Born at Caprese Michelangelo (1475-1564) came from a family of some social standing, his father being a Florentine official. After some parental opposition he was apprenticed to Ghirlandaio and trained in fresco painting and with whom he stayed briefly. It was, despite his architecture, painting and poetry, as a sculptor he wished to be known. Michelangelo told his biographer Condivi he was self-trained and there is some truth in the claim that he was autodidactic. It was in the Medici household that he became a sculptor.
The Medici family were prominent Florentine commercial figures with Cosimo (1389-1464) a foremost individual from 1434, a role intensified by his son Piero and grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492). Praised alternately as patrons and castigated as tyrants the Medici family were a commercial nobility and part of Florence’s group of powerful families called the popolani grassi (Eliot, 1996). Periods of exile from Florence (which profoundly affected Michelangelo’s career) between 1494 and 1512, and again from 1527 to 1530, were followers by their gaining near complete control of Tuscany as dukes and grand dukes (Hale, 1995), a process aided and abetted by the Medici popes Leo X (Giovanni de’ Medici, 1475-1521 and pope 1513-21) and Clement VII (Giulio de’ Medici, 1478 to 1534, pope between 1523 and 1524).
Michelangelo went around Florence drawing from the frescoes of Giotto and Masaccio whereupon he stayed in the household of Lorenzo de’ Medici from 1490 until 1494, two years after Lorenzo’s death in 1492. Whilst in the Medici palace, where he studied under Benedetto di Giovanni (1420-91), Michelangelo would have encountered and had acess to such humanist and Neoplatonist scholars as Ficino, Landino, Poliziano, and Pico da Mirandola – from whom his interest in Neoplatonism derives. Art, for Michelangelo, was thus an intellectual activity. During this time he would also have listened to the sermons of Savonarola and read that friar’s writings. Two obsessions developed in this setting, against which Michelangelo measured his own achievement, the sculpture of Donatello and the ancients. After the death of Lorenzo he went to Bologna and thence to Rome.
The 1490’s were troubled years for the Medici and Florence. It was the era of Savonarola’s fiery scourges and when Michelangelo’s own republican sentiments were confirmed. During this period he strengthened his links with Lorenzo’s cousins Giovanni and Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco – later Popolano. It was the impending march of Charles VIII of France on Florence that forced Michelangelo to flee the house of Piero de’ Medici for Bologna in 1494. The role of the Medici and the other popolano grassi with regards to their patronisation of scholars and artists, as well as Michelangelo with his lesser noble background, can be summed up thus `…the house of Medici, the petty despots of many a small city-state and the rich bourgeoisie preferred to patronise an intelligentsia to some extent free# from religious obligations, and ready to recognise personal achievement independent of rank and birth.’ (Green, 1952). Michelangelo’s earliest carvings consist largely of imitations of the antique and are of a type he could only have learned in the sculpture garden of Lorenzo. (Clark, 1978).
2.0 Early sculpture in Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Florence
It was Ghirlandaio who formed the early talent of Michelangelo and it was in his studio that he came to the attention of Lorenzo de’ Medici (Cleugh, 1993). Presumably Ghirlandaio recognised the sculptural ability and ‘…arranged for him to enter Bertoldo’s school for sculptors in the Medici garden on the Piazza di S. Marco in 1489.’ (Von Einem, 1973, citing Vasari, and Tolnay, 1947). It was Ascanio Condivi, liDgrapher of Michelangelo, who records however that it was one Granacci who took him to the Medici garden (Frey, 1907), and that Lorenzo ‘…opened his garden as though it were a school or studio.’ (Von Einem, 1973). Thus the transfer to the sculpture garden allowed Michelangelo `…to attend the meetings of the Platonic Academy. He never forgot them, remaining a Christian Platonist till his death. This crucial period in the great artists development ended with Lorenzo’s death in 1492.’ (Cleugh, 1993).
