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Michelangelo (Buonarroti) [Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni]free

  • Anthony Hughes
  •  and Caroline Elam

(b Caprese, ?March 6, 1475; d Rome, Feb 18, 1564).

Italian sculptor, painter, draughtsman and architect. The elaborate exequies held in Florence after Michelangelo’s death celebrated him as the greatest practitioner of the three visual arts of sculpture, painting and architecture and as a respected poet. He is a central figure in the history of art: one of the chief creators of the Roman High Renaissance, and the supreme representative of the Florentine valuation of disegno (see Disegno e colore). As a poet and a student of anatomy, he is often cited as an example of the ‘universal genius’ supposedly typical of the period. His professional career lasted over 70 years, during which he participated in, and often stimulated, great stylistic changes. The characteristic most closely associated with him is terribilità, a term indicative of heroic and awe-inspiring grandeur. Reproductions of the Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling (Rome, Vatican) or the Moses from the tomb of Julius II (Rome, S Pietro in Vincoli) have broadcast an image of his art as one almost exclusively expressive of superhuman power. The man himself has been assimilated to this image and represented as the archetype of the brooding, irascible, lonely and tragic figure of the artist. This popular view is drastically oversimplified, except in one respect: the power and originality of his art have guaranteed his prominence as a historical figure for over 400 years since his death, even among those who have not liked the example he gave. For such different artists as Gianlorenzo Bernini, Eugène Delacroix and Henry Moore, he provided a touchstone of integrity and aesthetic value. Although his reputation as a poet has not been so high, his poetry has been praised by such diverse figures as William Wordsworth (1770–1850) and Eugenio Montale (1896–1981).


  • G. Milanesi, ed.: Le lettere di Michelangelo Buonarroti pubblicate coi ricordi ed i contratti artistici (Florence, 1875)
  • E. N. Girardi, ed.: Rime (Bari, 1960)
  • P. Barocchi, R. Ristori and G. Poggi, eds: Il carteggio di Michelangelo, 5 vols (Florence, 1965–83); Eng. trans. of Michelangelo’s letters only in E. H. Ramsden, ed.: The Letters of Michelangelo, 2 vols (London, 1963)
  • P. Barocchi, K. Loach Bramanti and R. Ristori, eds: Il carteggio indiretto di Michelangelo, 2 vols (Florence, 1988 and 1995)
  • J. M. Saslow, trans.: The Poetry of Michelangelo: An Annotated Translation (New Haven and London, 1991)

General bibliography

Early sources
  • A. Condivi: Vita di Michelagnolo Buonarroti (Rome, 1553); ed. E. Spina Barelli (Milan, 1964); Eng. trans. by A. S. Wohl as The Life of Michelangelo (Oxford and Baton Rouge, 1976)
  • B. Varchi: Orazione funerale di M. Benedetto Varchi fatta e recitata da lui pubblicamente nell’esequie di Michelagnolo Buonarroti in Firenze, nella chiesa di San Lorenzo (Florence, 1564)
  • Esequie del divino Michelagnolo Buonarroti celebrate in Firenze dall’Accademia de pittori, scultori, & architettori, nella chiesa di San Lorenzo il di 14 luglio MDLXIIII (Florence, 1564), facs. and trans. in R. Wittkower and M. W. Wittkower, eds: The Divine Michelangelo: The Florentine Academy’s Homage on his Death in 1564 (London, 1964)
  • P. Barocchi, ed.: G. Vasari: La vita di Michelangelo nelle redazioni del 1550 e del 1568, Documenti di filologia, 5, 5 vols (Milan and Naples, 1962)
  • G. Corti: ‘Una ricordanza di Giovan Battista Figiovanni’, Paragone, 15/175 (1964), pp. 24–31
  • L. Bardeschi and P. Barocchi, eds: I ricordi di Michelangelo (Florence, 1970)
  • E. Ristori: ‘Una lettera a Michelangelo degli operai di S Maria del Fiore, 31 luglio, 1507’, Rinascimento, 23 (1983), pp. 167–72
  • E. Wallace: ‘An Unpublished Michelangelo Document’, Burlington Magazine, 129 (1987), pp. 181–4
Modern works
  • J. A. Symonds: The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti: Based on Studies in the Archives of the Buonarroti Family at Florence, 2 vols (London, 1893)
  • H. Thode: Michelangelo: Kritische Untersuchungen über seine Werke: Verzeichnis der Zeichnungen, Kartons und Modelle, 3 vols (Berlin, 1913)
  • E. Steinmann and R. W. Steinmann: Michelangelo-Bibliographie, 1510–1926 (Leipzig, 1927/R Hildesheim, 1967), i of Römische Forschungen der Bibliotheca Hertziana (Leipzig, 1927–)
  • C. de Tolnay: Michelangelo, 5 vols (Princeton, 1943–60)
  • E. N. Girardi: Studi sulle rime di Michelangelo (Milan, 1964)
  • C. de Tolnay: The Art and Thought of Michelangelo (New York, 1964)
  • The Complete Works of Michelangelo, 2 vols (London, 1965)
  • H. V. Einem: Michelangelo (London, 1973)
  • L. Düssler: Michelangelo-Bibliographie, 1927–1970 (Weisbaden, 1974)
  • E. N. Girardi: Studi su Michelangelo scrittore (Florence, 1974)
  • H. Hibbard: Michelangelo (London, 1979)
  • J. Wilde: Michelangelo: Six Lectures (Oxford, 1979)
  • K. Lippincott: ‘When Was Michelangelo Born?’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes [prev. pubd as J. Warb. Inst.], 52 (1989), pp. 282–3
  • J. K. Cadogan: ‘Michelangelo in the Workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio’, Burlington Magazine, 135 (1993), pp. 30–31
  • W. E. Wallace, ed.: Michelangelo: Selected Scholarship in English, 5 vols (New York and London, 1995)
  • W. E. Wallace: Michelangelo: The Complete Sculpture, Painting, Architecture ([New York], 1998)
  • A. Nagel : Michelangelo and the Reform of Art (Cambridge, 2003)
  • F.-J. Verspohl : Michelangelo Buonarroti und Papst Julius II (Göttingen, 2004)
  • L. Bardeschi Ciulich, ed.: I contratti di Michelangelo (Florence, 2005)
  • T. Verdon : Michelangelo teologo: Fede e creatività tra Rinascimento e Controriforma (Milan, 2005)
  • W. E. Wallace : ‘Clement VII and Michelangelo: An Anatomy of Patronage’, The Pontificate of Clement VII: History, Politics, Culture, ed. K. Gouwens (Aldershot, 2005), pp. 189–98
  • E. Capretti : Michelangelo: Scultore, pittore, architetto (Florence, 2006)
  • H. Chapman : Michelangelo (New Haven, 2006)
  • S. Zuffi, ed.: Michelangelo (Milan, 2006)

I. Life and work.

Michelangelo frequently practised as a painter, sculptor and architect simultaneously, and, like many of his contemporaries, regarded the three arts as manifestations of the fundamental discipline of disegno (drawing), itself based on a profound knowledge of the male human form; it is, however, convenient to discuss each art separately.

1. Sculpture.

Michelangelo’s reputation as a sculptor was established early and has rarely been questioned. Until the 20th century he was commonly regarded as the most important sculptor of the modern era. His work is idiosyncratic, of exceptional expressive power and of strikingly limited range. It consists in the main of monumental marble statuary. He sometimes worked in media other than marble to oblige friends or especially powerful patrons, but he encouraged the identification of his sculpture with stone.

Michelangelo jokingly told Vasari that he had ‘sucked in the chisels and mallet’ of his trade with the milk of his wetnurse, a stone-carver’s wife from Settignano. Long months spent at the quarries in Carrara in the course of his professional career, choosing pieces of marble, are proof of his care for the materials of the craft. His vision of fashioning colossal figures from the mountains indicates that it was only this aspect of the natural world that could stimulate his art. In his verse, among the conventional metaphors derived from Petrarch, his unconventionally abrasive intellect is signalled by a series of images drawn from the excavation and working of rock.

Attempts have been made to identify a hidden thematic unity in all his work. Notably, it has been argued by Tolnay and others that many projects reflect the ideas of Neo-Platonism absorbed by the young artist during his stay in the household of Lorenzo the Magnificent (see Medici, de’ family, §5). From this premise the whole oeuvre has been interpreted in the light of Neo-Platonic ideas. While there are loose links between Michelangelo’s funerary monuments, there is nothing to warrant the elaborate interpretations that have been proposed. These rely too much on speculation about missing elements, and the analysis of symbols cannot be sustained in detail. Passages in Condivi’s biography have been used as evidence that Michelangelo incorporated a private symbolism into his work, but his remarks concern Michelangelo’s dramatic interpretation of subjects provided by patrons, not hidden programmes.

(i) Training and early work, to c. 1505.

Michelangelo’s training as a carver remains mysterious. His family was from the minor bourgeoisie of Florence, and, unlike most artists of his generation, he had formal schooling until the age of 13. In 1488 he was apprenticed as a painter in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio (see Ghirlandaio, (1)) in Florence. Only during the following year did he join a group of young sculptors in the garden of the Medici casino at S Marco, against the wishes of his father, who believed that sculpture, a manual trade, was beneath the family’s standing. At the age of about 17 he simply emerged as the sculptor of a precociously assured relief, the Battle of the Centaurs (Florence, Casa Buonarroti).

If formal instruction were offered in the Medici Garden, no information about it has survived. According to Condivi, Michelangelo first taught himself sculpture by borrowing tools from masons working on the S Marco library in order to copy the antique head of a faun. This work supposedly attracted the attention of Lorenzo the Magnificent, who made the teenage sculptor a member of his own household and reconciled Lodovico Buonarroti to his son’s chosen career. Condivi’s account of his master’s youth, however, is characterized throughout by a tendency to deny Michelangelo’s dependence on any other artist, including Ghirlandaio. Vasari, by contrast, claimed that Bertoldo di Giovanni was in charge of the young sculptors at S Marco. Although Bertoldo was not a stone-carver but a maker of small bronzes, this version of events seems more plausible than Condivi’s because there is a generic relationship between Bertoldo’s plaque of a Battle (Florence, Bargello) and Michelangelo’s Battle scene.

It is a superficial resemblance. The Battle of the Centaurs is such a confident piece of sculpture that it has been regarded as more ‘Michelangelesque’ than many works that immediately followed it. To some extent, this impression is due to its suggestively unfinished state, but the relief undoubtedly exhibits two features characteristic of the mature Michelangelo: the expression of narrative or emotional excitement through the male nude, and an extreme economy of means. As in Bertoldo’s Battle, the device of stacking figures in layers one above the other was derived directly from Roman sarcophagi of the Antonine era, but the types are less elegant than those of the older master. Michelangelo consulted a wider range of antique prototypes than Bertoldo, aiming at creative paraphrase rather than archaeological exactness. There is no attempt to depict antique costume or to give characters identifying attributes. The intertwined bodies were packed into a composition far more condensed than any ancient work or its imitation up to that date. The compression of the relief is emphasized by lateral figures which overlap the thin framing rim. A band of rough-hewn marble running across the top dramatizes the way in which the struggling mass below has been squeezed into an area more confined than that of the already small block.

It is probable that the maturity of the Battle relief exemplifies the end of a process of learning rather than its beginning. Earlier work may be represented by an even smaller relief, the Madonna of the Steps (Florence, Casa Buonarroti). The dating and authenticity of this work have been questioned unnecessarily. One reason for this is that the figures are represented in uncharacteristic shallow relief against an architectural background. As Vasari noted, in the Madonna relief Michelangelo imitated and challenged the example of Donatello. This indicates that even Michelangelo experimented in the work of his early maturity. Throughout his late teens and twenties, he also travelled a great deal and worked for a larger range of clients than at any other time in his life. The variety of works produced before 1505 demonstrate a young man’s adaptability.

When Lorenzo the Magnificent died in 1492, Michelangelo returned to his father’s house for a time during which he carved a figure of Hercules (untraced). He studied anatomy by dissecting corpses at the Ospedale di Santo Spirito under the protection of the prior, for whom he made a wooden Crucifix. This work has been identified as the Crucifix (Florence, Casa Buonarroti) found at Santo Spirito (Lisner, 1964). Since it is the only recorded wooden sculpture by Michelangelo, it is difficult to compare with his other work. The smooth transitions of the muscular articulation have caused some writers to doubt the attribution, although a comparison with the Bacchus (Florence, Bargello) is instructive, and the painting of flesh bears comparison with that in the Doni Tondo.

