The High Renaissance


   

 
     
 Renaissance Art Map
   
         
     Michelangelo (Encyclopaedia Britannica)    
         
     Introduction    
     The middle years    
     The Medici Chapel    
     The last decades    
     Sistine Chapel    
     The Last Judgement    
     Drawings and Architectural works    
         
 
 

 

 

 
Michelangelo Buonarroti

Encyclopaedia Britannica


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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