Italian Renaissance painter, Michelangelo, was born on March 6, 1475 in Caprese, Italy. Considered one of the greatest artists of all time and an influential figure in the development of Western art, and he is probably best known for his sculptures Pietà and David and for his remarkable painting of the ceiling and altar of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
Michelangelo was born Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni to small-scale banker and magistrate Leonardo di Buonarrota Simoni and Francesca Neri. He was the second of five sons born to the couple. As with most prodigy-like artists, Michelangelo took an interest in painting, drawing, and other forms of art at an early age as he watched painters at nearby churches. Early Michelangelo biographers claim that Francesco Granacci, one of Michelangelo’s grammar school friends introduced Michelangelo to painter Domenico Ghirlandaio. Not blind to Michelangelo’s disinterest in regular schooling and the potential takeover of their family’s financial business, Michelangelo’s father sent him to apprentice under Ghirlandaio. He learned fresco painting during his time apprenticing with Ghirlandaio, who was a master of the technique.
In 1489, Ghirlandaio was asked by the de facto ruler of Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici, to present his two best pupils. At age 14, Michelangelo was sent to study classical sculpting techniques and philosophy at the Humanist academy at the Medici gardens. He gained access to Florence’s social elite and was exposed to some of the greatest artists, writers, and philosophers of the time. He also was granted permission by the Catholic Church to study cadavers and gain insight into human anatomy. These years of study greatly contributed to Michelangelo’s style which combined a precise realism with a lyrical beauty. The only two works that have survived from this time in Michelangelo’s life are Madonna of the Steps and Battle of the Centaurs, which show his exceptional talent even in his teen years.
After moving to Rome in 1498, a still young Michelangelo began to work under the wing of Cardinal Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas. The cardinal commissioned him to do what would become known as one of his greatest pieces, Pietà. Piet means “pity” or “compassion,” and the sculpture was a six-foot wide and six-foot tall piece of marble carved into the shape of Mary cradling a dead Jesus in her lap. Michelangelo finished the piece in less than a year when he was only 25 years old. It was erected in the church which contained the cardinal’s tomb, and has since been moved five times and now rests at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. This work is the only of Michelangelo’s that bears his name, as he carved it on the sash Mary wears after hearing spectators attribute the work to another artist.
Michelangelo became well known for Pietà, and was commissioned to finish the work of two other artists who had failed to complete a statue of David. He sculpted a strong, yet vulnerable figure from 17 feet of marble, and the Statue of David became a symbol of Florentine pride and freedom. It is one of the most renowned works of the Renaissance.
Pope Julius II invited Michelangelo back to Rome in 1505 to build a series of sculptures that would be part of the pope’s tomb. This project was interrupted when the pope asked Michelangelo to begin painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Originally commissioned to paint the Twelve Apostles on the ceiling, Michelangelo asked for more freedom in his work and began painting complex scenes representing representing the Creation, the Fall of Man, the Promise of Salvation through the prophets, and the genealogy of Christ. When finished, the ceiling included over 300 figures. After firing all his assistants and finishing the 65-foot ceiling himself, he revealed his work on October 31, 1512. Michelangelo returned to working on the tomb of Pope Julius II over the next few decades, but never completed the project.
Painting the Sistine Chapel took a great physical toll on Michelangelo, and he began to focus on architecture. He was at the head of several projects including the Medici Chapel and the Laurentian Library, though his greatest was probably St. Peter’s Basilica, which he became chief architect for in 1546. He dealt with many conflicts later in life, including backlash after creating the large fresco in the Sistine Chapel, Last Judgement, which included several nude figures thought inappropriate for such a holy place.
Due to his harsh personality and short temper, Michelangelo had rocky relationships with most people he encountered, especially his superiors. He turned to writing as a way to express his melancholy and other feelings about his mostly solitary life. He composed hundreds of poems, sonnets, and other literary works towards the end of his life.
Michelangelo died in 1564 at age 88 in Rome after suffering a short illness. By his request, he was buried in Florence at the Basilica di Santa Croce, and Florentines revered him as the “father and master of all arts” at the time of his death. He is one of the lucky few artists who became wealthy and famous during his lifetime and saw two biographies about him completed. Along with Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, his name has become synonymous with the Florentine High Renaissance, and his life’s work remains legendary.