Giorgio Vasari begins his famed biography of Michelangelo not on Earth, but in the realm of the divine. He recounts how God – pitying mankind’s vainglorious artistic efforts – sent to Earth Michelangelo, a man “genius universal in each art.” Thus, according to Vasari, humankind was shown “perfection of line and shadow… sound judgment in sculpture,” and architecture that is safe, pleasant, and “enriched with various ornaments.” In the intervening 500 years, our view of Michelangelo has barely changed. His achievements – from David, to the Dying Slave, to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – are regarded as among the greatest works of art ever created. The accomplishments of Michelangelo, as Vasari suggests, span the arts. Michelangelo was an accomplished sculptor, painter, architect, draughtsman, and poet. Today, his art stands as a testament to Renaissance optimism and aspiration, epitomizing the period that gave birth to the modern world as we know it.
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Style and Legacy
Michelangelo’s art, though varied, is best known for one subject – his depiction of nude, muscular men. Today, it may seem an odd subject for an artist to build his career around, but it wasn’t so peculiar during the Renaissance. In fact, it was quite in fashion; particularly in Florence, where artists had long studied classical sculptures depicting nude male figures.
Michelangelo, however, would distinguish himself from his predecessors in two ways. First, he aimed to create a whole new type of figure – one that was original, dramatic, and bold. In this, he sought not only to emulate the artists of classical antiquity but to surpass them.
Second, his works uniquely reflected the intellectual climate of the day. This evolved over the course of his lifetime. Early in his career, his paintings and sculptures reflected the optimistic outlook of Renaissance humanists. As the Renaissance came to a close, however, Michelangelo’s art evolved to reflect the more intense piety of the Counter-Reformation years.
Delving into both of these will tell us much about the art of Michelangelo and its evolution over time.
Transforming the Human Figure
Let’s begin with the first item that set Michelangelo apart – his desire to create a new type of figure.
The depiction of the human form was long held to be one of the highest and most difficult things an artist could undertake. Often in an artist’s workshop, only the master would paint human figures, delegating other elements of a work (still life, landscape, animals, etc.) to apprentices. Few, however, were as obsessed with the human figure as Michelangelo.
Michelangelo’s works are full of bodies, from the foreground to the background. Commenting on Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Pauline chapel (the last major painting commission he would undertake), Vasari notes the lack of any trees, buildings, or landscape. He observes that Michelangelo never bothered with these “distracting graces of art,” as to do so would abase his genius.
In crafting his figures, Michelangelo took classical sculpture as his starting point. He made use of its poses, took inspiration from its realistic depiction of muscles and anatomy, and learned from its expressive faces and postures.
Echoes of classical sculpture abound throughout Michelangelo’s art: Christ in The Last Judgement bears an uncanny resemblance to the Apollo Belvedere; the twisting torsos of the Dying Slave and Rebellious Slave are reminiscent of the Laocoön; David holds the same contrapposto pose depicted in the Doryphoros and other nude sculptures from classical antiquity.
Michelangelo, however, was not content to learn only from the ancients. He also sought to learn from nature. To improve his understanding of anatomy, Michelangelo regularly dissected corpses. As Vasari reports, Michelangelo took great “delight” in dissection, seeing it as a primal source of inspiration.
What made Michelangelo great, however, was not just his understanding of classical sculpture or anatomy. It was his talent for “disegno,” or design. His figures reflect an idealized form of beauty, born in large part from his own imagination and artistic sensibility. He never hesitated to add muscular bulk to his figures or twist them in ways that normal anatomy would not allow. He also did not feel bound to maintain natural proportions, as can be seen in the hands and head of David. Rather, he was actively making design choices, not limiting himself to nature or classical precedent.
Creating a New Man
For this, we today call Michelangelo a genius, but not all felt this way at the time. Leonardo Da Vinci compared Michelangelo’s muscular figures to sacks of walnuts. The Cardinal Raffaele Riario rejected a sculpture by Michelangelo, presumably because it diverged too greatly from classical models. When painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo himself was wracked with anxiety that the work would come out poorly and be rejected.
This, perhaps, is the price of innovation, especially in subjective fields such as art. However, despite a few early missteps, there is an undeniable magnetism to Michelangelo’s figures. He knew how to mold and twist them to maximize their inner tension and drama. He also knew how far he could distort a figure before it felt unnatural.
The results speak for themselves. Michelangelo’s figures are giants, the gods of old reborn in the guise of saints and apostles. At turns angry, joyful, ashamed, and assured, they reflect a universal drama, as recognizable today as they were five centuries ago.
From Plato to Pico: Humanism in the Art of Michelangelo
The second item that set Michelangelo apart from earlier artists was the degree to which his art uniquely captured the intellectual climate of the day. In the early part of his career, this climate reflected the influence of Florence’s humanist scholars, whose thinking came to define the Italian Renaissance.
Humanist intellectuals are best known for reinvigorating the study of classical poetry and philosophy, which were previously disregarded as pagan and thus heretical. The humanists, however, felt the ancients (so far advanced scientifically and technologically) had much to teach those in the present day and were thus worthy of study.
By the late 15th century, leading Florentine humanists found themselves particularly attracted to the writings of Plato and his ideas regarding beauty. Plato had argued that physical beauty is but an echo of a divine eternal beauty. His writings suggest that through appreciation of beauty and philosophical reflection on it, one could ascend to a higher spiritual existence and ultimately union with the divine.
This belief that meditation on beauty could elevate one spiritually inspired a range of Renaissance scholars. This included Marsilio Ficino, who adapted many of Plato’s ideas regarding beauty for a Christian audience in his On Love. It also included Pico Dello Mirandolo, who in his Oration on the Dignity of Man (sometimes called the manifesto of the Renaissance) suggested that God had created man so that he might admire His creation and “love its beauty.”
Such views naturally elevated art and deeply influenced Michelangelo, who was regularly exposed to them after he joined the household of Lorenzo de’Medici (better known as Lorenzo the Magnificent) around 1490 at the age of 15.
Lorenzo was not only a great patron of artists; he also supported a number of humanist scholars, including Ficino, Pico, and Angelo Poliziano (another of Florence’s intellectual giants). Decades later, Michelangelo still remembered fondly sitting at Lorenzo’s dinner table, listening to Poliziano and Pico debate the finer points of theology and philosophy late into the night.
The ideas discussed in Lorenzo’s household would over time find expression in Michelangelo’s art, including in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This work, often regarded as the greatest masterpiece of the High Renaissance, is the visual counterpart to Pico’s Oration. A cornucopia of classically inspired figures holding an array of complex poses, the frescoes are a celebration of the beauty of creation and the unlimited potential of man.
In many ways, this work is the culmination of a long evolution in both art and humanist scholarship.
A Darker Mood Sets In
As Michelangelo grew older, however, this classically inspired view of art began to lose its hold in society. The peace in which the Renaissance had blossomed was giving way to a more turbulent period. Foreign invasions, the Protestant Reformation, and an emboldened Islam rocked Europe, prompting a palpably darker mood to set in.
In this environment, writings by Renaissance humanists extolling the virtues of beauty and Platonic love felt increasingly out of touch. Society was turning away from the material and toward more spiritual matters. Michelangelo, who always had a strong religious side to his personality, evolved with the times.
While he continued to paint nude figures, his art gradually evolved from a celebration of beauty to a meditation on spiritual themes.
Savonarola and Colonna: Michelangelo’s Spiritual Influences
The earliest evidence of Michelangelo’s religious sympathies stem from his early days in Florence. During an extended period following Lorenzo de’Medici’s death, Florence was under the sway of a Dominican friar named Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola preached a highly puritanical Christianity, encouraging regular “bonfires of the vanities” where Florentine citizens burned paintings, classical literature, and sculptures.
