Michelangelo Buonarroti is without a doubt the most revered sculptor of the Renaissance period. Despite his fresco work in The Sistine Chapel, he always considered himself to be a sculptor rather than a painter. Almost everyone can picture his most famous work, “David” and most are also familiar with his “Pietà” but there are many other sculptures that our readers may not be familiar with. In this four-part series, the Italian Tribune will examine the genius of Michelangelo through his sculptures, as well as the trials, tribulations, backstabbing and intrigue surrounding a number of his works.
Michelangelo was born on March 6, 1475, in Caprese and was raised in Florence. He lived with a stonecutter and his wife during his mother’s long illness. This early introduction to the stonecutter’s trade fed his interest in sculpture and he studied at the school of Lorenzo de’ Medici under the guidance of Bertoldo di Giovanni.
Michelangelo lived in the household of his patron Lorenzo de’ Medici for four years until Lorenzo’s death in 1492. While at the Medici school he would often criticize the work of students less skillful than himself. One story relates to the apprentice Pietro Torrigiano, who became so enraged by the remarks of his fellow student that he punched him in the face, breaking his nose. Depictions of Michelangelo are always marked by his crooked nose. Even so, Michelangelo’s genius was not dulled by this violent encounter. He produced a copy of an ancient marble sculpture, a Faun. This depiction of a half man, half goat so admired by Lorenzo is sadly lost, but it marked the beginning of the artist’s long and distinguished career as a sculptor.
The Madonna of the Stairs, or Madonna of the Steps, is a relief sculpture by Michelangelo in the Casa Buonarroti in Florence. The piece measure 22.3” by 15.8” and was sculpted around 1491, when Michelangelo was about seventeen. This relief and the Battle of the Centaurs were Michelangelo’s first two sculptures.
He sculpted the Battle of the Centaurs the following year, which was the last work he created while under the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who died shortly after its completion. Inspired by a classical relief created by Bertoldo di Giovanni, the unfinished marble sculpture measures 33.3” by 35.6” and depicts the mythic battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs. A popular subject of art in ancient Greece, the story was suggested to Michelangelo by the classical scholar and poet Poliziano. Battle of the Centaurs was a remarkable sculpture in several ways. Michelangelo had departed from the then current practices of working on a discrete plane to work multi-dimensionally. It was also the first sculpture Michelangelo created without the use of a bow drill. He regarded it as the best of his early works.
Michelangelo carved three statues for the Ark of St. Dominic during the period of 1494–1495. The Ark is located in the Basilica of San Domenico in Bologna. The statue of St. Petronius, Bishop of Bologna, stands 25” high. St. Proculus, a martyr of Bologna stands 23” high and a magnificent winged angel is 20” high. The artist’s remarkable use of drapery in marble, so famous in his later works, is evident in the smooth contours of these three small sculptures.
Bacchus (1496–1497) is a somewhat larger than life-sized marble sculpture at 80 inches in height. It depicts the Greek god of wine in a pose suggestive of drunkenness. Originally commissioned by Cardinal Raffaele Riario, the high-ranking clergyman rejected the work. Instead, it was purchased by Jacopo Galli, Riario’s banker and a friend of Michelangelo. Along with the Pietà, the Bacchus is one of only two surviving sculptures from the artist’s first period in Rome.
The Pietà (1498–1499) is housed in St. Peter’s Basilica at Vatican City. It is the first of a number of works of the same theme by the artist. The statue was commissioned for the French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères, who was a representative in Rome. The sculpture, in Carrara marble, was made for the cardinal’s funeral monument but was moved to its current location in the first chapel on the right as one enters the Basilica in the 18th century. Triangular in shape, it measure 68.5 inches wide and 76.8 inches in height. The immortal work depicts the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion. Michelangelo’s interpretation of the Pietà was unprecedented in Italian sculpture. It is an important work that balances the Renaissance ideals of classical beauty with naturalism. It is the only piece Michelangelo ever signed.
David, the most famous statue in the world, was created by Michelangelo between 1501 and 1504. The 17 foot tall statue was carved from a single slab of Carrara marble. The statue represents the Biblical hero David, a favored subject in the art of Florence. David was originally commissioned as one of a series of statues of prophets to be positioned along the roofline of the east end of Florence Cathedral, but so extraordinary was the finished work of art, that it was instead placed in the Piazza della Signoria outside the Palazzo Vecchio. It was unveiled on September 8, 1504. The statue was moved to the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence in 1873 and later replaced at the original location in the piazza by a replica, which continues to confuse tourists to this day.
The Madonna of Bruges (1501 -1504) of Mary with the Child Jesus differs significantly from earlier representations of the same subject, which tended to feature a pious Virgin smiling down on an infant held in her arms. Instead, Jesus stands upright, almost unsupported, only loosely restrained by Mary’s left hand and appears to be about to step away from His mother. Meanwhile, Mary does not cling to her son or even look at Him, but gazes down and away. It is believed the large work, standing 79 inches high, was originally intended for an altar piece. The work is notable in that it was the only sculpture by Michelangelo to leave Italy during his lifetime. It was bought by Giovanni and Alessandro Moscheroni, heirs to a family of wealthy cloth merchants in Bruges, then one of the leading commercial cities in Europe. The sculpture was sold for 4,000 florins.
During World War II, retreating German soldiers wrapped the sculpture in mattresses and smuggled it to Germany in a Red Cross truck. One year later, in 1945, it was discovered in an Austrian salt mine. This major recovery of the priceless work of art was recounted in the movie “The Monuments Men.” It now sits behind bullet-proof glass in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges in Belgium.