Olga's Gallery


Michelangelo

(1475-1564)





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            Michelangelo is certainly one of the most representative artists of the XVI century: a sculptor, painter, architect, and poet; a true Renaissance man in the best tradition of his contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci. He lived to a great age, and enjoyed great fame in his lifetime. Titian, and Venetian painting generally, was very much influenced by his vision, and he is responsible in large measure for the development of Mannerism.

            Michelangelo di Ludovico di Lionardo di Buonarroti Simoni was born in 1475, in a village called Caprese Michelangelo, in the Casention area of Arrezo province, Tuscany, Italy. His father was Lodovico di Leonardo di Buonarotti di Simoni, a local magistrate; his mother was Francesca di Neri del Miniato di Siena. His family, the Buonarroti di Simoni, were descendants of the Countess Matilda of Tuscany, and considered minor nobility. They are mentioned in the Florentine chronicles as early as the XII century. However, Michelangelo's parents spent little time with him, and he spent much of his childhood with a sculptor and his wife in the town of Settignano, where his father owned a marble quarry.
            It was thus quite natural that the young Michelangelo would want to pursue a career in art, despite his father's vehement, and sometimes violent, opposition to the idea. In 1488, at the age of 13, Michelangelo entered the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio, which speaks highly of his budding talent, as Ghirlandaio was by this time an established and well-known painter, and could afford to be picky with his apprentices. Thus, Michelangelo came under the influence of Masaccio, because Ghirlandaio not only looked to Masaccio for ideas on depicting religious scenes, but actually imitated certain elements of his designs. After less than a year, on Ghirlandaio's recommendation, Michelangelo moved to the academy set up by Lorenzo the Magnificent. From 1489 till 1492, he lived in the Palazzo Medici in Via Larga, where he could study “antique and good statues” and could meet the sophisticated humanists and writers of the Medici circle, such as Pico della Mirandolla, Marsilio Ficino and Angelo Poliziano.
            During this time, Michelangelo painted Madonna of the Steps (1490-1492) and Battle of the Centaurs (1491-1492).
            Lorenzo the Magnificent died in 1492, and in 1494 the Medici were expelled from Florence. Under the brief rule of the priest Savonarola, whose ascetic religion and republican ideas influenced the young man deeply, Michelangelo was treated somewhat coldly because of his association with the Medici. However, he was allowed to go on with his work.
            In 1494, Michelangelo left Florence and went first to Venice and then to Bologna, where he would absorb their art and culture. In 1496, he eventually arrived in Rome and stayed there until 1501. He would visit Florence briefly several times during this period but always leave quickly, alarmed by the city's instability.
            Between 1497 and 1499, he carved the Pieta for the Vatican, one of his most famous works. Considered by contemporaries (and many modern historians) the perfect union of Christian emotion with classical form, the sculpture would bring him widespread recognition and fame.
            Returning, famous, to Florence in 1501, Michelangelo was commissioned by the new republican government to carve a colossal David, symbol of resistance and independence. Arguably his most famous work, the statue would finally establish his reputation as a sculptor extraordinaire.
            In 1504, the Signoria of Florence commissioned Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo to paint the walls of the Grand Council Chamber in the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of government of Florence. Leonardo worked on the Battle of Anghiari and Michelangelo on the the Battle of Cascina. Florence was immediately divided into two camps passionately supporting one or the other. Neither work was finished. Michelangelo's did not go any further than the cartoon for the picture, which also was destroyed in the civil conflict of 1512.
            In 1505, Michelangelo was summoned by the new Pope Julius II to Rome and entrusted with the design of the pope’s tomb. The original grandiose project was never carried out. Although only 3 of the 40 life-size or larger figures were executed – Moses, Rebellious Slave (unfinished), Dying Slave – this commission dominated most of the rest of the artist's life. The constantly interrupted work on the tomb ended only in 1547, 40 years and 5 revised contracts later. Victory and Crouching Boy were also carved for one of the projects of the tomb. The final version of it is in San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome.
            In 1508, Julius transferred the artist to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo accepted the commission, but right from the start he considered Pope Julius’ plans altogether too simple. It was something unheard of for a patron to allow his own plans to be completely changed by an artist. In this case, moreover, the change of plan meant that the work would have an entirely different meaning from the original one.
