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(b Caprese [now Caprese Michelangelo], nr. Arezzo, 6 Mar. 1475; d Rome, 18 Feb. 1564).

Florentine sculptor, painter, architect, draughtsman, and poet, one of the giants of the Renaissance and, in his later years, one of the forces that shaped Mannerism. Michelangelo's career lasted more than 70 years and for most of that time he was the dominant figure in Italian art. His contemporaries regarded him with awe, and the word terribilità, which may be translated as ‘terrifying intensity’, was often applied to his work. He was the subject of two detailed biographies in his lifetime, both of them by people who knew him well (Vasari and Condivi), and because of these and other sources (including his own letters, about 500 of which survive), more is known about him—his personal qualities as well as the details of his career—than about any previous artist. He was utterly devoted to art and religion, living frugally in spite of his fame. However, although he was scornful of the conventional trappings of success, he was sure of his own worth and was concerned about his place in society. He tended to be suspicious and withdrawn, and had a sharp temper and a sarcastic tongue, but he was affectionate and generous to his family and friends. His father, a member of the gentry, claimed noble lineage and throughout his life Michelangelo was touchy on the subject: pride of birth had much to do with the family opposition to his choice of an artistic career as well as with Michelangelo's own insistence on the status of painting and sculpture among the liberal arts. In 1488 he was apprenticed to the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, but the following year he transferred to a kind of informal academy sponsored by Lorenzo de' Medici and overseen by the sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni. Michelangelo later claimed to be largely self-taught and this is probably true as far as marble carving is concerned (Bertoldo was a specialist in bronze), but Ghirlandaio was an excellent craftsman and in his workshop Michelangelo probably at least laid the foundations of his technical skill in fresco painting. Stylistically, however, he learned much more from the austere grandeur of Giotto and Masaccio (his earliest surviving drawings, done c.1490, include copies of figures from their frescos).

After the death of Lorenzo de' Medici in 1492 the political situation in Florence became unstable, and in October 1494 Michelangelo moved to Bologna, where he carved three small figures for the shrine of St Dominic (see Niccolò dell'Arca). He returned to Florence in 1495 but in June 1496 moved to Rome, where he remained for the next five years and where he carved the two statues that established his fame when he was still in his early twenties—Bacchus (c.1496–7, Bargello, Florence) and the Pietà (1498–9, St Peter's, Rome). The latter is the masterpiece of his early years—a tragically expressive and yet beautiful and harmonious solution to the problem of representing a full-grown man lying dead in the lap of a woman. There are no marks of suffering—as were common in northern representations of the period—and the carving has a flawless beauty and polish demonstrating his absolute technical mastery. For unclear reasons, Michelangelo returned to Florence in 1501, leaving unfinished an altarpiece of the Entombment commissioned by the church of S. Agostino, Rome (NG, London), one of only two or three surviving panel paintings by him (see tondo). He remained in Florence until the spring of 1505, the major completed work of the period being the marble David (1501–4, Accademia, Florence), which has become a symbol of Florence and Florentine art (it was originally intended for the cathedral but was instead set up outside the Palazzo Vecchio, the seat of government, David being regarded as a virtuous fighter for freedom, as the citizens of the Florentine republic liked to see themselves). Soon after the David was completed, Michelangelo received another great commission from the Florentine government—a huge mural of the Battle of Cascina for the new Council Chamber in the Palazzo Vecchio; here he worked in rivalry with Leonardo, who was engaged on the Battle of Anghiari for the same room. Neither painting came to fruition, but Michelangelo completed the full-size cartoon or part of it, and during its brief life this was highly influential (Vasari says that it was ‘torn apart and divided into many pieces’ because it was ‘placed too freely in the hands of artists’). It is now known through a copy of the central section, as well as from some magnificent preliminary drawings (for example in the British Museum, London).


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