Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was the greatest sculptor of the Italian Renaissance and one of its greatest painters and architects.

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born on March 6, 1475, in Caprese, a village where his father was briefly serving as a Florentine government agent. The family, of higher rank than most from which artists came in Florence, had been bankers, but Michelangelo's grandfather had failed, and his father, too genteel for trade, lived on the income from his land and a few official appointments. Michelangelo's mother died when he was 6.

After grammar school, Michelangelo was apprenticed at the age of 13 to Domenico Ghirlandaio, the most fashionable painter in Florence. That this should have happened is surprising, and no satisfactory explanation has been proposed. Michelangelo's implication in his old age that he had to overcome his family's opposition is likely to be mythical in part. In any case, after a year his apprenticeship was broken off, and an even odder arrangement followed: the boy was given access to the collection of ancient Roman sculpture of the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de' Medici, dined with the family, and was looked after by the retired sculptor who was in charge of the collection. This arrangement was quite unprecedented at the time.

Michelangelo's earliest sculpture, a stone relief executed when he was about 17, in its composition echoes the Roman sarcophagi of the Medici collection and in its subject, the Battle of the Centaurs, a Latin poem a court poet read to him. Compared to the sarcophagi, Michelangelo's work is remarkable for the simple, solid forms and squarish proportions of the figures, which add intensity to their violent interaction.

Soon after Lorenzo died in 1492, the Medici fell from power and Michelangelo fled the city. In Bologna in 1494 he obtained a small but distinguished commission to carve the three saints needed to complete the elaborate tomb of St. Dominic in the church of S. Domenico. They too show dense forms, which contrast with the linear forms, either decorative or realistic, then dominant in sculpture, but are congruent with the work of Nicola Pisano, who had begun the tomb about 1265. On returning home Michelangelo found Florence dominated by the famous ascetic monk Savonarola. Michelangelo was in contact with the junior branch of the Medici family, and he carved a Cupid (lost) which he took to Rome to sell, palming it off as an ancient work.


Rome, 1496-1501

In Rome, Michelangelo next executed a Bacchus for the garden of ancient sculpture of a banker. This, Michelangelo's earliest surviving large-scale work, shows the god teetering, either drunk or dancing. It is his only sculpture meant to be viewed from all sides; all the others, generally set in front of walls, possess to some extent the visual character of reliefs.

In 1498, through the same banker, came Michelangelo's first important commission: the Pietà now in St. Peter's. The term pietà refers to a type of image in which Mary supports the dead Christ across her knees; Michelangelo's version is today the most famous one. In both the Pietà and the Bacchus the effects of hard polished marble and of curved yielding flesh coexist. Over life size, the Pietà has mutually reinforcing contrasts: vertical and horizontal, cloth and skin, allude to the living and the dead, female and male, but the unity of the pyramidal composition is strongly imposed.


Florence, 1501-1505

On his return to Florence in 1501 Michelangelo was recognized as the most talented sculptor of central Italy, but his work was still in the early Renaissance tradition, as is the marble David, commissioned in 1501 for Florence Cathedral but when finished, in 1504, more suitably installed in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. (The original is now in the Accademia; the statue at the original site is a copy.) It shares the clear and strong but bland presence of the Pietà. Before he finished the David, Michelangelo's style had begun to change, as indicated by his drawing of a very different bronze David (lost) and by other works, particularly the Battle of Cascina. All these works resulted from the city fathers' desire to revive monumental public art, characteristic of the period before the Medici early in the 15th century. The new Council Hall of the Palazzo Vecchio was to have patriotic murals that would also show the special skills of Florence's leading artists: Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Michelangelo's Battle of Cascina was commissioned in 1504; several sketches and a copy of the cartoon exist. The central scene shows a group of muscular nudes, soldiers climbing from a river where they had been swimming, to answer a military alarm. Inevitably Michelangelo felt the influence of Leonardo and his evocation of continuous flowing motion through living forms. Michelangelo's greatness lay partly in his ability to absorb Leonardo's innovations and yet not reduce the heavy solidity and impressive dignity of his earlier work. This fusion of throbbing life with colossal grandeur henceforth was the special quality of Michelangelo's art.

