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The Life of Michelangelo

The Life of Michelangelo

Michelangelo (1475-1564), arguably one of the most inspired creators in the history of art. As a sculptor, architect, painter, and poet, he exerted a tremendous influence on his contemporaries and on subsequent Western art in general.

A Florentine—although born March 6, 1475, in the small village of Caprese near Arezzo—Michelangelo continued to have a deep attachment to his city, its art, and its culture throughout his long life. He spent the greater part of his adulthood in Rome, employed by the popes; characteristically, however, he left instructions that he be buried in Florence, and his body was placed there in a fine monument in the church of Santa Croce.

Michelangelo's father was a Florentine official named Ludovico Buonarrotiwith connections to the ruling Medici family, placed his 13-year-old son in the workshop of the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. After about two years, Michelangelo studied at the sculpture school in the Medici gardens and shortly thereafter was invited into the household of Lorenzo de' Medici, the Magnificent. There he had an opportunity to converse with the younger Medici, two of whom later became popes (Leo X and Clement VII). Michelangelo produced at least two relief sculptures by the time he was 16 years old, the Battle of the Centaurs and the Madonna of the Stairs, which show that he had achieved a personal style at a very early age.

Michelangelo then went to Rome, where he was able to examine many newly unearthed classical statues and ruins. He soon produced his first large-scale sculpture, the over-life-size Bacchus (1496-98, Bargello, Florence). One of the few works of pagan rather than Christian subject matter made by the master, it rivaled ancient statuary, the highest mark of admiration in Renaissance Rome. At about the same time, Michelangelo also did the marble Pietà (1498-1500), still in its original place in Saint Peter's Basilica. One of the most famous works of art, the Pietà was probably finished before Michelangelo was 25 years old, and it is the only work he ever signed. The youthful Mary is shown seated majestically, holding the dead Christ across her lap, a theme borrowed from northern European art. Instead of revealing extreme grief, Mary is restrained, and her expression is one of resignation. In this work, Michelangelo summarizes the sculptural innovations of his 15th-century predecessors such as Donatello. While ushering in the new monumentality...

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