In past essays we have repeatedly mentioned the name of a genius who projected his spirit throughout the art of an entire century: Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (6 March 1475 – 18 February 1564), whom always protesting that he was nothing more than a sculptor, took upon his shoulders the architectural works of Saint Peter’s Basilica, and also protesting that he wasn’t a painter either, he decorated the Sistine Chapel with monumental frescoes. No artist could ever follow him in those giant endeavors. Michelangelo didn’t have successors, nobody would paint or sculpt like him; but his work was enduring. He created a school in which the maestro taught no one, but from whom everyone learned nevertheless.
“Michaela[n]gelus Bonarotus Florentin[us] Facieba[t]” (‘Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, was making this’), that’s how his signature appears in the only work he signed (the Pietà, 1498-1499). Michelangelo, a lonely and strange character, was born in the Republic of Florence, and hence, was a pure Florentine by heart and spirit. We have seen before how between Giotto and Michelangelo there were two centuries of soft artistic Tuscan beauty, with noble and exquisite creations. It seemed that no person could break that charm. Masaccio, the only artist who saw in his country the real beauty of things, died when he had barely started his career. Suddenly a titan appeared amid the idyllic artistic environment of Florence: what was a soft adagio became a stormy finale.
Today we cannot have any conjectures about the character and genius of Michelangelo. We know his personality and actions, we have his letters: the ones he wrote and the ones he received. Nothing illustrates so much about his life that this correspondence which fully shows us his spirit. Tough of character, difficult to deal with, his dearest friends and relatives had to be very careful around him try to not to irritate him. Fate paura ognuno, insino al Papa (‘You scare everyone, even the Pope himself’) wrote his closest friend, Sebastiano del Piombo. It was useless for Michelangelo to protest and to try to excuse himself in reply: his letters denounced him. Sometimes he filled his father and brothers with caresses, and other times, embittered by his own pain, he answered them sharply, as if dismissing them forever.
Alone, accompanied by no one, he made his way, the long road of his troubled life. He was like a Beethoven who, in addition to his own miseries and artistic fatigues, was loaded with the whole of other people’s errors, like as he had to purge the sins of a whole century. What fault did Michelangelo have that Bramante left the old St. Peter’s in ruins, without having drawn up the definitive plan for the new Vatican church? Why should he be the victim of Popes’ vanity, always inconstant in their desires but nevertheless attentive to the very idea of exploiting his genius, of making him work tirelessly, to procure immortality for themselves through his magnificent works? Michelangelo couldn’t attend to so many commissions, and finally he took the habit to leave them unfinished. How many times his great spirit failed, especially during the difficult days of the direction of the architectural works of St. Peter… “Se si potessi morire di vergogna e di dolore, io non sarei piú vivo” (‘If I could die of shame and pain, I would no longer be alive’), he said, full of despair, in one of his letters. This is what makes Michelangelo so particularly esteemed today; he was a misanthrope, but his pains, his torments, had as their origin his own consciousness of duty.
Art became for him like a heavy burden, a terrible faculty that compelled him with humanity. Thus, Michelangelo went through life in exasperation, sometimes insulting people, as the anecdote tells when one day he met Leonardo in the street and blamed him for his mistakes in a totally inconvenient way. Leonardo and Michelangelo were too great to understand each other.
Biographical data about Michelangelo isn’t scarce, but it happens with these great geniuses that we always want to know more about them and their lives. The main elements of judgment we have are his works, sculptures and paintings, for the most part still preserved. His correspondence, collected by his nephew who turned his house into a sanctuary dedicated to his remembrance, and his verses; because Michelangelo, especially in his last years, let himself go by a poetic spirit. Only two biographies of him were written by his contemporaries: the one Vasari included in his book, and another, fundamental, written by Ascanio Condivi, from which Vasari copied many paragraphs almost verbatim. Condivi’s biography was published during Michelangelo’s life; the great artist seems to have corrected the text, or at least he knew it, before it was published.
