The High Renaissance


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Michelangelo Buonarroti

Encyclopaedia Britannica


The “Bacchus” led at once to the commission (1498) for the “Pieta,” now in St. Peter's Basilica. The name refers not (as often presumed) to this specific work but to a common traditional type of devotional image, this work being today the most famous example. Extracted from narrative scenes of the lamentation after Christ's death, the concentrated group of two is designed to evoke the observer's repentant prayers for sins that required Christ's sacrificial death. The patron was a French cardinal, and the type was earlier more common in northern Europe than Italy. The complex problem for the designer was to extract two figures from one marble block, an unusual undertaking in all periods. Michelangelo treated the group as one dense and compact mass as before so that it has an imposing impact, yet he underlined the many contrasts present, of male and female, vertical and horizontal, clothed and naked, dead and alive, to clarify the two components.

The artist's prominence, established by this work, was reinforced at once by the commission (1501) of the “David” for the cathedral of Florence. For this huge statue, an exceptionally large commission in that city, Michelangelo reused a block left unfinished about 40 years before. The modeling is especially close to the formulas of classical antiquity, with a simplified geometry suitable to the huge scale yet with a mild assertion of organic life in its asymmetry. It has continued to serve as the prime statement of the Renaissance ideal of perfect humanity.

On the side Michelangelo produced in the same years (1501–04) several Madonnas for private houses, the staple of artists' work at the time. These include one small statue, two circular reliefs that are similar to paintings in suggesting varied levels of spatial depth, and the artist's only easel painting. While the statue (“Madonna and Child”) is blocky and immobile, the painting (“Holy Family”) and one of the reliefs (“Madonna and Child with the Infant St. John”) are full of motion; they show arms and legs of figures interweaving in actions that imply movement through time. The forms carry symbolic references to Christ's future death, common in images of the Christ Child at the time; they also betray the artist's fascination with the work of Leonardo. Michelangelo regularly denied that anyone influenced him, and his statements have usually been accepted without demur. But Leonardo's return to Florence in 1500 after nearly20 years was exciting to younger artists there, and recent scholars have generally agreed that Michelangelo was among those affected. Leonardo's works were probably the most powerful and lasting outside influence to modify his work, and he was able to blend this artist's ability to show momentary processes with his own to show weight and strength, without losing any of the latter quality. The resulting images, of massive bodies in forceful action, are those special creations that constitute the larger part of his most admired major works.




Marble, height: 203 cm
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence


St Paul

Marble, height: 127 cm
Duomo, Siena


St Peter

Duomo, Siena



Marble, height: 134 cm
Duomo, Siena

Madonna (Tondo Pitti)

Marble, 85,8 x 82 cm
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence


Madonna and Child with the Infant Baptist (Taddei Tondo)

Marble, diameter: 82,5 cm
The Royal Academy of Arts, London



Polychrome wood, 142 x 135 cm
Santo Spirito, Florence


Christ Carrying the Cross

Marble, height 205 cm
Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome

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