Michelangelo Buonarroti, more commonly known as simply Michelangelo, is regarded as one of the greatest figures of the Italian Renaissance. Although Michelangelo mastered a number of media, including painting, architecture, and poetry, he always considered himself to be a sculptor first and foremost. Michelangelo's tremendous talent was almost immediately recognized, as evidenced by the two enormously respectful biographies written in his own lifetime: The Life of Michelangelo by his student, Ascanio Condivi; and the "Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti" in Lives of the Artists, by Michelangelo's friend, Giorgio Vasari. As a result of these biographies, and of the many letters, poems, and personal and business papers he himself left behind, Michelangelo's life is one of the best documented of his day.
Michelangelo lived to be almost ninety, during which time he worked for seven Popes, witnessed both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, saw the first widespread use of the printing press, and read of the discovery of America. Michelangelo's Italy was not the unified European nation we know, but a collection of small city-states constantly jockeying for each other's territory and power. Michelangelo's own home city of Florence was alternately a republic and the fiefdom of the powerful Medici family, and these changes caused the artist problems and forced him to move around between Florence, Rome, and other Italian cities. Beginning in 1517, the once unchallenged Roman Catholic Church began to lose some of its authority, largely as a result of Luther's Protestant Reformation, which split Europe religiously and politically. In the resultant turmoil, the French, the Germans, and the Spanish all occupied various parts of Italy at one point or another. In response, the Catholic Church began its own reform, known as the Counter-Reformation, adding a new austerity to Catholic doctrine that would come to affect what Michelangelo could show in his art. In the later half of his life, Michelangelo came to focus on architecture and poetry, at least partly because of the changing religious climate.
Art historians generally categorize Michelangelo as a figure of the Italian High Renaissance, a historical interval defined less by time than by a particular artistic style practiced by a handful of artists between 1495 and 1520. The Renaissance itself began in Italy and Northern Europe around 1400, and was marked by resurgence of interest in the spirit of humanism and a fascination with the art and ideas of Classical Greece and Rome. Florence, Michelangelo's birthplace, lay at the center of the Renaissance, where the humanist artists occupied places of great respect and status. The High Renaissance was a period in which the work of a few master artists– Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Giorgione, Titian, and Michelangelo–achieved such a high level that they became esteemed for their ideas and intellect as much as for their craft. The High Renaissance artists were completely removed from the craftsmen and artisans of Medieval Europe, and were revered as thinkers as much as painters or sculptors.
Whereas Leonardo da Vinci played the part of wise elder statesman and Raphael was a sociable, highly popular man, Michelangelo was by all accounts an extremely touchy, proud, arrogant, and difficult man. Not only was Michelangelo sensitive and insecure about his family, his physical appearance, and his lack of education, but he was also deeply conflicted over his homosexuality. Although he vehemently denied being homosexual, Michelangelo struggled with his sexuality throughout his life. His friends and colleagues referred to his volatile temperament and unpredictable explosions of wrath as his terribilita, or terribleness.
Michelangelo's tormented personality embodies the interior conflicts, paradoxes, and problems of the High Renaissance. Although all of the High Renaissance artists sought to achieve both technical and intellectual perfection, the impossibility of the task meant that their work always evolved in unexpected directions. The High Renaissance also adhered to the philosophy of Neoplatonism, which held that there was one universal Truth, connected to Earth via a complex series of relationships, and this philosophy would also prove too complicated and problematic to continue. Initially, the High Renaissance artists pointed to Neoplatonism as a justification for combining Classical forms with Christian concepts–for example, using both the Christian Virgin Mary and the pagan goddess Venus to express the concept of love. With the Counter-Reformation, however, Neoplatonism was condemned as heretical, and artists divided over the issue, particularly Michelangelo. These essential Renaissance conflicts manifest themselves in Michelangelo's sculpture, which often depicts the human form as conflicted and tense, frozen but full of potential energy.
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