Italian Painter, Sculptor, Poet, and Architect
Summary of Michelangelo
Michelangelo is one of art history's earliest true "characters." He was a polymath genius who is widely considered to be one of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance period even while acquiring a reputation for being temper driven, fickle, and difficult. He was part of the revival of classical Greek and Roman art, yet his unique contributions went beyond mere mimicry of antiquity. His work was infused with a psychological intensity and emotional realism that had never been seen before and often caused quite a bit of controversy. Despite his rebelliousness, he managed to find lifelong support by the era's most renowned patrons and produced some of the world's most iconic masterpieces that continue to be revered, and even devotionally prayed upon, today.
- His early studies of classical Greek and Roman sculpture, coupled with a study of cadavers, led Michelangelo to become an expert at anatomy. The musculature of his bodies is so authentically precise that they've been said to breathe upon sight.
- Michelangelo's dexterity with carving an entire sculpture from a single block of marble remains unparalleled. He once said, "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free." He was known as one who could conjure real life from stone.
- The artist's feisty and tempestuous personality is legendary. He often abandoned projects midway through or played out his pride or defiance of conventionality through controversial means such as painting his own face on figures in his work, the faces of his enemies in mocking fashion, or unabashedly portraying sacred characters in the nude.
- Michelangelo's most seminal pieces: the massive painting of the biblical narratives in the Sistine Chapel, the 17-foot tall testament to male perfection David, and the heartbreakingly genuine Pietà are considered some of the world's most genius works of art, drawing large numbers of tourists to this day.
Biography of Michelangelo
"The sculptor's hand can only break the spell to free the figures slumbering in the stone," Michelangelo famously said. Carved from a single block of marble, each figure came alive with physical and psychological power, making him the most famous sculptor of all time.
Important Art by Michelangelo
This statue of Bacchus depicts the Roman god of wine precariously perched on a rock in a state of drunkenness. He wears a wreath of ivy and holds a goblet in one hand, brought up toward his lips for a drink. In the other hand, he holds a lion skin, which is a symbol for death derived from the myth of Hercules. From behind his left leg peeks a satyr, significant to the cult of Bacchus often representing a drunken, lusty, woodland deity.
The work, one of Michelangelo's earliest, caused much controversy. It was originally commissioned by Cardinal Riario and was inspired by a description of a lost bronze sculpture by the ancient sculptor Praxiteles. But when Riario saw the finished piece he found it inappropriate and rejected it. Michelangelo sold it to his banker Jacopo Galli instead.
Despite its colored past though, the piece is evidence of Michelangelo's early genius. His excellent knowledge of anatomy is seen in the androgynous figure's body which Vasari described as having the "the slenderness of a young man and the fleshy roundness of a woman." A high center of gravity lends the figure a sense of captured movement, which Michelangelo would later perfect even further for David. Although intended to mimic classical Greek sculpture and distressed toward an antique appearance, Michelangelo remained true to what in visual human terms it means to be drunk; the unseemly swaying body was unlike any depiction of a god in classical Greek and Roman sculpture. Art historian Claire McCoy said of the sculpture, "Bacchus marked a moment when originality and imitation of the antique came together."
This was the first of a number of Pietàs Michelangelo worked on during his lifetime. It depicts the body of Jesus in the lap of his mother after the Crucifixion. This particular scene is one of the seven sorrows of Mary used in Catholic devotional prayers and depicts a key moment in her life foretold by the prophet, Simeon.
Cardinal Jean de Bilhères commissioned the work, stating that he wanted to acquire the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better. The 24-year-old Michelangelo answered this call, carving the work in two years out of a single block of marble.
Although the work continued a long tradition of devotional images used as aids for prayer, which was developed in Germany in the 1300s, the depiction was uniquely connotative of Italian Renaissance art of the time. Many artists were translating traditional religious narratives in a highly humanist vein blurring the boundaries between the divine and man by humanizing noted biblical figures and taking liberties with expression. Mary was a common subject, portrayed in myriad ways, and in this piece Michelangelo presented her not as a woman in her fifties, but as an unusually youthful beauty. As Michelangelo related to his biographer Ascanio Condivi, "Do you not know that chaste women stay fresh much more than those who are not chaste?"
