THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHELANGELO
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Michelangelo di Ludovico Buonarroti Simoni (known as Michelangelo) was born on 6 March 1475 in the Tuscan town of Caprese, near Arezzo. His family were natives of Florence and they returned to the city within a few weeks of the birth, when Ludovico Buonarroti's term as mayor of Caprese had ended.
Soon after their arrival, the Buonarrotis sent the baby to a wet-nurse living on the family farm a few miles away in Settignano. This environment seems to have had a crucial effect on Michelangelo, for the area around Settignano was full of stone quarries. His wet-nurse's father and husband were both stonemasons, and Michelangelo often jested later in life that "with my wet-nurse's milk, I sucked in the hammer and chisels I use for my statues".
From an early age the young Michelangelo was consumed with artistic ambition. As a boy of 13, he persuaded his reluctant father to allow him to leave his grammer school and become an apprentice to the artist Domenico Ghirlandaio, one of the most successful fresco painters in Florence.The young Michelangelo's prodigious skill - and, perhaps, his single-mindedness - soon aroused jealousy among his fellow students in the garden. His biographer and friend, Giorgio Vasari, tells of how another young sculpter, Pietro Torrigiano, later described as a bully, punched him violently in the face, crushing and breaking his nose. Michelangelo was deeply upset by the incident, and by the disfigurement to his face - physically, and psychologically, it seems to have marked him for life.
Michelangelo's skill now attracted the personal attention of Lorenzo de' Medici (called the Magnificent), who was effective ruler of Florence at the time. He was so impressed by a statue Michelangelo was carving that he invited him to live in the Medici household.
CHANGING FORTUNESMichelangelo spent two happy years in the Medici household and worked on an impressive marble relief, The Battle of the Centaurs. But when Lorenzo died in 1492, Michelangelo's fortunes began to take a downward turn, and he went bact to live with his father. Lorenzo's successor, Piero de' Medici, was friendly to the artist but had little interest in art. Indeed, the only work Piero commissioned from Michelangelo was a snowman, a childish whim after a heavy snowfall in January 1494. As a consolation, Michelangelo devoted his skills to a detailed study of anatomy by dissecting corpses in the church of Santo Spirito - a curious privilege bestowed by the prior in return for a carved wooden crucifix.
Under piero's rather haphazard reign, political Florence became increasingly unstable and blood and thunder preachers found wide audiences. A charismatic Dominican called Savonarola had a particularly disturbing influence, denouncing the corruption of Florence and prophesying the imminent doom of the sinful city. The invasion of Italy by Charles VIII of France added fuel to the unrest. Apparently, with the words of Savonarola ringing in his ears, Michelangelo packed up and left for Venice in October 1494 - the first of his many "flights".
A VISIT TO ROMEIn 1496 Michelangelo was summoned to Rome as a result of the famous "Sleeping Cupid affair" which had made him a reputation. Here he carved the marble Bacchus for the banker, Jacopo Galli, and the famous Pieta' (below), now in St Peter's, for the French Cardnial Jean Bilheres de Lagraulas.
The startling beauty and originality of the Pieta' brought Michelangelo enduring fame. He was soon being heralded as Italy's formost sculptor. By 1501, he was able to return to Florence as a hero. There he carved the magnificent statue of David further enhancing his reputation. The statue was placed in front of the Palazzo della Signoria, where it stood as a symbol of Republican freedom, courage and moral virtue.
The legendary sculptor went from strength to strength. Soon after the death of Pope Alexander VI he was summoned back to Rome to serve the new Pope, Julius II. Julius was the first of the seven popes that Michelangelo worked for and their relationship was tempestuous.
In the spring of 1505, Julius commissioned Michelangelo to create a tomb for him. It was to be a free-standing shrine with over 40 statues, a grand monument to himself. The scale of the project suited the scope of Michelangelo's vision, and he spent eight months enthusiastically quarrying marble at Carrara. But the Pope soon began to grow impatient at the lack of results and gradually started to lose interest.
A PLAN FOR ST PETER'SBy then, the Pope had concieved an even grander plan for the complete rebuilding of the church of St Peter's in Rome, and he had entrusted the design to his favorite architect, Bramante. When Michelangelo returned to Rome, burning with desire to make his magnificent vision live, the Pope refused to see him.
Michelangelo left Rome for Florence in a fury, deliberately leaving the day before the laying of the cornerstone for the new St Peter's. Pope Julius matched his wrath, however, and sent envoys and demands for his return "by fair means or foul". Eventually Michelangelo succumbed, and went to the Pope with a rope around his neck - a sarcastic gesture of submission. Julius, who was in a more amenable mood, having just conquered Bologna, rewarded Michelangelo with a commission for a colossal statue of himself, to be cast in bronze. (The statue was later destroyed)
Michelangelo was still dreaming of completing the tomb, but Julius was bent on redecorating the Sistine ceiling. Michelangelo eventually accepted the commission, possibly goaded on by Bramante's suggestion that he might lack the ability for such a task. But he always insisted that painting was not his trade, and he again tried to get out of the commission when spots of mould started to appear on the first section of his fresco. By 1512, after four years of exhausting labor, however, the ceiling was finally completed. When his work was unveiled, the effect was awe-inspiring and people would travel hundreds of miles to see this work of an "angel". As usual, Michelangelo sent the money he recieved for the work to his demanding family.
