Michelangelo Biography – Italian Renaissance Sculptor, Painter, Architect, Legacy

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Michelangelo. Attributed to Daniele da Volterra, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Michelangelo Biography and Legacy

Michelangelo Buonarroti was an Italian sculptor, painter, and architect of the High Renaissance, widely regarded as the greatest artist of all time.

Michelangelo, along with Leonardo da Vinci, is considered the archetypal Renaissance Man, who exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of western art.

His artistic skills were such that, in his lifetime, he came to be referred to as The Divine One, and his works such as the statue of David and the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling are considered some of the greatest works of art ever produced.

Early Life

Michelangelo was born on 6th March 1475 in Caprese (known today as Caprese Michelangelo), a village and commune in the province of Arezzo, Tuscany.

At the time of his birth, his father, Ludovico Buonarroti, was the town’s judicial administrator and the local administrator of the municipality of Chiusi Della Verna.

The Buonarroti family believed that they were descendants of the Countess Mathilde of Canossa, who was a member of the House of Canossa and one of the most powerful nobles in Italy in the second half of the 11th century. Even though this claim remained unproven, Michelangelo continued to believe it.

A few months after Michelangelo was born the family moved to the city of Florence, where he grew up.

In 1481, when Michelangelo was only 6 years old, his mother passed away from a prolonged illness. He then began living with a nanny and her husband, who was a stonecutter, in the town of Settignano, on a hillside northeast of Florence.

Michelangelo’s father owned a small farm and a marble quarry in Settignano, and it was here that Michelangelo acquired his love for marble.

Early Life in Florence

Michelangelo showed an early interest in drawing. When he was young, he was sent to Florence to study grammar under Francesco da Urbina. But he showed no interest in his studies, instead preferring to copy the paintings he saw in churches.

At the time, Florence was the center of the arts and learning in Italy. Art and learning were sponsored and encouraged by the town council, merchant guilds, and wealthy patrons such as the Medici family.

In 1488, Michelangelo, aged 13, became an apprentice to Domenico Ghirlandaio, an Italian Renaissance painter who was part of the third generation of the Florentine Renaissance along with other artists such as Botticelli and Verrocchio.

Ghirlandaio was a master in fresco painting, portraiture, figure drawing, and perspective. He had the largest and one of the most popular workshops in Florence. He was also invited, as part of a team of painters, to the Vatican to decorate the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

In 1489, Michelangelo’s father convinced Ghirlandaio to pay the 14-year-old Michelangelo as an artist, a rare thing for such a young apprentice.

The same year, when Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence, asked Ghirlandaio for two of his best students, Ghirlandaio sent Michelangelo as one of them.

Attending the Platonic Academy

In 1490, Michelangelo began attending the Platonic Academy, which was founded after Georgius Gemistus Pletho (a philosopher of the late Byzantine era and a pioneer of the revival of Greek scholarship in western Europe) reintroduced Plato’s thoughts to western Europe during the 1438-39 Council of Florence.

The Academy was sponsored by Cosimo de’ Medici and continued to be supported by the Medici until the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici.

It was more of a discussion group than a formal academy, but the members considered themselves a modern form of Plato’s Academy. It espoused a Humanist philosophy.

At the Academy, Michelangelo’s work and outlook were deeply influenced by many of the most prominent writers and philosophers of the time, such as Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, Agnolo Ambrogini (commonly known as Poliziano), and Marsilio Ficino, who primarily led the Academy.

Michelangelo attended the Platonic Academy until 1492.

Early Works

During the period from 1490 to 1492, while Michelangelo attended the Academy, he sculpted two reliefs, Madonna of the Stairs and Battle of the Centaurs, the latter being commissioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici and based on a theme suggested by Poliziano.

After the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici in 1492, Michelangelo left the Academy and the security of the Medici court and moved back into his father’s house.

In 1493, Michelangelo carved a polychrome wooden crucifix as a gift to the prior of the Florentine Church of Santa Spirito. The prior was so impressed by the work that he allowed Michelangelo to dissect corpses from the church’s hospital in order to conduct anatomical studies. The result of these studies was to be quite evident in his later works.

The same year, he purchased a block of marble and carved a large statue of Hercules, which was sent to France and then, later on, disappeared sometime in the 18th century.

