Michelangelo | Biography of the Renaissance Artist

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was an Italian artist who exerted an enormous influence on the development of art in the west and, due to this, he is regarded by many as the greatest western artist of all time. Born in the small town of Caprese, Michelangelo showed great artistic ability from a young age. He learned the technique of fresco from Domenico Ghirlandaio while Bertoldo di Giovanni taught him the intricacies of sculpting. The work that first brought Michelangelo widespread attention was the statue of Pietà and he followed this by producing his masterpiece, the statue of David. Michelangelo kept working till late in his life thereby producing numerous renowned works in the fields of sculpture, painting and architecture. He died at the age of 88 in 1564. Michelangelo never married nor had any children. However, he did have romantic relationships, most prominently with the 23-year-old Italian nobleman, Tommaso dei Cavalieri. Know more about the family, life, education, relationships, artistic career and death of Michelangelo through his biography.

Early Years

Michelangelo was born on the 6th of March,1475 in Caprese, a small town in Valtiberina, Italy. He was the second of five sons born to Ludovico di Leonardo Buonarroti Simoni and his wife Francesca di Neri del Miniato di Siena. His family was part of a minor nobility in Florence. But they had lost their stature by the time Michelangelo was born. Ludovico Buonarroti was a small-scale banker but had to take up government posts when the bank failed. A few months after Michelangelo’s birth, Ludovico Buonarroti’s term as administrator of Caprese ended and the family moved back to Florence. This was the beginning of an opportune era in the Renaissance period since Florence at the time was a vibrant arts center.

Michelangelo Birthplace
Caprese Michelangelo – Birthplace of Michelangelo

In 1481, when Michelangelo was six years old, his mother Francesca passed away due a prolonged illness. As a result, Michelangelo went on to be raised by a nanny in Settignano and her husband. The husband was a stone-cutter who worked in Buonarroti Simoni’s marble quarry. Later, Michelangelo joked: “With my wet-nurse’s milk, I sucked in the hammer and chisels I use for my statues.”. In 1485, Michelangelo started to attend a school where he was taught by humanist Francesco da Urbino. This was also around the time when his father remarried.

Portrait of Michelangelo

When Michelangelo was 13 years old, in 1488, he became an apprentice at painter Domenico Ghirlandaio’s workshop. At the time, Ghirlandaio was known for his murals and taught Michelangelo the technique of fresco. A year later, when Lorenzo de’ Medici, the de facto ruler of Florence, asked Ghirlandaio for his best two students, Ghirlandaio sent Michelangelo as one of his two choices. Michelangelo was thus taken under Medici’s wing, who loved to surround himself with intellectuals and poets. This also allowed him access to the Medici art collection, which was dominated by fragments of ancient Roman statuary.

Domenico Ghirlandaio
Domenico Ghirlandaio – In whose workshop Michelangelo apprenticed

Michelangelo attended the Humanist academy founded by Medici from 1490 to 1492. Here, bronze sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni, a friend of Medici, held tremendous influence over Michelangelo and taught him the intricacies of sculpting. It was during this period that Michelangelo sculpted the reliefs Madonna of the Steps (1490–1492) and Battle of the Centaurs (1491–1492). These two surviving sculptures show the enormous artistic skills of Michelangelo even when he was still a teenager.

Madonna of the Steps (1491)
Madonna of the Steps (1491) – Sculpture created by Michelangelo at the age of 17

When Michelangelo was 17, a fellow sculptor named Pietro Torrigiano was so jealous of his artistic talent that he punched Michelangelo on the face breaking his nose. This permanently disfigured his face and it can be noticed in his depictions in portraits. On 8th April 1492, Lorenzo de’ Medici passed away. The Medici family fell from power following a political turmoil, forcing Michelangelo to leave Florence and move to Bologna. He continued his studies there and worked on a commission to carve three saints for the church of San Domenico.

Fame With The Pieta

Later, when the political waters had become calmer, Michelangelo returned to Florence in 1495 to begin his work as a sculptor. In the following months, he worked on and completed two small statues – a child St. John the Baptist and a sleeping Cupid, which was sold to Cardinal Raffaele Riario of San Giorgio in Rome. The cardinal was extremely pleased by the skills of Michelangelo and invited him to Rome. Michelangelo agreed and moved to Rome on June 25, 1496. Within a couple of weeks, he began working on a statue of the Roman wine god Bacchus which was commissioned by Cardinal Riario. However, the final work was rejected by the cardinal, only to be taken up by banker Jacopo Galli.

Pieta - Michelangelo
Pieta (1499) – Michelangelo

In November of 1497, Cardinal Jean de Bilhères-Lagraulas commissioned Michelangelo to carve a sculpture of the Virgin Mary grieving over the body of Jesus, known as the Pietà, meaning “pity” or “compassion”. The artist spent two years to complete the piece. And when it was ultimately completed, it was soon recognized as one of the world’s great masterpieces of sculpture. Italian historian Giorgio Vasari described the work as such: “It is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh.”

