Legendary genius, legendary obsession, legendary loneliness.
Famous rivals, famous patrons, famous censors.
Michelangelo is arguably the most celebrated artist of the Renaissance. A true Renaissance man, he was a master of sculpture, painting, poetry, and architecture, creating some of the greatest works of Western art the world has ever seen.
Known for his sharp tongue and impetuous nature from an early age, Michelangelo had a reputation for indignantly doing as he saw fit. He was unashamedly gay, with a passion for male beauty that we see in all his works of art, but also tortured by the fear of death and damnation.
His life and works tell a tale of a man torn between flesh and spirit, glory and darkness.
In this week’s article, we'll take a look at Michelangelo’s swift rise to fame and the painful indignity of his last days.
Michelangelo in Rome: His Dazzling Rise to Stardom and the Wounded Pride of His Last Days
After spending his teen years in the blossoming humanist environment of Renaissance Florence that shaped him as an artist, Michelangelo ended up in Rome. It was in Rome that he made a name for himself as a sculptor and in Rome that he was still working at the time of his death, just shy of his 89th birthday.
Over the many decades he ultimately spent in Rome, Michelangelo produced numerous masterpieces in all genres — sculpture, painting, and architecture.
These timeless works, such as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Pietà, Piazza del Campidoglio, and the dome of St. Peter’s basilica, continue to grace The Eternal City with undiminished beauty five hundred years after their creation.
Framing this stupendous body of work like a pair of unmatched bookends are Michelangelo’s dazzling rise to fame and the wounded pride of his last days.
Rise To Stardom: Cupid Chicanery Leads To A Call From The Cardinal
Michelangelo’s rise to stardom arose, oddly enough, out of an art scam conceived by Lorenzo de’ Medici, his patron in Florence. The young artist had sculpted a sleeping cupid in such classical style that Signor Medici was convinced it could pass for a work of art from antiquity if doctored up a little. Michelangelo complied and the fraudulent cupid was sold to Cardinal Raffaele Riario as an archeological prize.
Riario caught wind of the sham and was justifiably enraged, but not enough to overshadow the impression made by Michelangelo’s skill as a sculptor. The cardinal called the artist to Rome, where he would remain for several years.
During this time, Michelangelo was commissioned to carve an important funerary monument. The sculpture was to depict a lifeless Christ in the arms of Mary — his first pietà. The splendid sculpture was universally hailed as a masterpiece and Michelangelo’s career was off to the races.
The Pietà can still be seen in St. Peter’s basilica, where it enthralls millions of visitors every year.
Ultimate Indignity: Passion For Male Beauty Finishes With “Panty-Painter”
Flash forward to the end of Michelangelo’s life.
Well into his 80’s, plagued by illness but still working feverishly, Michelangelo suffered the ultimate indignity.
A year before his death, the Council of Trent decreed that nudity be banned in religious art. Michelangelo’s mammoth fresco The Last Judgment, which occupies the entire altar wall in the Sistine Chapel and includes over 300 figures, was quickly targeted, having been the subject of controversy since its unveiling 20 years prior thanks to the naked bodies.
Daniele da Volterra was sent to paint drapery over the nude figures in Michelangelo’s colossal work, but being a follower and fervent admirer of the master, he was reluctant to change too much and had to be prodded to keep on swagging the objectionable parts.
In the end, drapery was added to 40 nude figures in the painting. Surely this must have been a very dark ending to such a glorious story of art, but mercifully, most of this work was done after Michelangelo’s death in 1564 (or so it is believed).
Not only did Michelangelo suffer indignity, so also did our loincloth painter. As if the distressing and heartbreaking task of altering the painting weren’t enough, Daniele da Volterra also earned the nickname of “il Braghettone” — “the breeches maker,” or perhaps more accurately in this instance, “panty-painter.”
A Little Posthumous Vindication
To bring the panty-painting full circle, we’ll spring forward to the 20th Century.
During the 1990-1994 restoration of The Last Judgment, fifteen or so of the painted draperies were removed from the fresco. That’s surely fewer than Michelangelo would have preferred, but at least it’s a little posthumous vindication for the most accomplished artist of the Renaissance.
For part two of the story of Michelangelo in Rome, check out our blog post, Obsession & Anger.
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