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Painting of Michelangelo Buonarroti


"Italian sculptor, painter, architect and poet. Hewas one of the founders of the High Renaissance and, in his lateryears, one of the principal exponents of Mannerism. Born atCaprese, the son of the local magistrate, his family returned toFlorence soon after his birth. Michelangelo's desire to become anartist was initially opposed by his father, as to be a practisingartist was then considered beneath the station of a member of thegentry. He was, however, eventually apprenticed in 1488 for athree-year term to Domenico Ghirlandaio. Later in life Michelangelotried to suppress this apprenticeship, implying that he was largelyself-taught, undoubtedly because he did not want to present himselfas a product of the workshop system which carried with it thestigma of painting and sculpture being taught as crafts rather thanLiberal Arts. Nevertheless, it was in Ghirlandaio's workshop thatMichelangelo would have learnt the rudiments of the technique offresco painting. Before the end of his apprenticeship, however, hetransferred to the school set up by Lorenzo the Magnificent in thegardens of the Palazzo Medici. Here he would have had access to theMedici collection of antiques, as well as a certain amount oftuition from the resident master, Bertoldo di Giovanni. His workhere included two marble reliefs, a Madonna of the Steps (CasaBuonarroti, Florence), carved in rilievo schiacciato and showingthe influence of Donatello (Bertoldo's master) and a Battle of theCentaurs (Casa Buonarroti, Florence), based on Bertoldo's bronzeBattle of the Horsemen, which itself appears to be based on anantique prototype. Either at this time, or when he was in theGhirlandaio workshop, Michelangelo also studied from and drewcopies of the frescos of Giotto and Masaccio.

"With the deathof Lorenzo in 1492, the school broke up and Michelangelo was givenpermission to study anatomy at the hospital attached to StoSpirito. In gratitude to the prior for allowing him this privilegehe carved a wooden Crucifix (the one now in the Casa Buonarroti isconsidered by some scholars to be the work in question). In October1494, Michelangelo transferred to Bologna and was awarded thecornmission for three marble figures to complete the tomb of St.Dominic in S. Domenico Maggiore, begun by the recently deceasedNiccoló dell' Arca. By June 1496 he was in Rome and hereestablished his reputation with two marble statues, the drunkenBacchus (c 1496-7; Florence, Bargello) for a private patron and thePietá for St. Peter's (1498-9). The latter is generally consideredto be the masterpiece of his early years, deeply poignant,exquisitely beautiful and more highly finished than his later workswere to be. In creating a harmonious pyramidal group from theproblematic combination of the figure of a full-grown man lyingdead across the lap of his mother, Michelangelo solved a formalproblem that had hitherto baffled artists. He returned to Florencea famous sculptor and was awarded the commission for the colossalfigure of David to stand in the Piazza della Signoria, flanking theentrance to the Palazzo Vecchio (1501-4, original now in theAccademia). Soon after this he was cornmissioned to paint a battlescene for the new Council Chamber of the Palazzo. On one wall hecommenced the painting of the Battle of Cascina, while on theopposite wall his principal rival, Leonardo, was commissioned topaint the Battle of Anghiari. Although neither painting was everfinished, copies of a fragment of Michelangelo's full-size cartoon,showing a group of nude soldiers reacting variously to the battlealarm that has interrupted their bathing, soon began to circulate(e.g. Earl of Leicester Collection, Holkharn Hall, Norfolk). Thesenudes, posed in a variety of turning and animated poses,established the Mannerist conception of the male nude as theprincipal vehicle for the expression of human emotions.

