Michelangelo Biography: Italian Sculptor, Painter, Architect & Poet of the High Renaissance

He is revered as one of the greatest artists of all time. For centuries he has typified the perfect artistic genius. His greatest legacy is the surviving works that we can see today – The Sistene Chapel, the Statue of David, the Pieta. Yet, behind the artworks lies a complex and stubborn man. In this week’s Biographics, we go beyond the facade to discover the real Michelangelo.

Early Days

Italy in the 15th century was very different to the country we know today. Back then it was a collection of small republics. These city states were all under the governorship of the Pope in Rome. The key republics were Florence, Genoa and Venice. Every state had its own governors, nobles, peasants, priests and government officials.

Nestled in the remote Apennine Mountains of central Italy was the small village of Caprese. It was here, on March 6th, 1475, that Francesca di Neri Buonarroti gace birth to her second son, Michelangelo. Her husband, Lodovico di Leonardo Buonarroti Simoni was a lowly official who had the job of convicting and sentencing criminals.

When baby Michelangelo was sixth months old, the family of four moved to Florence. Here Lodovico bought a small farm near the village of Settignano. It was in this village that the child spent his early years, under the care of a wet nurse.

Daniele da Volterra (Daniele Ricciarelli) (Italian, Volterra 1509–1566 Rome)
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), probably ca. 1544
Oil on wood; 34 3/4 x 25 1/4 in. (88.3 x 64.1 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Clarence Dillon, 1977 (1977.384.1)
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/436771

Farming off newborns to a wet nurse for the first two years of life was a common practice at that time. The woman who took in Michelangelo was married to a  stonecutter. In later years, when he had transformed himself into a sculptor, Michelangelo commented that he had drunk marble dust with his nurse’s milk.

When he was three, Michelangelo returned to live with his family in Florence. The family was poor and, with new babies arriving frequently, the household was overcrowded. Lodovico received a meager government salary and his farm was not very successful. In fact, he believed that the work of a lowly farmer was beneath him.

When he was six years of age, young Michelangelo’s tough life got even tougher. His mother died, leaving behind five young sons, including a newborn. Lodovico did his best, working two jobs and still managing to trundle the boys off to Mass at the church of Santa Croce in Florence every Sunday.This church was filled with magnificent works of art, including a crucifix carved by the famous sculptor Donatello and wall paintings by Giotto, one of the greatest artists of all time. The young Michelangelo must have marvelled at these magnificent pieces.

In 1485, Lodovico took on a new wife. Lucrezia degli Ubaldini Gagliano came from a rich family, bringing 600 florin to the union as a dowry. This was an enormous amount at that time and it flipped the fortunes of the family overnight.

An immediate result of the family’s newfound wealth was that Lodovico was able to afford to send Michelangelo to a Latin school to learn reading, writing, and mathematics. But the boy soon proved that he was no academic. Bored with his lessons, he would stare out the window while doodling on paper. However, he did fall in love with poetry.

A Passion for Art

Returning home for vacation, Michelangelo told his father that he was more interested in art than in academic studies. But Lodovico was not impressed. At that time artists were the lowly paid servant of noblemen, being considered little more than a servant. Lodovico wanted his son to aspire to more than that.

The only person who seemed to understand Michelangelo’s passion for art was an older boy he had befriended by the name of Francesco Granacci. Francesco was himself a budding artist, apprenticed to the famous artist Domenico Ghirlandaio. He took Michelangelo to his master’s workshop and showed him works in progress. The younger boy was mesmerized by what he saw. He knew that this was his destiny.

Francesco granacci, entrata di Carlo VIII a Firenze

Francesco granacci, entrata di Carlo VIII a Firenze

Despite his father’s negativity, Michelangelo kept begging to be allowed to pursue his passion. Meanwhile, his friend Francesco encouraged him to produce some drawings, which he showed to his master, Ghirlandaio. The great artist was impressed and expressed the desire to also take Michelangelo on as an apprentice.

Finally Lodovico relented, and at the age of 12, his son became apprenticed to Ghirlandaio. The master ran the most successful artists workshop in Florence, along with his two brothers. They were kept busy decorating churches in Florence. The brothers had a number of apprentices, aged between 8 and 15, who lived with them and assisted with paintings and murals. The parents, including Lodovico, had to pay for living expenses and training.

From the Ghirlandaio brothers, young Michelangelo learned how to prepare a wooden panel for painting and how to plaster a wall in preparation for the painting of a fresco. He was also taught how to make working drawings, called cartoons, which would form the basis of finished paintings.

