Artist and Aristocrat

A Biography

(see also Chronology of Michelangelo)


Michelangelo was the greatest sculptor of the sixteenth century, as Donatello was in the century before him and Bernini in the century after him. We admire the products of his genius but we less frequently pause to consider the magnitude of the tasks he undertook, the problems he encountered, and the setbacks--even failures--he may have suffered. The Rome Pietà and the David, for example, are stunning accomplishments that obscure the more mundane facts of their creation. We tend to overlook that they were fashioned from raw and resistent stone, by hands that were strong and dexterous but also were occasionally tired or bruised. Before these sculptures became the sublime marvels we admire today, they were inert and spiritless material.

Carving marble is extremely difficult. Forget the frequently invoked image of the artist "peeling away" layers of the stone, or "liberating" a figure from the block. Michelangelo's contemporary and biographer, Giorgio Vasari, vividly but inaccurately described marble carving as a gradual issuing forth from the block, like a figure that is raised little by little from a tub of water. Michelangelo's rival Leonardo da Vinci was closer to the mark when he described the actual process of sculpture as a "most mechanical exercise." In his notebooks, Leonardo wrote:

The sculptor in creating his work does so by the strength of his arm by which he consumes the marble, or other obdurate material in which his subject is enclosed: and this is done by most mechanical exercise, often accompanied by great sweat which mixes with the marble dust and forms a kind of mud daubed all over his face. The marble dust flours him all over so that he looks like a baker; his back is covered with a snowstorm of chips, and his house is made filthy by the flakes and dust of stone.

Leonardo preferred to paint, and considered it a more noble enterprise. Marble carving is hard work, loud and dirty. Every blow of hammer to chisel is a collision of metal against metal striking stone. Marble chips fly in all directions; the dust lies thick. Modern stone workers wear goggles; Michelangelo did not. He had to see the stone, to see each mark, to make tiny adjustments to the angle of his chisel and to the force of his blow. He could not afford to slip. One wrong stroke could break a finger, an arm, or worse. A figure comes alive only after thousands and thousands--tens of thousands--of perfectly directed hard and soft blows. Marble carving is difficult and unforgiving.

Michelangelo was one of the greatest marble sculptors of all time. Quite astonishingly, given the years required to master a craft, he was also one of the greatest painters, architects, and poets. Few artists have been as prolific; fewer still have succeeded in creating enduring masterpieces in so many different media. Had Michelangelo only carved the David, or painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or erected St. Peter's, he would have guaranteed his place in history. Rather, he made all three works, and each is a central achievement in the history of human endeavor. His was a creative genius unmatched in ancient or modern times.

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born on March 6, 1475, in the small town of Caprese, which is tucked into a fold of the Apennine mountains in rural Tuscany. His father, Ludovico Buonarroti, was a minor Florentine official and the local governor (podestà,) of the small towns of Caprese and nearby Chiusi. After his six-month term of office, Ludovico moved the family back to Florence, where they owned a good-size farm in the little village of Settignano overlooking Florence. Here, and in the surrounding hills pock-marked with quarries, Michelangelo grew up and was first exposed to stone carving. Appropriately for a son whose family had noble pretensions, Michelangelo attended latin school. But as so often happens, the boy's aspirations were different from those of his father. Michelangelo was drawn to art rather than to the world of the Florentine banker and merchant.

His father naturally opposed his son's predilection, since art was considered a manual craft and a lowly occupation. After the inevitable struggle of wills, Ludovico finally, if reluctantly, acquiesced and had his son apprenticed to the most fashionable painter in Florence, Domenico Ghirlandaio. Ghirlandaio ran a large and extremely successful workshop (bottega) where Michelangelo learned drawing and painting, in both tempera and fresco. Although he later denied learning much from his pedantic teacher, Michelangelo's early drawings and his first generally accepted efforts in painting (the Doni Tondo and the Sistine ceiling) offer abundant evidence that the young apprentice learned his lessons well. Michelangelo gained much from his apprenticeship with Ghirlandaio, but he was by no means "destined" to be an artist, especially when an even better opportunity presented itself.

Through Michelangelo's grandmother, the Buonarroti were distantly related to the Medici, the de facto rulers of Florence and the greatest art patrons of the Renaissance. Exploiting this distant family relationship, as was common practice in the Renaissance, Ludovico Buonarroti succeeded in placing his young son in the Medici entourage. The Medici were successful bankers and the most influential family in Florence; they provided for hundreds of family members, wives, cousins, distant relatives, illegitimate children, servants, and retainers, as well as writers, musicians, and artists. In the large Medici household, Michelangelo came in contact with the most learned men of the century, and the patron of them all, Lorenzo de' Medici, known as "the Magnificent." Inspired by this circle of intellectuals, Michelangelo may have created his first independent works of art, but what he gained above all in the Medici household was a humanist education. There he learned to speak and write well, and was exposed to a world of learning and culture for which the Renaissance, and the Medici in particular, are famous. He had access to the works of classical authors that were considered essential study for a good education: Plato, Aristotle, Ovid, and Virgil, as well as Seneca, Cicero, Juvenal, Plautus, and Horace. But since Michelangelo never mastered Latin, it is likely that he mostly read authors who wrote in Italian beginning with Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. As was common, he imbibed much learning from conversation, especially since he had a "tenacious memory" which was, in fact, an important yardstick of learning. Michelangelo's skills as a letter writer and poet, and the subtlety of his thinking bespeak the formative influence of these years; never before or since has an artist received such a unique education.

