– 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
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.”