Michelangelo's first works reveal inner anguish, and his struggles reflect melancholy and the longing of the inner self.
The works of Leonardo da Vinci influenced Michelangelo.
The final years of the fifteenth century were a time of significant change in Europe. These were the concluding years marked with plague, war, famine, and Europe needed change (Müntz, 2011). Artists mainly worked on the change because art was vital in the Renaissance, especially in Florence, Italy.
Humanism originated from where the Renaissance took its root and can be traced to such well-known artists as Leonardo da Vinci, Marsilio Ficino, and Pico della Mirandola. Art was as crucial as war during this time, and it was a shining time for artists (Müntz, 2011). Humanism spread throughout Europe. Michelangelo's works which showed expressionism, creativity, and depth, were an actual example of the humanist conception of the world.
Humanism addresses questions like: What do we understand of man? Where is his place in the universe? How does he reach perfection? Michelangelo's works are a product of humanism, which is considered a style of thinking rather than a doctrine, and its purpose is on man. This is also a product of the Renaissance (de Lafond, 2018).
Birth and Early Life
Michelangelo – full name Michelagniolo di Ludovico Buonarroti Simoni – was born on March 6, 1475, at Caprese, near Valle della Singerna, a dependency of Florence where his family had a farm. Michelangelo grew up under the care of a woman other than his mother because his mother died when he was six. The woman was the wife and daughter of stonecutters, a thing Michelangelo was proud of as one factor why he became a sculptor.
He was the breadwinner of the family at a young age; he would send money to his father and brothers from his earnings as a sculptor. His father seemed to have no occupation to feed the family. Michelangelo took his early schooling under Francesco da Urbino. He studied in the Bottega or studio of Domenico Ghirlandaio, and when he reached 13 years old, he became an apprentice there with a small salary.
He studied the works of the Medici and lived in the palace of Lorenzo de' Medici. Michelangelo's first significant works were the marble reliefs of the Virgin of the Stairs and the Battle of the Centaurs (Stokes, 2002).
Major Works and Accomplishments
Michelangelo was a leading figure of the Renaissance, giving innovations to his significant works that were ahead of his predecessors. The sculpture was his favorite art, and because of his outstanding work, he caught the attention of Lorenzo de Medici, who helped him promote his work and introduced him to society. He came to know art patrons, fellow artists, politicians, and well-known Humanists, who discussed the art in the Court of Florence. Lorenzo's sons, Giovanni and Giulio, became close friends who studied and admired his work and later commissioned Michelangelo's masterpieces.
In 1494, he went to Venice and Bologna to evade the political disputes in Florence. In Bologna, he worked on two statuettes for the sarcophagus in the tomb of St. Dominic, which was situated in a church. When he returned to Florence, Francesco de' Medici commissioned him to carve St. John the Baptist as a boy (Stokes, 2002). In 1529, his sculpture of Hercules was sold to the French king, Francis I, and then another curved wood of the crucifix was sold to the Prior of Santo Spirito. It was this Prior that allowed him to work on dead bodies.
In 1501, Michelangelo worked on David's marble sculpture and did the Opera del Duomo in 1504. Another commission was a sculpture of the twelve Apostles, but he could only work on St. Matthew. There were other commissioned sculptures, but many of them were unfinished or not started. In 1505, Michelangelo was summoned by Julius II in Rome to work on the tomb of Julius in St. Peter's. Some problems forced him to leave Rome and proceed to Florence and finish the tomb in Florence. In 1508, he was commissioned by Julius, who conquered Rome, to paint the vault and walls of the Sistine chapel. He did this in four and a half years. The paintings in the vault were images of prophets, sibyls, scenes taken from the book of Genesis, including those from the Old Testament and prophets who came before Christ. With fresco as a technique, Michelangelo painted scenes on the sides and ceiling. With scaffolding that raised him more than fifty feet above the floor, he could paint above his head. This was finished in about four years, and in 1512 he started to make a cartoon of the Pietà.
Michelangelo's first works reveal inner anguish, and his struggles reflect melancholy and the longing of the inner self. He struggled with converting his thoughts into a picture, and it was so difficult for him, even to all of us who are not artists, because of the constant action and troubling thoughts in mind. Müntz calls this the inner tension. The works of Leonardo da Vinci influenced Michelangelo. His sense of the artist became pronounced but changed when Da Vinci's Saint Anne was shown, which influenced his works. Michelangelo commented on this work as a different way of presenting the artistic characters through mighty masses and the expansive space in the drawing or painting. Because of the Da Vinci influence, Michelangelo dug to his inner thinking about the esthetic question: how can a human figure be presented or isolated in the broader space to give a universal theme? Michelangelo came to compete with this great artist like Leonardo.
The young Michelangelo surprised the world of art through his works like Pietà, David, the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Some paintings he gave to Tommaso de' Cavalieri, a Roman nobleman with whom he fell in love. The paintings were Cleopatra, The Fall of Phaeton, Tityus, and Ganymede. These last two paintings suggest metaphor but were gifted to the handsome man he adored, to whom he also offered some sonnets. Ganymede shows an image of a young shepherd fainting in the hold of a strong rising eagle.
