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Michelangelo Buonarroti

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Italian sculptor, painter, and architect, b. at Caprese in the valley of the upper Arno, 6 March, 1475; d. at Rome, 18 February, 1564. Michelangelo, one of the greatest artists of all times, came from a noble Florentine family of small means, and in 1488 was apprenticed to Domenico Ghirlandajo . While apprentice, he excited the admiration of his master by the life-like animation of this drawings, and upon Ghirlandajo's recommendation, and a the wish of Lorenzo the Magnificent, he received further training (1489-92) in the palace of the Medici, at the school of sculpture then under the direction of Bertoldo, one of Donatello's pupils. As student and resident of the palace, Michelangelo lived with Lorenzo's sons in the most distinguished society of Florence, and at this time was introduced by the poet Politian into the circle of the scholars of the Academy and to their learned pursuits. Meanwhile, Michelangelo was studying with marked success the frescoes in the Branacci chapel. After Lorenzo's death he passed his time partly at home, partly at the monastery of Santo Spirito, where he busied himself with anatomical studies, and partly in the house of Pietro de' Medici, who, however, was banished in 1494. About the same time Michelangelo left Florence for Bologna. He returned in 1495, and began to work as a sculptor, taking as his model the works of his predecessors and the masterpieces of classical antiquity, without, however, sacrificing his individuality. In 1496 he went to Rome, whither his fame had preceded him, and remained there working as a sculptor until 1501. Returning to Florence, he occupied himself with his painting and sculpture until 1505, when Pope Julius II called him to enter his service. After this, Michelangelo was employed alternately in Rome and Florence by Julius and his successors, Leo X, Clement VII, and Paul III being his special patrons. In 1534, shortly after the death of his father, Michelangelo left Florence never to return. The further events of his life are closely connected with his artistic labours. Some weeks after his death his body was brought back to Florence and a few months later a stately memorial service was held in the church of San Lorenzo. His nephew, Leonardo Buonarroti, erected a monument over his tomb in Santa Croce, for which Vasari, his well known pupil and biographer, furnished the design, and Duke Cosimo de' Medici the marble. The three arts are represented as mourning over the sarcophagus, above which is a niche containing a bust of Michelangelo. A monument was erected in his memory in the church of the Santi Apostoli, at Rome, representing him as an artist in working garb, with an inscription: Tanto nomini nullum par elogium . (No praise is sufficient for so great a man.)

Michelangelo was a man of many-sided character, independent and persistent in his views and his endeavours. His most striking characteristic was a sturdy determination, guided by a lofty ideal. Untiring, he worked until far advanced in years, at the cost of great personal sacrifices. He was not, however, unyielding to the point of obstinancy. His productions in all departments of art show the great fertility of his mind. In literature he was a devoted student and admirer of Dante. A copy of the "Divine Comedy", ornamented by him with marginal drawings, has unfortunately been lost. Imitating the style of Dante and Petrarch, he wrote verses, "canzoni", and especially sonnets, which are not without value, and excite surprise by their warmth of feeling. Some of his poems give expression to an ideally pure affection. He never married. A stern earnestness is characteristic of the sculptor, but the tenderness of his heart is shown in his touching love and solicitude for his father and brothers. Although seemingly absorbed in his art, and often straitened in circumstances, he was ever ready to aid them by word and deed. "I will send you what you demand of me", he wrote, "even if I have to sell myself as a slave ". After the death of his father he conceived a deep affection for a young Roman, Tommaso de' Cavalieri, and also entered into intimate friendship with the noble-minded poetess, Vittoria Colonna, then past her youth. With his pupils, Vasari and Condivi, he was on the most cordial terms, and a servant who was twenty-six years in his employ experienced his bounty. The biographies we have from the pupils just mentiond and the letters of Michelangelo himself testify to the gentler traits of his character. He gave younger artists generous aid by suggestions, sketches, and designs, among others to Sebastiano del Poimbo, Daniele da Volterra , and Jacopo da Pontormo. Michelangelo had few personal wants and was unusually self-denying in dress and diet. Savonarola's sermons, which he recalled even in his old age, probably influenced him in some degree to adopt this austerity of life. Moreover, the seriousness of his own mind caused him to realize the vanity of earthly ideals. His spirit was always absorbed in a struggle to attain perfection. Yet with all this he was not haughty; many of his sayings that have come down to us show him to have been unusually unassuming. The explanation of his unwillingness to have the aid of assistants must be sought in the peculiarity of his artistic methods. Michelangelo's life was one of incessant trials, yet in spite of an imperious temper and many bodily infirmities he showed remarkable composure and forbearance. No matter how much trouble was caused him by his distinguished patrons he seldom failed in loyalty to them. He was equally faithful to his native city, Florence, although the political confusion which reigned there wrung from him many complaints. It obliged him to spend half of his life elsewhere, yet he wished to lie after death in Florentine earth; nor could the most enticing offers induce him to leave Italy. A contemporary bestows praise which seems merited, when he says that Michelangelo in all the ninety years of his life never gave any grounds for suspecting the integrity of his moral virtue.


