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Michelangelo

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), Italian sculptor, painter, architect, and poet, one of the most ambitious and influential artists of the Renaissance.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), Italian sculptor, painter, architect, and poet, one of the most ambitious and influential artists of the Renaissance. Together with Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, he dominated the High Renaissance of the early 16th century, and his later work played a vital role in the development of Mannerism. His work exerted tremendous influence on his contemporaries and on subsequent Western art in general. He was also one of the greatest Italian poets of his time. Although he was accomplished in a number of different art forms, he regarded himself as primarily a sculptor in marble.

Michelangelo was born on March 6, 1475, in the small village of Caprese, near Sansepolcro, but was essentially a Florentine, maintaining a deep attachment to Florence, its art, and its culture throughout his long life. He spent the greater part of his adulthood in Rome, in the employment of the popes; however, he left instructions that he be buried in Florence, and his body was placed there in the church of Santa Croce. The tomb erected there was designed by his biographer Giorgio Vasari; it features allegories of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture mourning Michelangelo's death.

Early Life in Florence Michelangelo's father was a Florentine official named Ludovico Buonarroti, with connections to the ruling Medici family; owing to the lowly status of artists at that time, Michelangelo's family was opposed to his artistic ambitions. However, in 1488, when Michelangelo was 13, his father placed him in the workshop of the Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, where he probably learnt the art of fresco painting. After about two years, he was studying at the academy of art set up by Lorenzo de' Medici. There he had an opportunity to converse with the younger Medici, two of whom later became popes (Leo X and Clement VII). He also became acquainted with such humanists as Marsilio Ficino and the poet Angelo Poliziano, who were frequent visitors.

By the age of about 16, he was working under the sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni in the sculpture garden of the Palazzo Medici, and for Lorenzo de' Medici he began at least two relief sculptures, the Battle of the Centaurs (c. 1492, Bargello, Florence) and the Madonna of the Stairs (c. 1492, Casa Buonarroti, Florence).His patron Lorenzo died in 1492; two years later, Michelangelo fled Florence, when the Medici were temporarily expelled following the rise of the fanatical Dominican friar Savonarola. He settled for a time in Bologna, where in 1494 and 1495 he produced three marble figures for the shrine of St Dominic in the church of San Domenico.

First Roman Sojourn In 1496, after spending a few months in Florence, Michelangelo went to Rome, where he was able to examine many newly unearthed Classical statues and ruins. He soon produced his first surviving large-scale sculpture, the over-life-size marble Bacchus (1496-1497, Bargello, Florence), bought by the banker Jacopo Galli. One of the few works of pagan rather than Christian subject matter that he executed, it was considered to rival ancient statuary, the highest mark of admiration in Renaissance Rome.

Michelangelo consolidated his career with the Piet (1498-1499, St Peter's, Rome), commissioned by the French cardinal Jean Bilhires de Lagraulas. The youthful Mary is shown seated majestically, holding the dead Christ across her lap, a theme borrowed from northern European art. Instead of revealing extreme grief, Mary is restrained, and her expression is one of resignation. In this work, one of the most highly finished of all his sculptures, Michelangelo summarized the sculptural innovations of his 15th-century predecessors while ushering in the new monumentality of the High Renaissance style of the 16th century. At the age of 25, he had already surpassed all other sculptors of the day.

First Return to Florence In 1501, Michelangelo returned to Florence, where he was based until 1505. There he produced two free-standing sculptures, the Madonna and Child (1501-1505, Notre Dame, Bruges). The major work of this period is the colossal (4.34 m/143 ft) marble David (1501-1504, Accademia, Florence). The Old Testament hero is depicted as a lithe, naked youth, muscular and alert, looking into the distance as if sizing up the enemy Goliath, whom he has not yet encountered. The statue, which symbolized the fortitude of the Florentine republic, originally stood in the Piazza della Signoria in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, the Florentine town hall. (A copy now stands in the piazza.) The fiery intensity of David's facial expression exemplifies the terribilit (emotional intensity) that is characteristic of many of Michelangelo's figures and of his own personality, and the whole figure demonstrates his mastery of the male nude. A similar power of expression in the human body is also clearly seen in the figure of Christ in the Entombment (c. 1504, National Gallery, London), an unfinished tempera painting on panel.

