“Trifles make perfections, and perfection is no trifle,” Michelangelo once stated. He is one of the greatest artists of all time and is unmatched by any other. Michelangelo is the creator of works of sublime beauty that express the full breadth of human condition. Yet, he was caught between conflicting powers and whims of his patrons, the Medici’s of Florence and Papacy’s in Rome. Michelangelo was born on the sixth of March in 1475, the second of five brothers in a small town called Caprese, in Tuscany. He always considered himself to be a Florentine, as did his father.
Francesca Neri, his mother, was sick and frail. As a result, he stayed with a nurse in a family of stonecutters. It was there that Michelangelo decided he wanted to become an artist. When he turned thirteen, he agreed to apprentice in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio. After one year of learning the art of fresco, he went on to study at the sculpture school at the Medici gardens. They saw his talent and he was invited into the household of Lorenzo the Magnificent. During the years that he spent in the Garden of San Marco, Michelangelo began to study human anatomy.
He would perform autopsies on the corpses and study the muscles and bones in order to perfect his sculptures. In exchange for permission to study corpses at a church that administered a hospital, the prior received a wooden crucifix from Michelangelo. His contact with the dead bodies caused some problems with his health. By the time he was sixteen, Michelangelo had produced at least two relief sculptures, the Battle of the Centaurs and the Madonna of the Stairs. These showed that he achieved a personal style at a young age.
Michelangelo went to Rome, where he examined many classical statues and ruins that had been newly unearthed. In 1496, he produced his first large-scale sculpture, Bacchus. Following Bacchus, he did the marble Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica. The Pieta was probably one of the most famous works that he finished before he was twenty-five years old. It was said that after it was placed in St. Peter’s, Michelangelo heard a pilgrim say that another artist did the work from Lombard. In a fit of rage, he took a hammer and chisel and on the sash that runs across Mary’s breast inscribed “Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this”.
It was the only work that he ever signed. Michelangelo’s temper was proverbial, his character difficult, touchy, stubborn, and he often had difficulties in relations with others. After returning to Florence, Michelangelo produced the gigantic fourteen-foot marble David which he worked on for four years. The character of David and what he symbolizes can be described as his patriotic feelings at the time. Florence was going through a difficult period. Michelangelo used David as a model of courage, demonstrating that inner spiritual strength can be more effective than weapons.
While still working on the David, he was given an opportunity to demonstrate his ability as a painter during a commission of a mural, the Battle of Cascina. Michelangelo created a series of nude and clothed figures that are a prelude to his next project, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo always considered himself a sculptor and tried to turn down the commission, but in vain. Initially, he was to paint twelve figures of apostles and some decorations on the ceiling. Those however, he destroyed and in place decided to, with the pope’s permission, paint the story of the Old Testament which is currently present in the chapel.
Before the assignment of the Sistine ceiling, Michelangelo was commissioned by Julius II to produce his tomb, which was planned to be the most magnificent of Christian times. After putting it aside to work on the Sistine ceiling, Michelangelo returned and redesigned it on a more modest scale. The tomb was to include more than forty figures carved from marble. Michelangelo made some of his finest sculptures for the Julius Tomb, including the Moses, the Bound Slave, and the Dying Slave. Years later, while residing in Florence, Michelangelo undertook the commission of the Medici Tombs.
In the designing of the tomb, he wanted no accessory forms, only statues which would express the thoughts of his soul. He renounced Christian traditions and named the statues Dawn, Dusk, Day, and Night. Shortly before Pope Clement VII’s death, the pope commissioned Michelangelo for an enormous fresco, the Last Judgment. All that happened in the church in the years that preceded the painting of the Last Judgment had a direct influence on the work’s conception. The Last Judgment, painted on the altar wall, represented humanity face to face with salvation.
Michelangelo’s crowning achievement as an architect was his work at St. Peter’s Basilica, where he was named chief architect in 1546. As he grew old, Michelangelo wished more and more to be alone. He needed solitude and silence was a blessing to him and night his friend. Michelangelo Buonarroti died on February 18, 1564. Michelangelo was acclaimed by his contemporaries who acknowledge him as the greatest artist of all time. He greatly influenced the art of his century and was admired without reserve by some and hated by others, and honored by popes, emperors, princes, and poets.