full MICHELANGELO DI LODOVICO BUONARROTI SIMONI (b. March 6, 1475, Caprese, Republic
of Florence [Italy]--d. Feb. 18, 1564, Rome), Italian Renaissance sculptor,
painter, architect, and poet who exerted an unparalleled influence on the
development of Western art.
cannot live under pressures from patrons, let alone paint.
Michelangelo, quoted in Vasari's Lives of
began work on the colossal figure of David in 1501, and by 1504 the sculpture
(standing at 4.34m/14 ft 3 in tall) was in place outside the Palazzo Vecchio.
The choice of David was supposed to reflect the power and determination of
Republican Florence and was under constant attack from supporters of the
usurped Medicis. In the 19th century the statue was moved to the Accademia.
Michelangelo: a dominant force in Florence and Rome
Buonarroti (1475-1564) exerted enormous influence. He, too, was universally
acknowledged as a supreme artist in his own lifetime, but again, his followers
all too often present us with only the master's outward manner, his muscularity
and gigantic grandeur; they miss the inspiration. Sebastiano del Piombo
(c.1485-1547), for example, actually used a drawing (at least a sketch) made
for him by Michelangelo for his masterwork, The
Raising of Lazarus. Masterwork it is; yet how melodramatic it
appears if compared with Michelangelo's own painting.
resisted the paintbrush, vowing with his characteristic vehemence that his sole
tool was the chisel. As a well-born Florentine, a member of the minor
aristocracy, he was temperamentally resistant to coercion at any time. Only the
power of the pope, tyranical by position and by nature, forced him to the
Sistine and the reluctant achievement of the world's greatest single fresco.
His contemporaries spoke about his terribilitа,
which means, of course, not so much being terrible as being awesome. There has
never been a more literally awesome artist than Michelangelo: awesome in the
scope of his imagination, awesome in his awareness of the significance--the
spiritual significance--of beauty. Beauty was to him divine, one of the ways
God communicated Himself to humanity.
Leonardo, Michelangelo too had a good Florentine teacher, the delightful
Domenico Ghirlandaio (c.1448-94). Later, he was to claim that he never had a
teacher, and figuratively, this is a meaningful enough statement. However, his
handling of the claw chisel does reveal his debt to Ghirlandaio's early
influence, and this is evident in the cross-hatching of Michelangelo's
drawings--a technique he undoubtedly learned from his master. The gentle accomplishments
of a work like The Birth of John the
Baptist bear not the slightest resemblance to the huge
intelligence of an early work of Michelangelo's like The Holy Family, also known as the Doni Tondo. This is somehow not an
attractive picture with its chilly, remote beauty, but its stark power stays in
the mind when more acessible paintings have been forgotten.
The Sistine Chapel
the same, it is the Sistine ceiling that displays Michelangelo at the full
stretch of his majesty. Recent cleaning and restoration have exposed this
astonishing work in the original vigour of its color. The sublime forms,
surging with desperate energy, tremendous with vitality, have always been
recognized as uniquely grand. Now these splendid shapes are seen to be
intensely alive in their color, indeed shockingly so for those who liked them
in their previous dim grandeur.
story of the Creation that the ceiling spells out is far from simple, partly
because Michelangelo was an exceedingly complicated man, partly because he dwells
here on profundities of theology that most people need to have spelt out for
them, and partly because he has balanced his biblical themes and events with
giant ignudi, naked youths
of superhuman grace. They express a truth with surpassing strength, yet we do
not clearly see what this truth actually is. The meaning of the ignudi is a personal one: it cannot be
verbalized or indeed theologized, but it is experienced with the utmost force.
painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel from 1508 to 1512, commissioned by
Pope Julius II. On becoming pope in 1503, Julius II reasserted papal authority
over the Roman barons and successfully backed the restauration of the Medici in
Florence. He was a liberal patron of the arts, commissioning Bramante to build
St Peter's Church, Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael to
decorate the Vatican apartments.
Seers and prophets
is the same power, though in more comprehensible form, in the great prophets
and seers that sit in solemn niches below the naked athletes. Sibyls were the
oracles of Greece and Rome. One of the most famous was the Sibyl of Cumae, who,
in the Aeneid, gives
guidance to Aeneas on his journey to the underworld. Michelangelo was a
heavyweight intellectual and poet, a profoundly educated man and a man of
utmost faith; his vision of God was of a deity all ``fire and ice'', terrible,
august in His severe purity. The prophets and the seers who are called by
divine vocation to look upon the hidden countenance of God have an appropriate
largeness of spirit. They are all persons without chitchat in them.
were female seers of ancient Greece and Rome. They were also known as oracles.
Like the Jewish prophets of the Old Testament, many sibyls had their sayings
recorded in books. Jewish prophets spoke unbidden, whereas sibyls tended to
speak only if consulted on specific questions. They sometimes answered in
riddles or rhetorical questions.
Erythraean Sibyl leans
forward, lost in her book. The artist makes no attempt to show any of the
sibyls in appropriate historical garb, or to recall the legends told of them by
the classical authors. His interest lies in their symbolic value for humanity,
proof that they have always been the spiritual enlightened ones, removed from
the sad confusion of blind time.
fact that the sibyls originated in a myth, and one dead to his heart (which
longed for Christian orthodoxy) only heightens the drama. At some level we all
resent the vulnerability of our condition, and if only in image, not reality,
we take deep comfort in these godlike human figures. Some of the sibylline
seers are shown as aged, bent, alarmed by their prophetic insight.
implicit sense of God's majesty (rather than His fatherhood) is made explicit
in the most alarming Last Judgement
known to us. Is is Michelangelo's final condemnation of a world he saw as
irredeemably corrupt, a verdict essentially heretical, though at that time is
was thought profoundly orthodox. His judging Christ is a great, vengeful
Apollo, and the power in this terrible painting comes from the artist's tragic
despairs. He paints himself into the judgement, not as an integral person, but
as a flayed skin, an empty envelope of dead surface, drained of his personhood
by artistic pressure. The only consolation, when even the Virgin shrinks from
this thunderous colossus, is that the skin belongs to St Bartholomew, and
through this martyr's promise of salvation we understand that perhaps, though
flayed alive, the artist is miraculously saved.
grandly impassive as the Erythraean Sibyl is the heroic Adam in The Creation of Adam, lifting his
languid hand to his Creator, indifferent to the coming agonies of being alive.
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