For a brief period Michelangelo returned to the Medici household, where he was employed by Piero de’ Medici. Before the Medici were expelled by the Republican government in 1494, Michelangelo had left Florence, moving first to Venice, then settling in Bologna in the house of Giovanni Francesco Aldrovandi family, a patron who encouraged his interest in vernacular literature. In Bologna he provided small statues for the shrine of S Domenico, left incomplete by Niccolò dell’Arca: a kneeling Angel bearing a candelabrum, and the figures of St Proculus and St Petronius (Bologna, S Domenico Maggiore). Each of these sculptures displays a different quality, a fact for which various explanations have been offered. For some writers, the St Petronius is said to betray the influence of Jacopo della Quercia, although it is difficult to distinguish here between stylistic borrowing and resemblance due to identity of iconographic type. Others have supposed it to represent a figure begun by another sculptor and completed by Michelangelo, a suggestion that has also been made in connection with the St Proculus. Scholarly uncertainty reflects Michelangelo’s successful accomplishment of a brief to integrate these works into the existing ensemble. The Angel, whose authenticity is not in doubt, although more stocky than the counterpart completed by Michelangelo’s predecessor, is in finish delicately attuned to Niccolò’s example.

Late in 1495 Michelangelo returned to Florence, where he carved a figure of St John the Baptist and a Sleeping Cupid (both untraced). The Sleeping Cupid brought him to the attention of Cardinal raffaele Riario, who summoned him to Rome in the summer of 1496 and ordered the figure of Bacchus (Florence, Bargello). The statue was initially designed to compliment Riario’s collection of antiquities, but for unknown reasons it entered the collection of Jacopo Galli in 1497 and was exhibited in his garden among a group of antique fragments. Galli commissioned two more sculptures, a Cupid and a St John (both untraced). The armless figure of a Cupid (New York, French Embassy Cult. Bldg), carved in part imitation of the Antique, was attributed to the youthful Michelangelo by Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt (1996), though so far this must remain a speculative attribution.

The Bacchus was undoubtedly conceived as an exercise in the Antique. As a garden statue, it is superficially untypical of Michelangelo, being a free-standing group, designed to be viewed in the round; most of Michelangelo’s surviving works were conceived for architectural settings with restricted viewpoints. The ‘pictorial’ finish of the Bacchus has been widely disliked, probably because the dull surface sheen of the god’s plump flesh, carefully differentiated from the curling goat-hair of the attendant satyr, is seen as suggestive of an unwholesome sensuality unworthy of the artist. The use of contrasting textures is not unusual in Michelangelo’s sculpture, however.

Such contrast certainly is a feature of the Roman Pietà (Rome, St Peter’s), the work that marked the turning-point in Michelangelo’s fortunes. Commissioned in 1497 by the French Cardinal Jean Villiers de La Grolais (c. 1430–99) for his own tomb, it was begun the following year and was finished by 1500. It signals the beginning of Michelangelo’s maturity as a sculptor. The style of the group does not differ radically from the practice represented by the Bacchus, however. Rather it shows even greater textural richness, a characteristic noted by Vasari in his description of the inert body of Christ. This sensitively carved surface is strongly contrasted with the unpolished textures of rock and tree stump. Although the dazzling virtuosity of the carving is less appreciated now than it was in the 16th century, there is general agreement that the Pietà is a work of unprecedented elegance. Its grace of contour is most apparent in the drapery: the tight, dampfold loincloth of Christ, the ruches and complex crinkles of Mary’s robes and the controlled but generous sweep of the shroud, which both cradles and displays Christ’s corpse. Much of the pathos of the group derives from this drapery. The Virgin shows no grief; her features are composed and the gesture of her left hand is designed to draw attention to her dead son.

Michelangelo: Pietà, marble, 1.74×1.95 m, 1497–1500 (Rome, St Peter’s); Photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY

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Following this triumph, Michelangelo returned to Florence, where between 1501 and 1504 he executed four out of fifteen small statues he had contracted to provide for the Piccolomini Altar in Siena Cathedral (in situ). Simultaneously, he worked on the gigantic David (Florence, Accad.), and there seems little doubt that he thought of this as the more important commission. The marble block used for the David had been roughed out and abandoned by Agostino del Duccio and Michelangelo was thus required to work within predetermined constraints. Some peculiarities of the work, such as the relative shallowness of the lateral views of the figure, may be due to the existing shape of the marble; Vasari claimed that the splayed legs were determined by earlier piercing of the block.

The work’s significance does not lie in its technical ingenuity, however. The David is the first of Michelangelo’s surviving depictions of the heroic male nude in which the entire emotional charge is carried by the articulation and twist of the body and limbs against the head. Stripped of all attributes but the minimal sling, this David carries no sword, and not even the head of Goliath distracts from his stark nudity. The figure’s authority seems to stem from the swing of the thorax, within which is a dramatic play of intercostal and abdominal muscles, stretched on the left, compressed on the right. But other details—the highly particularized right hand, for example, large, veined, quite unideal—suggest latent power in a figure apparently at rest. In a formal sense, the David is a classicizing work recalling the Dioscuri (Rome, Quirinale) or nudes found on Roman sarcophagi, perhaps mediated by Nicola Pisano’s Herculean figure of Fortitude (Pisa, Baptistery, pulpit). Conceptually, however, it was unprecedented. Wöllflin’s objection to the representation of David as an adolescent ‘hobbledehoy’ and to the ugliness of the gap between the figure’s legs draws attention to the combination of the heroic with the vulnerable that makes the David so foreign to its antique sources.

Work on the marble David coincided with an exceptionally busy period of overlapping activity in which, however, Michelangelo left much unfinished or even undone. A second, bronze David (untraced), commissioned by the Republican government in 1502 as an ambassadorial gift to the French, was cast only in 1508 in Michelangelo’s absence. The scheme initiated in 1503 to provide Florence Cathedral with statues of 12 Apostles resulted in a single unfinished figure of St Matthew (Florence, Accad.). A plan to fresco the great hall, the Sala del Gran Consiglio, in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, with a depiction of the Battle of Cascina certainly interrupted his sculptural activity. A new contract for the remaining statues for the Piccolomini Altar was signed in 1504, but Michelangelo did nothing further for this project. Failure to fulfil his obligations to the Piccolomini family was the first sign of an increasingly reckless ambition that played havoc with his professional life during the following decade. By the time the second Piccolomini contract had been drawn up, he was probably already at work on the Bruges Madonna (Bruges, Onze Lieve Vrouw), a finished statue of the Virgin and Child bought by the Flemish merchant Alexander Mouscron and shipped to Bruges in 1506. Two marble roundels of the Virgin and Child, the Pitti Tondo (Florence, Bargello) and the Taddei Tondo (London, RA) seem to have been begun between 1504 and 1507, but were left incomplete. It seems quite extraordinary that Michelangelo also completed a panel painting during this period, the Holy Family (Doni Tondo; Florence, Uffizi). Around 1504, too, he seems to have made his first experiments as a poet. By this time status, income and force of personality had made him virtual head of the Buonarroti family, though his father survived until 1531.

The Bruges Madonna is one of Michelangelo’s most accomplished carvings. The apparently simple and compact relationship between Child and Virgin was carefully calculated to take account of its intended position in the church, about which he obviously had reliable information. (Ironically, it was subsequently positioned incorrectly in the niche made for it at Bruges.) The group strikingly contrasts a cool and heiratic figure of the Virgin with an animated Christ Child whose subtly twisting body she encloses and protects as though he were still sheltered within her body. The interplay between infancy and majesty was maintained in the Pitti Tondo while in the Taddei Tondo the contrast between a still Virgin and active child passes over into symbolic narrative, as the infant Christ shrinks from St John’s gift, probably a goldfinch signifying the Passion. These two unfinished tondi were the last reliefs Michelangelo carved. The St Matthew, which is a relief only by virtue of its incompleteness, often receives more sympathetic attention than Michelangelo’s contemporaneous sculpture because, as a figure subjected to powerful torsion, it seems to anticipate later, more famous works.

Michelangelo: Bruges Madonna, marble, 1503 (Bruges, Onze Lieve Vrouwe); Photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY

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(ii) Tomb of ‘Julius II’: early phases, 1505–19.

In addition to this remarkable roster of tasks, Michelangelo had other commitments. In 1505 he was called to Rome by Pope Julius II (see Rovere, della family, §2) to plan a magnificent tomb for St Peter’s. By 1506 he was making drawings preparatory to painting the vault of the Sistine Chapel (Rome, Vatican), also for Julius. This seemingly perfect match between an ambitious pontiff and an ambitious artist was disastrous for Michelangelo’s career in one respect: until 1545 his life was dominated by repeated failures to complete the Julian monument, what Condivi called ‘the tragedy of the tomb’. In order to discuss the next stage of Michelangelo’s development as a sculptor, it is necessary to outline the events that affected work on the monument from 1505 to 1519.

The most valuable source of information on the first plans for the tomb, is Condivi, who gives convincing measurements, although his description is tantalizingly incomplete. What Michelangelo and Julius proposed was a free-standing, three-storey monument, covering an area of over 70 sq. m. The lowest level, housing the papal sarcophagus, was to be decorated with figures of captives symbolizing the Liberal Arts. Above them, on each corner of the cornice, a large figure was to have been seated, one of them a Moses. On the upper level was to be an effigy of Julius, flanked by two angels, one weeping to signify that the world had lost a benefactor, one rejoicing at his translation to heaven. It has been calculated that 47 figures would have been required for the tomb. Given the enormous scale of this commission, it is hardly surprising that Michelangelo’s attention shifted to Rome in 1505–6. Marble arrived for the gigantic mausoleum, and he was eager to begin work, but Julius unaccountably cooled towards the project. After the first of a series of disputes with the Pope, Michelangelo fled to Florence. When he was recalled to Rome by Julius, it was for a new project. He spent much of 1507 in Bologna preparing a gigantic bronze statue of the Pope. This apparently menacing image of the city’s conqueror was set on the façade of S Petronio, Bologna, and subsequently melted down for cannon when the Bentivoglio regained control of the city in 1511.

Michelangelo: Moses, figure for the tomb of Julius II, marble, h. 2.35 m, c. 1513–15 (Rome, S Pietro in Vincoli); photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

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For four years, between 1508 and October 1512, Michelangelo was occupied by the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. Following the Pope’s death in February 1513, he signed a second contract with Julius’s executors for a reduced version of the tomb to be completed within seven years. This still massive undertaking, which is recorded in documents and drawings, was for a three-sided structure attached to the wall. There were to be six figures on the cornice, while above the contract specified a ‘capelletta’, a tabernacle, with a sculpted image of the Virgin and Child. For this scheme he began the Moses as well as the figures known as the Dying Captive and the Rebellious Captive (both Paris, Louvre).

Michelangelo: Rebellious Captive, figure for the tomb of Julius II, marble, h. 2.10 m, c. 1513–6 (Paris, Musée du Louvre); photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

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The tomb did not occupy Michelangelo’s attention exclusively, however. Following the election of Leo X (see Medici, de’ family, §7), he received a commission to refurbish the façade of the papal chapel in Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome. In 1514, moreover, he signed a contract to make the Risen Christ (Rome, S Maria sopra Minerva) for Metello Vari, although it was delivered only in 1521. Finally, from 1515 to 1518, he attempted, with some underhand manoeuvres, to obtain the commission to design the façade of S Lorenzo, the Medici church in Florence, and to furnish it with an ambitious number of statues and reliefs. The façade project was cancelled by the patrons in 1519.

A third contract for a still smaller Julian monument had been drawn up in 1516, for which he probably began the four Slaves (Florence, Accad.). These commitments did not prevent him from undertaking or allow him to refuse the task of designing windows for Palazzo Medici in 1517. Conflicting demands began to take a heavy toll of his work and of his self-esteem. ‘I have become a swindler against my will’, he wrote in connection with the Risen Christ, but the phrase summed up his general predicament at this time and was marginally more honest than some of his subsequent accounts of this period.

Michelangelo’s sculptural manner did not develop in a linear fashion, and the figures prepared for the two versions of the Julian monument present special problems for anyone attempting to characterize his style at any time. One difficulty is that these works do not necessarily represent a unified period in the artist’s career. Different schemes for the tomb required Michelangelo to conceive statues in varying ways, and items were worked on over considerable periods of time, with frequent interruptions followed by campaigns of intensive labour. Comparisons with his work in other media may be misleading. It has often been said that Michelangelo realized his impossible dreams for the first version of the Julian tomb in the figures painted on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. The converse also can be argued: that the inventions of the Sistine Ceiling, which grew in scale and power between its inception in 1508 and its completion in 1512, helped to form a new, more massive ideal perceptible in the sculptured figures. The Moses is the statue most obviously related to the Prophets on the Sistine Ceiling.