First Period

If the years before 1505, that is, before the summons by Julius II, be taken as Michelangelo's youth, it may be said that, even when a pupil in Bertoldo's school, he attracted attention not only by his work in clay and by the head of a faun in marble after a classical model, but especially by two marble bas-reliefs of his own design. The "Madonna Seated on a Step", pressing the Child to her breast under her mantle, shows, it is true, but little individuality, grace, and tenderness, though perhaps for this very reason all the more dignity. Michelangelo's later style is more easily recognized in the "Battle of the Centaurs", which represents a large group of figures, anatomically well drawn, engaged in a passionate struggle. It is said that in after years the artist, in referring to this group, expressed regret that he had not devoted himself exclusively to sculpture. He appears to have taken the conception for this work from a bronze relief of Bertoldo and to have imitated the style of Donatello. Michelangelo's work certainly recalls Donatello in the drapery of the Madonna above mentioned and in the realistic way in which the sentiment of this composition is expressed. After Lorenzo's death Michelangelo produced a marble Hercules of heroic size that was taken to Fontainebleau and has since disappeared. Thode, however, appears to have found the Crucifix which Michelangelo carved for the church of Santo Spirito. The body in this is almost entirely free from the cross; there is no intense pain expressed on the youthful face, and the hands and hair are not completely worked out. The "St. John in the Wilderness", with the honeycomb, now at Berlin, is probably the San Giovannino that Michelangelo executed in Florence in 1495. The realistic modelling of the head and the beautiful lines of the body show a study of both classic and modern models. Shortly after this Michelangelo completed several figures for the shrine of St. Dominic which Niccolo dell' Arca had left unfinished. A figure of a pagan deity was the occasion of Michelangelo's first visit to Rome, and a statue of Bacchus carved by him on that occasion is extant at Florence. This work, which is the result of study of the antique, is merely a beautiful and somewhat intoxicated youth.

Far more important is the Pieta executed in 1499 for the French chapel in St. Peter's . A calm, peaceful expression of grief rests on all the figures of the group. The face of the mother has youthful beauty; the head is bowed but slightly, yet expressive of holy sorrow. Her drapery lies in magnificent folds under the body of the Saviour. The latter is not yet stiff and reveals but slight traces of the suffering endured, especially the noble countenance so full of Divine peace. Not the lips but the hand shows the intensity of the grief into which the mother's soul is plunged. When sixty years old Michelangelo desired to execute a Pieta, or, more properly, a "Lamentation of Christ" for his own tomb. The unfinished group is now in the Cathedral of Florence, and is throughout less ideally conceived than the Pieta just mentioned. The body of Christ is too limp, and Nicodemus and Mary Magdalen are somewhat hard in modelling. This Pieta was broken into pieces by the master, but was afterwards put together by other hands. Two circular reliefs of the "Virgin and Child", one now in London and one in Florence, belong to the sculptor's youthful period. In the Florentine relief, especially, intensity of feeling is combined with a graceful charm. Mother and Child are evidently pondering a passage in Scripture which fills them with sorrow; the arms and head of the Boy rest on the book. A life-sized group of about the same date in the church of Our Lady (Eglise Notre-Dame) at Bruges shows the Madonna again, full of dignity and with lofty seriousness of mien, while the Child, somewhat larger than the one just mentioned, is absorbed in intense thought. In contrast to Raphael, Michelangelo sought to express Divine greatness and exalted grief rather than human charm. He worked entirely according to his own ideals. His creations recall classical antiquity by a certain coldness, as well as by the strain of superhuman power that characterizes them.

