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Michelangelo Buonarroti (March 6, 1475 - February 18, 1564) was a
Renaissance painter, sculptor, poet and architect. He is famous for creating
the fresco ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, one of the most stupendous works
in all of Western art, as well as the Last Judgment over the altar, and "The
Martyrdom of St. Peter" and "The Conversion of St. Paul" in the Vatican's
Capella Paolina; among his many sculptures are those of the Pieta and David,
again, sublime masterpieces of their field, as well as the Virgin, Bacchus,
Moses, Rachel, Leah, and members of the Medici family (see article for more
information on them); he also designed the dome of St. Peter's Basilica. A
Basilica is a large cathedral.
Michelagnolo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was born on March 6th, 1475, in
Caprese, Tuscany, Italy. Michelangelo's father, Lodovico, was the resident
magistrate in Caprese. However, Michelangelo was raised in Florence and
later lived with a sculptor and his wife in the town of Settignano where his
father owned a marble quarry and a small farm.
Against his father's wishes, Michelangelo chose to be the apprentice
of Domenico Ghirlandaio for three years starting in 1488. Impressed,
Domenico recommended him to the ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de' Medici. From
1490 to 1492, Michelangelo attended Lorenzo's school and during his stay,
Michelangelo would be influenced by many prominent people who modified and
expanded his ideas on art and even his feelings about sexuality. It was
during this period that Michelangelo created two reliefs: Battle of the
Centaurs and Madonna of the Steps.
After the death of Lorenzo in 1492, Piero de' Medici (Lorenzo's oldest son
and new head of the Medici family), refused to support Michelangelo'
artwork. Also at this time, the ideas of Savonarola became popular in
Florence. Under these two pressures, Michelangelo decided to leave Florence
and stay in Bologna for three years. Soon afterwards, Cardinal San Giorgio
purchased Michelangelo's marble Cupid and decided to summon him to Rome in
1496. Influenced by Roman antiquity, he produced the Bacchus and the Pietą.
Four years later, Michelangelo returned to Florence where he produced
arguably his most famous work, the marble David. He also painted the Holy
Family of the Tribune.
Michelangelo was summoned back to Rome in 1503 by the newly appointed Pope
Julius II and was commissioned to build the Pope's tomb. However, under the
patronage of Julius II, Michelangelo had to constantly stop work on the tomb
in order to accomplish numerous other tasks. The most famous of which was
the monumental paintings on the ceiling of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel
which took four years (1508 - 1512). Due to these and later interruptions,
Michelangelo would work on the tomb for 40 years without ever finishing it.
In 1513 Pope Julius II died and his successor Pope Leo X, a Medici,
commissioned Michelangelo to reconstruct the exterior of the Church of San
Lorenzo in Florence and to adorn it with sculptures. Michelangelo agreed
reluctantly, but was unable to accomplish this feat (the church's exterior
is unadorned to this day).
In 1527, the Florentine citicens, encouraged by the sack of Rome, threw out
the Medici and restored the republic. A siege of the city ensued, and
Michelangelo came to the aid of his beloved Florence by working on the
city's fortifications from 1528 to 1529. The city fell in 1530 and the
Medici were restored to power.
The fresco of the Last Judgment on the altar wall of the the Sistine Chapel
was commissioned by Pope Paul III and Michelangelo worked on it from 1534 to
1541. Then in 1547, Michelangelo was appointed architect of St. Peter's
Basilica in the Vatican.
Seven years later, on February 18th, 1564, Michelangelo died in Rome at the
age of 89. His life was described in Giorgio Vasari's "Vite".
Controversy, Censorship and the 'Fig-Leaf Campaign'
When the work was finished on the Last Judgment in (October 1541),
Michelangelo was accused of intolerable obscenity for his depictions of
naked figures showing genitals (and inside a church, and in St.Peter's, the
most important one). A violent censorship campaign was organized by Cardinal
Carafa and Monsignor Sernini (Mantua's ambassador) to remove the frescoes,
but the Pope resisted.
In coincidence with Michelangelo's death, a law was issued to cover genitals
("Pictura in Cappella Ap.ca coopriantur"). So Daniele da Volterra, an
apprentice of Michelangelo, covered with sort of perizomas (briefs) the
genitals, leaving unaltered the complex of bodies (see details ). When
the work was restored in 1993, the restorers chose not to remove the
perizomas of Daniele; however, a faithful uncensored copy of the original,
by Marcello Venusti, is now in Naples, at the Capodimonte Museum.
Censorship always followed Michelangelo, once described as "inventor delle
porcherie" (inventor of obscenities, in a sense that in Italian sounds like
he had created genitals).
The "fig-leaf campaign" of the Counter Reformation to cover all
representations of human genitals in paintings and sculptures started with
Michelangelo's works. To give two examples, the bronze statue of "Cristo
della Minerva" was covered, as it remains today, and the statue of the naked
child Jesus in "Madonna of Bruges" (Belgium) remained covered for several
decades. A similar campaign occurred in Victorian Britain.
Michelangelo the Man
Michelangelo, who was often arrogant with others and constantly unsatisfied
with himself, thought that art originated from inner inspiration and from
culture. In contradiction to the ideas of his rival, Leonardo da Vinci,
Michelangelo saw nature as an enemy that had to be overcome. The figures
that he created are therefore in forceful movement; each is in its own space
apart from the outside world. For Michelangelo, the job of the sculptor is
too free the forms that, he believed, were already inside the stone. This
can most vividly be seen in his unfinished statuary figures, which to many
appear to be struggling to free themselves from the stone.
He also instilled into his figures a sense of moral cause for action. A good
example of this can be seen in the facial expression of his marble statue
David. Arguably his second most famous work (after David) is the fresco on
the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which is a synthesis of architecture,
sculpture & painting. His Last Judgement, also in the Sistine Chapel, is a
depiction of extreme crisis.
Several anecdotes reveal that Michelangelo's skill, especially in sculpture,
was deeply appreciated in his own time. It is said that when still a young
apprentice, he had made a neoclassical statue (Il Putto Dormiente, the
sleeping child) of such beauty and perfection, that it was later sold in
Rome as an ancient Roman original. Another better-known anecdote claims that
when finishing the Moses (Rome, San Pietro in Vincoli), Michelangelo
violently hit the knee of the statue with a hammer, shouting, "Why don't you
speak to me?"
It has been claimed that Michelangelo was an abstinent bisexual who had very
intense attraction for male beauty. In fact, Michelangelo developed romantic
but apparently non-sexual relationships with at least one man, Tommaso de'
Cavalieri, who was 23 years old when he met Michelangelo in 1532.
Michelangelo wrote a series of romantic sonnets as a result of this apparent
The homoeroticism of Michelangelo's poetry was obscured when his grand
nephew, Michelangelo the Younger, published an edition of the poetry in 1623
with the gender of pronouns changed. John Addington Symonds undid this
change by translating the original sonnets into English and writing a
two-volume biography, published in 1893.