Michelangelo Buonarroti was born on March 6, 1475, in Caprese, Italy.
His father used to beat him because he didn’t do his lessons but drew all the time.
He didn’t want the boy to become an artist. He considered an artist’s trade to be beneath the family dignity.
But finally, since Michelangelo was so stubborn, he apprenticed him (1488) to a painter (Ghirlandaio), who afterwards claimed to have taught him all he knew.
Michelangelo was exceptionally good at drawing and copying things. He impressed everyone with his version of an engraving by a German artist (Schongauer).
Another sculptor (Torrigiano) punched him in the face for bragging, and ruined his nose for life.
Michelangelo learned about sculpture (1489) at a school set up at the palace of a rich and powerful duke named Lorenzo de Medici. After only a few days he surprised Lorenzo with a perfect stone copy of a faun.
Lorenzo invited him to live in his palace, gave him a place at his table, and a violet robe to wear.
He lived there for three years and, while carving his first works in marble, sat in classes with Lorenzo’s sons, taught by the great teachers (Humanists) of Florence.
Michelangelo once sneaked out of Lorenzo’s palace and ducked into a church to listen to Savonarola, a famous preacher, who condemned the worldliness of his time. Michelangelo’s older brother Leonardo became a Dominican friar and a follower of Savonarola.
A monument to Savonarola in Ferrara, Italy (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license photo by ho visto nina volare)
Lorenzo de Medici suddenly became sick and died (1492).
Lorenzo’s successor, his son Piero, kept Michelangelo at the palace and ordered him to make a snowman.
Michelangelo had to flee Florence (1494) because he saw a revolution against Piero coming. The people ousted Piero and for awhile Florence became a theocracy (ruled by religion) led by Savonarola.
In Bologna Michelangelo was arrested for not paying a city-tax. A nobleman paid it for him and gave him a place to live but, during a whole year, only one little commission.
Florence became a republic (they executed Savonarola) and Michelangelo went back home. He sculpted a marble Cupid (1495) and treated it to look old. A crooked merchant sold it as an antique to a Cardinal in Rome.
When he found out, the Cardinal returned the Cupid to the agent. He did not blame Michelangelo but he didn’t keep this statue either. He invited Michelangelo to live at his palace in Rome and commissioned a life-sized statue of Bacchus, the God of wine.
Michelangelo made Bacchus look tipsy.
Michelangelo made his first trip to the quarries of Carrara to get the marble for his next great statue, the Pietà.
A French Cardinal (Jean de Billheres) ordered it. The Pietà is the only statue Michelangelo ever signed. Some people consider it his best work. At the time, people said the Virgin looked too young to be Christ’s mother.
Michelangelo returned to Florence to try to get a big marble block that was being handed out by the city governor. It had been standing around in a yard for years and had a hole through it, so it was considered worthless. He took measurements and designed for it a statue of David, the shepherd boy who killed Goliath with a stone from his sling. David is seventeen feet high. Michelangelo carved it in just eighteen months and it was set up in front of the Town Hall (Palazzo della Signoria) of Florence.
Next, the governor asked him to paint a picture, a battle scene, on the wall of the Town Hall. Leonardo da Vinci got the commission to paint on another wall; so the world’s two greatest artists worked there at the same time, though they probably didn’t talk to each other. For one reason or another, neither of them finished his painting. Michelangelo’s is called the Battle of Cascina and showed soldiers being surprised by an attack while they were swimming.
Leonardo’s is called the Battle of Anghiari, and shows riders and horses colliding in a cavalry charge.
About this time Michelangelo bought his first farm as an investment. It was not for himself but for his father. Most of the real estate he bought over the next years was meant for his father or his brothers. He himself always lived frugally, no matter how rich he got.
Julius II, as soon as he was elected Pope (1505), wanted to do great things and called Michelangelo to Rome to design and build his tomb.
Michelangelo came up with a complex design with forty statues, which delighted the Pope. In great spirits Michelangelo went to Carrara to quarry the marble. He returned after eight months and set up shop near the Vatican. The Pope used to drop by his workshop to chat and see how things were coming along.
Suddenly the Pope changed his mind about the tomb and cancelled the project. Michelangelo was so shocked and angered that he destroyed his models, left Rome by night, and went back home to Florence (1506).
The Pope sent messengers to bring him back but Michelangelo told them to go to the devil: in Florence he was outside the Pope’s jurisdiction. In those days the Pope wasn’t just a spiritual leader like now. He was a powerful monarch with an army. Standing up to him was very dangerous.
For awhile the governor (gonfaloniere) of Florence protected Michelangelo but when the Pope threatened him too, he told Michelangelo he would have to obey the Pope’s order to return and face the consequences. At the time the Pope’s army had just conquered the city of Bologna and Michelangelo went there to meet him.
Pope Julius pardoned Michelangelo and ordered him to make a giant bronze statue of himself, Julius, to commemorate his taking of the city. Michelangelo showed his sketch of the figure to the Pope. One hand was raised in a blessing. “What should I do with the other one, Holy Father?” he asked. “Put a book there?”
“A sword,” said Julius. “I don’t know anything about books.”
