Michelangelo - Biography and Legacy

Italian Painter, Sculptor, Poet, and Architect

Born: March 6, 1475 - Caprese, Arezzo, Florence
Died: February 18, 1564 - Rome

Biography of Michelangelo


Michelangelo Museum, in Caprese, the village in which Michelangelo was born

Michelangelo was born to Leonardo di Buonarrota and Francesca di Neri del Miniato di Siena, a middle-class family of bankers in the small village of Caprese, near Arezzo, in Tuscany. His mother's unfortunate and prolonged illness forced his father to place his son in the care of his nanny. The nanny's husband was a stonecutter, working in his own father's marble quarry.

When Michelangelo was six years old, his mother died yet he continued to live with the pair and legend has it this unconventional situation from childhood would lay the foundation for his later love affair with marble.

By the time he was 13 years old, it was clear to his father that Michelangelo had no aptitude for the family vocation. The young boy was sent to apprentice in the well-known studio of Domenico Ghirlandaio. After only a year in the studio, Lorenzo de' Medici of the renowned Florentine art patronage family asked Ghirlandaio for two of his best students. Michelangelo, along with Francesco Granacci, were chosen to attend the Medici family's Humanist academy. It was a thriving time in Renaissance Florence when artists were encouraged to study the humanities, accentuating their creative endeavors with knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman art and philosophy. Art was departing from Gothic iconography and devotional work and evolving into a grand celebration of man and his importance in the world. Michelangelo studied under the famous sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni, earning exposure to the great classical sculptures in the palace of Lorenzo.

Madonna of the Stairs, (1491), Marble, Casa Buonarroti, Florence

During this time, Michelangelo obtained permission from the Catholic Church of Santo Spirito to study cadavers in their hospital so that he would gain an understanding of anatomy. In return, he carved them a wooden cross. His ability to precisely render the realistic muscular tone of the body resulted from this early education as evidenced in two sculptures that survive from that time; Madonna seated on a Step (1491) and Battle of the Centaurs (1492).

Early Training and Work

Following the death of Lorenzo di Medici in 1492 Michelangelo remained with relative security in Florence. But when the Florentine city became embroiled in political turmoil, the Medici family was expelled and the artist moved to Bologna. It was in Bologna that he received a commission to finish the carving of the Tomb of St. Dominic, which included the addition of a statue of St. Petronius, a kneeling angel holding a candlestick, and St. Proculus.

Michelangelo returned to Florence in 1494 after the threat of the French invasion abated. He worked on two statues, St. John the Baptist, and a small cupid. The Cupid was sold to Cardinal Riario of San Giorgio, passed off as an antique sculpture. Although annoyed at being duped, the Cardinal was impressed enough by Michelangelo's workmanship to invite him to Rome for another commission. For this commission, Michelangelo created a statue of Bacchus, which was rejected by the Cardinal who thought it politically imprudent to be associated with a pagan nude figure. Michelangelo was indignant - so much so that he later asked his biographer Condivi to deny the commission was from the Cardinal and instead to record it as a commission from his banker, Jacopo Galli. The artist's impetuous nature was already garnering him the reputation of being one who indignantly did what he wanted, oftentimes eschewing his patron's wishes or failing to complete work once started.

Michelangelo remained in Rome after completing the Bacchus, and in 1497 the French Ambassador, Cardinal Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas commissioned his Pietà for the chapel of the King of France in St Peter 's Basilica. The Pietà was to become one of Michelangelo's most famous carvings, which the 16th-century biographer Giorgio Vasari, described as something "nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh." His acuity with emotional expression and lifelike realism in the piece, garnered the artist much awe and attention.

Although his status as one of the period's most talented artists following the completion of the Pietà was secure, Michelangelo didn't receive any major commissions over the next two years. Financially, however this absence of work wasn't of much concern. Wealth didn't seem to affect the artist's lifestyle. As he would say to Condivi towards the end of his life, "However rich I may have been, I have always lived like a poor man."

In 1497, the puritanical monk Girolamo Savonarola became famous for his Bonfire of the Vanities, an event in which he and his supporters burned art and books in Florence, causing a cease to what had been a thriving period of the Renaissance. Michelangelo would have to wait until Savonarola's ousting in 1498 before returning to his beloved Florence.