Julius died in 1513, leaving money for the completion of his tomb, and Michelangelo moved some marble he had quarried from his workshop near St Peter's to a house in the Macel de' Corvi, which he kept from 1513 until his death. Successive popes were keen that Michelangelo should work for their own glory, and distracted him with other commissions.
Then, in 1527, Rome was sacked by the Imperial troops of Charles V, a mainly protestant army bent on the destruction of the Papacy. An orgy of murder and pillage followed and Pope Clement VII was imprisoned in the Castel Sant' Angelo. The Medici were yet again expelled from Florence, and the republicans put the artist in charge of the fortifications of his native city. In September 1529, fearing trechery, Michelangelo fled wisely to Venice.
Eventually Pope Clement VII, then restored to power in Rome, wrote to pardon Michelangelo and ordered him to continue work on a chapel for the Medicis at San Lorenzo in Florence. Michelangelo finished the tombs for the Medici chapel, but in 1534, three years after his father's death, he left Florence in the tyrannical grip of Alessandro de' Medici, never to return.
Michelangelo went to Rome, where Pope Clement had in mind a grandiose scheme for the decoration of the altar wall of the Sistine Chaple. Clement died before the painting was begun, but his successor, Paul III, set him to work on the project. The Last Judgement was painted from 1536 to 1541, and is a terrifying vision expressing the artist's own mental suffering.
NEW FRIENDSMichelangelo had always been a practising Catholic and was a deeply pious man. In later life, his religion became profoundly important to him. This was partly the result of his great affection and admiration for Vittoria Colonna, the Marchioness of Pescara - the only woman with whom he had a special relationship.
For Michelangelo was widely believed to be homosexual and it is true that he showed a preoccupation with the male nude unmatched by any other artist. In the 1530's, he seems to have fallen in love with a beautiful young nobelman, Tommaso Cavalieri, to whom he wrote many love sonnets. Michelangelo insisted that their friendship was Platonic - he believed that a beautiful body was the outward manifestation of a beautiful soul.
Michelangelo was naturally a recluse. He was melancholic and introverted, but at the same time emotional and explosive. He lived a temperate life, but in a fair degree of domestic squalor which no servant would tolerate for long. He preferred to be alone "like a genie shut up inside a bottle", contemplating death. In 1544 and 1545 he suffered two illnesses which did actually bring him close to death. Evidently the great papal commissions had weakened his condition.
Paul III made Michelangelo Architect-in-Chief of St Peter's, and his work on the church continued throughout the rest of his life, under three successive popes - Julius II, Paul IV, and Pius IV. He tried to return to the simplicity of his old rival Bramante's design, but St Peter.s was not finished in his lifetime, nor exactly to his designs.
Finally, in his old age, Michelangelo also had time to work for himself and the sculptures of this period, such as the Duomo Pieta' (below), reveal an intense spirituality and tenderness.
Pope Julius II used to remark that he would gladly surrender some of his own years and blood to prolong Michelangelo's life, so that the world would not be deprived too soon of the sculptor's genius. He also had a desire to have Michelangelo embalmed so that his remains, like his works, would be eternal. As it happened, Michelangelo outlived Julius II, and was buried with great pomp and circumstance after his death on 18 February 1564.
THE MAKING OF A MASTERPIECE
THE SISTINE CHAPELOn 10 May 1508 Michelangelo signed the contract for the decoration of the Sistine Ceiling - a momentous task which was to pose one of the greatest human as well as artistic challenges. The work had been commissioned by Pope Julius II, whose uncle Sixtus IV, had authorized the building of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. On the walls were 15th-century frescoes showing scenes from the life of Moses and Christ, while the ceiling was a traditional star-spangled blue. Julius, however, who was bent on the whole-scale "restoration" of Christian Rome, wanted something grander and more "progressive".
By July, the scaffolding was in place and the cardinals, who had complained of the noise and rubble, were able to conduct their services in peace. A few weeks later, five young assistants arrived in Rome, but on finding the door of the Chapel bolted, they took the hint and returned to Florence. In the end, Michelangelo painted the ceiling almost entirely alone, triumphing over months of tremendous physical discomfort.
The completed ceiling was unveiled on 31 October 1512. "When the work was thrown open", reported Giorgio Vasari, "the whole world came running to see what Michelangelo had done; and certainly it was such as to make everyone speechless with astonishment".
(above)The ""ignudi", or nudes, seated directly above the Prophets (on the ceiling) and Sibyls, may represent "angels", although they seem to be an entirely personal contribution. They support bronze medallions, attached to garlands or acorns - the heraldic device of the Della Rovere family of Julius II.
(above) In the 1980's restoration work began on the Sistine Ceiling frescoes. Centuries of grime was removed to reveal the original state of Michelangelo's paintings. This lunette with Matthan, one of the Ancestors of Christ, shows that the artist's colours are much crisper and brighter than is often supposed.
GALLERY OF MICHAELANGELO PAINTINGS
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