Assessment of the Moses is further complicated by the fact that it is not in the position for which it was planned. Originally designed to stand some 13 feet above the ground, the statue was incorporated in the central recess of the finished tomb of 1545, only a few feet above floor-level. There are indications that most of the statue had been completed before it was decided to change the intended location. It has been observed that the figure’s exaggeratedly long waist and withdrawn left leg would have enabled a viewer below to see the gesture made by the left arm (Wilde, 1954). The resemblance is often noted between this work and Donatello’s St John the Evangelist (Florence, Mus. Opera Duomo), the proportions of which were also adapted to be seen from below. Unlike the St John, the Moses was planned as a corner figure standing free of the architecture and offering a number of subsidiary views. Yet the placement of the statue was Michelangelo’s decision. Indeed the effect of confinement was even greater originally, when he set the work further back in the recess. (It was moved forward in 1816 when a cast was taken from it.)

None of these considerations detracts from the magisterial quality of the sculpture. Indeed, by bringing the statue closer to the spectator and squeezing it so uncomfortably within the completed monument, Michelangelo may have enhanced an effect of force and energy that could have been dissipated at longer range. The figure’s large size becomes insistent, and the imperious, but strangely indeterminate, facial expression may be discerned clearly, so altering the psychological charge carried by the work. This cannot happen, for example, with the tall, free-standing figure of David, whose similar gaze and furrowed brow create less tension.

Almost the opposite change of context has affected the view of the Dying Captive (Paris, Louvre), a figure intended for a niche, but now exhibited as a free-standing pendant to the Rebellious Captive. The traditional titles for these statues serve to differentiate their characters, but they should not control the viewer’s response: the figures were not created as a pair but as elements in a large sequence, a theme with variations potentially as rich as those provided by the ignudi on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. The Dying Captive in particular suggests the quality of work that was lost through Michelangelo’s inability to complete the whole tomb satisfactorily: the statue was brought to an unusually high state of resolution and reveals a moving sensuousness unusual in the conception of the male nude in Western sculpture. As a group, the Captives were deliberately differentiated from the Moses because they served separate functions and had distinct symbolic roles within the scheme of the monument. All three figures, however, show an increased feeling for the three-dimensionality of sculpture. In the Dying Captive, a form made to be seen from a relatively restricted series of viewpoints, there is no contour that may be transcribed simply in two dimensions and no surface plane that is not continuously turned into another.

Michelangelo: Dying Captive, figure for the tomb of Julius II, marble, h. 2.29 m, c. 1514 (Paris, Musée du Louvre); Photo credit: Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY

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Although planned for a significantly different version of the tomb project, the four Slaves from the 1516 campaign also exemplify this principle, and they should not be regarded as a totally new departure. While a certain massiveness characterizes all figures devised for the Julian monument, two in particular, the Bearded Slave and the Awakening Slave, with their grosser proportions, may appear to anticipate the ideal of heroic masculinity that appears in the later frescoes. This view is mistaken. In part the effect is created by Michelangelo’s distinctive interpretation of the heavy muscularity that conventionally characterizes older men in antique statuary; in part it perhaps arises because some sections were only roughed out.

Because of the demands of the tomb project and the fruitless diversion of the S Lorenzo façade, in the three decades after the completion of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling Michelangelo presented to the public only one finished work, the statue of the Risen Christ (Rome, S Maria sopra Minerva). This is the second version of the work. While carving the figure, the artist uncovered an unsightly flaw in the area of the face and he began carving a new block. It has been among the least admired of Michelangelo’s statues. Pope-Hennessy regarded it as a replica lacking the vibrant surface expected in an authentic marble. It may be, however, that modern critical taste is simply out of sympathy with the whole concept of this naked, Apollo-like Christ languidly supporting the cross and other instruments of the Passion. As a relaxed male nude, it exhibits a refined elegance at variance with those signs of energy, tension and unrest normally associated with Michelangelo’s art. Its success as a devotional image, however, suggests that the faithful are more at ease with the notion of a Lord of perfect beauty than scholars have been.

(iii) New Sacristy, 1519–34.

When the façade project for S Lorenzo was abruptly dropped in 1519, Michelangelo was ordered to build a Medici funerary chapel at S Lorenzo (the New Sacristy; see §4(i) below). Work on this went ahead rapidly until the death of Leo X in 1521. During the brief pontificate of Adrian VI (reg 1522–3), when Michelangelo could no longer count on the protection of a powerful patron, the della Rovere heirs of Julius threatened litigation over the tomb. The election of Pope Clement VII (see Medici, de’ family, §9) in 1523 saved him from the worst consequences, but negotiations with the della Rovere family continued. Work resumed on the New Sacristy at this time, and more projects were added to Michelangelo’s workload, notably a library over the cloisters adjoining S Lorenzo and a reliquary tribune on the inside of the church façade.

In 1527 the Medicean government of Florence was expelled from the city, and work at S Lorenzo was suspended. Michelangelo probably continued to carve figures for the Julius tomb, but he also agreed to provide the new Republic with a group of Samson Slaying the Philistines. Little was done for this, apart perhaps from a small model, since in 1528 he became military engineer to Florence. Disagreement with the military committee caused a temporary flight to Venice but, following a brief visit to Ferrara where he undertook to provide the Duke, Alfonso I d’Este, with a painting of Leda (untraced), Michelangelo returned to his post in November 1529.

The Republic fell in 1530, and for some months after Michelangelo hid from possible Medici reprisals. Pardoned by Clement VII, he worked intensively at S Lorenzo and began a statue of Apollo (Florence, Bargello) for Baccio Valori. After bitter negotiations with the della Rovere heirs, in 1532 a fourth contract was drawn up for a yet more modest version of the tomb, planned for Julius’s former titular church in Rome, S Pietro in Vincoli. That year Michelangelo fell in love with the young Roman nobleman Tommaso de’ Cavalieri (d 1565). Following the death of Clement VII in 1534, he settled permanently in Rome.

In terms of sculpture, this period of Michelangelo’s life was dominated by the work for the New Sacristy. The ensemble is lamentably incomplete, and many details planned for it remain unknown, but the Medici tombs give a better sense of the plenitude of Michelangelo’s inventive powers than the scattered fragments of successive schemes for the Julius monument. The history of the scheme has parallels with that of the project for Julius. Clement’s first idea was to construct a free-standing monument beneath the dome of the chapel to house his own sarcophagus. He then decided to exclude himself from the plans and to build two wall tombs for recently deceased members of the family, Giuliano de’ Medici, Duc de Nemours, and Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino (see fig.). The two later became known as the Capitani because of the Roman military uniforms worn by their effigies. The marble frameworks and the four allegorical figures of the Times of Day for these tombs occupy the lateral walls of the chamber. The ensemble was to have been completed by a splendid double monument on the entrance wall of the chapel to commemorate the Magnifici, two 15th-century Medici, also named Giuliano and Lorenzo. As the priest offering masses for the dead officiated from the small tribune behind the altar, looking across to the entrance wall, this double tomb was conceived unusually as a displaced altarpiece, to be surmounted by a statue of the Virgin and Child (the Medici Madonna). No part of this tomb was built, and the only reminder of the original plan is the unfinished Madonna flanked by statues of the Medici saints, Cosmas and Damian. Cosmas was carved to Michelangelo’s design by Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli and Damian by Raffaello da Montelupo. The three figures are mounted on a platform that bears no relation to the original scheme. Additional figures were to have included four river gods beneath the two tombs of the Capitani, symbolic figures of a grieving Earth and laughing Heaven in the niches on either side of Giuliano’s effigy and other insecurely identifiable items. According to Condivi, the Times of Day symbolized ‘the principle of time which consumes everything’. All the autograph carvings for the New Sacristy were executed between 1524 and 1534.

Michelangelo: tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1519–33), marble, New Sacristy, S Lorenzo, Florence; photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY

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The Medici sculptures represent a distinctly new physical type, also found in Michelangelo’s drawings from this period. The aim seems to have been to express great power in the most relaxed and elegant form. The figures have small heads on massive torsos, muscular, tapering thighs and slender ankles, an ideal most clearly articulated in the figure of Giuliano de’ Medici and that of the youth in a contemporary work, the Victory (Florence, Pal. Vecchio). Of the figures prepared for the New Sacristy, only the Day departs from this model. Formally, the figures are among the most spatially interesting sculptures in the European tradition. The allegorical figures in particular were designed to be viewed from many different vantage-points within the chapel.

The New Sacristy is also of interest because it contains Michelangelo’s only two sculptured female nudes. Unlike comparable figures by other artists, they have been conceived without a trace of eroticism, and it is the absence of obvious sexuality that gives these works their uneasy power. Appropriately, the skin of Dawn is sleek and unmarked while the figure of Night has a more aged body, marked by greater experience. A similar, less marked contrast is apparent in the two male figures.

The effigies of the Capitani partake of these contrasts, the alert figure of Giuliano associated with the positive and negative poles of Night and Day, Lorenzo with the shadowy allegories of twilight. Michelangelo stated that the Capitani figures were not portraits but idealized representations, endowed with the dignity and power that the men should have had. The contrast between the ‘melancholic’ Lorenzo and the ‘sanguine’ Giuliano has long been remarked, and Michelangelo seems to have taken great care to place the face of Lorenzo in shadow. As a formal invention, this brooding presence is unprecedented. The Giuliano, in which sprightliness is mixed with force, remains one of the most original statues of the 16th century.

Of all the unhoused figures carved by Michelangelo, the Madonna of the New Sacristy appears the most awkwardly placed in its setting. Perhaps because the still-unpolished surface of the stone blurs much of the definition of the figures, this, Michelangelo’s final sculptured Virgin and Child, has an especially insubstantial look. As a devotional object, the group also appears puzzling. The tall figure of the Virgin has the regal, expressionless calm common to all his depictions of this theme, but the infant Christ, dramatically turned to seek his mother’s breast, is at once the most actively Herculean and the most withdrawn of Michelangelo’s images of the Saviour.

Of the sculptures associated with this period of Michelangelo’s life, the Victory group poses the greatest difficulty for historians. It has been dated at various times between 1519 and 1530, and its purpose is obscure. The youth kneeling on the body of the bearded old man wears a wreath of oak leaves, and this detail strongly suggests that it is another abandoned work for the Julius tomb. As a model, the Victory had a powerful effect in Florence, where younger sculptors including Vincenzio Danti and Giambologna produced variants. Combining helical motion with a pyramidal construction, the group has been regarded as the epitome of the figura serpentinata that Lomazzo claimed Michelangelo advocated as a compositional principle. While the Victory can indeed be understood in this way, it should be remembered that the words Lomazzo attributed to Michelangelo related to painting, not sculpture.

(iv) Late work, 1534–64.

During the 1530s and 1540s the pattern of the aging Michelangelo’s life changed drastically. In 1534 Clement VII decided to have him paint the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, and his successor, Paul III (see Farnese family, §1), proceeded with this plan. In 1535 Pope Paul appointed Michelangelo ‘supreme architect, sculptor and painter’ to the Apostolic Court, and in the following year he issued a decree freeing him from all obligations to the della Rovere heirs, although plans to complete Julius’s monument continued. During 1536 Michelangelo was introduced to Colonna, Vittoria, Marchesa di Pescara, and the influence of her commitment to the Catholic Reformation is detectable in the sacred poetry he wrote over the following decade. In the same year he began painting the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. On its completion in 1541, the Pope commissioned the frescoes for the Pauline Chapel, also in the Vatican. In 1542 a fifth, and final, contract for the Julius tomb was drawn up, and three years later an unsatisfactory monument was erected in S Pietro in Vincoli. It was the end of the ‘tragedy of the tomb’. Only three of the statues, the Moses, Rachel and Leah, were carved by Michelangelo himself. Interrupted by illness, he worked on the Pauline frescoes from 1542 until 1550. During the second half of the 1540s Michelangelo probably began the Brutus (Florence, Bargello), his last commissioned sculpture, for Cardinal Niccolò Ridolfi. The Florentine Pietà (Florence, Mus. Opera Duomo) and the Rondanini Pietà (Milan, Castello Sforzesco) were undertaken on his own initiative. Apart from these works, the final two decades were dominated by an increasingly ramifying architectural practice (see §I, 4 below).

