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Michelangelo Buonarroti


Sculptor, painter, architect, poet, a founder of the high Renaissance style, and the most influential late Renaissance artist; b. Caprese (Arezzo), Mar. 6, 1475; d. Rome, Feb. 18, 1564.

Life. Michelangelo's poor but aristocratic father opposed his artistic ambitions but nonetheless apprenticed him to the painter Ghirlandaio (1488). Thereafter the boy was protected by Lorenzo de' Medici, coming in contact with advanced artistic and philosophic tendencies. He was also influenced by savonarola's sermons. The supposed Neoplatonic content of Michelangelo's art has been disputed. His writings disclose profound, lifelong Catholic piety. His art embodies a new concept of human dignity and dependence on the Creator, of whose sublimity no other Renaissance artist experienced so convincing a vision. For nearly 60 years Michelangelo carried out official papal programs. Although the propriety of his creations was sometimes questioned, no ecclesiastical authority challenged their orthodoxy. Michelangelo's high Renaissance works fulfill ideals of Pope Julius II during a crisis in Church history, and his late works are imbued with Catholic Reformation mysticism.

Michelangelo's contemporaries believed him divinely inspired. The later eighteenth and early nineteenth century found his art inaccessible, but otherwise he has been considered one of the world's greatest artistic geniuses. Even Michelangelo's painting and architecture were predominantly sculptural. He depicted nature only as background for his principal theme, the life of the soul expressed in the form and movements of the body, defined in his writings as the "beautiful and mortal veil" mirroring divine intention. Michelangelo projected the body on a new scale of grandeur, distorting it to emphasize muscular power. Although his principal concern was form, his color ranged from clear, transparent tones in early work to great intensity in later paintings, and the white marble for his sculptures was chosen for its brilliance. In his architecture and painting, he subordinated space to mass and made little attempt to represent perspective.

Work. Michelangelo's ambition outran circumstances, and none of his major sculptural projects reached completion. His bronzes are all lost. Many of his marble statues, intended for perfect completion, show large unfinished areas, affording insight into his methods. He first drew outlines on the block, then cut away marble to free the figure, which emerged complete save for final polishing. His poems interpret this procedure as an allegory of divine creativity and human salvation. In architectural enframements for statues and in complete buildings, Michelangelo devoted scrupulous attention to detail, epitomizing the rhythms and tensions of the larger masses in the ornament. The finished portions of his statues show a similar intensity of life and of formal relationships, extending to the smallest elements. Michelangelo's art was founded on drawing. During old age he destroyed most of his thousands of preparatory studies for statues, paintings,

and buildings; but several hundred survive. Full critical agreement on an authentic corpus of drawings has not yet been reached.

From ancient art Michelangelo absorbed heroic aspects of pose and figure structure, but he avoided classicizing faces. His faces reflect contemporary Italian types, endowed with special beauty by the artist's sensitivity. He was responsive to the qualities and meaning of Italian medieval and early Renaissance art, often quoting entire figures.

Michelangelo's poetry, most of it composed in later life, at first expresses passionate human attachments or ironic reflections; eventually, aspiration for salvation. About equally divided between sonnets and madrigals, Michelangelo's poems are abrupt in diction and difficult to interpret. The best possess a depth and power equaled by no Italian Renaissance poetry.

Michelangelo's surviving early works include the "Madonna of the Stairs" and "Battle of Lapiths and Centaurs" (148992), a recently rediscoverd wooden Crucifix for Santo Spirito (1492), three statuettes for the Tomb of St. Dominic in Bologna (149495), "Bacchus" (149698), the "Pietà" for St. Peter's (14981500), "David" (150104), "St. Matthew" (150308), the "Bruges Madonna," two marble Madonna reliefs, and the painted "Doni Madonna" (1503).

Patronage of Popes. In 1505 began the patronage of Pope Julius II, which, though often stormy and even tragic for the artist, generated some of his noblest works, especially the ceiling frescoes of the sistine chapel (150812). This immense allegory of the coming of Christ envisioned by prophets and sibyls in scenes from Genesis, bordered by the ancestors of Christ, was probably guided by Cardinal Marco vigerio. The pope's tomb, planned as freestanding in st. peter's basilica (1505), with more than 40 marble statues and many bronze reliefs, underwent changes in 1513, 1516, 1532, and 1542. The reduced version in S. Pietro in Vincoli (1545) contains only "Moses" and the "Active" and "Contemplative Life" by Michelangelo himself. Two "Bound Captives" from previous projects are in the Louvre; four are in the Bargello, and a "Victory" is in the Palazzo Vecchio.

The patronage of the Medici popes, leo x and clement vii, centered on San Lorenzo, including a never-executed façade, the Medici Chapel with its magnificent sculptures (151934), and the library of San Lorenzo, completed from Michelangelo's drawings and models. The "Christ" of S. Maria sopra Minerva (151421) and "David-Apollo" (153132) are two great works that date from this period, during which Michelangelo was also deeply involved in Florentine struggles for liberty.

The "Last Judgment," terminating the decoration of the Sistine Chapel (153541), and the frescoes of the Pauline Chapel (154150), painted for Pope Paul III, reflect penitential currents in the Catholic Reformation. Although hampered by ill health, Michelangelo undertook in 1546 to complete St. Peter's, designing the present apse, transepts, two bays of the nave, and the dome, in a style prophetic of the baroque. Other buildings designed in Rome include additions to the Farnese Palace (1546), the structures on the Capitoline (1538), the Porta Pia, and Santa Maria degli Angeli (1561). Michelangelo's last sculptures, the "Pietàs" in Florence cathedral (c. 1547) and the Castello Sforzesco in Milan (155264), embody his meditations on the preparation of his soul for death.

Bibliography: e. steinmann and r. wittkower, Michelangelo Bibliographie (Leipzig 1927). c. de tolnay, Michelangelo (Princeton 1943). g. vasari, La vita di Michelangelo, ed. p. barocchi, 5 v. (Milan 1962).

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