Michelangelo, the sculptor. Part I.

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.

Head of a Faun, marble, by Michelangelo, ca. 1489 (lost in 1944). A young Michelangelo, by then a teenager, sculpted this Head of a Faun based on an ancient model of an old, bearded faun-like face. Michelangelo added some features that were missing in the antique model, like its particular nose and “the open mouth as of a man laughing”. Lorenzo il Magnifico praised this work and upon seeing it became convinced of the talents of the young boy and decided to fund Michelangelo’s artistic education in his Academy. This early work by Michelangelo was first displayed at the Uffizi Gallery and later transferred to the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in 1865, after which it was stolen during World War II. The picture above is a plaster cast of the original.
Madonna of the Stairs, marble, by Michelangelo, ca. 1491, 56 x 40 cm (Casa Buonarroti, Florence). This is the earliest extant known work by Michelangelo. The waxy, translucent slab, like alabaster, is reminiscent of Desiderio da Settignano. Carved in the technique of “rilievo schiacciato“, this marble relief reveals the influence of ancient Greek “stelai“. The Madonna’s face is in classical profile and she sits on a square block, Michelangelo’s hallmark. He chose not to show the Child’s face but placed him in an odd position, either nursing or sleeping and encased in drapery, suggesting protection. In the background, four youths at the top of a stair handle a long cloth, identified with either the one used to lower Christ from the cross or a shroud. This relief also shows influences of Donatello’s Pazzi Madonna.
Battle of the Centaurs, marble, by Michelangelo, ca. 1492, 84,5 x 90,5 cm (Casa Buonarroti, Florence). The Battle of the Centaurs is, chronologically, the second extant piece carved by Michelangelo, who was 17 at the time, and the last work he created while under the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who died shortly after its completion. It was carved in white Carrara marble for Lorenzo de’ Medici and left unfinished at his death. This relief reflects Michelangelo’s study of late Roman sarcophagi, the Pisan sculptorsBertoldo di Giovanni and Pollaiuolo. It depicts the mythic battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs. This was a popular subject of art in ancient Greece, and the subject was suggested to Michelangelo by the classical scholar and poet Poliziano. This relief is remarkable for breaking with the then current practice of working on a discrete plane to work multidimensionally in multiple plains and to carve the figures dynamically. Michelangelo regarded this piece as the best of his early works, and a visual reminder of why he should have focused his efforts exclusively on sculpture, and he kept it for the rest of his life. The relief consists of a mass of nude figures, writhing in combat, placed underneath a roughed out strip in which the artist’s chisel marks remain visible.

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. 

Crucifix, polychrome wood, by Michelangelo, 1492, 142 x 135 cm (Basilica di Santa Maria del Santo Spirito di Firenze, Florence). Michelangelo carved this crucifix in 1492 for the prior of the church. The way the head and legs are treated in contrapposto suggests a search for classical harmony. The work is especially notable for the fact that Christ is naked, as it was stated in the Gospels. The sign attached to the cross includes Jesus’ accusation inscribed in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. The wording translates “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews”. After the death of his patron Lorenzo de’ Medici, Michelangelo (then 17 years old) was a guest of the convent of Santa Maria del Santo Spirito (Florence). There he was able to make anatomical studies of the corpses coming from the convent’s hospital; in exchange for this unique opportunity, he is said to have sculpted the wooden crucifix which was placed over the high altar.
Figures sculpted by Michelangelo for the Arca di San Domenico (Basilica of San Domenico, Bologna). Top left: partial view of the Arca di San Domenico, marble, 1494-1495, in 1494 Michelangelo was commissioned to sculpt a few remaining figures for this tomb, including St. Proclus, St. Petronius, and an angel holding a candelabra. Top right: Angel with Candlestick, marble, by Michelangelo, 1494-1495, 51,5 cm
height, to sculpt theses figures Michelangelo studied the sculptures made by Jacopo della Quercia nearly 60 years before for the main portal of the Basilica of San Petronio also in Bologna. Bottom left: St. Proclus, marble, by Michelangelo, 1494, 59 cm height, this statue echoes Masaccio and Donatello. It is believed that this figure was probably begun by Niccolò dell’ Arca and completed by Michelangelo. Bottom right: St. Petronius, marble, by Michelangelo, 1494, 64 cm height, this statue echoes Donatello and Jacopo della Quercia. St. Petronius, the patron saint of Bologna, holds a model of the town in his hands. Deep carving creates the locks of his beard, the eye sockets are rather deep, and the arches of the eyebrows throw a strong shadow. Despite a clear standing motif, the shadows thrown by the garments give such an effect of life that it appears as if the saint is about to stride off.