Lorenzo de’ Medici is credited with being the first to recognise Michelangelo’s ability, whom he befriended and ‘…generously assigning him a room in his palace and a place at his table.’ (Schevill, 1963). It was Condivi again who recorded that Michelangelo’s copy of an antique faun (now lost) prompted Lorenzo to invite him to his palace (Olson, 1992). Bertoldo was Lorenzo’s keeper of the Medici fragments (4 antique sculpture on the Via Larga (Murray, 1995). Bertoldo, the former pupil of Donatello, was given the task by Lorenzo de’ Medici of `…assembling a body o first-class sculptors and painters and instructing them in the proper ways of art.’ (Von Einem, 1973, citing Gengaro, 1961). However, Herbert von Einem (1973) casts doubt on Vasari’s information concerning the role played by Bertoldo as Michelangelo’s teacher. Sources in the garden for his inspiration were the fragments and antique cameos (Murray, 1995), though Schevill (1963) avers that Michelangelo in the Medici garden was under `…no other guidance than his own unerring instinct…’ as he ‘…absorbed the Florentine tradition as manifested in its most rugged representatives, Giotto, Masaccio, Donatello, Pollaiuolo, and Signorelli.’
In 1490 Michelangelo was esconced as a house guest in Lorenzo’s palazzo where he lived with sons of Lorenzo – Piero (expelled by Charles VIII in 1494), Giovanni (later Pope Leo X), and Giuliano (whose tomb he later carved at Capella Medicea). At this time he became acquainted with Neoplatonism ‘…which played so important a part in his art and poetry.’ (Von Einem, 1973, Also citing Panofsky, 1939). Bertoldo died in 1491 and the young Michelangelo stayed on and appears to have been a familiar of the Medici household (Murray, 1995). During this period (prior to late 1492) he carved two pieces, presumably for Lorenzo, and these were his Madonna of the Stairs and Battle of the Centaurs.
2.1. The Madonna of the Stairs
Michelangelo’s earliest extant work when he was aged only sixteen. A relief, it is a devotional work, see Figure 1, and a popular fifteenth century form in the tradition of Donatello. Even so, this low relief work is `…an old motif – one uncommon, however in fifteenth century Florentine art…’ (Von Einem, 1973). It is a juvenile work in an early style that is heavily classically based but with Renaissance inspiration. It is carved from white Carara marble and is noted for its classical amoretti. Its implicit monumentality belies its small size. It is carved from a waxy and translucent slab, like alabaster, and reminiscent of Desidirio. It was a theme which Michelangelo was to `…develop in all its glory in his Madonna for the Medici Chapel.’ (Von Einem, 1973).
Figure 1. Michelangelo. Madonna of the Stairs (1490-92). Marble. Source: Public domain.
Carved in rilievo schaccitto it represents Michelangelo’s exploration of quattrocento techniques. The ‘…brooding figure of the Virgin…(Murray, 1995, p24) can be compared with Donatello’s Pazzi Madonna of the 1420’s to 1430’s, see Figure 2, and with Michelangelo’s own later Pitti Tondo of 1504-1505, see Figure 3.
Figure 2. Donatello. Pazzi Madonna (1420-30’s). Marble. Source: Public domain.
It has the unusual aspect of Mary suckling Christ. The Madonna’s face is in classical profile and she sits on a square block – a studio prop for models and Michelangelo’s hallmark. He chose not to show the child’s face and places him in an odd position perhaps nursing or sleeping and foreshadowing his death. Christ is also encased in drapery which suggests protection, either shroud or womb.
Figure 3. Michelangelo. Pitti Tondo (1504-05). Marble. Source: Public domain.
The novel stairs are possibly related to Girolamo Benevieni’s Scala della vita spirituale sopra it nome di Maria. Girolamo Benevieni (1453-1542) was a Florentine writer in the circle of Lorenzo de’ Medici, and composed lyrical and narrative verse. Girolamo sought to embody Ficino’s concept of Platonic love. Praised by Mirandola he eventually became (like Botticelli) a devotee of Savonarola. Analytically the Madonna of the Stairs contains classical elements of relief sculpture with themes derived from the humanist circle in which Michelangelo moved within Lorenzo’s household. In the background four youths handle a long cloth identified as a winding sheet or shroud. In essence this relief is closer to Donatello’s Pazzi Madonna, see Figure 2, than the intervening lyrical Madonnas of Rossellino and Desidirio.
