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In full MICHELANGELO DI LODOVICO BUONARROTI SIMONI (b. March 6, 1475, Caprese, Republic of Florence [Italy]--d. Feb. 18, 1564, Rome), Italian Renaissance sculptor, painter, architect, and poet who exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of Western art.

I cannot live under pressures from patrons, let alone paint.

-- Michelangelo, quoted in Vasari's Lives of the Artists

Michelangelo began work on the colossal figure of David in 1501, and by 1504 the sculpture (standing at 4.34m/14 ft 3 in tall) was in place outside the Palazzo Vecchio. The choice of David was supposed to reflect the power and determination of Republican Florence and was under constant attack from supporters of the usurped Medicis. In the 19th century the statue was moved to the Accademia.

Michelangelo: a dominant force in Florence and Rome

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) exerted enormous influence. He, too, was universally acknowledged as a supreme artist in his own lifetime, but again, his followers all too often present us with only the master's outward manner, his muscularity and gigantic grandeur; they miss the inspiration. Sebastiano del Piombo (c.1485-1547), for example, actually used a drawing (at least a sketch) made for him by Michelangelo for his masterwork, The Raising of Lazarus. Masterwork it is; yet how melodramatic it appears if compared with Michelangelo's own painting.

Michelangelo resisted the paintbrush, vowing with his characteristic vehemence that his sole tool was the chisel. As a well-born Florentine, a member of the minor aristocracy, he was temperamentally resistant to coercion at any time. Only the power of the pope, tyranical by position and by nature, forced him to the Sistine and the reluctant achievement of the world's greatest single fresco. His contemporaries spoke about his terribilitа, which means, of course, not so much being terrible as being awesome. There has never been a more literally awesome artist than Michelangelo: awesome in the scope of his imagination, awesome in his awareness of the significance--the spiritual significance--of beauty. Beauty was to him divine, one of the ways God communicated Himself to humanity.

Like Leonardo, Michelangelo too had a good Florentine teacher, the delightful Domenico Ghirlandaio (c.1448-94). Later, he was to claim that he never had a teacher, and figuratively, this is a meaningful enough statement. However, his handling of the claw chisel does reveal his debt to Ghirlandaio's early influence, and this is evident in the cross-hatching of Michelangelo's drawings--a technique he undoubtedly learned from his master. The gentle accomplishments of a work like The Birth of John the Baptist bear not the slightest resemblance to the huge intelligence of an early work of Michelangelo's like The Holy Family, also known as the Doni Tondo. This is somehow not an attractive picture with its chilly, remote beauty, but its stark power stays in the mind when more acessible paintings have been forgotten.

The Sistine Chapel

All the same, it is the Sistine ceiling that displays Michelangelo at the full stretch of his majesty. Recent cleaning and restoration have exposed this astonishing work in the original vigour of its color. The sublime forms, surging with desperate energy, tremendous with vitality, have always been recognized as uniquely grand. Now these splendid shapes are seen to be intensely alive in their color, indeed shockingly so for those who liked them in their previous dim grandeur.

The story of the Creation that the ceiling spells out is far from simple, partly because Michelangelo was an exceedingly complicated man, partly because he dwells here on profundities of theology that most people need to have spelt out for them, and partly because he has balanced his biblical themes and events with giant ignudi, naked youths of superhuman grace. They express a truth with surpassing strength, yet we do not clearly see what this truth actually is. The meaning of the ignudi is a personal one: it cannot be verbalized or indeed theologized, but it is experienced with the utmost force.

Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel from 1508 to 1512, commissioned by Pope Julius II. On becoming pope in 1503, Julius II reasserted papal authority over the Roman barons and successfully backed the restauration of the Medici in Florence. He was a liberal patron of the arts, commissioning Bramante to build St Peter's Church, Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael to decorate the Vatican apartments.

Seers and prophets

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