David And The Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Michelangelo returned to Florence in 1499 as an art celebrity. Consequently, he was requested by the consuls of the Guild of Wool to complete an unfinished project of Agostino di Duccio. This was what became the most famous work of Michelangelo, the statue of David. It represents the Biblical hero David apparently after he has made up his mind to fight Goliath but before the actual fight. The colossal statue, with a height of 5.17-metre (17.0 ft) was completed in 1504. It was decided, after much consideration, that it would be placed at the Piazza della Signoria, in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. However, the statue now resides in the Florence art museum Academia while a replica occupies its place in the square. Following the installation of David, Michelangelo received another famous commission almost immediately – to paint the Battle of Cascina. However, the painting could not be completed and was lost when the chamber was refurbished. It was ultimately copied by Bastiano da Sangallo for the purpose of preservation.

David - Michelangelo
David (1504)

By 1505, Michelangelo was called back to Rome by Pope Julius II to design his tomb. This was his biggest assignment yet since it consisted of over 40 life-sized statues. Michelangelo spent the next eight months in the quarries of Carrara selecting marble for the tomb. He then worked on it at a rate of one statue per year, taking 40 years to complete it (also delayed due to constant interruptions). It is particularly known for the central figure of Moses, which was completed in 1516.

The Creation of Adam (1512) - Michelangelo
The Creation of Adam (1512) – Michelangelo

In April of 1506, Michelangelo returned to Florence and reconciled with Pope Julius II in November. It was Pope Julius II who asked Michelangelo to switch from sculpting to painting commissioning him to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope. The work was completed in four years from 1508 to 1512. Stretching over 500 square meters of the ceiling and containing over 300 figures, it is considered a cornerstone of Renaissance art. Its most famous fresco is The Creation of Adam, a portrayal of God reaching down to touch the finger of man.

Later Years And The Last Judgment

After the completion of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo continued to work on the tomb of Julius II for several years to come. The period from 1513 to early 1534 was when Michelangelo primarily worked for the Medici family in Florence, where he designed and carved out several tombs. He also designed the Medici Chapel that housed large tombs of prominent members of the Medici family. In 1524, Pope Clement VII of the Medici family, summoned Michelangelo to design the Laurentian Library at San Lorenzo’s Church. The Laurentian Library is regarded as one of Michelangelo’s most important architectural achievements.

Laurentian Library Staircase
Staircase of the Laurentian Library designed by Michelangelo

Following the consequences of another political upheaval in Florence, Michelangelo moved back to Rome around 1530. This is where he signed a new contract with Pope Clement over the tomb of Pope Julius. In the year 1532, at the age of 57, Michelangelo began the first romance of his life in the form of a relationship with the 23-year-old Italian nobleman, Tommaso dei Cavalieri. Michelangelo described him as “light of our century, paragon of all the world.” Moreover, he dedicated approximately 30 of his total 300 poems to Cavalieri. These are regarded as the first large sequence of poems in any modern tongue addressed by one man to another. Tommaso remained a lifelong friend of Michelangelo.

Punishment of Tityus (1532)
Punishment of Tityus (1532) – Drawing created by Michelangelo for Tommaso dei Cavalieri

In 1534, Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Clement VII to paint The Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. It was finished in October of 1541. One of the most influential works in fresco in the history of Western art, The Last Judgment depicts the final and eternal judgment by God of all humanity. During the time he was working on the Last Judgment, Michelangelo worked on numerous other projects as well.

The Last Judgement by Michelangelo
The Last Judgement (1541) – Michelangelo

In 1546, Michelangelo was appointed as the architect for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He worked continuously throughout the rest of his life on the Basilica, especially on its eastern end. He combined the ideas of all prior architects while at the same time adding his own version of grandeur to the mix. While the dome could only be finished after his death, Michelangelo had already confirmed its foundation by that time. This did not leave any room for design alterations.

Old Age And Death

During his old age, Michelangelo also worked upon a number of Pietàs. In these, he reflects upon the concept of mortality. Although they were left unfinished, they might have been created for the tomb of Pope Julius II. Rondanini Pietà was the last sculpture that Michelangelo ever worked on. He continued to work on it until 6 days before his death. It could never be completed due to the unavailability of the required stone. As a result, the sculpture held an abstract form.

Rondanini Pieta (1564)
Rondanini Pieta (1564) – The last sculpture of Michelangelo

On February 18, 1564, Michelangelo passed away at his home in Rome. He would have been 89 in another three weeks. Following this, his body was taken from Rome to Florence by one of his nephews to be buried at the Basilica of Santa Croce. This was undertaken to fulfill his dying wish of being buried in his beloved city. His death came as the result of a short illness and his lover Tommaso remained with him until his last breath. Michelangelo never married nor had any children.

Michelangelo Tomb
Michelangelo’s tomb in the Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence

Michelangelo is revered by the public as the “father and master of all the arts” till date. Along with Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, Michelangelo is considered as one of the three giants of the Renaissance era. He also contributed significantly towards the Humanist movement. He was one of the first people in the world to use sculptures as a mean of depicting the intricacies of the human body in detail. It was this ingenuity that left behind a profound influence on numerous other artists, such as Raphael, Rubens, Bernini and Rodin.

Michelangelo is widely considered the greatest sculptor in the west and, though he had low opinion of painting, his frescos on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and The Last Judgement on its altar wall guarantee him a place among the greatest painters. All of the famous works by Michelangelo, including Pieta, David and the Sistine Chapel ceiling, have been preserved through the ages and remain among the major tourist attractions in the world.

Leave a Comment