Michelangelo Buonarroti should be considered the dominant artistic figure of the whole of the sixteenth century and of the entire Italian Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci was already considered “divine” by his contemporaries. Michelangelo, on the other hand, was not only equally “divine”, but – as the Italian artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari said – even the “most divine”; a spirit sent to earth by God to show the perfection of art in all of its forms.
Pietà by Michelangelo - one of the greatest works of the Renaissance.
Others say that Michelangelo represents the man who ended the evolutionary process of art, which started with Cimabue and Giotto centuries earlier.
In short, there is no artist of his own time who has not suffered. To understand Michelangelo, it is necessary to study him historically, as a product of the cultural, political, and social environment of his century. This was one of the darkest and most dramatic in history, but also, one of the most profitable in the field of art.
In addition, his life (almost 90 years long) allowed him to move from the age of Lorenzo the Magnificent to the age of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. As such, he witnessed the wars between the French and the Spanish for dominance over Italy.
In fact, Michelangelo, like Donatello, continually reinvented his work; it did not age with the passing of years. Therefore, he should be considered the interpreter of an entire era.
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Michelangelo was born into a family of small nobility. At the age of thirteen, he began to study in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s workshop. However, the difference in temperament between teacher and pupil was such that the impact of this first apprenticeship cannot be found in Michelangelo’s later works. Later, Lorenzo the Magnificent, lord of Florence, took on the young Michelangelo as his protégé, keeping him in his own house together with his children. In the Medici house, Michelangelo met and lived with some of the greatest cultural personalities of the time. It is here that he learnt to deal with the problem of art as a cultural commitment, rather than a manual one, just as Leonardo da Vinci had previously.
Unlike what had happened at the Ghirlandaio workshop, under Lorenzo the Magnificent Michelangelo learnt a sense of proportion in accordance with classical understandings detached from the contemporary age. This was the same as the process that happens today in art schools. At that time, authentic marble statues were copied, today, students copy plaster. The purpose of these exercises has not changed from Michelangelo’s time: to learn rules from the traditional art schools and apply them to contemporary art sculptures.
The traditional method of copying from great pieces of art like the Moses of Michelangelo is the best practice to become a master in stone sculpture.
Usually we talk about “Michelangelo’s poetry”. By reproducing in marble an object he kept fixed before his eyes, Michelangelo was able to get used to considering the idea that what he carves, already existed before.
Later, when he began to sculpt freely, the figures he carved in marble had to be very precise. For this, they had to be visible in his mind as if they already existed; in marble he had to carve out the idea that lived in his imagination.
This is Michelangelo’s poetry. If the vision of what is to be represented is already in the artist’s mind before he puts his hand to the chisel, the process of creating the sculpture will consist only in freeing the image from the marble. This is achieved by stripping from the block any excess marble, leaving the original image free.
This procedure is common to all the sculpting traditions, but Michelangelo went beyond technical practice. He said, in fact, that the hand is the instrument that mechanically executes the will of the intellect, and the intellect cannot have any idea that does not already exist deep inside the marble.It is, therefore, the idea that lives eternally. The artist has the task of freeing it from the material. This process is a struggle which requires the total commitment of oneself to the project until the image is found intact. The message of Michelangelo’s art is precisely this struggle of man; man which is imprisoned, oppressed, defeated, or striving to reach an unattainable goal, but towards which we must continue to strive using our moral will, in order to safeguard our dignity. In this sense then, Michelangelo stands as the direct heir of Giotto, Masaccio, and Donatello.
First Master Works
David, one of the great works in Carrara marble by Michelangelo
The first works created by Michelangelo are some drawings that already reveal his unmistakable personality. Those that have been preserved were considered important by the artist himself. He decided to destroy the others, but among the surviving drawings are some copies of the works of Giotto and Masaccio.
The reason? These two artists had expressed the dignity of man and made their forms volumetrically, revealing them with chiaroscuro and capturing not the outward appearance, but their inner essence.
The copies did not serve to passively transcribe these works, but to study, analyse and understand them. Michelangelo’s copies are very personal: the chiaroscuro, which follows the pattern of the protrusions and recesses, brings the surfaces to life as clearly as the chiselling work present in his marbles.
When Lorenzo the Magnificent died, Michelangelo left for Venice but moved almost immediately to Bologna where he sculpted three small statues: an angel, and the saints Petronio and Procolo.
Back in Florence, Michelangelo sculpted a sleeping Cupid. This was the statue that changed the life of the great artist forever. The man who commissioned the work had buried the statue to give it an aging patina and sent it to Rome. Here, it was sold at a price much higher than that paid to Michelangelo. Irritated at being cheated, Michelangelo left for Rome to settle this controversy.
Influences of Roman Art
This was the first time that Michelangelo saw Rome, an even more suitable environment than Florence to stimulate his interest in antiquity. “I think there are many beautiful things,” he wrote in a letter a few days after arriving. Among the works of the Roman period that most struck the young sculptor, was the Belvedere Torso. According to biographers, he stopped almost daily to admire it.
Michelangelo saw in this fragment of Hellenistic sculpture, something magical, capable of providing him with interesting food for thought. He would have the same enthusiasm for Laocoon, discovered in the spring of 1506. The first works sculpted in Rome by Michelangelo were not yet affected by the dramatic Hellenistic impetus, but by the serene classical balance. Consider, for example, the Bacchus, in which is evident the use of the contrapposto.
What Was the Sculptural Changing Point in History?
If classicism is shamelessly evident in this sculpture, in the Pietà it takes on a different meaning. The theme of “Pietà” had been taken up by other artists in past years, but Michelangelo interpreted it differently because, although sacred for him, art is not a narrative, but an idea.
The Pietà: The Sculpture That Changed History
The Pietà does not narrate the pain of the Mother, nor does it show the torment of the tortured body of Christ: here, Mother and son reach together divine perfection.
The statue has a pyramidal shape that culminates in the head of the Madonna. Michelangelo believed that the point of view should be singular: the frontal one. For this reason, if the pre-existing figure in the marble is to be extracted from it, this can happen on one side only. The folds of the clothes are intended to bring out the beauty and finesse of the naked body by contrast.
Drawing of the Pieta, part of the Isabella Sewart Gardner Museum
The perfection of the body of Christ and the face of the Mother symbolizes the surpassing of earthly features and the achievement of ideal beauty. This is why it makes perfect sense that the Mother appears to be much younger than the son: according to Michelangelo, Mary’s virginity is expressed through the incorruptibility of the flesh.
Michelangelo Returns to Florence
he statue was obtained from a block of marble which has already been used and left abandoned. With David, Michelangelo once again proved his thesis that infinite forms exist within the material which the artist must choose and realize.
David is the symbol of the Florentine republic which, in the name of freedom, fought tyrants. It is also a symbol of the Renaissance man, author of himself, master of the world around him. The sculpture shows the supreme calm that imbues David, derived from his faith in the superiority of the moral force that is within him. He is not the perfect man according to the Greek conception, but the modern man whose inner qualities are highlighted above all else.
Despite the mould being that of polycystic derivation, we can observe how the number of sculpted details increases from the bottom to the top. The head is the fulcrum of the composition because it is the realm of thought, the guide of every human action. Therefore, we cannot say that the work is disproportionate because all falls within Michelangelo’s intention. The hands have a greater size because they are instruments of reason. The hero is gigantic because material greatness symbolizes his moral greatness. He is naked because he is armed only with his own virtue. This is the purpose of art.
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