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Michelangelo Buonarroti

Encyclopaedia Britannica


he bronze sculptor Bertoldo, a Medici friend and in charge of the collection, was the nearest to a teacher of sculpture he had, but Michelangelo did not follow his medium or in any major way his approach. Still, one of the two marble works that survive from the artist's first years is a variant on the composition of an ancient Roman sarcophagus, and Bertoldohad produced a similar one in bronze. This composition is the “Battle of the Centaurs” (c. 1492). The action and power of the figures foretell the artist's later interests much more than does the “Madonna of the Stairs” (c. 1491), a delicate low relief that reflects recent fashions among such Florentine sculptors as Desiderio da Settignano.

Florence was at this time regarded as the leading centre of art, producing the best painters and sculptors in Europe, and the competition among artists was stimulating. The city was, however, less able than earlier to offer large commissions, and leading Florentine-born artists, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Leonardo's teacher, Verrocchio, had moved away for better opportunities in other cities. The Medici were overthrown in 1494, and even before the end of the political turmoil Michelangelo had left.

In Bologna he was hired to succeed a recently deceased sculptor and carve the last small figures required to complete a grand project, the tomb and shrine of St. Dominic (1494–95). The three marble figures are original and expressive. Departing from his predecessor's fanciful agility the imposed seriousness on his images by a compactness of form that owes much to classical antiquity and to the Florentine tradition from Giotto onward. This emphasis on seriousness is also reflected in his choice of marble as his medium, while the accompanying simplification of masses is in contrast to the then more usual tendency to let representations match as completely as possible the texture and detail of human bodies. To be sure, although these are constant qualities in Michelangelo's art, they often are temporarily abandoned or modified because of other factors, such as the specific functions of works or the stimulating creations of other artists. This is the case with Michelangelo's first surviving large statue, the “Bacchus,” produced in Rome (1496–97) following a brief return to Florence. (A wooden crucifix, recently discovered, attributed by some scholars to Michelangelo and now housed in the Casa Buonarroti, Florence, has also been proposed as the antecedent of the “Bacchus” in design by those who credit it as the artist's work.) The “Bacchus” relies on ancient Roman nude figures as a point of departure, but it is much more mobile and more complex in outline. The conscious instability evokes the god of wine and Dionysiac revels with extraordinary virtuosity. Made for a garden, it is also unique among Michelangelo's works in calling for observation from all sides rather than primarily from the front.



Madonna of the Stairs

Marble, 55,5 x 40 cm
Casa Buonarroti, Florence



c. 1492
Marble, 84,5 x 90,5 cm
Casa Buonarroti, Florence

St Petronius

Marble, height: 64 cm with base
San Domenico, Bologna

St Proculus

Marble, height: 58,5 cm with base
San Domenico, Bologna

Angel with Candlestick

Marble, height: 51,5 cm
San Domenico, Bologna

Madonna and Child

O.L. Vrouwekerk, Bruges

Madonna and Child

O.L. Vrouwekerk, Bruges

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