The Life and Times of Michelangelo
And no, I am not talking about the Ninja Turtle.
Michelangelo Buonarotti was perhaps one of the greatest artists and sculptors of all time. With a comparatively small portfolio, he’s managed to enthrall audiences across the globe for centuries, and people still sing his praises. But beyond all of that, a part of his work also remains unfinished, leaving us to wonder how the world would’ve been shaped had they been completed, after all.
He was born into a family of stone-cutters. And life was hard. Michelangelo’s mother died when he was only six; he barely knew her. His father, on the other hand, who was mostly unemployed and overtly proud of himself, was a constant source of embarrassment for him. Early family tensions soon carved their way into his life as he discovered an escape – art and sculpture.
By thirteen years of age, he was already learning to paint frescos and displaying his visual and artistic talents as an apprentice of Davide and Domenico Ghirlandaio – two famous Florentine painters, much to the wrath of his father. According to him, Michelangelo was only wasting away the benefit of precious formal education. He would be punished for his art. Alternatively, money flowed in.
His mercurial temper and burgeoning pride had indentations way back into his childhood. After he stopped his apprenticeship because he did not get along well with Domenico, he joined a sculpture school, and compulsively worked to improvise his skills. He also boasted about it, which sometimes it wasn’t well-received, for it is said that once an envious student would take none of it and broke his nose, leaving him slightly disfigured all his later life.
But then, he did not fit well into the dreamy, soft art circles. His forte was building technical models and giving practical solutions to problems. It would be fair to say that Michelangelo was more of a sculptor than an artist. He devoted a lot of his life in quarries and workshops, sculpting beautiful marvels from marble – which, in itself, was a lot of hard work. He had to get this marble from the mountains hundreds of miles away, cut it into blocks, and transport it from carts and barges to his studio. And that was often highly dangerous business. One of his entries from Seravezza reads: “..one of the workmen fell and broke his neck. I myself was almost killed.”
On the other hand, a few of his patrons were a pain in the neck. Pope Julius II, for instance, sent Michelangelo to Carrara for getting the marble to work on his tomb, and after he’d spent eight months there, he cancelled the project. He also commissioned him to make a gigantic bronze statue of himself, which was eventually destroyed and made into a cannon. Pope Leo, his successor, wanted him to create a facade for the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, but after three years of progress, that project was cancelled. His sculpture of the Roman god Bacchus, a fruition of a year’s work, was rejected upon completion. And then there were his tiffs with fellow artists, the most intense of which were with Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. However, artistic rivalries were hardly a surprise in those days.
Michelangelo was a man of violent temper. He ate and lived out of necessity, constantly working on models and projects. He rarely had a bath, and would often wear his dog-skin leggings and boots for months without removing them. When he would, it is said, the skin would come off as well. He told his apprentice, Condivi, “However rich I may have been, I have always lived like a poor man.”
Fast forward a few years later, Michelangelo had finished one of the world’s greatest masterpieces – Pietà. Vasari, praised it, saying, “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.” And then he created the famous statue of David, from David and Goliath. And then the Sistine Chapel, which he worked on continuously combining blood, sweat and tears. By this time, his success was riding high on these two masterpieces, and the world had gained recognition for this man. One of his last but most memorable projects include St. Peter’s Basilica, a commission from the Vatican, which has been called one of the greatest pieces of the Renaissance.
There have been countless debates about who was the best artist of all time and whatnot. There have been critics that claimed that Michelangelo didn’t understand anatomy at all, and then there have been claims of all sorts. But for all that you are, and all that you’ve left behind, Michelangelo, I raise a toast to you.