Continuation of: The Florentine Mystique
Memory is the guardian of all things – Cicero
A lifetime of passion for art had intensely taken root in Michelangelo (Michelagniolo, March 6, 1475 – February 18, 1564) since he entered the sculpture garden of Lorenzo de’ Medici (Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, January 1, 1449 – April 8, 1492). Noting his talents, Lorenzo saw in the teenager a promising student of sculpture who would one day bring honour to Firenze.
Born to Ludovico di Leonardo Buonarotti Simoni and his wife Francesca at Castello di Caprese, Michelangelo’s desire for art had grown in him long before 1488 when he was nurtured among the stone quarries of Settignano in the care of a stonemason and his wife. Undoubtedly, his allure for art had kept on its steadfast progress during his apprenticeship as a painter with Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) who had returned from Rome only few years ago after painting in the Sistine Chapel between 1482 and 1484 for Pope Sixtus IV (Francesco della Rovere, 1414-1484, pope from 1471).
Young Michelangelo’s first two marble works, Madonna (Madonna della Scala) and the Battle of the Centaurs, were executed during his formative years under Bertoldo di Giovanni (ca. 1420-1491), Donatello’s pupil and keeper of the statues and sculpture in the Medici gardens of San Marco.
It was here Il Magnifico Lorenzo maintained many fine art treasures he collected for the good school of Painters and Sculptors he founded – similar to the “Accademia Leonardi Vinci”, the school of arts (1) connected with Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) established during his Milanese stay from 1482 until the fall of Duke Lodovico (Il Moro) Sforza (1451-1508) in 1499.
What a marvellous idea to spread all those priceless collections of antiques out where Michelangelo could look around with child-like wonder and delight. It was here that his fellow-pupil young Pietro Torrigiano (ca. 1472-1522/8), moved by envy or driven by pride, broke Michelangelo’s nose and was obliged to flee from Firenze having earned the hatred of the Florentines (2).
Taken into Lorenzo’s household, Michelangelo enjoyed the privilege of a room, a place at Lorenzo’s dining table with his sons and swathed in the opportunities to absorb culture from the Medicean circle until Lorenzo’s untimely death at his country Villa at Careggi in April, 1492 – which almost brought to an end the true golden age of the Italian Renaissance.
Sometime after Michelangelo’s return to his father’s house following the death of Lorenzo, a problem become apparent after Piero de’ Medici (1471-1503), the eldest son of the deceased Lorenzo, took over leadership of the Signoria. Young, haughty, chivalrous, and rather despotic in his views, interest in the affairs of the State which even in an abbreviated form seldom came out of Piero. Successively, for reasons attributed to the political developments, in 1494, the Medici was expelled from Firenze – declaring them traitors and rebels. The efforts of the Medici to regain their power in Firenze would succeed only in 1512 when Giuliano de’ Lorenzi de’ Medici (Giuliano II, 1478-1516) was brought in from Venice to head the Signoria, but shortly thereafter, Firenze would turn into a papal dependency.
Unable to remain neutral in the above developments, Michelangelo left Firenze and stayed at Bologna, after a brief stint at Venice. Upon his return to Firenze in 1495 when the political climate has improved, he was among those who were consulted vis-à-vis the Sala del Maggior Consiglio of Palazzo della Signoria which Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98) proposed to enlarge to accommodate the new government of the people following the expulsion of Piero de’ Medici from Firenze.
A marble Sleeping Cupid Michelangelo fashioned during this time was eventually sold to Cardinal Raffaele Riario of San Giorgio which paved the way for him to proceed to Rome in June, 1496. In there, following the creation of the life-size drunken Bacchus, on August 26, 1498, he earned the commission to execute a Pietà for Cardinal Jean Bilhères de Lagraulas (Cardinal di San Dionigi), the French ambassador at Rome who desired a suitable monument for himself in Rome by the hand of the famous Michelangelo.
This classic work in marble, when finished was placed in the circular chapel dedicated to Santa Maria della Febbre (Our Lady of the Fever) of the old Basilica di San Pietro (3) which was at that time still standing.
