Michelangelo: The Renaissance's “Other Great Artist”

Was anyone greater than Leonardo? A better painter, per chance? It depends on who you ask, of course, but Leonardo was certainly not without his rivals. Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564) was one of the major architectural/artistic forces in the Renaissance—in addition to Leonardo, of course! Leonardo's most famous rivalry was probably with Michelangelo, creator of David and purveyor of the fig leaf. These two legends competed for a variety of projects, and it was a healthy competition; they didn't sing each other's praises in private or public.

Michelangelo's Early Years

Michelangelo was born in Caprese, Italy. He spent his earliest years in this region of Tuscany, and was under the influence of its beautiful landscape from the very beginning of his life. Michelangelo's father was a Capresian judge, and he led his son through a fairly rigorous upbringing. Michelangelo was raised with a strong work ethic from his earliest days.

For much of his childhood, though, Michelangelo lived in Florence. There he was entrenched in the glory of the Renaissance, and gained early exposure to many different arts. He was apprenticed at age thirteen to painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, although this particular apprenticeship went against the desires of his father. Michelangelo stayed with Ghirlandaio for three years; by this time, the master was more than impressed with his young student, and Michelangelo was sent to Lorenzo de'Medici.

While in Rome, Michelangelo produced some of his first marble statues, including the Bacchus. As he refined his sculptural skill, he went on to sculpt such masterpieces as Pieta (1498–1500), which is one of the best-known sculptures from the entire Renaissance period. Michelangelo was coming into his own as an amazing sculptor and artist, and he was well-positioned to gain recognition for his talents.

Michelangelo then worked in the Medici's sculpture gardens, and it was there that he began creating marble relief sculptures, which gave a glimpse into his future talent. His major achievements during these years were the Madonna of the Steps and the Battle of the Centaurs. Michelangelo moved on to Bologna for a few years following Lorenzo de'Medici's death, but it wasn't long before he was requested yet again for a more prestigious position. In 1496, Michelangelo moved to Rome at the request of the Cardinal, San Giorgio.

The Traveling Artist

In typical Renaissance fashion, Michelangelo didn't stay in one place for any great length of time. After Rome, he returned to Florence, where his most famous creation was the marble David of 1501. Because it was simply a tremendous work of art, it quickly became his best-known sculpture. Michelangelo then went back to Rome in 1505 at the request of Pope Julius II. After beginning work on the design and sculpture of the pope's enormous tomb, he began work on the painting of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling. These intricately detailed scenes from the book of Genesis kept him busy between 1508 and 1512, as he spent days upon days painting on his back.

In The Last Judgment, a quintessential Renaissance painting, Michelangelo also manages to incorporate a cleverly disguised self-portrait. This was a common trick that Renaissance artists employed as a way of infusing their paintings with a more personal touch, and it's one that Leonardo also embraced; he painted himself into his Adoration of the Magi. Great minds truly did think alike!

Michelangelo was in Rome again by 1536, working on the The Last Judgment fresco for the Sistine Chapel. This powerful work was completed by 1541 and, as one might expect, focuses on the biblical scene of the Last Judgment. One of the most interesting aspects of this fresco, aside from its immense display of technical merit, is the references that Michelangeloincorporates. There are the required figures of Christ and the other biblical players, but there is also a reference to Dante's Inferno in a scene where Charon, Dante's guide, is shown with his oars.

From Artist to Architect

Around 1519 Michelangelo began to shift his focus to architecture. Leonardo never found particular fame in this realm because most of his architectural designs were either never built, or remained isolated to his notebooks. Michelangelo, on the other hand, worked as an active architect for many years. He designed a new façade for the Florentine church of San Lorenzo as well as the abutting Laurentian Library. Between 1519 and 1534, he worked on the Medici Tombs, designing both the architecture and the sculpture within.

Michelangelo's best-known architectural work was at St. Peter's Basilica. This immense church, one of the largest in the Christian world, is built on the site of St. Peter's crucifixion, and has an extensive construction history. It was begun in 324 A.D by Constantine, then was officially rebuilt starting in the fifteenth century. Many different architects played a role in its design; Donato Bramante (1444–1514) was one of the first head architects, then Michelangelo took responsibility for the dome in 1546.

The dome was one of the most remarkable architectural achievements of its time. It was built as a double brick shell and reached a height of about 360 feet from ground level. It's supported by four major piers and vertically oriented, so Michelangelo was able to maximize the vertical interior space. It was an achievement truly of epic proportions.

Like Leonardo, Michelangelo was a productive artist for years and years; his age didn't seem to slow him down. He was still an active artist late in his life, creating frescoes for the Vatican's Pauline Chapel. In what could, however, be an accommodation to his advancing years, he painted these works on the walls rather than the ceiling.

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