Not only was Pietà the first depiction of the scene in marble, but Michelangelo also moved away from the depiction of the Virgin's suffering which was usually portrayed in Pietàs of the time, instead presenting her with a deep sense of maternal tenderness for her child. Christ too, shows little sign of his recent crucifixion with only slightly discernible small nail marks in his hands and the wound in his side. Rather than a dead Christ, he looks as if he is asleep in the arms of his mother as she waits for him to awake, symbolic of the resurrection.
A pyramidal structure signature to the time was also used: Mary's head at the top and then the gradual widening through her layered garments to the base. The draped clothing gives credence to Michelangelo's mastery of marble, as they retain a sense of flowing movement, far removed from the typical characteristic of stone.
This is the only sculpture Michelangelo ever signed. In a fiery fit of reaction to rumors circulating that the piece was made by one of his competitors, Cristoforo Solari, he carved his name across Mary's sash right between her breasts. He also split his name in two as Michael Angelus, which can be seen as a reference to the Archangel Michael - an egotistical move and one he would later regret. He swore to never again sign another piece and stayed true to his word.
The Pietà became famous immediately following its completion and was pivotal in contributing to Michelangelo's fame. Despite an attack in 1972, which damaged Mary's arm and face, it was restored and continues to inspire awe in visitors to this day.
This 17 foot tall statue depicts the prophet David, majestic and nude, with the slingshot he used to kill Goliath, slung victoriously over one shoulder.
The piece was commissioned by the Opera del Duomo for the Cathedral of Florence, a project that was originally meant to be a series of sculptures of prophets for the rooftop. Although David's familiarity stems from the classic religious tale, the statue became not only a rendition of the tale, but a symbol for the new Florentine Republic of its defiant independence from Medici rule.
Considered one of Michelangelo's great masterpieces. An exquisite example of his knowledge of anatomy can be seen in David's musculature, his strength emphasized through the classical contrapposto stance, with weight shifting onto his right leg. A sense of naturalism is conveyed in the way the body stands determined, a confident glare on the young man's face. The top half of the body was made slightly larger than the legs so that viewers glancing up at it or from afar would experience a more authentic perspective. The realism was seen as so powerful that Vasari praised it as Michelangelo's "miracle...to restore life to one who was dead."
During the Early Renaissance, Donatello had revived the classical nude as subject matter and made a David of his own. But Michelangelo's version, with its towering height, is unmistakably the most iconic version. As was customary to Michelangelo and his work, this statue was simultaneously revered and controversial.
The plaster cast of David now resides at the Victoria and Albert Museum. During visits by notable women such as Queen Victoria, a detachable plaster fig leaf was added, strategically placed atop the private parts.
On another occasion, a replica of David was offered to the municipality of Jerusalem to mark the 3,000th anniversary of King David's conquest of the city. Religious factions in Jerusalem urged that the gift be declined because the naked figure was considered pornographic. A fully clad replica of David by Andrea del Verrocchio, a Florentine contemporary of Michelangelo, was donated instead.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Michelangelo
- Michelangelo: His Epic LifeBy Martin Gayford
- Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man and his TimesBy William E. Wallace
- Michelangelo: A BiographyBy George Bull
- MichelangeloOur PickBy Howard Hibbard
- Michelangelo: The Achievement of FameBy Michael Hirst
- The Life of MichelangeloBy Ascanio Condivi
- The Lives of the ArtistsBy Giorgio Vasari
- Michelangelo's Notebooks: The Poetry, Letters, and Art of the Great MasterBy Carolyn Vaughan
- The Complete Poems of MichelangeloBy Michelangelo
- Michelangelo: The Complete Paintings, Sculptures and ArchitectureBy Frank Zöllner
- Michelangelo: A Life in Six MasterpiecesBy Miles J. Unger
- Michelangelo: The Complete Sculpture, Painting, ArchitectureBy William E. Wallace
- Heavenly artOur PickBy Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / March 6, 2006
- Why Michelangelo MattersBy Theodore K. Rabb / Commentary Magazine / September 1, 2006
- Michelangelo - The Poetry and the ManBy Kara Ross / Art Renewal Centre / January 1, 2008
- Michelangelo Divine Draftsman and Designer - How a Monument Comes AliveBy Renato Miracco / iItaly Magazine / January 25, 2018
- David's assets protected as Italy bans images of Michelangelo's famous sculptureBy Nick Squires / November 24, 2017