<i>Doni Tondo (Holy Family)</i> (1504) as it is now presented to masses of visitors in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence

In 1501, his most notable achievement was born through a commission from the Guild of Wool to complete an unfinished project begun by Agostino di Duccio some 40 years earlier. This project, finally completed in 1504, was a majestic, 17-foot-tall nude statue of the biblical hero David. The work was a testament to the artist's unparalleled excellence at carving breathtakingly precise depictions of real life out of inanimate marble.

Several painting commissions followed after David's completion. In particular, Michelangelo's only known finished painting that has survived, Doni Tondo (The Holy Family) (1504).

Above: Leonardo Da Vinci, <i>The Battle of Anghiari</i> (1503-1505), copy by Peter Paul Rubens (1603) based on an engraving of the lost fresco. Below: Michelangelo, <i>The Battle of Cascina</i>, copy by Aristotele da Sangallo (1542) based on Michelangelo's preparatory drawings for the fresco

During this time of the High Renaissance in Florence, rivalries between Michelangelo and his artist peers abounded, each fighting for prime commissions and revered social status as noted masters of their fields.

Leonardo da Vinci had quickly risen to fame and the competition between he and Michelangelo was legendary. In 1503, Piero Soderini, the lifetime Gonfalonier of Justice (senior civil servant akin to a Mayor), commissioned them both to paint two opposing walls of the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio. Both paintings were never finished and are unfortunately lost. Leonardo's The Battle of Anghiari was painted over when Vasari later reconstructed the Palazzo. Michelangelo's work on The Battle of Cascina was interrupted in the preparatory drawing stage when Pope Julius II summoned him to Rome. Michelangelo was seduced by the flamboyant reputation of the patron Pope who was luring other artist peers such as Donato Bramante and Raphael to create exciting new projects. Never one to be bested by his rivals, he accepted the invitation.

Mature Period

In Rome, Michelangelo started work on the Pope's tomb, work that was to be completed within a five-year timeline. Yet, the artist would abandon the project after being cajoled by the Pope for another commission. The project was the painting of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling and rumor has it that Bramante, the architect in charge of rebuilding St. Peter's Basilica, was the one to convince the Pope that Michelangelo was the man for the job. Bramante was notoriously consumed by envy, and knowing that Michelangelo was better known for his sculptures rather than paintings, was certain that his rival would fail. He hoped this would cause the artist to fall out of popular favor. Michelangelo reluctantly accepted the commission.

Michelangelo would work on the Sistine Chapel for the next four years. It was a difficult job of extraordinary endurance, especially since the tempestuous artist had sacked all of his assistants save one who helped him mix paint. What resulted was a monumental work of great genius illustrating stories from the Old Testament including the Creation of the World and Noah and the Flood. Contrary to Bramante's hopes, it became (and remains) one of the greatest masterpieces of Western Art.

Raphael, detail from the fresco, <i>The School of Athens</i> (1509-1511), of the sulking Michelangelo as Heraclitus.

Another noted rival was the young 26-year-old Raphael who had burst upon the scene and was chosen in 1508 to paint a fresco in Pope Julius II's private library, a commission vied for by both Michelangelo and Leonardo. When Leonardo's health began to fail, Raphael became Michelangelo's greatest artistic adversary. Because of Raphael's acuity with depicting anatomy and his finesse for painting nudes, Michelangelo would often accuse him of copying his own work. Although influenced by Michelangelo, Raphael resented Michelangelo's animosity toward him. He responded by painting the artist with his traditional sulking face in the guise of Heraclitus in his famous fresco The School of Athens (1509-1511).

Following Pope Julius II's death in 1513 Michelangelo was commissioned by the new Pope Leo X to work on the façade of the Basilica San Lorenzo, the largest church in Florence. He spent the next three years on it before the project was cancelled due to lack of funds. In 1520, he received another commission for a Medici chapel in the Basilica of San Lorenzo on which he worked intermittently for the next twenty years. During those two decades, he would also complete an architectural commission for the Laurentian Library.

After the sack of Rome by Charles V in 1527, Florence was declared a republic and stayed under siege until 1530. Having worked prior to the siege for the defense of Florence, Michelangelo feared for his life and fled back to Rome. Despite his support for the republic, he was welcomed by Pope Clement and given a new contract for the tomb of Pope Julius II. It was also during this time he was commissioned to paint the fresco of the Last Judgement on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, a project that would take seven years.

