Michelangelo Buonarroti 1475–1564 Italian Artist
Michelangelo Buonarroti, a leading Renaissance sculptor, painter, and architect, is universally recognized as one of the greatest artists of all time. During his long career, Michelangelo worked for many wealthy and powerful patrons*, including nine popes and members of the Medici family. Some of his creations, such as the marble statue called the Pietà and the gloriously painted ceiling of Rome's Sistine Chapel, are famous examples of artistic genius. Although better known as a visual artist, Michelangelo was also a poet who produced a large body of verses based on his own experiences.
Early Career. Michelangelo was born in Caprese, a small town in Tuscany, but he grew up on the outskirts of the city of Florence. He believed that he was descended from a noble family, the counts of Canossa, and this belief drove him to improve his family's social and economic status.
Michelangelo left school when he was about 13 years old to begin training as a painter. His father opposed his choice of career because painting and sculpture were considered lowly, manual occupations. Nevertheless, Michelangelo became an apprentice* to Domenico Ghirlandaio, Florence's most fashionable painter. From Ghirlandaio he learned drawing and design, skills that became the foundations of his art. However, Michelangelo left before completing his apprenticeship. In about 1490 he found a position in the large household of Lorenzo de' Medici, which contained many fine pieces of classical* and Renaissance art. During the next two years the young artist met many of the important literary and intellectual figures of the day. He also received the beginnings of a humanist* education, alongside two young members of the Medici family—Giovanni and Giulio—who later became popes.
After the death of Lorenzo de' Medici in 1492, Michelangelo spent several years working for various patrons and producing some sculpture. Then, in 1496, he moved to Rome. Inspired by the ancient monuments there, he began to create larger, more ambitious works. One of them, the Pietà (1497–1499), consists of two figures—Jesus and Mary—carved from a single block of marble. The only work Michelangelo ever signed, it is one of the best-loved religious images of all time. Another marble figure, David, combined classical and Christian traditions by depicting the young biblical hero in ancient style. The success of these two sculptures brought Michelangelo public recognition and guaranteed him patrons for life.
In 1505 Michelangelo began work on a tomb for Pope Julius II—a project that dragged on for four decades, through six designs, and four contracts. Meanwhile, Michelangelo accepted many other commissions. In 1508 he took on a task of a different type: painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, the headquarters of the popes in Rome. For four years he devoted immense energy and creative power to this challenging assignment, filling the ceiling with biblical and classical figures and scenes.
Between 1516 and 1534 Michelangelo worked in Florence on a variety of projects at San Lorenzo, the Medici family church. His boyhood friend Giovanni de' Medici had recently become Pope Leo X. Leo hired the artist to build and decorate a chapel at San Lorenzo to house the tombs of several members of the Medici family. In 1523 Giulio de' Medici, now Pope Clement VII, commissioned Michelangelo to design the Laurentian Library, an elegant reading room also at San Lorenzo. But in 1532 the Medici abolished Florence's republican* constitution. Distressed at the loss of liberty in the city, Michelangelo moved to Rome, where he spent the rest of his life.
Later Career. In Rome the new pope, Paul III, lost no time in employing Michelangelo's talents. He asked the artist to paint the Last Judgment (1534–1541) on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo also completed two large frescoes*, the Conversion of Saul and the Crucifixion of Peter, in the nearby Pauline Chapel. All three paintings depict scenes of deep religious significance.
In 1546 Paul III appointed Michelangelo to direct the building of St. Peter's Church in Rome. Although the building underwent many changes during its 150-year construction, it is largely Michelangelo's creation. The chief activity of Michelangelo's final years, St. Peter's is the largest Christian church in the world, an impressive symbol of the pope's authority, and the crowning achievement of Renaissance architecture.
During his later years, Michelangelo completed a series of major architectural projects that changed the face of Rome. He redesigned an entire district, the Capitoline Hill, turned the ancient Roman baths of Diocletian into a Christian church, and designed several other public buildings. Busy with other endeavors, he produced only three sculptures in the final 30 years of his life.
Personal Life and Poetry. Michelangelo had a large circle of friends and acquaintances. His surviving letters provide a view of a cross-section of Renaissance society in the first half of the 1500s. Always sharply aware of his own claim to nobility, Michelangelo was especially attracted to persons of high social status, as well as those of keen intelligence or sensitivity.
For many years, one of the artist's closest friends was Vittoria Colonna, a poet from an old Roman family. Michelangelo also had a significant relationship with a young aristocrat named Tommaso de' Cavalieri. His love for Cavalieri inspired the first large collection of love poems by one man to another in modern Western literature. Michelangelo also presented Cavalieri with highly finished drawings. Widely circulated and published, the drawings gained instant fame.
As a poet, Michelangelo took his role seriously, consulting literary advisers and revising his work many times. Above all, he considered poetry a vehicle for self-expression. Although he was less gifted in literature than in sculpture and painting, he produced more than 300 poems. In some he complained of the difficulties of everyday life, such as the discomfort of painting the Sistine ceiling or the pains of growing old. In others he explored issues of love and art. In his late years Michelangelo wrote on Christian themes and produced religious drawings, including a series of images of the Crucifixion.
- * patron
supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer
- * apprentice
person bound by a legal agreement to work for another for a specified period of time in return for instruction in a trade or craft
- * classical
in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome
- * humanist
referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living
see color plate 8, vol. 1
- * republican
refers to a form of Renaissance government dominated by leading merchants with limited participation by others
- * fresco
mural painted on a plaster wall
The Role of the Artist
Michelangelo's legacy included more than his artworks. He also changed the way society viewed artists. Firmly convinced of his family's noble origins, Michelangelo managed to turn himself from a humble stone carver into an aristocrat of art. His way of life was that of a courtier as well as an artist, and he mingled business and friendship in his relations with his patrons. More than any other individual of his time, Michelangelo helped raise the status of the artist.