Michelangelo (1475–1564), a painter by force – divine, yet miserable

Michelangelo, Pieta, Basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano

Michelangelo, Pieta, Basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano

Michelangelo raised painting and sculpture, until then thought of as craft and decorating, to the status of art, while its creators to the status of artists, who should be admired and given a high social status. He was conscious of his talent, a self-confident perfectionist, yet also an uncompromising man. He was characterized by pride and an independent way of thinking, which he was wont of showing to his clients. He was also the first artist of modern times, who was able to force his own conditions and prices upon his clients. He was however, a man who was undemanding, modest and insensitive to luxury.

Michelangelo, Pieta, Basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano
Bust of Michelangelo, Musei Capitolini
Michelangelo, vault of the Sistine Chapel, fragment, pic. Wikipedia
Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel, main altar, The Last Judgement, fragment, pic. Wikipedia
Michelangelo, dome of the Basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano
Michelangelo, funerary monument of Pope Julius II (statue of Moses and the lying figure of the pope), Church of San Pietro in  Vincoli
Michelangelo, Risen Christ, Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva
Michelangelo, dome of the Basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano
Michelangeloł, design of Capitoline Square
Michelangelo,façade of Palazzo Farnese
Michelangelo, design of the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli
Michelangelo, Porta Pia
Michelangelo, statue of Moses, funerary monument of Julius II, Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli
Michelangelo, interior of the dome of the Basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano, completed by Giacomo della Porta
Bust commemorating the designer of the dome of the Basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano

Michelangelo raised painting and sculpture, until then thought of as craft and decorating, to the status of art, while its creators to the status of artists, who should be admired and given a high social status. He was conscious of his talent, a self-confident perfectionist, yet also an uncompromising man. He was characterized by pride and an independent way of thinking, which he was wont of showing to his clients. He was also the first artist of modern times, who was able to force his own conditions and prices upon his clients. He was however, a man who was undemanding, modest and insensitive to luxury.

 

Michelangelo was born in a small town near Florence. When he was six years old, his mother died and his father gave him to be raised by a stonemason family in a nearby by town of Settignano. Much to the disappointment of is father, who desired an official post for young Michelangelo, more than Latin and Greek he was interested in drawing. Let us not forget that in those times the profession of an artist – sculptor, painter or caster – was treated as a craft fit for people of lower social status. However, the father placed the thirteen-year old boy in one of Florentine workshops which was owned by Domenico Ghirlandaio. This meant working at the side of the master, in exchange for food, lodgings and a paltry allowance – this is what learning this profession meant, a process which was, in the case of Michelangelo, to last three years. Domenico Ghirlandaio showed the boy the difficult art of fresco painting, which would later turn out to be the ability which set out his artistic career path. Ghirlandaio was however, a painter while his student much preferred sculpture. Therefore, it should come as no surprise, that he did not stay long in his master’s workshop and left, not even waiting for the end of his apprenticeship. The sculpting workshop, which at that time attracted young people, was located in the gardens of the Florentine Church of San Marco, where the patron of art, and lover of antiquity Lawrence de Medici, established a school which mainly developed the ability to copy antique sculptures. This is where Michelangelo ended up, and it was not only work but also taking part in the life of the de Medici family, which was for the young man quite an attraction. Since then he lived in the palace, shared his meals with the de Medici children, and could listen in on the conversations and debates regarding art and literature.


As is described by Giorgio Vasari, already as a boy, Michelangelo was aloof and conceited, and these traits worsened, as he became aware of his above-average skills. He was secretive, violent and jealous, suspicious and envious. His nonchalance and thinking he was above his colleagues often led to problems, even fights, of which one left a lasting mark – a broken nose. His face, which was not too handsome to begin with, was stigmatized forever. Unfortunately, his stay at the de Medici court ended with the death of his patron. In Florence the “reign” of Girolamo Savonarola had begun – a fanatic monk-reformer whose sermons Michelangelo listed to with intent. He preached the futility of all earthly pleasures, including art, which culminated with acts of burning paintings, musical instruments and books which were considered blasphemous. Certainly, the sensitive soul of the young artist was at a crossroads – between the desire to show ideal, often erotic corporeal beauty, encountered at the de Medicis’, and the search for sanctity and purity in art, which brought man closer to God.

 

Michelangelo began looking for work – he was ambitious, self-confident and to a large extent artistically prepared. He left Florence and came to Rome. Here, he was able to get to know antique building and statues, admire their beauty and harmony. Here, at the commission of one of the French cardinals he agreed to complete a tombstone sculpture of the Pieta, meaning the mourning over Christ’s body by the Virgin Mary. This sculpture was a breakthrough accomplishment in his career. It brought him fame and acclaim which quickly reached the ears of Pope Julius II. This great builder and funder entrusted Buonarroti with works on a memorable task, such as the ambitious young artist dreamed of. It was to be a monumental papal tomb, of which the completion time was estimated to be five years. The artist build a workshop, where giant statues of unnatural size were to be completed, he bought slabs of marble for the planned forty sculptures and waited to begin work. However, the pope was slow in making the final decision, at the same time moving away from the incessant artist. The disappointed and insulted Michelangelo returned to Florence. When he was once again called upon by the pope, he was entrusted with the creation of a monumental bronze figure of Julius II for the city of Bologna. Three years later (1511), the inhabitants of the city destroyed his work in an act of demonstrating their dislike for the pope. When Julius II once again postponed the construction of the tomb and entrusted the artist with another prestigious task – the painting decoration of the vault of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo was thoroughly disappointed. He considered himself to be a sculptor, a very good one at that and sculpture was what interested him, not painting. He did not respect it and did not feel himself to be a master in this field. In a biography which was authorized by him, we can find out that in this commission he even saw the pope’s ill will and the machinations of artists who looked disfavorably upon him – Donato Bramante and Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) and who wanted as he had believed, to put him to shame. Unveiling the frescos after four years of difficulty, doubts and hard work brought him further renown – also as a painter. From that time until the end of his life Michelangelo was flooded with commissions of subsequent popes and wealthy families. However, he constantly returned to the greatest challenge and dream, which was the tomb of Julius II. In the end he worked on it forty years never having finished it, which was as he himself had stated, the reason for “his tragedy”.

