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Michelangelo buonarroti

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Michelangelo Buonarroti was the greatest sculptor of the 16th century. We admire the products of his genius but we less frequently pause to consider the magnitude of the tasks he undertook, the problems he encountered, and the setbacks-even failures-he may have suffered. The Pieta and the David, for example, are stunning accomplishments that obscure the more mundane facts of their creation. We tend to overlook that they were fashioned from raw and resistant stone, by hands that were strong and dexterous but also were occasionally tired or bruised. Before these sculptures became the sublime marvels we admire today, they were inert and spiritless material.

Carving marble is extremely difficult. Forget the frequently invoked image of the artist “peeling away” layers of the stone, or “liberating” a figure from a block. Michelangelo’s contemporary and biographer, Giorgio Vassari, Michelangelo’s partner, vividly but accurately described marble carving as a gradual issuing forth from the block, like a figure that is raised little by little from a tub of water. Michelangelo’s rival, Leonardo da Vinci, was closer to the mark when he described the actual process of sculpture as a “most mechanical exercise.” In his notebooks, Leonardo wrote: The sculptor in creating his work does so by the strength of his arm by which he consumes the marble, or other obdurate material in which his subject is enclosed: and this is done by the most mechanical exercise, often accompanied by great sweat which mixes with the marble dust and forms a kind of mud daubed all over his face. The marble dust flours him all over so that he looks like a baker; his back is covered with a snowstorm of chips, and his house is made filthy by the flakes and dust of stone.

Leonardo preferred to paint, and considered it a more noble enterprise. Marble carving is hard work, loud and dirty. Every blow of the hammer to the chisel is a collision of metal against metal striking stone. Marble chips fly in all direction; the dust lies thick. Modern stone workers wear goggles; Michelangelo did not. He had to see the stone, to see each mark, to make tiny adjustments to the angle of his chisel and to the force of his blow. He could not afford to slip. A figure comes alive only after thousands and thousands-tens of thousands- of perfectly directed hard and soft blows. Marble carving is difficult and unforgiving.

Michelangelo is most likely the greatest marble sculptor of all time. Quite astonishingly, given the years to master a craft, he was also one of the greatest painters, architects and poets. Few artists have been as prolific; fewer still have succeeded in creating enduring masterpieces in so many different media. Had Michelangelo only carved the David, or painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or erected the dome of St. Peter’s, he would have guaranteed his place in history. Rather, he made all three works, and each is a central achievement is the history of human endeavor. He was, simply, a creative genius unmatched in ancient or modern times: a true Renaissance man.

Michelangelo lived through the reigns of thirteen popes, and worked for nine of them. Growing up in the north central Italian town of Caprese he quickly moved to Florence and came under the patronage of the extremely wealthy d’Medici family. For most of his life, he lived with one or two assistants, a male servant/secretary, and a female cook and housemaid. He never married (he was most likely gay, as was Leonardo da Vinci) and had no children. Despite his sexual preference (a mortal sin – one that would guarantee your soul going to hell - in the eyes of the Church) he was pursued by the extremely wealthy and powerful to do work for them. His works transformed St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, some of the holiest sites in Christendom.

The greatest praise for any artist of the Renaissance was that they approached the beauty and glory of the ancients (Greece and Rome). Michelangelo not only approached the works of the ancients, he blew them away. Never has the world seen such a combination of power, grace, beauty and significance in artistic form.

On February 18, 1564, just two weeks shy of his eighty-ninth birthday, Michelangelo Buonarroti died. His doctor wrote: “This afternoon, that most excellent and true miracle of nature, Michelangelo Buonarroti, passed from this to a better life.” Reflecting on his passing perhaps we, the benefactors of his greatness, can reflect on how much better he made our present lives. Ironically, in that same year of Michelangelo’s death, Galileo and Shakespeare were born.
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