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Michelangelo Buonarroti was born in Caprese in 1475 where his father was the chief Florentine official, but was brought up in Florence. At the age of twelve he was apprenticed to the painter Ghirlandaio. However Ghirlandaio's pupil Granacci introduced Michelangelo to the Medici's collection of antique sculpture; his talent was discovered by Lorenzo the Magnificent, who gave him lodgings in his palace, and meals at his table. There, surrounded by humanists and poets, at the heart of the Italian Renaissance, he learnt the craft of sculpture from Bertoldo who supervised the antique collection.

Michelangelo was not only active as a painter and sculptor, but was an accomplished poet and later a brilliant architect, active until a few days before his death in 1564 aged 89. During that time he not only witnessed a complete change in the standing of the artist in society, from that of a humble craftsman to a capricious artist; the Renaissance with its revival of antiquity and rediscovery of nature turn into Mannerism and Baroque; but also the Reformation and Catholic Counter Reformation with their associated political intrigue. Nowhere are these changes more clearly demonstrated than in Michelangelo's own life and works.


The Rennaissance

The Renaissance, which began in Florence, was the chief non-religious factor leading to the Reformation. It prepared the way by opening men's (and some women's) minds and setting them free from the shackles imposed for centuries by the medieval church. The revival of Latin and Greek literature led to the Bible being studied in its original languages and translated into modern European languages.

The Renaissance scholars were called humanists, and the movement reached maturity with Petrarch (1304-74), a convinced Christian who polarised Christian opinion between scholasticism and humanism, between tradition and original texts. His ideal was a world of classical values recaptured and displayed within a restored Christianity. Many Dutch and German humanists were Christian in outlook due to the Brethren of the Common Life founded by Geert Groote (1340-84) after his conversion. They were devoted to education and stressed the importance of religion within it; they produced scholars like Thomas a Kempis who wrote the spiritual classic Imitation of Christ, and Erasmus, an international scholar who more than anyone else prepared the way for the Reformation.

Indeed most of the early humanists professed faith in Christ, and it was only later that many Renaissance thinkers rejected Christianity to admire pagan virtues and practice pagan vices. So for example to read The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), Secretary of the Florentine Republic, one would think that Christianity had never existed.

The fall of Constantinople in 1453 was but one more factor in the Renaissance when scholars fled west bringing literature and their learning.

Pope Nicholas V (1447-55) founded the Vatican library and was the first pope to interest himself in the Renaissance, setting the tone for his successors, and having a concern for the architectural adornment of Rome. Pope Pius II (1458-64) was one of the greatest humanist churchmen, and during this period many ancient manuscripts were discovered in European monasteries. Printing was introduced into Europe in the mid fifteenth century and was widespread by the end. The Bible, the new learning and reformation texts were the first books to be widely distributed.

At this time Florence was virtually ruled by the banker Cosimo de Medici (1389-1464) who encouraged platonism. The Platonic Society became the focus of cultural life in the city, and Florence experienced a golden age under Lorenzo Medici, the Magnificent (1449-92), who took in the young Michelangelo.

Vice and Violence

However it was also an age of vice and political violence. Girolamo Savonarola became a popular preacher in Florence by 1490 denouncing luxury, greed and worldliness. Spurred on by him the Republican Party ousted the Medici rulers in 1494 with the help of Charles VIII of France, and made tax reforms, aided the poor, and reformed the courts. At the Carnival in 1496 Savonarola inspired the people to make a great bonfire of cosmetics, wigs, pornographic books and gambling equipment.

During the fifteenth century the courts of the Italian city states swarmed with their rulers' children struggling for a career through war, the church, marriage, and not infrequently assassination. Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84) made six of his nephews cardinals and was involved in political intrigues, including interfering in the affairs of Florence where he was implicated in the assassination of two Medicis in 1478. He exploited the sale of offices and indulgences to support his patronage of humanistic studies, art and architecture including building the Sistine Chapel

The most infamous family were the Borgias of whom two became popes - Calixtus III in 1455-8 and his nephew Alexander VI in 1492-1503 who as the Spanish cardinal Rodrigo Borgia had an illegitimate son Cesare born in 1475. Alexander provided for his children at the expense of the Church, and by the age of 27 Cesare Borgia was the most feared, hated and envied man in Italy, guilty of murder, rape, incest, robbery and treachery. Savonarola denounced Alexander VI but was excommunicated and burnt at the stake in Florence in 1498.



