The most talented artist of all times
The Genius of Michelangelo
Classical western art, as we perceive it today, owns its grandiose impact on European culture mainly because of two great epochs – the ancient Greece antiquity and the Italian Renaissance. Of course, meanwhile, the nature of art was a subject of an infinite amount of transformations and metamorphosis, but the idea of Art as the peak of human genius and highest ideal was the fundamental achievement of these two periods. Human imagination thrived with great enthusiasm, devotion, and unlimited possibilities! Humanitarian concepts raised the understanding of human beings as the wreath of Nature, and the greatest goal – the pursuit after the perfection of both knowledge and artistic expression. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Florence was the main center of Art and Renaissance thought. Annually, hundreds of artists, poets, and philosophers appeared on the scene. Some of them are still among the most eminent painters, sculptors, and thinkers as Donatello, Brunelleschi, Marsilio Ficino, Leonardo Da Vinci, and many others. Nevertheless the imposing company, there was one artist who dared to break through the limits of what was then possible in fine arts and architecture. His name was Michelangelo and he became one of the greatest sources of inspiration for later artists and researchers.
Early life and first steps into the world of Art
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was born on March 6, 1475, in Caprese, Republic of Florence (Italy), and died on February 18, 1564, in Rome (Papal States). He was one of the most distinguished, productive, and ambitious artists from the epoch of the Italian Renaissance. Michelangelo performed in various forms like sculpture, painting, architecture, and poetry, which was not so rare in his times, but the amount and grandeur of his works are outstanding even from a contemporary point of view. During his lifetime, he was acknowledged to be the greatest artist alive, which led to the unprecedented preservation of his projects, both finished and unfinished. Giorgio Vasari included Michelangelo in his series of artists' autobiographies (1550) and the latter became the first one who received that honor during his lifetime but devoted to art he was.
At the age of thirteen, which was then considered late, Michelangelo became an apprentice to one of Florentine's most prominent painters - Domenico Ghirlandaio. Four years later, the novice decided that he has nothing more to learn from his teacher and was introduced to Lorenzo De'Medici, who, at that moment, had already patronized various artists, poets, and philosophers. Michelangelo was included in the intellectual elite of Florence and most importantly, he obtained access to the Medici's classical art collection. During that period, he accomplished at least two, known to us, marble works – Madonna at the stairs and Battle of the Centaurs. The second one should be taken as an early example of his future interests in body dynamics and anatomy.
Pieta and David
Shortly before Medici were dethroned, Michelangelo moved to Bologna where he was commissioned to sculpt small figures for the tomb and the shrine of St.Dominic (1494-1495). The first large statue Bacchus (1496-1497) that survived the times was produced in Rome and led to a commission for the well-known Pieta (1498). Only 23 years old, Michelangelo created one of the most exemplary and precise pieces of sculpture ever. The meticulously carved marble figures bring into mind a resemblance to living beings and evoke thoughts of the suffering undergone by Christ in order to purify the humans' souls from sin. His next work - David (1501) - once again turned to be a non-surpassed criterion for introducing the simplified classical geometry accompanied by organic asymmetry. It is still one of the most famous symbols of beauty, proportion, and detail in the world of sculpture, and moreover, of the highest ideal of Humanity ever materialized. Originally intended to be a buttress of the cathedral of Florence, David made such a tremendous impression on Michelangelo's contemporaries that they made the decision to put it in a more important and notable place – the entrance of Palazzo dei Priori – to serve as an emblem of Florentine Republic.
The Sistine Chapel
After David, Michelangelo worked on several different projects, of which the most famous one was the painting Holy Family, a cornerstone for the later Mannerism. In 1508, Pope Julius ІІ sought after Michelangelo to produce frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. Maybe the best-known work of his, although he considered himself a sculptor, took him 4 years to complete it and represented an original neo-platonic interpretation of the classical Bible motives, as the creation of Adam and Eve, the prophets, Noah, etc. In the succeeding years, Michelangelo carved the sculpture Moses (1513-1515) and two sculptures of bound slaves for the tomb of the pope but Julius ІІ died and the funds for the project were cut off. The artist was directing more and more his work to architecture. The next two big projects were to design the interior of the Medici Chapel and Laurentian Library. Michelangelo was mostly working on the tombs of Medici up to 1934 when he went to Rome and reverted to frescoes painting again with the infamous The Last Judgement (1934-1941) on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel. The frescoes consist of more than three hundred figures and took in total around eleven years to be completed. It became the most emblematic representation of the famous scene from the Book of Revelation.
Michelangelo and the painful rapture of poetry
Although Michelangelo was not so famous for that, he left more than three hundred poems, mostly short and expressive forms, but also sonnets and madrigals. He was influenced by the love poetry of Petrarch and as in some of his artistic renderings, by the philosophy of Neo-Platonism. These interests reverberated in his poetry, which represents love, art, and inspiration as truthful aides on the laborious journey to the acceptance of divine nature.
Here is one example of Michelangelo's ardent verses:JOY MAY KILL
Too much good luck no less than misery
May kill a man condemned to mortal pain,
If, lost to hope and chilled in every vein,
A sudden pardon comes to set him free.
Thus thy unwonted kindness shown to me
Amid the gloom where only sad thoughts reign,
With too much rapture bringing light again,
Threatens my life more than that agony.
Good news and bad may bear the self-same knife;
And death may follow both upon their flight;
For hearts that shrink or swell, alike will break.
Let then thy beauty, to preserve my life,
Temper the source of this supreme delight,
Lest joy so poignant slay a soul so weak.
This translation of "Joy May Kill" was composed by John Addington Symonds (1840-1893).
Late years and Legacy
In his late years, Michelangelo focused mostly on architectural projects in Rome. He redesigned the Capitoline Square and worked, until the end of his life, on the dome of the St. Peter's Basilica. In the meantime, he completed smaller building projects as Palazzo Farnese and creative designs for Porta Pia. Michelangelo's last painting was the frescoes of Pauline Chapel in the Vatican, one of which – The Crucifixion of St. Peter – is believed to be his self-portrait. In his art, Michelangelo often depicted himself as a sinner and penitent, especially in The Last Judgement, an understanding, which is likely to have made an effect on his last poems. They change in style and bring resemblance to prayers.
Michelangelo became a great inspiration for the later movement of Mannerism, for the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the painter Peter Paul Rubens and most notably for the unfinished style of sculpture of Rodin. His sculptures and frescoes are one of the highest aesthetic achievements of human art and anatomical accuracy and are still used as models for students and artists.
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