Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni

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Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni


Italian Artist and Architect

Michelangelo was born on March 6 in the Republic of Florence. His father was a minor government official who at the time of Michelangelo's birth was administrator of the small town of Caprese. When Michelangelo was still very young, the family returned to its permanent residence in Florence. Michelangelo's father wished for him to pursue a career in banking, a longstanding family tradition. Despite his father's initial objections, Michelangelo was eventually permitted, at the age of 13, to become an artist-apprentice. This first apprenticeship, under prominent Florence painter Domenico Ghirlandajo, lasted only one year. After devoting his short apprenticeship to copying the works of earlier Florentine artists, such as Giotto, Michelangelo declared himself fully studied.

Already regarded in Florence as a gifted artist, Michelangelo was shortly thereafter granted patronage by Lorenzo de Medici. The Medici family was famous not only for their wealth and political power, but also for their generous sponsorship of artists, poets, and philosophers. Michelangelo used this period of Medici patronage to study their vast art collection. Especially impressed by the numerous pieces of ancient Roman statuary, Michelangelo dedicated himself to the mastery of marble sculpture rather than the more popular Renaissance medium of bronze.

Michelangelo's detailed research and study of the human figure was reflective of the artistic and even scientific spirit of the European Renaissance—the rebirth of Classical philosophy and art. However, the Renaissance was not simply the rediscovery of ancient ideas, rather it was revived exploration of those ideas combined with a pursuit of new scientific inquiry. Some Renaissance artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), chose to explore the human form by conducting surgical research on cadavers and recording their findings in detailed sketches of the skeletal and muscle systems of the body. Michelangelo was certainly influenced by this new artistic philosophy, but his sculpture and painting reflect the Classical ideal more than a Renaissance understanding of anatomy.

The patronage of the Medici, however, proved to be short-lived. In 1494, the Medici were overthrown. Before their ousting, Michelangelo had sensed the increasingly tense political environment in Florence and fled the city. In Bologna, Michelangelo's first commission was to finish the remaining marble statuary for the tomb of St. Dominic. Though his reputation as a fine sculptor was forged in Bologna, Michelangelo returned to Florence. In 1501, he received a commission to design a marble statue for the cathedral; the work, David, was perhaps Michelangelo's most renowned work as a sculptor.

Called by Pope Julius II to create 40 statues for his tomb, Michelangelo moved to Rome. The expense of the project soon became overwhelming for the Papacy who was devoting its resources to the military conquest of the Italian states, and Michelangelo was sent to work on a less costly project. As a result, he received one of his most famous assignments in 1508, the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The frescoes took four years to complete and required the assistance of a series of apprentices. Construction of the frescoes was stopped for a period of about a year, perhaps because of a dispute over payment. Julius II died in 1513 and his successor sent Michelangelo to work on projects in Florence. There he continued his painting and sculpting work, and also pursued architecture, constructing a library.

In 1530, Michelangelo briefly put aside artistic pursuits to serve as the designer of fortifications during the siege of Florence. The sketches that survive not only demonstrate his engineering know-how, but also are some of the only surviving depictions of such early modern fortifications and siege weaponry. Michelangelo designed low and thick-walled fortifications, with several pointed wall junctions, meant to withstand blasts from the relatively new cannon.

After the siege, Michelangelo remained in Florence to work on the tombs of the newly restored Medici. Though the project was incomplete, Michelangelo left Florence for Rome for the last time in 1534. His return to Rome also marked his return to the Sistine Chapel. There, Michelangelo painted the fresco of the Last Judgment in 1534, completing the interior of the church.

In the later years of his life, Michelangelo focused on architecture—perhaps because it was less physically demanding for the artist. His most recognized architectural work is probably St. Peter's Basilica, the center of the Vatican. The Pope commissioned Michelangelo to design the cathedral and pieta (or square) in 1557 following the death of the original project architect, Bramante. Michelangelo followed the original architect's general design, but embellished the project with his own designs. The result was an artistic and engineering masterpiece. The most striking examples of these additions are the keyhole design of the columned promenade that flanks the square and the dome that was commissioned to top the basilica. More subtle embellishments, such as window trims, gave the building a Classical character reminiscent of Michelangelo's statuary.

The work was not completed before his death, but many historians believe that the end result did not differ greatly from Michelangelo's original design. The dome atop the cathedral, however, may have suffered more modifications at the hands of his successors. The dome that was finally constructed was more pointed and steep than Michelangelo's intended perfect hemisphere. Whether the change was done for stylistic or engineering reasons remains the subject of debate.

Michelangelo sought to capture the full scope of the human experience, and succeeded brilliantly. His manifold artistic triumphs earned him fame in his own time. Not only were his works admired, but Michelangelo himself was the subject of great curiosity. Three editions of his biography were written while he was still alive. Contemporaries such as Raphael were credited with beginning whole schools of art, but the work of Michelangelo has, over the span of hundreds of years, rarely been emulated in an artistically literal manner. Traces of Michelangelo's style can be found from seventeenth-century Baroque painting to nineteenth-century sculpture, but there is no singular artistic movement that binds these works to the Renaissance master. Regardless, his frescoes, sculptures, and architecture are prized as most perfectly representing the Renaissance ideal. Michelangelo remains one of the most prolific figures in the history of western art.


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Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni

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