In early 1494, Lorenzo’s heir, Piero de’ Medici, commissioned a snow statue to Michelangelo, allowing him to enter the court of the Medici once again.

Leaving Florence

Shortly after rejoining the court of the Medici, the Medici were expelled from Florence due to the rise of Girolamo Savonarola, the Dominican friar, and preacher who was known for his calls for Christian renewal and the destruction of secular art and culture.

Before the political upheaval could come to an end, Michelangelo left Florence and first moved to Venice and then to Bologna.

In Bologna, Michelangelo was commissioned to carve several of the last small figures for the completion of Saint Dominic’s Shrine, which is a monument containing the remains of Saint Dominic, located in the Basilica of San Domenico in Bologna.

During this time, Michelangelo carefully studied the works of other great sculptors such as the panel of The Creation of Eve carved by Jacopo Della Quercia, a composition that would reappear on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Return to Florence

Once the political situation in Florence had improved, Michelangelo returned to the city. Florence was no longer under threat from the French.

But upon his return, he found it difficult to receive commissions from the new city government under Savonarola. And so, he returned to the employment of the Medici.

Michelangelo spent the next six months in Florence, working on two small statues, the Sleeping Cupid and a child St. John the Baptist.

He had artificially aged the sculpture of the Sleeping Cupid by treating it with acidic earth. He had done this on the advice of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici so that he could sell the sculpture in Rome as an ancient work at a much greater price.

They sold the sculpture to Cardinal Raffaele Riario, who later discovered that it was a fraud and demanded his money back. But the Cardinal was so impressed by Michelangelo’s work that he permitted him to keep his share of the money and invited the young artist to Rome.

The sculpture of the Sleeping Cupid was an important work that helped establish the 21-year-old Michelangelo’s reputation in Rome.

Bacchus and Pieta

Michelangelo arrived in Rome in June 1496, aged 21, at the invitation of Cardinal Raffaele Riario.

The Cardinal commissioned Michelangelo to make an over-life-sized statue of Bacchus, the Roman Wine God. Unfortunately, the Cardinal was unhappy with the outcome and rejected the work upon its completion. The marble statue was instead bought by Jacopo Galli, Riario’s banker and Michelangelo’s friend.

The following year, Michelangelo was commissioned by the French ambassador in Rome, Cardinal Jean de Bilheres-Lagraulas, to sculpt a Pieta, which shows the Virgin Mary grieving over the body of Jesus. It is the first of a number of works of the same theme by Michelangelo.

By the time he had completed the sculpture in 1499, Michelangelo had turned 24 years old. The work soon came to be regarded as one of the world’s greatest masterpieces of sculpture.

The Pieta by Michelangelo
The Pieta by Michelangelo. Image by Jacques Savoye from Pixabay

Giorgio Vasari famously remarked that “It is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh.”

The Pieta now rests in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City.

The Statue of David

In 1498, the anti-Renaissance and conservative preacher Girolamo Savonarola was executed. In his place, a new leader, Piero Soderini, rose up and came to prominence, bringing a change in the political atmosphere of the Republic of Florence.

Michelangelo returned to Florence in 1499. Upon his arrival, the Guild of Wool asked him to complete an unfinished project which had begun 40 years ago by the early renaissance sculptor Agostino di Duccio.

The project was a great statue of Carrara marble depicting the biblical David as a symbol of Florentine freedom.

Michelangelo took up the commission and worked on the project for 3 years, from 1501 to 1504, until he finally completed what would become his most famous work and masterpiece, the statue of David.

The marble statue is 5.17 meters tall, and it came to symbolize the defense of civil liberties embodied in the Republic of Florence, which was threatened on all sides by more powerful rival states.

The Statue of David by Michelangelo
The Statue of David by Michelangelo. Image by davidwtc from Pixabay

The statue was originally supposed to be positioned along the roofline of the east end of Florence Cathedral but was instead placed in a public square, outside the Palazzo Vecchio (the town hall of Florence).

The statue of David established Michelangelo as one of the greatest sculptors of his time.

In 1873, the statue was moved from its original location to the Accademia Gallery in Florence and replaced by a replica.

Works after David

In 1504, Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the Battle of Cascina in the council chamber of the Palazzo Vecchio. Leonardo da Vinci had been commissioned to paint The Battle of Anghiari on the opposite wall.