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.

Bacchus, marble, by Michelangelo, 1496-1497, 203 cm height (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence). In the summer of 1496, when Michelangelo was 22, Cardinal Raffaele Riario summoned Michelangelo to Rome and commissioned the figure of Bacchus, who wanted a statue to complement his own collection of antiquities in his garden. The Cardinal rejected the statue as he deemed it too sinful, a symbol of sexual desire, and sold it in 1497 to Jacopo Galli, Riario’s banker and a friend to Michelangelo. It was later placed in Galli’s garden among a group of antique fragments. Together with the Pietà the Bacchus is one of only two surviving sculptures from Michelangelo’s first period in Rome. This statue, his first work while in Rome, is untypical of Michelangelo, in the sense that it was designed to be a garden statue to be viewed in the round; most of Michelangelo’s surviving works were conceived for architectural settings with restricted viewpoints. The body of this drunken and staggering god gives the viewer an impression of both youthfulness and of femininity. Bacchus is depicted with rolling eyes, his mouth is gaped open, his body almost teetering off the rocky outcrop on which he stands. He is standing in a traditional pose, but due to his drunkenness he is leaning backwards. In his left hand the god holds with indifference a lion’s skin, the symbol of death, and a bunch of grapes, the symbol of life, from which a satyr is feeding. Bacchus’ right hand containing the cup was replaced, the vine shoots had worn, and his penis had been removed. The inspiration for the work appears to be the description in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History of a lost bronze sculpture by Praxiteles, depicting “Bacchus, Drunkenness and a satyr”.
Bacchus, marble, by Michelangelo, 1496-1497, 203 cm height (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence). In this sculpture, Michelangelo included several iconographic symbols related to the ancient cult of Bacchus. Bacchus wears a wreath of ivy leaves, as that plant was sacred to the god. Bacchus wears these vines and grape leaves on his head as he was identified as the inventor of wine. He also looks at the goblet of wine that he holds in his right hand. In his left hand he holds a lion’s skin surrounded by grapes that in turn are being eaten by the satyr.

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”.

Pietà, Carrara marble*, by Michelangelo, 1498-1499, 174 cm height x 195 cm width at the base (St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City). Throughout his life, Michelangelo executed a number of works on the theme of the Pietá, this being the first. The sculpture was commissioned in 1497 by the French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères-Lagraulas, who was the French ambassador in Rome, for his own tomb. It was begun the following year and was finished by 1499. The sculpture was made for the cardinal’s funeral monument located in the Chapel of Santa Petronilla near the south transept of St. Peter’s, this chapel was later demolished by Bramante during his rebuilding of the basilica, and the sculpture was later moved to its current location in the first chapel on the north side after the entrance of the basilica, in the 18th century. The Pietà represents the beginning of Michelangelo’s maturity as a sculptor and has been praised as a work of unprecedented elegance. In this group, Michelangelo sculpting technique shows even greater textural richness, which strongly contrasts with the unpolished textures of the rock and tree stump in which the group is placed. The structure of the sculptural group is pyramidal, the vertex coinciding with Mary’s head. The statue widens progressively down the drapery of Mary’s dress, to the base, the rock of Golgotha. The figures are quite out of proportion, owing to the difficulty of depicting a fully-grown man cradled full-length in a woman’s lap. Michelangelo’s depiction of the draperies is masterful: the tight, damp fold loincloth of Christ, the folds and complex crinkles of Mary’s robes and the controlled but generous sweep of the shroud, which both cradles and displays Christ’s corpse. The Virgin shows no grief; her features are composed and the gesture of her left hand draws the viewer’s attention to her dead son.
Pietà (detail), Carrara marble, by Michelangelo, 1498-1499, (St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City). Michelangelo signed the sculpture on the ribbon across Mary’s chest: MICHAELAGELVS.BONAROTVS.FLORENTIN.FACIEBAT. It was the only work he ever signed. Vasari reported the anecdote that Michelangelo later regretted his outburst of pride and swore never to sign another work of his hands. In contrast to the traditional Pietà depicted from artists north of the Alps, where the portrayal of pain had always been connected with the idea of redemption, 23 year old Michelangelo presents us with an image of the Madonna holding Christ’s body never attempted before. Her face is youthful, yet beyond time; her head leans only slightly over the lifeless body of her son lying in her lap. Mary’s youth symbolizes her incorruptible purity, as Michelangelo himself said to his biographer and fellow sculptor Ascanio Condivi.
Pietà (detail), Carrara marble, by Michelangelo, 1498-1499, (St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City). Christ’s face, in opposition to earlier representations of the same theme, does not reveal signs of the Passion.