The future spacious Piazza San Pietro surrounded by vast semi-circular colonnades which the Baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), the greatest sculptor since Michelangelo, designed in front of the Basilica (1656-1667) was then covered with a cluster of small constructions and pathways. La Pietà,as the Italians call the group,earned Michelangelo great fame and fortified his reputation as “Il Divinio” (The Divine One) among the artists of his lifetime.
With the completion of La Pietà (1498-1499), the world had witnessed the creation of two classic masterpieces within the span of a few years – the other being The Last Supper (Cenacolo), the marvellous wall-painting Leonardo da Vinci probably begun in c. 1495 on the refectory wall of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the monastery of Dominican friars in Milan and finished in 1498.
At the age of twenty-six, Michelangelo returned to Firenze where he would be a resident till 1504. By then, many changes had taken place in Firenze – it was now devoid of the divinely ordained preaching of Girolamo Savonarola who had eventually faced excommunication followed by implementation of his death sentence when he was hanged and burned on May 23, 1498 – bringing to an end the story of medieval Firenze.
Michelangelo was now ready to take on the offer of the powerful Consuls of the Arte della Lana, the Operai of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore of Firenze. They proposed to him to fashion, complete and finish to perfection a colossal male statue out of a huge block of marble conveyed from Carrara to Firenze many years ago.
The Arte della Lana who owned this block of marble had once offered it in vain to Donatello, the favoured architect of the Medici. Afterwards, a certain Maestro Simone da Fiesole had commenced work of a huge figure on it but left his work unfinished. Even though Giorgio Vasari was misinformed to name “Maestro Simone” as the sculptor who spoiled that block of marble, it was Agostino di Duccio (1418-81) who upon his return to Firenze from Perugia in 1463, entered the Guild and commenced work on this block of marble which he shortly quit for unknown reasons. A decade later, Antonio Rossellino (1427-c.1479), best known for his Madonna reliefs, gave it a try which didn’t reach anywhere.
Sculptor Andrea Contucci (Andrea dal Monte Sansovino, ca. 1467-1529) who had entered into the guild in 1491 had sought to secure this block to carve a statue by augmenting it with additional pieces of stone. (4) But Arte della Lana preferred to hear Michelangelo’s stance in the matter before they acceded to Contucci’s request.
Furthermore,they had also consulted with Leonardo da Vinci when he returned back from Milan in the summer-time of 1500. But curiously enough, their efforts to rope him in were in vain, although Leonardo had retired to Firenze in quest of better fortune and finding little or no work of interest to engage him here was seeking employment in the service of Cesare Borgia (1476-1507) who was then cherishing reconstruction of a kingdom of Central Italy under his headship.
As for Michelangelo, this block of marble quarried years before his birth, was just the sort of thing he was aiming at. He was only pleased to accept the commission which was first signed on August 16, 1501: to undertake the Contractual work from September 1501, and complete it within the term of the next two years.
Michelangelo’s acceptance of the commission gave an atmosphere of hope to Arte della Lana which also guaranteed a good monumental sculpture out of the block without the addition of several pieces.
Follow on: Rise of the Brave Shepherd
- In 1531, Baccio Bandinelli founded a school of arts in the quarters granted to him in the Vatican besides another in Florence in c. 1550. Then again, it is Giorgio Vasari who founded the first proper Academy of Fine Arts in Firenze in 1563.
- In 1519, Benvenuto Cellini (1500-71) refused Pietro Torrigiano’s invitation to accompany him to England for the one reason that the impolitic Torrigiano had broken Michelangelo’s nose. During 1511-18, Torrigiano had worked on the double tomb of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, and the tomb of Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, in Westminster Abbey in England.
- The ancient chapel of Santa Maria della Febbre (St. Mary of the Fever), older than the Constantinian Basilica, was originally built as a mausoleum which was converted into the sacristy south of the new Basilica di San Pietro Rome in 1506.
- Andrea Sansovino (Andrea Contucci) would in turn obtained commission for the Baptism of Christ for the Battistero di San Giovanni of Firenze by 1500 but left it unfinished by leaving for Rome in 1505 to work on the marble wall-tombs (1506-09) of Cardinal Ascanio Maria Sforza (1455-1505) and Cardinal Girolamo Basso della Rovere (1434-1507) at Basilica Parrocchiale Santa Maria del Popolo.
(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)