The last phase of Michelangelo’s sculptural activity comprises the smallest group of works, but the most difficult to assess in conventional terms. These apparently personal sculptures pose the most acute attributional and chronological problems. The figures of Rachel and Leah are good examples. The final agreement for the Julius tomb specifies that the two statues flanking the Moses were to be carved by Raffaello da Montelupo. Condivi and Vasari, however, clearly attributed them to Michelangelo himself, a view that is generally accepted, although it has been suggested that they were conceived at different times. They also show inconsistencies: Rachel is noticeably shorter than Leah and has a rectangular rather than a rounded base. It is clear, however, that they represent allegories of the Contemplative Life and the Active Life respectively.

Michelangelo gave both the Brutus and the Florentine Pietà to Tiberio Calcagni (1532–65) for completion. The condition of the Pietà is far from ideal. The left leg of Christ is missing and there are obvious repairs to other breaks. Nor is there agreement on the type and scope of Calcagni’s intervention. The Palestrina Pietà (Florence, Accad.) is of doubtful authenticity. Only the Rondanini Pietà is securely authentic and safely datable to the artist’s very last years, but it is a shattered fragment. A radical change of plan led Michelangelo to mutilate the group so that the upper parts of the Virgin and Christ were left as shallow, ghostly presences beside a single, substantial right arm, the remnant of a previous more conventional version. A head and part of the torso belonging to the earlier scheme (Florence, Pal. Vecchio) was discovered in 1973. The legs of Christ, which probably date from the earlier composition, also show signs of modification. It is probable that the first carving was begun in the 1550s and the radical cutting back of the two figures took place in the very last years of Michelangelo’s life. According to a letter of Daniele da Volterra, he was at work on the group only five days before his death.

The spectral quality of the Rondanini Pietà has been used to support the view that at the end of his life Michelangelo inclined towards an aesthetic of renunciation. Allegedly rejecting the full, twisting forms characteristic of his earlier work, he reduced the piece to a pair of stark columnar figures, tensely bent forward. It has been suggested that the compositional scheme shows an affinity with northern, or even with Gothic art. The idea that Michelangelo adopted medieval motifs late in life has become a recurrent theme among writers. The combination of Classical and medieval elements has been noted even in the Rachel and Leah. But echoes of medieval motifs are not exclusive to work of his last decades. By stressing certain elements in the late figures and linking them with Michelangelo’s adherence to the reform movement within the Roman Church, a spurious argument is proposed, falsely associating Gothic with Christian. The private nature of these late uncommissioned works should not be exaggerated, although it is plausible that they reflect Michelangelo’s desire for personal redemption and are meditations on salvation akin to his drawings and poems of this period; they also seem to have had a shadowy public purpose. According to Vasari, the Florentine Pietà includes a self-portrait of the artist as Nicodemus and had originally been intended to surmount Michelangelo’s own tomb. The Rondanini Pietà, though kept in Michelangelo’s studio until his death, seems to have been promised to a client.

Michelangelo: Rodanini Pietà, marble, h. 1.61 m, 1559–64 (Milan, Castello Sforzesco); photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY

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(v) Unfinished works.

Discussion of abandoned works, the ‘non-finito’, has been confused by the claim that lack of finish should be regarded as an expressive device essential to Michelangelo’s art. This view became especially prominent after Auguste Rodin had established a taste for images only partly emerging from rough stone. The suggestion that Michelangelo’s failure to complete works arose from a dissatisfaction with the expressive limitations of craft perfection is an extreme example of the view that great genius manifests impatience with the limitations of any medium. According to one version of this approach, the incomplete state of Michelangelo’s carvings was due to an irresolvable tension between pagan and Christian principles. It is far more likely that much of Michelangelo’s sculptured oeuvre was abandoned because he committed himself simultaneously to too many projects. Evidence for this comes from his own criticism of the rough surfaces of Donatello’s sculpture, as reported in Vasari’s biography, and from what is recorded of his fastidious regard for the quality of marble. His abandonment of the first version of the Risen Christ on the revelation of a flaw in the stone is a good example of this. Whenever possible, he crisply articulated surface detail and gave his statuary a final polish. In this respect there is no distinction between early and late work. A more accurate idea of Michelangelo’s standards of craftmanship may be gained from a study of the Rachel and Leah than from the Rondanini Pietà. Of the apparently ‘unfinished’ elements in his completed sculptures, most are deliberate textural differentiation. The remainder are parts that were not meant to be seen at close quarters or seen at all, such as the roughly chiselled patch of neck behind the beard of Moses, or the back of the Risen Christ.

Admiration for Michelangelo’s work ensured that much of his statuary was preserved, even when its condition would have been considered unacceptable as the work of other artists. His work was so highly valued that the slightest sketch was coveted, and it is not surprising that even imperfect sculptures were sought after. When there was a delay in delivering the second version of the Risen Christ, Metello Vari demanded the unfinished first version (untraced) and installed it in his garden. Michelangelo himself gave the two abandoned Captives to Roberto Strozzi as tokens of affection. His contemporaries were therefore forced to come to terms with the incompleteness of the sculpture. This occurred in three ways. First, Michelangelo’s inventive power was so much admired that his unfinished works were regarded by other artists as a legitimate quarry for ideas. Raphael, for example, struck by the mere adumbration of the St Matthew, copied it in pen and ink (Chatsworth, Derbys). Second, literary strategies were developed for dealing with aborted statues. Vasari was a pioneer, citing the St Matthew as a model of decisive carving. He also gave an influential psychological explanation of Michelangelo’s abandoned statuary, suggesting that the sculptor did not give final form to his inventions because of his frustration at the gap between conception and execution. Third, in two cases incompleteness was exploited by controlling the conditions of display. The Brutus, commissioned by a Medici opponent as a symbol of Republican virtue, was acquired after Michelangelo’s death by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Francesco I (see Medici, de’ family, §16). In the Medici collections it was exhibited accompanied by a Latin verse, which claimed: ‘As the sculptor carved the portrait of Brutus from the marble, he remembered his crime, and broke off’. Celebration of the tyrant-slayer was thus subverted, and Michelangelo’s failure to complete the work was represented as a praiseworthy moral act. It was also under the Medici that Bernardo Buontalenti incorporated the four Slaves from the abandoned Julius tomb into the rough masonry of a grotto in the Boboli Gardens in Florence (replicas in situ). Seemingly growing from the rock, the figures served as witty representations of the transformation of nature into artifice.

The predominance of unfinished work in Michelangelo’s oeuvre has also contributed to the impression that he was at odds with contemporary aesthetic values. In addition, his incomplete or aborted projects have obscured two aspects of his sculpture that might have modified this picture: relief and the design of ornament. No reliefs appear in Michelangelo’s work after 1507, although they were planned for earlier projects for the Julius tomb and for the façade of S Lorenzo, according to drawings (New York, Met.; Florence, Uffizi). In one design for the S Lorenzo façade (Florence, Uffizi), Michelangelo began by adapting a compositional type derived from Lorenzo Ghiberti, a source so unexpected as to bring into question conventional ideas about the limits of his art. Fragmentary survivals give a good idea of Michelangelo’s preferences in ornament. The lower storey of the Julius tomb, largely constructed from parts begun between 1513 and 16, shows him to have been a designer of fantastic carving firmly rooted in late 15th-century practice. The New Sacristy, although incomplete, reveals an abundance of invention: the fanciful cuirass of Giuliano’s effigy, the bat-headed box on which Lorenzo rests his arm, the poppies and owl of Night and the frieze of masks that runs behind both sarcophagi (carved by Silvio Cosini and Francesco da Sangallo). Even what was executed of the decoration for the New Sacristy does not survive intact: stucco figuration for the interior of the dome, designed by Michelangelo and executed by Perino del Vaga, was destroyed by Vasari. Michelangelo’s three-dimensional work was fashioned to inhabit a more richly inventive world of ornament than is generally considered appropriate to it. Had these frameworks been completed as he envisaged them, they would have revealed Michelangelo as a less austere sculptor, less isolated from his age, but still dominant of it.


