Monday, March 06, 2006


If no one with genius other than Leonardo da Vinci had been available to groom the collective aesthetic of the Italian capitals of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the High Renaissance might have been a much colder and darker period. As it was, Michelangelo Buonarotti would not sit still for Leonardo's detached skepticism; Michelangelo's unabashed creative gestures were passionate invocations of the divinity of human muscle and flesh, to be rehearsed openly in the beauty of divine daylight.

As creator, Michelangelo aspired to be a star, to achieve nobility through his craft -- a most improbable outcome for a short, squat, unwashed, doodling stonecutter with a broken nose, in his time or perhaps in any other -- but he certainly achieved stardom at some level, raising the social station of the grand artiste in the process.

His abusive father had been the mayor of Caprese, the Tuscan town where Michelangelo was born on this day in 1475, and he claimed noble lineage, which to him was inconsistent with Michelangelo's desire for an artistic career. Perhaps as a result, Michelangelo's mercurial persona would be defined by the inner struggle between his supreme exterior self-confidence in his abilities and his barely submerged fear of not being appreciated; plagued by both pride and guilt in their most painful extremes, he labored to prove to his father that his pursuits were genuinely noble, while dutifully sending his father and brothers money for their care and feeding.

At 13, Michelangelo became an apprentice to the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. After 3 years with Ghirlandaio, however, Michelangelo felt he had learned all he could there and transferred to Bertoldo di Giovanni's school in the Medici gardens, focusing on his true love, sculpting, and studying the Medici collection of antiquities. Staying at the home of Lorenzo de Medici, he would often dine shoulder to shoulder with the despot, getting first-hand lessons in being larger than life. Michelangelo was 17 when Lorenzo died, and his services were no longer required as the political situation in Florence began to shift, so he went briefly to Bologna, where he carved a few small figures for the tomb of St. Dominic, before arriving in Rome at age 20.

In Rome he came into his own. His super-large full-length nude figure of a brash and drunken Bacchus (1496-7) was an homage to the pagan antiquities he studied at the Medici palace. Its sensuality was striking and new for its time, but it was the sheer artistry of the piece which helped to secure for him a commission by a French cardinal for a massive piece to be, by contract, "the most beautiful work in marble" in Rome, a work which was to become the Pieta (1498-1500): a quiet yet majestic tableau of the timeless grief of the young and beautiful mother Mary holding the lifeless body of Christ in her gigantic lap. When it was unveiled, the crowd at St. Peter's speculated that it must have been the work of a mature and seasoned sculptor, inspiring Michelangelo to steal into the cathedral at night to carve his signature into the finished piece so that there would be no mistakes in attribution.

In 1501 he accepted a commission in Florence for a statue of David for a buttress on the Duomo. The finished work (1501-4) was a 14-foot tall rustically muscular nude, a defiant warrior at rest whose confidence seemed to be a much more fitting symbol for the Florentine Republic; the Republic in fact hijacked the piece from the church and placed it in front of the main entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, where it became not only a symbol for Florentine democracy, but for the confluence of classical harmonies and heightened sense of drama which would define the High Renaissance. He also turned out a graceful Madonna and Child (known as the Bruges Madonna), a brightly-colored round painting of the Holy Family (the Doni Tondo), a round relief (the Taddei Tondo) and began work on a battle mural for the council chamber inside the Palazzo Vecchio which was to face a likewise unfinished battle mural by da Vinci, before his time in Florence was cut short by a summons from Pope Julius II in 1505 to work on a design for Julius' future tomb.

The tale of Julius' tomb is a long and frustrating one: Michelangelo designed a grandiose free-standing structure ornamented with over 40 life-sized figures; Julius interrupted the commission in 1506 to divert funds to the building of St. Peter's; Michelangelo left in a huff, but returned to the project on and off for 40 years with the end result that Julius' tomb was redesigned on a more modest scale in accordance with the wishes of Julius' cheap heirs, and the only figure Michelangelo actually contributed was the imposing, horned Moses (c. 1515).

In the midst of Michelangelo's disgust over the project, Julius goaded the reluctant sculptor into undertaking the painting of a fresco cycle on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, a project which put Michelangelo on scaffolding for the next 5 years. He worked quickly, even heroically, to complete cycle -- peopled with muscular studies of the Old Testament prophets, classical sibyls, scenes from Genesis (including the potently mythic Creation of Adam, with the white-bearded Lord extending His finger and bestowing upon the first human a potential particle of His divinity) -- in a relatively short period of time given its impossible scope. At their freest, his compositions were dizzying, painful tangles of arms and legs, bathed in fresh, sunlit coloration, and his characterizations are vibrant and emotionally alert; and his loving attention to the beauty of the human form -- Michelangelo's conception of the holiness of Man -- became the touchstone for a generation of Mannerist painters. He was instantly hailed as the supreme master of the age.

Back in Florence after Julius' death, Michelangelo was now feeling his power as a boundless visionary, and did not hesitate to plunge his energies into architectural projects at San Lorenzo, attempting to create a union of architecture and sculpture in designs for the Medici Chapel and the Biblioteca Laurenziana before political instabilities drew him personally into the conflict between the Republicans and the Mediceans. He took the side of the Republicans and assisted in fortifying the city. When it fell to the Mediceans in 1530, the order was put out for his assassination, but the canon of San Lorenzo hid Michelangelo until a pardon could be obtained for him so that he could complete his work on the Medici Chapel.

Feeling chastened by Florence, and perhaps a little out of sorts over his ill-fated "pursuit" (possibly platonic, but ardent nonetheless) of a young Italian nobleman through letters and poems, Michelangelo moved to Rome and never returned. There Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to paint The Last Judgment on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel (1536-41), another triumph, but very different from his ceiling frescoes; given the atmosphere of war and treachery which blazed through Italy at the time, it is not surprising that Michelangelo's mood would be darker, even wrathful.

For the last 20 years of his life, Michelangelo served as the architect of St. Peter's, designing the finishing touches of the project which had begun under Bramante in 1506 (including its distinctive dome) and ultimately defining the massive, explosive style which dominates that corner of Rome to this day. He was working on another, rougher Pieta when he died of pneumonia on February 18, 1564, the undisputed star of Renaissance sculpture, painting and architecture.

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