On 6th March 1475 a young boy by the name of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni entered the world. Within a very short space of time he had become world famous as a sculptor, artist and an architect.
Our biography covers all the major moments in the life of artist Michelangelo and serves as a useful guide for those looking to study his life and career.
1475 - Born in Caprese, Republic of Florence
1492 - Completed The Battle of the Centaurs Sculpture
1546 - Appointed architect of St. Peter's Basilica, Rome
1564 - Died in Rome, Papal States of Italy
Often artists are appreciated and valued after their own deaths, Michelangelo's talents were so impressive that he was considered the greatest living artist in his own lifetime. His legend and skill have been appreciated for generations ever since and no-one can be untouched by his works.
The Sistine Chapel and his sculpture of David are both pieces which stand the test of time to exemplify the truly outstanding work of Michelangelo.
Michelangelo was born to be an artist; his family had been bankers for many generations. His father had followed into the family trade and if it had not been for the bank failing, Michelangelo would have walked a very different path. When the family business failed, his father, Ludovico di Leonardo Buonarroti Simoni, moved into a government office and this allowed him to send Michelangelo to study grammar in Florence. At this point in Michelangelo’s life, he was immersed in an artist’s paradise; the city of Florence was the artists capital of Italy and was at the epi-centre of The Renaissance. This quickly drew Michelangelo’s attention away from his formal studies and he spent much of his time copying paintings from the local churches and mixing with the artists of the day.
It was during this period, where Michelangelo was first exposed to the processes involved in creating a sculpture. He encountered Lorenzo Ghiberti's sculptured doors of the Baptistry and they left enough of a mark on him to lead to Michelangelo calling them “The Gates of Paradise”.
By the age of thirteen, Michelangelo had clearly made up his mind on what he wanted to do and had managed to earn himself an apprenticeship with a master fresco painter, who happened to own the largest artist workshop in Florence. At the time that Michelangelo was working under Domenico Ghirlandalo, the master had been asked to paint the walls of the Sistine Chapel. This was a building which would later feature heavily in Michelangelo’s greatest works.
At the still tender age of fourteen, Michelangelo was sent to the prestigious Humanist Academy set up by Lorenzo de’ Medici. For three years Michelangelo’s approach to his art was influenced by the most prominent writers and philosophers of the time. Their influence and inspiration enabled Michelangelo to create two of his most famous reliefs: Madonna of the Steps and Battle of the Centaurs. Receiving commissions for his reliefs at such a young age would have given Michelangelo the courage and conviction in his abilities to create masterpieces worthy of worldwide attention.
All of portraits of Michelangelo feature a disfigurement to his nose. This was caused early on in his life after a heated discussion with another pupil at the Humanist Academy. He was just seventeen when he was hit in the face and the resultant damage became a feature we can all see in his following portraits.
Just before Michelangelo’s eighteenth birthday, he experienced an enormous upheaval in his life and working environment. His mentor Lorenzo de’ Medici died in 1492 and it meant that Michelangelo left the academy and the Medici court to travel back home and live in his father’s house. He didn’t stop producing sculptures, but directed his time into studying the human anatomy as well. His local church had allowed him to study the corpses which had been in the attached hospital and in return he carved a wooden Crucifix which he gifted to the church of Santo Spirito.
Pietà - The Virgin Mary
The first piece of work which gained Michelangelo the attention of the highest authorities in the church was his Pietà. When in 1497, Michelangelo was commissioned to create a statue of the Virgin Mary, by the Cardinal Jean de Bilhères-Lagraulas. Michelangelo had been asked to create the scene which had no biblical provenance, but was extremely common in most religious artworks from Europe and especially France, where the Cardinal was based and he would have seen the scene daily. The Virgin Mary sat with a dead or dying Jesus on her lap, the grief would have been visible for all to see.
As soon as Michelangelo had finished his sculpture it was attracting plaudits from the whole of the church in Rome. They were astonished that a twenty-four year old could have created such a master-piece out of a block of stone.