Michelangelo's most ambitious project of this period, the fresco of the Battle of Cascina commissioned in 1504 for the Palazzo Vecchio, was, unfortunately, never completed. However, copies of a part of the cartoon have survived, representing a tightly packed crowd of twisted, muscular nudes. The pronounced sculptural quality of Michelangelo's painting is also apparent in the circular panel known as the Doni Tondo (1503-1504, Uffizi, Florence), in which the vigorous modelling of the figures invites comparison with actual reliefs, such as the Taddei Tondo (1505-1506, Royal Academy, London).Between 1505 and 1508 Michelangelo divided his time between Florence, Rome, and Bologna, where he produced a bronze sculpture of Pope Julius II, destroyed by the Bolognese in 1511.

The Sistine Chapel Ceiling In 1505, Michelangelo was recalled to Rome by Pope Julius II to fulfil a commission to make a tomb for the pope. Having started on the project, Michelangelo left Rome for Florence and Bologna. On his return to Rome in 1508, the pope's interest had turned to the new basilica of St Peter's, and he ordered Michelangelo to abandon the tomb and start work on what was to be his most magnificent achievement, the frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in St Peter's, which he completed in 1512.The vault of the papal chapel was decorated with an intricate scheme of five large and four small scenes from the Book of Genesis, beginning with God Separating Light from Darkness and including the Creation of Adam, the Creation of Eve, the Temptation and Fall of Adam and Eve, and the Flood. The simulated architecture painted around the smaller narratives is adorned by naked youths, who appear to represent a Neoplatonic ideal of human beings, while the sides of the vault contain the immense forms of prophets and sibyls, who were regarded as having foretold the coming of Christ. Together with further biblical scenes and figures on the edge of the ceiling, these frescos constitute one of the grandest and most harmonious creations of the High Renaissance.

The Tomb of Julius II With the completion of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo was able to return to his sculpture, in particular figures for the tomb of Pope Julius II, which had originally been commissioned in 1505. In 1513 a second contract was drawn up by the pope's heirs, as a result of which Michelangelo produced two remarkable although unfinished works, known as the Dying Slave and the Rebellious Slave (1513, Louvre, Paris), with characteristically expressive, twisted poses. These were followed by the bulky, immensely powerful sculpture of Moses (1515-1516, San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome), which recalls the figures of the prophets Jeremiah and Joel in the Sistine Chapel. They demonstrate Michelangelo's approach to carving: he conceived of the figure as being imprisoned in the block; by removing excess stone, the form was released.

Despite this activity, it was only after three more contracts and 30 years that Julius's tomb was finally erected (in 1545), not in St Peter's but in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, in Rome. By this time Michelangelo had begun a further four Slaves (1527-1528, Accademia, Florence), which are much less finished than the earlier ones, and the Victory (1527-1530, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence), whose spiral composition was to be particularly influential on the development of Mannerism. Of all these works, only the Moses was included in the final tomb, where it was accompanied by figures of Leah and Rachel, as well as by various other sculptures that Michelangelo had assigned to his assistants. The monument's eventual format was that of a modest wall-tomb, in contrast to the immense free-standing structure that had originally been intended. This protracted failure to realize the original scheme led Michelangelo's biographer Ascanio Condivi to describe the project as the "Tragedy of the Tomb".

The Medici Chapel Though the Julius Tomb had required architectural planning, Michelangelo's activity as an architect began in earnest only when, as a result of the accession of the Medici pope Leo X in 1514, he began a series of works concerning the Medici parish church, San Lorenzo, in Florence. The first was a design for the faade, commissioned in 1516, which was never executed but led to two further projects of great importance.

One of these was the Medici Chapel, or New Sacristy, next to the main church, which was commissioned in 1520 (during Leo X's reign), but was still unfinished when Michelangelo returned to Rome in 1534. The Chapel, a centrally planned domed building, contains the wall-tombs of two relatively undistinguished members of the Medici family: Giuliano, Duke of Nemours, and Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino. Both men are shown seated in a niche above a sarcophagus, on which recline two nude figures, one male and one female, representing Night and Day, or Dawn and Dusk.

All the recumbent sculptures are extremely muscular, with strained, unstable poses, while the two Medici are given contrasting gestures and expressions intended to represent the active and contemplative lives. Despite these differences, both Lorenzo and Giuliano look towards the end wall, where the Virgin and Child are seated, flanked by the Medici patron saints, Cosmas and Damian. As well as containing an extremely sophisticated programme of sculpture, the Chapel is also characterized by a highly unconventional architectural style that greatly influenced Mannerist buildings later in the 16th century. This is exemplified by the treatment of the tabernacle above each of the doors, in which the pilasters become wider rather than narrower as they rise, while the niche that they frame encroaches into the area enclosed by the pediment above.

