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Michelangelo Buonarotti
Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo, Painter

The man who always signed his name “Michelangelo, sculttore”, was also, in spite of himself, a painter. Although Pope Julius II tempted him to Rome with the prospect of a huge marble mausoleum, in fact, the Pope really needed someone to paint the entire ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo was appalled. He knew nothing about frescoes, and the ceiling spanned more than 3,200 square feet. He was convinced his enemies had recommended him for a job he could never complete. But Michelangelo could not refuse the demands of a Pope. In 1508 he began.

The art of fresco was infamous for separating the great from the merely good. Michelangelo employed assistants for the most demanding work but sometimes would have to destroy a whole week's work and start again due to plaster drying or other imperfections.

Drawing on his bitterness and frustration, Michelangelo crafted brilliance in four short years. He covered the ceiling with 300 figures and stories from the Bible, including the creation of Earth and the stars, the Great Flood, and the creation of Adam. His monumental figures were based on fragments of classical sculptures, and inspired by the perfection and beauty of the ancient world. The frescoes in the Sistine Chapel were arguably the greatest works of Renaisssance art.

As his career escalated, Michelangelo became a hard-nosed businessman and by the time of his death had become one of the wealthiest men in Italy. In 1507 his friend, Agnolo Doni, ordered a beautiful portrait of the Holy Family. Michelangelo used especially vibrant colours to achieve both complex perspective and an unusually touching intimacy. It was another masterpiece, although his friend ended up paying Michelangelo twice the cost of the original quote.

In 1534 Michelangelo's childhood friend, Pope Clement VII, was dying. Desperate to make one last grand gesture, he summoned Michelangelo to complete his work in the Sistine Chapel. This was the perfect opportunity to express years of fear and resentment. Across the altar of the Sistine Chapel, he composed a vicious tableau of terror and pain: “The Last Judgement”.

Michelangelo was no longer a friend to this Medici Pope. In 1530 the artist had cowered beneath the tombs he had built for the Medici cousins, as Pope Clement VII laid siege to Florence.

Michelangelo reflected on the horror and war the Medici had inflicted on Italy. When it was unveiled the altarpiece contained especially “shocking material”: it was full of nudes. To maintain requisite modesty a new artist was paid to cover the offending parts.

Michelangelo, Hero

After his death, Michelangelo was reclaimed by the Medici dynasty. Bundled into a hay-basket, his corpse was smuggled to Florence for a magnificent funeral. The artist's life story became the climax of Vasari's art history textbook - “The Lives of the Artists”. Vasari christened his former master and hero “the divine Michelangelo”, and so he has remained.

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Gallery Gallery: Renaissance Art

The Renaissance

- Botticelli
- Donatello
- Ghiberti
- Gozzoli
- Leonardo
- Michelangelo
- Raphael
- Vasari

- The Republic
- Italy at War
- Machiavelli

- Heresy
- Counter-Reformation

Science & Architecture
- Galileo
- Brunelleschi