Though Savonarola was eventually brought to heal, he left a deep impression on Michelangelo. Years later, Michelangelo claimed he could still recall Savonarola’s living voice.
Michelangelo’s later religiosity, however, did not reach full maturity until much later when he met Vittoria Colonna in the mid 1530’s. Colonna was the unofficial leader of a group of bold theological thinkers who called themselves the Spirituali.
The Spirituali (which included a large number of clergy) expressed themselves through poetry, which though concerning spiritual themes was infused with the language of romance. This approach to religion held deep appeal to Michelangelo, who had long expressed himself through emotionally-charged poetry.
The Last Judgment – from the Material to the Spiritual
Colonna and the Spirituali had a deep influence on Michelangelo and appear to have brought out his old sympathies for the fiery sermons of Savonarola.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Last Judgment, a fresco covering the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. Like Michelangelo’s ceiling fresco, nude figures abound throughout the work holding a complex array of poses. However, these figures are no longer just an homage to the beauty of God’s creation. They offer a lesson regarding the rewards that await the faithful and the peril to those who go astray.
The Last Judgment is a stunning work, but unlike the ceiling above, it fell short of universal acclaim. Even as Michelangelo’s art thematically reflected the ethos of the day, his nude figures felt increasingly out of touch with the new more puritanical mood then setting in. Michelangelo justified the multitude of nude, muscular men (and for the first time, women) by suggesting that these were spiritual bodies and thus of superior beauty compared to their material counterparts.
It was, however, a losing argument. After his death, the artist Daniele da Volterra was commissioned to gracefully cover genitalia and other sensitive areas with drapery and cloth. For this, Volterra was given the enduring nickname “il Braghettone” (the breeches maker). Nevertheless, The Last Judgment shows that even as Michelangelo’s art evolved, his fascination with the human figure never wavered.
The Mannerist Era and Michelangelo’s Legacy
Following Michelangelo’s death, artists from throughout Italy conscientiously sought to imitate his style, perhaps taking literally Vasari’s statement that Michelangelo had been sent by God to light the way in the world of art. The effort to paint in the “manner” of Michelangelo gave rise to the term “Mannerism,” which defined the period following his death.
Taking Michelangelo as their exemplar, many Mannerist-era artists attempted to replicate his knack for creating dynamic muscular figures. Some would do better than others, but none could hope to truly match the authentic article, which grew out of the mastery and unique sense of beauty that belonged to Michelangelo alone.
In truth, few of Michelangelo’s immediate successors would develop anything approaching his level of fame. It would be another century before the Baroque movement would emerge, allowing art to finally move out of Michelangelo’s imposing shadow.
Looking at the accomplishments of Michelangelo, sculpture is a logical place to start. It was the medium through which Michelangelo first made a name for himself and the one in which he appears to have personally felt most comfortable. Michelangelo’s preferred material was of course marble. He spent years of his life up in high mountain quarries, looking for the perfect blocks. Once found, Michelangelo could work for a year or longer to complete a single piece.
He attributed his love of stone carving to his childhood at his family’s estate near Florence in the small town of Settignano. Here, he said he imbibed his love of stone together with his mother’s milk. Throughout his life, even well into old age, Michelangelo was always at work on at least one sculpture. Even his paintings are often described as sculptural, lingering on musculature and contours of the figure in the same manner as a sculptor.
Stone carving is a process of subtraction. As Michelangelo famously once stated, “the greatest artist has no single concept not already present within a block of marble.” Sculpting, therefore, was seeing the figure latent in the block and removing the superfluous material.
Vasari described the process by which Michelangelo made his sculptures. A carving is made into a hard material, like a block of wax, which is then submerged into a tank of water. The water is then slowly drained, revealing more and more of the figure. This, the artist uses as a guide as he carves the stone block. The process is well illustrated by Michelangelo’s series of “slaves.” These statues, in varied states of completion, show figures emerging from the stone as if from a bath.
Sculpting in this period was a long and tedious process. And it only took one misplaced strike or an unpredictable imperfection in the marble for an entire work to unravel (as happened to Michelangelo on multiple occasions). This, perhaps, makes Michelangelo’s sculptural achievements all the more impressive.
1. Battle of the Centaurs
On display at the Casa Buonarotti, Battle of the Centaurs was one of Michelangelo’s first sculptures and thus holds a prominent place in the artist’s legend. This work was carved around 1492 while Michelangelo was a member of the household of Lorenzo de’Medici. Carved from a block taken from one of Lorenzo’s building projects, the piece fully reflects the classicizing taste of the Medici milieu.
The subject of the work was suggested to Michelangelo by Angelo Poliziano, a giant among Renaissance humanist scholars and a frequent presence in Lorenzo’s household. Though the piece draws on elements from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, the primary narrative comes from Hygnisus’ Fabulae, which tells the story of a battle between Hercules and a group of unruly centaurs.
The piece is a powerful demonstration of Michelangelo’s precocious talent and foreshadows much of his later work. A low relief, it is a tangle of male nudes locked in heroic combat. The figures hold a complex variety of poses, skillfully depicted through expert use of foreshortening and depth.
The most prominent figure in the work is the image of Hercules, which emerges from the stone to such a degree that it is almost a complete statue in itself. Hercules is depicted holding a classic contrapposto pose, shifting his weight to the right and twisting toward the viewer. This pose was popular in classical antiquity as it suggested a moment caught mid-action. Many see in the image of Hercules a precursor to David.
Decades later when showing the piece to a friend, Michelangelo is said to have expressed regret that he had done anything other than carve marble.
This sculpture, on display in Florence’s Bargello, has long been the subject of controversy and debate. Completed in 1497, critics have long viewed Michelangelo’s Bacchus as a flawed creation, reflective perhaps of the artist’s immaturity.
Rejection began with the man who commissioned it, Cardinal Raffaelle Riario, who found it unsatisfying and passed it to a friend. Michelangelo received full payment for the piece but not the acclaim he had hoped for.
Opinion of the sculpture did not much improve over the intervening centuries. In 1820, the poet Percy Shelley wrote, “The countenance of this figure is the most revolting mistake of the spirit and meaning of Bacchus…. It wants unity as a work of art – as a representation of Bacchus, it wants everything.”
As Shelley’s comment suggests, the work was not disparaged for its craftsmanship, but rather the break with classical depictions of Bacchus. Bacchus, the God of Wine, was never depicted fully inebriated in the way that Michelangelo had done. Leaning backward with glass outstretched, one could easily imagine him about to lose his footing and falling over.
The degree to which Michelangelo managed to successfully create this effect is reflective of his talent for design. Throughout his career, he would seek not merely to copy the art of classical antiquity, but to build on and surpass it. Here, in this early work, he had striven to sculpt a piece that would secure his reputation as a master to rival any who had come before. Unfortunately, few appreciated this in an up-and-coming artist.
The rejection of the work stung Michelangelo. Decades later, Michelangelo was still bitter about Riario’s rejection, complaining through surrogates of the Cardinal’s poor taste. But though modern opinion of the work has improved, it still garners nowhere near the crowds of David or the Pietà.
Completed in 1499, the Pietà was Michelangelo’s breakout work. It established him in the opinion of his contemporaries as one of the greatest artists of his age. Thereafter, patrons clamored for any work by the hand of the gifted Florentine sculptor.
Michelangelo’s Pietà was commissioned by Cardinal Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas, the French Ambassador to the Holy See, who intended it as a funerary monument to himself. The Pietà (or pity) was a common subject in art of the period, though more so in Northern Europe than in Italy. At the core of this subject is the Virgin Mary embracing the corpse of her son, Jesus Christ.