"Michelangelo abandoned this Florentine commissionwhen Pope Julius II summoned him to Rome to design his tomb. Whatshould have been the most prestigious commission of his career, afree-standing tomb with some 40 figures, to be located in St.Peter's, became, in Michelangelo's own words, the 'tragedy of thetomb'. Julius died in 1513, the contract was redrawn several timesover the following years with ever-diminishing funding, otherdemands were made on Michelangelo by successive popes, and theproject was finally cobbled together in 1545, a shadow of itsoriginal conception, with much help from assistants, in S. Pietroin Vincoli Julius' titular church). The tomb is now principallyfamous for the colossal figure of Moses (c 1515), one ofMichelangelo's greatest sculptures. Two slave figures, The DyingSlave and the Rebellious Slave (c1513), intended for the largest ofthe schemes for the tomb, are now in the Louvre in Paris, and fourunfinished slaves, from an intermediate stage when the tomb hadbeen only slightly reduced, are now in the Accademia in Florence.The four unfinished slaves reveal eloquently Michelangelo'ssculptural process: the figure would be outlined on the front ofthe marble block and then Michelangelo would work steadily inwardsfrom this one side, in his own words 'liberating the figureimprisoned in the marble'. As the more projecting parts werereached so they were brought to a fairly finished state with thoseparts further back still only rough-hewn: thus the figures of theseslaves literally appear to be struggling to be free. The(unintentional) pathos specifically evoked by the unfinished stateof figures such as these and the St. Matthew (Accademia, Florence)exerted a tremendous impact on Rodin who recognized in themexpressive possibilities that would be lost in a 'finished'piece.

"While in the early stages of work on the Tomb,Julius also commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of theSistine Chapel. Michelangelo was evidently reluctant to abandon hissculptural project for one of painting (always much less satisfyingto him), but he nonetheless began work in 1508, completed the firsthalf by 1510 and the whole ceiling by 1512. Dissatisfied withtraditional methods of fresco painting and mistrustful ofassistants who could not meet his evolving demands, he dismissedhis workshop at an early stage and completed the monumental taskalmost single-handedly. The main scenes - the histories - in thecentre of the shallow barrel vault, alternate larger and smallerpanels and represent the opening passages of the Bible, from theCreation to the Drunkenness of Noah with, at each of the corners ofthe smaller panels, idealized nude youths, variously interpreted asangels or Neoplatonic perfections of human beauty. The historiesare treated like quadri riportati with a horizon parallel to thepicture plain. The ignudi, however, inhabit a different reality -one created by the fictive architecture which also forms theshallow space occupied by the enthroned prophets and sibyls (thosewho foretold Christ's coming) located towards the sides of thevault. Lower down still, in the Nunettes above the windows, are theancestors of Christ and, at the four corners of the ceiling, OldTestament scenes that prefigure Christ's Crucifixion and thushumanity's salvation. The programme of the ceiling, life before theestablishment of the Mosaic Law, relates it to the frescos of thelives of Moses and Christ by Perugino and other artists on thewalls below. Michelangelo gives a poignant account of his gruellingtask, painting bent over backwards, his neck permanently arched tolook up, his arm stretching upwards to wield his brush, in one ofhis sonnets. The break in work in 1510 allowed him to see theeffect of the fresco from the ground (hitherto hidden byscaffolding) and in the second half (that closest to the altarwall) there is a perceptible simplification of detail and acorresponding monumentalization of figure style. Always heralded asthe supreme example of Florentine disegno, the recent restorationhas also revealed Michelangelo to have been a brilliantcolourist.

"In 1516, the new pope, Leo X (Giovanni de'Medici)commissioned Michelangelo to design a facade for San Lorenzo, theMedici parish church in Florence. The commission came to nothing(the facade is unfinished to this day), but this unfulfilled schemeled to his two earliest architectural masterpieces, the MediciChapel (or New Sacristy) attached to San Lorenzo and the LaurentianLibrary. Again neither was to be finished. Nevertheless, the'molten' stairway and the architectural elements of the entrancehall to the library, whose positioning deliberately contradicts thestructural function of their prototypes, are seminal in thefoundation of architectural Mannerism. The Medici funerary chapel(planned from 1520, abandoned when the Medici were temporarilyexpelled from Florence in 1527, recommenced in 1530 and leftincomplete in 1534) was intended to be a fusion of architecture andsculpture accommodating the tombs of four members of the family.The idea was that looking from the altar, moving past the tombs,one's gaze would be directed by the gaze of the tomb figures whoturn towards the far wall and the Madonna holding upon her lap theChrist child, whose sacrifice had made possible the Resurrection ofthe soul of the faithful to everlasting life - the climax to theiconographical programme of the mausoleum. Only two tombs werecompleted and the Madonna and Child was half completed. Beneath theseated figure of Giuliano ('vita activa') are reclining figures ofDay and Night and beneath that of Lorenzo ('vita contemplativa'),Dawn and Evening. These reclining figures symbolize mortalitythrough the passage of time.

