Article abstract: Michelangelo was a true Renaissance man, excelling in sculpture, painting, architecture, and poetry. He was the supreme master of the human body, especially the male nude, and his idealized and expressive treatment of this theme was enormously influential, both in his own day and in subsequent centuries.
Michelangelo Buonarroti was the second of five sons of an aristocratic but impoverished Florentine family. He was born in the village of Caprese, near Arezzo, where his father was serving as magistrate, but before he was a month old the family returned to Florence.
From childhood Michelangelo was strongly drawn to the arts, but this inclination was bitterly opposed by his father, who considered artistic activity menial and hence demeaning to the family social status. The boy’s determination prevailed, however, and at the age of thirteen he was apprenticed to the popular painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. From Ghirlandaio he presumably learned the technique of fresco painting, but his style was formed on the study of the pioneers of Renaissance painting, Giotto and Masaccio. It was, in fact, while copying a Masaccio fresco that he was punched in the face by another apprentice. The resulting broken nose gave his face its distinctive bent profile for the rest of his life.
About a year after entering his apprenticeship, Michelangelo’s precocious talent attracted the notice of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the unofficial ruler and leading art patron of Florence, and the boy was invited to join the Medici household. There he had the opportunity to study both classical and modern masterpieces of sculpture and to absorb the humanistic culture and Neoplatonic philosophy that pervaded the Medici court. From this period date Michelangelo’s two earliest surviving works, both reliefs, The Battle of the Centaurs (c. 1492) and The Madonna of the Steps (c. 1492). When Lorenzo died in 1492, Michelangelo left the Medici palace and undertook the study of anatomy based on the dissection of corpses from the Hospital of Santo Spirito, for which he carved a wooden crucifix in gratitude.
In 1494, the populace of Florence, stirred by the puritanical monk Girolamo Savonarola, ousted the Medici family and reestablished a republic. Michelangelo, although he seems to have admired Savonarola and supported the republic, evidently felt threatened because of his close ties to the Medici family and fled the city, staying briefly in Venice and then in Bologna. There he supported himself with relatively minor sculpture commissions.
The year 1496 found him in Rome, where he undertook two important projects, the Bacchus (1497), which effectively replicated the Hellenistic style, and the Vatican Pietà (1499), an image of the Virgin Mary supporting the dead Christ. In this work Michelangelo minimizes the painful aspect of the subject by showing the Virgin as a lovely, surprisingly youthful woman gazing down serenely at the classically beautiful body of her son. To overcome the awkwardness of balancing an adult male body on the lap of a woman, he enlarges the Virgin but masks her size with billowing drapery and wraps the body of Christ around her to create a compact, pyramidal group. The contract called for the Pietà to be “the most beautiful work in marble which exists today in Rome.” When, at the age of twenty-five, Michelangelo completed the piece, there was no question that he had met this requirement.
In 1501, Michelangelo returned triumphantly to Florence and to a new challenge. An enormous marble block that had been abandoned decades earlier because its tall, shallow proportions seemed unsuitable for a figure sculpture was assigned to him, and from it he carved the David (1501-1504). David was a favorite Florentine subject, but Michelangelo’s treatment broke with tradition in representing the shepherd boy as a Herculean nude, twice life-size, before, rather than after, the...
(The entire section is 2,028 words.)