Much of the power of Michelangelo’s Pietà lies in its intensely realistic depiction of Christ’s body. Many have commented on the naturalism in Christ’s right arm, which hangs limply at his side, veins and intricate musculature all skillfully depicted. Also notable is how the skin and muscle subtly give way under the pressure from Mary’s hand, which supports the body in a caring embrace.
There is profound sense of pathos in the piece: the flaccid body, still in the mother’s embrace; the quiet sorrow in Mary’s expression and demeanor; Christ’s head lying limply, eyes closed and silent. This piece is very much the fruit of Michelangelo’s anatomical studies and dissections. It speaks to his gift for communicating emotion through graphic anatomy.
Also evident is Michelangelo’s love of classical art. Many of Michelangelo’s contemporaries criticized the youthful depiction of Mary. Michelangelo later explained that he depicted her this way to reflect her superior virtue, which allowed her to maintain a youthful complexion well into advanced age. Others, however, see echoes of classical sculptures. Mary, like the goddesses of Greece and Rome, enjoyed a divinity which preserved her youth.
Another classical element is the Latin inscription on the sash across the Virgin Mary’s chest. It reads: MICHÆLANGELVS BONAROTVS FLORENTINVS FACIEBAT, or “Michelangelo Buonarroti, the Florentine was making this.” The peculiar grammatical structure “was making this” is a reference to the ancient Greek artist Apelles, who is said to have maintained that to an artist, a work was always in progress, never perfected and thus never complete.
This sash is the only signature Michelangelo is known to have left on a work. Years later, Michelangelo claimed that he did this after overhearing a group of men from Milan claim that the statue was carved by an artist from their city named Gobbo. Infuriated, Michelangelo took his chisels to St. Peter’s later that night and carved the above noted inscription – or so the story goes. This account has long been regarded as apocryphal, but it is interesting that Michelangelo found it necessary to concoct an excuse for the mild vanity of having signed his work.
For hundreds of years following its completion, art lovers have admired the sculpture, which survived all manner of movements, war, and even a transatlantic crossing in 1964. Luck, however, ran out in 1972, when a man convinced he was the risen Christ attacked the piece with a hammer. He was eventually wrestled to the ground, but not before removing one of Mary’s arms and a large portion of her face.
Perhaps even more shocking, onlookers scrambled to grab pieces of the removed marble. While some was later returned, much was lost (including Mary’s nose). This greatly complicated the reconstruction efforts, which used marble taken from the back of the sculpture to refashion replacements. Though the form was restored, the varying shades of the marble clearly indicate which portions are later additions.
Between this, the glass barrier that now protects the piece, and the sharp overhead lights, the piece loses some of the magic it must have had when it was in situ. Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine St. Peter’s (or the Vatican for that matter) without it.
If the Pietà established Michelangelo as one of the greatest artists in Italy, his next major sculpture – David– established him as one of the greatest artists of all time.
After completing the Pieta’ in Rome, Michelangelo received word that back in Florence, the Duomo’s Office of Works was soon to give away a gigantic piece of marble that had been sitting in its courtyard for almost 40 years. Michelangelo, who reportedly had long sought the block for himself, rushed back to Florence to secure it.
Michelangelo was not the only artist to seek the marble. Other notable artists of the day, including Leonardo da Vinci, were trying to obtain it as well. Michelangelo, however, offered to do something no other artist could – make a whole figure from just the single block.
This appealed to the Duomo authorities, as it held true to the classical principle of sculpting a figure from a single stone. This was a challenge, as the original artist (Agostino di Cuccio) had already knocked large chunks out of the block, including a large hole between its legs. This made the stone lighter, and thus easier to transport from the high mountain quarries, but also made it extremely difficult to depart from Agostino’s original design without adding additional pieces of marble.
Michelangelo proposed to overcome this challenge by sculpting David naked, just as the Greeks and Romans had done in their sculptures centuries before. Of course, he was not the first artist to envision David this way. Donatello had famously made a nude bronze sculpture of David sixty years earlier. Unlike that piece, however, Michelangelo’s David was to be much larger and displayed openly in public.
Impressed with his ambition, the block was given over to Michelangelo to do what he willed with it. With the commission secured, Michelangelo started work in September 1501 and by the summer of 1503, the piece was largely finished (a rapid pace by standards of the day).
Upon completion, David was immediately regarded as a masterpiece. The easy contrapposto pose, confident expression, and striking nudity left just as profound an impression on Renaissance era viewers as it does on modern. The work is so well composed that one scarcely notices that David’s hands and head are far out of proportion in size to the rest of his body. Michelangelo had reached a point where he could manipulate the anatomy of his figures so adroitly that we don’t think twice about the artistic distortions.
As the scale of Michelangelo’s achievement became clear, the Office of Works and the Florentine government itself began to reconsider the original idea of placing it high up on the façade of the Duomo. To identify a better location, a committee of notable Florentine artists was convened. This committee’s membership was a who’s who of Renaissance-era artists, including such notables as Botticelli, Perugino, Filippino Lippi, and Leonardo da Vinci.
After a great deal of back and forth, the committee decided to place it near the entrance to Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of Florentine power. Michelangelo’s statue was no longer just a work of pious devotion, it was now also a charged patriotic symbol.
David’s nakedness, however, was a bit too shocking for most. With the support of Leonardo and others, David was given a fig leaf to cover his genitalia.
With this, the committee’s work was concluded, and the statue was at last moved to its assigned posting in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. Thereafter, it became subject to the forces of politics and history.
Shortly after its installation, it was pelted with stones by a group of youths, who supposedly saw it as an affront to the (then exiled) Medici. In 1527, David’s left arm was broken by rocks thrown from the top of the Palazzo Vecchio during a failed coup. The pieces of the arm were said to have been recovered by a young Giorgio Vasari, who rushed out to collect them amidst the tumult.
In 1873, the statue was moved indoors to its present location at the Galleria dell’Accademia to protect it from the elements. There it remains today, where every year around one and a half million people travel to catch a glimpse of what is probably the most famous statue in the world.
5. Slaves – Dying Slave, Rebellious Slave, Bearded Slave, and others….
Michelangelo’s slaves were created to adorn the tomb of Pope Julius II, a project which stretched out over decades and caused the artist endless amounts of stress and worry. Julius – who had sought to make the Papal states into a new Roman Empire – had asked Michelangelo for a monumental tomb. It was to be a free-standing structure, with over 40 full-size statues, bronze reliefs, and all manner of architectural ornamentation.
Naturally, Michelangelo never came close to completing anything approaching this original vision. He did, however, complete several of the statues. Among the most notable were the “slaves,” which were meant to symbolize the liberal arts, now in bondage following their great patron’s death.
The two most famous sculptures of the series are the Dying Slave and the Rebellious Slave. These pieces, both now in the Louvre, were completed between 1513 and 1516.
Of all of Michelangelo’s nudes, in painting or sculpture, these pieces are certainly the most sensual. This is especially true of the Dying Slave, a work which seems to embody spiritual ecstasy. Its eyes closed, the sculpture suggests complete transcendence of self and physicality. The Rebellious Slave similarly ripples with latent energy. Its muscles tensed, the sculpture heaves toward the viewer, its fetters containing it like a compressed spring.
The other four remaining slaves in the series were sculpted in the latter half of the 1520’s. They now sit in the Galleria dell’Accademia together with David. The most complete of the four is often referred to as the Bearded Slave. A lumbering figure, the sculpture also seems to be thrusting against an invisible opposing force.
