The High Renaissance


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Michelangelo Buonarroti

Encyclopaedia Britannica

born March 6, 1475, Caprese, Republic of Florence [Italy]
died Feb. 18, 1564, Rome, Papal States

in full Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni Italian Renaissance sculptor, painter, architect, and poet who exerted an unparalleled influence on the development of Western art.


Michelangelo was considered the greatest living artist in his lifetime, and ever since then he has been held to be one of the greatest artists of all times. A number of his works in painting, sculpture, and architecture rank among the most famous in existence. Although the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Vatican) are probably the best known of his works today, the artist thought of himself primarily as a sculptor. His practice of several arts, however, was not unusual in his time, when all of them were thought of as based on design, or drawing. Michelangelo worked in marble sculpture all his life and in the other arts only at certain periods. The high regard for the Sistine ceiling is partly a reflection of the greater attention paid to painting in the 20th century and partly, too, of the fact that it, unlike many of the artist's works in the other media, was completed.

A side effect of Michelangelo's fame in his lifetime was that his career was more fully documented than that of any artist of the time or earlier. He was the first artist whose biography was published while he was alive, and there were two rival biographies. The first was the final chapter in the series of artists' lives (1550) by the painter and architect Giorgio Vasari. It was the only chapter on a living artist and explicitly presented Michelangelo's works as the culminating perfection of art, surpassing the efforts of all those before him. Despite such an encomium, Michelangelo was not entirely pleased and arranged for his assistant Ascanio Condivi to write a brief separate book (1553); probably based on the artist's own spoken comments, this account shows him as he wished to appear. After Michelangelo's death Vasari in a second edition (1568) offered a rebuttal. While scholars have often preferred the authority of Condivi, Vasari's lively writing, the importance of his book as a whole, and its frequent reprintingin many languages have made it the most usual basis of popular ideas. Michelangelo's fame also led to the preservation of countless mementos, including hundreds of letters, sketches, and poems, again more than of any contemporary. Yet despite the enormous benefit that has accrued from all this, in controversial matters often only Michelangelo's side of an argument is known.

Early life and works

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born to a family that had for several generations been small-scale bankers in Florence but had in the case of the artist's father failed to maintain its status. The father had only occasional government jobs, and at the time of Michelangelo's birth he was administrator of the small dependent town of Caprese. A few months later, however, the family returned to its permanent residence in Florence. It was something of a downward social step to become an artist, and Michelangelo became an apprentice relatively late, at 13, perhaps after overcoming his father's objections. He was apprenticed to the city's most prominent painter, Domenico Ghirlandajo, for a three-year term, but he left after one year, having (Condivi recounts) nothing more to learn. Several drawings, copies of figures by Ghirlandajo and older great painters of Florence, Giotto and Masaccio, survive from this stage; such copying was standard for apprentices, but few examples are known to survive. Obviously talented, he was taken under the wing of the ruler of the city, Lorenzo de' Medici, known as the Magnificent. Lorenzo surrounded himself at table with poets and intellectuals, and Michelangelo was included. More important, he had access to the Medici art collection, which was dominated by fragments of ancient Roman statuary. (Lorenzo was not such a patron of contemporary art as legend has made him; such modern art as he owned was to ornament his house or make political statements.)




c. 1510
Tempera on wood, 159 x 149 cm
National Gallery, London


The Holy Family with the infant St. John the Baptist

c. 1506
Tempera on panel, diameter 120 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence


View of the Chapel

Cappella Paolina, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican


The Conversion of Saul

Fresco, 625 x 661 cm
Cappella Paolina, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican


Martyrdom of St Peter

Fresco, 625 x 662 cm
Cappella Paolina, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican

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