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Artist – Michelangelo Buonarroti

Michelangelo was a man of uncertain temper and explosive tendencies, deep affections and sudden rages in – in short, of terribilita, an Italian term that translates as “emotional intensity” or “awesomeness.” Pope Leo X, who disliked confrontation, was reported to have said: “Michelangelo is impossible, and one cannot deal with him.”

The one sure way to spark Michelangelo’s terribilita-ness was to call him a painter. He considered himself a sculptor—even signing his letters “Michelangelo Buonarrati, Sculptor”—and got into a serious huff when people confused the two crafts. He considered sculpture not only his true calling but also the highest form of art. Yet for a man who didn’t consider himself a painter, what marvelous things he did paint! The Sistine Chapel frescoes represent, for many art historians, the greatest achievement of the High Renaissance. Ironically, Michelangelo didn’t want the project, which he viewed as a distraction from his beloved work in marble. It’s undeniable that he created sculptures of astonishing power and sensitivity, but his paintings are immediately recognized as masterpieces of Western art.


The Makings of A Sculptor

Supposedly descended from aristocracy, the Buonarrotis had come down in the world, and they didn’t like it. Perhaps that’s why Michelangelo’s father, Ludovico, was so enraged when his son announced his intention to pursue a career as an artist. Ludovico grudgingly arranged Michelangelo’s training in the workshop of a Florentine painter, although the temperamental youth constantly quarreled with his master. Fortunately, about 1490 he was able to transfer to a more amenable artistic environment: Leorenzo de’ Medici’s sculpture garden. Lorenzo, the great patron of Sandro Botticelli, had assembled a priceless collection of ancient and contemporary sculpture and sponsored a workshop for aspiring sculptors.

Michelangelo skipped town in time to miss the French invasion of Florence, returning about 1495 to witness the friar Giralomo Savanarola’s domination of the city before he hightailed it again by 1496, this time to Rome to undertake sculptures for several local cardinals. While in Rome, Michelangelo completed his Pieta (1499), a masterful depiction of the Virgin Mary holding the lifeless body of Christ across her lap. The grouping is a sculptural tour de force, with amazingly lifelike details and textures, from the folds in Mary’s gown to the cascading curls of Christ’s hair.


The Case of The Pompous Pontiff

The Pieta secured Michelangelo’s reputation—but only in Rome. Upon returning to Florence in 1501, he had to establish himself all over again. He met the challenge thanks to a narrow, fourteen-foot block of marble that had been sitting in the courtyard of the Florence cathedral since 1463. He accepted a commission to complete a sculpture from the block, which had been worked and abandoned by earlier artists because of problems with the stone. Michelangelo found a way to accommodate the block’s shallow depth—which allowed no room for error—and the final product, David, won over the reserved Florentines.

Then came an unexpected invitation—or, rather, summons—from Pope Julius 2. Vain as a peacock, Julius wanted Michelangelo to memorialize him by sculpting the most magnificent tomb ever created. Michelangelo became obsessed with the project and sketched plans for a mausoleum that would include more than forty figures. After a stay in Carrara, known for its quarries of outstanding marble, he returned to Rome, only to get the holy cold shoulder. It seems that in the intervening months, the pope had decided, with characteristic immodesty, to build the greatest church in Christendom by demolishing the fourth-century sanctuary of St. Peter’s and erecting an enormous new basilica in its place. All the pope’s attention—and money—was transferred to the building and away from Michelangelo’s project.


Nobody Puts Michelangelo In a Corner! Under a Ceiling, Maybe. . .

Michelangelo smelled conspiracy. The architect for the new St. Peter’s was his sworn enemy Donato Bramante, and he suspected that Bramante had been plotting against him to curry papal favor. After several attempts to meet with the pope, Michelangelo suddenly, and without permission, decamped for Florence.

Well! No one walked out on Julius. The pontiff sent angry letters to Michelangelo, who grudgingly journeyed to meet him and then apologized on his knees. The pope made him do penance in the form of a larger-than-life sculpture of himself. (The work has not survived; cast in bronze; it was melted down into cannon less than four years later.) Then the pope announced that Michelangelo’s next project would be painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The artist couldn’t refuse, but once again he smelled a rat. He suspected Bramante had schemed to get him assigned to the job, knowing Michelangelo disliked painting and hoping he would fail.