The Prideful Apprentice

Among the apprentices, Michelangelo was an immediate standout. Still he proved to be stubborn, and quite full of himself. He was given the task of copying works previously drawn by his master and, having done so, declared that his works were better than the originals. Ghirlandaio acknowledged that the boy had great talent, but he was angered by his prideful attitude. He also saw that Michelangelo lacked the patience needed to learn some of the skills required, such as painting frescoes. He showed little interest in grinding and mixing paints and couldn’t be bothered mixing the ingredients needed for the smooth plaster needed for fresco painting.

When he was 14, Michelangelo went one step too far. He had copied some drawings that his master had done of women. But then he dared to ‘correct’ some finer aspects of the originals by going over them with a broad-nibbed pen. This was too much. Ghirlandaio kicked Michelangelo out of the workshop, claiming that there was no teaching this ‘know-it-all.’

Rather than being discouraged, the talented teen made the decision that paint and plaster were not for him. He considered them to be a lesser form of art. To him the real skill lay in stone, producing fine sculptors of the human form. This desire would take him to the very pinnacle of Florentine nobility  the house of Medici.

The House of Medici

Before Michelangelo had been dismissed by Ghirlandaio, some members of the ruling Medici family visited the workshop. Among them was an elderly sculptor named Bertoldo di Giovanni. This man noticed the talent that Michelangelo possessed, and he struck up a relationship with the boy.

Renaissance Electrotype Medal of Bertoldo di Giovanni

Renaissance Electrotype Medal of Bertoldo di Giovanni

After his dismissal, the budding young sculptor sought out the older man. Bertoldo was employed by Lorenzo de’ Medici, the most powerful man in the city, to make statues and medals and to look after his art collection. Many of Lorenzo’s statues were displayed in a garden where artist went to draw and carve. This area was a gathering place for student sculptors, who would get feedback and instruction from Bertoldo about their work. Soon, Michelangelo was a regular in the garden.

The now fifteen year old began creating sculptures from clay and bringing them to the garden. Though he was younger than the other budding sculptors, his skin was clearly beyond theirs. This led to jealousy. Some times this led to physical violence. In one encounter, Michelangelo had his nose broken.

But the boy was not deterred. Begging a piece of marble from another sculptor he created his first relief carving – the head of a faun. Just as he had been hoping, this  sculpture was seen by Lorenzo Medici, who was immediately taken with the boy’s skill. He brought Michelangelo into his fold, giving him his own room and paying him an allowance.

The young artist’s life was now more peaceful. He was able to settle down to the task of perfecting his chosen artform. One of his first major projects was to carve a scene from mythology on marble as a relief panel – the battle of the centaurs. These creatures with the heads and arms of men and bodies of horses gave him plenty of scope to show action and form. The realism and gentle precision of this work is remarkable for a sculptor of such a young age.

The other major piece that Michelangelo produced while working  in the House of Medici was a relief panel called Madonna of the Steps. It shows the virgin Mary nursing the infant Jesus. The piece is carved on fine white marble and shows the Madonna’s face in profile, as she holds her infant son against her.

The Madonna of the Stairs (1490–92), Michelangelo's earliest known work in marble

The Madonna of the Stairs (1490–92), Michelangelo’s earliest known work in marble

Things were going remarkably well for the 17 year old. He was living in the inner sanctum of the richest family in the city and he had a powerful patron who admired his talent. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to last. In April, 1492, Lorenzo suddenly died. His son, Pierro took over, but he cared little for sculpture. He gave, Michelangelo no work until the winter, when he decided that he would like a snowman made. He ordered Michelangelo to make one. It would prove to be the artist’s strangest commission.

Around this same time, the prior of Santo Spirito asked the young sculptor to make a crucifix for his church. Delighted with the result, the prior give Michelangelo the use of a room in which he could work. Here he was able to dissect corpses in order to study anatomy. In order to make the most life-like sculptures of the human body, he believed that he had to know how it was put together. Thus, he became one of the first people to dissect and study the human body in this way.

A New Patron

By 1494, Florence was facing a crisis. An army led by King Charles VIII of France as at the  walls threatening to overrun the city. Many people, including Michelangelo, fled the city. He traveled to Bologna in northern Italy, and then on to Venice, an important trading city. Here Michelangelo hoped to find work. However, he could not find any employment, so he went back to Bologna.

Having lost his old patron, Michelangelo set out in search of a replacement. He found it in the form of Gianfrancesco Aldrovandi, a local noble and politician. Aldrovandi set his talented new sculptor to the task of carving the missing figures at the unfinished shrine of San Domenico in the church of the same name.

Again Michelangelo, now twenty, had fallen on his feet. He enjoyed a comfortable home, had stone and supplies provided and received commissions for his artwork. Just as had happened in Florence, this bred resentment among other sculptors. They paid rent, bought tools and stone, and survived out of their own pockets.

