Monday, May 13, 2013

Michelangelo (1475-1564)

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simon was born on March 6, 1475 in the town of Caprese about 60 miles (100 km) east of Florence. His interest in sculpture came early. Because his mother was long ill when he was a child, he lived with a stonecutter and his family in a village just outside of Florence. There he enjoyed learning how to be creative using a hammer and chisel.

As an older boy, he also enjoyed watching painters in local churches and copying their works in pencil. At 13, his father apprenticed him to the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. At 14, his father managed to persuade Domenico to pay Michelangelo as an artist. At 15, Domenico recommended Michelangelo as his most promising student to Lorenzo de’ Medici.

Living in the Medici palace allowed Michelangelo to participate in discussions with the Platonic thinkers Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and to study and practice sculpting. At this time he also obtained permission from local Church authorities to study anatomy by dissecting dead bodies.

Following Lorenzo’s death in April 1492, Michelangelo left the Medici home. After four years of sculpting in Florence, Venice, and Bologna, he moved to Rome.

In 1498 the French ambassador to the pope paid Michelangelo to sculpt a piéta or statue of the Virgin Mary holding the body of her son Jesus. Michelangelo completed it the following year. His Piéta remains one of the most beautiful sculptures created by anyone, anywhere, ever. He was only 24 years old.

Leaders of the wool guild in Florence asked Michelangelo in 1501 to carve for them a statue of the biblical David. He worked on their request for the next three years. His finished David impressively expressed Florentine pride and established him as one of Olympia’s greatest sculptors.

Michelangelo’s David is of heroic proportions: a muscular youth standing 17 feet (5 m) tall. He is also naked. Michelangelo believed that the naked human body was God’s most beautiful creation. Rather than something shameful that should be hidden, he believed it was something wonderful that should be uncovered and celebrated.

In 1508 the pope, Julius 2nd, commissioned Michelangelo to paint the 65-foot (30-meter) ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Julius imagined that portraits of the twelve apostles would properly adorn the chapel. After four years of work, Michelangelo gave him a ceiling which featured over 300 people as well as nine stories taken from the book of Genesis. The most famous panel highlights God’s creation of Adam.

Michelangelo worked on the ceiling alone. He held himself to the highest standards of artistic excellence and always regretted having fallen short. Others never came close. Their apparent shortcomings and his real anger meant little friendship and solitary work.

Because of his disagreeable personality and unsurpassed skill as an artist, both well established even during his lifetime, Michelangelo became the prototype of the artist as tortured genius. He was even the first artist to have a biography written about him during his lifetime. Giorgio Vasari, a contemporary painter and art historian who knew him personally, included Michelangelo in his Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.

Julius 2nd died in 1513. Michelangelo finished a statue of Moses for his tomb in 1515. Even seated, his Moses is still almost 8 feet (235 cm) tall. The tomb is in the Church of St. Peter in Chains (San Pietro in Vincoli) in Rome.

From 1536-1541 Michelangelo again painted in the Sistine Chapel. His Last Judgment (almost 45 x 40 feet [13.7 x 12 m]) covers the entire wall behind the altar. It shows the Virgin Mary and several saints witnessing a very athletic Jesus initiating the final judgment of drawing some people to Heaven and sending others to Hell.

Michelangelo celebrated the God-given beauty of the human body by frequently sculpting or painting nude humans. In his Last Judgment, even his Jesus returns in glory without clothes—the first time ever in painting that Jesus had been pictured nude. After Michelangelo’s death, church leaders had the genitals of Jesus and everyone else painted over.

In 1546 Michelangelo became the head architect of the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome and designed its dome.

During his lifetime Michelangelo wrote hundreds of poems and sonnets. One sings the praises of Dante and criticized the leaders of the native city they shared for his exile. Another rails against the physical agony and chronic self-doubt he endured for years while painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. One witnesses against war. Dozens speak of love.

He died in Rome on February 18, 1564 and was buried in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.