and hell at the end of time.”[145]

The Last Judgment for Michelangelo would cause some distress among many of the Counter-Reformation, which thought that the use of nudity and the human form were too obscene for the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Soon after the unveiling of the fresco the infamous “Fig-Leaf Campaign” against any painting seen as profane would affect Michelangelo and his progress. There are two such anecdotal ways in which we see the displeasure of Michelagelo’s use of the naked human form.

One of these is the displeasure of Biagio da Cesena, the papal master of cermonies, who when seeing the upper portion of the fresco, likened it to something that would be seen in a bath house. Michelangelo responds to the papal master with a letter, and in it he says:

“I regret that I cannot avail myself of your ideas, but the painting has already progressed to far…”[146]

Eight years later another attack would come from Pietro Arentino, who accused Michelangelo of being irreverent. He said in agreement with Biagio da Cesena, that “Our souls are benefited little by art, but by piety.” In a comical retort to these criticisms, Michelangelo is said to have depicted both of these men in the Last Judgment, as gruesome martyrs.

The opinions of Michelangelo’s dissenters would eventually take hold, and under the decision of the Council of Trent , Pope Paul IV , Pope Gregory XIII, Michelangelo’s nude figures were censored and painted over. The naked bodies of Michelangelo’s masterpiece would be painted over by his pupil Daniele da Volterra Council of Trent , and consequently, he would become known as the “breeches-maker” as he painted over the naked genitalia of the fresco.[147]

Michelangelo had worked on the Tomb of Pope Julius II for a period of forty years, and carried with him a heavy burden. Over the four decades that Michelangelo carried this burden he made several contracts with the family of Julius II, and each time reduced the size and grandeur of the once heavenly envisioned tomb. This commission is often referred to as the “Tragedy of the Tomb” because Michelangelo though several obstacles was never able to complete the tomb with the care and time it deserved.[148]

Michelangelo had tried in vain for forty years to finish the project he promised to complete but because of his various commissions from the several popes and the Medici he was forced to drag out the project. In a letter from Michelangelo to Master Salvestro da Montauto, he says:

“As you know, I am being kept busy in the service of our lord Pope Paul III to paint his new chapel, and so unable to finish the tomb of Pope Julius II in San Pietro in Vincoli…”[149]

According to Condivi the contract of 1542 would be the contract by which the final plans would be made for the tomb and would be the closest design to that which we see today. Although the sculptures follow the 1542 contract the architectural design, which was installed to the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in 1545, is from the third contract of 1532.[150]

Several years before the tomb was finally installed into the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Michelangelo carved a figure of the Moses and several captives or slaves. But because the captives no longer fit into the niches on either side of the Moses figure to be placed in the scaled down version of the tomb, Michelangelo proposed the figures of the contemplative life (Rachel) and the active life (Leah).

Vasari points out that with the need for new sculptures to be placed in the niches on either side of the Moses, that Michelangelo: “executed the statues in less than a year.”The tomb would finally be placed in the church in 1545, and although it may seem a failure on the part of Michelangelo, the Moses is considered to be one his his greatest works, copied by artists even today.[151]

“What eternal building is there in this city that I have not yet plundered and carried off, without wagons or ships, upon flimsy leaves.”-Michelangelo to Vittoria Colonna, 1545[152]

The major Roman projects of Michelangleo include: St. Peter’s Basilica, Palazzo Farnese, San Giovanni dei Fiorentini , the Sforza Chapel (Capella Sforza) in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore , Porta Pia and Santa Maria degli Angeli . The remodeling of Saint Peter’s and the Capitoline Hill, the civic center of Rome, being two of the most important works in the eternal city.

Michelangelo, being named “Chief Architect, Sculptor, Painter, to the Vatican Palace,” was commissioned in 1537 to reorganize the Capitoline Hill. This commission came during his work on the Last Judgment for the Sistine Chapel, but Michelangelo accepted the task. pope wanted to transform the ancient hill, which had once been the site of the Roman Empire’s spiritual capitol, the greatest temple to Jupiter, into a symbol of the power of the new Rome of the Popes.

Michelangelo had to incorporate two buildings into his new design, the medieval Palazzo dei Senatori and the 15th century Palazzo dei Conservatori. Michelangelo used his penchant for the human body in his architectural design and used the form for the design of the Campidoglio. He organized the set of buildings in a symmetrical composition around a central axis. In Michelangelo’s own words he says:

“the members of architecture resemble the members of man. Whoever neither has been nor is master at figures, and especially at anatomy, cannot really understand architecture.”

Michelangelo decided that he needed a new building directly across from the Palazzo dei Senatori to balance the civic unit. He would also re-design the façade of the Palazzo dei Conservatori. To embellish the Palazzo Senatori, Michelangelo added a double flight of steps to the entrance and updated the façade, with the elements used in the other two buildings.