The other works remain in a state even less complete. As Vasari notes, their condition offers insights into Michelangelo’s method of sculpting. As works in progress, they appear to emerge from their stone as if in a bath with the water slowly draining. One can imagine the Pietà or even David once similarly emerging from their marble encasings.
Carved around the same time as the Dying Slave and Rebellious Slave (c. 1513-1516), Michelangelo’s Moses was also made for the tomb of Pope Julius II. It wasn’t, however, installed on the tomb until 1545, three decades after its completion. By that time, the original design for a triumphal free-standing monument to the former Pope had been reduced to a much more manageable wall tomb (now located in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli).
The sculpture of Moses has fascinated viewers for centuries. Among the many people who have admired it over the years was Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, who saw in the sculpture a picture of determined restraint.
In Freud’s analysis, Moses – having descended from Mount Sinai – has just discovered that the Israelites had returned to their worship of false idols. He looks upon them with scorn, angered over their lapse in faith. However, rather than inflicting punishment, Moses chooses to sit. According to Freud, this suggests he has chosen to prioritize the protection and propagation of the commandments recorded on the tablets he clutches in his muscular arms. Mercy thus prevails over wrath.
Others see it differently from Freud. Another view is that Moses is actually on the verge of rising, perhaps to inflict the righteous wrath Freud judged he had turned away from. In fairness, this would be more in keeping with the famously hot temper of the man the tomb was meant to memorialize.
Regardless, the subtle complexity inherent in the figure of Moses is the primary reason this tomb is regarded as the most spectacular of the age, even if it is a far smaller version of what had originally been envisioned.
7. Times of Day – Night, Day, Dawn, and Dusk
Julius II was not the only Pope to request a tomb from Michelangelo. In 1519, Pope Leo X (born Giovanni de’Medici) requested Michelangelo build one as well. This one, however, was not for himself.
The preceding years had been tough for Leo’s family – the famed Medici. Leo’s brother, Giuliano de’Medici, and nephew, Lorenzo II de’Medici, had died unexpectedly and without heirs. This left only two male members of the senior Medici line – Leo himself and his cousin, Cardinal Giulio de’Medici (later Pope Clement VII). As both were priests, the line appeared in serious doubt.
In this somber mood, the Pope turned to Michelangelo to build a tomb for the two recently departed younger Medici as well as his father (Lorenzo the Magnificent) and uncle (another Giuliano de’Medici).
Michelangelo did so, designing wall tombs for the honored dead and a chapel to house them. To adorn the wall tombs, Michelangelo sculpted some of his best-known works, the allegories Night, Day, Dawn, and Dusk.
Michelangelo explained the symbolism of these sculptures in a poem:
“The Day and the Night speak thus: We, in our swift course, have brought Duke Giuliano to his death….. In revenge… he has taken the light from us. With his closed eyes, he has closed ours, and we shall no longer look upon the earth.”
The subjects of Michelangelo’s poem, Night and Day, are the most famous of the four allegories. They sit on the tomb of the younger Giuliano de’Medici, also known as the Duke of Nemours.
Night has an oddly masculine body. She sits in an awkward twisting pose, her arm wedged against the outside of the opposite leg. Supporting herself against the sloping casket, she struggles to find rest.
Surrounding her is an array of symbols identifying her as night, including an owl underneath her legs, a pile of poppies beneath her feet, and a headdress with a star and the moon.
Across from her is the sculpture of Day, who twists back toward the tomb (contrasting with night, who turns away from it). The exceptionally muscular figure turns like a human corkscrew – hips, arms, shoulders, and neck are tensed and twisted to an impossible degree. Despite his strength, Day appears powerless and timid, as if hiding behind his own musculature.
Across from Day and Night are the sculptures of Dawn and Dusk, which adorn the tomb of the Duke of Urbino. Dawn cuts a more convincing feminine figure than her counterpart, Night. She appears to be slowly rising, more at ease than the figures across from her. Though her body lacks the tension of Night and Day, her face is a picture of anguish, presumably mourning the lost Duke.
Dusk appears similarly languid. This figure, of all the times of day, appears most at ease, perhaps reflecting the common association of dusk with death.
These four figures were meant to be accompanied by a panoply of other sculptures, including figures of river gods and representations of Heaven and Earth. Interrupted by war, revolution, and papal successions, Michelangelo never completed the remaining sculptures, nor even started the double tomb meant for Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother, Giuliano.
Michelangelo’s work on the tombs definitively concluded in 1534, when following the death of Pope Clement VII, he left Florence for good. By this time, he was deeply disenchanted with the Medici and no longer eager to build their monuments. From this time onward, his work would take on a more spiritual quality, losing in the process some of the sensuousness of his earlier career.
8. Rondanini Pietà
In later years, Michelangelo returned to the Pietà, making multiple attempts at it. The Rondanini Pietà (on display at the Sforza Castle in Milan) was his last. Michelangelo worked intermittently on the piece from the early 1550’s to his death in 1564.
Though celebrated, it’s unclear what the work meant to Michelangelo. Is it, as some suggest, a semi-abstract interpretation of the Pietà or was it just a block which Michelangelo worked at for the exercise?
The work is a significant departure from the muscular figures Michelangelo typically preferred. These figures are fragile, their elongated bodies curved like a dangling leaf. Perhaps this is meant to suggest the superiority of the spirit over the flesh. Or maybe it simply attests to the struggle Michelangelo faced in carving a figure at such an advanced age.
Regardless of what we make of it, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the work is that it demonstrates just how active Michelangelo was up to the very end of his life. Even in his 80’s (a miraculous age by the standards of the day), he was still at work on this block, still striving to perfect the scene he had first carved six decades earlier.
Aside from sculpting and painting, Michelangelo was also an accomplished draughtsman. In fact, he and other Florentine artists viewed drawing as the foundation of all art, be it painting, sculpture, or architecture. Throughout his life, Michelangelo repeatedly enjoined all of his apprentices to practice their drawing, so important a skill he thought it to be.
Unfortunately, only a fraction of Michelangelo’s own drawings survive into the present day; the artist himself having destroyed a great many of them. What does remain, however, shows how Michelangelo used drawing to clarify and develop stray thoughts into a coherent design. Be it a sculpture, a fresco, or a building, Michelangelo would first put his designs on paper. Draft after draft, he would think through his project, imagining it from all angles until his designs achieved the effect he desired. No surprise then that over his lifetime he became a gifted draughtsman; his drawings sought after by collectors and copied endlessly by students.
Michelangelo, of course, was not the only Renaissance artist famed for his drawing. Artists of the period benefited from the rapid expansion of paper production, which caused prices to rapidly fall. As paper became less of a luxury, artists became more comfortable using it as a means to develop their abilities and work out ideas.
Over time, drawing became indelibly linked with art in Central Italy. To underscore this point, Vasari recounts an encounter between Michelangelo and the famed Venetian painter Titian. After admiring a painting by Titian, Michelangelo reportedly lamented how much richer Titian’s art (and by extension, the art of all Venetians) might be if he had learned “disegno,” or drawing. This, according to Vasari, was the single most important factor which made Florentine artists superior to Venetian.
9. Battle of Cascina
Michelangelo’s most famous drawing is perhaps the now lost Battle of Cascina, a cartoon he drew in 1504 in preparation for a fresco he was to paint in the Hall of the Great Council in the Palazzo Vecchio. Though Michelangelo would never paint the fresco, the completed cartoon was regarded as a masterpiece, its dynamic figures – according to some – even surpassing his later work in the Sistine Chapel.
