Your guide to Renaissance sculptor and painter Michelangelo
From his statue of David to the paintings that adorn the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s work still inspires awe. Jonny Wilkes explores the life of the Italian genius
It was not only his seemingly boundless genius that made Michelangelo a true master of Renaissance art, equalled perhaps by Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael alone. He also worked his way into the world of the rich and powerful of Italy. With them as patrons, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni carved out an enviable reputation – he would be the first Western artist with a biography published in his own lifetime, and he actually had two – and a career that took him to the very heights of the church.
Michelangelo had the fortune to grow up in late 15th-century Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance, where his talent could be nurtured. At 13, he became an apprentice to renowned painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, which quickly brought him to the attention of Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of the Florentine Republic and passionate art patron. Living in the palace, Michelangelo could study the Medici art collection, including pieces of antiquity, and discovered his love of sculpting.
Following the downfall of the Medici in Florence in the 1490s, Michelangelo found work in Bologna and for cardinals in Rome. The young sculptor had impressed them with his skills after dabbling in art fraud – making a figure of Cupid and treating the marble to pass it off as ancient – earning a commission for a large statue of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine.
Another cardinal then requested a Pietà (the Virgin Mary holding the body of Jesus). It would be the only piece Michelangelo signed, adding his name across Mary's chest because he was afraid another artist would get the credit.
In 1501, the 26-year-old Michelangelo received his most challenging commission to date. It was a project back in Florence that had dragged on for nearly 40 years and been abandoned by other sculptors: a huge statue of the biblical king David for the cathedral.
Michelangelo had to use the original block of marble, dubbed ‘The Giant’, which had been lying idle for decades and was covered in imperfections. It took more than two years to complete, but when unveiled in 1504 everyone knew they looked upon a masterpiece. David had defeated a giant once again.
David showed Michelangelo's unparalleled ability to sculpt the human form – his knowledge of human anatomy had been enhanced by dissecting cadavers – and his gift for expressions, giving life to blocks of stone. With no chance of raising the five-metre-high statue, which weighed more than six tons, to the cathedral roof, a group of Florentine citizens, among them Leonardo da Vinci, chose to install David outside the town hall to stand as a symbol of Florence.
Michelangelo was now one of the most celebrated artists in Renaissance Italy. He took on hugely ambitious projects in Florence before Pope Julius II summoned him with a commission of 40 life-sized statues for his ostentatious tomb. Michelangelo threw himself into the work, but the project suddenly came to a halt over a dispute about payment. When he was persuaded to return to the Vatican, the pope offered Michelangelo another task entirely: to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
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The opportunity to adorn this most consecrated of spaces did not appeal to the deeply devout Michelangelo, however, and he much preferred sculpting to fresco painting. He agreed to the work but instead of sticking to the commission – to depict the 12 apostles – he chose to fill every inch with dramatic scenes from Genesis, from the creation to Adam and Eve to Noah. Prophets, sibyls (female oracles of ancient Greece) and the ancestors of Christ would line the ceiling.
For four years, from 1508-12, Michelangelo painted – often alone, spending countless hours in uncomfortable, contorted positions on a scaffold of his own design, and with the paintings growing more complex as he went along. In all, he added more than 300 figures. As anyone who has seen the Sistine Chapel can attest, the finished ceiling was a transcendent success; a work of such beauty and importance that it could seemingly be more of God’s hand than a man.
During a period of religious schism, Reformation and Counter-Reformation, Michelangelo remained at the centre of the Catholic Church for the next five decades, working under nine popes and producing an exquisite array of art. For Julius’s – scaled-down – tomb he sculpted a statue of Moses; he began his forays into architecture with the Medici Chapel and Laurentian Library in Florence; and, passing 60 years old, added to the Sistine Chapel by painting The Last Judgment on its huge altar wall.
From the 1540s onwards, Michelangelo dedicated much of his time to architecture in Rome, designing the Piazza del Campidoglio at the top of Capitoline Hill and getting construction going on the now-famed dome of St Peter’s Basilica, where, incidentally, his Pietà stands to this day.
Michelangelo continued working up until his death in 1564, a few weeks before turning 89. His body was returned to his beloved Florence – the cradle of the Renaissance, and now the grave of the ultimate Renaissance man.
This article was first published in the March 2021 edition of BBC History Revealed