From then on too Michelangelo's work consisted mainly of very large projects that he never finished because of his inability to turn down the vast commissions of his great clients which appealed to his preference for the grand scale. Of the 12 Apostles he was to execute for Florence Cathedral, he began only the St. Matthew; this was the first monumental sculpture suggesting a Leonardesque agitation.


Tomb of Julius II

The project of the Apostles was put aside when Pope Julius II called Michelangelo to Rome in 1505 to design his tomb, which was to include about 40 life-size statues. This project occupied Michelangelo off and on for the next 40 years. Of it he wrote, "I find I have lost all my youth bound to this tomb." In 1506 a dispute over funds for the tomb led Michelangelo, who had spent almost a year at the quarries in Carrara, to flee to Florence. A reconciliation between Julius II and Michelangelo took place in Bologna, which the Pope had just conquered, and Michelangelo modeled a colossal bronze statue of Julius for S. Petronio in Bologna, which he completed in 1508 (destroyed).

Sistine Chapel

In 1508 Julius commissioned Michelangelo to decorate the ceiling of the chief Vatican chapel, the Sistine. This work was relatively modest at first, and Michelangelo felt he was being pushed aside by rival claimants on funds. But he soon was able to alter the traditional format of ceiling painting, whereby only single figures could be represented, not scenes calling for dramas in space; his introduction of dramatic scenes was so successful that it set the standard for the future.

The elaborate program with hundreds of figures was arranged in an original framing system that was Michelangelo's earliest architectonic design. He approached the ceiling as a surface on which to attach planes built up in various degrees of projection, like a relief sculpture except that its basic units are blocks rather than malleable forms. The many planes and painted architectural framework make the many categories of images so easily readable that the framing system tends to pass unnoticed, but its rich, heavy ornament is typical of the High Renaissance. The chief figural elements of the program are the 12 male and female prophets (the latter known as sibyls) and the nine stories from Genesis. Michelangelo began painting at the end of the story, with the three Noah scenes and the adjacent prophets and sibyls, and in 4 years worked through the three Adam stories to the three Creation stories at the other end of the ceiling.

Michelangelo paused for some months halfway along, and when he returned to the ceiling, he made the prophets more monumental (in keeping with the fewer and hence bigger figures in the nearby Creation scenes). At that point his style also underwent a shift. He had begun with a manner reverting to his sculptural style in the Pietà and David, as if he was uncertain when facing the unfamiliar task of painting on such a scale. The first prophets are harmonious but static, as is the Flood scene. But soon there develops a forceful grandeur, with a richer emotional tension than in any previous work. This is well illustrated in the Ezekiel, whose massive torso seems to be in tension with the centrifugally twisted head and legs. The prophet peers questioningly into the unknown.

After the pause, Michelangelo began the second half of the ceiling with a newly acquired subtlety of expression, as in the Creation of Adam. The images become freer and more mobile in the last parts painted, such as the Separation of Light and Darkness, but the mood remains introspective.

As soon as the ceiling was completed in 1512, Michelangelo returned to the tomb of Julius and carved for it (1513-1514) the Moses (S. Pietro in Vincoli, Rome) and two Slaves (Louvre, Paris), using the same types he employed for the prophets and their attendants painted in the Sistine ceiling. The Moses seems to represent a final synthesis of all those variants, although it is more restrained owing to the sculptural medium. It was meant to be placed above eye level, and some of its dramatic force would probably have been mitigated when seen from the intended distance. Julius's death in 1513 halted the work on his tomb.

From now on the successive popes determined Michelangelo's activity, as they were all anxious to have work by the recognized greatest maker of monuments for themselves, their families, and the Church. Pope Leo X, son of Lorenzo de' Medici, proposed a marble facade for the family parish church of S. Lorenzo in Florence, to be decorated with statues by Michelangelo, but his project was canceled after four years of quarrying and designing.


