Michelangelo Buonarroti is one of the world’s most beloved artists. Millions still marvel at his magnificent sculptures and paintings, and many also admire his writings. We know a good deal about him because his fame started as a teenager and his progress was well documented. He gave his life to his art and worked tirelessly to the ripe age of 89 years. He paid little attention to anything but his work. He lived modestly, never married and had few friends.
Michelangelo was born in a small village in 1475. His father Ludovico Buonarroti was working temporarily as magistrate of Caprese, having married a frail girl still only 19 when Michelangelo was born. She died soon afterwards and Michelangelo was sent to live in the home of a stonecutter. This man’s family treated him like a son and watched with pleasure as he ran wild through the stone quarries among strong quarrymen cutting huge blocks of marble from the side of the hill. Soon he was drawing charcoal figures on the sides of small pieces of marble and learning to carve shapes from the hard rock.
FLORENCE TO ROME AND BACK
When Michelangelo was ten, his father remarried and brought him back to Florence where he tried to force him to study classic Greek and Latin. The boy, however, loved to run away to sketch and watch artists at work. After three years of arguing and beatings his father gave up and sent him to study art under a prominent Florentine painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio.
Michelangelo was in heaven, filling his notebooks with copies of famous paintings and studying the human form. As he emerged as an artist he revealed his extraordinary ability to visually remember everything he drew. Just as Mozart could perfectly replay any music he had heard — so could Michelangelo perfectly replicate another artist’s work from memory. He once said, “I never drew a line I didn’t remember.” The 300 figures in the Sistine Chapel fresco display the variety of his visual memory.
Being in Florence during the 1480s and 1490’s was to be in the middle of a cultural revolution. Italy, still a series of independent city-states, was the center of “The Renaissance” or “Rebirth.”
Rich from trading, Italians were energetically reviving ancient learning coupled with new intellectual, scientific and artistic achievement.
Florence, at this time, was ruled by the brilliant, Lorenzo de Medici — a cultured man who encouraged the arts. One day young Michelangelo, working outdoors, was carving the mask of a fawn. A well-dressed man came up behind him to admire the work. When Michelangelo explained that it was meant to be an antique fawn the man suggested that if it were an old fawn, it should have some teeth missing. The well-dressed man, unbeknown to the young boy, was Lorenzo de Medici himself and when he returned the next day, some teeth were missing from the fawn’s mouth.
“Lorenzo the Magnificent,” as he was known, called for Michelangelo’s father, gave him a job in the customs office, and took the 15 year-old Michelangelo into his palace. There, Michelangelo soaked in the rich culture of the ruling family and was never happier than when learning to sculpt. He did not take part in the music and dancing at the palace and considered himself to be ugly and unlikable. As a result he was often rude.
One boy, named Torrigiano, was jealous of Michelangelo’s talent and taunted him. When Michelangelo answered with an angry insult, Torrigiano punched him in the face and left him with a permanently misshapen broken nose.
This made Michelangelo even more reclusive and all his energy went into studying the human form — often visiting a hospital where the local monks had given him permission to examine the bodies of the people who had died. He learned the beauty of the body and made hundreds of drawings until he knew exactly how muscles were connected and how joints moved.
At sixteen he produced one of his first masterpieces “Madonna of the Stairs” which captured the purity of spirit of the Mother of Christ.
After two years with the Medici family, Lorenzo died, and Michelangelo traveled for a year before returning to Florence. It wasn’t long before his fame had spread to Rome and he was commissioned to produce a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary, with the dead Christ in her arms.
Michelangelo produced a work of such beauty that people were astounded. When, one day he overheard someone say that it had been done by another artist, he entered the building at night and, with a chisel, carved his name on the ribbon that runs across the Virgin’s breast. It was called “Pieta” (the Pity).
Now 25 years old, Michelangelo returned to Florence where he found an 18 foot block of marble lying in the yard of the City Hall. It was set upright and around it was built an enclosed shed. Day and night Florentines could hear the ring of mallet and chisel as Michelangelo worked away.
After two years, the shed was removed to reveal the fantastic figure of “David.” The huge statue needed a home and Florence celebrated as it was pulled slowly through the streets — David’s handsome face peering into second-story windows — until it reached its destination at the entrance of one of the Palaces of Florence, where it stands today.
MICHELANGELO WORKS WITH LEONARDO DA VINCI
Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor but most people viewed him as a wonderful painter as well. At the time the most famous painter in Italy was Leonardo da Vinci, twenty years older than Michelangelo. He was tall and handsome but his polished manners annoyed the younger artist. For a while they both worked competitively on decorating the walls of Florence’s council chamber until Michelangelo was called suddenly to Rome by the Pope. Michelangelo had been working on the tomb of his one time benefactor, Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Now Pope Julius II demanded a magnificent tomb of his own and Michelangelo started work on “Moses,” as part of the tomb.
After a stormy relationship with the Pope, he was finally persuaded to stop carving, and instead, paint the ceiling of the Popes’ private chapel — the Sistine Chapel.
Insisting, “painting is not my trade,” Michelangelo was reluctant to start until he had the inspirational thought, to cover the entire ceiling with one single theme. Deeply religious, Michelangelo would tell the history of mankind from the creation of the universe to the birth of Christ.