Michelangelo's drawings (or dreams) were symbolic in form, suggesting familiar myths or some form of fantasy, but the lines reflected those of earlier artists. Il Sogno (or The Dream) was created around 1533, an allegory of virtue and vice, yet according to Ruvolt, the imagery is complex. A winged creature approaches the nude figure from above and blows through a trumpet, and the unusual placement of the trumpet depicts melancholy. The Sogno is a product of inspiration, of love to someone the artist adored so much. This was given to Cavaliere, who, along with Vittoria Colonna, spent hours studying the paintings and used mirrors and magnifying glasses to examine how they were made.
Michelangelo combined the themes in painting the Sogno, the exceptional quality of the painter that reflects divine inspiration, with multiple threads that lead to the making of meaning. Vices are part of the symbolized forms related to loneliness, dreams, love, desire, and creation. It is not easy to interpret the meaning unless the artist examining it has the gift and spends hours looking at the purpose, as what Cavaliere and Colonna made and testified in their letters to Michelangelo (Ruvoldt, 2003).
At the time Michelangelo created the Pietà in Rome, the city was mired with corruption and violence. A clergy member described it as a city built upon hell, a place for the "Antichrist." With this backdrop, religious piety, celebrations, and prayer of churches in Rome were also practiced. Jean de Bilhères, Benedictine, cardinal of Santa Sabina, archbishop of St. Denis, and diplomat for French interests in Rome, had died. Still, before his death, the cardinal had commissioned Michelangelo to sculpt a life-size image of the Virgin holding Jesus on her lap – the Pietà. And how is this striking? It resembles Mary's youth and calm demeanor and Christ's body. The magnificent carving and how it was built make it unique and difficult to interpret (Fenichel, 2017). French artists created pietàs, but Michelangelo's work is an exceptional artistic creation. The Pietà in St. Peter's was derived from the same theme. The French cardinal must have had a hand in the work's development execution. The cardinal had thought of the Rome Pietà from the beginning as an integral part of his soon-to-be funeral. The Rome Pietà reflects and magnifies the vigils and masses for the dead. Mary is at the center of this religious artifact.
Michelangelo's Creation of Adam is found in the Sistine Chapel. The Almighty is seen along with the children who represent the future; the children also support God, the Father. The image of Eve can be seen under the Almighty's arm, and her eyes are focused on the newly-created Adam. Steinberg says that the image of Eve is not feminine but that of a masculine figure. The gender of God cannot be ascertained and has been debated because, as Steinberg (1992) says, God is neuter.
The persons responsible for Michelangelo's Mural of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel were Popes Clement VII Medici and Paul III Farnese (Polzer, 2021). The Last Judgment is the most significant Italian painting. Michelangelo's Christ the Judge has been repeatedly compared to the well-known Apollo Belvedere, a Roman copy of a Hellenistic bronze, one of the most admired ancient marbles available in Renaissance Rome. The Christ the Judge has a halo or a circle or mandola, which symbolized Divine Light, with Apollo, the ancient God of the sun.
The Children's Bacchanal, along with the Archers and the Sogno, are mysterious representations of some inner thoughts and have continued to puzzle critics and researchers, even in looking at the original meaning. The Children's Bacchanal has not received much attention but is complete in a sense and has inkling meaning with the Ganymede and Tityus, but there are some heading meanings. The Bacchanal can give meaning to the relationship between the artist's creativity and his passion for the outside world. Its subtle purpose is indescribable and is a perfect example of Renaissance relief. It was entrusted to Cavalieri as Michelangelo looked at him as a source of inspiration and someone he could offer his passionate love. Many of Michelangelo's artworks were dedicated to him.
Retirement and Death
Michelangelo's last years in life were devoted to architecture. He died on February 18, 1564, three weeks before reaching the age of 89 years (Stokes, 2002). He dedicated the final years of his life to completing the Roman architectural works, such as the Capitoline Hill, Farnese Palace, Sforza Chapel, Porta Pia, and Santa Maria degli Angeli.
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Fenichel, E. (2017). Michelangelo's Pietà as tomb monument: Patronage, liturgy, and morning. Renaissance Quarterly, 70(3), 862-896. 10.1086/693883
Gararrd, M. (2014). Michelangelo in love: Decoding the Children's Bacchanal. The Art Bulletin, 96(1), 24-49. 10.1080/00043079.2014.877302
Müntz, E. (2011). Michelangelo. Parkstone International.
Polzer, J. (2021). Michelangelo's Sistine Last Judgment and Buffalmacco's Murals in the Campo Santo of Pisa. Artibus et Historiae, 35(69).
Ruvoldt, M. (2003). Michelangelo's Dream. Art Bulletin, 85(1), 86-113. 10.2307/3177328
Steinberg, L. (1992). Who's who in Michelangelo's creation of Adam: A chronology of the picture's reluctant self-revelation. The Art Bulletin, 74(4), 552-566.
Stokes, A. (2002). Michelangelo: A study in the nature of art. Taylor & Francis Group.