The embellishment in the Piazza is something Michelangelo used to his architectural advantage. “Michelangelo created an oval base for the statue of Marcus Aurelius that was to be used as the focal point of the Piazza and surrounding structures. This was a noteworthy choice by Michelangelo as the oval was seen by Renaissance artists as an unstable geometric figure and was shunned, but Michelangelo thought that with the trapezoidal shape that the oval would be best to keep the geometric integrity.”[153]

To finish out the piazza and give it a cohesive feeling, Michelangelo gives the pavement a radiating, star like design as though to dramatize the symbolic meaning of the piazza as the axis of the Roman world.[154]

The Basilica of St. Peter’s was before Michelangelo’s great honor, it belonged to the architect Antonio da San Gallo. But when San Gallo died the Pope asked Michelangelo to take the project and to make the changes he saw fit. According to Condivi, Michelangelo initially told the Pope that he did not want the commission, but the Pope commanded him to take the project, and Michelangelo obliged the Pope.

Once he had decided to take the project, Condivi says that:

“Since Michelangelo had accepted this charge, he made a new model, both because certain elements of the old one did not satisfy him in many respects and because it was such an undertaking that one could expect to see the last day of the world sooner than see St. Peter’s finished.”[155]

The project of St. Peter’s was different for Michelangelo in the sense that he had many people involved and invested in the project as it had been going on for several years and had many contributors before him. The two primary contributors were Bramante and San Gallo.

According to Vasari:

“Michelangelo used to say publicly that San Gallo …had on the exterior too many ranges of columns one above another, and that it was possible to execute it with more majesty, grandeur, and facility, great beauty and convenience, and better ordered design.”[156]

Like Bramante, Michelangelo saw the church as as a compact centrally planned church, essentially with a symmetrical layout.[157] The superiority of Bramante’s design over San Gallo, included: A Greek cross surmounted by a vast central dome. Because of the changes that Michelangelo intended to make to the design of the Basilica he drew much criticism from the San Gallists. The supporters of the former architect claimed that Michelangelo’s design did not allow for light to come into the church from the side aspes. Michelangelo’s response to the Pope, in response to this claim according to Vasari was: “that there would be windows in the vaulting of the aspes.”

“You never told us anything about that,” said the Cardinal.

Michelangelo responded: “I am not obliged to tell your Lordship or anyone else what I do or intend to do. Your business is to provide the money and to see that it is not stolen. The building is my affair.”[158]

Michelangelo created a wooden model for St. Peter’s but it was unfinished and he left little drawings or plans because he expected to live long enough to see his plans come to fruition, so that no one could ruin his ideas for the church. The Basilica of St. Peter’s was for Michelangelo “a supreme spiritual challenge, which was to be nothing less than a symbol of the Kingdom of Christianity and of the papacy’s temporal and spiritual power.

Michelangelo said that he thought of architecture “in terms of the human organism-not of arms and legs and separate members, but of the living form-that he was able to bring to his structures a unique sense of organic unity and true functionalism.” He approached this project with a holy zeal and disregard for obstacles.[159]
Michelangelo approached the building of St. Peter’s as he did any other commission, with the respect and admiration of those artists that came before him but with his own artistic and spiritual interpretations. According to Tolnay:

“The antique aspect of St. Peter’s is not so much the external order, but the substance of the building’s plastic body and it’s colossal dimensions. He applied the order of antique pilasters to the outside of his edifices not as a symbol of supports and weights, but as bands binding the masses. The aspes of St. Peter’s recall those of medieval buildings in which the classical tradition survives in the masses.”[160]

The Basilica of St. Peter’s would not be finished before Michelangelo’s death. When he dies only the drum-the base on which the dome would rest- was completed.[161]

“I have reached the twenty-fourth hour of my day, and…no project arises in my brain which has hath not the figure of death graven upon it.”-Michelangelo in a letter to Giorgio Vasari[162]

The Deposition, often referred to as the the Florentine Pieta, was a sculpture in which Michelangelo intended for his own tomb. From the late 1540’s Michelangelo was working on the deposition for his own tomb, but either became dissatisfy with it or discovered a flaw in the marble. He smashed the sculpture in anger but later an assistant was allowed to patch it up.[163]

The composition is a development of the Pieta drawn for Vittoria Colonna and also inspired by certain Quattrocento Pietas. The dead body is supported in a vertical position in Michelangelo’s statue: The Virgin and Mary Magdelene to the right and left, and in the center behind Christ is Nicodemus.[164] Michelangelo gave the cowled face of Nicodemus features reminiscent of his own, relaxed with compassion for the dead Christ. The self-portrait seems to be Michelangelo’s attempt at “an old man’s intense yearning for oneness with God.”[165]

For this work Michelangelo tried in his later years to “return to the elemental harmony and intimacy of his first pieta.” His work in the last years was an attempt to become one with God and to secure his place in heaven. “The sheer physicality of this sculpture defies the transcendence of a non-symbolic art geared towards the subjective experience of the Christian mystery.”