But painted he did. For the large vaulted space, Michelangelo developed a complex arrangement of scenes, figures, and trompe l’oeil architectural elements that sum up the Old Testament. Nine main panels show events from the opening chapters of Genesis, starting with the creation of the cosmos and ending with Noah and the Flood. The swirl of figures results in a dynamic, tumultuous whole, while the logical arrangement prevents the work from collapsing into incoherence. You can trace Michelangelo’s progress across the ceiling as he gained confidence and experience. The last scenes are the most memorable, particularly the Creating of Adam. An exquisitely muscled Adam gazes languidly at God, a bearded man supported by a tumult of angels. God stretches out a purposeful figure to touch the drooping hand of Adam and impart the spark of life.


One Part Inspiration, Two Parts Perspiration

Several myths have arisen about the Sistine Ceiling frescoes. First, Michelangelo did not work lying on his back. A massive scaffold hung below the ceiling, and he worked with his arms overhead. Nor did he complete the entire project himself. Several assistants worked alongside him, grinding pigments and mixing plaster. It is true that several quit during the approximately four years it took to complete the ceiling—hardly surprising since the team lived together in Michelangelo’s small studio and shared a single bed. Since Michelangelo believed bathing was bad for his health, the staff may have been eager to make for the door as soon as possible. Pope Julius, in the meantime, had little opportunity to enjoy his gift to the world; he died a few months after the completion of the frescoes in 1519.

To Michelangelo’s relief, the next few popes were more interested in sculpture and architecture than in painting, although many of his projects during these years were never attempted or left incomplete. The Medici Chapel, for example, is an extraordinary monument containing the prized sculptures Night, Day, Dusk, and Dawn, but some of the figures are only roughly worked.

Ultimately, Pope Clement 7 couldn’t resist Michelangelo’s painting skills, and he commissioned the artist to put the finishing touches on the Sistine Chapel with a massive fresco on the wall behind the alter. The Last Judgment shows Christ and the Virgin Mary supervising the end of the world. They are surrounded by a maelstrom of saints, patriarchs, and martyrs, many carrying symbols of their martyrdom. (St. Bartholomew, who was flayed, holds his own skin, the face of which is believed to be a wry self-portrait by Michelangelo.) Below this heavenly realm, the saved rise from the ground while the damned are dragged to hell by hideous horned demons. Painted between 1535 and 1541, The Last Judgment makes clear how much Michelangelo had evolved in nearly thirty years, becoming more adventuresome in his compositions and use of color.


The Artist As a Really Old Man

Michelangelo was sixty-six when he completed The Last Judgment, an old man for the time, but he still had more than twenty years ahead of him. He lived out his days in Rome. Much of his time was devoted to the architecture of St. Peter’s Basilica, begun many years before by Pope Julius. The artist was hammering away on the Rondanini Pieta six days before he died on February 18, 1564.

An unseemly tussle broke out over what to do with Michelangelo’s remains, with both Rome and Florence vying for the honor of burying him. At first, the body was moved to a Roman church, but Michelangelo’s nephew disguised the coffin as a bale of merchandise and snuck his uncle’s corpse out of the city. It took three weeks for the coffin to arrive in Florence, where it was ceremonially opened so the crowd could view, and even touch, the body. Michelangelo was finally laid to rest in his old parish church of Santa Croce, with members of the artist’s academy in Florence designing an overwrought tomb.

Michelangelo became the measure against which all other artists were judged. You either emulated him or departed intentionally from the standard he set. As late as the nineteenth century, sculptor Auguste Rodin regarded Michelangelo as his inspiration. Not until the rise of modernism in the twentieth century was Michelangelo dislodged from his position as “Ultimate Artist.”

 

 2009 Elizabeth Lunday - "Secret lives of great artists". All rights reserved.


Copyright © 2010 Barry. All rights reserved.