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Michelangelo Buonarroti

Il Divino

Pieta in the Museo del Duomo

According to many critics the greatest artist who ever lived, nicknamed Il Divino in his lifetime, Michelangeo was a complex, difficult character, a prima donna who seldom got along with mere mortals, popes, or patrons. What he couldn’t express by means of the male nude in paint or marble, he did in his beautiful but difficult sonnets.

In many ways he was the first modern artist, unsurpassed in technique but also the first genius to go over the top, famous for his terribilità.

Early Years

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564) was born in Caprese (now Caprese Michelangelo) into a Florentine family of the minor nobility come down in the world, but that claimed the famous Countess Matilda of Tuscany as their ancestor.

His early years and artistic training are obscure. His parents returned to Florence not long after he was born, and he was nursed by the wife of a stone cutter in in Settignano, where his father owned a small marble quarry. When his mother died when he was six, he went to live with them.

Much to his father's disappointment, he showed little interest in his studies, and only wanted to sketch, fascinated by the works of Masaccio and Filippo Brunelleschi. At age 13 his father sent him to Ghirlandaio, who was so startled by his drawing that he once confessed 'This boy knows more about it than I do' and actually begain to pay him, as unheard of back then as it is today for modern interns.

The next year Lorenzo de' Medici asked Ghirlandaio to send him his two star pupils to study sculpture with Bertoldo di Giovanni (a pupil of Donatello) in the Medici gardens. Ghirlandaio sent Michelangelo and Francesco Granacci who became lifelong friends (another of Bertoldo's students, Pietro Torrigiani, became a lifelong enemy after punching him in the nose, leaving it permanently crooked).

Madonna of the Stairs

His earliest known works are in Florence, in the Casa Buonarroti, including the delicate marble relief of the Madonna della Scala and the violent Battle of the Centaurs. Another teenage work is the Crucifixion in Santo Spirito, his one and only work in wood.

The death of Lorenzo de' Medici and rise of Savonarola put a pause on his career; he escaped to Bologna where he worked on statues in San Petronius.

In 1494, when the political situation had calmed down, he returned to Florence and worked for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, producing a Sleeping Cupid that so impressed his patron that he suggested they try to pass it off as a Roman antiquity and sell to sell it for more money. The Cardinal who purchased it discovered the fraud but was so impressed that he invited Michelangelo to Rome; where he was commissioned to sculpt the piece that made his name: the Pietà. He was only 24.

Back in Florence: 1499-1505

When Michelangelo returned to Florence, it was during the heyday of the Republic. The Wool Guild commissioned him to take over the project of sculpting a figure of David for the Cathedral gable from a massive piece of Cararra marble that had been abandoned by Agostino di Duccio; it was such a success that rather than taking its place high on the Duomi it was taken straight into the Piazza della Signoria; today the original holds pride of place in the Accademia.

Michelangelo's Lost Battle of Cascina

The famous never-finished battle of the frescoes with Leonardo da Vinci followed in the Palazzo Vecchio in 1504; all that survives of Michelangelo's effort is a drawing by Bastiano da Sangallo. It was also during this time that Michelangelo painted his one and only oil painting (a genre he detested), the Doni Tondo, in the Uffizi, still in its original frame which he probably designed as well.

In 1505 Michelangelo was back in Rome, commissioned by Julius II to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling and sculpt his tomb; several of the the nonfiniti Slaves designed for the project are also in the Accademia.

Back in Florence 1513-34

After the death of Julius, the new Medici Pope Leo X (son of Lorenzo il Magnifico) sent Michelangelo back to Florence to design a facade and statues for the family church, San Lorenzo— a work the artist spent three years on before the lack of funds brought the project to a halt.

The Medici did, however, scrape together the funds for the Medici tombs and the Bibilteca Laurenziana, the library of San Lorenzo, one of the pivotal works of Mannerist architecture.

Biblioteca Laurenziana

In 1527, when the Florentines threw the Medici out of Florence after the Sack of Rome, Michelangelo spent two years working on the fortifications up around the Piazzale that has since taken his name. When the city fell anyway in 1530, Michelangelo was not in the good books of the new Medici Duke Alessandro; the Medici Pople, Clement VII, however, welcomed him to Rome, and commissioned the Sistine's Last Judgement just before he died.

Il Divino would spend the rest of his long life in Rome, working on St Peter's as well as working on other statues, dying just short of his 89th birthday. At his request, his body was returned and interred in Santa Croce. The Pietà, with the sculptor's own features on the face of Nicodemus, was intended for his tomb but is instead in the Museo dell' Opera del Duomo.

There are four other works by Michelangelo in the Bargello, Bacchus, a Madonna and Child, Apollo and a late Brutus, as well as a rather inane bust of Michelangelo himself by Daniele da Volterra (perhaps best known for preserving the modesty of the figures of Michelangelo's Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel).

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: Sailko, GNU Free Documentation License, PD Art, MM, GNU Free Documentation License