Of course, most of what we know about Michelangelo's childhood and early years comes from the artist himself. It may be that one of Michelangelo's greatest creations was his collaboration with Ascanio Condivi and Giorgio Vasari in the fashioning of his autobiography, in which Michelangelo reflected and remembered events more than fifty years after the fact. Alongside his many artistic accomplishments, the written word offers us the master's most finished, long-lasting, and best-loved self-portrait.

His biographers tell a compelling tale of a genuine hero who, by the time they were writing, was the most famous artist in the world. They relate a fictionalized history about a precocious genius who had little or no formal training, whose artistic propensity was frustrated by his father but encouraged by Lorenzo de' Medici, and who succeeded against all odds to create masterworks without faults or any prior failures. The tale of heroic accomplishment is gripping, and probably mostly true, but it is not surprising that the phenomenally successful Michelangelo tidied up the story of his past and left out many of the everyday details. His was the pride of a well-born aristocrat.

The fifteenth-century humanists were fond of writing treatises on nobility. Continuing a debate from classical antiquity, a central concern of these writings was the question of whether nobility was a matter of birth or, rather, of one's virtue and personal attainments. On all counts, Michelangelo had a rightful and substantial claim to nobility. It is little wonder that he styled himself an aristocrat and tended to obscure his humble origins. But curiously, it is Michelangelo's claim to noble birth, about which he was most adamant, that is precisely the part of his biography that often has been eyed with skepticism, as myth or self-delusion. Instead, we willingly accept his biographers' tales of the child prodigy and his predestined rise to fame. Of course, we like to believe such romances for it reaffirms a satisfying, if sometimes unacknowledged, belief in genius.

Romantic biographers would like Michelangelo to have been attracted to Contessina de' Medici, the youngest daughter of Lorenzo de' Medici. He may well have been, for surely she was the most comely creature in the Medici household and approximately his same age. But relations beyond polite formalities would have been impossible. They moved in different worlds; moreover, Contessina was marked from birth for a more socially advantageous match.

If Michelangelo sought relations with women, they came from a more humble station, where favors were dispensed more readily or were exchanged for money. A few poems suggest such experiences--and his ability to laugh at them: "When I look down upon each of your breasts they look like two watermelons in a bag."

Relations with men were more possible and probably more frequent. In the Medici household, Michelangelo was among a group of exceptionally learned and cultivated men with homosexual inclinations--both physically and philosophically: Angelo Poliziano, Marsilio Ficino, and Lorenzo de' Medici himself. Michelangelo was probably not the initiator of relations but rather the passive recipient of their attentions--a situation extremely common in Renaissance Florence. In turn, they offered a home that was intellectually stimulating, above moral scrutiny, and without economic or mundane obligations. Indeed, it was a privilege to be part of that select circle. It made an indelible impression on Michelangelo, and he naturally looked back on these years with nostalgia.

Michelangelo spent two of the happiest years of his life in the Medici household, surrounded by members of Lorenzo's humanist circle and alongside his future patrons, Giovanni and Giulio de' Medici (subsequently Popes Leo X and Clement VII). The death of Lorenzo in 1492 left Michelangelo without a patron or a regular income. Rather than try to make a living in the traditional manner of artists, by joining or opening a workshop, he bided his time and hoped for a new patron.

The Medici, now guided by the haughty and insufferable Piero de' Medici, abused their power and finally were exiled from the city in 1494. Michelangelo followed the family to nearby Bologna, where he remained for approximately a year. He lived in the household of the Bolognese nobleman, Gianfrancesco Aldovrandi, a position he could not have secured without his previous Medici connections. Appreciative of his Tuscan accent, Aldovrandi had Michelangelo read Dante and Petrarch out loud--a good indication of the young man's education. In turn the Bolognese gentleman secured a small commission for Michelangelo to carve some of the statuettes that were missing from the tomb of St. Dominic in the church of San Domenico in Bologna.

In a little more than a year, Michelangelo carved just three small figurines; they are skillful but hardly precocious given that Michelangelo was now twenty years old. Later in life, Michelangelo complained that the Bolognese artists were envious of his cozy circumstances. They had to run workshops, pay rent, purchase materials, and compete for commissions, while Michelangelo, unwilling to enter the profession by the traditional route, was given the commission, the marble, and a place to work, and all the time lived in the house of one of Bologna's leading citizens. Despite these comfortable conditions, opportunities were limited, so Michelangelo returned to Florence at the first opportune moment, in late 1495.

Florence was in the sway of the fiery preacher Girolamo Savonarola, who had managed to turn the city into a virtual theocracy. Preaching to overflow crowds in the Florentine cathedral, Savonarola condemned the profligate manners and morals of the Florentines. In a frenzy of reform, the city gave up its luxurious, self-indulgent lifestyle, even consigning books and works of art to a famous "bonfire of the vanities." Michelangelo told Condivi years later that he still retained the memory of the friar's living voice. Florence under Savonarola was not a conducive atmosphere for artists, especially those closely associated with the exiled Medici.