Return to Florence

Meanwhile, back in Florence, a change of power had occurred. A priest by the name of Girolamo Savonarola had instigated a fierce campaign against the House of Medici. When the threat of French invasion had emerged, the House of Medici had fled the city, leaving Savonarola free to take power. This strict churchman disapproved of paintings and sculptors that showed the naked human body. As a result, prospects were not good for local sculptors.

However, in 1495, Michelangelo felt a great urge to return to Florence to see his family. While there, he made contact with some members of the House of Medici, now living under false names. One of them. Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici wanted Michelangelo to help him sell a statue that he had made earlier. It was a figure of the Roman god of love, Cupid. If the statue was aged to look like an ancient statue, Lorenzo reasoned, it would make a lot of money in Rome.

Michelangelo smeared the statue with dirt to make it look as if it had been buried. He then took the forged antique to Rome where it was purchased by a senior churchman, Cardinal Riario.

While in Rome, Michelangelo was  introduced to some powerful people, including members of the Borgia family, who numbered among them the Pope. Cardinal Riario, who was well aware that Michelangelo was really the creator of Cupid, quickly commissioned him to create  another statue for his collection.

The statue that resulted has come to be regarded as Michelangelo’s first masterpiece – the statue of Bacchus, the Greek god of wine and celebrations. Yet, although everyone else was impressed, the cardinal was not. He thought the god looked too drunk and refused to pay for the work.

Michelangelo — Bacchus.

Michelangelo — Bacchus.

Michelangelo now had to fight to get paid for a job he had already completed. On top of this, he received news that his father had fallen into bad financial straits. What he needed, and fast, was a new patron to support not just himself, but also his family.

The Pieta

For several months, nothing seemed to pan out for the 21 year-old master sculptor. He was without a patron,he was without payment for his Bacchus statue and his father was in desperate need of financial assistance. Then, In November of 1497 things took a turn for the better. He was commissioned to produce an exciting new work by  a French Ambassador by the name of Cardinal Jean Bilheres de Lagraulas. The Cardinal envisioned a statue of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Jesus, a subject known as the Pieta.

Michelangelo's Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

It took Michelangelo two years to complete the Pieta – but it was worth it. The finished work was displayed in the Vatican and everyone who saw it was amazed at the realism of the flesh and fabric that the sculptor had fashioned from cold marble.

The Pieta made Michelangelo famous. Now, the most powerful men in Europe were clamoring to have him do work for them. It seemed as if his money woes were well and truly behind him.

Artist to the Pope

Back in Florence, the scene had changed once again, Savonarola, the priest, had fallen into disfavor and been executed. It was now safe for artists to return and pursue projects there. The authorities of the Florentine cathedral began to formulate the idea to commission a giant statue of the Biblical killer of Goliath, young David.

Two sculptors had already been commissioned to do the job. Both had failed, merely managing to make the huge block of marble almost unusable. In 1501, the job was  given to Michelangelo. In order to do the job, the sculptor had to stop working on another job in Rome and relocate to Florence. This flitting from one project to another became a common practice, and one that frequently created legal ramifications.

The creation of David was an immensely challenging and lengthy job. The first decision was to choose a pose that fitted in with the way the marble had already been worked. This prevented him from emulating the traditional pose, which showed David standing with Goliath’s head at his feet. So, he decided to depict David in the moments before the fight as he were looking upon his foe.

Michelangelo's David, 1501-1504, Galleria dell'Accademia (Florence)

Michelangelo’s David, 1501-1504, Galleria dell’Accademia (Florence)

His next move was to surround the huge marble with barricades. The he went to work. He tirelessly chipped away at the giant. Three years later, the statue of David was completed. It was a triumph, with crowds lavishing rich praise on the creator of the 14-foot nude figure. The man who had commissioned the work, Piero Soderini, ruler of Florence, was also impressed – but he told Michelangelo that David’s nose was too broad. The sculptor’s stubborn pride now come to the fore. But it was tempered with common sense. Taking a handful of marble dust, he climbed up the scaffolding and pretended to chisel the nose. He then let the dust fall to the ground. Soderini declared that the nose was now much better.

Sistine Chapel

In 1503, a new pope, Julius II was elected in Rome. Julius had great artistic ambitions, and he knew who he wanted to spearhead the many projects he had in mind. Only Italy’s greatest sculptor, Michelangelo, had the skills needed to do justice to the great theocratic works that the pope envisioned.

Sistine Chapel ceiling

Sistine Chapel ceiling

Julius knocked down the unstable fifth-century Basilica of St. Peter’s in the Vatican and began rebuilding the church on a much  grander scale. The centerpiece was to be his own tomb, which would be designed and carved by Michelangelo. This massive project was intended to show the greatness of Julius as both a pope and a patron of the arts. It was to be three stories high and covered in life-sized sculptures.

