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Art History

Happy Birthday Michelangelo

Happy (belated) Birthday Michelangelo, born March 6, 1475.  Michelangelo was an Italian sculptor, painter, architect, and poet during the High Renaissance – one of the original “Renaissance men.”  You’ve likely run across his name or seen his (or parodies of his) work before.   

If you’re not familiar with Michelangelo’s work, he concentrated on realistically portraying the human form – which means that his art included unclothed figures.  This is your heads up to read at a different time or skip this one if you need to.

Early Life

Michelangelo was born Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni on March 6, 1475 in the Republic of Florence in Italy.  He came from a long line of bankers and minor nobility in Florence.  At the time of Michelangelo’s birth, his father was a magistrate for the village of Caprese for a brief time after the banks failed.  Shortly later the family moved back to Florence.  Michelangelo was the second of five sons.  

Michelangelo’s mother had a prolonged illness after he was born and died when he was six years old.  Michelangelo was raised by a nanny and her husband, who was a stonecutter on a marble quarry that his father owned in Settignano, northeast of Florence.

Pieta by Michelangelo. Marble sculpture of virgin mary holding adult christ in her arms.
Pieta, Michelangelo, 1499

From a young age, Michelangelo showed little interest in school and would instead watch painters at the churches work and practice copying their paintings.  His father arranged for Michelangelo to apprentice under prominent painter Domenico Ghirlandaio at the age of 13.  At Ghirlandaio’s workshop he learned draftsmanship and fresco techniques (a method of painting murals in plaster).  By age 14 Michelangelo was being paid as an artist. 

Michelangelo the Artist

In 1489 the de facto ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de Medici (aka Lorenzo the Magnificent), asked Ghirlandaio to recommend his best students; he sent Michelangelo and Francesco Granacci.  Michelangelo attended the Platonic Academy founded by Medici from 1490 to Medici’s death in 1492.  

At the academy, he learned from many of the prominent Humanist writers, philosophers, and artists who were exploring the world around them through evidence, reason, and experience.  (As a side note to put the timeline in perspective: Michelangelo was in his late teens the same year that Christopher Columbus made landfall in what would become the Americas.)  Michelangelo studied classical sculpture in the Medici Gardens which included masterpieces from ancient Greece and Rome and works by Masaccio, Giotto, and Donatello.  He studied under famous sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni while at court.  As a teenager in the Court of Medici he finished his first two commissions “Madonna of the Stairs” and “Battle of the Centaurs” which were sculpted marble reliefs.

In the political fallout after Lorenzo de Medici’s death the Medici’s were driven out of Florence and Michelangelo went back to his father’s home.  In 1494 Michelangelo returned to the Medici Court under Piero de Medici, following them to Venice and Bologna and continuing to work as a sculptor.  During this timeframe he became involved in a scheme to pass off one of his sculptures as an ancient work.  The buyer Cardinal Raffaele Riario was so impressed by the quality of the sculpture (despite the deception) that he invited Michelangelo to Rome in 1496.  

While in Rome Michelangelo sculpted “Pieta” which is now in the Vatican at St. Peter’s Basilica.  In the sculpture, the Virgin Mary is holding the body of Jesus weeping.  The sculpture departed from previous versions of “Pieta” by other artists that focused on Mary’s suffering.  Michelangelo’s version showed a tenderness, like a mother holding her sleeping child.

David by Michelangelo. Marble sculpture of nude man with slingshot over shoulder.
David, Michelangelo, 1504
Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. Marble sculpture of mary with small child
Madonna and Child, Michelangelo, 1505

In 1504 after returning to Florence, Michelangelo completed his most famous work – the 17 foot marble statue “David”, a commission for the City of Florence.  The statue was a symbol of Florence freedom and depicted the biblical story of David with slingshot slung over his shoulder after facing the giant Goliath.  Michelangelo’s admiration of classical art can easily be seen in this piece with his use of contrapposto stance (weight shifted to one leg) and idealized muscular body.  Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli were part of the committee who decided on its placement in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. 

Michelangelo was invited back to Rome in 1505 by Pope Julius II who was newly elected and commissioned Michelangelo to build his tomb.  The project ended up taking over forty years to complete as it was interrupted by other commissions, including the Sistine Chapel (the pope’s residence in the Vatican).

From 1508 to 1512, Michelangelo worked on one of his most well-known works – the fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (also commissioned by Pope Julius II).  The masterpiece spanned over 500 square meters (roughly 5382 square feet) and included 300 different figures.  The paintings depicted stories from the biblical Book of Genesis, including the creation of the world and life, the fall of Adam and Eve, the promise of salvation, and genealogy of Christ.  The most famous section of the fresco continues to be the Creation of Adam where God outstretched his arm to Adam to give him the spark of life.  During that time period, art played a large role in communicating the messages of the Catholic Church to the public and an effort was made to adorn religious buildings with images from scripture. 

In 1534, Pope Clement VII (soon succeeded by Pope Paul III) commissioned Michelangelo to paint a fresco of “The Last Judgement” on the alter wall of the Sistine Chapel.  The project depicting the second coming of Christ and his judgement of souls was completed in 1541. 

