- (1475-1564)Probably the greatest and certainly the most versatile of the three artists commonly held to represent the peak of High Renaissance art. Born in a small Tuscan town, the son of a local magistrate, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti was ap-prenticed in 1488 to one of the leading Florentine painters, Domenico Ghirlandaio, who taught him not only the technique of fresco painting but also the skills in drawing that Ghirlandaio re-garded as fundamental to good artistic work. He did not complete his apprenticeship and never organized a conventional artist's workshop. Instead, probably through his father's influence, he became a mem-ber of the household of Lorenzo de'Medici, the dominant political figure in Florence and the principal patron of arts and learning. He spent two years (1490-1492) there and studied at close hand Lorenzo's rich collection of ancient and contemporary works of art. He also met the leading intellectuals of the day, including Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirándola, Cristoforo Landino, and Angelo Poliziano. He shared this circle's enthusiasm for Neoplaton-ism, especially the Neoplatonic dualism which regarded spirit as the true reality and body as the mere outward appearance through which the spiritual found expression. Although he never mastered Latin, he was exposed to the world of literature and philosophy and had a more highly developed awareness of humanistic culture and Neoplatonic philosophy than any other artist of his generation.After Lorenzo's death in 1492 and the expulsion of the Medici from Florence in 1494, Michelangelo needed to find new patrons. Being convinced that he was of noble ancestry, he had no intention of adopting the career of an artisan by organizing a workshop and earn-ing his living by manual labor. He viewed his art as the expression of his mental conceptions, not as a handicraft. He followed the Medici into exile at Bologna, then in 1495 moved back to Florence. In 1496 he made his first trip to Rome, where he studied ancient works of art and began working for cardinals and other members of the papal cu-ria. His maturation as a sculptor was incredibly rapid. He quickly gained a commission for a large sculpture that became the earliest of his masterpieces, the Pietà (1497-1500), which marked his emer-gence as a great sculptor. His next major commission was his David (1501-1504), which made such an impression that the civic officials at Florence relocated it in front of the seat of local government as a symbol of the city's liberty. The Pietà and the David, one of them a moving religious image of the Virgin Mary's grief and the other a powerful figure that not only represented but perhaps surpassed the best male nude statues of antiquity, established his reputation for life.Michelangelo's problem now was not how to get commissions but how to hold off the many powerful and wealthy individuals who wanted his services. The most insistent of these patrons was Pope Julius II, who called him to Rome to design and execute a gigantic tomb for the pope. The project was never completed, in part because of the enormous cost. Michelangelo struggled with it long after the pope's death in 1513. The eventual product was a relatively modest tomb in one of the Roman churches. The only parts of the original plan to be completed were the seated Moses (ca. 1513-1515), which did become part of the tomb, and two remarkable male nudes, Bound Slave (sometimes called Dying Slave) and Rebellious Slave, both brought close to completion in 1513-1516 but never finished and never actually incorporated into Julius Il's monument. Michelangelo was frustrated by the pope's distraction from the tomb project by the costly scheme to tear down the old Basilica of St. Peter and replace it with a modern church and by his even more costly wars.Michelangelo left Rome but soon was summoned back. His next task was a huge bronze statue of Julius in the conquered city of Bologna (a work destroyed by the citizens when they rebelled against papal rule). He found that the pope now wanted him to put off the tomb project and to paint a cycle of frescoes on the ceiling of the pope's private chapel. Michelangelo had already produced some well-regarded paintings, but he thought of himself as a sculptor. He was reluctant to undertake this demanding project, but Julius insisted. Hence between 1508 and 1512, Michelangelo spent most of his working days reluctantly producing what many art historians regard as the greatest single work that he or any other artist ever made, the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He conceived a harmonious sequence of images depicting the relation between humanity and God from the beginning of time down through the fall of Adam and Eve and the ultimate salvation of the human race, and drawing on Jewish, classical, and Christian themes and forms.The Medici popes Leo X and Clement VII, whom Michelangelo had known when he was living in Lorenzo's house, commissioned him to design a new burial chapel in the family church at Florence, and from 1524 to 1534 he spent much of his time on that project, completing the sculpture for two of the planned four tombs. Espe-cially striking is the statue (not intended to be a portrait) representing Giuliano de'Medici and the accompanying mythological figures of Day and Night. At the same period he carried out one of his earliest major architectural commissions, the Laurentian Library at Florence.In the last three decades of his long life, Michelangelo dedicated more time and effort to architecture than to any other branch of the arts. For Pope Paul III he redesigned the Campidoglio, the central pi-azza of ancient Rome, commonly regarded as one of the greatest ex-amples of Renaissance urban planning. Paul III also brought him back to the Sistine Chapel to paint the last of his great frescoes, The Last Judgment (1534-1541). This crowded, dark, and ominous pic-ture represents a remarkable shift in Michelangelo's style of painting, not in the techniques of execution but in the conception, which re-flects his own inner spiritual turmoil. The contrast between the brooding Last Judgment and the dynamic, optimistic Sistine ceiling that he painted for Julius II is often used to illustrate the shift (in this case, within the same artist) from the Renaissance to the mannerist style of art.His last great commission, on which he spent his closing years and for which he would accept no pay, was his redesign and continuation of the great basilica of St. Peter, originally planned by Donato Bra-mante in 1506 under Julius II. Michelangelo significantly changed the design and was solely responsible for the great dome which still dominates the structure; the church that now exists is essentially his work, despite the decision made after the Council of Trent to trans-form its shape from the Renaissance central-plan structure to the me-dieval basilica form, a change made in the early 17th century by Carlo Maderno.In addition to being the greatest and most versatile artist of the Re-naissance, Michelangelo was a vernacular poet of considerable tal-ent. His poems, like his designs, reflect the many cultural forces at work in his mind, including his Neoplatonic philosophy, his rever-ence for the civilization of the classical world, his deeply spiritual Christian piety, and his conflicted homosexual longings. Fifty of the poems are addressed to a young Roman aristocrat, the first large body of homoerotic poetry in any Western language. Many also celebrate his intense but asexual relationship with a remarkable aristocratic woman, Vittoria Colonna, member of an ancient Roman noble fam-ily and an active figure in the spiritual life of groups of devout and intellectual Catholics in Rome and Naples. The poems were not pub-lished until 1623, and then in a carefully expurgated edition, but they also circulated in manuscript. Michelangelo was the most famous artist of his time, enthusiastically hailed by the art historian Giorgio Vasari as the greatest figure of the Renaissance.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.