The cartoon depicted one of Florence’s most celebrated victories – the Battle of Cascina. Fought in 1364 near the town of Cascina, the battle was a decisive victory for Florence over Pisa. As the historical records recount, the Pisans had attempted to ambush Florentine forces as they bathed in the river Arno. Though taken by surprise, the Florentine forces managed to rally and route the attackers.
The bathing Florentine soldiers presented Michelangelo a perfect opportunity to linger on his preferred subject, the nude male figure. We see in copies of the work how Michelangelo presented his soldiers as caught in a desperate situation as they struggled to dress and engage the attacking Pisans. It is a masterful example of Michelangelo’s unique style and ability to draw engaging figures in a variety of poses.
Vasari observed that copying these figures became a right of passage for Florentine artists. He even attributed the later fame of Raphael, Francesco Granacci, and Jacopo Sansovino to their experience studying this work.
The piece, unfortunately, fell victim to its own fame. After being put on display in the Great Upper Hall of the Medici palace, it was stolen and torn apart by a group of unscrupulous craftsman who took advantage of a brief moment in which it was left unguarded. Nothing of it today survives, except for copies by other artists and some preparatory drawings by Michelangelo. These copies, of course, fall short of what we see in Michelangelo’s own sketches. Nevertheless, they provide a tantalizing glimpse of what the cartoon (and the fresco) might have been.
10. The Fall of Phaeton
This picture was drawn around 1532 for Tommaso de’Cavalieri, a young Roman nobleman with whom Michelangelo enjoyed a passionate friendship. It depicts a scene from Greek mythology in which Phaeton, the son of the sun-god Helios, attempts to drive his father’s chariot on its daily journey through the celestial realm. Unable to control the chariot, Helios both singes the earth by steering it too close and freezes part of it by driving it too far away. To arrest the carnage created by Phaeton’s disastrous journey, Zeus strikes him down with a single bolt of lightning.
This is the moment depicted in Michelangelo’s drawing. This cartoon is like a waterfall of tumbling mass, weighty bodies twisting in freefall. At the top is Zeus, who winds up like a pitcher or a disc thrower. Beneath him is the stricken Phaeton and the tumbling horses, which awkwardly writhe as they fall through the air. At the bottom are Phaeton’s sisters, about to turn into black poplar trees to mourn his death.
Though a personal gift for Tommaso, word of the drawing quickly spread. Art lovers throughout Rome paid visits to the young Tommaso to view it. This included the Pope himself, who – perhaps inspired by this picture – would soon invite Michelangelo to paint The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel; another painting depicting bodies rising and falling.
11. The Punishment of Tityus
This was another of the pictures Michelangelo gifted to the young Tommaso de’Cavalieri. It depicts Tityus; a figure from Greek mythology who was chained to a rock for attempting to rape Leto, mother of Apollo and Artemis. While chained, a vulture would devour his liver, which would regrow again and again.
This picture depicts the male physique as only Michelangelo could conceive. Tityus, in his doomed struggle, ardently battles to break free of his shackles and the grasp of the giant bird. Eerie and haunting, the image of this doomed sinner is a powerful illustration of the consequences of lustful misdeeds.
Interestingly, once he finished this picture, Michelangelo turned the page over and retraced the figure of Tityus. This new figure he transformed into the image of the Risen Christ, thrusting upwards toward heaven. From a shackled figure doomed to eternal torture to Christ achieving freedom from death, in Michelangelo’s mind, a figure had an artistic potential which superseded the context in which it was created.
It is ironic that Michelangelo did not see himself as a painter for much of his early career, preferring sculpture instead. Even as late as 1509 when he was painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he wrote to his father complaining of the difficulties he faced in completing the work, attributing them to the fact that painting “is not my profession.”
Of course, Michelangelo was in fact a skilled painter, having trained under one of Florence’s greatest masters Domenico Ghirlandaio. Like Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo preferred to paint fresco, characterizing oil painting (the preferred medium of his rival Leonardo Da Vinci) as the method of leisurely and idle people.
Like sculpture, fresco painting allows for few mistakes. Once dried, the pigments bond with the plaster, forcing the artist to paint quickly. Short of removing the plaster, any further changes require painting on top of the fresco with oils.
The results, however, speak for themselves. Michelangelo’s frescos, particularly those in the Sistine Chapel, are regarded as his greatest masterpieces. These images, informed by his intensive study of anatomy and classical sculpture as well as a natural talent for design, set the tone in Italian art for generations to come.
12. Doni Tondo
The Doni Tondo, on display at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, was completed around 1507. It is the only complete panel painting from Michelangelo still extent today. Painted for a Florentine merchant, the piece depicts the Holy Family with a group of nudes and John the Baptist.
It is hard to look at this piece and not see a foretaste of what was to come with the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which Michelangelo began just a year after completing this work. The twisting poses, the oddly muscular child and Madonna, the sharp lines, and the brightly colored clothing are all elements that would appear again and again in Michelangelo’s painting.
Many have commented on the consistency of Michelangelo’s style across artistic media. Here, we see his interest again in classical nudes, several of which recline in the background (to Michelangelo, it did not feel discordant to include such elements in a religious work). The twisting poses and muscular Holy Family also feel as if Michelangelo were recreating in painting what he had done in sculpture.
Notable also is the sparse attention paid to the landscape. The human figure was Michelangelo’s abiding interest, even in this early stage of his career.
13. Sistine Chapel Ceiling
Michelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are often regarded as the greatest work of the High Renaissance. Vasari famously called them, “the lamp of our art,” noting that when the piece was unveiled, “the whole world could be heard running to it.” Over five centuries later, people are still running.
Started in April 1508, the piece took Michelangelo four and a half years to complete. The project began as a repair job. Structural issues within the Sistine Chapel had caused the vaulted ceiling to crack. Chains had to be installed to reinforce the structure. Between the crack and the damage caused by the installation of the chains, the ceiling decorations were completely ruined.
The Sistine Chapel was at the time the ceremonial center of the Church. Repairing it was a priority for Pope Julius and the Roman Curia. With a temporary lull in Michelangelo’s other work, the Pope commissioned him to undertake the redecoration of the ceiling.
According to Vasari, Michelangelo initially resisted, protesting that painting was not his profession. Michelangelo’s experience with fresco at the time was limited. To take on the irregularly shaped ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, with its shallow vault and lunettes, was not an ideal project for a sculptor. The Pope, however, would not be denied. Fearful of Julius’ temperament, Michelangelo began work.
It was to be a simple commission initially. The Pope asked for a traditional design much in the mold of the earlier ceiling – twelve apostles placed around the lunettes against a blue background with stars. As so often happened with Michelangelo, however, once engaged in a project, he couldn’t help but propose a more ambitious work.
The design Michelangelo settled upon was a complex series of images depicting at its center the biblical narrative running from the Creation to Moses. Surrounding these scenes were to be images of semi-nude male youths (the ignudi), bronze statues, and classical columns. Beneath this and around the lunettes would be sibyls and prophets, as well as the ancestors of Christ. It was to be an epic undertaking, far exceeding the scale of what had initially been commissioned.
Pope Julius agreed to the embellished design, but it wasn’t long before Michelangelo ran into difficulties. He faced challenges with mold growth, difficulty with collaborators, and Papal payments for the work were not always forthcoming. Between this and the heroic physical exertion required to paint the awkwardly angled frescoes while lying high up on his scaffolding (also of his own design), Michelangelo’s nerves were understandably frayed.
In letters to his father, Michelangelo complained of these challenges, attributing them to the fact that painting “is not my profession.” Filled with growing doubts, Michelangelo went back to the Pope, asking to be excused from the project. Julius, however, would not let him quit.
