MICHELANGELO BUONARROTI: Father and Master of All the Arts

Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel in Vatican City - photo by Widewalls

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni is best known as simply Michelangelo. He was the second youngest of five sons and was born in Caprese, Valtiberina in Tuscany, Florence on 6 March 1475. He and his brothers, Leonardo, Buonarroti, Giovan and Gismondo were born to Ludovico di Leonardo Buonarroti and Francesca di Neri del Miniato di Siena Simoni. Ludovico had been a banker, following in the family tradition, but when the institution folded, he accepted the post of Judicial Administrator of Caprese and Local Administrator of nearby Chiusi della Verna.  

Portrait of Michelangelo by Daniele da Volterra, 1544 – photo by The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Some months after Michelangelo was born, Ludovico took the family back to Florence. Francesca died when the boy was six years old and he was sent to live in Settignano, where Ludovico owned a farm and a marble quarry, and where his son’s love of the material was established. He attended a local grammar school under the tutelage of Francesco da Urbino but had more interest in copying paintings in churches than in his studies. 

At age 13, he was taken on by Domenico Ghirlandaio, known as a master of frescoes, as an apprentice. The teacher owned the largest Florentine workshop and was persuaded by Buonarotti senior to pay his son as an artist, at the tender age of fourteen. In 1489, Lorenzo de’ Medici asked Ghirlandaio to send him two best pupils; Michelangelo and his to-be lifelong friend Francesco Granacci were chosen. Michelangelo is known best for being a sculptor and a painter, but he was also an architect and a poet, and a contemporary of one of the other greatest artists of the time, Leonardo da Vinci.  

Madonna of the Stairs, 1491 – photo by Wikipedia

The following year he began living at the Medici Riccardi Palace, then owned by Lorenzo de’ Medici, or Lorenzo the Magnificent, a powerful ruler of Florence and patron of the arts. At the palace, Michelangelo studied classical sculpture under Bertoldo di Giovanni, where he was also exposed to ancient Greek and Roman art. 

He received his first two commissions at this time, in approximately 1490, when he was fifteen; Madonna of the Stairs (marble, 56.7 x 40.1 cm) and Battle of the Centaurs (completed in 1492, marble, 84.5 x 90.5 cm). Both pieces are held in the Casa Buonarroti Museum in Florence. 

Lorenzo de’ Medici died in April 1492 and Michelangelo moved to Bologna. There, he was commissioned to create three statues for the Basilica of San Domenico; Angel, Saint Proclus and Saint Petronus. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is known to have played the organ in the chapel while he was studying there in 1769. 

Angel by Michelangelo, 1494 – photo by Arthive

Cardinal Raffaele Riario of San Giorgio, who at sixteen was the youngest cardinal to be ordained, was also a dedicated patron of the arts. He purchased what he was made to believe was an antique sculpture of Cupid, carved by Michelangelo. The artist had been persuaded by Lorenzo di Pierfranceso de’ Medici to rub the work with acid in order to age its appearance. The piece was first sold to dealer Baldassare del Milanese, who sold it on to the cardinal. Riario discovered the ruse and asked for his payment to be returned by Baldassare but allowed the 21-year old artist to retain his share of the proceeds. The statue was later acquired by Cesare Borgia, who donated it to a fellow patron of the arts, Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua. She was married to Francesco II Gonzaga, a powerful family that ruled Mantua between 1328-1708.  

During the 17th century, Charles I bought the Gonzaga art collections and moved them to London. It is probable that Cupid was destroyed in the great fire of Whitehall Palace in that city in 1698. The palace had been built by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (later Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII). The king appropriated the property in 1530, and had it extensively renovated and extended. 

“Manhattan Cupid” by Michelangelo, 1490 – photo by The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The fire began on 4 January 1698, when a Dutch maid left linen sheets drying on a brazier in a bedchamber. Despite being prohibited from leaving these unattended, the maid did so. The sheets ignited, which set the bed hangings and then the entire complex alight. The blaze lasted for 15 hours, destroying all but the Banqueting House. This was saved by the quick thinking of King William III, who ordered the windows to be bricked up to prevent oxygen from feeding the fire. Some twenty buildings were destroyed with gunpowder as a firebreak, but this merely served to spread the fire as burning remnants set other buildings alight. Pumps and buckets were used in an attempt to contain the blaze, but the mostly wooden structure was not able to be saved. Looters added to the chaos when they climbed over the palace walls and stole whatever valuable goods they could. The maid who was responsible for starting the fire lost her life in the tragedy. Along with Cupid, other priceless artefacts including Hans Holbein’s mural Portrait of Henry VIII and Bernini’s bust of King Charles were lost. 

Cardinal Riario invited Michelangelo to Rome in 1496, where he was commissioned to create one of his two greatest pieces, The Pieta (The Pity), for the French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères’ funeral monument. 

