Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475 – 1564) was an Italian artist of the Renaissance who is widely regarded as one of the greatest artists of all time. He excelled in a number of artistic fields including sculpture, painting and architecture. There are a number of interesting incidents from the life of Michelangelo. These include his attempted forgery during his early artistic career and his studying corpses in secret to know the details of the human form. Though a great artist, Michelangelo is said to have had an eccentric and rude character. This led to him having a bitter rivalry with the two other leading artists of his era, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. Know more through these 10 interesting facts about Michelangelo.
#1 He studied dead bodies to perfectly capture the human form in his art
In 1493, when Michelangelo was still in his teens, he created a wooden crucifix and gifted it to the prior of the Florentine church of Santo Spirito. He had a friendship with the prior. The prior in return gave him certain rooms where he could dissect corpses to study anatomy. Michelangelo had to practice anatomy in secret as in that age the practice was prohibited by law. Michelangelo continued dissection for the study of anatomy throughout his life. The study of anatomy allowed Michelangelo to carve statues that looked extraordinarily real. His masterpieces, like the statue of David, are all exceptional in representing in detail the anatomy of the human body. This was due to his study in secret of muscles, tendons and blood vessels of corpses. However, Michelangelo was not the first to study anatomy for artistic purposes. Others, including his rival Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, had also dissected corpses to better understand the human body.
#2 Michelangelo attempted forgery once to earn more money
At the beginning of his career, in 1496, Michelangelo was a striving 21-year-old artist who was trying to explore new ways to cash in on his talent. It was the time when many art collectors were fascinated by the idea of holding on to something exquisite. They were more interested in buying classical sculptures that had been unearthed rather than contemporary ones. Michelangelo was involved in creating a sculpture called the Sleeping Cupid, only to bury and artificial age it. He then dug it up to give it a worn out look. He might have done this at the suggestion of Lorenzo de Medici, the de facto ruler of Florence. The sculpture was then sold at a large sum to Cardinal Raffaele Riario of San Giorgio in Rome. However, the cardinal soon found out about the forgery. Interestingly though, instead of being angry, he was extremely impressed by the quality of the sculpture and invited Michelangelo to Rome, an invitation he accepted.
#3 Pieta remains the only work he ever signed
Giorgio Vasari, the contemporary and biographer of Michelangelo, mentions that during the time when the Pieta was installed, someone had commented that it was the work of another sculptor, Cristoforo Solari. Probably agonized by this claim, Michelangelo signed the sculpture by carving the words: “MICHAELA[N]GELUS BONAROTUS FLORENTIN[US] FACIEBA[T]” onto the sculpture and on the sash running across Mary’s chest. This translates to: “Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, was making this”. This signature seems similar in essence to the ones used by ancient Greek artists, Apelles and Polykleitos. Giorgio Vasari also reports that Michelangelo regretted this impulsive action and swore an oath that he would never sign another work. And he never did. Although, in turn he would often paint himself (or his face) onto some of the paintings that he worked on.
#4 He carved David out of a discarded piece of marble
Michelangelo was known to be extremely picky when it came to choosing the right marble for his works. The marble slab he ultimately chose for David was one that had been quarried and abandoned for over 40 years by multiple prior artists who gave up on the project. In the two years that followed, Michelangelo carved the figure of David out of that disfigured block of marble in a process that as is popularly summed up by artist and writer Giorgio Vasari as the “bringing back to life of one who was dead”. The 17-foot tall sculpture is deemed to be structurally perfect by numerous artists around the world. Since it was too heavy to place it at the initially intended spot, on the roof-line of the cathedral; a committee of artists and consultants ultimately decided to place the statue at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. However, the statue now resides in the Florence art museum Academia while a replica occupies its place in the square. Michelangelo’s David is one of the most famous artworks in the world and the greatest masterpiece of the artist.
#5 Michelangelo had a bitter rivalry with Leonardo da Vinci
Giorgio Vasari states that Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci had an immense dislike for each other. It is not known when their rivalry began but it might have begun in 1504 when both artists were commissioned to paint different battle scenes for the same wall in the great council chamber of the Palazzo Vecchio. They became passionately involved in their respective paintings. However, Michelangelo never proceeded further than the drawing stage while Leonardo too couldn’t complete the work to his satisfaction. There are several other instances of bitterness among them. Once, a group of gentlemen debating Dante asked Leonardo to explain his passages. Michelangelo arrived at the scene and Leonardo suggested him to elucidate the passage. However, Michelangelo snapped back, “You explain it yourself, you who made the design of a horse to be cast in bronze, but who was unable to cast it.” He was referring to his rival’s frequent failure in finishing works. It is also believed that Leonardo left Florence for France to avoid Michelangelo.
