The Life and Work of the Pessimistic Genius: Michelangelo

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Michelangelo (1475-1564) had been crowned the greatest artist that had ever lived. He was a master of aesthetic communications, a sculptor, a painter, a poet, and an architect. He has left behind brilliant and unique works of art that inspire viewers from all over the world.

Michelangelo came from a proud but impoverished family of aristocrats. His father, Ludovico, and mother, Francesca, had four sons. Michelangelo was the second. His mother was unable to nurse him, and he was sent to the house of a stonecutter, whose wife was his wet nurse. His mother died when he was six, and Michelangelo lived with the stonecutter until he was ten.

His father remarried, and Michelangelo returned home and was sent to school. At school he learned to read and write, but the only subjects that appealed to him were literature and the arts. His decision to leave school and pursue art was not at all appreciated by his father and uncle, and they tried to thrash some “sense” into him. However, Michelangelo was famously stubborn when it came to his art, and he eventually wore the opposition down.

Florence, the city of his birth, was a flourishing center of the arts and intellectual activity. Lorenzo de’ Medici, Il Magnifico, the amiable tyrant of Florence, was a great patron of the arts. The citizens of Florence, too, were immensely proud of the place their city held as the center of arts and learning; and they compared Florence to Athens in the Golden Age of the Greeks. Michelangelo’s father and brother, however, were completely indifferent to art and considered it shameful to “shelter her in their house.”

Michelangelo’s genius, therefore, is more likely attributed to his environment rather than his genetic inheritance. He grew up in a stonecutter’s house, where hammers and chisels were always around. His early years in the mountains had a deep impact on him. The city of his apprenticeship was Florence, the city of magnificent monuments and great artists.

Michelangelo’s art was defined by the conflicting influences of the Greeks and Girolamo Savonarola, the splendor of the Antique Arts, and the asceticism of the Middle Ages. His inner conflict and incessant search for the inner meaning of life are reflected in his poetry. He wrote that when “Sculptures lose their feeble charm,” we look to the “Lord Divine for aid.”

Michelangelo in his early years subscribed to the philosophy of Neo-Platonism. This school of thought believed that contemplation of physical beauty would lead to spiritual revelation. The hauntingly beautiful Pieta at the Vatican was created during this period.

Michelangelo’s deep religiosity was illustrated in his classic sculpture of a naked man, David, triumphant and confident in faith and strength. The frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome depict the omnipotence of Divinity in master strokes of the highest order.

In his later years, Michelangelo became preoccupied with the human predicament of old age and death. His pessimism was reflected in the sculptures Deposition—also called the Pieta of Florence—and the Rondanini Pieta. In his poetry, he bemoans the fact of having “crossed the water and then drowned in the slops.”

Despite the ups and downs of his state of mind, Michelangelo was the most consummate artist of all time. The name Michelangelo is synonymous with Renaissance Art. The Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican is also called St. Peter’s Dome. It is a literal and symbolic pinnacle of Renaissance Art. Other phenomenal works include the statue Moses on the tomb of Pope Julius II in Rome, Day and Night, and Dawn and Dusk at the Medici Chapel in Florence. The chapel in itself is a magnificent specimen of Renaissance Architecture. Michelangelo also redesigned Capitoline Hill in Rome.

The frescoes on the west wall of the Sistine Chapel depict the Last Judgment. They also reflect, in the words of John Walker, the “tragic and embittered human being—the wonder of his time and ours.”

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