At Large  February 13, 2023  Josh Coyne

Michelangelo: Exploring the Master's Art and Life

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Clarence Dillon, 1977.

Daniele da Volterra, detail of Michelangelo Buonarroti, circa 1545.

With a name almost as recognizable as the period in which he lived, Michelangelo was a bona fide Renaissance man. His legacy and influence on Western art and culture is matched only by his contemporaries Leonardo Da Vinci and Raphael, with the three artists forming the holy trinity of High Renaissance masters.

Known as the era's greatest sculptor, Michelangelo was frequently commissioned to apply his artistic prowess to other mediums such as painting and architecture, creating some of the most celebrated works of the Renaissance.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Michelangelo, Pietà, 1497. Marble. St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City.

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was born on March 6, 1475 in the small Italian town of Caprese (now Caprese Michelangelo), where his father had taken a temporary government post following the failure of the family's banking business in Florence.

Several months after his birth, the artist's family returned to Florence, where the young Michelangelo was raised by a nanny and her husband, a stonecutter. During these years, the artist and his caretakers lived on his father’s small farm with a marble quarry. It is unsurprising that Michelangelo’s passion for working with marble was quickly cultivated.

Michelangelo’s life and work was heavily influenced by contemporary developments in social and intellectual thought, particularly humanism. Florence in the late fifteenth century was the center of Italian art and learning.

Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Jean-Christophe BENOIST.

Michelangelo, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, completed in 1512.

A renewed interest in Classical thought during the period ushered in a wave of appreciation for the extraordinary potential of the human mind, a central tenent of humanist philosophy. Reflecting his interest in humanism, much of Michelangelo's works emphasize the beauty of the human form. Armed with an extensive knowledge of human anatomy, Michelangelo’s brilliance is especially apparent in the detail of his figures' musculature. Famous works like his David and The Creation of Adam showcase this skill.

Wikimedia Commons.

Michelangelo, Statue of David, 1504.

Michelangelo was especially interested in nude male subjects, which has sparked historical inquiry into the artist’s sexuality. He wrote several hundred surviving sonnets and other poems, the longest of which was dedicated to Tommaso dei Cavalieri and suggests that the men had more than a platonic relationship.

Unlike some of the Renaissance masters, Michelangelo was a devout Catholic. Many of his most distinguished works such as the Tomb of Julius II, the fresco paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and the design of the dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica were commissioned by the various Popes who led the Church during his lifetime.

One of Michelangelo's Designs for the Tomb of Pope Julius II.j
Wikimedia Commons.

One of Michelangelo's Designs for the Tomb of Pope Julius II.

Michelangelo, The tomb of Pope Julius II, Completed in 1545. Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Erik Drost.
Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Erik Drost. 

Michelangelo, Tomb of Pope Julius II, Completed in 1545.

Michelangelo’s prodigious ability across so many artistic mediums has convinced many scholars that he is not just the greatest artist of his era, but the greatest of all time.

About the Author

Josh Coyne

Josh Coyne is a North Carolina native that has lived in Chapel Hill for most of his life. He is a rising junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is planning on double majoring in History and English. Josh wrote for Art & Object as an intern for the Summer of 2021.

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