Michelangelo worked for over a year on the bronze, rooming with four other craftsman in a cheap hotel. When it was finally cast the top part didn’t come out and he had to do some of it over again. It was finally set up over the main gate of the city (1508). Three years later, when Bologna was being attacked by the Pope’s enemies, the statue was melted down to make a cannon.
Then Julius called Michelangelo to Rome to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508) . “But I’m not a painter,” Michelangelo protested. He had painted very little and the Pope was asking him to fill three thousand square feet of ceiling. Julius wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel took four years and was the hardest thing Michelangelo ever did. He worked alone, pushing himself to the limit every day. He ate old bread and slept in his work-clothes. “I have no time for friends,” he wrote his father. “And I hope the Pope will pay me soon because I haven’t got a penny left.”
When the ceiling was only half-finished, the impatient Pope ordered Michelangelo to take down the scaffolding and open the chapel to the public. The paintings created a great stir in Rome and all Italy. They illustrated the saga of Man from his creation to the coming of Christ.
By the time the ceiling was finished (1512), the Pope was old and infirm and he again asked Michelangelo to make him a tomb. His heirs signed a new contract with Michelangelo and he started to block out the Moses and some figures that are now called Slaves. He went to the quarries of Carrara for marble.
He would gladly have worked on Julius’ tomb until it was finished but along came a new Pope (Leo X), a Medici and friend of his, and ordered him to create a facade for the family church of San Lorenzo in Florence (1516).
Julius’ heirs pointed to their contract with Michelangelo and insisted he work for them. Finally the Pope and the heirs agreed to share Michelangelo: he would work half-time for each.
He spent much of the next few years in the quarries of Carrara and Pietra Santa (1517-1520). Altogether he spent many years in marble quarries doing hard and dangerous work.
One day Pope Leo inexplicably cancelled the San Lorenzo facade project (1520) and ordered Michelangelo to design a library and a chapel with the tombs of his relatives.
Julius’ heirs continued to hound Michelangelo. They accused him of neglecting his duties with them. They believed that some of the money which Julius had paid him for the Sistine paintings was meant for the tomb and that Michelangelo had simply pocketed it. They threatened to sue him. The dispute went on for forty years. He suffered terribly because of this. Over the years, the popes, one after another, ordered their own projects and refused to let him work on the Julius tomb. There were altogether five contracts with Julius’ heirs, and with each one Michelangelo had to alter his project and abandon statues he had started. It was incredibly frustrating. But it was the accusation that he was crooked which tortured him most. The “tragedy of the tomb”, as he himself called it, lasted all through his old age and embittered his life.
There were wars going on. The Emperor Charles V sacked Rome and made the Pope (Clement VII, a Medici) a prisoner. The city of Florence saw their chance to be free and threw out their Medici ruler. They prepared for an attack by the imperial army and appointed Michelangelo Chief of Fortifications. He had to stop work in the Medici Chapel and devote himself full-time to the defense of his city.
The Pope was finally freed and made a deal with the emperor: Charles could have Bologna and would help Clement take back Florence for the Medici. The imperial and papal armies then laid siege to Florence(1528).
The siege went on for most of a year. Things looked bleak. Michelangelo did his best to defend it but got wind of a conspiracy to surrender the city, and one dark night he fled. He went to Venice. The Florentine government declared him a traitor. He returned just before the city fell. When the victorious armies came marching in, with Alessandro de’ Medici at the head, he had to hide until the coast was clear. It was his friend the Pope who cleared it for him. He pardoned Michelangelo and ordered him to get back to work in the Medici Chapel.
Michelangelo wasn’t comfortable in Florence any more. He had many enemies, including the new dictator Alessandro. Without finishing all the figures in the Medici Chapel he left Florence for good (1532). For the rest of his life he lived in Rome.
There he met two people who became his closet friends: Vittoria de Colonna and Tommaso de Cavalieri.
For them he made drawings and wrote many poems. He had been writing poems (sonnets) for years. His models were the great poets Dante and Petrarch. In them he speaks of love and his quest for beauty.
Pope Clement ordered him to paint the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. It took him eight years to finish The Last Judgment (1541) because of interruptions for other work and illness.
He fell off the scaffold once and was in bed for months. It was his last great painting. But when he was over seventy he did two more huge frescoes in the Vatican: the Conversion of St. Paul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter.
At last he finished the Julius Tomb. In fact, most of it was sculpted by his helpers. But the central figure—the Moses— is one of Michelangelo’s most powerful statues.
The last important job he had, which occupied him for years when he was old, was St. Peter’s Basilica.
Two Popes made him the official architect. An assistant helped him build a model for the dome.
He left a lot of unfinished statues around in Rome and Florence. One, the Duomo Pietá he intended for his own grave but became unsatisfied with it and smashed it to pieces.
He worked on another—the Rondanini Pietá—almost until the day he died.
He died at 89 (1564) after a few days with a fever. His nephew took his body back home to Florence. The funeral was one of the biggest Florence ever saw. More than a hundred artists attended.
For a closer look at his works see Michelangelo Timeline.
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