            Since he was not very familiar with the technique of fresco, Michelangelo needed the help of several Florentine painters, as well as their advice. But his ambition to produce a work that would be absolutely exceptional made it impossible for him to work with others, and in the end he did the whole thing himself. This was something quite unprecedented. Not only was the work so vast in scale, but no artist hitherto had ever undertaken a whole cycle of frescoes without an efficient group of helpers. Michelangelo helped create his own legend, complaining of the enormous difficulties of the enterprise. In his sonnet On the Painting of the Sistine Chapel, he described all the discomforts involved in painting a ceiling, how much he hated the place, and how he despaired of being a painter at all.
            In order to fulfill the task, Michelangelo had to design his own scaffold and, after traditional plaster failed on him, had to use a new type of plaster, which was mixed for him by one of his assisstants. The plaster entered Italian building tradition and is still used today.
            After the death of Julius II in 1513, the two Medici popes, Leo X (1513-21) and Clement VII (1523-34) preferred to keep Michelangelo well away from Rome and from the tomb of Julius II, so that he could work on the Medici church of San Lorenzo in Florence. This project was aborted too, although Michelangelo was able to fulfill some of his architectural and sculptural projects in the Laurentian Library and the New Sacristy, or Medici Chapel, of San Lorenzo. The Medici Chapel fell just short of being completed: two of the Medici tombs intended for the Chapel were installed, the Tomb of Giuliano de' Medici and Tomb of Lorenzo de' Medici, and for the 3rd tomb, Michelangelo had carved his last great Madonna (unfinished) when he left Florence forever in 1534.
            It was during this period, while he was planning the tombs in the New Sacristy, that German Landknechts under Charles V sacked Rome in 1527. Florentines used this opportunity to overthrow the Medici and restore the republic, as a result of which, Florence was besieged shortly thereafter. Michelangelo used his expertise in engineering to help fortify the city, but despite this, Florence fell back into Medici hands in 1530. During the siege, he also managed to get away for a while to look after his own property. Michelangelo's alignment with the Florentine republicans naturally incurred the displeasure of Alessandro de Medici, but the latter was murdered in 1537 by Lorenzino, who was more sympathetic towards the artist. Michelangelo commemorated this event in his bust of Brutus.
            In September 1534, Michelangelo settled down finally in Rome, and he was to stay there for the rest of his life, despite flattering invitations from Cosimo I Medici to return to Florence. The new Pope, a Farnese who took the name of Paul III, confirmed the commission that Clement VII had already given him for a large fresco of The Last Judgment over the altar of the Sistine Chapel. Far from being an extension of the ceiling, this was an entirely different work and a completely new statement. Over 20 years had passed between the 2 projects, full of political events and personal sorrows. The mood of The Last Judgment is somber; the naked Christ is not a figure of consolation, but one of vengeance and retribution, and even the Saved struggle painfully towards Salvation. The work was officially unveiled on 31 October 1541.
            Michelangelo's last paintings were frescos in the Cappella Paolina just beside the Sistine Chapel, completed in 1550, when he was 75 years old: The Conversion of Paul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter.
            Michelangelo's crowning achievements, however, were architectural. In 1537-39, he received a commission to reshape the Campidoglio, the top of Rome's Capitoline Hill, into a square. Although not completed until long after his death, the project was carried out essentially as he had designed it. In 1546, Michelangelo was appointed architect to St. Peter's. The cathedral was constructed according to Donato Bramante’s plan, but Michelangelo became ultimately responsible for its dome and the exterior of the altar end of the building.
            He continued in his last years to write poetry, and carved the two extraordinary, haunting and pathetic Late Pietas. He was wokring on one of them, The Rondanini Pieta in Milan, just 6 days before his death.
            The artist died on 18th of February 1564 at the age of 89 and was buried in Florence, according to his wishes.
            Michelangelo's prestige stands very high nowadays, as it did in his own age. He went out of favor for a time, especially in the 17th century, on account of a general preference for the works of Raphael, Correggio and Titian; but with the early Romantics in England, and the return to the Gothic, he made an impressive return. In the 20th century the unfinished, unresolved creations of the great master evoke especially great interest, maybe because in the 20th century, the aesthetic focus is no longer only the finished piece of art, but also the inextricable relationship between the artist's personality and his work.
 

