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From Craftsman to Genius

Masudur Rahman Payel

Michelangelo is known as a painter, sculptor, architect and poet of the Renaissance, a period of outstanding artistic innovations that began in the early 1400s. The renaissance painter, madrigal poet and phenomenon architect’s superb accomplishments have made a huge influence on contemporary Italian and European art. His architectural projects combined classical motifs, columns, pediments, niches and brackets that gave a new dimension to construction design and decoration. His famous frescos are known to be the best in the world, with each created with hard labour, total devotion and real dedication. The artist’s draped figures and nudes demonstrate the perfect quality of craftsmanship that can be seen in his sculpted works.

Michelangelo (Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni) was born on March 6, 1475 and grew up in Florence. He started his preliminary training under Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio when he was 13 years old. From 1490 to 1492 Michelangelo passed a highly precious period of his life in Lorenzo de’ Medici’s (the leading art patron of Florence) house, a meeting place for artists, philosophers and poets.

The political turmoil that led to the eviction of the influential Medici family from Florence in 1494 compelled Michelangelo to move to Venice, then Bologna, and finally to Rome. By then he was dissecting corpses for about five years, which aided him in learning human anatomy. In 1498 his first large scale work ‘Bacchus’ came into being. This sensual, nude bust of the young Roman god of wine was based on ancient Greek and Roman statuary. Over time Michelangelo’s reputation grew, the pinnacle of his sculpted career manifested by his marble ‘Pietà’ and giant statue of ‘David’, which were created when he was only 33 years old.

The Pietà is considered to be one of Michelangelo’s most memorable early works. The theme, evidently popular in Europe at that time, reveals Christ in his mother’s lap, just after he is taken down from the cross. The imbalanced appearance of the two figures makes it the subject of much criticism because it shows a grown up man’s (Christ) body lying arduously on the lap of a much smaller lady (Mary). The wounds of Christ are overstated to extract a strong emotional response. On the other hand, Mary is mourning silently, drawing the viewers’ attention to her dead son. Both figures are grouped together and where Mary's robe curves slightly and wraps around her forms a strong support for Christ's limp body. The surface of the work is polished meticulously to a smooth finish, which is rarely present in Michelangelo’s work. He began the work in 1497 and finished it three years later. Michelangelo returned to the theme of the Pietà late in his life in other works: the Florentine Pietà (1547-1555), which he intended to place on his own tomb and the Rondanini Pietà (1555-1564), a work that remained unfinished when he had died.

Michelangelo returned to Florence in 1501. His homecoming presented the world with one of his most jubilant works ‘David’, created between 1501 and 1504. The massive statue of young David (5.17 meters) was carved from a block of unfinished stone. Michelangelo gave a classical ambience to the piece in depicting David as nude, standing with his weight on one leg and the other leg at rest. This pose known as contrappesto, suggests an impending movement and a tense waiting as David considers his course of action against the enemy’s hostility. The theme of this work is from the biblical of David and Goliath, in which David, the future king of Israel, tosses a stone to kill giant Goliath, thus saving his nation.

Michelangelo also created art in tombs. His work for the tomb of Pope Julius II started in 1505 and was intended to stand in the apse of Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome. Michelangelo’s initial design specifies a freestanding structure with three levels: at the bottom, figures that represent victory alternating with slaves; above them, four huge seated figures including Moses and Saint Paul; and finally, at the top, angels supporting either a coffin or an image of the Pope. It would have been a huge amount of work to create the 40 figures on the structure, which was nearly as tall as a three-storied building.

Michelangelo created some of the most memorable images of all times on the vaulted ceiling of the papal chapel in Vatican. The commission for this enormous work started in 1508 and finished in 1512, which was responsible for incompletion of the tomb of Julius II. The mastermind’s complex system of decoration includes the biblical story of Genesis: God separating light and dark, the story of Adam and Eve, and concluded with the story of Noah. Scenes from the biblical stories of David, Judith, Esther, and Moses are portrayed in the corners, while images of prophets, female prophet sibyls and the ancestors of Christ are set in a painted architectural framework above the windows. The use of colour composition and massive figures make it easy to distinguish the scenes viewing from the floor of the chapel.