Over time, the brilliance of Michelangelo’s work became clear. The crushing anxiety that he had first experienced gave way to a growing boldness. He worked faster, leaving visible brush strokes in the central murals. His figures also became larger; the composition less cluttered and more forceful.
Anticipation for the work to be completed grew. The Pope demanded Michelangelo finish the work quickly. Michelangelo countered that it would be ready when it was ready. Not to be outdone, the Pope inquired how Michelangelo would like to be thrown from his scaffolding.
In the end, Julius lived just long enough to see the finished work, dying only four months after the chapel was reopened. His early patronage of Michelangelo is arguably the most enduring legacy of his Papacy. One can only imagine his sentiment when first seeing the completed ceiling that he had commissioned.
The work is a phantasmagoria of biblical scenes, classical nudes, and trompe-l’oeil. Michelangelo’s protestations that painting was not his art is belied by the expert foreshortening and architectural illusions across the oddly shaped vault.
To really appreciate the Sistine Chapel ceiling, you have to attempt to forget the many times you’ve seen these images on billboards or television commercials.
Look at the central image of God creating Adam – the forward momentum of the Father against the reclining and yielding image of Adam. See how the gestures are paralleled by Adam and Eve reaching for the fruit in the next panel. Notice how many of the ignudi are grouped in similar mirrored pairs – some pushing and others pulling. Admire the epic sybils and prophets between the lunettes. These are among Michelangelo’s most beloved figures. Complex and elegant, they are like giants standing guard over the rest of the scenes of the ceiling.
To me, the most enduring image is that of God separating the light and darkness. This image, painted in a single day, would have been one of the final images Michelangelo completed. The metaphorical depiction of light and dark are like yin and yang. God pulls them apart like a martial arts master performing Taichi. This is Michelangelo at his most playful.
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is in many ways the artistic counterpart to the literary and philosophical humanist movement that thrived in Renaissance Italy. It recalls Marsilio Ficino, the elder philosopher patronized by Lorenzo de’Medici, who saw man’s inborn desire for beauty as a path to the divine. One also thinks of Pico Dello Mirandola, who theorized that God created Man solely to admire the beauty of His creation.
One can also see in the ceiling an ancient strain of Christian theology which saw in the incarnation a bridge between the physical and the divine. In the words of Saint Athanasius, “God became man, so that man might become God.” Think of these words the next time you find yourself looking up in the Sistine Chapel.
14. The Last Judgment
Decades after completing the frescoes on the ceiling, Michelangelo would again be called on to complete another commission in the Sistine Chapel – this one depicting the Last Judgment. Painted between 1536 and 1541, Michelangelo was by this time a changed artist. In the years since he had painted the ceiling, he had seen more than his fair share of war, death, famine, and plague. He had even come perilously close to losing his own life on more than one occasion.
Perhaps as consequence, the artist became more religious, delving into a new type of spirituality then taking root during the Counter-Reformation. Unlike the Renaissance humanism he had been steeped in during his youth, this new religious outlook was less concerned with the contemplation of beauty than on meditation on the Passion and suffering of Christ.
We see the influence of this sentiment at the top of The Last Judgment, with the symbols of the Passion (the cross, a pillar, and a crown of thorns) held aloft by angels. The saints hold similar objects reflective of their martyrdom; Saint Catherine holds a spiked wheel, Saint Sebastian a bunch of arrows, Saint Laurence a gridiron. Perhaps most shocking is the flayed skin of Saint Bartholomew – which is widely held to be a self-portrait of Michelangelo.
The rest of the painting is no less terrifying. With his right hand, Christ raises the delivered and with his left, he casts down the damned. Some of these latter souls are being cajoled off a boat by a squadron of grotesque demons; others are being forced downward by a small group of angels.
One particularly haunting image is the man below S. Bartholomew’s flayed skin. One hand to his face, he stares at the viewer with a look of intense anxiety as two demons gleefully pull him downward.
Unlike the Chapel ceiling, this whole work is done as one unframed painting. Gone are the classical pillars and architectural fixtures of the ceiling and the multi-scene narratives running along the walls. This is an unmediated glimpse into the totality of the anticipated last judgment.
Yet for all the fire and brimstone of the painting, Michelangelo couldn’t help being Michelangelo. The painting is a mass of bodies all tumbling or rising during a moment in which the normal laws of physics have been suspended. The bodies of both the saved and damned are as muscular as Michelangelo ever painted. They remain nude, displaying the splendor of their resurrected flesh. Several kiss (including two men locked in a passionate embrace), lost in the ecstasy of the moment.
Presiding over it all is Christ, which many have noted bears an uncanny resemblance to the Apollo Belvedere, one of the most famous classical sculptures to be recovered during the Renaissance.
Like the Sistine Chapel ceiling, The Last Judgment extracted a toll on Michelangelo. Despite covering only around a third of the total area of the ceiling frescoes, The Last Judgment took about the same length of time to paint. This was likely in part due to Michelangelo’s advanced age, but also perhaps the need to conceive and paint a vast number of figures across the unbroken scene.
It certainly also didn’t help that at one point Michelangelo fell from his scaffolding, grievously injuring his leg. According to Vasari, Michelangelo was so angry and in pain that he refused to be treated, forcing the doctor sent to see him to break into his home.
The painting was completed not long after Michelangelo’s leg finally healed. While many greeted the completed work rapturously (including Pope Paul III), it did not receive the universal acclaim the ceiling had. Many objected to the nudity and uncovered genitalia. Others protested the depictions of men kissing.
Perhaps the work’s most famous critic was the Papal Master of Ceremonies Biagio da Cesena. When asked his opinion of the work by the Pope, Cesena said it was disgraceful that a piece more appropriate to a bathhouse should decorate the most sacred chapel in Christendom. According to Vasari, after Biagio departed the Chapel, Michelangelo painted his likeness from memory on the demon Minos, who is shown entwined with a snake (the head of which is locked on the demon’s genitals).
Biagio, however, was not alone in his critical opinion. Culture in Europe had taken a puritanical shift following the Protestant Reformation. Michelangelo’s classically inspired nude figures increasingly felt out of step with this new ethos. After Michelangelo’s death, the painter Daniele da Volterra was hired to cover the genitalia with artful fig leaves and garments. Though he reportedly added the bare minimum required, he was thereafter known by the moniker “Il Braghettone,” or “the breeches maker.”
With the Last Judgment, Michelangelo’s career had come full circle. This was not his last work of art, but in the eyes of many, it was his last masterpiece. When finished, the artist was 66 years old. Though he would live another 22 years, he increasingly turned his attention to other pursuits, namely architecture and poetry.
15. Pauline Chapel
As Michelangelo labored away at The Last Judgment, Pope Paul III was already conceiving a new commission for the artist – a series of frescoes in the recently completed Pauline Chapel.
This was a personal project for Paul, who had ordered the construction of the chapel in honor of his namesake saint. As such, he would settle for no less than Michelangelo to paint it.
Michelangelo initially resisted. He was an old man now and eager to get on with the tomb of Pope Julius (a project that had lingered for decades and been the source of endless anxiety).
But as with Julius, Paul III was not an easy man to say no to. Thus in 1542, Michelangelo began to paint the Conversion of St. Paul on one of the walls of the chapel. It is a peculiar work. The figures, though in keeping with Michelangelo’s earlier muscular creations, lack their grace. Jesus flies through the midday sky like a super hero, blasting the non-believers with what appears to be a bolt of lightning. The soldiers, Paul among them, tumble and cower at the overwhelming force.
Around Jesus is a more playful clutch of angels. Many of them nude, they float with more of the divine grace of Michelangelo’s earlier works. Perhaps it was this contrast – the clumsy non-believers and the graceful angels – that Michelangelo sought to highlight.