The Laurentian Library An even more extraordinary effect was achieved in 1524-1534 in the vestibule of the Laurentian Library, also next to San Lorenzo. Here, pairs of columns set claustrophobically into the wall, rather than projecting from it, rest on consoles that seem far too small to support them. The uncomfortable sensation created by this arrangement is enhanced by the tall, narrow proportions of the room as a whole, and by the overpowering three-flighted staircase (completed 1559-1562) that rises to the main part of the library.

Inevitably, Michelangelo's career was affected by the political and religious disturbances of the period. When the Medici were expelled from Florence in 1527, the construction of the Medici Chapel was suspended, and Michelangelo took the side of the Republicans. However, on their return in 1530, the Medici pardoned him for his disloyalty, and he continued to work for them until his final move to Rome in 1534.

The Last Judgement The rest of Michelangelo's career was spent in a city whose mood had been transformed by the Sack of Rome in 1527, and by the convulsions caused by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The effect of this new cultural climate can clearly be seen by comparing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with the Last Judgement, an enormous altarpiece that Michelangelo painted for the chapel between 1536 and 1541. While the earlier work exemplified the Neoplatonic humanism of Julius II's reign, the Last Judgement expresses a far more troubled vision of human beings. The crowded, dynamic composition is dominated by the colossal form of Christ, who is surrounded by a mass of nude, often contorted, figures. These are arranged in a circular motion that begins in the left of the fresco, where the dead are shown rising from their graves, and runs round the upper part of the wall, finishing in the bottom right, where the damned in Hell are tormented by hideous demons.

The Last Judgement was commissioned by the Farnese pope Paul III, for whom Michelangelo also painted two dramatic frescos, the Conversion of St Paul and the Crucifixion of St Peter (1542-1550), in the Pauline Chapel, also in the Vatican. The emotive quality of these paintings can also be seen in two late sculptures of the Piet, one (Florence Cathedral) dating from the late 1550s and the other (Castello Sforzesco, Milan) that Michelangelo worked on shortly before his death in 1564. Both works clearly convey the intensity of Michelangelo's emotional involvement with their subjects: the former even includes a self-portrait in the features of Joseph of Arimathea. Michelangelo's piety is also eloquently expressed in his sonnets, in which he passionately repents his past worldliness: "Take from me all liking for what the world holds dear and for such of its fair things as I esteem and prize, so that, before death, I may have some earnest of eternal life."

The Campidoglio Michelangelo's religiosity did not prevent him from designing grand secular buildings in Rome during the last phase of his career. From 1546 he worked on completing the Farnese Palace, which had been begun by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, and at the same time (1538-1564) redesigned the Campidoglio (Capitol) on the Capitoline Hill the civic and political heart of the city of Rome. The scheme that he proposed (but that was not completed until the late 1550s) was for an oval piazza surrounded by three monumental palaces, with the famous antique bronze equestrian statue of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in the centre.

St Peter's Basilica Michelangelo's most impressive architectural project in Rome was St Peter's Basilica, whose rebuilding had been started by Bramante c. 1508 and was continued by a number of architects over the ensuing decades. Like Bramante, Michelangelo, who took over the project in 1547, designed the basilica on the plan of a Greek cross surmounted by a hemispherical dome. At the time of his death in Rome on February 18, 1564, the walls, which are articulated by giant pilasters, had already been constructed; the dome was not completed until 1590 by Giacomo della Porta, who gave it its present pointed shape. Despite further amendments, most notably the addition of a nave in the early 17th century, St Peter's remains a worthy monument to the grandeur and audacity of Michelangelo's architectural ambition.

Michelangelo's Achievements During his long lifetime, Michelangelo was an intimate of princes and popes, from Lorenzo de' Medici to Leo X, Clement VII, and Pius III, as well as cardinals, painters, and poets. Neither easy to get along with nor easy to understand, he expressed his view of himself and the world even more directly in his poetry than in the other arts. Much of his verse deals with art and the hardships he underwent, or with Neoplatonic philosophy and personal relationships.

Michelangelo's prestige has always been immense, and he exerted an enormous influence both on his contemporaries and on later generations of artists. The great Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto wrote of him: "Michael more than immortal, divine angel." During the 16th century in particular his muscular, twisted figure-types were constantly reused by Mannerist painters and sculptors. However, none of his followers matched the emotional intensity, or terribilit, that was a recurrent feature of his own work, giving him within his own lifetime the status of "il divino Michelangelo" ("the divine Michelangelo").

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