  • E. Panofsky: Tomb Sculpture (New York, 1964)
  • C. J. Seymour: Sculpture in Italy, 1400–1500, Pelican Hist. A. (Harmondsworth, 1966)
  • M. Weinberger: Michelangelo the Sculptor, 2 vols (London and New York, 1967)
  • F. Hartt: Michelangelo: The Complete Sculpture (London, 1969)
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  • C. Acidini Luchinat : Michelangelo scultore (Milan, 2005)
Training and early work
  • F. Kriegbaum: ‘Michelangelos Statuen am Piccolomini-Altar in Dom zu Siena’, Jahrbuch der preussischen Kunstsammlungen [prev. pubd as Jb. Kön.-Preuss. Kstsamml.], 63 (1942), pp. 57–78
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  • A. Parronchi: ‘Il Cupido dormiente di Michelangelo’, Stil und Überlieferung in der Kunst des Abendlandes. Akten des 21. internationalen Kongresses für Kunstgeschichte: Bonn, 1964, 2, pp. 121–5; repr. in A. Parronchi: Opere giovanili di Michelangelo, Accademia Toscana di Scienze e Lettere ‘La Columbaria’: ‘Studi’, x (Florence, 1968)
  • M. Calì: ‘La Madonna della Scala di Michelangelo, il Savonarola e la crisi dell’umanesimo’, Bollettino d’arte [cont. as Arti: Rass. Bimest. A. Ant. & Mod.; Boll. A.], 5th ser., 52 (1967), pp. 152–66
  • C. Seymour: Michelangelo’s ‘David’: A Search for Identity (Pittsburgh, 1967)
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  • P. Bargellini: Michelangelo’s ‘David’: Symbol of Liberty (Florence, 1971)
  • H. R. Mancusi-Ungaro: Michelangelo: The Bruges Madonna and the Piccolomini Altar (New Haven and London, 1971)
  • R. de Campos: ‘Il restauro della Pietà di Michelangelo’, Tutela e conservazione del patrimonio storico e artistico delle chiese in Italia, 97 (Rome, 1974), unpaginated insertion
  • S. Levine: ‘The Location of Michelangelo’s David: The Meeting of January 25, 1504’, Art Bulletin, 54 (1974), pp. 31–41
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  • D. Ewing: ‘Further Observations on the Bruges Madonna: Ghiberti as a Source for Michelangelo’, Revue belge d’archéologie et d’histoire de l’art [prev. pubd as Rev. Belge Archéol. & Hist. A./Belge Tijdschr. Oudhdknde & Kstgesch.], 158 (1979), pp. 77–83
  • M. Lisner: ‘Form und Sinngehalt von Michelangelos Kentaurenschlacht mit Notizien zu Bertoldo di Giovanni’, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Instituts in Florenz, 24 (1980), pp. 283–344
  • P. Barocchi: Il Bacco di Michelangelo (Florence, 1982)
  • V. Herzner: ‘David Florentinus’, Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen, 24 (1982), pp. 129–34
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  • P. Barocchi, ed.: Il giardino di San Marco: Maestri e compagni del giovane Michelangelo (Florence, 1992)
  • W. E. Wallace: ‘Michelangelo: In and Out of Florence Between 1500 and 1508’, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael in Renaissance Florence from 1500 to 1508 (Washington, DC, 1992), pp. 54–88 [Michelangelo’s patrons]
  • T. Weddingen: ‘Aus der Not eine Tugend: Michelangelos David difficilissimamente facile/A Virtue of Necessity: Michelangelo’s David Difficilissimamente Facile’, Daidalos, 59 (March 1996), pp. 80–91
  • K. Weil-Garris Brandt: ‘A Marble in Manhattan: The Case for Michelangelo’, Burlington Magazine, 138/1123 (1996), pp. 644–59
  • L. Catterson : ‘Michelangelo’s Laocoön?’, Artibus et historiae, 26/52 (2005), pp. 29–56
  • L. A. Koch : ‘Michelangelo’s “Bacchus” and the Art of Self-Formation’, Art History, 29 (2006), pp. 344–86
  • K. Weil-Garris Brandt : ‘The Body as “Vera Effigies” in Michelangelo’s Art: The Minerva Christ’, L’immagine di Cristo: Dall’Acheropita alla mano d’artista, ed. C. L. Frommel (Vatican City, 2006), pp. 269–321
Tomb of Julius II: Early phases
  • K. A. Laux: Michelangelos Juliusmonument (Berlin, 1943)
  • J. Wilde: Michelangelo’s ‘Victory’, Charleton Lectures on Art, 36 (Oxford, 1954)
  • E. Rosenthal: ‘Michelangelo’s Moses, dai di sotto in sù’, Art Bulletin, 46 (1964), pp. 544–50
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  • M. Hirst: ‘A Project of Michelangelo’s for the Tomb of Julius II’, Master Drawings, 14 (1976), pp. 375–82
  • G. S. Panofsky: ‘Die Ikonographie von Michelangelos Christus in Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rom’, Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst, n. s. 2, 39 (1988), pp. 89–112
  • M. Hirst: ‘Michelangelo in 1505’, Burlington Magazine, 133 (1991), pp. 760–66
  • C. Echinger-Maurach: Studien zu Michelangelos Juliusgrabmal, 2 vols (Hildesheim, Zurich and New York, 1991)
  • P. Armour: ‘The Prisoner and the Veil: The Symbolism of Michelangelo’s Tomb of Julius II’, Italian Studies, 49 (1994), pp. 40–69
  • F. J. Verspohl: ‘Der Torso des Apollonius und der Moses des Michelangelo: Von der Genauigkeit des Künstlers/Apollonio’s Torso and Michelangelo’s Moses: On the Exactness of the Artist’, Daidalos, 59 (1996), pp. 92–7
  • M. Stefani Mantovanelli : ‘Michelangelo e il martello di Dio’, Arte documento, 22 (2006), pp. 158–63
New Sacristy
  • A. E. Popp: Die Medici-Kappelle Michelangelos (Munich, 1922)
  • H. W. Frey: ‘Zur Entstehungsgeschichte des Statuenschmuckes der Medici-Kapelle in Florenz’, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte [merger of Z. Bild. Kst with Repert. Kstwiss. & with Jb. Kstwiss.], 14 (1951), pp. 40–96
  • F. Hartt: ‘The Meaning of Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel’, Essays in Honour of George Swarzenski (Chicago, 1951), pp. 145–55
  • J. Wilde: ‘Michelangelo’s Designs for the Medici Tombs’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes [prev. pubd as J. Warb. Inst.], 18 (1955), pp. 54–66
  • W. Goez: ‘Annotationen zu Michelangelos Mediceergräbern’, Festschrift für Harald Keller (Darmstadt, 1963), pp. 235–54
  • C. Gilbert: ‘Texts and Contexts of the Medici Chapel’, Art Quarterly [Detroit], 34 (1971), pp. 391–407
  • P. Joannides: ‘Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel: Some New Suggestions’, Burlington Magazine, 114 (1972), pp. 541–51
  • L. D. Ettlinger: ‘The Liturgical Function of Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel’, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Instituts in Florenz, 22 (1978), pp. 285–304
  • A. Prater: Michelangelos Medici-Kapelle (Stiftland, 1979)
  • G. Neufeld: ‘Die Konzeption der Wandgrabmäler der Medici-Kapelle’, Städel-Jahrbuch, n. s., 8 (1981), pp. 247–87
  • R. C. Trexler and M. E. Lewis: ‘Two Captains and Three Kings: New Light on the Medici Chapel’, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History, n. s., 4 (1981), pp. 91–177
  • A. Morrogh: ‘The Magnifici Tomb: A Key Project in Michelangelo’s Architectural Career’, Art Bulletin, 74/4 (1992), pp. 567–98
  • W. Wallace: Michelangelo at San Lorenzo: The Genius as Entrepreneur (Cambridge, 1994)
  • P. Joannides: ‘Michelangelo: The Magnifici Tomb and the Brazen Serpent’, Master Drawings, 34/2 (1996), pp. 148–67
  • J. Poeschke : ‘Historizität und Symbolik im Figurenprogramm der Medici-Kapelle’, Praemium Virtutis II: Grabmäler und Begräbniszeremoniell in der italienischen Hoch- und Spätrenaissance, ed. J. Poeschke (Münster, 2005), pp. 145–69
Late work
  • D. J. Gordon: ‘Giannotti, Michelangelo and the Cult of Brutus’, Fritz Saxl, 1890–1948 (London, 1957), pp. 281–96
  • J. Pope-Hennessy: ‘The Palestrina Pietà’, Stil und Überlieferung in der Kunst des Abendlandes: Akten des 21. internationalen Kongresses für Kunstgeschichte: Bonn, 1964, 2, pp. 105–14, repr. in J. Pope-Hennessy: Essays on Italian Sculpture (London and New York, 1968), pp. 121–31
  • W. Stechow: ‘Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus?’, Studien zur toskanischen Kunst: Festschrift für L. H. Heydenreich (Munich, 1964), pp. 289–302
  • B. Mantura: ‘Il primo Cristo della Pietà Rondanini’, Bollettino d’arte [cont. as Arti: Rass. Bimest. A. Ant. & Mod.; Boll. A.], 58 (1973), pp. 199–201
  • F. Hartt: Michelangelo’s Three Pietàs (London, 1976)
  • V. Shrimplin-Evangelidis: ‘Michelangelo and Nicodemus: The Florentine Pietà’, Art Bulletin, 71 (1989), pp. 58–66
  • Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the Renaissance in Florence (exh. cat., ed. D. Franklin; Ottawa, Nat. Gallery, 2005)
  • C. Echinger-Maurach : ‘Michelangelos späte Grabmalskonzeptionen und ihre Nachfolge’, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Instituts in Florenz, 50 (2006), pp. 49–92
  • M. T. Fiorio and L. Toniolo, eds: La pietà Rondanini: Il Michelangelo di Milano, conoscenza e conservazione (Milan, 2006)
  • L. Steinberg : ‘Michelangelo’s Florentine “Pietà”: The Missing Leg’, Sixteenth-century Italian Art, ed. M. W. Cole (Oxford, 2006), pp. 196–219
Unfinished works
  • P. Barocchi: ‘Finito e non-finito nella critica vasariana’, Arte antica e moderna (1958), no. 3, pp. 221–35
  • J. Schulz: ‘Michelangelo’s Unfinished Works’, Art Bulletin, 57 (1975), pp. 366–73
  • J. G. Haddad: ‘The Sabbatarian Struggle of Michelangelo’, Athanor, 12 (1994), pp. 45–53
  • C. Gilbert : ‘What Is Expressed in Michelangelo’s Non-Finito’, Artibus et historiae, 24/48 (2003), pp. 57–64
  • J. Wasserman, ed.: La Pietà di Michelangelo a Firenze (Florence, 2006)

2. Painting.

Michelangelo’s history of sporadic activity as a painter seems to support his contention that he was primarily a sculptor, despite his training in Ghirlandaio’s workshop. He produced few easel pictures. It was in painting, however, that his ambition was realized most completely. His three monumental fresco cycles in the Vatican (the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; see fig., its altar wall (the Last Judgement) and the two lateral walls of the Pauline Chapel) are among his greatest achievements. Even in the 16th century these works were treated as representing quite distinct phases in Michelangelo’s career.

(i) Early work, to c. 1507.

According to documents, Michelangelo was active as a painter in Rome during the early years of the 16th century, when he produced a cartoon for a painting of St Francis and worked on, but did not finish, an unspecified altarpiece for S Agostino. This may have been the Entombment (London, N.G.), which, alone among the speculative attributions to his early period, seems likely to be authentic. Of the others, the Manchester Madonna (Virgin and Child with St John and Angels; London, N.G.) looks more convincing (Hirst and Dunkerton, 1994); the Pietà (Rome, Pal. Barberini) has no connection with him.

Michelangelo’s first commission for a monumental fresco, the Battle of Cascina for the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, was never realized. His cartoon for the Battle of Cascina (1504–7) was highly influential, but was dismembered and disappeared in the 16th century. Only an incomplete copy attributed to Bastiano da Sangallo (Holkham Hall, Norfolk) and some autograph preliminary drawings (e.g. London, BM) remain to show why this closely packed composition of muscular nudes had so inspired his contemporaries. These remnants also suggest how important this work was in Michelangelo’s development: it gave him an opportunity to refine the composition of the Battle of the Centaurs and to develop motifs that he reworked as late as the Last Judgement.

It is difficult, then, to follow Michelangelo’s earliest development as a painter. This gives a special importance to the Doni Tondo (Holy Family; Florence, Uffizi) as his only existing documented panel picture. The survival of the original frame, which may have been designed by Michelangelo, makes the tondo doubly important as the sole intact decorative ensemble in his oeuvre. The frame also provides a clue to the date of commission, since it shows the intertwined devices of Agnolo Doni and his wife, Maddalena Strozzi. It has been suggested that the painting celebrated their marriage in 1503 or the birth of their first male heir in 1507.

Michelangelo: Holy Family (Doni Tondo), oil on panel, c. 1503–7 (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi); photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY

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The high colour key and predominantly blond tonality of the Doni Tondo were often contrasted with the apparently more markedly tonal style of the Sistine Ceiling. The cleaning of both the tondo and the Sistine vault, however, has revealed considerable continuity of manner between the two. Because the tondo depicts a conventional subject, it emphasizes Michelangelo’s formal independence from contemporaries who were developing motifs and treatments derived from Leonardo da Vinci. In colour, tone and handling, the panel is deeply conservative. Its originality lies in the quite exceptional clarity with which Michelangelo designed the three major figures as a compact, yet coherent, group. The pose of the most prominent figure, the Virgin, is particularly complex. The central group is often cited correctly as an extreme example of what disegno came to represent. It has been suggested that the group is essentially sculptural in feeling, but this is true only in the sense that each figure is strongly realized as a turning, three-dimensional form. To dwell excessively on its sculptural properties is to ignore the marked fashion in which Michelangelo emphasized two-dimensional patterning by sharply silhouetting the central mass against the background. Colour plays its part too. The Virgin’s rose shift with its brilliant, almost blanched, highlights is the most vibrant element within the pictorial field, and clearly signals her stature as the chief figure of the painting.

Although she is not without tenderness, the Virgin of the Doni Tondo is depicted as muscular, lithe, heroic and unusually authoritative. The relative severity of Michelangelo’s conception of the Holy Family has given rise to speculation that this panel had a special significance, a suggestion supported by the puzzling inclusion of a group of naked youths lounging in the background. Similar groups are depicted in tondos by Luca Signorelli (1484–90; Florence, Uffizi; Munich, Alte Pin.), although the meaning of these also remains mysterious. Tolnay’s suggestion that the youths represent the epoch before the Law, while the Holy Family stands for the era of Grace and the Baptist an intermediary period, makes sense of the spatial arrangement of the picture in terms of orthodox theology, but it remains speculative. Less credible interpretations include the assertion that two of the youths are homosexual lovers. Whether it commemorates marriage or birth (or both), this exhilarating painting in its magnificent frame is one of the most sumptuous objects to have survived from the Italian Renaissance.

The Doni Tondo was not the last of Michelangelo’s panel paintings. Around 1530 he painted a Leda and the Swan (untraced) for Alfonso I d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. Alfonso never received the picture, which vanished in France. The power of Michelangelo’s conception of the Leda myth is suggested by a number of 16th-century copies, of which the most reliable appear to be a painting often attributed to Rosso Fiorentino (London, N. G.) and an engraving by Cornelis Bos (London, BM).

(ii) Sistine Ceiling, 1508–12.

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. They mark the arrival of a new type of heroic painting. Through frequent copy, adaptation and parody, they have become the works most commonly associated with Michelangelo’s name, and they are central to any discussion of his achievement.

According to his own account, Michelangelo was originally unwilling to paint the Sistine Ceiling, although his statements on the subject are not entirely reliable. The project was already being discussed in 1506, less than a year after the first negotiations for Julius II’s monument. At this stage the Pope wished Michelangelo to replace the original ceiling decoration, blue with gold stars, with a scheme of the 12 Apostles in the spandrels and predominantly geometric ornament on the vault. Two drawings (Detroit, MI, Inst. A.; London, BM) give an idea of early plans. In a later account Michelangelo claimed he told the Pope that this was a ‘poor’ idea and that Julius then allowed him to do what he chose. In view of the importance of the chapel in the life of the papal court, this cannot be literally true. Nevertheless, the transformation of modest schemes into more ambitious projects was a recurrent feature of Michelangelo’s career. It is plausible therefore that the Pope accepted his suggestion to decorate the vault more magnificently, but that the biblical themes of the fresco were chosen by an adviser.

