While still in his twenties, Michelangelo had already executed two of the most important and famous sculptures of mankind – the Pietà in Rome and David in Florence. After two years in Venice and almost four years in Rome, he returned to Florence at the request of his family in 1499. The Republic was changing after the fall of the anti-Renaissance priest Girolamo Savonarola. Michelangelo was asked by the consuls of the Guild of Wool to complete an unfinished project begun 40 years earlier by Agostino di Duccio – the colossal statue of Carrara marble portraying David as a symbol of Florentine freedom. On the heels of his Pietà, the masterwork established his prominence as a sculptor of extraordinary technical skill and imagination. This was not the only work that he performed during the early years of the 16th century. He was also commissioned to create statues for the Siena Cathedral.
Andrea Bregno had started an altar for the tomb of Cardinal Francesco Todeschini-Piccolomini in 1481. Known as the Piccolomini Altarpiece, the monumental architectural piece is located in the left-nave of Siena Cathedral. Bregno modelled his design on classic Roman architecture, shaping a triumphal arch in the lower part of the sculpture, with a large central niche housing an altar and a late 14th century painting of the Madonna by Paolo Giovanni Fei.
In 1501, Cardinal Todeschini-Piccolomini asked Michelangelo, then 26 years old, to create statues for the empty niches remaining in Bregno’s work. The four sculptures that he created were of Carrara marble between 1501 and 1504 and depict St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Gregory the Great and St. Pius, originally begun as a statue of St. Augustine. The most famous of the four is St. Paul, which is generally believed to be Michelangelo’s earliest self-portrait. The St. Peter and St Paul statues are also held up as classic examples of Michelangelo’s skills, showing all the vigor and sense of movement that would characterize his later works. The statues of St. Gregory and St. Pius are rather plain by comparison. Michelangelo’s style in unquestionably evident, but the figures are less dynamic and much of the work was likely performed by the master’s students.
Michelangelo had originally agreed to produce 15 statues for the empty niches, but it appears that his work for the Cardinal was not the most interesting in the artist’s view. History would agree. All of the niche figures were sculpted at the same time that Michelangelo was working on other masterpieces – David and the Madonna of Bruges. It is believed that the latter was once intended for Siena. Instead, in the central niche is a 1371 carving of the Madonna and Child by architect Giovanni di Cecco.
Cardinal Todeschini-Piccolomini did not live to see the completed work. He succeeded Pope Alexander VI as Pius III in 1503, but died after only 18 days as Pontiff, leaving the Holy See to Julius II. After a long restoration period, the statues by Michelangelo have been restored to their former glory and draw visitors from around the world to this magnificent Tuscan Renaissance cathedral.
While working on David, the Madonna of Bruges and the Piccolomini Altarpiece, Michelangelo produced two bas-reliefs – the Pitti Tondo and the Taddei Tondo. These two pieces show Michelangelo’s preoccupation with the subject of the Virgin and Child, but demonstrate a much freer treatment of the centuries old subject.
Each piece was intended for the home, rather than for a large audience, as was the case of the Pietà and the David. The Pitti Tondo is about 31 inches in diameter and there are elements of the work that suggest that work was unfinished, in particular the figure of St. John the Baptist over the Virgin Mary’s left shoulder. However, narratives from the era suggest that Michelangelo preferred the look of the work with its almost ghostly image of St John. The Pitti Tondo is now in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence.
The other bas-relief, the Taddei Tondo, depicts a seated Virgin Mary with the Baby Jesus sprawled across her lap. She is turning and looking back over her right shoulder towards the infant, Saint John the Baptist. Executed with only a point and claw chisel, the combination of these tools helps create a sense of unity that would likely not exist if the artist had used a drill or other tools. The Christ Child in full relief is highly finished, the shallower relief of the Virgin is finished to a lesser degree and St. John even less so. The background is roughly executed. The piece has a diameter of 42 inches and is located in the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
Michelangelo began a marble sculpture of St. Matthew in 1505, now located in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence. Intended for niches in the choir of Florence Cathedral, St. Matthew was to be the first of the twelve statues of the Apostles. Standing almost 9 feet tall, it was the only one started. The project was abandoned when, later in the year, Michelangelo was summoned back to Rome by Pope Julius II.
The Pope commissioned the great master to build a grand tomb for him. It was to include forty statues, with a contracted completion period of five years. An almighty task to begin with, the time frame was made untenable by constant interruptions by the Pope and additional projects. Although Michelangelo worked on the tomb for 40 years, it was never finished to his satisfaction. Located in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome, it is most famous for the central figure of Moses, completed in 1516. This is the point where we will pick up for Part III of this series.