In need of a patron, Michelangelo curried the favor of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, a member of the cadet branch of the family whose republican sympathies earned him respect as a "friend of the people." For Lorenzo, Michelangelo carved a youthful St. John and a Sleeping Cupid, both lost. The cupid so successfully imitated the antique that Lorenzo suggested passing it off as authentic, saying to Michelangelo: "If you can manage to make it look as if it had been buried under the earth I will forward it to Rome, it will be taken for an antique, and you will sell it much better." This "forgery" and Lorenzo's letters of introduction opened doors to circles of wealth and power in Rome otherwise unattainable for a young artist with only a handful of works to his name.

In 1496, the twenty-two-year-old artist arrived in Rome for the first time. Thanks to his letters of introduction, Michelangelo presented himself to Cardinal Raffaele Riario, the richest and most powerful man in Rome, second only to the pope. At the time of Michelangelo's arrival, the cardinal was completing a great new palace, today known as the Cancelleria. Given that Riario's household consisted of some 250 persons, it is actually not surprising that Michelangelo was given temporary lodging in the cardinal's considerable entourage.

Cardinal Riario owned a rapidly growing antiquities collection that offered Michelangelo his first extensive exposure to the art of the classical past. Michelangelo must have been intoxicated. Given a block of marble, he was invited to "show what he could do." To this point Michelangelo's career had advanced largely because of his success within a tight-knit network of wealthy and influential patrons, aided by a small group of sculptures. Except for a lost marble Hercules, his oeuvre consisted of scarcely half a dozen mostly small works produced during the previous eight years. But challenged by Rome and high expectations, and given the opportunity to carve a larger than life-size marble, Michelangelo rose to the occasion and created the Bacchus. The statue, in a sense, was a condensation of Michelangelo's unorthodox education to date: his immersion in the classics in the circle of Lorenzo de' Medici, his imitation and recreation of antique sculpture, and his first experience of the eternal city.

Despite our modern admiration of the Bacchus, Cardinal Riario apparently was unimpressed, an episode that caused Michelangelo to recall the man years later in unflattering terms. The rejected Bacchus came into the possession of the Roman banker Jacopo Galli. Through this connection with Galli, Michelangelo received the commission for a Pietà from a powerful French cardinal, Jean de Bilhères. Suddenly Michelangelo had the opportunity to create a monumental religious work for an important foreign patron and for a conspicuous public location in the ancient basilica of St. Peter's.

Michelangelo gave his best effort to his Rome Pietà. He began in an unusual manner, by purchasing a horse and going to the marble quarries of Carrara to select the block. Earlier artists occasionally visited the quarries, but unlike his predecessors and contemporaries, Michelangelo had neither a workshop nor assistants busy on other projects in his absence. Instead, Michelangelo invested enormous time and energy in the marble quarries, always insisting on the highest quality marble and oftentimes helping to supervise its quarrying and transport. He had a legendary ability to judge the quality of a block of marble; it was even said by some that he could see the figure imprisoned in it. More likely, his was knowledge gained from experience and frequent disappointments, which taught him to spot disfiguring veins and to judge the soundness of a block from only a few hammer blows.

For the Pietà his effort in selecting a block paid off since the marble is of exceptional quality. And so began Michelangelo's love affair with the quarries and his preferred manner of beginning every new commission. But such a procedure could backfire, as happened just a few years later when he spent more than eight months quarrying marble for the tomb of Julius II only to discover that during his long absence the attention of the impatient pope had turned elsewhere.

In 1501, again through the agency of Jacopo Galli, Michelangelo was commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini to carve fifteen statuettes for the Piccolomini altar in Siena (left incomplete by the sculptor Andrea Bregno). Even though the commission was from an extremely important patron (a cardinal and the future Pope Pius III), it proved to be singularly unsuited to the artist's temperament. Reluctant--to complete, like some journeyman, another artist's unfinished work, Michelangelo carved only four of the statuettes and then avoided fulfilling the remainder of his obligation, even to the point of legal difficulties. Michelangelo readily set the Piccolomini carvings aside when he received the unusual opportunity to carve a David.

Quarried and begun some forty years earlier by the Renaissance sculptor Agostino di Duccio, the giant marble block, commonly referred to as "the giant," stood abandoned in the workshop of the Florentine cathedral. It was generally believed to be a ruined marble. Thanks to the intervention of the Florentine head of government, Piero Soderini, Michelangelo was entrusted with the old and partially worked block. After five years in Rome, Michelangelo must have been particularly anxious to produce a spectacular work in his native Florence. The David testifies to Michelangelo's ambition, as well as his recent experience and successes in Rome.