For years, Michelangelo accepted all commissions, and many were left unfinished, as he complained about too much work and inhuman effort, which he put forth desiring to overcome all his artistic challenges. In letters to his family he complained about chronic tiredness, stress and the feeling of encirclement and dejection connected with it. He continuously travelled between Florence and Rome, to finally settle in the Eternal City in 1534. The following pope, Paul III, appointed him the chief architect, sculptor and painter of the Vatican. His tasks also included the decoration of walls this time of the main altar of the Sistine Chapel. When the fresco adorning it was uncovered – The Last Judgement, upon which countless nude figures appeared, and even a couple of kissing men – a scandal erupted. Nobody dared question the talent and greatness of the artistic vision, yet the period of uncritical applause for antique nudity was gone. From that time generations of popes and artists, all the way to the XIX century would endeavor to cover up and camouflage Michelangelo’s message. However, this was not the master’s last work. At the pope’s request, as an over eighty-year old man, he decided to take over the post of chief architect of the still unfinished works on St. Peter’s Basilica (San Pietro in Vaticano). Beginning this work, he changed and destroyed everything that until now, had been built by his predecessors; he once again proposed a central structure, finished off with a monumental dome.

 


Even by his contemporaries Michelangelo was referred to as il divino (divine). By Giorgio Vasari who was his greatest apologist, he was considered to be the greatest artist of all time. He was a titan of work. He devoted himself completely to it, giving it every moment of his long, nearly ninety-year life, during which he was troubled by depressions and consumed by ambitions, as well as the feeling of failure, which he best summed up in his 302 sonnets, madrigals and other poetic forms, as well as numerous letters. He lived alone, did not have a family in Rome, shied away from women and thought badly of them (apart from the Duchess Vittoria Colonna with whom he corresponded for many years). He did exhibit a weakness towards beautiful young boys, while his homoerotic inclinations were immortalized in the sonnets which he created. His most beautiful professions of love, written at that time, were directed towards the twenty-three-year old Tomasso Cavalieri, whom he had met in 1532, as  fifty-eight-year old man. Buonarroti’s poems speak of love and suffering, constituting an intimate diary of emotions and feelings, which  perfectly depict his melancholic soul. A lot of room in his letters and poetry is devoted to thoughts of death and God. Their author believed, that a true work of art, is but a shadow of divine perfection and in this he remained faithful to the message, which in his youth he had heard from Savonarola, although had the monk seen his works, he would certainly have ordered them to be destroyed.

All the money he earned, Michelangelo sent to his family (he had four brothers) in Florence, who purchased land and property on the outskirts of the city. In Rome he lived near Trajan’s Forum, in a modest flat, which was fitted with simply a wardrobe, chair, table and bed. He ate modestly as well, vegetables, fruits and black bread, often sleeping fully dressed with shoes. He did not care much about his appearance – disheveled, coarse in personality, often uncouth in behavior, he generally avoided contact with people. Romans called him “a sack of bones and a bundle of nerves” and saw him traversing the city early mornings or late evenings in a dark cape on a mule.

After his death, the greats artist’s body was to be laid to rest in the Church of Santi Apostoli, however, his nephew who came from Florence, stole his corpse, hid it on a cart and took it to Florence, where it was buried in the Church of Santa Croce.

 

Michelangelo’s works in Rome:

sculpture:

  •       Pieta 1499 in the Basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano, 1499
  •       Statue of Moses and the lying statue of Pope Julius II – sculptures for the tomb of Julius II in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, 1513-1515
  •       Risen Christ in the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva – completed by Federico Frizzi, 1520
 


 
architecture:

  •       New design of the Basilica of San Pietro in Vaticano – commission of Pope Paul III
  •       Design of the dome of the aforementioned basilica completed in a slightly altered form by Giacomo della Porta, 1557-1561
  •       Design of the arrangements of Capitoline Square – completed by Giacomo della Porta, 1536
  •       Façade of the Chapel of Pope Leo X, Castle of the Holy Angel (Castel Sant’Angelo), 1514
  •       Façade of Palazzo Farnese, 1547
  •       Design of the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, 1562
  •       The Porta Pia city gate, 1561

painting:

  •       Vault of the Sistine Chapel – a series of frescos depicting scenes from The Genesis – commission of Pope Julius II 1512
  •       The main altar of the Sistine Chapel (The Last Judgement), 1541
  •       The Conversion of Saul and The Crucifixion of St. Peter – frescos in the Cappella Paolina, the Vatican Palace, 1542-1550