Medici Chapel

In 1520 Michelangelo was commissioned to execute a tomb chapel for two young Medici dukes. The Medici Chapel (1520-1534), an annex to S. Lorenzo, is the most nearly complete large sculptural project of Michelangelo's career. The two tombs, each with an image of the deceased and two allegorical figures, are placed against elaborately articulated walls; these six statues and a seventh on a third wall, the Madonna, are by Michelangelo's own hand. The two saints flanking the Madonna are by assistants from his clay sketches. Four river gods were planned but not executed.

The interior architecture of the Medici Chapel develops the treatment seen in the painted architectural framework of the Sistine ceiling; the walls are treated as relief sculptures, with intersecting moldings and pillars on many planes, giving a loose freedom typical of a non-professional approach to architecture. Whimsical reversals of what is proper— trapezoidal windows and capitals smaller than their columns—introduce what is now called mannerism in architecture.

The allegories on the curved lids of the tombs are also innovative: Day and Night recline on one tomb, Morning and Evening on the other. The choice of imagery was left to the artist, and these figures seem to symbolize the endless round of time leading to death. Michelangelo said that the death of the dukes cut off the light of the times of day, and such courtly adulation, which is hard to accept as Michelangelesque, is also suggested in the dukes' fancy costumes and idealized representations. Political absolutism was growing at the time, and Michelangelo's statues were often used as precedents in formulating new types of royal portraiture. A similar style is seen in the sinuous Victory overcoming a tough old warrior. This statue, Michelangelo's last serious contribution to the tomb of Julius, also embodied the artist's interest in Neoplatonism, a philosophy that urged man to rise above his body into the spiritual plane.

The architecture of the Medici Chapel has a fuller analog in the library, the Biblioteca Laurenziana, built at the same time on the opposite side of S. Lorenzo to house Leo X's books. The reading room has functional suggestions in its window and pillar system and refined ornament on floor and ceiling. But the entrance hall and staircase are Michelangelo's most astonishing illustration of capricious paradox, with recessed columns resting on scroll brackets set halfway up the wall and corners stretched open rather than sealed.


His Poetry

Most of Michelangelo's 300 surviving poems were written in the 1530s and 1540s and fall into two groups. The earlier poems are on the theme of Neoplatonic love and are full of logical contradictions and conceits, often very intricate. They belong to an international trend best known in the work of Luis de Góngora and John Donne and make an interesting parallel to mannerist architecture. The later poems are Christian; their mood is penitent; and they are written in a simple, direct style. These match a phase of Michelangelo's plastic art that slightly precedes them.

"Last Judgment"

In 1534 Michelangelo left Florence for the last time, settling in Rome. The next 10 years were mainly given over to painting for Pope Paul III, who is best known for convening the Council of Trent and thus organizing the Catholic Reformation.

The first project Michelangelo executed for Paul III is the huge Last Judgment (1536-1541) on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel. It revives a medieval approach to the same theme in using an entire end wall in an undivided field and in the composition of the parts. The design functions like a pair of scales, with some angels pushing the damned down to hell on one side and some pulling up the saved on the other side, both directed by Christ, who "conducts" with both arms; in the two top corners are the cross and other symbols of the Passion, which serve as his credentials to be judge.

The flow of movement in the Last Judgment is greater than in the medieval tradition, with the two streams of figures tending to shear against each other, but it is slower compared to Michelangelo's own earlier work. The colors, blue and brown, are simple, as are the bodies. The figure type is new, with thick, waistless torsos and loosely connected limbs. The new sobriety seems to parallel the ideas of the Counter Reformation, with whose leaders Michelangelo had intimate contact through his admired mentor, the devout widow Vittoria Colonna, the addressee of many of his poems.

Michelangelo's frescoes in the Pauline Chapel in the Vatican (1541-1545) are similar to the Last Judgment, but here he added a remarkable technical novelty by exploring perspective movement and coloristic subtlety as major expressive components. He may have turned to these typically painterly concerns because the Pauline frescoes were the first ones he executed on a normal scale and eye level. The only sculpture of these years, the Rachel and the Leah, executed so that a small amended version of the tomb of Julius could at last be erected, are so neat and unemphatic that they are often disregarded or not accepted as Michelangelo's work.