Notes

The Sistine Chapel

        When Michelangelo was invited to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the lower walls of it were already decorated with scenes from the lives of Moses and Christ, executed by the Florentine and Umbrian artists Botticelli (The Temptation of Christ (1481-1482), Scenes from the Life of Moses (1481-1482), The Punishment of Korah (1481-1482)), Cosimo Rosselli, Piero di Cosimo, Domenico Ghirlandaio (The Calling of St. Peter), Luca Signorelli, Pinturicchio and Pietro Perugino (The Delivery of the Keys (1482)). Above these frescoes, which occupied straightforward rectangular fields, Michelangelo created his masterpiece.
        The twelve existing windows along the lateral walls of the chapel he integrated by means of twelve lunettes capped with twelve spandrels. In them he depicted ancestors of Christ:
Azor and Sadok; Josias, Jechonias and Salathiel; Ezekias, Manasses and Amon; Asa, Josaphat and Joram; Jesse, David and Solomon; Naasson; Aminadab; Salmon, Booz and Obed; Roboam and Abia; Ozias, Joatham and Achaz; Zorobabel; Abiud and Eliakim; Achim and Eliud; Jacob and Joseph; Eleazar and Matthan.

Between these he placed the large seated figures of the Prophets and Sibyls: The Prophet Zechariah, The Sibyl of Delphi, The Prophet Isiah, The Cumaean Sibyl, The Prophet Daniel, The Libyan Sibyl, The Prophet Jonah, The Persian Sibyl, The Prophet Jeremiah, The Erythraean Sibyl, The Prophet Ezekiel, The Prophet Joel.

The four corner frescoes, pendentives, are: David and Goliath; Judith and Holofernes; The Punishment of Haman; The Brazen Serpent.

        The entire central section of the ceiling he crossed with painted arches, dividing the ceiling into nine pictorial fields. The arches are supported at either end by painted columns. Between the arches, Michelangelo skillfully grouped the nine central fields thus created into three triptychs: The Creation of the World, The Creation and Fall of Man, and The Story of Noah.
        The Creation of the World consists of three frescoes: The Separation of Light and Darkness, The Creation of the Sun and Moon, The Separation of Land and Water.
        The Creation and Fall of Man includes the following frescoes: The Creation of Adam, The Creation of Eve, The Fall and The Expulsion from Paradise.
        The Story of Noah consists of frescoes:  The Sacrifice of Noah, The Flood, The Drunkenness of Noah.
        He thereby organized the fields into a rhythmical sequence in which a large picture is flanked by two smaller ones, a device which dramatically emphasizes the four main scenes: The Creation of Sun and Moon, The Creation of Adam, The Fall and the Expulsion from Paradise, and The Flood.
        At the meeting of the cornices are twenty Ignudi, paintings of naked young men, who have no connection whatsoever to the theme of the rest of the project. Michelangelo's reasons for including them are unknown, but it is mostly likely that they were simply aesthetic: Michangelo admired the male figure and often used male models even for his depictions of women.
        The extraordinary thing about Michelangelo's design is that it is designed and articulated as a single unit. The groups are framed in a system of cornices in such a way that they produce the effect of enormous three-dimensional plaques and cameos. At the same time, not a single one of the frescoes is meant to stand on its own; and each one is perfectly integrated to form the unity of the whole.
 

The Last Judgment

The Last Judgement, supposed to happen on the last day of creation, is described most vividly in Matthew 25:

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory. And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. (Matthew 25:31-34) Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41) And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. (Matthew 25:46)

The work was officially unveiled on 31 October 1541, and was a scandal. Everyone accused Michelangelo of blasphemy and sacrilege. The nude figures and their poses teased and irritated the authorities and the artist's enemies, and they demanded the fresco be destroyed. However, the Pope Paul III was adamant that the fresco should stay. Pope Paul IV, Paul's III successor, instructed the painter Daniel da Volterra to dress the figures, where possible, or at least clothe the most offensive parts of their bodies. Michelangelo impassively watched the mutilation of his work, commenting: “Tell His Holiness that this is a small matter, which can easily be rectified. Let His Holiness attend to the reform of the world: reforming a painting is easily done.” You can see a copy of the original fresco before it was "dressed".

1. Christ and the Virgin. Michelangelo's Christ scandalized the contemporaries because he is very young and handsome, bears no beard, and is not seated as described in the Bible.
2. In the group on Christ's left the central figure is St. John the Baptist. Behind him a group of women – saints, virgins and martyrs.
3. In the group on the Christ's right is St. Peter, he is offering two huge keys to Christ, emblems of the power to bind and to release men from sin that had been delegated to the Popes.
4. Below Christ on the left is the figure of St. Lawrence, holding his gridiron.
5. Below Christ on the right is the figure of St. Bartholomew, with the skin that was stripped from him when he was martyred. The skin is a self-portrait of the artist.
6. Left-hand lunette: angels lifting up the cross.
7. Right-hand lunette: angels, lifting up “the column of the flagellation”.
8. Right part of the fresco below the group of saints: The resurrection of the body. The damned are being sucked down into hell.

Bibliography:
Michelangelo. Poems. Correspondence. Opinions of Contemporaries. Moscow. Iskusstvo. 1983.
Michelangelo: Painting. by Luciano Bellosi. Thames and Hudson. 1984
Painting of Europe. XIII-XX centuries. Encyclopedic Dictionary. Moscow. Iskusstvo. 1999.
The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo by Irving Stone. New American Library, 1996.
Michelangelo: The Complete Sculpture, Painting, Architecture by Michelangelo Buonarroti, William E. Wallace. Beaux Arts Editions, 1998.
Michelangelo: The Frescoes of the Sistine Chapel by Marcia B. Hall, Takashi Okamura (Photographer). Harry N Abrams, 2002.
Michelangelo by Diane Stanley.  HarperCollins, 2000.
Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King. Walker & Co, 2003.
Michelangelo: The Vatican Frescoes by Pierluigi De Vecchi, Gianluigi Colalucci. Abbeville Press, Inc., 1997.

Biography and historical notes by Olga Mataev and Yuri Mataev

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