On 13 September 1501 Michelangelo began work on one of history’s most iconic sculptures – his famous five metre nude of David.
Completed over four years, the statue still draws in thousands of visitors to Florence every year to appreciate its depiction of youthful male beauty and the struggle between thought and action.
In its day it was also a pointed political comment, with David – a symbol of Florentine freedom – turning his eyes in stern repose towards the Pope and Rome.
The early life
Its sculptor – along with his Florentine contemporary and rival Leonardo de Vinci – can be described as one of the finest and most influential artists of all time, and, with his love of many artistic disciplines, the archetypal Renaissance man.
Born at the dawn of the High Renaissance in 1475, he was only in is mid-twenties when he earned the fabulous honour of being approached to complete David.
His stratospheric rise to the top had began as a thirteen year old, when he had been picked to attend the humanist school of the great patron of Florentine arts and culture, Lorenzo de Medici.
When Lorenzo died and the religious fanatic Savonarola took control of the city in 1494, the teenage Michelangelo was forced to flee with the exiled Medici family.
He then spent his formative years working on commissioned sculptures in Rome, where his reputation as a young talent with a stroke of genius in his began to take hold.
As one excited contemporary claimed, “it is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh.”
With the fall and execution of Savonarola Michelangelo saw an opportunity to return to Florence – his spiritual home and the birthplace of Renaissance art – in 1499.
It was here that he completed David in 1504.
The Sistine Chapel
Of course Michelangelo’s other renowned work is the roof of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Though originally given a prescribed image to paint, he managed to persuade the Pope to grant him freedom in the work.
The result was the roof that we now see. It compliments the rest of the Chapel, which in its totality depicts most of Catholic doctrine.
The Chapel was not the only commission he received from the Pope. He was also responsible for crafting the Pope’s tomb. He spent over 40 years working on it, yet never completed it to his satisfaction.
He would continue to work until his death, moving between Florence, Rome, and the Vatican depending on his commission.
Michelangelo the man
A devout Catholic, Michelangelo has been described as a melancholy and solitary figure. Portrayals grant him a seeming indifference to the life’s pleasures. He appeared a man absorbed in his work and his faith.
Yet it is likely that he had some deep personal relationships. Some of his describing poetry is homoerotic, a deep source of discomfort to the later generations who idolised him. Indeed when published by his grand-nephew, the gender of the pronouns were changed.
He also had a personal connection with the widow Vittoria Colonna, and regularly exchanged sonnets.
Overall he is portrayed as a melancholy soul, dedicated to his art and his God, with a few deep personal connections. His legacy is one that lives on as one of the three titans of the Florentine renaissance.