2.2 The Battle of the Centaurs
This second early piece was also executed when Michelangelo was around sixteen. Carved in marble in 1491 or 1492, see Figure 4, it resembles Bertoldo’s bronze relief Battle (with Hercules) done some time after 1478, see Figure 5. The figures display vigorous attitudes and illustrate a Renaissance interest in the human body and form. The relief is thus a `…tightly knit mass of struggling nude figures…’ (Murray, 1995). Bertoldo’s Battle is based partly on a damaged Roman sarcophagus and is not a mere copy (Olson, 1992). The work is variously known as the Rape of Dejanira, the Battle of Hercules and Centaurs, and Battle of the Centaurs and Lapiths, that ‘…foreshadows not only the classical style of his Florentine period, but the anti-classical expressiveness of his later works.’ (Clark, 1978). Therefore if this work was ‘…probably for Lorenzo de’ Medici and left unfinished at his death…’ (Olson, 1992) it renews the concept of Pliny that an unfinished work was preferable because it revealed an artists method and thought processes.
Figure 4. Michelangelo. Battle of the Centaurs (1492). Marble. Source: Public domain.
Figure 5. Bertoldo di Giovanni. Battle (with Hercules). After 1478. Bronze. Source: Public Domain.
The Battle relief embodies the dictum of Pythagoras that ‘Man is the measure of all things’, which was echoed by Alberti and became a tenet of the Renaissance. The whole relief is conceived in terms of the body as an expressive vehicle, as much as it reflects Michelangelo’s ‘…study of late Roman sarcophagi, Bertoldo, the Pisani and Pollaiuolo.’ (Olson, 1992). Moreover, the relief of the Battle of the Centaurs was made ‘…at the suggestion of Poliziano who explained the whole myth to him from beginning to end.’ (Burke, 1987, cites also Condivi, 1964). At this time Michelangelo was experimenting with the deeply undercut style of Roman sarcophagi and quite different from Donatello’s very shallow relief. Both the Madonna of the Stairs and the Battle of the Centaurs show the ‘…squareness, the monumentality, the restlessness, the search for the union of many planes.’ (Stokes, 1955). Again, both reliefs are unique and even anticipate the future work of Michelangelo in the sense that the `…Madonna of the Stairs points forward to the Madonna in the Medici Chapel, and the Battle of the Centaurs to the Battle of Cascina, the Flood and even the Last Judgement.’ (Von Einem, 1973).
3.0 Michelangelo and the Medici Pope Leo X
The death of Lorenzo de’ Medici combined with the expulsion of the Medici from Florence in 1494, not to mention the ascendancy of Savonarola’s power conspired to bring Michelangelo’s ‘…incipient patronage to a brusque conclusion.’ (Murray, 1995). Michelangelo was not happy in the house of Piero de’ Medici and in October 1494 ‘…there ocurred the first of those panic flights which were to be repeated three times in the course of his life.’ (Clark, 1978). The advance of the French army to the gates of Florence may have forced Michelangelo to feel himself ‘…compromised by his Medici associations, prudently removed to Venice, and then, closer at hand, to Bologna.’ (Murray, 1995). According to Von Einem (1973) Michelangelo’s sudden decampment from Florence ‘…reveals for the first time…’ his ‘…impulsive nature, which asserts itself not only over his personal courage but also over any feeling of gratitude towards his patrons.’
Leo X, son of Lorenzo, was the first Medici pope, who allowed his brother Giuliano, Duke of Nemours to follow him to Rome (Schevill, 1963), and who died in 1516. Leo X made a client of Michelangelo the ‘…surly young sculptor…’ 1993) and employed him for the ill-fated S. Lorenzo facade. Leo X reputedly said of Michelangelo that ‘He is terrifying, one can’t get on with him.’ (Stokes, 1955, citing Gaye, 1839-40), whereas even Sebastiano del Piombo wrote to Michelangelo that ‘…you frighten everyone, even Popes.’ (Stokes, 1955, citing Le Pileur, 1890). And yet Clement VII, the great admirer of Michelangelo ‘…treated him with the respect that he would ordinarily have accorded a sovereign prince.’ (Cleugh, 1993).