With the twin achievements of the Pietà in Rome and the David in Florence, Michelangelo's reputation was now firmly established; he would never again lack for commissions. He was a creator of marvels and by far the greatest living sculptor; patrons, commissions, and opportunities proliferated. Between 1500 and 1508, Michelangelo sustained an astonishing level of productivity. Altogether in the eight years of this Florentine sojourn--a period we call the High Renaissance--Michelangelo accepted eighteen different commissions for works of varying importance, from a bronze dagger to the grandiose tomb he envisaged for Pope Julius II, from the Piccolomini commission to the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Condivi asserts that he even considered accepting an invitation from the Sultan of Turkey to construct a bridge across the Bosporus at Constantinople. In a bid for artistic preeminence, and contrary to his later practice, he appears to have refused no one. In fact, during this brief eight-year period Michelangelo carved nine marble sculptures, including the colossal David, the Bruges Madonna, the St. Matthew, two marble tondi, and four small figures for the Piccolomini altar; he completed three works in bronze (all lost), including the dagger, a bronze David sent to France, and a monumental seated figure of Pope Julius for Bologna; he completed at least one painting--the Doni Tondo--and drew the cartoon for the Battle of Cascina fresco. A most prolific eight years.

The number, stature, and international character of Michelangelo's patrons during these years were equally impressive. They included two popes, the head of the Florentine government (the Gonfaloniere di Giustizia, Piero Soderini), four prominent Florentine families (Strozzi, Doni, Pitti, and Taddei), the Florentine cathedral, a company of rich Flemish merchants, a powerful French cardinal, and the French minister of finance. The first years of the sixteenth century were characterized by prodigious production for an extremely diverse, international clientele. Yet, Michelangelo's simultaneous commitment to an impossible number of commissions inevitably meant that many were destined to remain incomplete, and others were never begun. In hindsight, it seems irresponsible for Michelangelo to have accepted so many concurrent obligations, but there was little room for refusal, and every commission offered a new challenge. Besides, nothing must have seemed impossible for the sculptor of the Pietà and the David.

Paradoxically, for all his staggering outpouring of creative energy, Michelangelo may have had less of an impact on the High Renaissance in Florence than either Leonardo da Vinci or Fra Bartolomeo. The David was admired but little imitated. The most expensive, and arguably his most important commission during these years--the seated bronze statue of Pope Julius II--was created in Bologna and was destroyed in a burst of anti-papal sentiment in 1511, and two other significant sculptures--the bronze David and the Bruges Madonna--were shipped abroad shortly after they were completed. Michelangelo's work inspired awe but few imitations, that is, until he drew the Battle of Cascina cartoon and painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Nonetheless, the years leading up to the commission for the Sistine ceiling placed Michelangelo firmly on a world stage; he was in great demand, expectations ran high, and he made good use of the financial rewards of his success.

In 1506 Michelangelo purchased the first of many pieces of property that would help secure both his and his family's financial future. In the rolling hills south nf Florence. he acquired a large farm from which he obtained most of his staples, including wood, grain, olives, and grapes. In 1507 he added a piece of property to the family homestead in Settignano, and the following year he bought the houses on Via Ghibellina that were refurbished into the Casa Buonarroti. Although Michelangelo never lived there, members of his family did, and most importantly, the purchase and renovation conferred honor on the Buonarroti, who now had an imposing house in the city. Thus, by 1508, Michelangelo had become a prosperous property owner and had established a pattern that repeated itself throughout his career: with each new commission, Michelangelo invested in additional properties in and around Florence. Buying, renting, and managing these farms occupied a significant segment of Michelangelo's time. Through astute investment and strict management of his finances, he provided for his entire family (his father and four brothers) and died a millionaire.

Michelangelo was quite sensitive about being considered an artisan. On several occasions he complained of being treated as if he ran a shop, and he once expressed his chagrin when his nephew sent him a mason's rule "as if I were a stone or woodworker." Michelangelo's father initially may have opposed his son's profession precisely because manual labor was contrary to the family's aristocratic pretensions. Taking up the paternal role some years later, Michelangelo gave his nephew Lionardo constant advice regarding a profession, a proper wife, and comportment befitting a member of their "noble" family.

Michelangelo claimed that the family had paid taxes and held government posts in Florence for three hundred years, thus placing them among the city's elite. The Buonarroti even traced a noble lineage. According to the genealogy of the day, Michelangelo was related to the counts of Canossa and was a descendent of the famous Queen Matilda of Canossa. It hardly matters that we now doubt the relationship; it was firmly believed by Michelangelo and his contemporaries. Michelangelo's pride of ancestry was evident in his dress and comportment, as well as in his frequent admonitions to members of his family to behave in a manner befitting their station. He once railed against his brother for being a peasant "who trudges after oxen," and he frequently expressed exasperation with his nephew, Lionardo, for his lamentable inability to write properly: "I do not know where you learnt to write. If you had to write to the biggest ass in the world, I believe you would write with more care."

Aspiring to high social station, he was pleased when his brother Buonarroto married Bartolommea della Casa, sister of the famous poet Giovanni della Casa. In addition, his nephew and niece also wedded Florentine aristocracy by marrying into the Ridolfi and Guicciardini families respectively. Thus was fulfilled Michelangelo's ardent wish to perpetuate the Buonarroti line, which survived to the nineteenth century.

Michelangelo's desire for wealth, landed security, and social status placed him squarely in a Florentine milieu, sharing the most fundamental values of his fellow citizens. At the same time, these same concerns distinguished him from most of his fellow artists, few of whom could claim noble birth or were so preoccupied with family honor. Unusual among Renaissance artists, Michelangelo had a proper family name (many were merely named after their father, his profession, or the place of their birth, e.g., Pollaiuolo, Castagno, Botticelli). The Buonarroti traced a proud ancestry and, thanks to Michelangelo, secured undying fame.

