It is no exaggeration to say that Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was a complicated human being. The man and the myth that grew around him-even in his own lifetime-are difficult to disentangle. Arrogant with others and constantly dissatisfied with himself, he nonetheless penned tender poetry. In spite of his legendary impatience and indifference to food and drink, he committed himself to tasks that required years of sustained attention, creating some of the most beautiful human figures ever imagined.
He constantly cried poverty, even declaring to his apprentice Ascanio Condivi: "However rich I may have been, I have always lived like a poor man," yet he amassed a considerable fortune that kept his family comfortable for centuries. And though he enjoyed the reputation of being a solitary genius and continually withdrew himself from the company of others, he also directed dozens of assistants, quarrymen, and stonemasons to carry out his work.
The second of five sons, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was born in 1475 in the town of Caprese, located in the Florentine territory of Italy near Arezzo, Tuscany. The son of a magistrate, Michelangelo shocked his family in 1488 by becoming an apprentice to painter Domenico Ghirlandaio and then studied with sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni in the Medici gardens in Florence. While honing his skills, he was influenced by prominent people who expanded his views on the arts, especially Lorenzo de' Medici and his school, who introduced him to poets, artists, and scholars in his inner circle.
Early in his career, Michelangelo pursued artistic perfection in his representation of the human body. His meticulousness led him to anatomy, which he studied fervently, even gaining permission from the prior of the church of Santo Spirito to study cadavers in the church's hospital. During this time, he began a lifelong practice of drawing and sketching to prepare for future works of art and architecture.
Following the death of Lorenzo de' Medici in 1492, Michelangelo left Florence, moving from Venice to Bologna and eventually Rome, where he continued sculpting and studying classical works. During this period the French ambassador in the Holy See commissioned the "Pietà" for Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican (1498-99). One of the artist's most famous works, the sculpture depicts the Virgin Mary mourning over the body of Jesus Christ after the Crucifixion.
After the fall of Savonarola and the rise of the gonfaloniere Pier Soderini, Michelangelo returned home to the republic of Florence (1501-1505). There he began work on his famous colossal statue "David" (1501-1504), created out of marble from the quarries at Cararra. The masterwork established his prominence as a sculptor of extraordinary technical skill and symbolic imagination.
Back in Rome, Pope Julius II (1503-13) commissioned the artist to create his papal tomb, which features the famous statue of Moses. Michelangelo worked on the tomb for 40 years, frequently stopping work for other commissions, the first major interruption being the commission to paint in the Sistine Chapel (1508-12). Michelangelo painted more than 300 figures on the ceiling. This proved to be both a mentally and physically arduous task for the artist, who exhaustively planned the paintings through his process of drawing and sketching.
Around 1516, he began to focus more intensely on architecture. Before leaving Florence definitively in 1534, he designed plans for the Medici Tombs and the Laurentian Library attached to the church of San Lorenzo.
In Rome, Pope Paul III (1534-49) was instrumental in seeing that Michelangelo produce an enormous fresco of The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, where he labored from 1534-1541. A depiction of the second coming of Christ and the apocalypse, the work was controversial even before its unveiling because of the depictions of nude saints in the papal chapel, which were considered obscene and sacrilegious.
While completing "The Last Judgment," Michelangelo focused his attention back on architecture. In 1536 he designed the Piazza del Campidoglio, which rationalized the structures and spaces of Rome's Capitoline Hill, and in 1546 was appointed architect of Saint Peter's Basilica and designed its dome. His last plans were for the Porta Pia, a gate in the Aurelian Walls of Rome (1561-65).
Michelangelo left his final work in marble, the "Rondanini Pietà," incomplete. He died in 1564, nearly 89.
Michelangelo's works have been studied exhaustively, confirming his reputation as one of the major forces in the history of Western art and supreme master of the Renaissance. Today, most of his works remain in Italy. Approximately 500 of his drawings are held primarily in Italian, British and French collections, including the Casa Buonarroti.