Works after 1545

Michelangelo devoted himself almost entirely to architecture and poetry after 1545. For Paul III he planned the rebuilding of the Capitol area, the Piazza del Campidoglio, a pioneering scheme of city planning that gave monumental articulation to an area traditionally used for civic ceremonies. The geometry is dynamic, marked by a trapezoidal plan (determined by the site) formed by three buildings and an oval pavement; the airy breadth of the piazza produces a relatively gentle effect of a special theatrical locus. The chief emphasis is on the facades of the two new side buildings, executed to Michelangelo's plans after his death. Two-story pilasters mark the front plane, unifying the open porch on the lower story and the closed upper one, thus mingling suggestions of compressed power and clear skeletal construction.

Michelangelo's approach to architecture was growing richer and more three-dimensional, as in the Palazzo Farnese, which he completed after the death of Antonio da Sangallo the Younger in 1546. In Michelangelo's third story of the courtyard, a second row of wide pilasters set behind the front level of narrow ones causes the wall of which they are all part to suggest a wavy continuum.

Paul III appointed Michelangelo to take over the direction of the work at St. Peter's after Sangallo died. Here Michelangelo had less respect for his predecessor's plan, returning instead to the concepts that the first architect, Donato Bramante, had proposed in 1506. The enormous church was to be an equal-armed cross in plan, concentrated on a huge central space beneath the dome surrounded by a series of secondary spaces and their containing structures. The edge thus became a complex outline of changing convex curves, and from that Michelangelo built the wall straight up, producing a very active rhythm, all on such a monumental scale that we can never see more than a fragment at one time. Its surface alternates colossal pilasters with stacks of three vertical windows compressed between them, providing a measure of the vast scale and also binding the wall into vertical unity. By the time Michelangelo died, a considerable part of St. Peter's had been built in the form in which we know it, and the drum of the dome was finished up to the springing.

The essentially three-dimensional concept of St. Peter's, inherently architectonic and original, gave way in Michelangelo's last years to a gleaming, almost dematerialized approach to the wall, suggested in the plans (ca. 1559) for the unexecuted church of S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini and a city gate, the Porta Pia (begun 1561).

Michelangelo's sculpture after 1545 was limited to two Pietàs that he executed for himself. The first one (1550-1555, unfinished), which is in the Cathedral of Florence, was meant for his own tomb. This Pietà employs the body type of the Last Judgment in the Christ and its shearing up and down thrusts in the interrelationships of the figures. His late architectural style has a parallel in his last sculpture, the Rondanini Pietà in Milan, which is cut away to an almost abstract set of curves. Michelangelo began this sculpture in 1555, and he was working on it on Feb. 12, 1564. He died six days later in Rome and was buried in Florence.

Michelangelo's impact on the younger artists who encountered his successive styles throughout his long life was immense, but it tended to be crushing. The great baroque artists of the next century, such as Peter Paul Rubens and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, were better able at a distance to study his ideas without danger to their artistic autonomy.

Further Reading on Michelangelo Buonarroti

The Complete Poems and Selected Letters of Michelangelo was translated by Creighton Gilbert and edited by Robert N. Linscott (1963). Charles de Tolnay, Michelangelo (5 vols., 1938-1960), is opinionated but indispensable; and Frederick Hartt's Michelangelo (1965), Michelangelo: The Complete Sculpture (1969), and Michelangelo Drawings (1970) are also strongly personal but more current. Both deal only with the painting, sculpture, and drawings. James S. Ackerman, The Architecture of Michelangelo (2 vols., 1961), is outstanding for this aspect of his work. Ludwig Goldscheider, Michelangelo: Paintings, Sculptures, Architecture (4th ed. 1963), provides a reasonably complete set of good illustrations. Creighton Gilbert, Michelangelo (1967), is the most succinct survey. Still valid for biography is John Addington Symonds, The Life of Michelangelo (1893); many reprints).