Shortly after completing the David and in the midst of one of the busiest periods of his life, Michelangelo received the additional commission to paint a battle fresco opposite his rival Leonardo da Vinci in the Florentine hall of state (the Sala del Gran Consiglio in the Palazzo della Signoria). Here the two greatest artists of the Renaissance were pitted against one another--a confrontation intended to elicit each one's supreme effort. For differing reasons both artists failed to complete their commissions: Leonardo because of technical frustrations, and Michelangelo because he was summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II in 1505. The unrealized frescos remain one the greatest "what if" episodes in the history of art.

The recently elected Giuliano della Rovere (Pope Julius II, 1503-1513) was in the midst of a complete over-haul of Rome and the papacy. With unparalleled energyand ambition, the pope reinvigorated his office throughbold military action and a sweeping program of artistic patronage. He employed the architects Giuliano da Sangallo and Donato Bramante to rebuild old St. Peter's, Raphael to decorate the Vatican apartments, and Michelangelo to carve his tomb--envisioned as the most grandiose funerary monument since ancient Rome. So began the longest and most convoluted chapter in Michelangelo's lifewhat his biographer Ascanio Condivi referred to as the "tragedy of the tomb"--but also one of his greatest endeavors.

Immediately upon receiving the charge to execute a monumental tomb for the pope, Michelangelo, in typical fashion, set out for the quarries to obtain marble. For almost eight months, Michelangelo was far from the center of intrigue and power, only to discover on returning to Rome that the tomb was no longer the pope's first priority; Julius had turned his attention to the rebuilding of the venerable but dilapidated basilica of St. Peter's. Piqued, Michelangelo is reported to have said, "From now on if he [the pope] wants me, he can seek me elsewhere." The artist returned to Florence where he once again took up his interrupted Florentine commissions and defiantly ignored the pope's repeated summons to return to Rome. Not until Julius was on campaign in nearby Bologna in 1506 was Michelangelo persuaded to appear before the pope and beg forgiveness.

In what surely must have seemed like penance to Michelangelo, he created a monumental seated bronze statue for Bologna at the pope's request. For the pontiff, such a statue of his own likeness was a vigorous assertion of papal authority over a subject city, but for the artist it was a colossal headache. Michelangelo spent an unhappy year in Bologna wrestling with the problems of bronze casting, recalcitrant assistants, and poor Bolognese wine. Just three years later, a mob destroyed the statue in an attack on papal authority, thereby erasing a significant chapter in Michelangelo's career and our best evidence for his success in the taxing medium of bronze.

Almost immediately after completing the statue in Bologna, Michelangelo was once again in Rome, and once again assigned a task ill-suited to a marble sculptor: the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo's lament that "painting is not my art" proved a hollow objection since the pope's stubbornness was greater than his. But like all commissions that Michelangelo initially resisted, once he reconciled himself to the task, he threw himself into it with unrestrained energy. For four years, from 1508 to 1512, Michelangelo struggled with the manifold difficulties of painting nearly ten thousand square feet of a highly irregular, leaky vault. He spoke of his tribulations in an acerbic sonnet:

I've already grown a goiter from this toil
as water swells the cats in Lombardy
or any other country they might be,
forcing my belly to hang under my chin.
My beard to heaven, and my memory
I feel above its coffer. My chest a harp.
And ever above my face, the brush dripping,
making a rich pavement out of me.
My loins have been shoved into my guts,
my arse serves to counterweigh my rump,
Eyelessly I walk in the void.
Ahead of me my skin lies outstretched,
and to bend, I must knot my shoulders taut,
holding myself like a Syrian bow.

Following the sonnet Michelangelo noted, "I'm in no good place, nor am I a painter." The ceiling itself tells a different story, one of magnificent accomplishment and sublime beauty.

Following the completion of the ceiling in 1512, Michelangelo finally was able to turn again to sculpture and to the Julius tomb. Pope Julius died just a few months later. Michelangelo signed a new contract with the pope's heirs and soon returned to Florence. The new pontiff was Giovanni de' Medici (Leo X, 1513-1521), the first Florentine pope and Michelangelo's boyhood acquaintance from the Medici Palace. Although Leo's tastes ran to painting and to Raphael, he did ask Michelangelo to design a facade for the Medici family church of San Lorenzo in Florence. With this new obligation, the Julius project languished.

Once again, Michelangelo began in the marble quarries. Inspired by Roman antiquity, Michelangelo imagined an all-marble facade adorned with a dozen monolithic columns. With little previous training in architecture, he nonetheless set out to create the most magnificent and expensive building in Florence, "the mirror of architecture and sculpture of all Italy." He quarried marble blocks of a size and quantity unequalled in more than a thousand years, from Alpine quarries that even today are virtually inaccessible, with a transport system of sleds and oxen that had to be organized and staffed, with equipment that was made and borrowed and sometimes defective, in weather that was often uncooperative and roundly cursed, and with men who were hand picked but required training. He selected and inspected all his materials, arranged for rope, tackle, and boats, haggled with carters about fees, and made drawings for even the tiniest, seemingly most insignificant detail before turning the paper over to make calculations, count bushels of grain, draft a letter, or compose poetry. Michelangelo was not only a creative genius but a savvy businessman, equally at home dealing with the mundane or creating the sublime.