In the final scheme the vault was given a fictive stone framework, with a series of nine narratives from the book of Genesis in the centre, each placed at right angles to the long axis of the chapel (see fig.). The narrative order begins at the altar end with three depictions of the Creation of the Heavens and Earth (see fig.); there follow scenes representing the creation of Adam, the creation of Eve and a composite narrative of the Fall and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The final trio begins with a scene of sacrifice (identified by Condivi as that of Abel or, more commonly, that of Noah, although this must mean that it is placed out of sequence); it continues with the Flood, and ends with the Drunkenness of Noah. Figures of nude youths (the famous ignudi) sit on the simulated architecture framing these narratives. They bear garlands supporting fictive bronze medallions with reliefs depicting other Old Testament stories. In the spandrels at both ends and down the sides of the chapel are colossal enthroned figures, each labelled as a prophet or sibyl. Collectively they represent those who foretold the coming of Christ to the Jews and the Gentiles respectively. Between these, and in the lunettes above the windows beneath, are family groups and paired figures of the Ancestors of Christ. At the four corners, the pendentives are painted with scenes illustrating the salvation of Israel (at the altar end, the Death of Haman and the Brazen Serpent, at the entrance, Judith and Holofernes and David and Goliath). Fictive bronze nudes and stone putti add to the wealth of figurative invention.

Michelangelo: ceiling frescoes (1508–12), Sistine Chapel, Vatican; photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

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Michelangelo signed a contract to paint the vault in May 1508. Four years later, in October 1512, the fresco was complete. Considering delays during early stages, when mould developed on the wet plaster, and the interruption of work for almost a year between 1510 and 1511, progress was staggeringly fast. This casts doubt on Condivi’s statement that Michelangelo worked without even an assistant to grind colours. The high quality of painting throughout indicates that he exercised the closest supervision, however.

In design, the vault is powerfully articulated by the fictive architecture, which is keyed to that of the chapel itself. This provides a framework for figures and scenes and also distinguishes one part from another, permitting a rational reading of the composition, despite inequalities in scale between the figures. It is this architectural structure that preserves continuity between the first and the last figures Michelangelo painted on the vault. For, in spite of its reputation, the ceiling is not a unified achievement.

While thematically the paintings fall into three contrasting sections, stylistically there are two, the division roughly corresponding to the interruption of work in 1510 and 1511. During the first phase Michelangelo painted everything between the prophet Zeccharia and the fifth bay of the vault, representing the Creation of Eve. That included Prophets, Sibyls and Ancestors of Christ on either side. The remainder, which took less than a year, comprises the most admired narratives and figures of the ceiling. The break is marked by the discontinuation of gilding on the balusters of the thrones of the Prophets and Sibyls. Later parts of the fresco lack the a secco touches that would have given them a rich finish to match the 15th-century paintings below. This is, however, only the most trivial of the distinctions between Michelangelo’s two campaigns. More importantly, during the months of interruption, he made major revisions to his designs. All the main figures from the later part of the series are larger and more powerfully presented to the viewer. Prophets and Sibyls were given greater bulk by lowering the base of their thrones, a procedure that may also have suggested changes in the angles from which these platforms ostensibly are seen. The ledges on which the Persica and Jeremiah are placed tilt forward dramatically in a way quite inconsistent with the projection of the surrounding architecture. The distortion is subtle, although it adds to the sense that these later figures press against a constraining architectural frame, even bearing heavily down upon it. Some, such as the Daniel, forcibly burst beyond their confines.

Michelangelo: Creation of Eve, (1508–10), fresco, Rome, Sistine Chapel, Vatican; photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY

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This powerful impression results from Michelangelo’s increasing use of illusionism on the vault, culminating in the dramatic figure of Jonah placed directly above the altar. This figure was much admired in the 16th century as a tour de force of three-dimensional realization, belying the concavity of the surface on which it is painted. Such effects are now taken for granted, but Michelangelo’s inventive use of foreshortening to enhance the dramatic interplay between figure and ground is as striking as his related indifference to the use of more conventional illusions of depth within paintings.

As work on the ceiling progressed, these preferences issued in a novel approach to narrative. The first three biblical scenes executed along the centre of the vault, the Drunkenness of Noah, the Flood and the Sacrifice, recognizably conform to the notion of Leon Battista Alberti that a history painting should include many figures displaying variety of action and character. By the standards of Michelangelo’s later work, they are also the least successful parts of the ceiling. While the scenes contain many fine passages and single inventions, such as the man climbing the blasted tree in the Flood, these brilliant bits and pieces are often unhappily put together. This stems from Michelangelo’s lack of interest in another requirement stipulated by Alberti: the creation of a convincingly deep space in which to set figures. Recession is either blocked off, as it is by the building and altar in the Sacrifice, or flattened, as by the waters in the Flood. Landscape is reduced to formulaic elements. In four instances a frontal plane is represented by a featureless wedge at the lower left-hand corner. Within the compressed spaces of these earlier scenes, figures often seem bunched arbitrarily and the narrative unfocused. Only when Michelangelo began to enlarge his figures within the frame and reduce them in number did the narratives become more concentrated. Then conventional spatial indicators grew progressively more ambiguous, and gaps between figures took on a psychological charge, rather than signifying distance.

As Michelangelo’s interest in creating plausible settings diminished, his use of foreshortenings became more marked. The most daring examples are in the very last narrative scenes, which show God alone. This is best explained by contrasting them with the three preceding scenes in Eden, at the centre of the ceiling. Although these contain single figures in poses of great complexity, such as the Eve of the Temptation, the narratives are conceived as friezes running parallel to the fresco’s surface. The most magisterial of the scenes, the Creation of Adam, also has the simplest construction. The scene that follows marked an immediate break. In the Separation of the Waters from the Earth, a steeply foreshortened figure of God hovers above the waters. The palms of his hands, raised in benediction, appear to press against the surface of the picture. Here it is the figure alone that gives definition to the nebulous setting, a device accentuated in the two following works, the Creation of the Sun and Moon and the Division of Light from Darkness. It has been observed (Hirst, The Sistine Chapel, 1986) that the Division is the only image on the vault designed to be seen as if from below. It gives the effect of continuous revolving movement, as though the fabric of space itself is being unwound.

Michelangelo: Creation of Adam (1511–12), fresco, Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome; Photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY

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What caused the profound differences between the beginning and end of this famous set of paintings? It could be that Michelangelo simply matched style to subject. The biblical scenes were painted in reverse order of the sequence in which they are to be read. It is not difficult to see that some changes in form nicely fit the thematic material of the narratives from Genesis. The stories may have determined the variations in the number of figures depicted between the first and last of the scenes, although the use of simultaneous narrative in the frescoes of the Fall and the Creation of the Sun and Moon casts doubt on the validity of this argument. It is unlikely, however, that the change was due entirely to the hiatus of 1510.

According to one view, Michelangelo enlarged the size of his figures after the removal of the scaffolding in 1510 when he saw that the biblical scenes were not sufficiently legible from the floor of the chapel. Using the discontinuation of gilding as a guide, however, the first of the newer kind of narrative, the Fall and Expulsion, precedes the break between painting campaigns. Moreover, the convincing reconstruction of the scaffolding bridge Michelangelo devised for painting the vault (Mancinelli, 1986) has invalidated the idea that large parts of the fresco remained hidden for lengthy periods. Practical considerations may have played only a small part in these striking transformations.

Michelangelo: Fall and Expulsion, (1508–10), fresco, Rome, Sistine Chapel, Vatican; photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY

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No single explanation is sufficient. Accounts that stress decorum and legibility alone can apply only to the main series of narratives. As has already been noted, the figures of Prophets and Sibyls also reflect these changes (see fig.), and there is no logical explanation for this. The increasing grandeur of the section of the ceiling that was painted last demonstrates Michelangelo’s increasing confidence as a painter.

Michelangelo: Libyan Sibyl (1511–2), fresco, Sistine Chapel, Vatican, Rome; photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY

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The same development may be followed in the figures of the ignudi, placed above the thrones of the Prophets and Sibyls. These are among the most admired parts of the ceiling, and admiration has led writers to speculate about their symbolic meaning. It is unlikely that the ignudi are symbolic, however. Their function is to support the bronze medallions, and to bear oak leaves and acorns, the heraldic devices of the della Rovere, Julius II’s family. Their moods range from grave to playful, although the later ones, painted on a grander scale and more powerfully modelled, perhaps do suggest an emotional complexity that gives them greater significance than their ornamental role would seem to warrant.

A related point could be made about the considerable interpretative literature on the iconology of the Sistine Ceiling as a whole. The greatness of these frescoes and their importance for the subsequent history of the visual arts in Europe are almost inestimable. Their significance is not diminished by the observation that their meaning for the papal retinue was not especially esoteric. The stories at the centre of the ceiling represent the providential history of the world, from Creation through Original Sin to the First Covenant after the Flood. These scenes may be read as the antecedents to the establishment of the Law through Moses and the Redemption of humankind by Christ, depicted in the 15th-century frescoes on the walls beneath. The coming of Christ is celebrated by the Prophets, Sibyls and Ancestors and allegorically foreshadowed by the scenes of Israel’s salvation.

Michelangelo’s depiction of cosmic mysteries was sufficiently impressive to his contemporaries, but writers have continued to seek a hidden meaning in the work. There have been elaborate attempts to explain the imagery of the ceiling as a coded expression of Michelangelo’s adherence to Neo-Platonism (e.g. Hettner, 1879). It has been argued that the ceiling narratives illustrate successively higher states of consciousness, from the forgetfully sensual, signified by Noah’s drunkenness, to the direct revelation of divinity in the Separation of Light from Darkness (Tolnay). In most Neo-Platonic readings, it is assumed that Michelangelo had sole responsibility for controlling the programme and its subsequent interpretation. This is unlikely, considering his patron. As the ubiquitous della Rovere oak leaves and acorn remind the viewer, the ceiling is also a memorial to its author, not Michelangelo in this context, but Julius II, whose arms were originally placed below the figure of Jonah. Attempts to explain the imagery of the ceiling by reference to Julius or his advisers (Wind, 1944; Hartt, 1951; Sinding-Larsen; Dotson), although in theory more appropriate, have not proved conclusive. It is not implausible, for example, that reflections based on the theology of St Augustine’s City of God passed through the mind of a cultured 16th-century frequenter of the chapel (Dotson), but biblical exegesis in the early 16th century was so flexible, and allegorical interpretation so easy to manipulate, that writers attempting to identify a hidden key may be in danger of mistaking connotation for denotation.

In another approach, the paintings were analysed according to the principles of structuralist anthropology (Leach). It was suggested that the images reflected not the individual temperaments or beliefs of Michelangelo or Julius, but rather contemporary social structures of which its authors were at best semiconscious. These structures manifested themselves as a language of binary oppositions (sacred and secular, light and dark etc). Although this promised a fresh reading of the paintings, it relied almost exclusively on the earlier interpretations of Tolnay. This approach also implied that any reasonably complex 16th-century Roman artefact should yield similar results, and it is not therefore addressed to the peculiarities of the Sistine Ceiling. Although it has not proved persuasive, the article did at least focus attention on Michelangelo’s imagery as a form of language that derived its power by radical reformations and sometimes deformations of a contemporary visual grammar. The authority and force of the frescoes are irreducible to any verbal message.

(iii) Late work, 1534–50.

According to Lomazzo, the frescoes on the Sistine Ceiling were the summit of Michelangelo’s achievement as a painter, exemplifying the first and best of his three styles; the Last Judgement and the paintings for the Pauline Chapel represented successive stages of decline. While this view is not universally accepted, the preponderance of writing devoted to the ceiling paintings seems to reflect this bias. There are many possible reasons for this. The Last Judgement quickly acquired a bad reputation. The dialogues of Gilio da Fabriano contained the most detailed attack on the fresco, but many others found the nudity of the figures unseemly. Consequently parts of the fresco were destroyed and parts overpainted so that in appreciable detail it is not the fresco Michelangelo designed. In addition some plaster above the altar was damaged by the fittings for a canopy. Finally, the surface became coated with centuries of fatty candle smoke owing to Michelangelo’s decision to restructure the wall with an overhang to prevent dust settling on the fresco. Critical neglect of the Pauline Chapel frescoes, the Conversion of Saul and the Crucifixion of St Peter, could be due to their inaccessibility in the pope’s private chapel, although they too attracted Gilio’s censure for the licence Michelangelo took with holy stories. These complaints have attracted less attention, presumably because they were not linked to sexual scandal. It is, however, stylistic idiosyncrasies that have made both the Last Judgement and the Pauline frescoes difficult to understand.

(a) Last Judgement.

