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Featured Artist: Michelangelo

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Michelangelo, is considered as one the greatest artist who ever lived. He was born on 6 March 1475 in Caprese, known today as Caprese Michelangelo, a small town situated in Valtiberina, near Arezzo, Tuscany. He is one of the three giants of the Florentine High Renaissance along with Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael,. Although their names are often cited together, Michelangelo was younger than Leonardo by 23 years, and older than Raphael by eight. Because of his reclusive nature, he had little to do with either artist and outlived both of them by more than forty years. Michelangelo took few sculpture students. He employed Francesco Granacci, who was his fellow pupil at the Medici Academy, and became one of several assistants on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.  Michelangelo appears to have used assistants mainly for the more manual tasks of preparing surfaces and grinding colours. Despite this, his works were to have a great influence on painters, sculptors and architects for many generations to come.

Michelangelo’s works had  a great impact on the course of art and his most famous sculpture ‘David’  has been reproduced  in order to grace cities around the world. His unparalleled artistic skill had an enormous impact on artists of later periods.The twisting forms and tensions of the Victory, the Bruges Madonna and the Medici Madonna make them the heralds of the Mannerist art. The unfinished giants for the tomb of Pope Julius II had profound effect on late-19th- and 20th-century sculptors such as Rodin and Henry Moore.

Michelangelo’s foyer of the Laurentian Library was one of the earliest buildings to utilise Classical forms in a plastic and expressive manner. This dynamic quality was later to find its major expression in Michelangelo’s centrally planned St Peter’s, with its giant order, its rippling cornice and its upward-launching pointed dome. The dome of St Peter’s was to influence the building of churches for many centuries, including Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome and St Paul’s Cathedral, London, as well as the civic domes of many public buildings and the state capitals across America.

Michelangelo influenced many artists of his time including Raphael, whose monumental treatment of the figure in the School of Athens and The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple owes much to Michelangelo, and whose fresco of Isaiah in Sant’Agostino closely imitates the older master’s prophets.  Other artists, such as Pontormo, drew on the writhing forms of the Last Judgement and the frescoes of the Capella Paolina.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling is another example of Artist’s unmatched caliber which displays an unprecedented grandeur, both in its architectonic forms, to be imitated by many Baroque ceiling painters, and also for the wealth of its inventiveness in the study of figures. As Vasari wrote:

The work has proved a veritable beacon to our art, of inestimable benefit to all painters, restoring light to a world that for centuries had been plunged into darkness. Indeed, painters no longer need to seek for new inventions, novel attitudes, clothed figures, fresh ways of expression, different arrangements, or sublime subjects, for this work contains every perfection possible under those headings.

A number of Michelangelo’s works of painting, sculpture and architecture rank among the most famous in existence. His output in these fields was prodigious; given the sheer volume of surviving correspondence, sketches and reminiscences, he is the best-documented artist of the 16th century. He sculpted two of his best-known works, the Pietà and David, before the age of thirty. Despite holding a low opinion of painting, he also created two of the most influential frescoes in the history of Western art: the scenes from Genesis on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, and The Last Judgment on its altar wall. His design of the Laurentian Library pioneered Mannerist architecture. At the age of 74, he succeeded Antonio da Sangallo the Younger as the architect of St. Peter’s Basilica. He transformed the plan so that the western end was finished to his design, as was the dome, with some modification, after his death.

Michelangelo was the first Western artist whose biography was published while he was alive. In fact, two biographies were published during his lifetime. One of them, by Giorgio Vasari, proposed that Michelangelo’s work transcended that of any artist living or dead, and was “supreme in not one art alone but in all three”.

Michelangelo was born in a family that had been bankers For several generations in Florence, but his father,  Ludovico di Leonardo Buonarroti Simoni, after the bank failed briefly took a government post in Caprese, where Michelangelo was born. At the time of Michelangelo’s birth, his father was the town’s Judicial administrator and podestà or local administrator of Chiusi della Verna. Michelangelo’s mother was Francesca di Neri del Miniato di Siena.The Buonarrotis claimed to descend from the Countess Mathilde of Canossa—a claim that remains unproven, but which Michelangelo believed.

Several months after Michelangelo’s birth, the family returned to Florence, where he was raised. During his mother’s later prolonged illness, and after her death in 1481 (when he was six years old), Michelangelo lived with a nanny and her husband, a stonecutter, in the town of Settignano, where his father owned a marble quarry and a small farm. There he gained his love for marble. As Giorgio Vasari quotes him:

“If there is some good in me, it is because I was born in the subtle atmosphere of your country of Arezzo. Along with the milk of my nurse I received the knack of handling chisel and hammer, with which make my figures.”

As a young boy, Michelangelo was sent to Florence to study grammar under the Humanist Francesco da Urbino. However, he showed no interest in his schooling, preferring to copy paintings from churches and seek the company of other painters.