THE SISTINE CHAPEL CEILING IN ROME
When he had completed his sketches, Michelangelo built a platform that towered 80 feet above the chapel floor. In December 1508, looking up and bending backwards, he began to paint the first of nine episodes from the Book of Genesis. In the center would be one of his most famous images —God-Creating Adam. God approaches Adam, extending the finger that will give Adam life. Under God’s left arm Eve emerges and the rest of humanity follows. But this and the more than 300 other figures would only be properly seen by the public four and a half years later.
That painful but brilliantly creative time was filled with personal and psychological agony for Michelangelo. At first he fired all his helpers and decided to do almost all the work himself. He was also in a state of constant anxiety about his relationship with the Pope. Pope Julius II was impatient as the assignment dragged on and kept asking, “When will it be finished?” Finally frustrated by the artist’s equally impatient reply, “When I can, Holy Father” he struck Michelangelo with his cane. It took 500 crowns and a written apology to persuade Michelangelo to return to work.
Through four hot summers and cold winters he toiled. For days he ate only stale bread he kept on the scaffold with him. After days and weeks in an awkward position, he had terrible cramps, and with paint dripping on his face, he almost went blind.
Then in November 1512 the scaffold was removed and the results of his labor were revealed. A host of papal dignitaries gazed up in wonder and were stunned by what they saw. Michelangelo, the sculptor at 37 had produced a painted masterpiece.
He lived another 52 years and produced more wonderful works including a six-year effort painting “The Last Judgment,” also in the Sistine Chapel.
He was always plagued by fears of death and wrote more than 300 poems describing his feelings.
His final assignment, at age 72, was as architect of St. Peter’s Cathedral where he designed a lofty and magnificent dome to crown the center of the church. Although he labored on it for 17 years he did not see it completed.
On February 18th, 1564, he tried to mount his horse to ride to St. Peters but did not have the strength. He died four days later. Rome wanted to honor him but his friends stole his body and took it back to Florence where it is buried.
Michelangelo was stubborn, sometimes ill-tempered and always insecure. He considered himself a failure — but then his goal was perfection, an impossible task for any man. In his final days he spoke of how he regretted “dying just as I was beginning to learn the alphabet of my profession.”
ITALY AFTER MICHELANGELO
After Michelangelo’s death, work on St. Peter’s continued and his wonderful concepts of a baroque style group of buildings was completed. The brilliant sculptor, Bernini designed a vast square and enclosing colonnade.
The Renaissance picked up momentum as the new spirit of enquiry transformed knowledge and thinking about astronomy, physics, chemistry, anatomy, biology and medicine. While some of the discoveries clashed with Church teachings, it was not anti-religious and some of the best paintings, as we have seen, were commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church.
Another person who advanced scientific knowledge was Galileo (1564-1642). He was the first person to use a telescope to prove that the earth revolves around the sun and was placed under house arrest for teaching a doctrine not consistent with the church’s point of view. (It believed the earth, not the sun was the center of the universe). His books were burned and his sentence was read publicly in every university.
Galileo died in 1642 unforgiven by the church, which waited until 1992 before a papal commission, opened in 1979 by Pope Paul II acknowledged the church’s error.
FROM A COLLECTION OF CITY STATES TO A COUNTRY
What we now know as Italy was a collection of independent City-States. Their language was Italian but the rule was by powerful entities like the Sforza family in Milan, the Pope in the Papal States and the Medici dynasty in Florence. Business was of paramount importance and the City-States became very adept at managing money as well as developing trade.
The richest of all the City-States was Venice, which had a virtual monopoly on European trade for all the spices, silk and treasures that came out of Asia. One can therefore imagine the shock when it was revealed that Vasco de Gama had reached India by sailing around Africa (see “The Portuguese.”) Businessmen in Venice suddenly realized that their monopoly was over.
Much of the history of the Italians from the fifteen to the eighteen hundreds involved invasions by France, Spain and the Austrian-Hungarian empire. By 1800 the French dominated and by 1810 Napoleon Bonaparte controlled the entire Italian peninsular. He modernized the legal system, built new roads and schools and chose to ignore old state boundaries. With Napoleon’s demise (see “The French”), the Austrian and Spanish armies took control of different parts of the country. But the notion of being united as one country, fired the imagination of Italian intellectuals. The Austrians resisted, but a self taught guerrilla fighter, Giuseppe Garibaldi, inspired his countrymen to fight their way to freedom.
Most of the former City states gradually agreed to unite. However when the Papal States resisted being part of the union, Italian troops moved in, and the Pope and his staff became “voluntary prisoners” in the Vatican buildings, refusing to leave the grounds. This situation prevailed until the Lateran Treaty of 1929 granted independence to 108 acres of Vatican property. To this day, the Vatican remains a separate state in the middle of the city of Rome.
In the late 1800’s, Italy joined the scramble for Africa and gained the territories of Eritrea and Somaliland, both of doubtful value. Later they also acquired oil rich Libya on Africa’s north coast after a war with Turkey (1911-12).
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