Michelangelo had been on his back for 20 months, resting sparingly, and sleeping in his clothes to save time. When it was all over, however, in the fall of 1512, the masterpiece that he left behind on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome would leave the world forever altered.
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Born in 1475 to an impoverished but aristocratic family in Caprese, a hillside town near Florence, Michelangelo Buonarroti grew up with an innate sense of pride, which as he aged, would feed his volatile temperament. When he failed to excel at school, his father apprenticed him to Domenico Ghirlandaio, a Florentine frescoist. Cocky from the start, the 13-year-old Michelangelo succeeded in irritating his fellow apprentices, one so badly that the boy punched him in the face, breaking his nose. But in Ghirlandaio’s workshop, Michelangelo learned to paint; in doing so, he caught the attention of Florence’s storied Medici family, whose wealth and political standing would soon put Michelangelo on the map as an artist and, in 1496, chart his course south, to Rome.
“It’s almost as if Michelangelo goes from zero to 65 miles per hour in a second or two,” says William Wallace, an art history professor at Washington University in Saint Louis. “He was 21 when he arrived in Rome, and he hadn’t accomplished a lot yet. He went from relatively small works to suddenly creating the Pietà.”
It was the Rome Pietà (1499), a sculpture of the Virgin Mary cradling the body of her son Jesus in her lap, and the the artist’s next creation in Florence, the nearly 17-foot-tall figure of David (1504) that earned Michelangelo the respect of the greatest art patron of his age: Pope Julius II. The 10-year partnership between the two men was both a meeting of the minds and a constant war of egos and would result in some of the Italian Renaissance’s greatest works of art and architecture, the Sistine Chapel among them.
“Pope Julius had, in some ways, an even larger vision—of putting the papacy back on a proper footing. Michelangelo had the ambition to be the world’s greatest artist,” says Wallace. “Both were somewhat megalomaniacal characters. But I think [the relationship] was also deeply respectful.”
Julius II died in 1513, and in 1515, Michelangelo moved back to Florence for nearly two decades. When he returned to Rome in 1534, the Renaissance man had largely moved away from the painting and sculpting that had defined his early career, instead filling his days with poetry and architecture. Michelangelo considered his work on the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, which dominated his time beginning in 1546, to be his greatest legacy; the project, he believed, would ultimately offer him salvation in Heaven.
Michelangelo Buonarroti died in Rome following a brief illness in 1564, just weeks before his 89th birthday. When a friend questioned why he had never married, Michelangelo’s answer was simple: “I have too much of a wife in this art that has always afflicted me, and the works I shall leave behind will be my children, and even if they are nothing, they will live for a long while.”
Michelangelo was just 24 when he was commissioned to create the Rome Pietà or “pity.” Unveiled during St. Peter’s Jubilee in 1500, it was one of three Pietà sculptures the artist created during his lifetime. When asked why he chose to portray Mary as a young woman, Michelangelo replied, “Women who are pure in soul and body never grow old.” Legend has it that when Michelangelo overheard admirers of the statue attributing it to another artist, he decided to inscribe his name on the Virgin Mary’s sash. It seems he regretted it, since he never signed another work again.
Forty-seven years later, riddled with kidney stones, Michelangelo once again set his sights on St. Peter’s, this time as chief architect of the basilica’s dome. Visitors to St. Peter’s can climb the 320 steps (or take the elevator) to the top of the dome, with views of the Pantheon and Vatican City.