If Leon Alberti was the “universal genius” of the early 15th century, Michelangelo Buonarroti was considered as the greatest Italian Renascimento artist of his time, or to an extent, of all time. He was a quintessential artist whose expertise expands on a variety of disciplines such as poetry, sculpture and architecture besides painting.
Michelangelo was particularly famous for his paintings in the Sistine Chapel, which took him almost five years to complete. He was also the sculptor behind the world-famous Pieta and Statue of David masterpieces. During his lifetime, he was a contemporary of other famous artists such as Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci.
Michelangelo was born on March 6, 1475 in Caprese, Tuscany. He was the son of a local magistrate, Ludovico di Leonardo Buonarroti Simoni and of a noble woman named Francesca di Neri del Miniato di Siena. Apparently, Michelangelo had a comfortable life as his family was quite influential in Caprese and the Buonarroti’s believed to be a relative of Countess Mathilde of Canossa.
Although Michelangelo was born in a Tuscan town, he spent most of his childhood years in Florence. While growing up he studied grammar under the mentorship of Francesco da Urbino. However, he was not as passionate about grammar as he was with painting and sculpture. Therefore, he quit schooling and entered apprenticeship for Ghirlandaio at age 13 and then for Lorenzo de Medici at the age of 14.
Beginning around 1488 and 1490, the young artist would have been exposed to various masterpieces of different artists while staying in the household of the Medici family as a court artist. For example, in Florence during the 1400’s, the building designs of Brunelleschi were very apparent throughout the city and Rome, the sculptures of Donatello, Andrea del Verrochio and Ghiberti, the frescoes in several churches painted by Masaccio and Giotto and interior décor of Domenico Ghirlandaio; these works could have inspired and influenced Michelangelo to pursue his talent in the arts.
Under the wing of the Medici family in the late 1400’s, he was being mentored by Bertoldo di Giovanni, a well-known sculptor. He also had the opportunity to closely study the art collection of the ruling family and of the classical Roman statuary in their household.
To make his education formal, Michelangelo entered the Humanist Academy while having the support of the Medici’s. He stayed in the academy from 1490 to 1492 and there he learned how to paint inspired by specific subjects such as Pico della Mirandola and Poliziano, both were notable philosophers. Within those two years, he successfully sculpted the Madonna of the Steps and the Battle of the Centaurs. The latter was a commissioned work by his art patron.
When the Medici family was forced to flee from Florence in 1494, Michelangelo went to Bologna and Rome to start anew as an independent artist. He received several commissions by notable individuals and in 1498, he executed the magnificent Pieta. It is a sculpture, with devotional experience as the subject, depicting the lifeless body of Christ lying in the lap of the Madonna. This work was undoubtedly an excellent demonstration of his obvious talent in using chisel and hammer to create timeless masterpieces in a block of marble.
However, years before the creation of the Pieta was Michelangelo was still in the process of making a name for himself. He sculptured the Crucifix in 1493, which was made in wood and would serve as a gift for the Santo Spirito Church in Florence. The church helped him develop his interest in anatomy and advance his knowledge of the human body by letting him study cadavers stored at the church’s hospital, which was extremely helpful in carving figures perfectly and realistically.
Fast forward to 1494, Michelangelo went to Bologna to sculpt several small busts for the Shrine of St. Dominic while discovering some techniques used by Jacopo della Quercia in his works such as the entranceway of the Basilica of St. Petronius and a panel of The Creation of Eve, which historians believed was Michelangelo’s inspiration in painting one of the scenes in his work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
When the situation in Florence became favorable to most people, Michelangelo did return to the said city as well but suffered from dormancy under Savonarola’s regime. Good thing the Medici family was slowly regaining their status and power in Florence over a couple of years after the French occupation, so returned to them and started working on a couple of statues such as the St. John the Baptist and Cupid. The St. John the Baptist statue was sold at a value that was worth of a classical Roman bust even though it wasn’t supposed to be that pricey, but the buyer, Cardinal Raffaele Riario discovered the fraudulent history of the statue. He didn’t press any charges, fortunately, as he was impressed by the eloquence and quality of the work and so he summoned the sculptor instead to work for the Vatican in Rome.
In 1496, Michelangelo went to Rome and began his career stint under the wings of Cardinal Riario. His first commission was to carve a human-size statue of Bacchus, but the Cardinal did not like it so it was the banker, Jacopo Galli that took care of it and placed it in his garden. In 1497, Michelangelo received commission by the French Cardinal, Jean de Bilheres-Lagraulas to execute a Pieta, which he completed in 1499. This 17-foot monument was an evidence of Michelangelo’s in-depth knowledge of the human anatomy, enabling him to perfect the forms of the two figures.
In that same year, Michelangelo went back to Florence to continue a project started by Agostino di Duccio. He was particularly asked to work on the Statue of David for the Guild of Wool, which would later on symbolize Florence’s triumph over its oppressors and freedom. This was a phenomenal work of Michelangelo because the Florentine artists were looking for inspirations after the reign of anti-Renaissance friar Girolamo Savonarola in 1498. He was able to complete the colossal relief made in Carrara marble in 1504, and it was decided by the Guild to be placed at the anterior of Palazzo Vecchio.
After his phenomenal work in Florence, Michelangelo decided to accept the invitation by Pope Julius II to paint the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel and some do some carving. So off he went to Vatican in 1505 and began building a tomb for the Pope, which also included 40 reliefs that should be completed within half a decade.
Michelangelo’s stint in Rome was an extremely busy one being assigned to multiple projects at that time. In some occasion he would perform other tasks besides building the tomb, which can be found in the Church of S. Pietro in Vincoli. Another task was to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel beginning in 1508 to 1512. He began with painting the Twelve Apostles and then he was granted the approval of the Pope to have the creative freedom in painting the succeeding scenarios such as the Creation, Fall of Man, Salvation, and the pedigree of Jesus Christ.
The ceiling had a measurement of 500 square meters and Michelangelo skillfully filled this stretch with paintings of more than 300 figures. The central portion tells the story of Creation inspired by the Book of Genesis, and this is followed by the events that took place during Noah’s time. On the near-corners of the ceiling were paintings of the twelve men and women who foretold the birth of the Messiah. Meanwhile, the rest of the ceiling is covered with the scenes about the creation of the first man and first woman, figures of Adam and Even in the Paradise, the fall of man, figure of Cumaean Sibyl and of Prophet Jeremiah.
In the last years of his life, he returned to Florence to design and build the Medici Chapel in the Church of San Lorenzo, Florence. He worked as an architect for the Medici yet again and built them a house and a number of tombs for the family members who had passed recently. He was finished building the Chapel in 1534 and proceeded onto the next commission, which was the establishment of the Laurentian Library. This edifice was famous for its classical-style staircase and hallway.
In 1534, he traveled to Rome once again and had stayed there over the remaining years of his life and painted The Last Judgment, a high altarpiece for the Sistine Chapel under the patronage of Pope Paul III. And during the last two decades of Michelangelo’s lifetime, he focused on designing edifices and monuments for Rome in an effort of the government leaders to re-live and preserve the grandeur of the city. This resulted to the creation of the world-famous dome of St. Peter’s and the Capitoline Square landmarks.
Similar to other passionate artists, Michelangelo continued working on his craft post retirement age. He died in 1564 and he would have been 88 years old at that time.