Second Period

To Michelangelo's second creative period (beginning 1505) belongs the statue of Christ which he carved for the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. It was sent to Rome in 1521 in charge of an assistant who was to add some last touches to the statue when it was put in position. The Saviour, a life-sized marble figure, holds the cross, sponge, and rod of hyssop. The face, earnest, almost hard, is turned to the left, as if saying: "My people, what have ye done to Me?" Properly however, the figure is not that of the suffering Saviour, but of the risen Saviour and therefore nude, according to the desire of the patron who have the commission. The age of the Renaissance, in its ardour for the nude, paid no regard to decorum. At a later date a bronze loin cloth, unfortunately too long, was placed on the statue. In conformity with the spirit in which the whole composition is conceived, the figure of Christ is not stiff and severe like the statue of an antique god, but expresses a resigned humanity. A youthful Apollo produced at about the same time has also little of the classic in its design. A dying Adonis comes nearer to classic models in its conception. But the gigantic David, the embodiment of fresh young daring, in reality a representation of a noble boy, resembles an antique god or hero. It can hardly be said that the colossal size, over twelve and a half feet, is suitable for a youth; however, the deed for which David is preparing, or more probably, the action which he has just completed, is a deed of courage. The right hand is half closed, the left hand with the sling seems to be going back to the shoulder, while the gaze follows the stone. The figure resembles that of an ancient athlete. The body is nude, and the full beauty of the lines of the human form is strikingly brought out. In 1508 Michelangelo agreed to carve the twelve Apostles in heroic size (about nine and a half feet high) for the church of Santa Maria del Fiore, but of the whole number only the figure of St. Matthew, a great and daring design, was hewn in the rough. Similarly, he executed but four of the saints which were to decorate the memorial chapel to Pius II and left the rest of the work unfinished. A bronze statue of David with the head of Goliath under his feet was sent to France and has since disappeared. A pen-and-ink sketch of this statue is still in the Louvre.

His powers fully matured, Michelangelo now entered the service of the popes and was entrusted with the carrying out of two great undertakings. In 1505 Julius II called him to Rome to design and erect for the pope a stately sepulchral monument. The monument was to be a four-sided marble structure in two curses, decorated with some forty figures of heroic size. Michelangelo spent eight months in Carrara superintending the sending of the marble to Rome. He hoped in carrying out this commission to execute a work worthy of classic times, one containing figures that would bear comparison with the then newly discovered Lacoon. His plans, however, were brought to nought by a sudden change of mind on the part of Julius, who now began to consider the rebuilding of St. Peter's after the designs of Bramante. Julius may be said to have driven Michelangelo from the Roman court. Fearful of the malice of enemies, Buonarroti fled in despair to Florence and, turning a deaf ear to the pope's entreaties to return to Rome, offered to go on with the work for the monument at Florence. To this, however, Julius would not listen. In his exasperation Michelangelo was on the point of going to Constantinople. However, at the invitation of the pope, in the latter part of 1506, he went to Bologna, where, amid the greatest difficulties and in straitened circumstances, he cast a bronze statue of Julius II, of heroic size. This effigy was destroyed during a revolt against Julius in 1511. Once more in Rome, he was obliged for the time being to abandon the scheme for the monument to Julius and, against his will, to decorate the Sistine Chapel with frescoes. Julius II lived only long enough after the completion of the frescoes to arrange for his monument in his will. After his death in 1513 a formal contract was made for the construction of the memorial. According to this new agreement the monument was no longer to be an independent structure, but was to be placed against the church wall in the form of a chapel. The plan for the structure was even more magnificent than the original design, but was in the end abandoned, both on account of its size and of other circumstances which arose. The new pope, Leo X, of the Medici family, was a friend of Michelangelo's youth and looked on him with much favour, but had new designs in reference to him. After Michelangelo had laboured for two years on the monument to Julius, Pope Leo, during a visit to Florence, commanded him, to construct a stately new façade for the church of San Lorenzo, the family burial place of the Medici. With tears in his eyes, Michelangelo agreed to this interruption of his great design. The building of the new façade was abandoned in 1520, but the sculptor returned to his former work for a time only. The short reign of Adrian VI was followed by the election to the papal throne of another early friend of Michelangelo, Giulio de' Medici, who took the name of Clement VII. Since 1520 Giulio de' Medici had desired to erect a family mortuary chapel in San Lorenzo. When be became pope he obliged Michelangelo to take up this task. The new commission was not unworthy of the sculptor's powers, yet an evil fate prevented this undertaking also from reaching its full completion. Michelangelo suffered unspeakably from the constant alteration of his plans; he was, moreover, beset by many detractors; the political disorders in his native city filled him with grief, and the years brought with them constantly increasing infirmities.