The sculptor spent  the first eight months just quarrying the marble need for the project. It would prove to be his most frustrating project, one on which he would work, on and off, for the next 40 years. In the end the finished tomb was smaller than planned, but still vast. Only three of the statues were by Michelangelo – the large, bearded Moses, and the Biblical characters Rachel and Leah. And, instead of being placed in St. Peter’s, it was put in the much less grand church of San Pietro.

Moses for the tomb of Pope Julius II

Moses for the tomb of Pope Julius II

Four years into the tomb project, Pope Julius set his sights on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. The ceiling was painted with a pattern of gold stars but the Pope envisioned something far grander. Even though Michelangelo was known as a sculptor and not a painter, the Pope chose him to do the work.

The great sculptor had not worked on a fresco since his days as an apprentice back in Florence. But when the pope chose you to a job, you did it. But that didn’t mean that you had to it willingly.

Michelangelo considered himself to be a slave to the whims of the Pope. He wrote about the painting project . . .

This is not my profession. I am wasting my time, and all for nothing, may God help me!

The Sistine Chapel ceiling's most famous panel, entitled “The Creation of Adam.”

The Sistine Chapel ceiling’s most famous panel, entitled “The Creation of Adam.”

It was a massive job. The chapel’s ceiling covered a curved surface of about 5,600 square feet (507 square meters). In Addition, the ceiling had an uneven surface – and it was 60 feet above the chapel’s floor. The Pope commissioned the artist to fill this canvas with scenes from the Old Testament. Michelangelo planned out nine scenes taken from the book of Genesis. The centerpiece would be the creation of Adam.

For four pains-staking years, Michelangelo worked on the ceiling. It was back-breaking work. The figures were designed to be seen from the floor, but the artist had to paint high up on scaffolding, lying on his back. According to his official biographer, Condivi, he worked on his own, applying the plaster, mixing the colors and doing all the painting.

The results were breathtaking. The use of perspective and the dramatic rendition of the figures were admired by everyone who saw it.

Having triumphantly completed the Sistine Chapel project, Michelangelo returned to his work on the tomb of Julius. Wen Pope Julius died in 1513, the urgency went out of the project.

In 1517, the new Pope, Leo X, asked Michelangelo to design a new facade for the church of San Lorenzo in Florence. Though he had no experience as an architect, the sculptor was confident that he could do a good job. He threw himself into the project, buying a piece of land near the church in order to work on his facade. But, then, in 1520, the project was put on hold and then cancelled all together.

Michelangelo was furious. He had invested himself fully, both physically and financially into the project. Partly to placate him, the Pope gave him a replacement project – the Medici Tombs, to be created in remembrance of two members of the family who had died prematurely.

Michelangelo began work on the Medical Chapel in 1519, to which was added a library a few years later. Both buildings took years to complete and are stunning designs.

Michelangelo Tomb of Giuliano Duke of Nemours with the statues Day and Night

Michelangelo Tomb of Giuliano Duke of Nemours with the statues Day and Night

Crisis

The artist was now at the height of his creative powers. But crisis was just around the corner. In 1527, armies from France and the Holy Roman Empire  invaded Italy. Rome was looted and burned. By now there was yet another pope, Clement VII and he sided with the holy roman Empire when it besieged Florence.

A loyal Florentine, Michelangelo returned home to help defend his city. He set to work designing new fortifications to help protect the city. But his efforts were in vain. After a long struggle, the city fell, with many people being killed.

Michelangelo went into hiding, concealing  himself in a tiny crypt under the altar in the Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo. There he stayed until news came through that the Pope had no animosity against him.

The Waning Years

Michelangelo spent his latter years writing poetry and continuing to work for the popes in Rome. One of his most famous  poems describes how uncomfortable he was when painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, bent almost double, with paint splashing on his face. As he aged, he wrote more poems of a religious nature.

Michelangelo's design for St Peter's is both massive and contained, with the corners between the apsidal arms of the Greek Cross filled by square projections.

Michelangelo’s design for St Peter’s is both massive and contained, with the corners between the apsidal arms of the Greek Cross filled by square projections.

Throughout the reigns of several Popes, he held the position of chief architect at St. Peters. Meanwhile he worked on carvings that were variations of the work that had first propelled him to fame, the Pieta. It was while working on one of his Pietas on February 12th, 1564 that he began to feel feverish. He took to his bed, and despite the efforts of his doctors, died six days later. His dying wish was to have his body be returned to Florence – the city that he loved.

Michelangelo Video Biography

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