#6 He also had a bitter rivalry with Raphael
Raphael emerged on the artistic scene in Renaissance Italy in 1504 and he immediately started attracting adulation for his work. In 1508, at the age of just 26, he beat Michelangelo to win a commission to paint a fresco in the private library of the Pope. Moreover, Raphael with his charming personality became a favorite of Pope Leo X, who succeeded Pope Julius II in 1513. Michelangelo, on the other hand, was known for having a difficult personality which led to stormy relations with his patrons. Though Michelangelo is more renowned now, at that time, Raphael was the more popular artist. It is said that Michelangelo “made Raphael bear the brunt of his unrelenting envy, contempt and anger”. Due to this, in his famous painting The School of Athens, Raphael painted Michelangelo as the philosopher Heraclitus, who is legendary for his sour temper. The bitterness of their rivalry can also be gauged from the fact that following Raphael’s death at 37, Michelangelo wrote a letter that accused Raphael of plagiarism and argued that all Raphael knew about art, he had copied it from Michelangelo’s works.
#7 He was chosen to paint the Sistine chapel ceiling on the suggestion of his rivals
By the beginning of the 16th century, Michelangelo had already established himself as one of the leading sculptors of the Renaissance with such renowned sculptures as the Pieta and David. However, he was not highly esteemed as a painter. In fact, he considered himself a sculptor and had low view of painting. The Sistine Chapel is a chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope in the Vatican City. According to historian Giorgio Vasari, when Pope Julius II was looking for an artist to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s rivals, the painter Raphael and the architect Bramante, convinced the Pope to ask Michelangelo to do the work. Vasari thinks they believed that Michelangelo would mess up the commission. So Pope Julius II assigned the task to Michelangelo in 1508 and it was completed by 1512. However, to the disappointed of his rivals, Michelangelo created on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, one of the greatest masterpieces in western art.
#8 Michelangelo was also a prolific poet
Although he is best known for his paintings, sculptures and architectural work, Michelangelo was also a prolific poet of his time having produced several hundred sonnets and madrigals. He was known to jot down stray lines of verses as he hammered through his sculptures. His poetry is quite extravagant in the wealth of the topics that it touches, including sex and aging. However, none of his poetic works were ever published and he treated poetry more like a hobby. Though his poems were not published, they were locally circulated among the 16th century literates in Rome. Later, composers even converted some of them into music. He wrote about 300 poems through his life, with his platonic affair with Vittoria Colonna fueling the motivation for most of them.
#9 He was gay and had multiple loves through his life
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”. This was the affair that motivated Michelangelo to write numerous love poems that were extremely homoerotic in nature. Although Tommaso was the most prominent of all his lovers and a lifelong friend, he was not the only one. A few years later, in 1536, Michelangelo was attracted to the poetess and widow, Vittoria Colonna, the Marquise of Pescara. The majority of Michelangelo’s poetry is dedicated to her. Moreover, he made drawings of her and spent long hours in her company. She was the only prominent woman in his life, though their relationship is considered to be platonic. In 1540, Michelangelo was involved in yet another relationship with Cecchino dei Bracci, the son of a wealthy Florentine banker. The extent of their relationship only came forth following Cecchino’s death.
#10 He was the first western artist whose biography was published during his lifetime
Two biographies of Michelangelo were published during his lifetime. His first biography was written around 1528 by renowned historian Paolo Giovio. It made him the first Western artist whose biography was published while he was alive. In it, Giovio noted the disparity between his divine gifts and his “unbelievable meanness”. He wrote that Michelangelo possessed a “great genius… in contrast to a character so rude and savage as to make his private life one of unbelievable pettiness”. Moreover, he wrote that “his nature was so rough and uncouth that his domestic habits were incredibly squalid, and deprived posterity of any pupils who might have followed him.” The second biography of Michelangelo was written by Giorgio Vasari in his 1550 work Lives of the Artists and was titled Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence, Painter, Sculptor and Architect. In it, Vasari talks very highly of Michelangelo and his work stating that Michelangelo’s work transcended that of any artist living or dead, and was “supreme in not one art alone but in all three”.