By 1546, Michelangelo was on to the second fresco, The Crucifixion of St. Peter. Many have noted that the crowded composition and heavy figures of this fresco lack the polish of Michelangelo’s earlier works.
There are, however, two elements of the piece which add complexity and elevate it. The first is the stern stare from St. Peter. Fixed firmly at the viewer, it feels almost like a challenge from this soon to be martyred man of God. The second is the brooding bearded soldier on the bottom right. His powerful physique appears at odds with his hunched over posture and folded arms. He turns away from the unfolding scene behind him, perhaps frustrated with his inability to influence the course of events.
These frescoes would be Michelangelo’s last. They secured another decade worth of work for him at the Vatican, but the physicality of fresco painting was becoming more of a challenge. With his eyesight and painting ability in decline, the artist may have felt it was past time to try other pursuits.
Michelangelo’s architectural legacy doesn’t quite loom as large as his reputation in sculpture or painting. He was, however, very successful in the field.
Michelangelo approached architecture in much the same way he had done with other arts. He first strove to learn from classical precedent, which in 16th century Italy meant reading Vitruvius and studying extant Roman buildings. From this foundation, Michelangelo began to develop his own artistic style, breaking with classical precedent whenever his artistic instinct suggested a better approach.
Often, this instinct derived from his knowledge of the human figure. Though not many would link the human figure with architecture, Michelangelo felt good design (regardless of the field) always mirrored the inner tension and harmony within the human body.
In the last decades of his life, Michelangelo focused almost exclusively on architecture, directing armies of workers to build some of Rome’s greatest landmarks. Many of these structures remain standing today just as Michelangelo originally conceived them.
16. The Medici Chapel
It was the Medici Pope Leo X (born Giovanni de’Medici) and his cousin, Cardinal Giulio de’Medici, who first brought Michelangelo into architecture. The two had conceived of a grand façade for Florence’s Basilica of San Lorenzo, a church long associated with their family. Though Michelangelo had no formal training or experience in architecture, they decided to commission him to design and build it.
Michelangelo would spend years high up in the mountains overseeing the quarrying of marble for the façade. However, as Papal finances ran dry, the project was eventually cancelled. To compensate Michelangelo for the fruitless effort, they commissioned another project – the New Sacristy, often referred to as the Medici Chapel.
The New Sacristy was built to hold the remains of the Pope’s recently deceased relatives, including his father (Lorenzo the Magnificent), uncle (Giuliano), brother (another Giuliano), and nephew (another Lorenzo).
Michelangelo, fresh off the disappointment over the cancelled façade project, began making designs for the New Sacristy in 1519. He modeled the structure on Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy (which holds the remains of earlier Medici ancestors) on the opposite side of San Lorenzo. Taking the geometric elegance of Brunelleschi’s design, Michelangelo added significant embellishment, creating a cleaner and more modern feel.
The highlight of the New Sacristy is the two marble wall tombs of the younger Medici. On these tombs are some of Michelangelo’s most famous works; his sculptural allegories for the times of day – Night, Day, Dawn, and Dusk – which are described in more detail above.
These tombs are framed by pilasters carved with stately grey-green pietra serena, among the highest quality sandstone quarried around Florence. The same material is also used in the window frames and molding, the latter of which accentuates the geometric harmony of the chapel’s arches and dome.
All of this is set against a plain, white-washed wall which highlights the beauty of the dark sandstone and lustrous marble. It is the work of a man who appreciates the materiality of stone in a way that perhaps only a great sculptor can.
As beautiful as the chapel is, Michelangelo’s grand design was never fully realized. Interrupted by rebellion and warfare, the chapel was only brought to its present state in 1559 under the direction of the famed artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari.
Among the most notable items Michelangelo left uncompleted were four additional sculptures depicting river gods, which he intended to place beneath the times of day. Further allegories representing heaven and earth were also intended for some of the upper niches of the wall tombs.
The biggest omission, however, is the never-completed double-wall tomb he had intended to have built for Lorenzo the Magnificent and his brother, Giuliano. In its absence, the remains of these two were interred beneath the statue of the Madonna opposite the altar. Thus, ironically, the two most prominent tombs in the chapel are for the two relatively insignificant younger Medici.
17. Laurentian Library
In 1524, Pope Clement VII (formerly Cardinal Giulio de’Medici) decided to push forward with a long-held Medici ambition – the construction of a library to house the family’s extensive book collection. Clement decided that this new library should be built within the San Lorenzo complex, which as with the New Sacristy and the abandoned façade, was chosen for its association with the Medici.
Naturally, he asked Michelangelo to undertake the project. Despite having his hands full with other ongoing commissions, Michelangelo agreed.
As with the Sacristy, progress was slow and interrupted for long periods by warfare and rebellion. Though Michelangelo worked on the library off and on until his permanent departure from Florence in 1534, he was only able to make significant progress on the reading room. He did, however, leave sufficient notes and sketches that others were able to carry on his work.
As with the Medici Chapel, Vasari would again play a key role in bringing the library to completion. A close friend of Michelangelo’s, Vasari was able to directly consult with the artist and obtain instructions to fill in the gaps left by Michelangelo’s notes.
In 1571, seven years after Michelangelo’s death, the library was finally opened. It consists of two rooms – the vestibule and the reading room. A third triangular room to hold rare manuscripts was never built.
The vestibule is among Michelangelo’s most famous architectural legacies. Only about ten square meters, Michelangelo packed the walls with volutes, columns, and heavy window frames. Spilling out into the room itself is a staircase of oval-shaped steps. These rise to a richly decorated door frame, which is crowned with a protruding triangular ornament and framed by pairs of columns.
The reading room is also richly adorned with pilasters and heavy door frames. Michelangelo carefully designed it so that it would be fully illuminated by natural light – an idea which Pope Clement lamented would require two full time cleaners.
Also notable is the furniture, which melds together compact benches with desks. These were considered integral parts of the structure by both Michelangelo and the Pope, who insisted that they be made from walnut so that they would last.
The Laurentian Library was Michelangelo’s first entirely architectural work. There were no sculptures for Michelangelo to carve or frescoes for him to paint. It is a pure expression of his architectural tastes and established themes that would be seen again and again in his later designs.
18. Piazza del Campidoglio
The Capitoline Hill (or Campidoglio in Italian) is one of Rome’s famous seven hills and the ancient heart of the city. Overlooking the forum, it was once the site of a massive temple to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, king of the Roman pantheon. By the time of the Renaissance, however, it had become known as the “Colle Caprino,” or goat hill due to its rustic feel.
Despite this, the Campidoglio remained the seat of Rome’s municipal government and as Rome grew, pressure to develop the hill increased. When on a visit to the city, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was unable to climb its muddy slopes, Pope Paul III decided it was finally time the hill be spruced up. Naturally, he called on Michelangelo, his favorite architect, for a design.
On the top of the hill were two existing buildings, the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Palazzo Senatorio, set at an odd eighty-degree angle. To add balance, Michelangelo designed a third building to be placed opposite the Palazzo dei Conservatori. This reoriented the square so that it opens towards St Peters, offering spectacular views over the city center. He also designed a new façade for the Palazzo dei Conservatori, which was mirrored in the palace facing it.
To the Palazzo Senatorio, Michelangelo added a grand double staircase, centering the building around the square. In front of the staircase is a small fountain flanked by river gods representing the Tiber and Nile. Over the center of the fountain is a statue representing the Goddess of Rome, a nod to the square’s civic function.