A beautiful wooden model was constructed, and tons of marble were quarried and shipped to Florence. In the narrow brown-stone streets Michelangelo's marble facade would have been a spectacular, if strident, contrast to the medieval city. Michelangelo assured his patron, "With God's help, I will create the finest work in all Italy." Sadly, not a single marble was ever put in place; the raw façade is no more than irregular courses of masonry serving as convenient roosts for pigeons. Although never realized, the ambitious project prepared the way for Michelangelo's subsequent career as an architect.

It was one of the most bitter moments in Michelangelo's life when, primarily for financial reasons, the pope canceled the facade contract in 1520. A lengthy letter the artist wrote listing not only his monetary expenditures, but his physical and mental exertions as well, is one of the most famous and certainly most poignant documents of Michelangelo's life: "I am not charging to the pope's account the fact that I have been ruined over the said work at San Lorenzo; I am not charging to his account the enormous insult of having been brought here to execute the said work and then having it taken away from me... I am not charging to his account." And so it continues. This, the second longest letter Michelangelo ever wrote, elicits wonder and encourages our sympathy, and amply confirms the worst that is often said about Michelangelo's fickle patrons. Michelangelo had made a herculean effort to no avail; nonetheless, the facade helped make the next two projects possible--the Medici Chapel and the Laurentian Library.

The immediate impetus to build a Medici mausoleum at San Lorenzo was the untimely deaths of two young scions of the family, Giuliano and Lorenzo de' Medici, whose tombs now grace the lavish interior. In the midst of this project, Giulio de' Medici was elected Pope Clement VII (1523-1534). Yet another of Michelangelo's boyhood friends, Pope Clement proved one of the greatest and most sensitive of the artist's many patrons. Together--as artist and patron, creator and financier--they collaborated to realize some of the artist's most acclaimed works. In addition to the chapel, Clement wished Michelangelo to design and build a library to house the valuable collection of Medici books and manuscripts.

From 1516 to 1534, Michelangelo devoted himself to the Medici commissions at San Lorenzo. More than three hundred persons assisted him on these large, simultaneous projects. Thus Michelangelo immersed himself in architecture and proved that he was an effective business manager and something of an entrepreneur. He personally selected his workforce of friends, associates, and trained professionals, and knew them all by name, most by colorful nicknames: the Stick, the Basket, the Little Liar, the Dolt, Oddball, Fats, Thorny, Lefty, Stumpy, and Gloomy. There were assistants nicknamed the Fly, the Chicken, the Goose, the She-Cat, the Porcupine, and the Woodpecker, as well as Nero, the Priest, the Friar, the Godfather, the Thief, the Turk, and the likely butt of many jokes, the Anti-Christ. Having grown up in the stone-working town of Settignano, Michelangelo was well acquainted with most of his assistants; he was familiar with their talents and foibles, and often knew and employed their fathers, cousins, and neighbors. Such familiarity was a form of quality control and helped ensure labor stability. It also helped Michelangelo identify and recruit skilled workers, a potentially large problem for an artist without a bottega or a conventional artistic practice.

Inevitably there were frictions, such as when his longtime assistant Bernardino Basso cheated Michelangelo's father of some grain and stole six florins, a jewel, and a ring worth twenty florins (a third of a year's wages). Michelangelo once warned his nephew: "Don't trust Bernardino: pretend to have faith in him but don't believe a word he says because he is a great felon." Another time, Michelangelo told his brother that Bernardino "is a proper scoundrel; shun him like the devil, and don't let him enter the house under any pretext whatsoever": the reprobate assistant was obviously close enough to Michelangelo's family that they needed to be alert to his shenanigans. But despite these occasional angry outbursts, the artist remained close to Bernardino for more than sixty years, and they worked together for more than twenty.

Although it is a cherished myth, Michelangelo, in fact, hardly ever worked alone. He himself claimed to speak to no one, to "have no friends, and don't want any." His biographers emphasized his love of solitude, and Michelangelo contributed to this image by frequent and sometimes bitter complaints against his family, friends, and closest associates: Michele was unreliable and deceitful, Sandro di Poggio was a swindler and a philanderer, Donato Benti was a rascal, and Rubecchio was a "contemptible wretch." His oft-quoted outbursts lend substance to the image of Michelangelo's terribilità (terribleness), yet these few instances present a misleading picture for in nearly every case, Michelangelo maintained close and mutually beneftcial relations with these same persons long after they inspired his momentary rage. Many ordinary human emotions lie beneath the surface of myth.

Michelangelo's workers sometimes disappointed him but he never fired them. "One must have patience," he wrote. He paid them well, provided them housing, and was genuinely fond of them, as they were of him. He employed many for ten, twenty, thirty or more years, which was remarkable, given the generally unreliable nature of labor. But Michelangelo's generosity was not without limits. When Francesco da Sangallo turned out shoddy carving, for example, Michelangelo docked his weekly pay "because he did not abide by what he promised." In short, Michelangelo micromanaged, keeping tabs on all facets of his multiple operations. So many obligations, he wrote, "require a hundred eyes." Like many entrepreneurs, there were flaws in his managerial style and personal relations, but he was enormously successful in eliciting the best, from himself and from his many assistants. The results of his efforts speak for themselves.