Sadly, both paintings were never completed. Michelangelo had only made some preparatory drawings when he was called to Rome in 1505 by Pope Julius II, to work on the Pope’s Tomb.

During this period, Michelangelo was also commissioned to paint the Holy Family, which is the only finished panel painting by Michelangelo to survive. The painting is known as the Doni Tondo and now hangs in the Uffizi Gallery.

The Tomb of Pope Julius II

In 1505, Michelangelo once again made his way to Rome at the invitation of Pope Julius II.

He was commissioned to build the Pope’s Tomb, which was to include 40 statues and be completed within 5 years.

Michelangelo would eventually go on to work on the tomb for almost 40 years, as he was constantly interrupted by being asked to undertake other projects. He was never able to finish it to his satisfaction.

The tomb is located in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome. It is now most famous for the central sculpture of Moses, which was completed in 1516.

The Sculpture of Moses, the Central Figure of the Tomb of Pope Julius ll
The Sculpture of Moses, the Central Figure of the Tomb of Pope Julius ll. Image by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay

A New Project – The Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

While Michelangelo worked on the Pope’s tomb, he and the Pope constantly got into arguments, which, on one particular occasion, led to Michelangelo returning to Florence in secret.

In 1506, Pope Julius ll began rebuilding the Basilica. He thought of a scheme to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with 12 large figures of the Apostles to occupy the pendentives.

In November 1506, Michelangelo was sent to Bologna to complete a bronze statue of the Pope conquering the Bolognese. When he returned to Rome in 1508 to resume work on the tomb, he learned that the project had been set aside and a new project awaited him, which was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

It is said that Donato Bramante, the Papal Court architect, convinced the Pope to commission the project to Michelangelo. Bramante had apparently done this out of envy, thinking that Michelangelo would fail at the project as he was a sculptor, not a painter.

Michelangelo himself was reluctant to take on the work as he had no experience in painting such large frescoes. He refused the Pope’s offer, instead suggesting his younger contemporary Raphael for the job.

But the Pope insisted, leaving Michelangelo with no choice but to accept the project. However, he managed to persuade the Pope to give him a free hand to do as he liked, and then went on to propose a much more complex and grander scheme than the one suggested by the Pope.

Michelangelo’s scheme would represent the Creation of Man, the Fall of Man, the Promise of Salvation through the Prophets, and the Genealogy of Christ.

The Pope agreed to allow Michelangelo to carry out his proposed scheme as he liked.

Painting the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Before beginning the project, Michelangelo sought to bring in assistants who were well-versed in painting frescoes. But he was unable to find the right artists and instead decided to undertake the project by himself.

He first had freestanding scaffoldings built for painting the ceiling. And in the spring of 1508, he began working on the project.

Michelangelo described his method of working in his letters to his family and friends. He worked with his head tilted upwards, while paint drops constantly fell on his face, affecting his eyes. He suffered from severe backache and neckache because of the positions in which he was forced to paint.

And while he faced these problems and more, he also had frequent arguments with the Pope regarding his delayed payments.

Michelangelo worked for over 4 years on the project while being deeply unhappy with the arduous conditions in which he painted and with the way he lived in Rome. He even remarked in a letter, “I’m not at the right place, and I’m not a painter.”

But Michelangelo stuck with the project and struggled on.

The first half of the ceiling was completed in September 1510 and the second half was completed in August 1511.

The finished composition contained over 300 figures and stretched over 500 square meters of ceiling. The work was finally revealed on 31st October 1512, All Hallow’s Eve, and was shown to the public on the next day, All Saints’ Day.

The Sistine Chapel Ceiling by Michelangelo
The Sistine Chapel Ceiling by Michelangelo. Image by Juan Carlos Rodriguez Casmartiño from Pixabay

Michelangelo was 37 years old when the work was revealed to the public, and his reputation soared to such an extent that people began referring to him as The Divine One.

From then on, Michelangelo was regarded as the greatest artist of his time, a maestro who had elevated the status of the arts themselves. He was courted and pursued by the richest and most influential patrons of the time.

This reputation of his would last for the rest of his life.

The Sistine Chapel Ceiling has since been considered one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of art.

Architectural Commissions

In 1524, Michelangelo received an architectural commission from the Medici Pope, Clement Vll, for the Laurentian Library at San Lorenzo’s Church in Florence.