Condivi was also a simple, dignified spirit, unable to hide or exaggerate facts. The son of a wealthy rural landowner, in his youth Condivi went to Rome where he tried to start a career as an artist under the advice of Michelangelo. The death of his father forced him to return to his lands to attend to the family’s patrimony, and then, with nostalgia for his truncated vocation, Condivi wrote his teacher’s biography, linking it with the memories of the conversations he had held with him while in Rome. Vasari, as we have said, took advantage of Condivi’s book; all the other biographers of Michelangelo will have to go and look after that first reference. It can be said that Condivi’s biography on Michelangelo is the only one first-hand.
Another less important contemporary book through which we can learn something new about Michelangelo’s thoughts, is the one published by a discreet Portuguese nobleman named Francisco de Holanda, who had gone to Rome on behalf of King John III of Portugal and that due to his condition as a foreign diplomat was admitted to the intimacy of the art colloquia held by Vittoria Colonna and Michelangelo. With all these information, letters, biographies and poetry, plus archival documents, today it’s easy to reconstruct Michelangelo’s life without major errors.
Condivi described him as a man of medium height, broad of shoulders, although light in his movements, his eyes clear and cerulean, his nose crushed by a blow he received when he was 17 (it seems that this deformation was due to a blow from a then fellow pupil, the sculptor Pietro Torrigiano, while both were apprentices of Bertoldo di Giovanni, a struck that was given in the heat of an argument). Michelangelo’s father, Ludovico di Leonardo Buonarroti Simoni, was Castilian from Chiusi, in Casentino, and his mother was Francesca di Neri del Miniato di Siena. Michelangelo was born in Caprese, today known as Caprese Michelangelo a commune in the Province of Arezzo in Tuscany. Several months after Michelangelo’s birth, the family returned to Florence, where he was raised.
Michelangelo’s mother went to a period of a prolonged illness, and after her death in 1481, when he was six years old, Michelangelo was placed to live in the town of Settignano under the care of a nanny and her husband, a stonecutter. In Settignano, Michelangelo’s father owned a marble quarry and a small farm, and was there that he gained his love and appreciation for marble. Still a young boy, Michelangelo was sent to Florence to study grammar under the humanist Francesco da Urbino, but from the beginning he showed no interest in this field, and preferred to copy paintings from churches and seek the company of other painters. At the age of 13, in 1488, Michelangelo was placed as an apprentice in the workshop of Ghirlandaio, where at the age of 14 he was already being paid as an artist. In 1489, Lorenzo de’ Medici asked Ghirlandaio to send to him his two best pupils, and the master then sent Michelangelo and Francesco Granacci. Michelangelo’s true school was the Garden of the Medici, then called “The Platonic Academy”, where he was between 1490 and 1492. In this humanist academy founded by the Medici, Michelangelo’s work and thought were influenced by many of the most prominent philosophers and writers of the day. There, he was also able to study the ancient marbles and artifacts the Medici had collected.
Lorenzo himself used to go to this garden to talk with his protégé artists. Soon Michelangelo caught the attention of his patron by sculpting a faun’s head (ca. 1489). Lorenzo, noticing the exceptional artistic talent of the boy who was only 15 years old at the time, called Michelangelo’s father to offer him some position in exchange for the child, who Lorenzo claimed for himself. Michelangelo’s father was then employed in the customs office and the boy spent two years in the Medici house, treated like a son. “Lorenzo de’ Medici,” says Condivi, “called him several times a day to show him jewels, medals and antique gem stones, in order to form his taste and good judgment”. At this time, young Michelangelo sculpted the relief of the Madonna of the Stairs (ca. 1491) and, at the suggestion of Poliziano, one of Lorenzo’s humanist friends, Michelangelo carved a relief with the Battle of the Centaurs (ca. 1492), a work that he had in high regard throughout his life, saying that it hurt him not to have dedicated himself exclusively to the art of sculpture. This carving reminded him of his youth, the few and beautiful days of his apprenticeship in the company of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Later, Michelangelo worked for a time with the sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni.
