In Michelangelo’s time people were crazy about the past. They worshipped old Rome; they considered it a better world where people were wiser, braver, and more beautiful.
An example: In 1487, when Michelangelo was a boy, an old Roman grave was discovered with the body of a Roman matron—not the skeleton but the well-preserved body—the miraculously well-preserved and breathtakingly beautiful body.
People flocked to see it. They were sure they would see (and when they looked they were sure they saw) a woman far more beautiful than any alive in their days. “She was more beautiful than can be said or written, and were it said or written, it would not be believed by those who had not seen her,” wrote one pilgrim. A Roman matron just had to be a prodigy of beauty and grace, even 1500 years dead*. (From The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy by Jacob Burckhardt; Rome: the City of Ruins.)
Everyone began collecting Roman antiques. Pope Julius II sent out expeditions of “archaeologists” to dig around and see what they could unearth. All Rome was an Easter egg hunt.
Antique statues were found everywhere, some of them really beautiful but all of them venerated. The Belvedere Venus was found then, and the Ariadne (for a while known as Cleopatra); the Laocoön; the Torso; the Belvedere Apollo. From all over Italy artists pilgrimaged to Rome to see these heavenly discoveries—and imitate them. They were the models of excellence.
Art customers and patrons didn’t have to tell the artists what they wanted. The artists themselves were all under the spell of the new finds.
Botticelli couldn’t think of a better figure for his own painting, The Birth of Venus, than Praxiteles’ statue, a copy of which he probably saw at the Medici palace.
Many considered the Belvedere Apollo the epitome of beauty. It showed less body-building than the later, Hellenistic, works like the Laocoön.
To show Adam and Eve, Albrecht Dürer decided he couldn’t do better than a version of the Apollo.
Apollo is tall. Tallness was catchy, both in this and in several of the other great finds; and the Mannerist artists (those just after Michelangelo, himself sometimes considered one) thought they saw in it the secret to elegance, and they began to stretch their figures. Though Michelangelo preferred a more dynamic god, he too saw the benefits of making one that was eight or nine (or ten) heads tall.
He was working in Rome and dropped what he was doing to go and see the Laocoön when it was unearthed.
Such was its influence on his work that it is hard not to recall Laocoön’s groaning face and prominent torso in Michelangelo’s unfinished Giants.
The so-called Torso, on display in the Vatican Belvedere villa, also showed him a very powerful way of representing the male nude.
St. Bartholomew’s hefty torso in the Last Judgment painting seems a sort of painted version of the antique sculpture.
The sleeping Ariadne, whether troubled by a dream, stretching gloriously like a cat, caught in a cute thought, or inviting company, has never left Western art.
Goya’s Naked Maja, painted two hundred and fifty years after the Renaissance itself was buried, may well be a late version.
Perhaps you think that many of these poses are so natural that they would occur to any artist with a model in any age. But in art as in science, everything has to be invented before it is considered obvious; perceived and pointed out before it is appreciated. Then only a genius can depart from the original model, and he might not come along for centuries.
* Burckhardt’s source for the story believed the lady wore a wax mask, colored to simulate living flesh.