Michelangelo was first introduced as an architect when he was commissioned to design for the facade of the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence. It is assumed that Michelangelo had no formal training as an architect, yet his dexterity as a talented artist did not trouble much to commission him as an architect during the Renaissance. His work started on a high note in 1515 and continued till 1520. But funding was discontinued for the San Lorenzo façade, and thus his huge plan had to be modified in order to reduce expenditures. Michelangelo’s designs had gone through numerous changes before it was executed. In the end, it contained two large wall tombs facing each other across a high, domed room. One of these two tombs was intended for Lorengo’s son Giuliano de’ Medici (duke of Nemours) and the other for Giuliano’s nephew Lorenzo (di Piero) de’ Medici (duke of Urbino). The nudes represent Dawn and Dusk beneath seated Lorenzo de’ Medici, a major patron of the art in Florence. Michelangelo was lightly refunded and continued to work on it sporadically since he was busy with other projects at that time, but he left Florence for Rome in 1534 with major portions of his design still incomplete.

Michelangelo’s other eternal creation ‘The Last Judgment’ came in when he was recalled to work on the Sistine Chapel in 1534. Pope Clement VII commissioned him to paint the wall above the altar in the chapel. Michelangelo’s painting of judgment day depicts Christ's second coming at the end of the world. The massive scene is focused on the inexpressive figure of Christ providing justice. The right arm of Christ is poised to strike down the damned, while the left arm seems to gently call the blessed toward him.

Michelangelo was commissioned to design ‘Piazza del Campidoglio’ in 1539, which also included creation of a new base at the centre of the square for an ancient Roman bronze statue of emperor ‘Marcus Aurelius on horseback’. The work also included the remodeling of surrounding buildings for restoring this public space to its former role as the civic and political heart of Rome. He also planned to extend his work by including a double staircase to the building (Palazzo Senatorio) behind the statue, new and identical facades for the buildings (Palazzo dei Conservatori and Palazzo Nuovo) to the sculpture’s right and left, and finally a wide ramp-like stairway used to approach the piazza atop a hill.

Michelangelo designed an oval base for the statue of Marcus Aurelius that became the basis for the subsequent design for the entire space. The statue was placed at the center of the piazza, which was paved in an oval pattern with glowing and interlinking lines. Visitors approaching from the steps below were drawn into the retreating space, carefully created by twin palaces, which were shaped delicately outward, and toward the staircase at either side of the Palazzo Senatorio. This huge work, however was not completed by the end of Michelangelo’s lifetime, and so it was later completed by others. This innovative architecture presented a perfect meeting place to the unified and vibrant Romans.

Initially Michelangelo’s counterpart Donato Bramante, under commission from Pope Julius II, started designing Saint Peter’s Basilica in 1506. After Bramante’s death, Michelangelo was given the task of completing the design. Bernadine Barnes says, “Bramante


envisioned a church based upon a Greek cross (a cross with all four arms of equal length) and surmounted by a great dome.” Bramante placed the gigantic supports for the dome before his death in 1514. Historians assume at least three other architects contributed to the design before Michelangelo took over. Michelangelo did not change Bramante's original plan, yet with his innovative ideas and inherent talent he made it more compact, strengthened the supports, and unified the exterior with gigantic pairs of pillars. Around the base of the dome the line of the pillars is echoed by fully rounded columns, which are in turn repeated on a smaller scale in the lantern at the top of the dome. This unique concept of Michelangelo influenced dome design and construction for the next 300 years.