3.1 The facade of San Lorenzo
Michelangelo arrived in Rome in the summer of 1496 with a letter of introduction from Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, the pupil of Ficino and friend of Botticelli (Clark, 1978). Republican rule was restored in Florence between 1495 and 1496 so Michelangelo returned from Rome in 1501. He then carved a St John the Baptist (now lost) for Lorenzo Pierfrancesco (Olson, 1992) which reputedly was ‘…a marble statue of St John as a young man…’ (Von Einem, 1973). He was then recalled to Rome by Pope Julius II in 1505. The earliest example of architecture by Michelangelo was the 1505 lower storey of the Julius II tomb plus a structural design for the Sistine ceiling. However, in 1515 it was proposed that the Medici church in Florence – Brunelleschi’s new San Lorenzo – should have its facade completed. This project was proposed by Pope Leo X and Michelangelo began work in 1516, the contract signed in 1518, see Figure 6, with a design of an architectural frame filled with sculpture (Murray, 1995). Leo X had visited Florence in 1515 who, as Giovanni de’ Medici, Michelangelo had grown up with in Lorenzo’s house. Moreover it also ‘…seems to have been Giuliano da Sangallo who aroused the interest of the new pope Leo X de Medici…in this idea.’ (Von Einem, 1973).
Figure 6. Michelangelo. Model of S. Lorenzo façade (1516). Source: Public domain.
Pope Leo X (1513-1521) did not employ Michelangelo as a painter, nor a sculptor, but as an architect, having designed for Leo the front of a small chapel in Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome. A chapel, not suprisingly, dedicated to the patron saints of the Medici family – Cosmas and Damian. Also Leo decided to transform the open ground floor of the loggia of the Medici Palace in Florence. Again, Michelangelo was entrusted with building the facade.
Regarding the facade Leo X was unable to get Michelangelo to cooperate with his other nominee, Baccio d’Agnoli, so by 1517 Michelangelo was in sole charge of the facade of S. Lorenzo. The facade came to nothing, a plan that envisaged a large number of statues, and which ran into problems concerning marble procurement, eventually faded. Concerning the statues Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (the future Clement VII) decided on the identity of most of the figures and these included: St Laurence; John the Baptist; Peter; Paul; Cosmas; Damian; the four evangelists; legend of St Laurence reliefs; Peter’s crucifixion; and the conversion of St Paul. (Von Einem, 1973).
4.0 Michelangelo and the Medici pope Clement VII
In 1523 Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici became pope Clement VII and commissioned Michelangelo to create a sacrarium or reliquary loggia for the Pergamo of S. Lorenzo, and which was to store the accumulated relics of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Designed in 1526 it was completed between 1532 and 1533. Moreover, Clement VII commissioned the Last Judgement for the altar wall in the Sistine Chapel.
The idea of the Medici Chapel, as a family funerary chapel, was first mooted by Leo X in 1519 and this New Sacristy (Nuovo Sagrestia) in Florence Michelangelo’s greatest ensemble.’ (Olson, 1992), indeed one of his outstanding masterpieces (Cleugh, 1993). Six tombs were planned for Lorenzo the Magnificent, Giuliano de’ Medici (brother of Lorenzo), Leo X, Clement VII, and two never completed for the younger Giuliano, and Lorenzo di Piero. At the instigation of Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici Leo X decided to erect this family mausoleum and the final design was handed to Giulio in 1520 (Frey, 1899), but the tombs for Leo X and Clement VII were never completed (Tolnay, 1947). Even still, Michelangelo abandoned the work in 1534 despite it being his oldest completed building (Von Einem, 1973). Delayed until the death of Leo X work proceeded in 1523 under Clement VII (illegitimate son of Giuliano de’ Medici) and commemorated four Medici: Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano; Giuliano, Duke of Nemours (d.1516); and Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino who died in 1519 (Olson, 1992).