Michelangelo’s commission to decorate the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel dates from 1534, the final year of Clement VII’s pontificate (see fig.). According to Vasari, the project was taken over without alteration by his successor, the Farnese pope Paul III. On the basis of a contemporary letter stating that Michelangelo was preparing to paint a Resurrection in the chapel, it has been suggested that the original scheme was to show Christ rising from the tomb. This proposal would explain a group of drawings of this subject (e.g. London, BM) datable on stylistic grounds to the late 1520s or early 1530s. In other respects, however, the theory does not fit the known facts, and it is probable that the letter referred to a projected Resurrection of the Dead (i.e. a Last Judgement). This is not to imply that the genesis of the fresco was simple. Again, Michelangelo seems to have persuaded his patrons to enlarge the original brief, this time with strange consequences for the decoration of the Sistine Chapel as a whole.

Surviving drawings show that the painting was designed around the existing frescoed altarpiece, Perugino’s Assumption of the Virgin. The altarpiece frame would have served as a fictive ledge on which angels stood to throw down the damned. This plan was changed when it was decided to destroy the altarpiece and obliterate two lunettes frescoed earlier by Michelangelo. Two windows above the altar were bricked up, depriving the decorative cycles around the lateral walls of their apparent light source.

Damage to the existing decoration was not obviously compensated for by Michelangelo’s gigantic fresco, which shouldered its way among the more modest designs of the past. Lacking a framing device like that articulating the vault, the painting has seemed to some observers uncontained, shapeless. It has certainly attracted conflicting compositional analyses. The proposal that the architecture of the chapel determined the organization of the painting (Wilde, 1936) remains the most persuasive. According to this theory, the figure groups in the Last Judgement were banded in zones corresponding to the horizontal membering of the lateral walls and the illumination from the lost windows was symbolically replaced by the representation of Christ.

One factor that complicates attempts at compositional analysis is Michelangelo’s curious representation of space, which is more unorthodox in this fresco than in any portion of the ceiling. Condivi’s seemingly banal statement that ‘the whole is divided into sections, left and right, upper and lower, and central’ stresses the conventional symbolic orientation observed in most depictions of the Last Judgement; the damned fall on Christ’s left, the saved rise on his right; Heaven occupies the top and Hell the lower level of the field. Condivi’s words, however, also encourage a reading of the fresco as a two-dimensional surface, rather than a window-like projection. While this fits the subject of the Day of Judgement, when time and space will be abolished, it does not account for certain oddities. Each figure is vigorously modelled, and the painting abounds in the bravura demonstrations of foreshortening celebrated by 16th-century writers, yet the characters inhabit individual spaces that cannot be combined consistently. Spiritual importance, not spatial position, determines the size of the figures of Christ and many saints. Irregular fields mark out the lunettes, and another separates Christ and his mother within a yellow mandorla. This atomization of the pictorial plane makes it difficult to appreciate the overall cohesion to which Wilde drew attention. Vasari concentrated his praise on Michelangelo’s impressive representation of individual types and movements. Many 16th-century artists borrowed particular motifs, but only Pontormo appeared interested in its structural principles, and his paintings for the choir of S Lorenzo in Florence were disliked and eventually destroyed. In the best contemporary copy of Michelangelo’s fresco, by Marcello Venusti (Naples, Capodimonte), the jarring discrepancies of scale have been subtly toned down, and the intervals between figure groups adjusted to produce a more conventional account of space.

What was admired immediately in the Last Judgement was its colour, a feature to which both Vasari and Lomazzo drew attention. Colour in this sense is not the broad, broken brushwork of a Titian, but a high-keyed brilliance that was barely appreciable beneath the surface dirt before the work was cleaned in the late 20th century. Vasari noted a delicacy of effect that he likened to miniature painting. The most intense hue is provided by the azure ground. In some passages, such as those representing the hosts of the blessed in heaven, Michelangelo employed a fluent and allusive brushwork such as he had used two decades earlier for the Ancestors of Christ in the lunettes of the chapel.

Contemporaries also noted the continued vigour of Michelangelo’s powers of invention. Many details have become familiar through photographic reproduction, for example the damned man covering one eye with his hand, or the two blessed creatures soaring heavenward, wrapped in winding sheets, variations on one of the most moving drawings for the Resurrection of Christ (London, BM). For some viewers, however, the painting manifests an awkward development in Michelangelo’s representation of the human body. The increased girth of the figures lends weight to Dolce’s accusation that men and women, young and old, are hardly distinguishable from one another. The equation of bulk with power is most obvious in the figure of Christ. To take one detail, Michelangelo increased the size of the upper right arm far beyond the line he had traced through from his cartoon. The extravagant attitudes and gestures of many of the figures also caused complaint. The ungainly tumbling of the angels who display the instruments of Christ’s Passion seems particularly unwarranted, but it may be a pictorial metaphor for the heaviness of Christ’s suffering.

Because of these marked stylistic peculiarities, it is hardly surprising that the painting is sometimes taken as a statement of personal belief. Dolce, writing in the 16th century, seemed to provide evidence for this view when he alleged that Michelangelo had a hidden, although unspecified, allegorical purpose. This was merely a rhetorical ploy, however, to draw attention to the indecency of representing so many nudes in a sacred place. It has been suggested that the painting encodes Michelangelo’s secret adherence to Valdesian beliefs, in which the saved are justified by faith alone. Whatever the artist’s own views, abstruse points of doctrine would have been difficult to represent in pictorial form. The important question here, as with the ceiling frescoes, is to determine how Michelangelo’s patrons would have understood the image within the context of the chapel itself.

For a papal establishment already chastened by the Sack of Rome, it seems likely that the fresco was intended as a powerful reminder of the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. Two factors contributed to the impact of this message: the fresco’s unusual position on the altar wall (representations of the Last Judgement were normally placed on the entrance wall of ecclesiastical buildings) and the removal of Perugino’s altarpiece, with its comforting image of the Virgin, as the focal point of the chapel. The painter alone would not have had the power to decide either of these matters, and it is more likely that the attacks on the painting reflected a dramatic swing towards the narrow defence of orthodoxy within the Church. Features acceptable in a devotional image during the 1530s came under more intensive scrutiny during the following two decades, and Michelangelo’s art fell victim to the trend.

(b) Pauline Chapel.

By contrast to the oppressive appearance of the Last Judgement, the Pauline Chapel frescoes (1542–50) seem restrained. They have a lighter tonality and less striking contrasts of colour: violets, greens and blues predominate. Despite this colouristic mildness—which differs from most of Michelangelo’s earlier work—these frescoes could not be called serene or lyrical. As scenes of conversion and martyrdom they seem unconventional, for reasons it is difficult to specify.

Gilio noted uncanonical illogicalities: Saul is bearded and already aged (which has led to the suggestion that it is an idealized portrait of its commissioner, Pope Paul III); Saul’s rearing horse has no bit; Peter is unaffected by the pains of martyrdom, and so on. These characteristics typify much of Michelangelo’s art, however. Paucity of circumstantial detail and discrepancy between action and facial expression also occur in his earlier painting and sculpture. These traits are merely intensified in the late work. This is also true of his treatment of space. As in the Last Judgement, some groups are isolated within map-like patches of ground. Symbolic relation between figure size and narrative importance is also apparent in the Crucifixion of St Peter, in which in addition distance is telescoped disconcertingly by the angle of the foreground rock.

Michelangelo’s conception of human figures also became more bizarre in these late works, although there was no abrupt departure from the types to be found on the Sistine altar wall. Limb and torso are as gross as before; figures are still conceived in the round; their poses in outline retain all the twisting complexity associated with the earlier painting, but the general effect is insubstantial. Interest has shifted from detailed notation of internal modelling towards forms more generally realized. Bodies have rubbery, tube-like members; enormous eyes stare from broad, flat faces. In late drawings the heavy corporeality of similar figures is disguised by repeated passes of chalk. In the stark clarity demanded by fresco, such shimmering, ambiguous forms are not possible.

Formal asperity is manifested everywhere in these pictures. More than any others in Michelangelo’s oeuvre, they upset conventional order. Examples of unorthodox procedure include the many odd repetitions of motif. At the extreme right corner of the Saul, a naked angel gestures towards the events beneath. He has a twin in the spectator to the right of the Crucifixion scene. With slight variations, his form is mirrored in turn by a man in a green tunic behind the cross at the upper centre of the Crucifixion. By using such repetitions Michelangelo flouted Alberti’s requirement of variety in history painting. It is tempting, therefore, to endorse Lomazzo’s low opinion and, like him, to see the Pauline frescoes as products of failing powers of invention. This is, however, an unlikely interpretation of their peculiarities, for it was in a letter of 1542, while executing these frescoes, that Michelangelo most forcefully asserted painting to be intellectual rather than manual labour (‘you paint by brain, not with your hands’). Besides, during the following decade, he continued to produce powerful drawings. The works’ barbarities—if they are that—seem studied. Although 16th-century texts were brief or hostile, visual evidence of borrowing and adaptation shows that the aging Michelangelo’s power to impress his artist contemporaries was undiminished. Many 20th-century writers consider the contraventions of rule found in the Pauline Chapel frescoes to be the expressions of a late period of spiritual and formal research. Certainly these last frescoes present the peculiarly modern appearance of powerful, uningratiating works, designed to resist explanation in terms of conventional critical categories.


