The Italian Michelangelo Buonarotti, almost certainly the most famous artist produced by Western civilization and arguably the greatest, is universally viewed as the supreme Renaissance artist (see Renaissance art and architecture). He created monumental works of painting, sculpture, and architecture and left an additional legacy of numerous letters and poems. Through this vast and multifaceted body of artistic achievement, Michelangelo made an indelible imprint on the Western imagination.
A member of an old and distinguished Florentine family, Michelangelo was born near Arezzo, Italy, on Mar. 6, 1475, and he died on Feb. 18, 1564, in Rome--a record of longevity that was as unusual as his precocity as an artist. Like his compatriot Donatello, Michelangelo to the end of his life saw himself primarily as a sculptor, once avowing that he drank in with his wet-nurse\'s milk the love of the stonecutter\'s tools. Always a Florentine patriot, even after he had expanded his art into a universal language, he exemplified the character of his native city: a passionate, proud, and independent man, he saw art as a sacred calling through which the dignity of human beings should be enhanced and celebrated. His lifelong fascination with the sublime form of the human body arose from this thoroughly Florentine sensitivity to the inherent worth and nobility of individuals.
The Early Florentine Years
Michelangelo\'s Florentine education hinged on three salient attitudes that dramatically shaped his own outlook. From the age of 13 he received a firm grounding in the traditional techniques and practices of painting and sculpture under the tutelage of the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio and the sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni (c.1420-91). While still in his adolescence, he was given equally extensive exposure to the art and thought of the ancient world as a privileged protege of Lorenzo de\'Medici, in whose palace he encountered a celebrated collection of classical works of art and conversed with the leading humanist poets and philosophers of the day, notably Marsilio Ficino and Angelo Poliziano (see Politian). After absorbing the humanist and classically oriented doctrines of Neoplatonism espoused by Poliziano and Ficino, Michelangelo found his belief in rationalistic humanism tempered by the fiery sermons of the Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola, whose fundamentalist attacks on pagan culture and corrupt church practices struck a responsive chord in the deeply religious young artist.
These early experiences gave Michelangelo a clear sense of the development of Tuscan art from Giotto de Bondone through Masaccio to Donatello, of the relationship of that tradition to classical art and thought, and of the need to come to grips with the seemingly paradoxical moral and aesthetic views of classical rationalism and the Christian faith. His entire artistic output reflects a subtle and complex commingling of these disparate attitudes. A dichotomy is also reflected in his political views. Despite his close association with the Medici family, his independence of mind led him to harbor republican sentiments, which took active form in his defense of the Florentine Republic in 1530.
The impact of Michelangelo\'s education and the scope of his artistic potential are lucidly illuminated in his first relief, the Madonna of the Stairs (1489-92; Casa Buonarroti, Florence), executed while the artist was still less than 20 years of age. The subject of the seated Mother nursing the Infant Christ was a traditional one, and the schiacciato (flattened relief) style directly recalls Donatello\'s technique, which the young artist here emulated. Yet the depiction of the Child\'s muscular right arm extended behind him, the compression of the space, and the mood of sadness that permeates the piece convey a compositional and psychological tension that mark much of Michelangelo\'s later work. The relief remained unfinished in detail--another hallmark of the artist\'s more mature production.
Michelangelo\'s first response to the majesty of classical Roman art is found in his larger-than-life statue of Bacchus the god of wine (1496-97; Bargello, Florence). In this, his first mature masterpiece, Michelangelo amplified the classical ideal of beauty in a sensual and compositionally complex rendering of the human form that echoes Donatello\'s bronze David (c.1440-42; Bargello, Florence).
Michelangelo was above all a carver in marble whose ability to extract animate form from a block of stone remains unsurpassed. Two of his most famous statues, carved while he was in his twenties, movingly attest to his capabilities. The Pieta (1498- 1500; Saint Peter\'s Basilica, Rome) epitomizes a