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There are many artists connected to the city of Florence between 1300 and 1500, and each deserve a month’s worth of posts for their contributions. Where to start! This month will primarily center on the work of Michelangelo. He is an artist whose work and narrative I know quite well, and he’s widely deemed the most important artist to emerge from Florence during the High Renaissance (1490 – 1527). This will be a month right out of T.S Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, “In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo.” Let’s muse over the most important details of Michelangelo’s life.

Biography

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564)

Michelangelo was born on March 6 1475 in Arezzo, Tuscany. His family moved to Florence when he was only a few months old. His mother died when he was six, and he moved in with his nanny and her husband, who was a stonecutter in the town of Settignano. Stonecutting, and the fact that his father owned a marble quarry, fostered Michelangelo’s love of sculpture from a very young age.

Michelangelo moved back to Florence at the age of 13, and he apprenticed with Domenico Ghirlandaio, himself a master of fresco painting. In his early to mid-teens he sculpted two prominent, beautiful sculptures: Madonna of the Steps (1490-1492) and Battle of the Centaurs (1491-1492).

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Around this time he had works commissioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Medici being the most politically influential ruling family of the city.

After Lorenzo’s death, Michelangelo found himself lacking connections to the political elite. During this lay period in his life, he sculpted a Crucifix (1493) for the Chiesa di Santo Spirito (who allowed him to study the anatomy of the recently deceased in their conjoined hospital) and sculpted a figure of Hercules that was sent to France. Pierre de’ Medici then commissioned another work for Michelangelo, putting him back in the folds of the Medici.

The rise of Girolamo Savonarola, a political revolutionary, led to Michelangelo’s expulsion from Florence. After the political turmoil died down a little in the city, he was commissioned to craft a sculpture of Cupid (1496). The Medici were looking to extend their power to Rome, most notably to the Papacy. Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, admiring the classical brilliance of Cupid, devised a scheme to trick the cardinals. He asked Michelangelo to fix the statue to make it appear that it had been buried, whereafter he would send it to Rome and claim that it was an ancient work, and sell it at a higher price. The cardinal to whom it was sold, Rafaelle Riario, later learned of the plot, but was so impressed by the work of its sculptor that he invited Michelangelo to Rome to work for the Vatican.

While in Rome at the age of 21, at this interlude, he sculpted his most famous Pietà, of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus in her arms. It is widely considered one of the greatest sculptures of all time, and it was incredible to have seen it in person. It was completed when he was 24, and is on display in St. Peter’s Basilica.

He returned to Florence in 1499, and was almost immediately commissioned to sculpt a statue of David that was intended to sit upon the gable of the Santa Maria del Fiore.

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He completed David in 1504, and was received with a showing of awe and incredulity. It was so technically excellent and symbolically rich that it’s commissioners called in a team of consultants, of which included the incredibly influential Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci, to determine whether a work of its quality would be better placed elsewhere. It was then moved to the Palazzo della Signoria, directly outside the Uffizi, where the central governance of Florence took place.

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Michelangelo worked on a few other works during this time, but was commissioned by Angelo Doni to create a painting of the Holy Family as a wedding present for his wife. The work at the time did not have a name, but was later titled the Doni Tondo, “tondo” in Italian meaning “round.” This work, which we’ll look at more deeply later on, is a brilliant introduction into the techniques Michelangelo used to paint the Sistine Chapel.

The commission of the Sistine Chapel was given to Michelangelo by Pope Julius II, who originally called him back to Rome to sculpt the papal tomb. During this time he was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Painting was never Michelangelo’s strongest form of artistic expression, and Donato Bramante knew it. He convinced Pope Julius II to grant the job to Michelangelo, knowing that Michelangelo did not favor painting more than other art forms. Bramante was one of the many artists at the time who envied and resented Michelangelo’s abilities.

He completed the ceiling, and a fresco on the wall of the Chapel called The Final Judgment. They remain as some of the most revered paintings in all of Western art. He was later asked to design the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica. The final construction of the dome was not completed until after his death in 1564. His final request was to be buried in Florence, the city he loved more than any other, where he remains to this day.

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Doni Tondo

Here are the main thinking points that this painting draws to the viewer.

Who’s holding Jesus?

In many other portraits of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, Jesus is being cradled by his mother. But who’s holding Jesus here? Is Mary giving Jesus over to Joseph, or is Joseph handing Jesus to Mary? Here, Michelangelo is relaying, in an interesting light, how parenting is not the responsibility of only one party.

Notice, too, the bright colors of Mary and Joseph’s clothing. This will reappear later in Michelangelo’s paintings, and was a part of a shift in Renaissance paintings at the time.

The Nudes

Who are the nudes in the background? There has been speculative debate about this point for centuries, and no clear consensus has been reached. Here are two of many theories. The first is that the nudes are meant to contrast with Mary’s chastity, noticing her clothing which covers most of her body. It could also be interpreted to be a subtle nod to Agnolo Doli’s sexual conducts before wedding Maddalena Strozzi.

The Grass

Around the Holy Family is bright green grass, which contrasts with the dirt and ground throughout the rest of the painting. This relays a feeling of life-giving, a theological message which Michelangelo intended to express to the viewer.

Next week we’ll look into the Sistine Chapel, the major highlight of Michelangelo’s painting career. Talk to you then!

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