Michelangelo attended the Humanist academy the Medici had founded along Neo-Platonic lines. There his work and outlook were influenced by many of the most prominent philosophers and writers of the day, including Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola and Poliziano. At this time, Michelangelo sculpted the reliefs Madonna of the Steps (1490–1492) and Battle of the Centaurs (1491–1492). the latter based on a theme suggested by Poliziano and commissioned by Lorenzo de Medici.[20] Michelangelo worked for a time with the sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni. When he was seventeen, another pupil, Pietro Torrigiano, struck him on the nose, causing the disfigurement that is conspicuous in the portraits of Michelangelo.

In November 1497, the French ambassador to the Holy See, Cardinal Jean de Bilhères-Lagraulas, commissioned him to carve a Pietà, a sculpture showing the Virgin Mary grieving over the body of Jesus. The subject, which is not part of the Biblical narrative of the Crucifixion, was common in religious sculpture of Medieval Northern Europe and would have been very familiar to the Cardinal. The contract was agreed upon in August of the following year. Michelangelo was 24 at the time of its completion. It was soon to be regarded as one of the world’s great masterpieces of sculpture, “a revelation of all the potentialities and force of the art of sculpture”. Contemporary opinion was summarised by Vasari: “It is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh.”

In 1499 Michelangelo returned to Florence. The republic was changing after the fall of its leader, anti-Renaissance priest Girolamo Savonarola, who was executed in 1498, and the rise of the gonfaloniere Piero Soderini. Michelangelo was asked by the consuls of the Guild of Wool to complete an unfinished project begun 40 years earlier by Agostino di Duccio: a colossal statue of Carrara marble portraying David as a symbol of Florentine freedom to be placed on the gable of Florence Cathedral. Michelangelo responded by completing his most famous work, the statue of David, in 1504. The masterwork definitively established his prominence as a sculptor of extraordinary technical skill and strength of symbolic imagination.

With the completion of the David came another commission. In early 1504 Leonardo da Vinci had been commissioned to paint The Battle of Anghiara in the council chamber of the Palazzo Vecchio, depicting the battle between Florence and Milan in 1440. Michelangelo was then commissioned to paint the Battle of Cascina. The two paintings are very different: Leonardo depicts soldiers fighting on horseback, while Michelangelo has soldiers being ambushed as they bathe in the river. Neither work was completed and both were lost forever when the chamber was refurbished. Both works were much admired, and copies remain of them, Leonardo’s work having been copied by Rubens and Michelangelo’s by Bastiano da Sangallo.

Also during this period, Michelangelo was commissioned by Angelo Doni to paint a “Holy Family” as a present for his wife, Maddalena Strozzi. It is known as the Doni Tondo and hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in its original magnificent frame, which Michelangelo may have designed. He also may have painted the Madonna and Child with John the Baptist, known as the Manchester Madonna and now in the National Gallery, London.

Michelangelo painted the famous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which took approximately four years to complete (1508–1512). According to Condivi’s account, Bramante, who was working on the building of St. Peter’s Basilica, resented Michelangelo’s commission for the pope’s tomb and convinced the pope to commission him in a medium with which he was unfamiliar, in order that he might fail at the task. Michelangelo was originally commissioned to paint the Twelve Apostles on the triangular pendentives that supported the ceiling, and to cover the central part of the ceiling with ornament. Michelangelo persuaded Pope Julius to give him a free hand and proposed a different and more complex scheme, representing the Creation, the Fall of Man, the Promise of Salvation through the prophets, and the genealogy of Christ. The work is part of a larger scheme of decoration within the chapel that represents much of the doctrine of the Catholic Church.

The composition stretches over 500 square metres of ceiling and contains over 300 figures.  At its centre are nine episodes from the Book of Genesis, divided into three groups: God’s creation of the earth; God’s creation of humankind and their fall from God’s grace; and lastly, the state of humanity as represented by Noah and his family. On the pendentives supporting the ceiling are painted twelve men and women who prophesied the coming of Jesus, seven prophets of Israel, and five Sibyls, prophetic women of the Classical world. Among the most famous paintings on the ceiling are The Creation of Adam, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Deluge, the Prophet Jeremiah, and the Cumaean Sibyl.

Michelangelo was abstemious in his personal life, and once told his apprentice, Ascanio Condivi: “However rich I may have been, I have always lived like a poor man.”Condivi said he was indifferent to food and drink, eating “more out of necessity than of pleasure” and that he “often slept in his clothes and … boots.”His biographer Paolo Giovio says, “His nature was so rough and uncouth that his domestic habits were incredibly squalid, and deprived posterity of any pupils who might have followed him.”He may not have minded, since he was by nature a solitary and melancholy person, bizzarro e fantastico, a man who “withdrew himself from the company of men.”

Michelangelo died in Rome in 1564, at the age of 88 (three weeks before his 89th birthday). His body was taken from Rome for interment at the Basilica of Santa Croce, fulfilling the maestro’s last request to be buried in his beloved Florence.

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