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Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)  
 
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Michelangelo's marble statue of David and his frescoes on the vault of the Sistine Chapel are among the most widely recognized examples of Italian Renaissance art, and their maker the most famous artist who ever lived.

By sixteenth-century standards Michelangelo lived to the exceptionally old age of almost eighty-nine, and he continued to work until only a few days before his death. From a working career that spanned more than seventy years, he left an enormous legacy in sculpture, painting, drawing, and architecture.

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Furthermore, apart from occasional visits to north Italian cities such as Bologna and Venice, in all those years Michelangelo never left Florence, where he was born, or Rome, where he died.

Apprenticeship

At the customary age of thirteen, in 1488 Michelangelo became an apprentice of the distinguished painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, who was then at work on the choir frescoes for Santa Maria Novella in Florence, where Michelangelo likely learned to manage the demanding craft of fresco painting.

Before 1490, however, he was in the household of Lorenzo de' Medici, along with some other talented young artists, where he studied among the Greco-Roman sculptures that Lorenzo had collected and placed in a garden on the Piazza San Marco, under the care of Bertoldo di Giovanni, a prominent sculptor and former pupil of Donatello.

Thus, Michelangelo's entire formal education in painting did not exceed two years; and in sculpture we do not know exactly what techniques he and the other boys learned from Bertoldo.

Public Commissions

After Lorenzo's death in 1492 Michelangelo traveled north from Florence, making a brief stop in Venice in 1494 and a longer one in Bologna, where he found work. By 1496 he was in Rome where, with the help of the banker Jacopo Galli, he obtained commissions for his two earliest large-scale works, the Bacchus (Florence, Bargello) and the Pietà (Rome, St. Peter's).

By 1500 he was back in Florence, where he achieved immediate fame with the marble David (1501-1504, Florence, Accademia). A committee formed for the purpose decided to set up the statue beside the entrance to the Palazzo della Signoria, where it or the present copy has remained ever since 1504 as a symbol of Florentine republican ideals.

To answer a summons to Rome from Pope Julius II della Rovere, in 1505 Michelangelo abandoned a project for a huge fresco, The Battle of Cascina, to be painted in open competition with Leonardo da Vinci in the Sala del Maggior Consilio of Florence's Palazzo della Signoria.

Portions of the finished cartoon (or preparatory drawing) survived, and Aristotele da Sangall made a careful copy of the central portion of the composition. These are enough to show that The Battle of Cascina was Michelangelo's first large-scale essay in the compositional theme that was to preoccupy him for the rest of his life, namely, muscular male nudes in highly active and complex positions.

Indeed, this theme features prominently in Michelangelo's first project for the pope, which was the design and execution of a colossal tomb, not completed until forty years later, in 1545, in a much-reduced version.

Of the early sculptures intended for the Julius Tomb, only the Moses (Rome, San Pietro in Vincoli) forms part of the final composition. Other pieces, especially the two so-called Slaves (Paris, Louvre) and the group of four Captives (Florence, Accademia) remained in the artist's possession until his death.

The most immediate consequence of Julius's 1508 decision to abandon the tomb project was the frescoed vault of the Sistine Chapel, built by Julius's uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, in the late 1470s.

Julius died within a few months of the painting's completion in October 1512, and his successor Pope Leo X shifted Michelangelo's energies away from Rome and back to Florence.

Leo X had been born Giovanni de' Medici, son of Lorenzo de' Medici and therefore the artist's childhood friend. With the support of Leo and his first cousin, Cardinal Giulio de' Medici, natural son of Lorenzo's brother Giuliano, Michelangelo undertook extensive work at San Lorenzo, the Florentine parish church that had been under Medici patronage since the early fifteenth century.

For it, Michelangelo designed a never-built facade, a library, and an independent burial chapel for his patrons' fathers, brothers, and cousins. The work occupied Michelangelo from 1516 until he abandoned the whole project on returning to Rome in 1534.

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Top: A portrait engraving of Michelangelo by Jean Louis Potrelle.
Center: David by Michelangelo.
Above: Pieta by Michelangelo.

  
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