Study for an Ignudo by Michelangelo. Anatomical sketch of man sideview in active pose.
Study for an Ignudo, Michelangelo, 1508
Ignudo by Michelangelo. Fresco mural painting of man sitting in active pose.
Ignudo, Michelangelo, 1509

Towards the end of his years after painting the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo shifted his focus to architecture, painting, and poetry due to the physical demands of sculpture.  Michelangelo designed the Medici Chapel and Laurentian Library which housed the Medici book collection.  Michelangelo’s architectural style pioneered the Mannerism movement in architecture.  In 1546 he had the honor of being made the chief architect for Saint Peter’s Basilica.  

Michelangelo was also a prolific poet who wrote over 300 sonnets and madrigals.  I included a resource (last two on the list) that shows examples of his poems.  


The Renaissance Men

Michelangelo’s work is often lumped in with the other major Renaissance artists of the time – Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael (and sometimes Donatello).  Michelangelo didn’t socialize much with either Leonardo or Raphael and outlived them both by 40 years.

Leonardo da Vinci was 23 years older than Michelangelo.  In 1504 Da Vinci was commissioned to paint “The Battle of Anghiari” in the Palazzo Vecchio council chamber while Michelangelo was commissioned to paint “The Battle of Cascina” on an adjacent wall.  While neither commission was finished and both were later destroyed with renovations, many copies still exist and show how different the two paintings were in both style and theme.  

Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino) was eight years younger than Michelangelo and their relationship was contentious after Michelangelo lost several commissions to him.  Raphael was inspired and influenced by Michelangelo work.

And the last turtle – Donatello (Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi) died almost ten years before Michelangelo was born.  

Though the term “Renaissance Man” is mostly self explanatory as these artists lived during the Renaissance period of history, the term has also come to mean people who have many interests and are skilled in many areas. 

San Lorenzo Facade by Michelangelo. Architectural line drawing of renaissance church
San Lorenzo Facade, Michelangelo, 1517
Tomb of Giuliano de Medici by Michelangelo. Marble tomb of building with three sculptures, two reclined in front and one seated in back.
Tomb of Giuliano de Medici, Michelangelo, 1533

Style & Themes

Michelangelo was highly influenced by the classical art of ancient Greece and Rome.  Most of his works have mythological and biblical themes.  Many of his commissions came from officials in the Catholic Church and wealthy families, the themes reflected their desired projects.   

His art – whether sculpture, painting, or architecture – were highly detailed and anatomically accurate.  Michelangelo drew from life and learned anatomy in-depth by studying human corpses (which he had to obtain special permission from the Catholic Church to do).  He specifically put an emphasis on the musculature of bodies and dramatic twisted poses.  In his paintings he used vibrant colors that emphasized the detailed anatomy.    

In his sculpture work, he often delicately carved from a single piece of marble.  “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.” (Michelangelo)

Michelangelo was attracted to ambitious projects and preferred to work alone, rejecting the use of assistants.  Because of this, many of his projects remained unfinished.  Even the vast Sistine Chapel he insisted on working alone over the four year period.

Michelangelo was known to have a temper and contempt for authority.  He also could be a bit petty at times.  While painting the “Last Judgement” in the Sistine Chapel, critics had argued that the number of nude figures was inappropriate for the holy setting and it should be destroyed.  Michelangelo retaliated by painting the chief critic into the painting as the devil and himself as St. Bartholomew.

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo. Fresco mural painting section of the Sistine Chapel ceiling where god is pointing his finger towards Adam reclined on the ground.
The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo, 1512

Death & Legacy

Michelangelo died on February 18, 1564 just prior to his 89th birthday in his home in Rome.  His body was brought back to Florence and laid to rest at the Basilica di Santa Croce.

Michelangelo was possibly the most well-documented artist is history.  He had multiple biographies written about him and gained success from his art during his lifetime, which is why hundreds of years later so much is known about his life and work.  Unlike the challenges that I mentioned on last week’s blog post about American Sculptor Augusta Savage, Michelangelo had no difficulty obtaining the finest materials from his wealthy benefactors and an effort has been made to preserve his works so that many still exist now over 500 years later.

Michelangelo’s expressive and exaggerated style of painting contributed to the development of the Mannerism movements in art and architecture that briefly followed the High Renaissance.  His work continues to inspire artists and admirers around the world to this day.

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.” (Michelangelo)

Moses by Michelangelo. Marble sculpture of man seated looking to the side
Moses, Michelangelo, 1515
Cleopatra by Michelangelo. Sketch of woman looking to the side with ornately decorated hair.
Cleopatra, Michelangelo, 1534

Resources & Further Learning

If you enjoyed learning more about this artist, I encourage you to check out more of his work and research more in-depth articles about his life and work.

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michelangelo
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Georg-Brandes
  • https://www.michelangelo.org/
  • https://www.biography.com/artists/michelangelo
  • https://www.theartstory.org/artist/michelangelo/
  • https://www.worldhistory.org/Michelangelo/
  • https://www.wikiart.org/en/michelangelo
  • http://www.italianrenaissance.org/a-closer-look-michelangelos-painting-of-the-sistine-chapel-ceiling/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medici_Chapel
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mannerism
  • https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/the-sonnets-of-michelangelo-1904-edition
  • https://www.michelangelo-gallery.com/poems.aspx

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About the Artist

Photo of Laura Jaen Smith

Laura Jaen Smith is an artist who lives and works out of Horseheads, New York. Her inspiration comes from observing the beauty she sees around her.  After a decade living out west, she returned back to New York State and started seeing the same old places with new eyes.  She is most interested in capturing small moments in nature that might otherwise be overlooked.

Visit her shop or ask about available works.

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