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Michelangelo (1475-1564)

( Originally Published 1955 )



Florentine sculptor, painter and architect. With Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Titian, he was one of the greatest and most influential masters of the Italian High Renaissance. Though he was primarily a sculptor, he practiced the arts of painting and architecture with magnificent skill and also wrote poetry. His greatest works, commissions for extensive painting and sculptural decorations, are awesome and overpowering. They were inspired by the theology and philosophy of the greatest men of his day, yet are almost completely aesthetic expressions through the medium of the human body. He drew on the visual traditions of the great plastic masters of the early Florentine Renaissance, Giotto, Masaccio, Donatello and Signorelli, and their contributions tell in the austere monumentality of his art. His life coincided with the greatest temporal power of the papacy, and his work was subject to the vicissitudes of politics and warfare no less than to his own passionate and individual outlook on the world.

Michelagniolo di Lodovico di Lionardo di Buonarroti Simone was born in 1475 in Caprese, Casentino, the son of a respected civil official, and was placed at an early age in a Latin school. In 1488 he entered the painting shop of Domenico and Davide Ghirlandaio, and in 1489 an academy of sculpture conducted by Giovanni Bertoldo, who had been a pupil of Donatello and was custodian of Lorenzo de' Medici's collection of classical sculpture. The gifted pupil was soon noticed by Lorenzo and between 1490 and 1492 was a guest in the Medici household. There he formed a part of the circle of scholars and writers with whom the Medici surrounded themselves and was introduced to a NeoPlatonic and Christian philosophy that affected his thought for the rest of his life. In 1495 he is supposed to have forged an ancient Roman sculpture which was sold to Cardinal Raffael Riario in Rome; when the hoax was discovered, the cardinal was so impressed with the young sculptor's work that he arranged to have the youth invited to Rome. Thus Michelangelo first visited Rome from 1496 to 1501. Two well-known pieces of sculpture of this period are the Bacchus (Bargello, Florence), and the Lamentation (St. Peter's, Rome), In Florence, between 1501 and 1505, he made the famous marble David (now in the Florence Academy but formerly in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, where a replica now stands). He also undertook to paint in the Palazzo Vecchio a fresco of a battle scene, b +t this project was cut short at the cartoon stage by a call to Rome from Pope Julms II, and the composition is known only through replicas of the lost cartoons. The only accepted easel painting by Michelangelo was painted in this period, the Holy Family in the Uffizi (c.1503). In Rome in 1505 Michelangelo signed the first contract for the Tomb of Pope Julius, an ill-fated project which was completed only in 1545 in much reduced form and after five different contracts. Originally planned for St. Peter's, it now stands in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli and includes the renowned figure of Moses, completed in 1516; the famous "slaves" in the Louvre and the Florence Academy were originally intended for this tomb. In 1506 the tomb project was dropped by the Pope in favor of his plan for the decoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling and resumed only after his death by contract with his heirs. A break with Michelangelo over this change in plan was followed by reconciliation and the artist's contract to paint the ceiling, which he did single-handed between 1508 and 1512.

Michelangelo's reputation as a painter rests on this enormous and awe-inspiring work, the interpretation of which is still today a source of controversy and new publications among scholars. It represents scenes of the Creation and the story of Noah, surrounded by architectural motifs peopled with decorative figures and interspersed with monumental prophets and sibyls. The artist's application of sculptural thought to painted decoration is everywhere apparent here. His next great commission (1520) was for the Medici tomb chapel in San Lorenzo, Florence, executed between 1524 and 1534, again with many changes and interruptions. The chapel. or new sacristy, was designed by Michelangelo, and the sculptures include a Madonna and Child, idealized portraits of the Medici princes Lorenzo of Urbino _ and Giuliano of Nemours, and the four famous decorative figures of Night, Day, Morning and Evening. The years 1527-30 saw the invasion of Italy by Austrian and Spanish troops. Michelangelo was made governor general of fortifications in Florence, fled the city when it was besieged, and returned after its fall in 1530.

In 1533 or 34 Michelangelo received a commission from the Medici Pope Clement VII to paint the Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, a task completed in 1541. In this as in many other instances, Michelangelo treated a traditional subject in a completely new way. The undivided wall is a mass of figures, composed into a unity and made intensely expressive by their individual movement. Under the moral and anti-classical impact of the Counter Reformation, the many nude figures were clothed with painted loincloths by Daniele da Volterra later in the sixteenth century. On completion of this work, Michelangelo undertook his last painting commission, the decoration of the chapel of Pope Paul III in the Vatican, with scenes of the Conversion of St. Paul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter (1541-50). From 1546 on he was retained as architect by Pope Paul, and directed the plans for the renovation of St. Peter's which occupied him, along with other architectural activity in Rome, for the rest of his life. Important sculptures of the late period are two groups of the Lamentation, in the cathedral of Florence and in Milan (the "Rondanini" Pieta). The artist died in Rome in 1564 and was buried there, but his body was secretly removed to Florence, where it was again buried with full honors in Santa Croce. Michelangelo's influence on subsequent art is incalculable. Sixteenth-century painting and sculpture of the succeeding generation is saturated with readily recognizable elements of his style, though none of the Mannerist artists achieved his stature. Every later artist attempting heroic expression through the human body has had to take him into account, and his influence was still strong in the nineteenth century in the painting of Delacroix and Daumier and the sculpture of Rodin.



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