from The New Book of Knowledge®


Michelangelo devoted his whole life to the creation of magnificent works of art. His work was all that interested him, and he had no use for the easy ways of doing things. He lived a long and productive life, creating art that influenced almost all countries in all ages.

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born in Caprese near Florence, Italy, on March 6, 1475. On that day his father, Judge Buonarroti, thought he saw lucky signs in the sky. He was sure the boy would have heavenly powers. For this reason he named his son Michelangelo--angelo in Italian means "angel." Michelangelo was a sickly child, but though he remained small and thin throughout his life, he had amazing strength and energy.

Remembering the heavenly signs, Judge Buonarroti sent Michelangelo to school with the hope that the boy would become a great scholar. But Michelangelo was interested in art and sketched or painted day and night. His father and uncles were horrified that he wanted to be an artist. They thought art was a low occupation fit only for peasants. They beat Michelangelo cruelly to make him forget his dream, but the beatings made him more determined. Finally, in 1488, they agreed to let him study with Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94), a popular Florentine painter.

In Ghirlandaio's workshop Michelangelo studied the art of the old masters and learned to paint frescoes—paintings done on wet plaster. Although he was only 13, Michelangelo was highly skilled. Ghirlandaio paid him a small salary, which the boy gave to his father. The other students did not like Michelangelo because of his hot-tempered, critical ways. And they were jealous of his talent. From the very beginning of his career, he scorned anyone whose goals were less than his--and Michelangelo's goal was perfection in art. He was very outspoken and did not hesitate to attack the ideas of others.

Florence at that time was ruled by the powerful Medici family, who were great lovers of art. When Michelangelo was 16, Ghirlandaio sent him to study sculpture with Bertoldo de Giovanni (1420?-91). Bertoldo supervised the garden of Lorenzo de' Medici, a meeting place for Florentine scholars and artists. Lorenzo, the ruling prince, was so impressed with the ability of the young genius that he gave Michelangelo the privileges of a son. This was a wonderful opportunity for the boy, but his father was sadder than ever. He thought that Michelangelo would be nothing more than a lowly stonecutter and mason.

In the 2 years that Michelangelo lived with Lorenzo he met the most outstanding men of the day. Although he learned a great deal from them, he never copied their courteous ways. These men often talked about the philosophy and art of ancient Greece. Michelangelo came to love the great size and power of Greek sculpture. He admired the Greeks' attempt to capture ideal beauty in their statues. At night he studied anatomy (the structure of the human body). Secretly he cut up dead bodies to see how they were put together. To create overpowering, perfect human forms in marble became his one mission in life.

While living with Lorenzo, Michelangelo once criticized the work of Pietro Torrigiano (1472-1528), a fellow student. Torrigiano became so enraged at Michelangelo's straight-forward remarks that he smashed Michelangelo's nose and scarred his face for life. All Florentines came to hate Torrigiano for this black deed.

In 1492 Lorenzo de' Medici died. Within 2 years Michelangelo left Florence and traveled through Italy. He went to Rome in 1496. There he created his first major work. The Pietà, completed in 1499, is a sad and graceful statue of Jesus in Mary's lap. Michelangelo's work was well received, and he returned to Florence in 1501 as a famous sculptor.

When Michelangelo was 26, he began a statue that amazed all the critics of his day. The piece of marble that he used was thin and scarred and more than 16 feet long; in fact, other sculptors had refused to use it. But Michelangelo never turned away from a difficult problem. From this poor piece of marble he carved his glorious David. The statue of the Bible hero became the most popular work of art in Florence. The citizens felt that the youthful warrior was a symbol of the strength and vigor of their city.

After the David was unveiled in 1504, Michelangelo was commissioned to do more work than he could finish. He was asked to design tombs, libraries, and statues. The Medicis ordered a great deal of work. Although the popes also ordered quantities of work from him, they did not give Michelangelo much money or help. When he was 30, the sculptor was chosen by Pope Julius II to design his tomb—the largest in the Christian world. It was so large that a new chapel in St. Peter's Basilica had to be constructed to hold it. For 8 months Michelangelo supervised the quarrying of the marble for the tomb. But when he came to Rome to discuss the project, the Pope refused to see him. Furious, Michelangelo left Rome and went back to Florence. When the Pope threatened war if the sculptor did not return, Michelangelo finally agreed to continue his work.

It took Michelangelo 40 years to finish the tomb. In the meantime he had many more quarrels with Julius and later popes. Julius wanted Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in St. Peter's. Michelangelo protested at first, saying that he was a sculptor, not a painter. He finally began the project and worked on it feverishly. He locked out his assistants and painted the entire area—over 3,000 square feet—by himself. To paint the ceiling, he had to lie on his back on a scaffold. He slept in his clothes to save time. But Julius was so impatient that he once threatened to throw Michelangelo off the scaffold if he did not hurry. Despite the Pope's threats, it took Michelangelo 4 years to finish the fresco.

The overpowering figures on the Sistine ceiling tell the story of man's creation and earliest history according to the Bible. The ceiling is considered by many to be the greatest single work of art ever created by one man. Twenty-four years later, in 1536, Michelangelo began The Last Judgment, a fresco on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. It is a perfect companion piece to the ceiling painting.

St. Peter's Basilica was constantly being enlarged and changed. Michelangelo was appointed chief architect of St. Peter's in 1547. The dome that he designed for the building has often been called the crowning glory of the Renaissance period. It has been copied in many lands for churches and public buildings.

It is said that when Michelangelo was 60, he could still carve faster than three ordinary sculptors. He lived to be 89, working steadily until his death in Rome on February 18, 1564. Unlike the unhappy Judge Buonarroti, the rest of the world thinks that Michelangelo fulfilled the prophecy of the stars.

Reviewed by Aaron H. Jacobsen
Author, The Renaissance Sketchbook

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