Pietà by Michelangelo, 1498–1499 – photo by ItalianRenaissance.org

Michelangelo did not sign any of his work, but for this piece, after overhearing it being said that the work had been created by Cristoforo Solari. He then carved the words Michaela[n]gelus Bonarotus Florentin[us] Facieba[t (Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this), on the sash across Mary’s chest. Historian Georgio Vasari reported that the artist late regretted the action and vowed to never sign another of his creations. 

The Pieta was originally installed in the Chapel of Santa Petronilla, the location chosen by the cardinal. This was demolished when St Peter’s was rebuilt in the 16th century after the original building fell into ruin. The artwork was moved several times before, on 3rd December 1749 on Pope Benedict XIV’s instructions, being permanently installed in the first chapel to the right of the entrance to St Peter’s. Between November and December 1497, Michelangelo visited Lucca, north of Rome, where he sourced the single block of Carrara marble from which he created the masterpiece. Georgia Vasari said of it; “No sculptor or supreme artist could ever consider it possible to add with design or grace nor with effort improve the elegance, linearity and sculpt the marble with such artistic talent.” 

Pieta in Vatican after vandalism in 1972, 1499 – photo by Wikipedia

A violent and destructive assault on the priceless work occurred on Pentecost Sunday, 21 May 1972 when Laszlo Toth, a Hungarian-Australian geologist who was mentally unstable, struck off Mary’s arm at the elbow, broke off part of her nose and chipped an eyelid with a hammer, while proclaiming “I am Jesus Christ, I have risen from the dead!” Many of the marble chips were swept up and recovered, as were three larger chips taken but later returned by tourists, but many pieces were lost. A portion of marble removed from Mary’s back was used to complete the painstaking restoration work. The vandal was committed to an insane asylum for two years before being deported to Australia; the entire artwork is now protected by a bullet-proof acrylic glass panel. 

In 1501, Michelangelo returned to Florence, where he completed his other most important work, the statue of David. The six-ton, 5.17m (17ft) image was unveiled on 8 September 1504 in the Piazza Della Signoria, a public square off the Palazzo Vecchio, after initially being commissioned to stand on the roofline of the Florence Cathedral, as part of a series of twelve Old Testament prophets. It was relocated in 1873 to the Galleria dell’ Accademia in Florence, and a replica erected in 1910 stands in its stead at the original location. 

David by Michelangelo, 1501-1504 – photo by Accademia Gallery

Michelangelo was not the first man to work on the statue. As part of the original twelve sculptures envisaged, Donatello created a terracotta figure of Moses’ assistant, Joshua, in 1810. Probably under that master’s direction, Agostino di Duccio was appointed in 1463 to carve a statue of Hercules, also in terracotta. A year later Agostino was commissioned to create David in marble from the Carrara quarries. However, he only completed a small portion of work on the legs, feet, torso and drapery.  He stopped work on the project altogether when Donatello died in 1466. Antonio Rossellino was appointed ten years later to complete the project, but his contract was hastily terminated. The unfinished piece remained in the cathedral workshop for a further twenty-six years, to the dismay of the authorities as purchasing and transporting the massive block to Florence had been both expensive and challenging. It took a further eight years, until 1500, for the Overseers of the Office of Works (the Operai), to look for a suitable artist to finally complete the task. Leonardo da Vinci and other eminent experts were consulted, but on 16 August 1501, 26-year old Michelangelo was appointed. He began work a month later, on 13 September, and the incomparable work was completed two years later. Records show that it took four days for the massive carving to be moved the half-mile from the artist’s workshop to the Piazza Della Signoria. 

David was damaged in September 1991 by a mentally unstable and unemployed 47-year old Italian, Piero Cannata. He had carried a hammer concealed under his jacket into the museum and proceeded to smash the second toe of the left foot. He claimed that ‘Nina’, a Veronese woman who had modelled for Michelangelo, had instructed him to carry out the deed. The damage was not irreparable, as all the fragments were gathered up, but as the museum’s director Antonio Paolucci was quoted as saying, “The moral impact remains. The world’s most famous statue has been damaged.” 

Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, fresco, by Michelangelo, 1508-1512 – photo by Khan Academy

Michelangelo was again recalled to Rome in 1505 when he was commissioned to create a tomb for Pope Julius II, but after forty years of work, it remained uncompleted. 