Michaelangelo and the Rennaisance

Michelangelo was in the Medici household when they were ousted from power. There he had carved the Battle of the Centaurs and The Madonna of the Stairs, two of the works of his most pagan period. His struggle between his love of beauty shown in antique pagan figures, and his Christian belief laid the seed not only for his tormented life but also for his art. Michelangelo fled to Bologna where he completed St.Dominic's tomb, and then to Rome where he carved the Bacchus and Pieta and painted the Manchester Madonna and The Entombment, both now in the National Gallery in London. He then returned to Florence and carved the famous David which the Republicans commissioned from him to celebrate their victory.

Pope Julius II (1503-13), Michelangelo's first papal patron who commissioned him to design his own tomb and then to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, was partly responsible for Cesare Borgia's downfall in 1507 when he was killed in battle. Julius II was the most successful, militarily speaking, of the High Renaissance popes, having mastered the Papal States, humbled Venice, and driven the French out of Italy. His successor Pope Leo X (1513-23) of the rival Medici family (Julius was a Rovere), and credited with the quip "Now that we have obtained the papacy let us enjoy it" frustrated Michelangelo's attempts to complete Julius' tomb by commissioning him to work in Florence, first to design a façade for S Lorenzo, and then to work on the Medici tombs.

Michelangelo's work for the Medicis in Florence was interrupted when they were again driven out in 1526; his loyalties were divided between his patrons and his republican sympathies, but this time he stayed in the city and designed fortifications for the Florentine Republic. However his plans were not implemented as through treacherous political scheming the Medicis returned. Michelangelo was forgiven and continued to work on the Medici Chapel.


The Reformation

Meanwhile the Reformation had begun, when in 1517 Martin Luther (1453-1546) announced the disputation on indulgences, contrasting them with the gospel of free grace through faith. Attempts at reforming the Church had been made before, and seeds of renewal sown, but now Luther came into direct opposition to the Pope on theological grounds with his three emphases of the authority of scripture, justification by faith alone and the priesthood of all believers, rejecting all traditions which had no biblical basis.

Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X in 1520 and then outlawed by the Emperor Charles V in 1521. The next pope, Clement VIII (1523-34), was sincere but accomplished little, and indeed Rome was sacked in 1521 with the approval of Charles V. However Clement commissioned Michelangelo to design the Laurentian Library.



Pope Paul III (1534-49) attempted reconciliation with the Protestants as they had become known but Luther refused to accept any compromise. Paul III brought genuine reform to the Roman Church through the Counter Reformation under the Council of Trent which met between 1545 and 1563. It actually increased papal power as well as reaffirming justification by faith and works, purgatory and indulgences, though condemning the abuses of the latter.

In 1540 Paul III approved the founding of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, by Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) who was a friend of Michelangelo. The Jesuits were the SAS of the Counter Reformation, took oaths of absolute obedience to the pope and believed the end justified the means. They ran schools, as the early humanists had done, and engaged in missionary work, but increasingly their role was to combat protestantism. The inquisition was also re-established to wipe out heresy.

Pope Paul III called Michelangelo back to Rome in 1534 to paint the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel and other frescoes in his private chapel, to complete the Palazzo Farnese for him, and to replan the Capitol.



From 1534 Michelangelo dominated Italian art, but within was spiritual and intellectual turmoil, and convinced of his unworthiness he lived in fear of eternal damnation. His words echo St.Paul; I live to sin, to kill myself I live; no longer is my life my own, but sin's; my good is given to me by heaven, my evil by myself, by my freewill, of which I am deprived.

