What makes a genius? A person who defines an age; who is without peer and is revered by all; whose work becomes the benchmark of influence and learning in his or her own lifetime and for generations after. Michelangelo Buonarroti was this and more, having left us a legacy of his genius in sculpture, painting, architecture, and poetry.
Early Life and Journey to Rome
Born at Caprese (in the mountains north, east of Arezzo) in 1475, the son of the local magistrate, his family returned to Florence soon after his birth. It was this city that Michelangelo always called his home.
It was Rome, however, that bent his will to create for the Eternal City the most important collection of work by any genius. It’s still all there for us to enjoy today.
Michelangelo arrived in Rome on June 25, 1496, at the age of 21. If he considered Florence his home, Rome was about to become his tormenting lover.
Michelangelo’s Pieta and the Work on Papel Chapel
Michelangelo’s Pieta was the first of his famous ‘Roman’ creations. Today this masterpiece of fluid, emotive storytelling in stone can be seen in St. Peter’s.
Vasari (1512 – 74) was moved to write:
“a revelation of all the potentialities and force of the art of sculpture. It is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh.”
After Leo X’s election in 1513, Michelangelo was hired to refurbish the facade of the Papel Chapel in Castel Sant’Angelo, which kept him occupied off and on from 1514 until 1521.
The Tragedy of the Tomb
The great tomb of Pope Julius II became, in Michelangelo’s own words, the ‘tragedy of the tomb’. He never realized his grand design that included some 40 figures which were to be located in the center of the new St. Peter’s.
Julius died in 1513, the contract was redrawn several times over the following years with ever-diminishing funding whilst other demands were made on Michelangelo by successive popes, when at last, the project was finally ‘thrown’ together in 1545, with much help from assistants, in S. Pietro in Vincoli, Julius’ titular church.
A compromise it is, but Michelangelo sculptured a true masterpiece in his Moses. The imposing presence of the prophet who spoke to God is spell-binding. The majestic stare is of a man that we cannot believe is carved in stone and not of flesh and blood. This statue alone is worth a visit to Rome.
Masterpieces in the Sistine Chapel
It was early in the sculpting of the tomb that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel masterpiece was painted. He was to return to the Chapel in 1536 when Pope Paul III commissioned him to paint the fresco of the Last Judgement for the altar wall, which was completed in 1541.
Work on the Piazza del Campidoglio
In 1538, just after Michelangelo had been made a citizen of Rome, he was at work again, designing and overseeing the construction of the Piazza del Campidoglio.
Almost like a conductor of an orchestra, the great artist collected from various locations around Rome sculptural masterpieces from antiquity that he placed in his square for visual highlights. Our eyes move to the centre of his square, and standing atop a base designed by Michelangelo himself stands the greatest surviving bronze from the classical Roman period, Marcus Aurelius seated upon a horse.
The Architectural Contributions
At some point, he found time to design the Sforza Chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica, but it was actually built by Giacomo della Porta (1539 – 1601).
An often overlooked architectural masterpiece that boasts the hand of Michelangelo in Rome is the Palazzo Farnese, the most beautiful Renaissance palace in the Eternal City. Designed by Antonio da Sangello the Younger (1483 – 1546) for Cardinal Alessandra Farnese (later Pope Paul III), the construction continued under the genial hand of Michelangelo upon Sangello’s death.
It was the sculptor from Florence who finished the upper floor with an amazing display of inter dispersed multi-colored bricks, crowning the building with his superb entablature (architrave).
The Crown Jewel: Saint Peter’s Basilica
At 72 years of age, Michelangelo was made the architect of Saint Peter’s Basilica in 1546 by Pope Paul III. The most important Roman Catholic church in the world was now in the hands of one of the most gifted artists in the world.
Returning to Bramante’s (1444 – 1514) original Greek-cross plan, Michelangelo’s St. Peter’s would have as its crowning glory its great dome that still dominates the cityscape of Rome today. Michelangelo studied the Pantheon and the Basilica Maximus to unleash the engineering secrets of the ancients, but it was Brunelleschi’s (1377 – 1446).
Dome in Florence became his model for St. Peter’s. He continued this work up until his death in 1564, after which the work continued under Vignola (1507 – 73) and Pirro Ligorio (1500 – 83) until it was finally completed in 1590.
Final Years and Lasting Legacy
In his final years, he designed the Porta Pia, commissioned in 1561, and restored the Great Hall of the Baths of Diocletian, today the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli.
In Rome today, we have the opportunity to see great works by a great artist and understand better the life and times of perhaps the greatest genius, Michelangelo Buonarroti.