Michelangelo Buonarroti was born in 1475. He was born in a small town
called Caprese, in Tuscany, Italy. Michelangelo was one of the most famous
artists of the Italian Renaissance. According to Charles de Tolnay
Michelangelo’s three greatest works of his later life, were the Tomb of Pope
Julius II, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and the Medici Chapel(37).
Michelangelo’s specialty was painting the human body unclothed. In
order to learn to paint the human body so well he would dissect human corpses.
His artistic talents were noticed at a very early age. Michelangelo went to
study with Domenico Ghirlandago, who taught him about painting. He then went on
to work with Donatello to learn about sculpture. Between the years of 1490-1492
Michelangelo lived in the house of Lorenzo de’ Medici and was influenced by
Neoplatonic thought. Some of Michelangelo’s early painting showed the influence
of Giotto and Masaccio. Also many of his early sculptures show the influence of
Donatello(Columbia University Press) .
Michelangelo’s artistic career can be divided into two periods. In the
early period he focused on realism. During this early period Michelangelo’s
works included the Pieta and the David. At the age of 24 he completed a
statue called the Pieta, showing the dead Jesus Christ in his mother’s arms.
In 1501 Michelangelo returned to Florence, Italy to sculpt the famous nude
sculpture called the David. The David measures 18 feet tall, and is so
massive that it took 40 men to move it from Michelangelo’s workshop(World Book
The second period of Michelangelo’s career was based upon his
imagination. In 1505 Michelangelo was summoned by Pope Julius II to fabricate
his tomb. Michelangelo was so excited about making the tomb for the Pope that
he spent many months looking for the perfect piece of marble to make the tomb.
A short time after starting the tomb Pope Julius II selected Michelangelo to
decorate the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
The Sistine Chapel is in the palace of The Vatican in Rome. The Sistine
Chapel was built by Pope Sixtus IV in 1473. The Sistine Chapel ceiling took
over four years to complete, 1508-1512. Michelangelo was able to accomplish
this enormous job in such a short amount of time because of his desire to finish
the tomb(Janson 359).
The walls of the Sistine Chapel were painted twenty five years prior to
the painting of the ceiling. One of the walls in the chapel told the story of
Moses, and the other wall told the story of Jesus Christ. Michelangelo used the
subjects of the paintings on the walls to determine the subject of his frescos,
…there remained only one subject he could use to complete the two preceding
ones, that is the story of humanity…(Tolnay 41).
The ceiling is made up of scenes from the bible. Michelangelo took the
text of the bible and painted it on the ceiling the way he interpreted it.
According to Robert S. Liebert MD, …the ceiling is an inseparable amalgam of
the biblical text of Genesis, the sin and fall of man, the foretelling of
redemption and Michelangelo’s own imagination(145). Pope Julius II gave
Michelangelo the freedom to do what he wanted on the ceiling of the Sistine
Chapel(Liebert 140). The ceiling is made up of 343 figures, two hundred of
these figures are between 10-18 feet tall. The subject of the ceiling deals
with …the Creation of the World, Mans Fall, and his ultimate reconciliation
with the Lord(Janson 359). In the center of the chapel are five pair of beams
that divide the mural. There are nine scenes from Genesis, Creation of the
World, to the Drunkenness of Noah.
Michelangelo’s relationship with Pope Julius II influenced the
paintings of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Pope Julius II was criticized for
choosing Michelangelo to paint the ceiling without any experience in fresco
painting. Michelangelo needed to be persuaded by the Pope to paint the ceiling
because he really did not want anything to do with the ceiling.
Forty two letters were found which were written by Michelangelo during
the four years in which he painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In his letters
he does not mention anything about the artistic details , but rather writes
about the monetary aspects. Pope Julius II withheld money from Michelangelo.
Michelangelo justified it by saying in a letter to his father that his work did
not deserve payment. In his letters he mentions that he has no friends and does
not wish to have any.
Michelangelo surveyed his boyhood friend Francesco Granacci and four
other fresco painters from Florence to help him paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Michelangelo was not happy with their work, and within a few months
Michelangelo dismissed them from the Sistine Chapel forever.
The only help that Michelangelo had was assumed to be a person to help
make the paint and another person to help mix the paint. The fresco technique
that Michelangelo used was applying paint pigments into moist plaster, and then
letting the paint pigments dry inside the plaster.
When other artists were asked to paint ceilings they lied down on the
scaffolding. Michelangelo painted in a standing position which caused him much
discomfort(Liebert 146-147). Michelangelo wrote a sonnet in which he described
the pain in which he felt while painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
My belly’s pushed by force beneath my chin
My beard toward Heaven, I feel the back of my brain
Upon my neck, I grow the breast of a Harpy;
My brush, above my face continually
Makes it a splendid floor by dripping down
My loins have penetrated to my paunch
My rump’s a crupper, as a counterweight,
And pointless the unseeing steps I go
In front of me my skin is being stretched
While it folds up behind and forms a knot
And I am bending like a Syrian bow (Liebert 148).
During the first half of his painting of the Sistine Chapel he lived in
misery. Michelangelo’s only world was the world in which he created through his
paintings. Michelangelo had an inner conflict concerning his relationship with
the Pope.He believed that despite his great effort and accomplishment, he had
not pleased the Pope(Liebert 151). Because of Michelangelo’s unhappiness with
the Pope it caused him not to express his true feelings to the Pope. This made
Michelangelo more upset and frustrated. Michelangelo’s relationship with the
Pope became a vicious cycle(Liebert 152).
Michelangelo was one of the most recognized artists of the Italian
Renaissance. He was a great sculptor, painter, writer, and poet. He was a true
Renaissance man. One of his best works was the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Even
though he was unhappy with the outcome of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the
ceiling turned out to be magnificent
List Of Works Cited
De Tolnay, Charles. The Art and Thought of Michelangelo. New York:
Random House, 1964
Janson, H.W. History of Art. New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.
Liebert, Robert S MD. Michelangelo, A Psychoanalytic Study of His Life
and Images. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.
Michelangelo. Concise Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. Online.
Columbia University Press, 1994.
Michelangelo. The World Book Encyclopedia. 1959. Vol. XI.