Most impressive, however, is what Michelangelo did with the square itself. At its center, he put the famous bronze statue of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, which had been sited outside the Archbasilica of San Giovanni in Laterano. Mistakenly believed to have been of Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome, the statue survived the fate which had befallen many of Rome’s other imperial monuments.
Fanning outward from the statue is a 12-pointed star, the points of which merge with interlocking semi-circles. These wash over the square like waves at low tide, breaking at the edges of an oval bounded by the square’s structures. The northwestern tip of the oval opens onto a grand staircase, which begins at the bottom of the hill. There is a subtle taper to the staircase, which gradually opens as one ascends toward the piazza. Never again would a monarch struggle up the muddy slopes of the Campidoglio.
The piazza and its architectural ensemble are a fitting crown to an ascendent city eager to reclaim its historical legacy as Caput Mundi – head of the world.
19. Basilica of Santa Maria Degli Angeli
One of Michelangelo’s most interesting architectural projects was turning one of ancient Rome’s most famous architectural marvels – the Baths of Diocletian – into one of the city’s most unique churches.
Baths occupied a central place in ancient Roman society. It was a location for socializing, engaging in sports, reading, dining, and a host of other activities. The Baths of Diocletian were the largest of the imperial baths built in Rome and must have been especially majestic when in use.
The decision to turn an icon of pagan civilization into a church was a bold move by Pope Pius IV. Understanding the scale of the task, he asked none other than Michelangelo (then 88 years old) to make the designs.
Even in the 16th century, the baths were a vast complex of structures. Creating a church out of its ruins was no easy task. In achieving it, Michelangelo identified a series of halls whose layout approximated the main areas of a church. He turned the bath’s monumental central hall into an oversized transept, a series of halls extending from the tepidarium (a warm water pool) into the nave, and had a new vaulted structure built to make the choir.
The result is a fusion of Renaissance and classical architecture. Massive columns and ornate entablature loom over altars and Christian-themed paintings. It combines the overpowering awe of the imperial baths with the solemnity of a church. Over a millennia after its permanent closure, Michelangelo gave the building new life, preserving the grandeur of ancient Rome for centuries to come.
As if to emphasize its ancient legacy, little work was done on the façade. The exterior today has the same exposed red bricks seen in the many other ancient Roman ruins that dot the city. Only a cross and a marble inscription over the entrance offer any clue to what lies inside.
20. St Peter’s Basilica
St Peter’s Basilica is regarded by many as the greatest architectural achievement of the Renaissance. It’s soaring interior, bold façade, and massive dome have for centuries stood as symbols of the grandeur and power of the Catholic Church. Though the Basilica (which took 120 years to build) had many architects, few left as deep a mark on the structure as Michelangelo, who spent the last decades of his life engrossed with the project.
Construction of the new St Peter’s began in 1506 under Pope Julius II. Julius decided that the time had come to build a new Basilica to replace the old one, which had been erected at the order of Emperor Constantine over a thousand years before. The Old Basilica was itself a massive structure (over 100 meters long) but had gradually fallen into disrepair, particular during the several decades of the 14th century when the Curia resided in Avignon.
In 1505, Julius held a competition for a new design. The winner was the famed architect Donato Bramante. Bramante’s design was in keeping with Renaissance era enthusiasm for classical architecture. At its heart was a square structure built around a Greek Cross and capped by a dome modeled after the Pantheon’s. It was, in Michelangelo’s words, luminous. Unfortunately, following Bramante’s death in 1514, the structure underwent multiple redesigns, losing the architectural clarity of Bramante’s original vision.
These revisions culminated in a scheme devised by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, the last architect to work on St Peter’s before Michelangelo. Sangallo sought to rework St Peters into a form occasionally compared to a tiered wedding cake. It was to be a massive structure. So large, in fact, that Michelangelo claimed it would have required the destruction of the Sistine Chapel had it been carried to completion.
In some ways, Sangallo’s design was a throwback to an earlier era. It abandoned the Renaissance love of monumental classical architecture in favor of a much more intricate design, similar in some ways to the Gothic cathedrals of northern Europe.
Following Sangallo’s death in 1546, Michelangelo was appointed the new chief architect. He was a logical choice for the post. He had already proven himself an able architect through his work at San Lorenzo and had won the Pope’s full confidence with his recent completion of The Last Judgment.
Though Michelangelo initially protested the assignment, once committed, he couldn’t help but to throw himself into the work. He began by ditching much of Sangallo’s design, which in his view was overly complex, dark, and lacking tension.
To correct this, he returned to Bramante’s original conception of the Basilica, restoring the Greek Cross design capped by a large dome surrounded by four smaller domes. He also reduced the size of the structure and added substantial bulk to the walls and crossing piers (which supported the dome), believing Bramante’s designs to be structurally unsound.
Controversially, this required demolition of key sections of the Basilica built under Sangallo, a move vociferously opposed by many of the late architect’s supporters. However, by reducing the size of the structure and strengthening its supports, Michelangelo made it a far more manageable project.
Even with the redesign, however, work was not straightforward. In 1557, construction ground to a halt when it was discovered that the vaulting over the King of France chapel was off center. This required significant demolition and rebuilding in order to fix. This error hit Michelangelo hard. He later wrote to Vasari that “if one could die of shame and grief, I should not be alive.”
Other challenges came from his supposed collaborators, the committee of Deputies, which was tasked with funding and overseeing the project. The Deputies routinely clashed with Michelangelo over his departure from Sangallo’s design. Michelangelo, characteristically, responded by shutting them out of his planning and thus further fueling the conflict. These frequent clashes often required intervention by the Pope himself, who repeatedly reaffirmed Michelangelo’s authority over the design of the structure.
There were some problems, however, which could not be fixed by a few simple words from the Pope. This included the ebb and flow of Papal finances. In good times, work on the Basilica proceeded rapidly. However, when money was needed to support a new war, it would slow or even stop – sometimes for years.
Despite this and other stresses, Michelangelo remained committed to the project, even as temptation to abandon it mounted. Much of this temptation came from the new Medici duke of Florence, who in 1550 initiated a campaign to convince Michelangelo to return home to his native city. Emissary after emissary, including Vasari, relayed the Duke’s increasingly generous offers, which would have seen Michelangelo well taken care of in exchange for the artist’s occasional advice on new projects.
Michelangelo, however, declined insisting that he must stay in Rome until construction reached a point where it would no longer be possible to alter his design. To do otherwise, he claimed, “would leave a grievous sin upon my soul.”
He carried on this way until his death in 1564 at the age of 88. Following his death, successive architects remained true to his design, save one major alteration – the elongation of the eastern side of the church to make a small nave.
Aside from this, however, the Basilica is otherwise very much Michelangelo’s. The massive crossing piers holding up the dome stand like muscular giants, the architectural equivalent of Michelangelo’s Day. The bold undulating façade recalls the Laurentian Library. And the soaring dome, the structural culmination of the Basilica, is yet another example of Michelangelo pushing beyond classical precedent to create something new and reflective of his artistic instincts.
St Peters is a fitting capstone to Michelangelo’s legacy – one that embodies his artistic sensibilities and which he fervently believed would secure his salvation.
Sources and Further Reading
- For more information on the works of Michelangelo, see my separate posts on 1) The Battle of the Centaurs, 2)Bacchus, and 3) Night, Day, Dawn, and Dusk.
- Gayford, Martin. Michelangelo: His Epic Life. Penguin, 2013.
- Wallace, William. Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and His Times. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
- Vasari, Giorgio, 1511-1574. Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors & Architects
- Celenza, Christopher. The Intellectual World of the Italian Renaissance: Language, Philosophy, and the Search for Meaning. Cambridge University Press, 2017.