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A Biography of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni


Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, or simply Michelangelo, was born on March 6, 1475 in Caprese near Arezzo, Republic of Florence (now Tuscany, Italy). He was born into a family with a history of nobility in their bloodline, although most of the family’s status had faded away by the time he was born. His father, Ludovico di Leonardo di Buonarotto Simoni, held occasional government jobs, and at the time of Michelangelo’s birth, held the position of administrator of the small town of Caprese. Michelangelo’s mother was Francesca di Neri del Miniato di Siena. She didn’t have much of an impact on his life, dying when he was only six. His father disliked the thought of his son becoming an artist when Michelangelo expressed interest in art at a young age. His father believed that becoming an artist was a downward social step, and because of the time it took to overcome this opposition, Michelangelo began his apprenticeship at the late age of thirteen. He became the apprentice of Florence’s most renowned painter at the time, Domenico Ghirlandaio. The apprenticeship was supposed to last three years, but Michelangelo completed it in only one year, with both he and his teacher believing he had no more to learn. In 1489, Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence, asked for Ghirlandaio’s two best students. Ghirlandaio sent him Michelangelo and Francesco Granacci. Rulers of this era, such as those in the Medici family, oftentimes wanted to surround themselves with poets, artists, and intellectuals to gain as much of a diversified knowledge as possible. The group chosen by Lorenzo became known as the Medici circle. Michelangelo benefited quite a bit from his inclusion in this group. He not only attended the Humanist academy that Medici founded, but he also had the opportunity to study sculpture under Bertoldo di Giovanni. Florence itself was a great place for Michelangelo to be. The city produced the best artists, both painters and sculptors, and was believed by many to be the leading center of art (Gilbert, p. 1-2).

Florence’s prosperity came to a halt when the Medici lost power (the first of many times), and Michelangelo left soon afterward. The early life of Michelangelo was what he accredited his love of art to. This love of art is what lead him to become the Renaissance man he is remembered as today. For the remainder of his life, Michelangelo traveled all over Italy. His works can be seen all over Europe, while their influence can be seen all over the world. He passed away on February 18, 1564 in Rome, Papal States (now Rome, Italy) after completing hundreds of works during his 88 years of life (Gilbert, p. 1). Michelangelo was arguably the most influential artist in Western art, with an influence on the world that can still be seen today through multiple elements of society.

The Italian Renaissance holds a very important place in the history of Europe. Michelangelo is considered by many to be the most important figure during this time period. After the removal of the Medici from power in Florence, Piero Soderini, the newly elected Gonfaloniere of the city, tried to follow the model set forth by the Medici in regards to spreading their governmental influence through imagery. Soderini wanted to use the art and artists of the city as the primary medium of the new government’s desired political messages. Relevant artists of the time, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, were commissioned to accomplish Soderini’s goals (Adams, p. 312). The most significant statue commissioned during this period of revival was the marble sculpture David. It was thought to be the powerful embodiment of the city and its protector from the former tyrannical rule the Medici had imposed on the people (Adams, p. 319). The creation of David is thought to be the true inauguration of the High Renaissance. Although most of the city’s people looked at the statue as a sign of hope, there still existed supporters of the recently removed Medici that outright despised the statue and what it stood for. They believed the sculpture disrespected the Medici, who they believed were the rightful rulers of Florence. They would even hurl stones at those transporting the sculpture to its intended location in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (Sayre, p. 488). No matter the controversy surrounding the piece, David is still considered by many the Renaissance ideal of perfect humanity (Gilbert, p. 1).

Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, one of his most beautiful works, is also one of his most important in terms of historical relevance. Over a four-year period, he painted nine distinct scenes: three depicting the creation of the world, three showing the stories of Adam and Eve, and three showing the stories of Noah (Gilbert, p. 3). His work in the chapel retains an importance even today. It remains the meeting place of the conclave of the cardinals during the election of new popes (Sayre, p. 500). Many years later, he was once again commissioned to work in the Sistine Chapel, but this time, he instead was to work on the altar wall of the chapel. On the wall he painted the Last Judgment, the image that depicted what Michelangelo believed God’s final judgment to look like. The piece had much controversy surrounding it, with many finding the piece to be too violent to be displayed in any church, let alone one as important as the Sistine Chapel. An example of the violence Michelangelo had added was his depiction of the martyr Saint Bartholomew who, in real life, was flayed alive. In the painting, the Saint has regained his skin and now holds the old skin and the knife with which it was removed (Adams, p. 387). About twenty years after the completion of the painting, Paul IV was elected as the first Counter-Reformation pope. He wanted the entire piece removed from the church, but shortly after the death of Michelangelo, the pope had to settle with loincloths being placed on all of the nudes (Adams, p. 388).