Drawings: Michelangelo though being a famous sculptor, architect and painter created many drawings including quick sketches, composition drawings, careful studies of anatomy, and architectural plans. Most of his drawings were gifts to his closest friends. Some of these drawings represent classical myths while others represent idealised human beings. One of his famous works is ‘Divine Head’ which was drawn in 1530 depicting a perfect female drawn with such care that the hat and clothing seem relatively incomplete since the intention is to focus attention on the beautifully rendered contours of her face and neck. Michelangelo’s inventive idea of drawings included use of short strokes of chalk that are precisely altered. Michelangelo created images of perfection though most of these are imaginative works, showing the skill of the artist’s both in the meticulous rendering of observation and carefully sketching the imagination.

Poetry: Michelangelo's poetry is also preserved and read not only in Italian literature but in other European literature including English. Apparently most of his writings were elegant letters developed in an original and expressive way. Some 300 poems are found to be preserved out of which 75 were finished sonnets and about 95 finished madrigals (a type of poem of the same length as sonnets but of a looser formal structure with irregular rhyme scheme, length of line, and number of lines). Though the sonnet is widely common in English literature, his sonnets were known as ‘Michelangelo’s Sonnet’ though he maintained the same form as the former one. His madrigals were unfamiliar in English poetry. However, the fact was that Michelangelo left a large number of sonnets but only very few madrigals unfinished that reflects he preferred the latter form. The theme of his poems were based on the tradition of Petrarch's love poems and Neoplatonism philosophy.

To pay due respect to this tremendous genius it is said that Michelangelo was held to be divine by his contemporaries. Some experts do not hesitate to consider him the most talented renaissance artist that the world has ever known, especially because when it comes to sheer artistry, there is no match. According to writer and teacher Agnes Hooper Gottlieb, “Even though Leonardo's Mona Lisa arguably ranks as the millennium's most recognizable painting, Michelangelo's total body of work—his sculptures, paintings, and frescoes - are unequaled.”

It should be noted that Michelangelo’s few early works were influenced by Ghirlandaio’s painting method; he (Michelangelo) was an apprentice of Ghirlandaio for only one year when he was only 13 years old. According to historians, the classical art, which he studied in the Medic’s house, provided an inspiration and a standard of excellence. Critics also hint that some of Michelangelo’s late works (including the Last Judgment) ware copied from the idea of the sculpture of Laocoön; a Roman copy of a Greek original from the 2nd century BC. Pope Julius II also had significant influence over Michelangelo’s work. The Pope’s confidence and knowledge of Michelangelo’s ability drove him (the Pope) to commission this genius for various works.

His work was also intellectually stimulating, grounded in both mythology and religion. Michelangelo is still considered to be the key to the flowering of the Renaissance and is also a standard against which all subsequent artists are measured.

Michelangelo found friends like Granaccio, Giuliano Bugiardini, Jacopo di Sandro, Indaco, Angelo di Donnino, and Aristotile around him to assist him. Michelangelo, a quick learner, used Travertine Roman Lime and brownish coloured Pozzolana in his works after receiving careful tips from Giuliano da Sangallo. This unique genius had sometimes resisted and had been challenged by few contenders. Raphael da Urbino’s Prophet and Sibyls of Santa Maria della Pace and Bramante’s subsequent hearsay to Pope to remove Michelangelo from painting the on going chapel did not last long due to Michelangelo’s strong and bold resistance and Pope’s apathetic approach. Michelangelo was also known to be honestly outspoken. Once he was asked by Pope to enrich the chapel with colour and gold Michelangelo replied, “Holy Father, in those days men did not decorate themselves in gold and those you see painted they were never very rich. They were holy men who hated riches”. Such reply to a religious dignitary at his time needs a lot of moral fiber. Michelangelo’s personal transformation sometimes influenced his designs, as he Michelangelo dexterity in displaying nudes of varied expressions. In approaches and attitudes where he always looked for new inventions, novel intentions, prominent figures, sacred expression and spiritual subjects. Michelangelo's astonishing accomplishments in painting, sculpture and architecture made him one of the outstanding figures in Renaissance art.

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