TIMELINE OF WORLD HISTORY
 

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  Michelangelo Buonarroti

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Michelangelo Buonarroti
 
 
 
 
III
 

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.




Bacchus
1497
Marble, height: 203 cm
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence


St Paul
1503-04
Marble, height: 127 cm
Duomo, Siena



St Peter
1501-04
Marble
Duomo, Siena



Pius
1501-04
Marble, height: 134 cm
Duomo, Siena




Madonna (Tondo Pitti)
1504-05
Marble, 85,8 x 82 cm
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence






Madonna and Child with the Infant Baptist (Taddei Tondo)
1505-06
Marble, diameter: 82,5 cm
The Royal Academy of Arts, London






Crucifix
1492
Polychrome wood, 142 x 135 cm
Santo Spirito, Florence






Christ Carrying the Cross
1521
Marble, height 205 cm
Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome

 
 
 
 
IV

The middle years
 

After the success of the “David” in 1504 Michelangelo's work consisted almost entirely of vast projects. He was attracted to these ambitious tasks while at the same time rejecting the use of assistants, so that most of these projects were impractical and remained unfinished. In 1504 he agreed to paint a huge mural for the Florence city hall to form a pair with another just begun by Leonardo. Both murals recorded military victories by the city, but each also gave testimony to the special skills of the city's much vaunted artists; Leonardo's design shows galloping horses, Michelangelo's active nudes—soldiers stop swimming and climb out of a river to answer an alarm. Both works survive only in copies and partial preparatory sketches. In 1505 the artist began work on a planned set of 12 marble Apostles for the Florence cathedral, of which only one, the “St. Matthew,” was even begun. Its writhing ecstatic motion for the first time shows the full blend of Leonardo's fluid organic movement with his own monumental power. This is also the first of Michelangelo's unfinished works that have fascinated later observers. His figures seem to suggest that they are fighting to emerge from the stone. This would imply that their incomplete state was intentional, yet he undoubtedly did want to complete all of the statues. He did, however, write a sonnet about how hard it is for the sculptor to bring the perfect figure out of the block in which it is potentially present. Thus, even if the works remained unfinished due only to lack of time and other external reasons, their condition, nonetheless, reflects the artist's intense feeling of the stresses inherent in the creative process.

Pope Julius II's call to Michelangelo to come to Rome spelled an end to both of these Florentine projects. The Pope sought a tomb for which Michelangelo was to carve 40 large statues. Recent tombs had been increasingly grand, including those of two popes by the Florentine sculptor Antonio Pollaiuolo, those of the doges of Venice, and the one then in work for Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. Pope Julius had an ambitious imagination, parallel to Michelangelo's, but because of other projects, such as the new building of St. Peter's and his military campaigns, he evidently became disturbed soon by the cost. Michelangelo believed that Bramante, the equally prestigious architect at St. Peter's, had influenced the Pope to cut off his funds. He left Rome, but the Pope brought pressure on the city authorities of Florence to send him back. He was put to work on a colossal bronze statue of the Pope in his newly conquered city of Bologna (which the citizens pulled down soon after when they drove the papal army out) and then on the less expensive project of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508–12).

The Sistine Chapel had great symbolic meaning for the papacy as the chief consecrated space in the Vatican, used for great ceremonies such as electing and inaugurating new popes. It already contained distinguished wall paintings, and Michelangelo was asked to add works for the relatively unimportant ceiling. Twelve Apostles were planned as the theme—ceilings normally showed only individual figures, not dramatic scenes. Traces of this project are seen in the 12 large figures that Michelangelo produced: seven prophets and five sibyls, or female prophets found in classical myths. The inclusion of female figures was very unusual though not totally unprecedented. Michelangelo placed these figures around the edges of the ceiling and filled the central spine of the long curved surface with nine scenes from Genesis: three of them depicting the creation of the world, three the stories of Adam and Eve, and three the stories of Noah. The se are naturally followed, below the prophets and sibyls, by small figures of the 40 generations of Christ's ancestors, starting with Abraham. The vast project was completed in less than four years; there was an interruption perhaps of a year in 1510–11 when no payment was made.

The work began at the end, with the Noah scenes placed over the entrance door, and moved toward the altar in the direction opposite to that of the sequence of the stories. The first figures and scenes naturally show the artist reusing devices from his earlier works, such as the Pieta, since he was starting on such an ambitious work in an unfamiliar medium. These first figures are relatively stable, and the scenes are on a relatively small scale. As he proceeded, he quickly grew in confidence. Indeed, recent investigations of the technical processes used show that he worked more and more rapidly, reducing and finally eliminating such preparatory helps as complete drawings and incisions on the plaster surface. The same growing boldness appears in the free, complex movements of the figures and in their complex expressiveness. While remaining always imposing and monumental, they are more and more imbued with suggestions of stress and grief. This may be perceived in a figure such as the prophet Ezekiel halfway along. This figure combines colossal strength and weight with movement and facial expression that suggest determination to reach a goal that is uncertain of success. Such an image of the inadequacy of even great power is a presentation of heroic and tragic humanity and is central to what Michelangelo means to posterity. Nearby the scene of the creation of Eve shows her with God and Adam, compressed within too small a space for their grandeur. This tension has been interpreted as a token of a movement away from the Renaissance concern with harmony, pointing the way for a younger generation of artists like Pontormo, often labeled Mannerists. Michelangelo's work on the ceiling was interrupted, perhaps just after these figures were completed. When he painted the second half, he seemed to repeat the same evolution from quiet stability to intricacy and stress. Thus he worked his way from the quietly monumental and harmonious scene of the creation of Adam to the acute, twisted pressures of the prophet Jonah. Yet in this second phase he shows greater inward expressiveness, giving a more meditative restraint to the earlier pure physical mass.




David
1504
Marble, height 434 cm
Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence




David (detail)
1501-04
Marble
Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence




David (Apollo)
1530
Marble, height: 146 cm
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence





St Matthew
1503
Marble, height: 271 cm
Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence





Crouching Boy
1530-33
Marble, height: 54 cm
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg





Victory
1532-34
Marble, height: 261 cm
Palazzo Vecchio, Florence





Brutus
1540
Marble, height 95 cm
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence

 
 
 
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