In 1545 the designs, some of which still exist, for the monument of Julius II were carried out on a much reduced scale. The monument is in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli; in the centre of the lower course of the monument between two smaller figures is placed the gigantic statue of Moses, which was originally intended for the upper course, where it would have made a much more powerful impression. When seen close by, the criticism may be made that the expression is too violent, there is no sufficient reason for the swollen veins in the left arm, the shoulders are too massive in comparison with the neck, the chin, and the forehead; that even the folds of the robe are unnatural. Yet, seen from a distance, it is precisely these features that produce the desired effect. The great statue, which is double life size, was intended to express the painfully restrained and mighty wrath of the leader of a stiff-necked people. It is plain that an allusion to the warlike prowess of Julius II was intended and that the sculptor here, as in many of his other undertakings, has embodied his own tremendous conception of force. The way in which the Tables of the Law are grasped, the bare arm and right knee, the heavy beard and the "horns" heighten the effect that is aimed at. The flanking figures of Rachel and Leah, symbols respectively of contemplative and active life, were carved by Michelangelo himself, but they are not as satisfactory as the Moses. The monument itself and the figures on the upper course were not executed by the great master, though they were worked out according to his suggestions. On the other hand, two shackled figures out of the series planned by the sculptor are in the Louvre, though incomplete. The "Slaves" were intended to typify the power of the pope in the domains of war and art, and were to stand in front of the hermae pillars, where the inverted consoles now are. In the "Slaves" in the Louvre the antithesis between resistance to the fetters and submission to the inevitable is expressed with remarkable skill. There are also in Florence some unfinished figures belonging to this monument, namely a victor kneeling on a fallen foe, and four other figures, which are merely blocked out. About the time of the completion of this monument Michelangelo carved a striking bust of Brutus as the hero of liberty. Michelangelo regarded the freedom of his native city as lost after the second return of the Medici from exile and the assumption of the control of affairs by Alessandro and Cosmo de' Medici. The sorrow this caused him suggested the bust of Brutus, and cast a shadow on the tombs of Giuliano and Lorenzo de' Medici in the chapel spoken of above. The greater part of the work in the chapel, however, had been done before this time, and so the expression of embittered sorrow must be explained by the general depression of the artist not less than by his failure to realize his highest ideal, which also accounts for the gloom characteristic of his other creations.

Twelve figures included in the original design for the sepulchral monument of the Medici were never carved. According to Vasari's arrangement in 1563, a seated figure of Giuliano is placed in an upper niche of one of the monuments, while symbolical figures representing Day and Night recline on a sarcophagus below. If Michelangelo's words have been rightly understood, these symbolical figures are to be regarded as mourning for the untimely death of the duke, and as grieving that life for him had not been worth the living. "Not to see, nor to hear must be happiness for me", are the words attributed to Night, which is represented as a giantess sunk in heavy and uneasy slumber, and symbolized by a mask, an owl, and a bunch of poppy-heads. The other allegorical figure, Day, a man, is represented as having no desire to rouse himself to action. The plan of the second monument is similar to that of the one just described; the figures of Evening and Dawn make the same impression as those of Night and Day. The two Medicean dukes are ideally treated as ancient warriors, rather than portrayed as in life. In the statue of Giuliano it is the superb modelling of the different parts that delights the eye; in the statue of Lorenzo the charm lies in the pose and the way in which the face is shadowed by the helmet. This figure of Lorenzo bears the name of Il Penseroso (the Meditative). Against the wall of the chapel stands the unfinished and really unsuccessful Madonna and Child; the pose of the Madonna is unique.


