Sunday, March 6, 2016

Today in History

Portrait of Michelangelo by Baccio Bandinelli (1522)
Michelangelo by Bandinelli (1522)
Today in 1475 in a tiny village in Tuscany, Italy, a genius was born. His name was Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. He was one of the greatest and most influential artists of the Renaissance and the greatest sculptor of all time.

Michelangelo's family was not rich, but they were respectable. His father, Ludovico di Leonardo Buonarroti Simoni, was a banker in Florence, but the bank failed and his father had taken the job of magistrate in the tiny village of Caprese at the time of his second son's, Michelangelo's, birth. The family soon returned to Florence. When Michelangelo was around 6 years old, because of his mother's illness, he was fostered to a family of stonecutters in the town of Settignano, where his family owned a quarry and farm. Michelangelo later jested that he learned the skill of chisel and hammer with his wet-nurse's milk.

Michelangelo was sent to a grammar school in Florence, but he spent most of his time observing artists at work - there was an explosion of art being created at Florence at the time - and drawing sketches. Impressed by his 13 year old son's talent and recognizing his lack of interest in schooling, his father apprenticed him to master fresco painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, who had the largest workshop in Florence. After just one year, when the most powerful man in Florence, Lorenzo de Medici, asked Ghirlandaio for his two best students, Michelangelo was one of the boys picked. For the next three years he studied at Medici's humanist academy and met the Medici family and the elites of Florence. It was at this time that Michelangelo sculpted the Madonna of the Steps and the Battle of the Centaurs.

When Lorenzo de Medici died in 1492, Florence was in upheaval. Michelangelo moved back with his father, then to Venice and to Bologna, doing small commissions. In 1494, Florence was calmer and Michelangelo returned to the employ of the Medic's, who had been deposed by Savaronola. One of his patrons, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, asked him to create a fake antique sculpture, so that it could be sold for more money. Michelangelo sculpted a sleeping Cupid and aged it with acidic earth. It was sold to Cardinal Raffaele Riario, who discovered it was a fraud but was so impressed with the quality of the sculpture that he let Michelangelo keep the money and invited him to Rome.

Michelangelo arrived in Rome at age 21. This is the period when he created the Pieta, a commission by the Fench Cardinal, Jean de Bilhères-Lagraulas. He completed the Pieta at age 25, working for it for a year. The Pieta was immediately recognized as a masterpiece and basically turned Michelangelo into a rock star among artists. It is from this moment that he became one of the great masters. This is my favorite of all of Michelangelo's sculptures. It is also the only one he ever signed, carving his name across Mary's sash. It is currently in a place of honor at the Vatican.

It is impossible to do justice to Michelangelo's life in a blog post. Michelangelo lived a full life, creating master works and causing conflict and controversy with his bold style and innovation. His most famous masterworks include the statue of David in Florence, and of course the incredible Sistine Chapel ceiling frescos, commissioned by Pope Julius II and which took him four years to create. Michelangleo was a perfectionist, and one of his commissions, Pope Julius II's tomb, he worked on for forty years and never declared himself satisfied. The tomb included the famous horned statue of Moses.

Not only was Michelangelo an artist, but in later years he was also a poet. He wrote over three hundred sonnets and madrigals. Many of them were written for two important people in his life: his friend Tommaso de'Cavalieri, a young nobleman, and Vittoria Colonna, a noble widow. It is unknown whether he had any lovers of either gender.  Although he achieved fame and wealth during his lifetime, he lived in a simple manner and had almost a monk-like existence.

Michelangelo died on February 18, 1564, after a brief illness, just three weeks shy of his 89th birth.

There have been volumes and volumes of books written about Michelangelo. One of the most famous in modern times is the biographical novel The Agony and The Ecstasy by Irving Stone.  This was made into a movie in 1965 starring Charlton Heston as Michelangelo and Rex Harrison as Pope Julius II.

A straight biography of Michelangelo that seems worth reading is Michelangelo: A Life in Six Masterpieces by Miles J. Unger.

If you are looking, perhaps as a gift, for a big glossy book that has beautiful photographs of Michelangelo's masterpieces, either the gigantic and beautiful compendium Michelangelo: The Complete Works by Frank Zöllner (shipping weight: 12 pounds!) or the slightly less hefty Michelangelo: The Complete Sculpture, Painting, Architecture by William E. Wallace are worth considering.

Have a great Sunday!

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