Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was arguably the most famous artist of the High to Late Italian Renaissance, and along with fellow Renaissance artists Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael, inarguably one of the greatest artists of all time.
Michelangelo was born on March 6, 1475 in Caprese (near Florence) in Tuscany. He was motherless by the age of six and fought long and hard with his father for permission to apprentice as an artist. At the age of twelve, he began studying under Domenico Ghirlandaio, who was the most fashionable painter in Florence at the time. According to Michelangelo, Ghirlandaio was extremely jealous of the youth’s emerging talent. He passed the lad off to be apprenticed with a sculptor named Bertoldo di Giovanni. Here Michelangelo found the work that became his true passion.
Michelangelo was a sculptor. He referred to himself as such, and vastly preferred working with marble to almost anything else.His sculpture came to the attention of the very powerful Medici family in Florence, and he gained their patronage. Among his early works, the Pieta commissioned by the Vatican, and David (in 1504) commissioned by the city of Florence proclaimed his unprecedented ability to transform marble from a slab of stone to a brilliant evocation of the human experience. Michelangelo was also an architect and an amateur poet.
By 1508 the artistic community of Rome (including the painter Raphael and the architect of St. Peters, Donato Bramante) felt so threatened by Michelangelo's mercurial rise to fame that they devised a plot intended to discredit the young artist. Michelangelo's competitors persuaded Pope Julius II to assign to him the relatively obscure and difficult project of frescoing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Many talented artists had already copiously frescoed the chapel. Michelangelo would be commissioned to decorate the tunnel-vaulted ceiling. In this way, his rivals thought they would divert his energies from sculpture, which would make things hopeless for him. Since he had no experience in fresco, he would certainly, do amateurish work as a painter.
Michelangelo protested that painting was not his art, and did not want to take on the project. Julius II, however, was adamant. He bribed Michelangelo with a wildly lucrative commission of sculpting forty massive figures for his tomb upon completion of the chapel ceiling. Work was begun in July 1508, and completed in 1512. The paintings cover a 12,000 square feet area. In every way it was a challenging task. He had never used color, nor had he painted in fresco. Prior to the ceiling frescoes, the only painting he'd done was during his brief stint as a student in Ghirlandaio's workshop.
Contrary to myth, Michelangelo did not paint on his back, but on a platform of his own devising that extended over half the area of the chapel and allowed him to stand upright. It was moved midway through the project. At no point could Michelangelo look at the work in progress from below, but he was still able to paint images on a vast scale and in perfect perspective from a distance of a few inches and despite the fact that the ceiling is vaulted. In that awkward curved space, Michelangelo managed to depict the history of the Earth from the Creation to Noah, surrounded by ancestors and prophets of Jesus and finally revealing the liberation of the soul.
In passing the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel to Michelangelo, his rivals quite possibly had inadvertently staged the masterpiece that quickly established him as the artist genius of the age.
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