Michelangelo once said that he was no painter ; on another occasion he declared he was no architect, but in reality he was both. About 1503 he painted a Holy Family, now in Florence in which the Madonna holds the Child over her shoulder to St. Joseph who stands behind. In this canvas Michelangelo departs from the traditional representation of the Holy Family, by the quaint grouping of nude figures in the background even more than by the entirely new pose of the Mother and Child. An "Entombment of Christ:, now in London, is unfinished. Like Leonardo da Vinci, the greatest painter of that period, Michelangelo made a large number of sketches. He also entered into competition with that famous artist by undertaking (1504) a battle-piece which was to adorn the wall opposite Leonardo's "Battle of Anghiari" in the great council chamber of the palace of the Signory, called the Palazzo del Priori, and now the Town-hall of Florence. As Michelangelo just at this date entered the service of the popes, the cartoon he prepared was never carried out and is now lost. After years of disagreement with Julius II the painting of the Sistine Chapel was begun in 1508, and in 1512 the ceiling was uncovered. Michelangelo, who was not a fesco-painter, exerted all his powers of mind and body, abandoning his preference for the effects of sculpture in order to express without assistance and in defiance of the envious, the full ideal of his conceptions in this unwonted medium. Creation, the Fall, and the preparation for the coming of the Redeemer form the subject of the fresco. The painter first divided and enclosed the ceiling with painted architecture which formed a fame for the frescoes; the cornice for this frame on the broad side of the chapel is adorned with the figures of naked youths. The nine fields of the smooth vault contain the history of the sinful human race as far as Noah. Around the dome, between the lunettes, are vaulted triangular spaces or pendentives; in these are placed prophets and sibyls, together with boy-angels, all pointing to the approaching redemption. In the lunettes over the windows and in the vaulted triangular spaces over the lunettes are represented the ancestors of Christ. The subject, arrangement, and technical excellence of these frescoes have always excited the greatest admiration. The Divine, the prophetic, and the human are here most happily expressed; the conception of the first is original; the prophets and sibyls have wonderful individuality, and great skill is shown in handling the drapery, while human beings are represented in animated action. The architect created the beautiful division of the space and the exact proportions, the sculptor produced the anatomically correct figures, and the painter knew how to blend forms and colours into perfect harmony. After the completion of the work Michelangelo could no longer regret that it had been forced upon him against his will. Equally famous is the great fresco of the "Last Judgment" which he painted upon the altar-wall of the chapel (1535-41). In this fresco, however, the nudity of the figures aroused objection, and they have been painted over by various hands. The "Last Judgment" has been more blackened and disfigured by time than the painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.


The commission given by Leo X for the rebuilding of the façade of the church of San Lorenzo, which has been already mentioned, ended in a bitter disappointment for Michelangelo. He produced very rapidly a fine design for the front and made the first preparations for the work. After four years (in 1520) the contract was rescinded without anything having been accomplished. However, the commission that Michelangelo received from Giulio de' Medici, afterwards Clement VII, for a mortuary chapel for the Medici family was not revoked, and the chapel was completed in 1524. It is a simple building surmounted by a dome. Its only purpose is to hold the monuments. Michelangelos design for the enlargement of San Giovanni de' Fiorentini at Rome was never used. He also produced designs for the Piazza of the Campidoglio (Capitol) and the Porta Pia. It is a remarkable fact that the citizens of Florence in 1529 appointed him engineer-in-chief of the fortifications of the city. Of more importance was his appointment as chief architect for the reconstruction of St. Peter's by Pope Paul III, after the death of Sangallo (1546). He held this position seventeen years. Michelangelo carried out, with some changes, Bramante's plans for the new building and rejected those of Sangallo. His own work is notably the magnificent dome. He completed the drum, but not, however the upper dome. The clay model made by his own hands is still to be seen at the Vatican.

Death brought to an end a life filled with fame and success, but also replete with suffering and sorrow; a life on which a great genius made demands which could not be satisfied. The ambitions of Michelangelo were insatiable, not so much owing to his desire for renown, as to his almost gigantic striving after the absolute ideal of art. For this reason Michelangelo's creations bear the stamp of his subjectivity and of his restless efforts to attain the loftiest ideals by new methods. He accomplished much that was extraordinary in three or four departments of art, but at the same time broke through many limitations prescribed by the laws of beauty in all arts, wilfully disregarding, at times, in his modelling of the human figure, even that fidelity to nature which he esteemed so highly. The way he pointed was dangerous, inasmuch as it led directly to extravagance, which, though perhaps endurable in Michelangelo obscured even the fame of Raphael ; he swayed not only his own age, but succeeding generations.

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