Through all of his works, Michelangelo was heavily involved in the history of the Italian Renaissance. He remained in the service of the papacy and Medici family throughout his life, despite numerous occasions where he found himself at odds with them because of conflicting opinions. He played a vital role in the uprising of the cities of Florence and Rome during this time period. His works and efforts contributed greatly, by pulling in more artists and intellectuals to these places of gathering, allowing for the spread of even more ideas. It is seen through things like these that the most important effect Michelangelo had on the world was through his involvement in the enrichment of its history.

Philosophy of the Italian Renaissance was influenced by Michelangelo through his effects on the philosophers of the time. Early in his life when Michelangelo was part of the Medici circle, he adopted the ideas of Neoplatonism from the philosophers that were also in the circle. It is believed that Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola were the two philosophers that had the strongest effect on the early construction of his philosophical views (Adams, p. 313). Neoplatonism is a philosophical view which places much importance on religion and the natural human instinct to yearn for salvation. In Michelangelo’s pieces, he also conveyed the humanist philosophy with his mastery of the human figure (Adams, p. 314). Michelangelo’s assimilation of Neoplatonism from his time with the Medici circle can be seen with the piece Taddei Madonna. He has many symbols alluding to Christ’s earthly mission in the marble piece, all following the Neoplatonic view he had developed in his early life (Adams, p. 317). The Doni Madonna­ is also a piece with strong ties to Neoplatonism. The painting contrasted paganism and Christianity, with Christ and Mary contrasted by the background nudes and John the Baptist (Adams, p. 320). Michelangelo’s largest piece that conveyed his Neoplatonic view was tomb of Pope Julius II. The tomb is a wall consisting of multiple statues. The statues are thought to reflect the Neoplatonic view of the earthly life. The statues depicting Moses and Saint Paul specifically are thought to be contrasting Neoplatonic personifications of the active and contemplative life (Adams, p. 335). Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and its unusual iconography has been explained by many scholars to be a Neoplatonic interpretation of the Bible, “representing the essential phases of the spiritual development of humankind seen through a very dramatic relationship between man and God” (Gilbert, p. 3). Michelangelo also displayed his philosophical views in the few pieces of poetry he put together. His Neoplatonic views were depicted in his literature, giving expression to the theme that love helps human beings in their difficult effort to ascend to the divine (Gilbert, p. 6). Through his artwork, Michelangelo was able to portray and spread philosophical ideas, Neoplatonism in particular. By reflecting the Neoplatonic views in his art, he opened more eyes to this philosophy and helped in the interpretation of this philosophy.

Michelangelo also affected the way in which stories in the Bible were perceived, as most of his pieces were attached to the Church in one way or another. The effect the sculpture David had on the perception of the actual character of David was a positive one. The sculpture was held in such a high regard in Florence that people began to view David in a much higher light than he was previously, raising his status as a hero to unbelievable heights (Sayre, p. 488). With the sculpture Moses, Michelangelo does not follow the exact image portrayed by biblical texts. While in the bible, Moses “cast the tables out of his hands, and [break] them beneath the mount” (Exodus 23:9), the Moses depicted by Michelangelo was much calmer and controlled his rage (Adams, p. 336). All of Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel had a profound effect on the common man’s view of the various scenes of the Bible he painted. The Creation of Adam and the other works that portray the creation of the world are often used as a visual for those studying teleology and the events of Genesis (Gilbert, p. 3). Michelangelo acted as an aid to the Catholic Church and the papacy by adding beauty to their messages regarding the Bible, but Michelangelo did even more than that, adding to the understanding of the Bible by illustrating his views in such an elegant way.

