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Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel


Michelangelo was a contempory of Leonardo da Vinci, and like him was an Italian sculptor, painter, architect, poet, and engineer of the High Renaissance period. During his lifetime he was considered to be the greatest living artist and since then, he has been considered to be one of the greatest artists of all time. Some of his iconic paintings and sculptures are among the most recognised in the world.

He was born in Caprese near Arezzo, Tuscany, on 6th March 1475. His full name was Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. His family moved to Florence when he was a few months old but following the prolonged illness and death of his mother, he was raised by a Stonecutter and his wife in the nearby town of Settignano. It was here that Michelangelo learnt his skills. He later claimed "Along with the milk of my nurse I received the knack of handling chisel and hammer, with which I make my figures."

Fellow artist and biographer, Giorgio Vasari claimed Michelangelo was: "... the pinnacle of all artistic achievement since the beginning of the Renaissance." There are not many who would disagree.

Portrait of Michelangelo by Volterra

Following a period of political upheaval in Florence, Michelangelo spent some time away in Venice, Bologna and Rome. It was while he was in Rome that he created one of his most famous works, 'La Pietà'. It was commissioned by a French cardinal, Jean de Billheres as a funeral monument for his tomb. It was the only work that Michelangelo ever signed and now resides in St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.

The Pietà

He returned in 1499 when the Guild of Wool asked him to finish a commission that had been started 40 years earlier by another sculptor, Agostino di Duccio. The giant statue was to be carved from Carrara marble and would depict David as a symbol of Florentine freedom.

Michelangelo completed what was to become his most famous work in 1504. Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli were among a group of 'consultants' charged with deciding where the statue should be placed. Their decision was to place it in front of the 'Palazzo Vecchio', in the 'Piazza della Signoria'. Later, it was replaced by a replica and the original moved to the 'Academia' museum.

David - Photo: Rico Heil

Soon afterwards, Michelangelo was commissioned by the newly elected Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. He had previously been commissioned to build the Pope's tomb. It was a grand project that was supposed to be completed in five years. In the end, it took more than 40 years to complete and was a diappointment to Michelangelo. A competitor of Michelangelo's, the artist and architect Bramante, who was jealous of Michelangelo's commission to build the tomb, suggested to the Pope that Michelangelo be given the commission to paint the ceiling. He thought that his unfamiliarity with the medium would lead to failure. The plan backfired, and Michelangelo created one of the most influential works in fresco in the history of Western art.

The creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel

In 1503, Bramante had won a competition run by the Pope to choose the architect for the rebuilding of St Peter's Basilica, the largest and most prestigious architectural project in Europe during the 16th century. Pope Julius died in 1515, and Bramante was replaced. Over the next 44 years a series of different architects were employed as each was replaced or died. In 1547, at the age of 74, Michelangelo took over the project. Rather than continue with many of the previous ideas, Michelangelo applied his own unique genius to create a new vision for the project. Although he never finished it, others continued with his designs and in 1626 they completed what has been called "The greatest building of its age" and "The greatest of all churches of Christendom".

St. Peter's Basilica - Photo: Myrabella

Michelangelo died in Rome in 1564, at the age of 88, three weeks before his 89th birthday. At his request, he was buried at the Basilica of Santa Croce, in his beloved Florence.

The tomb of Michelangelo, Florence - Photo: W Knight

Vasari said of the Sistine Chapel: "The work has proved a veritable beacon to our art, of inestimable benefit to all painters, restoring light to a world that for centuries had been plunged into darkness. Indeed, painters no longer need to seek for new inventions, novel attitudes, clothed figures, fresh ways of expression, different arrangements, or sublime subjects, for this work contains every perfection possible under those headings."

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