Although a late bloomer relationship wise, at age 57, Michelangelo would establish the first of three notable friendships, sparking a prolific poetic output to add to his cadre of artistic talents. The first in 1532 was a 23-year-old Italian nobleman, Tommaso dei Cavalieri, who was not only the artist's young lover but remained a lifelong friend. The art historian, Howard Hibbard, quotes Michelangelo describing Tommaso as the "light of our century, paragon of all the world." The passionate affair provoked Michelangelo to produce a number of love poems so homoerotic in nature that his grandnephew, upon publishing the volume in 1623, changed the gender pronouns to disguise their homosexual context.

Pietà for Vittoria Colonna, (1546), Black Chalk on paper, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, USA

In 1536, Michelangelo found another lifelong object of affection, the widow, Vittoria Colonna, the Marquise of Pescara, who was also a poet. The majority of his prolific poetry is devoted to her, and his adoration continued until her death in 1547. He also gave her paintings and drawings, and one of the most beautiful to have survived is the black chalk drawing Pietà for Vittoria Colonna of 1546. She was the only woman who played a significant part in Michelangelo's life and their relationship is generally believed to have been platonic. During this period, he also worked on a number of architectural commissions including the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli and the Sforza Chapel in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, as well as the Capitoline Hill. He also received commissions for two frescos in the Cappella Paolina; the Conversion of St Paul, and the Crucifixion of St Peter.

In 1540, Michelangelo met Cecchino dei Bracci, son of a wealthy Florentine banker, at the Court of Pope Paul III, who was only 12 years old. The epitaphs Michelangelo wrote following Cecchino's death four years later reveal the extent of their relationship, suggesting they were lovers. In particular one, which includes the graphic allusion, "Do yet attest for him how gracious I was in bed. When he embraced, and in what the soul doth live."

Late Period

St Peter's Basilica, Rome, Italy

It was Pope Julius II who, in 1504, proposed demolishing the old St Peter's Basilica and replacing it with the "grandest building in Christendom." Although the design by Donato Bramante had been selected in 1505, and foundations lain the following year, not much progress had been made since. By the time Michelangelo reluctantly took over this project from his noted rival in 1546 he was in his seventies, stating, "I undertake this only for the love of God and in honor of the Apostle."

Michelangelo worked continuously throughout the rest of his life on the Basilica. His most important contribution to the project was his work upon the dome in the eastern end of the Basilica. He combined the design ideas of all the prior architects who had given input on the work, which imagined a large dome comparable to Brunelleschi's famous dome in Florence, and coalesced them with his own grand visions. Although the dome was not finished until after his death, the base on which the dome was to be placed was completed, which meant the design of the dome could not be altered significantly in its completion. Still the largest church in the world, it remains a testament to his genius and his devotion. He continued to sculpt but did so privately for personal pleasure rather than work. He completed a number of Pietàs including the Disposition (which he attempted to destroy), as well as his last, the Rondanini Pietà, on which he worked until the last weeks before his death.

It's been said that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become world class in any field. Michelangelo epitomized this ideal as he started his career as a mere boy and continued working until his death at 88 years old.

His great love Tommaso remained with him until the end when Michelangelo died at home in Rome following a short illness in 1564. Per his wishes, his body was taken back to Florence and interred at the Basilica di Santa Croce.

The Legacy of Michelangelo

Along with Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, Michelangelo is regarded as one of the three giants of the Renaissance, and a major contributor to the Humanist movement. Humanity, in both its relationship to the divine and non-secular reality was central to his painting and sculpture. He was a master at depicting the body with such technical accuracy that marble was seemingly transformed into flesh and bone. His adeptness with human emotionality and expression inspired humility and veneration. The psychological insight and physical realism in his work had never been portrayed with such intensity before. His Pieta, David, and the Sistine Chapel have been maintained and preserved and continue to draw crowds of visitors from all over the world. His lifetime achievements give credence to the title commonly bestowed to him of Il Divino (The Divine).

Michelangelo, Portrait by Daniele Ricciarelli Volterra, (c. 1544)

Michelangelo's influence on other artists was profound and has continued from Raphael in his time to Rubens, through to Bernini, and the last great sculptor to follow his tradition of realism, Rodin.

His fame, established when he was in his early twenties, has continued to our time. As for his genius look to Galileo, who claimed he was born a day earlier, to coincide with the day Michelangelo died, alluding to the assertion that genius never dies.

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Content compiled and written by Zaid S Sethi

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Michelangelo Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Zaid S Sethi
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 19 Jun 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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