On May 6, 1527, the disgruntled troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome. With the city in turmoil, the pope and his immediate entourage barely escaped to the comparative safety of nearby Orvieto. Florence threw off the shackles of Medici rule and declared the city once again a free and independent republic. Pope Clement felt betrayed by his native city. During the next three years one of the major objectives of Clement's diplomacy was to reinstate his family and ensure their future security in Florence. By 1529, Clement and Charles were reconciled, and according to the Treaty of Barcelona signed in June of that year, the two major powers agreed to a joint military campaign to reinstate the Medici.

Michelangelo, a lifelong republican, but also now a Medici employee, found himself in an extremely awkward situation. Despite the pope's effort to dissuade him, Michelangelo elected to side with his native city, and he devoted the next three years of his life to the heroic but ultimately doomed republican cause. Largely for lack of funds, the workshop at San Lorenzo was closed down. Michelangelo turned his attention instead to a commission to carve a marble Hercules and subsequently to the defense of the city.

In the fall of 1528, Michelangelo offered his services to Florence, and in April 1529 he was appointed Governor and Procurator General of the Florentine fortifications. In his capacity as a military engineer, Michelangelo was dispatched to inspect the defenses of Pisa, Livorno, and Ferrara, then considered to have the most advanced fortifications in all Italy.

Michelangelo designed, coordinated, and directed the enormous Florentine defense effort, probably the largest construction project since the erection of the medieval circuit of walls. The city was invested in October 1529, and withstood a grueling ten-month siege. Florence finally capitulated on August 12, 1530, and then sustained a protracted witch-hunt of retribution. It is something of a miracle that Michelangelo was able to survive these chaotic times. Fortunately, he had friends in high places and a pope who genuinely liked and admired him. Clement magnanimously forgave Michelangelo his defection and set him to work once again on the Medici projects at San Lorenzo. But Michelangelo's heart lay elsewhere.

It is evident that after the extended interlude of the Republic and the dangerous period following its collapse, Michelangelo no longer felt the same commitment to the Medici projects. Increasingly disaffected with Florence, where the last vestige of republican liberty was erased when the tyrant Alessandro de' Medici was prodaimed duke in 1532, Michelangelo spent more and more time in Rome. There he found a large community of Florentine expatriates and a new friend, Tommaso de' Cavalieri, who renewed his artistic and poetic inspiration. In 1534, Michelangelo left Florence and never returned. He spent the remaining thirty years of his life in Rome, and, like his beloved Dante, in exile.

Rome was a vibrant city in the 1530s, especially following the election in 1534 of the energetic, reformminded Alessandro Farnese as Pope Paul III (1534-1549). Paul was probably the greatest and most discerning of Michelangelo's numerous patrons. There appears to have been trust and mutual respect between the two men, based in no small measure on the fact that they were contemporaries. Paul lost no time in the employment of Michelangelo's talents, first commissioning him to paint the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. When Michelangelo protested that he was still under obligation to complete the tomb of Julius II, the pope is said to have burst out: "I have nursed this ambition for thirty years, and now that I'm pope am I not to have it satisfied? I shall tear the contract up. I'm determined to have you in my service, no matter what." And he succeeded; Paul kept Michelangelo busy throughout much of his fifteen-year reign. During these same years, Michelangelo also found time to complete a reduced version of the tomb of Pope Julius II.

In addition to the Last Judgment for Pope Paul, Michelangelo painted two large frescos in the so-called Pauline Chapel. And most importantly, Paul patronized Michelangelo as an architect, appointing him in 1546 to direct the construction of St. Peter's and the Farnese Palace. St. Peter's was Michelangelo's torment and his triumph, the largest and most spectacular building in Western Christendom, but also a continuous series of headaches, from construction debacles to management intrigue. He once lamented that mistakes were made when he, being old and sometimes incapacitated, was unable to appear at the worksite every day. Nonetheless, Michelangelo remained devoted to the project even when his great admirer, Duke Cosimo de' Medici, tried repeatedly to persuade him to return to Florence. Michelangelo donated his waning energy, and the last twenty years of his life, to completing St. Peter's. It was, I think, his best hope for a remission from sins in the afterlife.

In Rome, Michelangelo had a large and remarkable circle of friends and acquaintances. Acutely conscious of his claim to nobility, the artist was particularly attracted to persons of high social station, and vice versa. His friendship with the young Roman nobleman Tommaso de' Cavalieri continued to the artist's death, even if somewhat diminished from its initial passionate intensity. Another close friend, Luigi del Riccio, encouraged Michelangelo to publish some of his poetry. Despite a burst of creative and editorial activity, the project was suspended with the sad and untimely death of del Riccio in 1546. Michelangelo found sustained nourishment from a long friendship with Vittoria Colonna, the scion of a noble Roman family and an accomplished poetess whom he met while he was working on the Last Judgment. Stimulated by the passions aroused especially by Cavalieri and Colonna, Michelangelo was inspired to become one of the most important poets of the Renaissance.

