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



VII


The last decades

In his late years Michelangelo was less involved with sculpture and, along with painting and poetry, more with architecture, an area in which he did not have to do physical labour. He was sought after to design imposing monuments for the new and modern Rome that were to enunciate architecturally the city's position as a world centre. Two of these monuments, the Capitoline Square and the dome of St. Peter's, are still among the city's most notable visual images. He did not finish either, but after his death both were continued in ways that probably did not depart much from his plans.

The small Capitoline Hill had been the civic centre in ancient Roman times and was in the 16th century the centre of the lay municipal government, a minor factor in a city ruled by popes, yet one to which they wished to show respect. Michelangelo remodeled the old city hall on one side of the square and designed twin buildings for the two sides adjacent to it. He gave them rich and powerful fronts, using as his main device the juxtaposition of colossal columns, which rise through two stories to the top, with much smaller one-story columns crowded next to them. This invention creates a forcefully dynamic rhythm while also articulating in a rational way the structure behind the facades. He also produced a special floor design for the square between these two new buildings—an oval pattern that frames a statue at its centre (the ancient Roman monument of the emperor Marcus Aurelius) and gives the whole area the effect of a monumental room. Because of the hilly site, the square is not rectangular but wider on the city hall side and narrower on the opposite side, which was left open. This open side is the entrance for the public, reached by climbing a long flight of stairs. The visitor finds the two facades to his left and right inclined away from each other as they recede from the entrance; this counteracts the tendency of perspective to make walls seem to move nearer each other as they are farther off and so reinforces the effect of a grand expanse.

The dome of St. Peter's functions chiefly as a visual focus for the observer at a distance, representing a physical goal as well as expressing the dominant meaning of the city. It has been copied for this dual purpose many times, as, for instance, in the Capitol at Washington, D.C. It derives from the dome of the cathedral of Florence, which is 100 years older, perhaps the first great dome to be oriented chiefly outward in its effect rather than being meant chiefly to coverthe interior. But it was Michelangelo's dome that gave this shift its universal acceptance. The dome, however, was not built until after Michelangelo's death, and the extent to which it follows his intentions has been much debated. As built by his successor, the dome is more pointed than the pure hemisphere seen in Michelangelo's best known project. But Michelangelo changed his ideas and may well have moved in that direction too.

During his life Michelangelo's major energy in working at St. Peter's was given to the lower part. He discarded the ideas of the architects who had been working on it just before him, approving only those of the original designer, Bramante. He reverted to the earlier plan for a church with four equal cross arms instead of the more conventional Latincross plan of the more recent altered scheme. He also disliked the quantity of repeated smaller decorative elements added by the most recent architect, which diminished the effect of great size. He modified Bramante's interior in specifics, making it still more nearly a unified space. This is enclosed by huge semicircular sections of wall on the four sides, creating spaces comparable to the hemispherical space inside the dome. Most of his actual construction work was on the curving wall behind the altar, and there he carried still further the contrast between colossal and smaller supports next to each other, seen already on the Capitoline Hill. This time they are not load-carrying columns but thin pilasters that fit against the continuously curving walls on the exterior. They thus impart both a strong upward thrust and an equally strong horizontal rhythm as the direction of the wall continuously changes, producing an architecture of pulsing dynamism on a gigantic scale. One still can see the approach of the sculptor, who uses the projections and recessions of stone as his vehicle.

Around the base of the dome Michelangelo placed a columned walkway. The tops of the columns are tied to the dome by beams, but there is no roofing of the intervals between columns. Thus, the columns have the effect of flying buttresses on Gothic buildings, supporting the dome's heavy downward thrust. Yet the design is formally classical, and its horizontal aspect as a colonnade solves the problem of a visual transition between the dome and the horizontal lower structure of the building.

While remaining head architect of St. Peter's until his death, Michelangelo worked on many smaller building projects in Rome. He completed the main unit of the Palazzo Farnese, the residence of Pope Paul III's family. The top story wall of its courtyard is a rare example of an architectural unit fully finished under his eye. Some very imaginative and distinctive late designs, such as those for a city gate, the Porta Pia, and for the church of the Florentine community in Rome, were either much reworked later or never went beyond the plan stage in the form Michelangelo had proposed.

