Michelangelo (1475-1564), Italian painter, sculptor, architect, and poet whose artistic accomplishments exerted a tremendous influence on his contemporaries and on subsequent European art. Michelangelo considered the male nude to be the foremost subject in art, and he explored its range of movement and expression in every medium. Even his architecture has a human aspect to it, in which a door, window, or support may refer to the face or body, or the position of architectural elements may suggest muscular tension.

Michelangelo continually sought challenge, whether physical, artistic, or intellectual. He favored media that required hard physical labor—marble carving and fresco painting. In painting figures, he chose poses that were especially difficult to draw. And he gave his works several layers of meaning, by including multiple references to mythology, religion, and other subjects. His success in conquering the difficulties he set for himself is remarkable, but he left many of his works unfinished, as if he were defeated by his own ambition.

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born in the small village of Caprese and grew up in Florence. Florence was the artistic center of the early Renaissance, a period of outstanding artistic innovation and accomplishment that began in the early 1400s. In many ways the masterpieces that surrounded Michelangelo were his best teachers—ancient Greek and Roman statuary, and the paintings, sculpture, and architecture of early Renaissance masters Masaccio, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello, Jacopo della Quercia, and Filippo Brunelleschi. As a child he preferred drawing to his schoolwork, despite his father's stern disapproval.

Eventually his father relented and allowed 13-year old Michelangelo to be apprenticed to Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. Michelangelo's time in Ghirlandaio's workshop was marked with conflict, and his training there ended after only a year. Although he later denied that Ghirlandaio had any influence on him, he surely learned the technique of fresco painting from him, and his early drawings show some evidence of drawing methods used by Ghirlandaio.

From 1490 to 1492 Michelangelo lived in the house of Lorenzo de' Medici (known as Lorenzo the Magnificent), then the leading art patron of Florence. The Medici household was a gathering place for artists, philosophers, and poets. During this time Michelangelo met and perhaps studied with Bertoldo di Giovanni, an aging master who had trained with Donatello, the greatest sculptor of 15th-century Florence. Other members of the Medici circle inspired in Michelangelo a love of literature that he would develop in his poetry (a significant, if less-accomplished art form for him). They also taught him the ideas of Neoplatonism—a philosophy that regards the body as a trap for a soul that longs to return to God. Scholars interpret many of Michelangelo's works in terms of these ideas, in particular, his human figures that appear to break free from the stone that imprisons them.

Lorenzo de' Medici wished to revive the art of sculpture in the classical manner of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and he had a collection of ancient art that Michelangelo doubtless studied. Classical art provided an inspiration and a standard of excellence that Michelangelo hoped to surpass. Some of his earliest sculptures imitated classical works so closely that they were passed off as Roman originals. Later, Michelangelo was on hand in Rome for the excavation of a massive ancient sculpture of Laocoön (probably a Roman copy of a Greek original from the 2nd century BC, Vatican Museums, Vatican City). This powerful grouping of the Trojan prince Laocoön and his two sons, as they struggle to free themselves from huge snakes, provided a model of tense and twisting bodies that Michelangelo used in many of his late works, including the Last Judgment (1536-1541, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City).

Michelangelo was a very religious man, but he expressed his personal beliefs most clearly in his late works. His late drawings are introspective meditations on Christian themes such as the crucifixion, and in some works he inserted his own image as an onlooker in a religious scene.

Throughout his career Michelangelo came in contact with learned and powerful men. His patrons were wealthy businessmen, civic leaders, and church officials, including popes Julius II, Clement VII (born Giulio de' Medici, nephew of Lorenzo), and Paul III. Michelangelo strove to be accepted among his patrons as a gentleman, producing a large body of poetry and constructing a myth of noble ancestry. At the same time, he seemed to take pride in the physical work of making art. For example, he preferred the dirty and exhausting art of marble carving to that of panel painting, which he saw as something one could do in fine clothing. This is one of many contradictions in his life, but it is also an indication of the changing status of the artist—from craftsman to genius—that Michelangelo himself helped to bring about.

Sistine Ceiling
A major project preventing completion of the tomb of Julius II was a new commission from Julius himself, to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Between 1508 and 1512 Michelangelo created some of the most memorable images of all time on the vaulted ceiling of the papal chapel in the Vatican. His intricate system of decoration tells the biblical story of Genesis, beginning with God separating light and dark (above the altar), progressing to the story of Adam and Eve, and concluding with the story of Noah. Scenes from the biblical stories of David, Judith, Esther, and Moses are depicted in the corners, while images of prophets, sibyls (female prophets), and the ancestors of Christ are set in a painted architectural framework above the windows. Bright, clear colors enliven and unify the vast surface, and make the details more legible from the floor of the chapel.

The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Ceiling (1508-1512) is perhaps Michelangelo's finest fusion of form and meaning. Adam's pose echoes both the shape of the ground on which he reclines and the pose of God the Father, thus giving visual form to the biblical description of Adam as made from the earth in the likeness of God. We see Adam beginning to come to life, as he reaches listlessly toward the vigorous energy that the image of God embodies.

Throughout his life, Michelangelo produced drawings of all sorts, including quick pen sketches, composition drawings, careful studies of anatomy, and architectural plans and elevations. In a special category, however, are the highly finished presentation drawings, meant to be seen as complete works of art and given as gifts to his closest friends. Some of these drawings represent classical myths, but he selected these myths and sometimes reshaped them to reflect personal meanings or to express Neoplatonic ideas. Others represent idealized human beings. An example is the Divine Head (1530?, British Museum, London), a drawing of a female paired with the male Count of Canossa (original drawing lost). Using short strokes of chalk that are precisely modulated (varied in tone) and stippling (dots or flecks), Michelangelo creates an image of perfection. These are imaginative works, showing the skill of the artist both in the meticulous rendering of surfaces and in the wildly creative hairstyles or helmets he gives them.

Michelangelo's influence on his contemporaries and on later artists was profound. Mannerism was an art movement based on exaggeration of aspects of the style of Michelangelo and other artists of the late Renaissance. The mannerists were particularly drawn to the complex poses and elongated elegance of some of his figures. Later artists, including Annibale Carracci and Peter Paul Rubens, emulated the powerful strength of his figures but combined it with the graceful line of Raphael or the colors used by Titian, two of Michelangelo's contemporaries. But perhaps Michelangelo's greatest legacy to later artists is the image of the genius that he and those around him fashioned. Brooding, isolated, challenging, temperamental—these are the words that described Michelangelo's character and that we still use to describe artists seized by an inspiration that seems more than human.

"Michelangelo," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2001
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