"In 1534 Michelangelo departed for Rome, never toreturn to Florence. From now on he worked mainly for the papacy.Soon after his arrival Pope Clement VIII commissioned him to paintthe fresco of the Last judgement for the Sistine Chapel (workcommenced under Pope Paul III in 1536, completed in 1541). Thespirit of the work is totally different from that of the ceilingunveiled 29 years earlier. In the interim, the Church had been tornapart by the Reformation, Rome had been sacked (1527), andMichelangelo's fresco breathes the new militancy of the CatholicCounter-Reformation. The optimism and confidence of the ceiling isreplaced by the pessimism and emotional turmoil of the altar wall:saints swarm around the Apollo-like figure of Christ, wieldingtheir instruments of martyrdom, seemingly demanding righteousjudgement on the sinners stirring to life from the bare earth atthe bottom of the picture. The Last judgement was intended as theclimax of the chapel's account, represented in coherent stages, onthe ceiling and walls, of the Christian history of the world. Thiswas Michelangelo's most controversial work to date and was as muchcondemned (for its nudity) as it was praised (for its artistry).After the death of Michelangelo, the fresco was nearly destroyed,but the Church authorities settled for Daniele da Volterra paintingdraperies over the offending nudity.

"Following the Last Judgement Paul III commissionedfrom Michelangelo his two last major frescos for the CapellaPaolina, the Conversion of St. Paul and the Martyrdom of St. Peter(1542-50). The same troubled spirit imbues Michelangelo's sculpturefrom this time, the Pietá (now Florence, Cathedral Museum),intended for his own tomb shows himself as Nicodemus - again, acomparison with the St. Peter's Pietá is eloquent testimony to thespiritual uncertainty of these later years. In the year of hisdeath, his 89th year, he was working on yet another pietá, theRondanini Pietá. In 1546 Michelangelo was appointed Chief Architectto St. Peter's and charged with the completion of the new church,the most prestigious architectural commission in Christendom.Rebuilding had almost ceased with the death of Bramante in 1514,but Michelangelo, as reluctant to engage in architecturalcommissions as he had been with painting, had brought the workalmost to completion (as high as the drum of the dome) by the timeof his death. The dome was erected after his death, to his designsbut with some modifications (e.g. Michelangelo's hemisphericalprofile was made much steeper). Also the nave was lengthened in the17th century changing Michelangelo's Greek cross plan to a Latincross plan, and consequently the majesty of the dome is muchobscured by the balustrade of the Baroque facade.

"Whether in painting, sculpture or architecture,Michelangelo's influence has been immense. Although he restrictedhimself to the nude in painting, his expressive use of theidealized human form had a tremendous impact on contemporaries andfuture generations - even Raphael was not above directly referringto the Sistine Chapel sibyls, with his fresco of Isaiah in Sant'Agostino. Furthermore, there was not a major Italian sculptor ofthe 16th century whose style was not formed under the influence ofMichelangelo, or in direct reaction against him (e.g. Bandinelli).He was the first artist to be the subject of two biographies in hislifetime - those of Condivi and Vasari - with the latter doing muchto promote the view of Michelangelo as the consummation of aprogression towards artistic perfection that had begun withGiotto."