Skip over navigation

Michelangelo Buonarroti

The End of Life and His Artistic Legacy (1556–1564)

Late Architectural Achievements (1537–1564)

Study & Essay

As Michelangelo became increasingly frail, he worked less on sculpture and more on architectural designs and religious drawings. His artistic output in the last years of his life consists of a number of these drawings, many of the Crucifixion, and two final pietas. Michelangelo worked on these intensely personal pieces tenaciously, although he left most of them unfinished. Their rough and unfinished states may be partly intentional, and they are certainly more emotionally expressive because of their roughness.

Michelangelo began both the Palestrina Pieta and the Rondanini (or Milan) Pieta in 1556, when he was already in his eighties. Beleaguered by illnesses, including kidney stones and ear problems, and by the constant interference of various officials and bureaucrats, Michelangelo spent most of his late years profoundly unhappy and lonely. His misery and wounded pride were compounded by his fear of damnation and eternal spiritual punishment. After the 1563 Council of Trent prohibited the use of nude images in religious art, Pope Pius IV perpetrated the ultimate affront by hiring Michelangelo's follower Daniele da Volterra to paint drapery over much of the nudity in the Last Judgment. This act would earn da Volterra and his assistants the derogatory title of "panty-painters." Although daunted and exhausted, Michelangelo worked feverishly until his death, trying in vain to compensate for his dwindling faculties.

Michelangelo's final pietas represent a kind of personal offering to Christ, and an expiation for the artist's own feelings of guilt and his fear of death. The thick and clumsy Palestrina Pieta was finished by a follower after Michelangelo abandoned work on it, so it offers little indication of his intent, but it is similar enough to the Rondanini Pieta to indicate that Michelangelo was consciously returning to Medieval sculptural form. Michelangelo mutilated the Rondanini Pieta in frustration and despair, but even in its unfinished and broken state, it is a profound expression of his emotional and psychological state later in life. The elongated figures, warped and almost grotesquely contorted, could not be further from the stately architectural vision of Michelangelo's late work.

In 1564, Michelangelo suddenly became very ill, and he died two days later, on February 14, with close friends, including Tommaso de' Cavalieri, by his bed. Although Pope Pius IV ordered that Michelangelo's body be buried in Rome in St. Peter's, Michelangelo's nephew Leonardo, brought the corpse back to Florence, where it was buried in Santa Croce in March. In July, huge crowds gathered to attend an enormous commemorative service for the "divine" master held in San Lorenzo.

Michelangelo and the other artists of the High Renaissance had stretched the limits of the Classical form to their extreme, and art had begun to evolve in new directions even before Michelangelo's death. Several different trends emerged in Europe during the period of the late Renaissance: Mannerism, which exaggerated High Renaissance ideals and became a highly popular form of decorative art; and Realism, which emphasized the depiction of everyday reality rather than religious or Classical scenes. The Baroque emerged as a distinctive style in Italy, Spain, and Northern Europe by the early seventeenth century. This particular period in art and architecture entailed, among other things, a dramatic reinterpretation of Michelangelo's High Renaissance ideals, a renewed interest in science, and a conflicted, multi-layered emphasis on human emotion and passion. Michelangelo's influence, therefore, continued to shape European art, especially during the periods that involved a reevaluation of Classicism, religion, and the human form.

More Help

Previous Next
The Council of Trent and Naked Images

by matthew9267483, November 13, 2013

I think the time when the Council of Trent condemned naked pictures was in Session XXV on December 4,1563. The public domain translation of the Council of Trent by Tanner says, "Furthermore, in the invocation of the saints, the veneration of relics, and the sacred use of images .... all lasciviousness avoided, so that images shall not be painted and adorned with a seductive charm"

Follow Us