Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni

Portrait of Michelangelo done by an assistant (c. 1510)

 Perhaps no one embodied the idea of the creative Renaissance genius better than Michelangelo. And a genius he truly was........so much so, that he filled his rivals with envy and (to some extent) hate. You see, Michelangelo was not what you would call a modest figure. Not only did he fully recognize his own unequaled talent and genius, but he made sure everyone else did also. (Hey.....if you're good, why not flaunt it, right?) Unfortunately, his conceit and arrogance cost him friendships and created difficult working conditions for himself.

More than anything else, Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor. He continuously repeated his assertion that he was, in fact, a sculptor, not minor, decorative craftsman like a painter or an illustrator. Not even the completion of the Sistine Chapel would change his desire to liberate the soul of mankind from the imprisoning marble in which it lay.

The Sistine Chapel

 I keep waiting for this story to become a major Hollywood movie because it contains all the drama, suspense and intrigue one would expect in a good flick. Here's the plot: Michelangelo, while working on what he loves most (sculpture), is summoned to The Vatican by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Little did he know that his arch rival, Bramante, persuaded the Pope to commission Michelangelo because of Bramante's fear that he (Michelangelo) would eventually weasel his way into the design and construction of the new St. Peter's Cathedral, something that Bramante did NOT want to share with anyone else. So Bramante came up with the perfect plan: have the Pope hire Michelangelo, who was self-admittedly not at all a fresco painter, to do the frescoes, which were a super long term project. Michelangelo would naturally screw up the ceiling because he wasn't a painter and because his own personality, would eventually sabotage the project anyway. Next, the Pope gets upset, kills Michelangelo, and then Raphael (a personal friend of Bramante) would step up to the plate and finish the frescoes off. What a plan!

The only problem is that Bramante's plan didn't work. Michelangelo, complaining every step of the way, finished the frescoes in four years, and did them so beautifully, so magnificently, that his reputation was greatly enhanced, both with the public and the Pope. Fifteen years later, Bramante dies, and Michelangelo starts (guess what?....) designing the dome and facade of the new St. Peters.

Oh, the irony of it all......


Pictured above is the Sistine Chapel as seen looking from the front altar. The frescoes on the side walls were done by earlier artists including Botticelli and Perugino. Pictured below, is the Sin and Expulsion panel from the ceiling. For a complete view of the Sistine Chapel ceiling (and a comparison of the frescoes before and after their major cleaning in the early 1990's, click on the expulsion image below:

 More than 20 years after completing the Sistine Chapel ceilings, Michelangelo returned to Rome to start work on The Last Judgment altar panel of the same chapel. Being on the cusp of old age, Michelangelo's visions and mood are much different here than in the ceiling. The tone is somber as Christ holds his hand of damnation over the huddled masses of humanity. The atmosphere is turbulent, angry and swirling.......even the saved cower in confusion and anxiety. Notice the "skinned" figure held by a saint near the the middle of the fresco. It wasn't until this century that scholars determined that it was, in fact, a self portrait of Michelangelo himself, hanging tormented and also in judgment.


It is with this sculpture, more than any other, that we can see Michelangelo's ability and genius. Reflecting on his Pieta (c. 1500), Michelangelo wrote that he had succeeded in carving " ...the most beautiful work of marble in Rome, one that no living artist could better." As we look at this sculpture, it would be difficult not to agree with Michelagnelo. The expression on the figures' faces are mesmerizing. The skill in which the clothing folds are carved leads us to ask whether it's marble or fabric. This work, which can be seen in the Vatican, is a must see, although it currently resides behind glass because of a previous hammer attack executed by an "unbalanced" individual claiming to the the "real Jesus" a couple decades ago.

 Commissioned as a symbol of the Florentine republic by civic leaders in 1501, Michelangelo's David, which stands almost 14 feet high (not including the base), was one of the first monumental sculptures of the Renaissance. It was first to sit on top of a buttress on the Florence Cathedral, but was later assigned to rest in front of the Palazzo Vechio. This decision was really a "no-brainer:"This monumental sculpture expresses a sense of determined fortitude (sort of like Pissano's Hercules). David was meant to illicit a sense of civic-patriotism, and therefore would best be seen in Florence's main square, and also, not coincidental, in front of the seat of Florentine government. Yet, what David really represents is the new humanism that takes root during the Renaissance. David is huge, almost superhuman.........but is still a man, an individual who accomplished the unthinkable. So in a sense, the sculpture is really a metaphor of the increased awareness of the accomplishments and the possibilities that surround mankind. Compare this David with Donatello's David and you'll get two entirely different intentions dealing with the same subject. (Go ahead......discuss that among yourselves for a moment.)

To view more of Michelangelo's sculptures, click on the images below:


 The Vestibule of the Laurentian Library (c. 1524), above and left, shocked the establishment at first because of its unorthodox use of columns set into the wall, and also being of no recognizable order. In fact, Michelangelo breaks all of Brunelleschi's and Bramante's architectural "rules" of logic and order. Rather, Michelangelo sees architecture as an "expressive" exercise.....not a pre-conceived, exercise subject of rules.

In the Tomb of Giuliano de' Medici (above, right), we see the use of pilasters as ornamental extras. Although the composition is orderly (not to mention the bold triangle that the figures make), there is no inscription, which leaves the viewer wondering what's going on. (The reclining figures on either side of the casket represent day and night.)

On the right, we see Michelangelo's design of the Dome of St. Peter's (1546) in Rome. Notice how the double columns around the drum of the dome are reflected in the colossal style pilasters that flank the facade of the cathedral.


The Agony
 Now days, it's so tempting and common to assign pop-psychological diagnoses to historical figures. However, we do know that Michelangelo probably suffered from manic-depression as indicated in his writings and the writings of others. He would often work without any breaks for hours and even days, and then collapse in dark moods and anger for long periods of time. He tended to be emotional, and would frequently "take his ball and go home" or just drop everything an leave if challenged by authority or patron. Despite these outbursts, people generally recognized and even respected Michelangelo's talents, although he did create more than a few enemies during his lifetime. (In fact, the Medici would have easily had him killed for "dissing" them in public, had it not been for a direct Papal order to "not touch one hair upon his head!" Michelangelo was indeed a creative and troubled genius the likes of which we will probably never see again.

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