In a poem written by Michelangelo, he writes during this time:

In such slavery, and with so much boredom, and with false conceptions and great peril
to my soul, to be here sculpting divine things.
[166]

In a quote by French Traveler Blaise de Vigenere, it is easy to see the virility of Michelangelo even in his old age. He writes:

“I saw Michelangelo at work. He had passes his sixtieth year and although he was not very strong, yet in a quarter of an hour he caused more splinters to fall from a very hard block of marble than three young masons in three or four times as long…And he attacked the work with such energy and fire that I thought it would fly into pieces. With one blow he brought down fragments three or four fingers in breadth, and so exactly at the point marked, that if only a little more marble had fallen, he would have risked spoiling the whole work.”[167]

See photos and read more about Michelangelo’s Florentine Pieta.

Michelangelo began the first version of the Rondanini Pieta around 1552-1553; the second 1555, after the mutilation of the Pieta. And the third version dates from shortly before his death in 1564.

“Belonging to the first version, rejected by Michelangelo himself, are the polished legs of Christ, his right hip, and a fragment of his polished right arm which is now detached form the body, and finally a rough-hewn piece of the Virgin’s face turned toward the right, in which one can recognize the forehead, eyes, nose, and veil.”(Tolnay 217-218)

In the first version the legs of the Christ and the free right arm are from the first version sculpted by Michelangelo.(Goldscheider, 22) The elongated rough-hewn figures of Mary and Jesus create an extraordinary impression; it is hard to believe that the work would have gained emotional impact by being finished.(Harris, 56) “The tall thin, dematerialized figures of Christ and Mary, carved in part from what was the single body of the Virgin in an earlier version, are literlly blended by love into each other.”(Coughlan, 192)

There is controversy over whether or not these sculptures can be called finished, but his late style and religious feelings toward death may have been why he left the rough surfaces and vaugue outline of the figures.(Coughlan 192) “The elongated rough-hewn figures of Mary and Jesus create an extraordinary impression; it is hard to believe that the work would have gained emotional impact by being finished.” In this sculpture the long sorrowful shapes of Mary and Christ, we can easily see this being a work that would be aesthetically pleasing in the modern era. (Harris, 76-78)

Late in the completion of the work “the base was partly cut away in front, destroying the toes on Christ’s right foot, and the inscription, ‘SS Pieta di Michelangelo Buonarota’ was carved on it.”(Tolnay, 218) On Feb 12, 1564 six days before his death, Michelangelo worked on this Pieta all day as described by Daniele Volterra.(Goldscheider, 22)

On his death bed, Michelangelo said:

“I regret that I have not done enough for the salvation of my soul and that I am dying just as I am beginning to learn the alphabet of my profession.”(Coughlan, 192)

See photos and read more about Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pieta.

“If in thy name I conceived any image, it is not without the accompaniment of death, whereat art and genius vanish”-Michelangelo(Clements, 178)

Michelangelo Buonarroti died on February 18, 1564 in Rome, only six days after he had worked all day in his studio. In Condivi’s biography he simply ends by saying:

“I will prove to the world how great [were] his powers of invention and how many beautiful ideas have sprung from that divine spirit. And with this, I make an end”(Condivi, 109)

It was always Michelangelo’s wish to be buried in his native Tuscany, as it was traditional for Italians to want to return to the place of their birth to be buried in their final resting place. But Michelangelo having spent many years in Rome in the service of the Popes, was considered Roman by many of his contemporaries.

Michelangelo beloved artists of the papacy, “was buried in Rome in The church of the Holy Apostles in Rome, and then his body was stolen and smuggled out of the city by some Florentine merchants, so that it could be re-buried in his native soil, in the Church of Santa Croce.”(Harris, 78)

There was a council created in Florence made up of artists, orators, and event planners to prepare for the funeral of Michelangelo. The service was held in the Church of San Lorenzo, which Michelangelo had created the Medici Tombs, the Lauretian Library, and served the Medici faithfully. During the council it was decided that Giorgio Vasari would create the tomb for Michelangelo, for his resting place in the church of Santa Croce. It was also decided that Benedetto Varchi would give the eulogy at the funeral. The funeral would be held at the Church of San Lorenzo then a processional would take the body through the city street of Florence to the Church of Santa Croce, where Michelangelo would be buried. (Wittkower, intro)

Shortly after Michelangelo’s death the Florentine Academy created a book of letters and poems from contemporaries of Michelangelo as rememberence of his life and accomplishments, called: The Divine Michelangelo: The Florentine Academy’s Homage on His Death in 1564. In the book there was an out-pouring of respect and admiration for the genius artists from some of the most respected artists, politicians, and clergy of the time.

Mario Bazanti writes for the book:

“…Here lie a sculptor, painter, poet, and a master builder,
Buonarroti alone was all these. But if you doubt this miracle-his pictures, marbles, buildings, and his Tuscan poems vouch for his truth.”

Bartolommeo Panciatichi writes:

“Now you are the lifeless captive of those marbles which once received their life from you. No, I’m wrong! They’ll always be your captives.”(Wittkower, 81)

In one of Michelangelo’s final poems, he confronts death and in some ways accepts and welcomes it.

Of death I am sure, but not of the time;
Life is short and little remains before me;
My senses are deleted, however I am bound for
Heaven, and she prays that I go.
(Clements,179)

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  • Beck, 20-22
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