During this time, between 1508-1512, the master completed his iconic work on the Sistine Chapel. He had been commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the chapel, named after Pope Sixtus IV. The nine central panels of the ceiling are in three sections, all based on books of Genesis. Noah is represented in the first section with The Drunkenness of Noah (Genesis 9,20-27), The Flood (Genesis 6, 5-8, 20) and The Sacrifice of Noah (Genesis 8, 15-20). The middle section comprises the Creation and Perdition of Adam and Eve; Original Sin and Banishment from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3, 1-13), Creation of Eve (Genesis 2, 18-25) and the Creation of Adam (Genesis 1, 26-27). The right-hand panels represent creation with Separation of Land from Sea (Genesis 1, 9-10), Creation of the Sun, Moon and Planets (Genesis 1, 11-19) and Separation of Light from Darkness (Genesis 1, 1-5). 

The Last Judgement by Michelangelo, fresco, 1536-1541 – photo by Italian Renaissance Art

He was further commissioned by Pope Paul III (formerly Alessandro Farnese) to paint the enormous fresco The Last Judgement, (1.4m x 4.5m) over the altar of the Sistine Chapel, which he completed between 1535-1541. The pope and the artist discussed the theme for the artwork and decided to base it on the sacking of Rome in 1527, when Charles V’s troops, numbering some 34000, mutinied and entered Rome of their own accord when they were not paid by the Holy Roman Emperor after defeating the French army in Italy. The Pope needed to send a message to the troops that there would be consequences for their actions, thus saints are depicted as entering the Kingdom of Heaven with Jesus, but the sinners are sentenced to eternity in Hell. The art courted controversy as Jesus is depicted naked, as are the dead arising from their graves. Cardinal Carafa and Monsignor Sernini objected strongly, saying nudity in the Church was obscene and unacceptable. Despite the Pope’s objections, Michelangelo’s apprentice, Daniele da Volterra, was commissioned in 1564 to overpaint the exposed genitalia. 

Even though Michelangelo wanted to complete the work on Pope Julius II’s tomb, Pope Paul III insisted that the artist paint two frescoes for the Capella Paolina, a chapel in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican. The commission was to paint The Conversion of Saul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter, which he undertook between 1542-1549. These were Michelangelo’s last paintings, and reputedly include his own face superimposed on those of the saints. 

The Crucifixion of St. Peter, 1542-1549 – photo by Web Gallery of Art

He was a private man, preferring solitude to company, and was a staunch Catholic. He lived in poor circumstances and apparently only ate out of necessity. According to his biographer Paolo Giovio, “His nature was so rough and uncouth that his domestic habits were incredibly squalid, and deprived posterity of any pupils who might have followed him.” 

He never married, and his biographer Ascanio Condivi described him as having ‘monk-like chastity’. However, the artist’s poetry may reveal a homosexual bent. He wrote about three hundred sonnets, quatrains (four-line poems) and madrigals (defined as ‘a song, developed in Italy in the 14th century, that is performed without musical instruments and in which several singers sing different notes at the same time’). He had a friendship, possibly a romance, with the nobleman Tommaso del Cavalieri for over thirty years. They met in 1532, when Michelangelo was 57, and Cavalieri 23, to whom thirty poems were dedicated. They comprise the first known poetry on that scale addressed by one man to another, preceding Shakespeare’s work by fifty years. The younger man revealed their relationship by writing “I swear to return your love. Never have I loved a man more than I love you, never have I wished for a friendship more than I wish for yours.” Michelangelo’s grandnephew, Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, had the poems published in 1623, but with the genders changed to make it appear that his namesake was heterosexual. The original version was only reinstated in 1893 when cultural historian John Addington Symonds translated them into English.  

Rondanini Pietà by Michelangelo, 1564 – photo by Wikipedia

However, this was not the only relationship Michelangelo had; he was involved for little more than a year with his sixteen-year-old pupil Ceccino del Bracci, whom he met in 1542, but the teen died in January 1544. Other young men who modelled for the artist were known to have relationships with him. 

He also had a platonic relationship with Vittoria Colonna, Marchioness of Pescara, who was also mentor to the master. They had met in Rome in about 1536 and maintained a relationship until her death in February 1547. She was a deeply religious intellectual and recognised poet; when her husband died, she sought sanctuary at a Roman convent, although she did not take vows.  

Towards the end of his life, Michelangelo was less prolific as a sculptor and artist. Donato Bramante was an Italian architect who was appointed to redesign the 4th century St Peter’s Basilica. His death in 1514 saw other architects appointed to complete the project until, in 1546, Michelangelo was commissioned to finalise the work. The authorities were concerned that the artist would not live to see its end, but his design survived him, and the edifice was opened on 18 November 1626. A priceless discovery was made on 7 December 2007, when one of the last plan sketches he made, a partial drawing of the dome in red chalk, was found in the Vatican archives. 

Michelangelo had begun sculpting the Rondanini Pieta in 1552, which he was working on six days before he died aged 88 at his home in Macel de’ Corvi, in Rome, on 18 February 1564. His remains were transported back to Florence, where he was buried at the Basilica di Santa Croce as he had requested. 

He continues to be revered today as ‘the father and master of all the arts’.