Swide's column about the masters of Italian Renaissance recounts why it's impossible not to fall in love with Michelangelo Buonarroti...
I am one of those lucky people who grew up surrounded by art. Being Italian, it was hard to avoid the beauty that each town in my country treasures. No matter how many times you have been to Italy or you travelled around, there is always some more artwork to discover.
Renaissance, a cultural movement that involved Europe and spanned roughly between the half of the XV Century and the half of the XVI Century, has given us the best artists of all times: not only Michelangelo, but also Leonardo, Raffaello, Botticelli, Tiziano, Caravaggio, Brunelleschi...
Imagine what my Country must have been like at that time: sometimes I picture the street of Florence and Rome back then, the dialogs between those masters and what the world would be, today, if they never existed. What a big loss for humanity and its progress, isn't it?
Today I want to talk to you about my lifetime-crush, Michelangelo Buonarroti. He was among the ones who changed the definition of “beauty”, bringing it to another level. Born in the Arezzo surroundings (Caprese, Valtiberina) in 1475, he moved with his family to Florence only few days after his birth. At 11 years old he started his apprenticeship with Domenico Ghirlandaio, one of the most important artists at the time and who was busy with the frescos of Cappella Tornabuoni in Santa Maria Novella, where Michelangelo probably learnt the painting techniques. He soon became, in fact, one of his best alumnus. Rumors say he was very conscious of that: he might have fooled Ghirlandaio and once switched Ghirlandaio's drawing with his, without him even noticing. Between trips to Bologna and Florence he refined his techniques and style both with sculptures and paintings, although since very young age his talent had already blossomed.
Feeling nervous about introducing him to you like when you introduce a boyfriend to your family, I had to pick how to do so and felt there was the need to choose whether presenting him as a painter or a sculptor. I picked painter. Why? Mine is a provocation, because Michelangelo actually always preferred sculpture. But getting to know him through something that supposedly – in his opinion -wasn’t “his cup of tea” will make you realize even better his genius.
In 1504 Pope Giulio II della Rovere asked the artist to paint the frescos for the Cappella Sistina's vault (Sistina Chapel) in Rome. To give you an idea of what this work represents for humanity in our contemporary world, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said that “You can't fully realize what a man is capable of doing on his own until you have seen the Sistina Chapel”.
Sistina Chapel's vault detail
Michelangelo, once taken in charge the task, asked Bramante for scaffolding that would allow him to paint the vault in a comfortable way, but not satisfied with the result he built one himself. If it's easy to get lost in the iconography of this masterpiece, keep in mind that the project started with a commission of a fresco that would represent 12 people, the Apostoles. Michelangelo ended up painting 300. The frescos represents episodes from the Genesis – the main topic is the Creation of God - in cronological order: Separation of Light from Darkness, Creation of stars and planets, Earth Water’s Separation, The Creation of Adam, The Creation of Eva, The Fall of Man (sin of Adam and Eve, The Sacrifice of Noah, The Flood, The Drunkenness of Noah.
The frescos were completed in 1512, but not without polemics: Michelangelo represented naked figures (the famous “Ignudi”) and was accused of “obscenity”. What’s amazing, together with the beauty of these paintings, is that these frescos were painted on a vault, with all the challenges of perspective that this implies, and at the same time with the position of Michelangelo's body while painting, lying on his back.
Ignudo, Sistina Chapel's vault detail
In 1536 Clemente VII asked him to also paint the background wall of Cappella Sistina: he did so, representing the Giudizio Universale (The Last Judgment), completed in 1541. He once again stirred negative comments about the nudity and the lascivious representations of some of the protagonists. When you get in Cappella Sistina, you are almost blinded by the perfection of the proportions and the colors used.
The Last Judgment (detail)
The iconography of this masterpiece is complicated and beautiful and it would take ages to explain it to you. What I am eager to express, though, is what comes across his art: even someone who has no clue about who Michelangelo is, looking up at Cappella Sistina's frescos, would be moved by it.
If Cappella Sistina is definitely considered his masterpiece among his paintings, he produced other works as perfect as those. Around 1487 he painted the Tormento of San't Antonio (Thorment of Saint Anthony) that depicts Sant'Antonio Abate with Demons, a dramatic representation that recalls nordic iconography.
Thorment of Saint Anthony
Another beautiful work is the Deposizione di Cristo nel Sepolcro (The Entombment of Christ) was probably painted in 1500 and is now at the National Gallery of London. It depicts three people carrying the dead body of Christ. What's stunning in this painting is the impassive faces of the protagonists and the colors he used.
The Entombment of Christ
This is clearly the intermediary step that will bring Michelangelo to paint, in 1506, the Tondo Doni, now at Uffizi Museum in Florence. This work, a commission to the artist by Doni of a Sacra Famiglia, will be the model for the yet-to-come mannerism style, an example of beauty and perfect composition. “Tondo” means round, as the shape of this painting. Yet again, think about the difficulty of painting and organize the space on a round surface.
There are many reasons why I have a crush on Michelangelo. We live in a world made of technology: we are able to buy everything, to reach any corner of the world through the internet, to communicate with everyone, anytime. Nothing surprises us anymore. And yet, once we come across Michelangelo's art, we are moved by it. After Centuries of changes and progress in every field, no one like him succeeded in talking to our hearts without even speaking. Also, even with all these media that allow us to be rich and capable of doing many things we never thought we could do, we would never be able to replicate Michelangelo's works. That is why, like a girl in love with someone without knowing if she is loved in return, it just makes me happy to know someone like Michelangelo existed, that he was out there, such a gifted mind who didn't keep his talent to himself but shared it with humanity.
And if now you are in love with Michelangelo (or Renaissance) too, don't forget to visit the exhibit in Rome at Fondazione Roma (Palazzo Sciarra), the Renaissance in Rome. You have time until February 12th 2012.
Written by Elisa della Barba