It was during this time that Michelangelo met Vittoria Colonna, the only woman in his life, and who belonged to a group striving for the internal reform of the Catholic Church with an almost protestant emphasis on faith as opposed to works. During 1538 they met every Sunday, but tormented by religious doubts she withdrew into a convent. However Vittoria periodically returned to Rome to visit Michelangelo, and it was thanks to her that he regained his faith, and never again lost it.

From this point on Michelangelo felt the need for God's grace and this revolutionised his work. Whereas his previous work expressed the belief that perfect physical beauty represented the divine, a drawing now of a pieta for Vittoria Colonna gave more attention to Christ's suffering. All his last sculptures were a compound of suffering and love, rather than ideal beauty, and more accurately reflected the human condition. Death was also a theme in the pieta intended for his own tomb, and in many of his finest sonnets written in his last years.

His fiercest struggle had been between his pagan platonic ideal of perfect beauty in the human body, which he confessed made his art an idol and a tyrant, and his fervent faith in Christ. Some poems show him counting his art as sinful, and indeed in his later years he gave up painting and sculpture almost entirely and concentrated on architecture. "Let there be no more painting, no more carving to soothe the soul turned towards that Divine Love which opened His arms from the cross to receive us."

The art of Michelangelo's last twenty years was all to the glory of God. In 1546 at the age of 72 he was commissioned to complete the rebuilding of St.Peters in Rome left unfinished since 1514. He regarded this as the greatest work of his life and refused a salary. He redesigned the church and dome but only the drum was completed before his death.


Mannerism and Baroque

Among his last works were the Porta Pia of 1562-4 and the Sforza Chapel built after his death. The former is an example of his original use of classical motifs, first seen in the Medici Chapel, which deliberately and therefore self-consciously flouted classical rules and inaugerated the Mannerist style; and the latter with a sculptor's eye for three dimensional form which, bypassing the Renaissance preoccupation with proportions, opened up concepts of scale and space, as also in St.Peters, anticipating the Baroque.

Michelangelo's final design was for the Jesuits' church, the Gesu, again built after his death, but following his drawings. His plan for St.Peters, like Bramante's earlier one, had been centralised, but the Gesu reintroduces the longitudinal plan of the Early Christian and Byzantine, as well as medieval, periods. The Renaissance had ended and the Counter Reformation begun. Michelangelo died in 1564 aged 89.


Artistic Summary

Pevsner sums up the stylistic changes as expressed through Michelangelo's life.

Michelangelo….belonged to the Renaissance for only a very few years of his early career. His Pieta of 1499 may be a work of the High Renaissance. His David may be in the spirit of the Renaissance too. Of his Sistine ceiling this can be said only to a limited extent; and of his work after 1515 hardly at all. His character made it impossible for him to accept the ideals of the Renaissance for long. He was the very opposite of Castiglione's Courtier and Leonardo da Vinci; unsociable, distrustful, a fanatical worker, negligent in his personal appearance, deeply religious, and uncompromisingly proud…… The unprecedented admiration for him caused the publication of two biographies while he was alive…. For we feel we must know much about him to understand his art. In the Middle Ages the personality of an architect could never to that degree have influenced his style….. Michelangelo was the first to turn architecture into an instrument of individual expression. The terribiliata that frightened those who met him fills us with awe immediately we are faced with any work of his.

In his poems he gives to posterity a reckoning of his struggles between a platonic ideal of beauty and a fervent faith in Christ. It is ….. the struggle between the age of the Renaissance in which he lived when he was young, and that of the Counter Reformation and Mannerism that began when he was about fifty years old ….. Now new stricter religious orders were founded ….. above all the Jesuits …… In Rome nothing seemed left of the Renaissance gaiety.

Stringent new rules of decency led to clothes being painted onto Michelangelo's naked figures in The Last Judgment.



The conclusion can only be questions. Pevsner's summing up is an art historian's one. How would Christians of varying traditions sum it up? I leave you to form the questions and ponder the answers.

Copyright prevents illustration of Michelangelo's work on this website, but well illustrated books on his art and architecture abound. One which pays more attention to his spiritual journey is Michelangelo by Gilles Neret, Taschen, 2000. For his poetry see Michelangelo: The Poems translated by Christopher Ryan, J M Dent, 1996.







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