The most prominent influence Michelangelo had on the world was on art. Michelangelo’s career spanned over two distinct periods of art. He began his work at the beginning of the High Renaissance, and some of his last pieces helped usher in the Mannerist period of art. His early sculptures, such as those used for the tomb and shrine of St. Dominic, were very serious in nature. He used a compactness of form that followed the Florentine tradition of art. His seriousness can even be seen in the tools with which he worked, with marble being used to give a simplification to things. In the past, artists tried to match the texture and detail of the human body as closely as possible, while Michelangelo’s work contrasted that (Gilbert, p. 2). He was also one of the first artists to create art pieces that had a focus that was not primarily from the front. Bacchus is the first example of such a piece, having been created to be placed in the center of a garden (Gilbert, p. 1). The wall tomb of Pope Julius II was also a masterful display of Michelangelo’s work that brought about with it new themes to be added to the ideas behind the Renaissance. The tomb was made of separate sculptures that all stood out significantly when compared to other sculptures of the time. They all expressed strong emotion in the complexity of their stances. The difficulty of sculpting such complex stances made it so that the beauty of the pieces could only be attained by a master sculptor such as Michelangelo (Gilbert, p. 4). Although he was a much better sculptor than painter, Michelangelo popularized the technique of cross-hatching to study the nude male when drawing in two dimensions. The technique could be used to provide an immaculately precise reproduction of the complex surface of a well-built muscular form (Ames-Lewis, p. 19). Michelangelo also adapted his studies to start using chalk when studying the shapes and contours of the body, something he and fellow Renaissance artist Raphael Sanzio da Urbino discovered around the same time (Ames-Lewis, p. 25)

His first work to be recognized as Mannerist was his Victory, utilizing a series of dynamic, asymmetrical spatial turns that fit the theme of the period (Adams, p. 384). Victory resembled so closely the Mannerist view that it was most commonly used by young sculptors of the time as a template for allegorical subjects they wanted to sculpt (Gilbert, p. 6). His ventures into architecture also followed Mannerist ideals. Michelangelo was asked by Giulio de’ Medici, after becoming Pope Clement VII, to design a library to house the Medici collection of manuscripts. Michelangelo then created the Vestibule of the Laurentian Library, the place where most scholars would say Mannerism was first seen in architectural design. The work is thought to intentionally contradict the Classical and harmonious, instead focusing on expressiveness and originality while emphasizing the factors of style for just the aspect of style alone (Gilbert, p. 5). The staircase in the vestibule was unlike any other before it. This is evidence of Michelangelo beginning to open up his imagination to a more Mannerist view beyond the humanistic view of the rational world he followed early in his life. Michelangelo described the project as “a certain stair that comes back to my mind as in a dream” (Sayre, p. 510). The architecture is believed by many to also be used as inspiration for the art period following Mannerism, the Baroque period (Adams, p. 388). This is yet another example of Michelangelo’s lasting impression on the arts. Following his work on the library, he worked on the architecture of the Campidoglio (the Capitoline Hill) in the heart of modern Rome. Although he died before the completion, his plans for the ensemble were followed with great accuracy. These two pieces of architecture are believed to be pivotal for the beginning of Mannerism. Michelangelo’s impact was the use of powerful, innovative combinations of form onto the Classical precedents of the Renaissance (Adams, p. 391). Michelangelo’s last major work was on the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. The architecture behind the dome is still used today, with America’s own Capitol building in Washington, D.C. deriving its shape from Michelangelo’s original piece (Gilbert, p. 7). All of these are examples of how Michelangelo influenced art around the world and throughout history.