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.

David, Carrara marble, by Michelangelo, 1501-1504, 434 cm height (Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence). In 1501 Michelangelo was commissioned to create the David by the Arte della Lana (Guild of Wool Merchants), who were responsible for the upkeep and the decoration of the Florence Cathedral. For this purpose, he was given a block of marble which Agostino di Duccio had already attempted to work with 40 years before, perhaps with the same subject in mind. Once the statue was completed, a committee of the highest ranking citizens and artists decided that it had to be placed in the main square of the town, in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, the Town Hall. It was the first time since antiquity that a large statue of a nude was to be exhibited in a public place. “Strength” and “Wrath” were the two most important virtues, characteristic of the ancient patron of the city of Florence, Hercules. Both these qualities, passionate strength and wrath, were embodied in the statue of David. In the figure of David, the entire emotional charge is carried by the articulation and twist of the body and limbs against the head. Stripped of all attributes but the minimal sling, this David carries no sword, and not even the head of Goliath distracts from his stark nudity. The figure’s authority seems to stem from the swing of the thorax, within which is a dramatic play of intercostal and abdominal muscles, stretched on the left, compressed on the right. The Florentines identified their city either with Hercules or with David, the hero of the Old Testament.
David, Carrara marble, by Michelangelo, 1501-1504, 434 cm height (Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence). In this masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture, Michelangelo departed from the traditional way of representing David, like in the older bronze statues by Donatello and Verrocchio. He didn’t present us with the winner, the giant’s head at his feet and the powerful sword in his hand, but portrayed the youth in the phase immediately preceding the battle. Michelangelo also placed David in the most perfect “contraposto“, as in the beautiful ancient Greek representations of nude male heroes. The right-hand side of the statue is smooth and composed while the left-side, from the outstretched foot all the way up to the disheveled hair, is openly active and dynamic. The statue was unveiled outside the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of civic government in Florence, in the Piazza della Signoria, on 8 September 1504. Because of the nature of the figure it represented, David soon came to symbolize the defense of civil liberties embodied in the independent city-state of the Republic of Florence.

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 BotticelliLeonardo da VinciFilippino LippiPietro Perugino, Lorenzo di Credi, Antonio and Giuliano da SangalloAndrea della RobbiaCosimo 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.

David (detail), Carrara marble, by Michelangelo, 1501-1504 (Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence). David’s oblique gaze and determined frown embody the ‘terribilità‘ characteristic of all Michelangelo’s work. The eyes of David, with a warning glare, were intended to be fixed towards Rome. The proportions of the statue are atypical of Michelangelo’s work; the figure has an unusually large head and hands (particularly apparent in the right hand). These proportions may be due to the fact that the statue was originally intended to be placed on the cathedral roofline, where the important parts of the sculpture may have been accentuated in order to be visible from below.
David (detail), Carrara marble, by Michelangelo, 1501-1504 (Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence). Michelangelo emphasized the right hand of David by sculpting it highly particularized: large, veined, suggesting latent power in a figure apparently at rest.


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.

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