His last paintings were the frescoes of the Pauline Chapel in the Vatican, which still is little accessible to the public. Unlike his other frescoes, they are in the position normal for narrative painting, on a wall and not exceptionally high up. They consistently treat spatial depth and narrative drama in a way that brings them closer to other paintings of the age than to the artist's previous paintings. Among the artists Michelangelo came to know and admire was Titian, who visited Rome during the period of this project (1542–50), and the frescoes seem to betray his influence in colour. The poetry of his last years also took on new qualities. The poems, chiefly sonnets, are very direct religious statements suggesting prayers. They are no longer very intricate in syntax and ideas.

There are only two late sculptures, which Michelangelo did for himself, both presenting the dead Christ being mourned, neither one finished. The first and larger one was meant for his tomb, and the figure of the mourning Joseph of Arimathea (or, possibly, Nicodemus) is a self-portrait. (Michelangelo had introduced himself earlier in his works in the role of a sinner or penitent, notably in the “Last Judgment” in the face on the flayed skin of the martyred St. Bartholomew.) Becoming dissatisfied with this sculpture, Michelangelo broke one of the figures and abandoned the work. This constitutes still another variation on the theme of incompletion running through the artist's work. His last sculpture also went through several revisions on the same block of stone and in its current state is an almost dematerialized sketch of two figures leaning together. Michelangelo certainly had a powerful sense of his own imperfection, yet he was also aware of the quality of his work and angry at patrons for not meeting what he judged to be their obligations.
Assessment and influence

For posterity Michelangelo has always remained one of the small group of the most exalted artists, who have been felt to express, like Shakespeare or Beethoven, the tragic experience of humanity with the greatest depth and universal scope.

In contrast to the great fame of the artist's works, their visual influence on later art is relatively limited. This cannot be explained by hesitation to imitate an art simply because it appeared so great, for artists like Raphael were considered equally great but were used as sources to a much greater degree. It may be instead that the particular type of expression associated with Michelangelo, of an almost cosmic grandeur, was inhibiting. The limited influence of his work includes a few cases of almost total dependence, the most talented artist who worked in this way being Daniele da Volterra. Otherwise, Michelangelo was treated as a model for specific limited aspects of his work. In the 17th century he was regarded as supreme in anatomical drawing but less praised for broader elements of his art. While the Mannerists utilized the spatial compression seen in a few of his frescoes, and later the serpentine poses of his sculpture of “Victory,” the 19th-century master Auguste Rodin exploited the effect of unfinished marble blocks. Certain 17th-century masters of the baroque perhaps show the fullest reference to him, but in ways that have been transformed to exclude any literal similarity. Besides Bernini, the painter Rubens may best show the usability of Michelangelo's creations for a later great artist.

Creighton E. Gilbert

Encyclopadia Britannica


Tomb of the Medicis
 

 

 


Medici Madonna

1521-31
Marble, height: 226 cm
Sagrestia Nuova, San Lorenzo, Florence
 

 
 

Sts Cosmas
1521-31
Marble
Sagrestia Nuova, San Lorenzo, Florence

 

Damian

1521-31
Marble
Sagrestia Nuova, San Lorenzo, Florence
 

 


Pieta

 

Pieta

1499
Marble, height 174 cm, width at the base 195 cm
Basilica di San Pietro, Vatican

 

Pieta
(detail)
1499
Marble
Basilica di San Pietro, Vatican

 

Pieta
(detail)
1499
Marble
Basilica di San Pietro, Vatican

 

Palestrina Pieta

Marble, height: 253 cm
Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence

 

Pieta

c. 1550
Marble, height: 226 cm
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence

 

Pieta Rondanini
(unfinished)
1552-64
Marble, height: 195 cm
Castello Sforzesco, Milan
 

Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

 
| privacy