Michelangelo’s influence on the sciences is in a multitude of different areas. He was very inventive when finding ways he could paint. When working on the Sistine Chapel, he built his own scaffold to better support him when working on the ceiling drawings. The scaffold had the ability to take him from the entrance all the way to the top of the chapel, where he spent four years of his life working. The idea behind the engineering was used as an example for many other scaffolds created afterward (Adams, p. 338). The Medici gained and lost control of Florence multiple times, and Michelangelo often came to the aid of the city, having spent much of his life there. One time in particular he agreed to lead in the designing of the fortifications of the city’s exterior walls. He showed great knowledge of how modern defensive structures were built, using simple materials in complex profiles. His fortifications offered minimal vulnerability to attackers and maximum defense against the recently introduced cannons and other artillery. Michelangelo used walls that were much shorter than those used during medieval battle because of the cannons and their power. His sketches of the embattlements are still viewed today because of the pureness in their forms (Gilbert, p. 5). Michelangelo’s strongest influence in the sciences was through his studies of anatomy. He attained his knowledge of anatomy through the dissection of animal and human corpses. He conducted these studies in order to better understand the human body and form in order to make his sculptures and paintings even more lifelike. He has numerous sketches, called ecorche drawings. The sketches would illustrate the muscle under the skin and would often include his descriptions of how the muscles, bones, and cartilage all functioned together as one unit. Many scholars have supposed that the paintings were specifically made for others to study, due to the fact that many of the drawings were accompanied by odd notes and labels (Barkan, p. 18-25). Although his studies of anatomy weren’t as extensive as da Vinci’s, Michelangelo’s studies approached the body from a different angle. He tried to focus more on the collective work it to for certain body parts to function using the different components (bone, muscle, cartilage) together in, while da Vinci studied only the parts separately (Barkan, p. 28).

Literature was the area Michelangelo had the least significant amount of influence in, just because he never held too strong of an interest in writing. His first works of literature were the many letters he wrote later in his life. He wrote them to young men when he was around the age of sixty. Many scholars use these letters as evidence behind the thought that Michelangelo was homosexual because the letters displayed strong feelings of attachment to the young men he addressed. Many other scholars dismiss this thought, and instead point to the fact that Michelangelo at the time feared that no one would carry on the family name after his father and brother had passed a few years prior, and the letters were to try and find a man good enough to be brought in as a surrogate son so that Michelangelo could continue his family name. The few poems written by Michelangelo are viewed as nonprofessional. Some of them followed Petrarch’s format of love poems, but none are worthy of any special attention (Gilbert, p. 6). He took up poetry once again in his later years, although his poems were much different than before. They all were direct religious statements, similar to prayers (Gilbert, p. 7).

Michelangelo had a stronger influence on literature through his art than he had through his own writing, with his art pieces inspiring many writers. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychiatry, did an in-depth study and essay on Michelangelo’s Moses. Freud was intrigued by the emotion Michelangelo was able to portray in the sculpture. The sculpture seemed to capture both the anger and ability to control the anger possessed by Moses. The emotional complexity observed from the statue is the type of concept that makes it a strong example of art during the High Renaissance and intrigued the minds of viewers for centuries to come, even the mind of the great Sigmund Freud (Sayre, p. 489). Because of Michelangelo’s fame, biographers were writing of his life before he even passed away. The two biographies that emerged at the top were those by Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi. Vasari finished the biography before Michelangelo’s death, and Michelangelo was not pleased with how the piece portrayed him, so he had his assistant Condivi write a new biography, one which he could personally aid in the writing of. Although there is an apparent bias in Condivi’s biography because it was written as Michelangelo wanted himself to be viewed, it is still the preferred biography of Michelangelo when historians want to look back upon his life because of the direct influence Michelangelo had in the creation of it, whether biased or not (Gilbert, p. 1).

Michelangelo’s influence on the world is second to none. The Italian Renaissance was a time in Europe where all of aspects of life were given more appreciation, and Michelangelo did well to contribute to each of these aspects. He influenced history through his efforts dedicated to the Church, the Medici, and the prominent cities of Rome and Florence. Michelangelo’s Neoplatonic view- obtained during his time spent in the Medici circle- was portrayed in his art pieces, which in turn spread this view out to those studying his pieces. He also had a positive effect on the understanding of the Bible through his art pieces about its stories and characters. Michelangelo’s work was held in such a high regard that without his style of art, two periods of art, High Renaissance and Mannerism, may never have come into existence. Michelangelo, while not dedicating the entirety of his life to one science, still had an effect on science in a number of ways with his studies of architecture specifically on war structures and the anatomy of the body. Although literature was by far where Michelangelo had the smallest amount of influence, his art pieces still inspired a number of writers to look deeper into his life and his art to the point where complex studies and essays were composed to better understand the man and his craft. Without Michelangelo and the works that consumed his life, the world would be a much different place.

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