Vittoria Colonna served as something of a spiritual guide and a refuge during the tumultuous CounterReformation, the Catholic response to the threat of Protestantism. Through Colonna, Michelangelo was exposed to the leading reform thinkers of the day, including Juan Valdès, Bernardino Ochino, and the English Cardinal Reginald Pole. As his drawings and letters testify, Michelangelo was sympathetic with the reformers' belief in justification by faith, a position that ran afoul of Catholic orthodoxy and caused the artist frequent consternation. Michelangelo was devastated by Vittoria Colonna's death in 1547; it was one of many poignant separations from those the artist loved best.

With each successive pope, Michelangelo was confirmed in his position as architect of St. Peter's, all the while taking on additional responsibilities from the popes or select patrons. During the reign of Pius IV (1559-1565), for example, Michelangelo designed the Porta Pia, transformed the Baths of Diocletian into the Christian church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and designed the Sforza Chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore.

While working as an architect in the public sphere, he continued to plumb the depths of his personal faith in the more private world of poetry, drawings, and even sculpture. Quite remarkably for an artist who proudly signed himself "Michelangelo scultore," in the last thirty years of his life he completed just three sculptures: the Rachel and Leah for the tomb of Julius II, and the bust of Brutus. The Florentine Pietà was destined for his own grave but was given away, and the Rondanini Pietà was begun for no ostensible reason, except perhaps to keep himself busy and spiritually nourished. Architecture was his final and perhaps most influential legacy.

In 1555 the artist became an octogenarian, almost unheard of in the Renaissance, when the average age was approximately half that. Yet, his creative powers scarcely flagged. We have a remarkable contemporary description of the speed and energy of Michelangelo's carving, even at the age of seventy:

I have seen Michelangelo, although more than sixty years old and no longer among the most robust, knock off more chips of a very hard marble in a quarter of an hour than three young stone carvers could have done in three or four, an almost incredible thing to one who has not seen it; and I thought the whole work would fall to pieces because he moved with such impetuosity and fury, knocking to the floor large chunks three and four fingers thick with a single blow so precisely aimed that if he had gone even minimally further than necessary, he risked losing it all.

And Michelangelo himself reflected in a sonnet:

If my crude hammer shapes the hard stones
into one human appearance or another,
deriving its motion from the master who
guides it . . .

Michelangelo evidently thought about poetry in the midst of carving, since poems have been found that were scribbled on sheets in the workshop. Michelangelo moved easily between the two media. The rhythmic strokes of the hammer suggested verse; his verse retained elements of its lapidary origins. There was an exalted vision that drove the sculptor's arm, and a spiritual meaning lay beyond the sweat.

Despite the worsening pain caused by kidney stones, Michelangelo continued in his multifarious duties as architect and urban planner. He took great interest in the business affairs and marital plans of his nephew, and kept up an impressive correspondence with family, friends, admirers, and hopeful patrons. Just a few days before his death he was still carving the Rondanini Pietà. In a poetic fragment, Michelangelo mused,

No one has full mastery
before reaching the end
of his art and his life.

And he lamented the inevitable end of both his art and his life when he wrote, "Art and death do not go well together."

Michelangelo lived through the reigns of thirteen popes, and worked for nine of them. For most of his long life, he lived with one or two assistants, a male servant/secretary, and a female cook and housemaid. Michelangelo never married, but this was not uncommon among Renaissance artists. Instead he formed lasting attachments with a few friends and was loyally committed to his immediate and extended family. Sadly, he outlived most of his friends and family. He faced the death of his brother in 1555 with composure: "I had the news of the death of Gismondo, my brother, but without great sorrow. We must be resigned; and since he died fully conscious and with all the sacraments ordained by the church, we must thank God for it." He was completely devastated, however, by the death of Urbino, his faithful servant and companion of twenty-five years. Revealing the depth of his emotions, Michelangelo wrote to his nephew of "his intense grief, leaving me so stricken and troubled that it would have been easier to have died with him." Instead, Michelangelo lived for another nine years, more alone but never neglected or forgotten. It is characteristic that he provided for Urbino's widow and also took an active interest in her fatherless child.

The world watched as Michelangelo approached death. Fully conscious of his hero's place in history, Giorgio Vasari wrote to Duke Cosimo de' Medici in 1560:

He now goes about very little, and has become so old that he gets little rest, and has declined so much that I believe he will only be with us for a short while, if he is not kept alive by God's goodness for the sake of the works at St. Peter's which certainly need him. He made me astonished that the ancients are surpassed by the beauty and grace of what his divine genius has been able to achieve.

Michelangelo, the equal of the ancients: in the Renaissance there could be no higher praise.

At Michelangelo's side during his final illness were his friend Tommaso de' Cavalieri and his pupil, Daniele da Volterra. The artist died on February 18, 1564, just two weeks shy of his eighty-ninth birthday. Informing Duke Cosimo in Florence, Michelangelo's doctor wrote: "This afternoon that most excellent and true miracle of nature, Messer Michelangelo Buonarroti passed from this to a better life." That same year Galileo and William Shakespeare were born.

Return to Michelangelo (the book),
the Michelangelo Chronology
or to the HLLA Reference Library.

© Hugh Lauter Levin Associates. All rights reserved.

Valid XHTML 1.0!