It is most fitting that the statue is now housed in St Peter's Basilica, creating a circle of Michelangelo's works, from his first piece which earned him a reputation to the last piece he was commissioned to build.
The Stature of David
Having left Florence during the upheaval caused by the death of his mentor, Michelangelo was called back to the House of Medici to create a series of smaller sculptures. His work with the Medici’s did allow his to travel around and gain a vast wealth of experiences on his travels. They were expelled from Florence and headed through Venice for a while and onto Bologna. It was not until 1499, that Michelangelo returned to Florence and with the fall of the anti-Renaissance leader Girolamo Savonarola, he encountered a different city, which was ready for change.
Much to the credit of Michelangelo’s reputation, he was asked to complete a marble sculpture which had been left unfinished for nearly forty years. Agostino di Duccio had begun the statue out of Carrara marble, but he had not been able to complete it. The statue was to be a colossal master-piece which would be able to represent the freedom of Florence after the fall of the recently executed Girolamo Savanarola. It would become a centre-piece of the gable in the Florence Cathedral.
The culture and political upheaval in 1504, meant that this was not intended to be just another sculpture or statue in Florence. It had meaning and connotations beyond the mere marble and skills which would make it. Even though Michelangelo had taken on an already started project, he was able to intricately mould and shape a master-piece which would be world famous over five hundred years later. It is clear to see that the years he spent studying the corpses from the church hospital in his father’s town were coming to their fore now. The body of David has been described as the rendering of an Adonis, a God among man. To have been able to draw such a sketch would have been the pinnacle in many artists portfolios, but for Michelangelo to have sculpted this from an uninspiring block of marble, is the reason it is still seen as an outstanding work of art.
The Sistine Chapel
The adulation and recognition which came with his completion of the statue of David lead to a number of private commissions for Michelangelo. He didn’t seem to cash in too much on his newly found value and sparingly produced works over the next year. Instead he answered a call from Rome to go and build the new Pope Julius II’s tomb. It was a commission which was set to last for five years and involved Michelangelo creating forty statues.
It was this project which drew him into Rome and his presence lead to a constant desire for his work among the Roman elite. Numerous side projects delayed the Pope’s tomb well beyond the five-year commission. Michelangelo eventually worked on the tomb for over forty years and he never considered this project to have been completed.
One of the numerous side projects Michelangelo was asked to create stands out from the rest. He was asked to return to the Sistine Chapel, where he had previously worked on the frescos around the walls, and this time to paint the ceiling of the Sistine. There is a local story which circulates around a fellow artist, Bramante, who appears to have been extremely jealous that Michelangelo was given the commission of the Pope’s tomb and he had persuaded the Pope to commission Michelangelo in a medium which he was unfamiliar with, so that he would fail and Bramante would be able to pick up the tomb commission.
The original idea for the Sistine Chapel ceiling was to have the Twelve Apostles in the artwork around the edge of the ceiling and then to have an ornamental ceiling design. This idea did not seem grand enough for Michelangelo and he clearly had different ideas, which he suggested to the Pope. This discussion lead to Michelangelo being given free-reign over the project and he proposed creating a work of art which represented the Creation of the Universe and the Fall of Man.
To walk into the Sistine Chapel now and imagine anything else being represented on the ceiling is almost impossible. Michelangelo used the whole five-hundred square meters of ceiling as his canvas and managed to depict a wealth of biblical stories and teaching within the scene. The eye is immediately drawn to the very centre of the ceiling where the now iconic fingers of God and Man are stretched out to be almost touching. However, viewing the edges and the sides of the ceiling allow you to see the creation of Adam, Adam and Eve and their time in the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood and the stories of Noah ad his family. The ceiling is surrounded by representations of people who foretold the coming of Jesus Christ, both male and female.