4.1 The Medici Chapel
The New Sacristy is of small central plan with a domed choir at the end, see Figure 7, and comprises a system of pietra serena pilasters, entablatures and pedimented windows, all surmounted by a hemispherical dome in coffered all’antica style (Murray, 1995). Various architectural elements were classically inspired and by not using past formsand creating new ones Michelangelo shows detail and in the combination they are completely original.’ (Murray, 1995). In this sense the `…architecture and sculpture act one upon the other…’ as a ‘…single indivisible work.’ (Von Einem, 1973).
Figure 7. Michelangelo. Medici Chapel, S. Lorenzo. Source: Public domain.
The wall facing the altar contains sculptures of saints Cosmas and Damian flanking the Madonna and Child, the so-called Medici Madonna (Murray, 1995), but Cosmas and Damian were carved by Montesorli and Rafaello da Montelupo (after Michelangelo models) and it was only after some time that Vasari completed floor and walls (Von Einem, 1973). In deep niches over the sarcophagi are idealised portrait sculptures depicting Lorenzo as the Contemplative Life, Figure 8,
Figure 8. Tomb of Lorenzo de Medici. Source: Public domain.
and Giuliano as the Active Life, see Figure 9, with both men in classical armour, with Lorenzo `…relaxed and thoughtful…’ and Giuliano’s ‘…alert pose of arrested movement.’ (Murray, 1995).
Figure 9. Tomb of Guiliano de Medici. Source: Public domain.
Lorenzo, see Figure 10, and Giuliano, see Figure 11, face each other from their recesses, the architectural function ‘…merely to serve as a backdrop to the statues…’ (Cleugh, 1993). There is no attempt to reproduce the actual features of the two dukes (Nemours, and Urbino).
Figure 10. Figure of Lorenzo de Medici. Medici Chapel, S. Lorenzo. Source: Public domain.
Figure 11. Figure of Giuliano de Medici, S, Lorenzo. Source: Public domain.
On each sarcophagus repose figures representing the times of the day, the `…positive times of Night and Day for the Active Life; the more indecisive times of Dawn and Dusk for the Contemplative Life.’ (Murray, 1995). Each sarcophagus carries two reclining nudes, one male, one female (though somewhat androgynous). These nudes represent Twilight or Evening, see Figure 12, and Dawn, see Figure 13, for Lorenzo, with Night, see Figure 14, and Day, see Figure 15, for Giuliano.
Figure 12. Evening/crespuculo. Tomb of Lorenzo de Medici. Source: Public domain.
Figure 13. Dawn/Aurora. Tomb of Lorenzo de Medici. Source: Public domain.
Figure 14. Night/Notte. Tomb of Giuliano de Medici. Source: Public domain.
Figure 15. Day/Giorno. Tomb of Giuliano de Medici. Source: Public domain.
In the recess of the chapel entrance wall, opposite the altar, stands the Medici Madonna, see Figure 16, flanked by the Medici patron saints (Stokes, 1955). A compact group, they lean forward and shelter the infant, stalwart old men resembling ancient sages with troubled faces that lend themselves to the image of the
Figure 16. The Medici Madonna. Source: Public domain.
whole chapel which ‘…silent and enclosed, expresses, in a blend of Christian and Platonic thought, the idea of the House of the Dead.’ (Murray, 1995). In the chapel there is now interaction between sculpture and architecture, the High Renaissance, like the mausoleum occupants, is no more.
4.2 The Laurentian Library
Lorenzo de’ Medici bequethed his library to Florence with the original intention that it be housed in the Monastery of S. Lorenzo. In 1524 Clement VII made provision for a modest project with normal windows which meant Michelangelo had to heighten the structure (Murray, 1995). In 1557 Michelangelo delivererd a clay model for the Biblioteca Laurentiana, see Figure 17, that was eventually executed in 1560 by Ammanati (Wundrum, 1988). The central room is noted for a huge flight of freestandiniteps [see Figure 18] posessing three flights separated by balustrades `…so that they appear to be flowing like molten stone down from the library and spreading across the floorl’ (Murray, 1995). Vasari and Ammanati completed the steps based on Michelangelo’s sketches of 1550.