Shortly after Lorenzo’s death is when Michelangelo’s own life really began, with his storms and pains. Fearing the revolution that would drive the Medici out of Florence, Michelangelo returned to his father’s house. In the following months he carved a polychrome wooden Crucifix (1493), as a gift to the prior of the Florentine church of Santo Spirito, which had allowed him to do some anatomical studies of the corpses from the church’s hospital. This would be the first of several opportunities in which Michelangelo studied anatomy by dissecting cadavers. He returned to Florence at the request of the Medici who, in 1493, were expelled from Florence as the result of the rise of Savonarola. Michelangelo then marched to Venice and then to Bologna in 1494 before the end of the political upheaval. While in Bologna, he was commissioned to carve an angel and other small figures (1494-1495) to complete the decoration for the funerary monument of Saint Dominic.
Returning for a short time to Florence after the political turmoil towards the end of 1495, Michelangelo soon left for the first time for Rome at the request of Cardinal Rafaelle Riario, who knew Michelangelo’s work after he purchased a statue of a Sleeping Cupid that was fixed by the artist to make it look like an ancient marble at the suggestion of his patron Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. Riario was so impressed by the quality of this sculpture that he invited Michelangelo to Rome. Michelangelo arrived in Rome on 25 June 1496 at the age of 21. On 4 July of the same year, he began working on a personal commission for Cardinal Riario: an over-life-size statue of the Roman wine god Bacchus (1496-1497). In November 1497, the French ambassador to the Holy See, Cardinal Jean de Bilhères-Lagraulas, commissioned Michelangelo to carve the marble group of the Pietà (1498-1499), he was 24 at the time of its completion. The sculpture is today placed in a chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. This work is of extraordinary beauty. Michelangelo, acknowledging his work, carved his name on the sash running across Mary’s chest, the only work he signed. One day speaking to Condivi about the youth of the Virgin of his Pietà, Michelangelo said the following words, which he stated verbatim: “The Mother had to be young, younger than the Son, to prove herself eternally Virgin; while the Son, incorporated into our human nature, had to appear like any other man in his mortal remains”.
The entire sculpture is admirably composed within its marble silhouette. Michelangelo boasted that there’s no concept or idea that a good artist cannot circumscribe in a block of stone. With this statement he defined himself as a sculptor, and in a letter to Varchi (who gave Michelangelo’s funeral prayer), written in his old age, he still defended sculpture against those who assumed it was less noble than painting: “even though, as you say, if things that have the same purpose are the same thing, painting and sculpture will also be identical”. This gave us an idea of how Michelangelo and his friends talked and discussed about art during their colloquia.
In 1499 Michelangelo returned to Florence after the execution of Savonarola and was commissioned by the consuls of the Guild of Wool Merchants to complete an unfinished project begun 40 years earlier by Agostino di Duccio: a colossal statue in Carrara marble representing David as a symbol of Florentine freedom. This was planned to be placed on the gable of the Cathedral.
How Michelangelo circumscribed his compositions within a block of marble can be appreciated in his sculptural groups, where the figures seem to huddle within the block, giving it shape instead of taking it from it, and especially in the difficult problems of composition posed by the circular shape of tondos or medallions. For the commission of this David, Michelangelo faced a gigantic problem of this kind when he was asked to make the most out of the large abandoned block of marble, which had been half destroyed by the attempts of Duccio. In response, Michelangelo made David (1501-1504) come out of that stone, a work considered as the apotheosis of his earlier works. He spent more than two years carving this sculpture. Seeing the finished sculpture and admired by Michelangelo’s technical skill, a team of consultants including Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Filippino Lippi, Pietro Perugino, Lorenzo di Credi, Antonio and Giuliano da Sangallo, Andrea della Robbia, Cosimo Rosselli, Davide Ghirlandaio, Piero di Cosimo, Andrea Sansovino and Francesco Granacci, were summoned to decide upon its placement. On May 14, 1504, the statue was transferred from Michelangelo’s workshop, located behind the cathedral, to its original definite location, at the entrance to the Palazzo della Signoria, now the Palazzo Vecchio. It remained there until 1873 when, for preservation purposes, David was moved to the Galleria dell’Accademia where it remains to this day, while in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, it was replaced by a copy.
Carrara marble: A type of white or blue-grey marble popular for use in sculpture and building decoration. It is quarried in the city of Carrara in the province of Massa and Carrara, Tuscany, in Italy.