A Renaissance Master: Who Was Michelangelo? | History Hit

A Renaissance Master: Who Was Michelangelo?

Portrait by Daniele da Volterra, c. 1545; Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel
Image Credit: Attributed to Daniele da Volterra, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Jean-Christophe BENOIST, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons; History Hit

Michelangelo is one of the most famous artists in the Western canon. Considered by some to be the archetypal Renaissance man, Michelangelo was a sculptor, painter, architect and poet who predominantly operated in Florence and Rome.

Nicknamed Il Divino (‘the divine’) by his contemporaries, he was, and is, admired for his ability to instil a sense of awe in those who viewed his work: many tried to imitate his skill, but few have succeeded.

Early life

Born at the dawn of the period that would be known as the High Renaissance in 1475, Michelangelo was only in his mid-twenties when he earned the honour of being approached to complete David.

His stratospheric rise to the top had began as a 13 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 work 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.

Spreading throughout the length and breadth of Europe, the Renaissance made an enduring impact on art and architecture, science, politics and law. Rob Weinberg puts the big questions about this world-changing period to Professor Jerry Brotton of Queen Mary University of London.
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In September 1501, Michelangelo was commissioned by the Cathedral of Florence to sculpt David as part of a series of 12 figures from the Old Testament.

Completed in 1504, the 5 metre high nude statue still draws 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.

Michelangelo’s David

Image Credit: Michelangelo, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

The Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo’s other renowned work is the roof of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Despite considering painting a lower art form tan sculpture, it remains one of the most famous pieces of art in the Western Canon, particularly the scene entitled the ‘Creation of Adam’. The ceiling as a whole contains over 300 figures over an area of 500 square metres.

Originally given a prescribed image to paint, Michelangelo managed to persuade the Pope to grant him freedom in the work. As a result, the ceiling depicts a variety of Biblical scenes including the Creation of Man, the Fall of Man, and various aspects of Christ’s life.

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 ceiling of the Sistine 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 life’s pleasures. He appeared a man absorbed in his work and his faith, living a life of simplicity and abstention for the most part, despite accumulating wealth and reputation through his art.

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 as homosexuality was frowned upon at the time. Indeed when published by his grand-nephew in the early 17th century, the gender of the pronouns were changed. He also had a personal connection with the widow Vittoria Colonna, with whom he regularly exchanged sonnets.

‘Ignudo’ fresco from 1509 on the Sistine Chapel ceiling

Image Credit: Michelangelo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

His most admired works were completed early in his career, before he reached the age of 30, although he would go on to live to the age of 88, well beyond life expectations of the time. As famous and respected in his lifetime as he is now, he was buried in the Basilica of Santa Croce in his beloved Florence with a state funeral. His tomb, a 14 year project with marble supplied by Cosimo de Medici, was created by the sculptor Vasari.

His legacy is one that lives on as one of the three titans of the Florentine renaissance, and his mastery over marble is still studied and admired today.

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Sarah Roller