This work of art is special for many different reasons. It wasn’t created using Michelangelo’s primary skills as a sculpture, the ceiling took nearly four years to paint whilst laying on his back staring up at the ceiling canvas before him and the mere fact that this was genuinely a side project for Michelangelo to complete whilst he was creating the statues for the Pope’s tomb.
The Architect of St. Peter’s Basilica
In 1546 when the church was searching for an architect to complete the long-delayed St. Peter’s Basilica, they turned back to Michelangelo. The Basilica had been a thorn in the side of the church for a long time, with successive building projects either stalling or just failing to get the building completed. The original Constantinian basilica had been constructed in the fourth century and for the past fifty years it had been the subject of numerous architects and their reconstructive plans. It was fifty years after the foundations had been laid, that Michelangelo was appointed as the architect.
Michelangelo was able to draw on the original plans and approach the project with both the physical structure and the visual appeal of the church in his considerations. Creating a central dome would strengthen the design and allow for a central worship area to be created.
Michelangelo had taken over the construction of the new Basilica project when he was in his seventies and there was the knowledge that he would probably not be around for its completion. With this in mind Michelangelo created a series of sketches which would show exactly how he wanted the project to be completed. Very few of his designs for other projects still exist today, as he was notorious for destroying them once they were no longer needed. However, in 2007, as red chalk design was discovered which shows the creation of St Peter’s Basilica dome. With this project being so late in Michelangelo’s life, this could well be the last design he ever made. It is now stored in the Vatican for prosperity.
Inevitably the dome was completed after Michelangelo had passed away. In 1564, when Michelangelo had reached the age of 88, he died in Rome. He had previously requested that his body was to be laid to rest in Florence, so he was interned in the Basilica of Santa Croce.
By the time that Michelangelo finally passed on, he had created a veritable list of the best pieces of art the world had ever seen. Aside from his master-pieces in David, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the Pietà of The Virgin Mary, his works of art include a statue of Moses for the tomb of Pope Julius II, a painting of The Last Judgement on the walls of the Sistine Chapel and a collection of works around Madonna and Child.
The time span between Michelangelo's earliest known work The Madonna of the Stairs from 1490–92 to his death in 1564, is filled with a veritable history of art and sculpture which could fill a museum alone.
It is interesting to note that the last sculpture Michelangelo was known to have been working on, had been over-chiseled and this lead to the sculpture adopting an abstract quality, which could have been a precursor to the abstract movement we see today.
Michelangelo is renown not only as one of the greatest artists to have ever lived, but also as a man who placed very little value in possessions and material goods. He famously lived a very squalid lifestyle, rejecting the trappings his wealth could have brought him and enjoyed living alone, away from friends and family.
His lifestyle didn’t attract too many protégées to seeking him out as a master and he didn’t take on many assistants. He had employed Francesco Granacci to help him with a lot of the menial jobs the artist would face, such as preparing the surfaces of the ceiling and crushing up the paint colours. But he does not appear to be credited with ever taking on an apprentice, Granacci was a contemporary of Michelangelo at the Medici Academy.
Despite this lifestyle and way of working, Michelangelo’s work has shaped the future and the outlook of many artists. His David statue is reproduced all over the world and referenced as the perfect body of man. His influence might not be felt first-hand by the world’s artists but they are passed on through his works.
Michelangelo was producing great art around the same time as Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. This has led to the three of them often being mentioned in the same circles and an associated closeness being implied. However, this is not exactly the case. Leonardo was actually twenty-three years older than Michelangelo and Michelangelo was another eight years older than Raphael. Whilst the three of them would have had some interactions, it is very clear from Michelangelo’s lifestyle that he was not a member of any artist cohort or a collective.
His legacy lives on through his artwork, as seen in his influence on Rembrandt van Rijn. The Sistine Chapel and David are both works of art which are studied the world over, by school children, artists in training and by professional artists. There is no scope to the knowledge which can be picked up from studying the works of a true master.