5.0 Summary and conclusion
Following the restoration of Medici power in Florence Michelangelo was eventually entrusted with completing the facade of S. Lorenzo, and embarking on the Medici funerary chapel (Kempers, 1987, citing also Langedijk, 1981). Michelangelo spent three periods in Florence, 1520-21, 1523-27, and 1530-34, working on the Medici Chapel (Stokes, 1955), as well as the adjoining Laurentian Library. The four completed tombs in the chapel are `…regarded as the crown of Renaissance sc ulpture, as the Sistine Chapel – executed by Michelangelo for Julius II – is considered to be that of Renaissance painting.’ (Cleugh, 1993). With regard to the facade of S. Lorenzo (never completed) the elevation designs were `…his first steps away from the classical world of the High Renaissance and towards the anti-classical world of Mannerism.’ (Von Einem, 1973).
There are two essential aspects of the work of Michelangelo, firstly his passion for anatomy, secondly his awareness of sin, thus his career began at a time `…when Graeco-Roman sculpture was a new and compelling discovery accepted by artists and patrons alike as an ultimate model.’ (Clark, 1978). However, in the process of his development Michelangelo demonstrated the `…inexhaustible repertoire of his movement studies which he used as a means of heightening expression…’ (Burke, 1987). It is this that forms one the bases of Mannerist sculpture. The relationship with Leo X showed the pope’s `…little understanding of Michelangelo’s greatness…’ (Cleugh, 1993) preferring to encourage and reward Raphael whilst also having little respect for Leonardo.
For Leo X Michelangelo devoted fifteen years of his life on the Medici Chapel. Years which were of great importance for Michelangelo’s development, time as an artist which embraces his change `…from the High Renaissance to Mannerism, and prepares the way for his later style.’ (Von Einem, 1973). In this sense a feature of Michelangelo’s sculpture was its idealisation and, as the figures of Lorenzo and Giuliano show, he was not really a portrait sculptor. It can be said that the Medici Chapel was the birthplace of Mannerism (manera = good manners) defining a breaking of the classicist rules of order and harmony and a reaction therefore against the High Renaissance. The figures increasingly lose their individuality, show unnatural movements, and seem imbued with a melancholy presence (Von Einem, 1973).
Analytically, is the Medici Chapel inspired by the ideals of Neoplatonism? There are a number of motifs that enable such an interpretation: river gods and times of the day are found in antiquity – being known from reliefs on the Arch of Constantine in Rome; the contrast of figures as vita contemplativa and vita activa (Panofsky, 1939). If however Michelangelo has left the High Renaissance behind in the chapel then Von Einem’s view (1973) means it is `…unlikely that Michelangelo would have based his design for a chapel dedicated to the Resurrection on the ideas of Neoplatonism.’ The chapel, despite its motifs, is deeply Christian in sentiment, and in keeping with the beliefs of his ecclesiastical patron, pope Leo X. But then, Leo X was also a humanist and well versed classicist. Michelangelo had changed, at this juncture the twisted forms of antique sculpture, for example the Laocoon, and created an instrument `…to visualise the spiritual turmoil of the 16th century.’ (Clark, 1978). Michelangelo presaged therefore the demands of the Counter-Reformation.
Finally, Michelangelo’s personal turmoil interacted with the turmoil of his times (as indeed did Botticelli’s) and his development occurred despite the viscitudes of his patrons whose demands so often (e.g., Julius II’s tomb and Sistine ceiling) vitiated against Michelangelo’s demands on himself. Just as the awesome power of Michelangelo, his terribilita, brought conflicts with his patrons it also imbued his work with his own sense of worth, the individual worth of the increasingly independent minded artist. It remains a moot point whether he would have completed more projects had his patrons left him alone to actually do what they commissioned him to do, and he wanted to do for them.
For the Medici family Michelangelo was not a painter – for them he was a sculptor and architect, their personal monumentalist. It was not until Clement VII commissioned the Last Judgement did the Medici demand such skills, and even then the death of Clement VII transferred the altar wall’s commission to the behest of the next pope Paul III.
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