Michelangelo designed the interior of the library and its vestibule, a building utilizing architectural form with such a dynamic effect that it is seen as the forerunner of Baroque architecture.

In 1527, the Medici was thrown out of power and the republic was restored. Michelangelo was commissioned to work on the city’s fortification, an offer which he gladly accepted. He worked on the project from 1528 to 1529.

But in 1530, the Medici were restored to power and Michelangelo fell out of favor with Alessandro Medici, who had been installed as the first Duke of Florence.

Afraid for his life, Michelangelo fled to Rome, leaving behind assistants to complete the Laurentian Library and the Medici Chapel (another commission he was working on).

Upon his arrival in Rome, Pope Clement Vll welcomed him even though he had resisted Medici rule in Florence. The Pope even reinstated his allowance.

The Last Judgement

In 1534, just before his death, Pope Clement Vll commissioned Michelangelo to paint a fresco of The Last Judgement on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo worked on the project from 1534 to 1541. while simultaneously also working on a number of other architectural projects. He was 67 years old when the project was completed.

The fresco shows the second coming of Christ and his final and eternal judgments of the souls. It shows the dead rising and descending to their fates, condemned to Heaven or Hell by a youthful, naked, beardless, and muscular Jesus.

The fresco includes over 300 figures with almost all the males and angels originally shown as nudes.

The reaction to the painting was mixed, with many praising as well as criticizing it on religious and artistic grounds.

Michelangelo broke and ignored traditional artistic conventions through the muscular style of the bodies and the amount of nudity in the painting, which became major points of criticism.

St. Peter’s Basilica

In 1546, Michelangelo was appointed as the architect of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome.

The process of replacing the 4th-century Basilica had been going on for almost 50 years. In 1506, foundations had been laid according to the plans established by Donato Bramante. Many other architects had worked on it successively but had made little progress.

Once Michelangelo became the chief architect, he revisited the concepts and plans established by Bramante and further developed his ideas for a centrally planned church, strengthening the structure both physically and visually.

Michelangelo’s major contribution to the Basilica was at the chancel end with its huge centrally placed dome. The dome rises to a height of 136.57 meters from the floor of the Basilica to the top of the external cross, making it one of the tallest domes in the world.

Michelangelo redesigned the dome, taking into account all the designs and plans laid down by his predecessors, such as Bramante and Sangallo.

The Dome of St. Peter's Basilica
The Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. Image by LoggaWiggler from Pixabay

The dome was finally completed in 1590, 26 years after Michelangelo’s death. It is often described as the greatest creation of the Renaissance.

Final Years and Death

In his final years, Michelangelo worked on a number of Pietas through which he reflected upon mortality.

Michelangelo had always been a devout Catholic his entire life, but his faith deepened even more toward the end of his life.

He was a rich man in his old age and had become the most famous, well-paid, and sought-after artist of the time.

On 18th February 1564, Michelangelo, aged 88, died in Rome. He was only three weeks away from his 89th birthday.

Michelangelo’s body was interred at the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, fulfilling his last wish to be buried in his beloved city.

The Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I de’ Medici, organized a state funeral in Florence to honor Michelangelo.

Michelangelo’s heir, Lionardo Buonarroti, commissioned Giorgio Vasari to design and build Michelangelo’s tomb. The marble for the tomb was supplied by Cosimo I de’ Medici. Vasari took over 14 years to complete it.


Michelangelo is widely regarded as one of the greatest artists to have ever lived. Along with Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, he has defined the High Renaissance as one of its giants.

Michelangelo was highly prolific throughout his long artistic career and his works in sculpture, painting, and architecture are now some of the most famous works in history.

He was the best-documented artist of his time, due to the great volume of his surviving correspondence, poetry, reminiscences, and sketches. And he was also the first western artist whose biography was published while he was alive.

His works have had a great influence on sculptors, painters, and architects of subsequent generations, as well as his contemporaries such as Raphael and Pontormo.

Michelangelo’s works have resulted in a new style of European art known as Mannerism. This style emerged in the later years of the Italian High Renaissance and became the next major art movement in western art.

Michelangelo’s dedication to his craft, and his ability to work hard, persevere and sacrifice for the sake of his art, truly makes him The Divine One.