  • F. Hartt: The Paintings of Michelangelo (London, 1968)
  • P. De Vecchi: Michelangelo pittore (Milan, 1984)
  • C. Acidini Luchinat : Michelangelo pittore (Florence, 2008)
Early work
  • W. Köhler: ‘Michelangelos Schlachtkarton’, Kunstgeschichtliches Jahrbuch der K.-K. [Kaiserlich-Königlichen] Zentral-Kommission für Erforschung und Erhaltung der Kunst- und historischen Denkmale [cont. as Jb. Ksthist. Inst.; Jb. Kstgesch.; Wien. Jb. Kstgesch.], 1 (1907), pp. 115–72
  • F. Baumgart: ‘Contributi a Michelangelo, II: La Madonna Doni’, Bollettino d’arte [cont. as Arti: Rass. Bimest. A. Ant. & Mod.; Boll. A.], 3rd ser., 28 (1935), pp. 350–53
  • J. Wilde: ‘The Hall of the Great Council in Florence’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes [prev. pubd as J. Warb. Inst.], 7 (1944), pp. 65–81; repr. in Renaissance Art (New York, 1944), pp. 92–132
  • J. Wilde: ‘Notes on the Genesis of Michelangelo’s Leda’, Fritz Saxl, 1890–1948, ed. D. J. Gordon (London, 1957), pp. 270–80
  • C. Eisler: ‘The Athlete of Virtue: The Iconography of Asceticism’, De Artibus Opuscula XL: Essays in Honour of Erwin Panofsky, ed. M. Meiss (New York, 1961), pp. 82–99
  • C. Gould: Michelangelo: ‘Battle of Cascina’, Charlton Lectures on Art (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1966)
  • A. Smart: ‘Michelangelo, the Taddei Madonna and the National Gallery Entombment’, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, 115 (1967), pp. 835–62
  • M. Levi d’Ancona: ‘The Doni Madonna by Michelangelo: An Iconographic Study’, Art Bulletin, 50 (1968), pp. 43–50
  • W. Grohn: ‘Michelangelos Darstellung der Schlacht von Cascina’, Jahrbuch der Hamburger Kunstsammlungen [cont. as Idea: Jb. Hamburg. Ksthalle], 17 (1972), pp. 23–42
  • C. Gould: ‘Michelangelo’s Entombment: A Further Addendum’, Burlington Magazine, 106 (1974), pp. 31–2
  • G. Smith: ‘A Medici Source for Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo’, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte [merger of Z. Bild. Kst with Repert. Kstwiss. & with Jb. Kstwiss.], 38/1 (1975), pp. 84–5
  • M. Hirst: ‘Michelangelo in Rome: An Altarpiece and the Bacchus’, Burlington Magazine, 123 (1981), pp. 581–93
  • Il Tondo Doni di Michelangelo e il suo restauro (Florence, 1985)
  • M. Hirst: ‘I disegni di Michelangelo per la Battaglia di Cascina’, Tecnica e stile, 1 (Milan, 1986), pp. 43–58
  • L. Morozzi: ‘La Battaglia di Cascina: Nuova ipotesi sulla data di commissione’, Prospettiva, 53 (1988–9), pp. 320–24
  • A. Butterfield: ‘A Source for Michelangelo’s National Gallery Entombment’, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Instituts in Florenz, 33 (1989), pp. 390–93
  • M. Bailey: ‘The Rediscovery of Michelangelo’s Entombment: The Rescuing of a Masterpiece’, Apollo, 140/392 (Oct 1994), pp. 30–33
  • M. Hirst and J. Dunkerton: The Young Michelangelo (London, 1994)
  • J. Manca: ‘Michelangelo as Painter: A Historiographic Perspective’, Artibus et historiae, 16/31 (1995), pp. 111–23
  • D. Summers : ‘Michelangelo’s “Battle of Cascina”, Pomponious Gauricus, and the Invention of a Gran Maniera in Italian Painting’, Artibus et historiae, 28/56 (2007), pp. 165–76
  • R. Stefaniak : Mysterium Magnum: Michelangelo’s ‘Doni Tondo’ (Leyden, 2008)
Sistine ceiling
  • H. Hettner: ‘Michelangelo und die Sixtinische Kapelle’, Italienische Studien zur Geschichte der Renaissance (Brunswick, 1879), pp. 247–72
  • E. Steinmann: Die Sixtinische Kapelle, 2 vols (Munich, 1905)
  • E. Wind: ‘The Crucifixion of Haman’, Journal of the Warburg Institute [cont. as J. Warb. & Court. Inst.], 1 (1937–8), pp. 245–8
  • E. Wind: ‘Sante Pagnini and Michelangelo: A Study of the Succession of Savonarola’, Gazette des beaux-arts [suppl. is Chron. A.], 26 (1944), pp. 211–46
  • F. Hartt: ‘Lignum Vitae in Medio Paradisi: The Stanza d’Eliodoro and the Sistine Ceiling’, Art Bulletin, 32 (1951), pp. 15–145, 181–218
  • F. Hartt: ‘Pagnini, Vigerio and the Sistine Ceiling: A Reply’, Art Bulletin, 33 (1951), pp. 262–73
  • J. Wilde: ‘The Decoration of the Sistine Chapel’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 44 (1958), pp. 61–82
  • E. Wind: ‘Maccabean Histories in the Sistine Ceiling’, Italian Renaissance Studies (London, 1960), pp. 312–27
  • S. Sandström: Levels of Unreality: Studies in Structure and Construction in Italian Mural Painting during the Renaissance (Stockholm, 1963)
  • S. Sinding-Larsen: ‘A Re-reading of the Sistine Ceiling’, Acta Archaeol. & A. Historiam Pertinentia (Institutum Romanum Norvegiae), 4 (1969)
  • C. J. Seymour: Michelangelo: The Sistine Chapel, Critical Studies in Art History (London, 1972), pp. 143–58
  • R. Kuhn: Michelangelo: Die Sixtinische Decke: Beiträge über ihre Quellen und ihre Auslegung (Berlin, 1975)
  • D. Freedberg and C. Hope: ‘Structuralism and Michelangelo’, The Times Literary Supplement (22 April 1977), pp. 489–90
  • E. R. Leach: ‘Michelangelo’s Genesis: Structuralist Comments on the Paintings on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling’, The Times Literary Supplement (18 March 1977), pp. 311–13
  • E. G. Dotson: ‘An Augustinian Interpretation of Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling’, Art Bulletin, 61 (1979), pp. 223–56, 405–29
  • M. Hirst: ‘Il modo delle attitudini: Michelangelo’s Oxford Sketchbook for the Ceiling’, The Sistine Chapel: Michelangelo Rediscovered, ed. A. Chastel (London, 1986), pp. 208–17
  • F. Mancinelli: ‘Michelangelo at Work’, The Sistine Chapel: Michelangelo Rediscovered, ed. A. Chastel (London, 1986), pp. 218–59
  • W. E. Wallace: ‘Michelangelo’s Assistants in the Sistine Chapel’, Gazette des beaux-arts [suppl. is Chron. A.], 110 (May–June 1987), pp. 203–16
  • M. Bull: ‘The Iconography of the Sistine Chapel’, Burlington Magazine, 130 (1988), pp. 597–605
  • K. Weil-Garris Brandt: ‘The Early Projects for Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling: Their Practical and Artistic Consequences’, Michelangelo Drawings (Washington, 1992), pp. 57–87
  • The Sistine Chapel: A Glorious Restoration (London, 1993)
  • P. De Vecchi: The Sistine Chapel: A Glorious Restoration (New York, 1994)
  • B. Wisch : ‘Vested Interest: Redressing the Jews on Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling’, Artibus et historiae, 24/48 (2003), pp. 143–72
  • G. Careri : ‘Time of History and Time out of History: The Sistine Chapel as “Theoretical Object”’, About Mieke Bal, ed. D. Cherry (Oxford, 2007), pp. 326–48
  • H. Pfeiffer : Die Sixtinische Kapelle neu entdeckt (Stuttgart, 2007)
Last Judgement
  • L. Dolce: Dialogo della pittura intitolato l’Aretino (Venice, 1557); repr. in P. Barocchi, ed.: Trattati d’arte del cinquecento, i (Bari, 1960); Eng. trans. by M. W. Roskill in Dolce’s ‘Aretino’ and Venetian Art Theory of the Cinquecento (New York, 1968)
  • G. A. Gilio da Fabriano: Due dialoghi di M. Andrea Gilio da Fabriano (Camerino, 1564); repr. in P. Barocchi, ed.: Trattati d’arte del cinquecento, ii (Bari, 1961)
  • G. P. Lomazzo: Idea del tempio della pittura (Milan, 1590)
  • F. La Cava: Il volto di Michelangelo scoperto in ‘Giudizio finale’: Un dramma psicologico in un ritratto simbolico (Bologna, 1925)
  • J. Wilde: ‘Der ursprüngliche Plan Michelangelos zum Jüngsten Gericht’, Graphische Künste, n. s. 1, 1 (1936), pp. 7–20
  • D. Redig de Campos and B. Biagetti: Il ‘Giudizio universale’ di Michelangelo, 2 vols (1943), vii of Monumenti vaticani di archeologia e d’arte (Rome)
  • D. Redig de Campos: Il ‘Giudizio universale’ di Michelangelo (Milan, 1975)
  • L. Steinberg: ‘Michelangelo’s Last Judgement as Merciful Heresy’, Art in America [cont. as A. America & Elsewhere; A. America], 63 (1975), pp. 48–63
  • M. Hall: ‘Michelangelo’s Last Judgment: Resurrection of the Body and Predestination’, Art Bulletin, 58 (1976), pp. 85–92
  • E. Talamo: ‘La controriforma interpreta la Sistina di Michelangelo’, Storia dell’arte, 50 (1984), pp. 7–26
  • B. Barnes: ‘A Lost Modello for Michelangelo’s Last Judgement’, Master Drawings, 25 (1988), pp. 239–48
  • J. Greenstein: ‘“How Glorious the Second Coming of Christ”: Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and the Transfiguration’, Artibus et historiae, 10/19 (1989), pp. 33–57
  • B. Wyss: ‘The Last Judgment as Artistic Process: The Flaying of Marsyas in the Sistine Chapel’, Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics, 28 (1995), pp. 62–77
  • M. B. Hall : Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgement’ (Cambridge, 2005)
  • A. Leader : ‘Michelangelo’s Last Judgment: The Culmination of Papal Propaganda in the Sistine Chapel’, Studies in Iconography, 27 (2006), pp. 103–56
Pauline Chapel
  • D. Redig de Campos: ‘La “terza maniera” di Michelangelo nella Cappella Paolina’, Illustrazione vaticana, 7 (1936), pp. 212–16
  • H. van Dam van Isselt: ‘Sulla iconografia della Conversione di Saulo di Michelangelo’, Bollettino d’arte [cont. as Arti: Rass. Bimest. A. Ant. & Mod.; Boll. A.], 37 (1952), pp. 315–19
  • L. Steinberg: Michelangelo’s Last Paintings (Oxford, 1975)
  • W. E. Wallace: ‘Narrative and Religious Expression in Michelangelo’s Pauline Chapel’, Artibus et historiae, 10/19 (1989), pp. 107–12

3. Drawing.

On a sheet of studies containing sketches by his assistant Antonio Mini (d 1533), datable to c. 1524 (London, BM), Michelangelo wrote, ‘Draw Antonio, draw and do not waste time’. This was more than conventional workshop wisdom. Michelangelo himself drew tirelessly, and his draughtsmanship acquired exemplary status for his contemporaries, especially for those who held disegno to be the foundational principle of all art. The drawings have become equally important to subsequent critical and historical assessment of the artist because, unlike work in other media, which was often interrupted or left incomplete, they provide a nearly continuous record of Michelangelo’s activity.

Initially, as for other artists, drawing was a means of education. In the Ghirlandaio workshop Michelangelo learnt the language of Florentine draughtsmanship. Little survives from the earliest stage of his activity, although two pen drawings after frescoes in Santa Croce, Florence, by Giotto (Paris, Louvre) and in S Maria del Carmine, Florence, by Masaccio (Munich, Staatl. Graph. Samml.) seem to date from the artist’s adolescence and demonstrate both how firmly rooted in the Tuscan past Michelangelo’s practice was and how quickly he developed an incisive analytical critique of his native tradition.

That process presumably continued well beyond adolescence. Judging by the wealth of adaptation and reference in the artist’s mature work, it must have involved drawing from the Antique, although direct trace of this is relatively rare in the surviving record. Vasari testified that Michelangelo burnt a great number of sheets towards the end of his life, because he did not want anyone to know what pains he had taken. Evidence of self-education may have been among these losses. Interesting survivals are various leaves (Florence, Uffizi; London, BM) that show the novice architect copying details of ancient buildings from drawings included in the Codex Coner (London, Soane Mus.). From surviving examples it seems that Michelangelo used drawing almost exclusively in connection with professional needs. Nothing in his output resembles Leonardo’s encyclopedic researches. Although, according to Condivi, he planned to illustrate a textbook of anatomy by Realdo Colombo (c. 1510–59), the project never materialized, and there is no reason to suppose that Michelangelo’s own anatomical dissections concerned anything more than musculature and the articulation of the skeleton. Even by conventional standards his interests as a draughtsman were narrow. He remained incurious about landscape, and only two portraits are recorded, of which perhaps one survives of Andrea Quaratesi (London, BM). The total effect of his drawn work is one of strict dedication.

Michelangelo: Andrea Quaratesi, black chalk, 410×290 mm, c.1532 (London, British Museum); photo © The British Museum For more information:

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Michelangelo: Studies for the Libyan Sibyl, red chalk, 11-3/8 x 8-7/16 in. (28.9 x 21.4 cm), 1508-12 (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1924, Accession ID:24.197.2); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Strictness does not imply monotony. Within his chosen area, approaches were richly varied. Drawings from almost every stage of the compositional process survive, from slight sketches to cartoons (London, BM; Naples, Capodimonte). Most of them are working sheets; on many he appears to have experimented with ideas for several projects almost simultaneously (e.g. Oxford, Ashmolean). Words and images are juxtaposed on some sheets, and some have an almost palimpsest-like character inviting, and rewarding, the most painstaking detective work. There is a tendency to exaggerate the degree to which stylistically they are the product of a sculptor’s conception of form. Certainly some are textured with vigorous cross-hatchings, resembling marks left by claw chisels on stone (e.g. Berenson, fig.). A dramatic example is the powerful study for the Risen Christ (c. 1514; London, Brinsley Ford priv. col.; see Hirst, 1988, pl. 131). However if this articulation of the figure derived from a carver’s need to map each plane and hollow as bone and muscle play beneath skin, the same impulse had surprising consequences elsewhere. The red chalk study of the Libyan Sibyl for the Sistine Chapel Ceiling (New York, Met.) impresses as much by its luminosity as by its formidable analysis of structure. Part of the effect is due to the relief-like conception of the back, shallowly raked with light. It was achieved, however, by small variations of pressure, clotting or dispersing the red chalk. Saturated colour plays against barely marked areas of paper. Descriptions indicate that the cartoon for the Battle of Cascina (destr.) was rich in comparable subtleties of handling observable in some of the surviving preliminary studies for it (London, BM; Oxford, Ashmolean). Such painterly use of chalk may have been stimulated by Leonardo’s example. Michelangelo’s wash drawings, however, developed from a workshop training shared by Florentine contemporaries. Most of the surviving examples are for architectural projects, but a delicate drapery study for the Erythrean Sibyl (London, BM) from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel may represent a number of lost figurative works. In general, Michelangelo’s later drawings are more densely atmospheric. Rubbed black chalk, grey wash and white heightening were often superimposed to blur the sharpness of even measured architectural designs. Function seems to have been forgotten in the drive to make self-sufficient artefacts.

Already during his lifetime Michelangelo’s reputation was so great that his slightest sketches became collectors’ items. The artist himself often used drawings as a form of diplomatic gift, to seal friendships or to show devotion to social superiors. Discarded preliminary studies or new compositional designs were given to Sebastiano del Piombo, Pontormo, Daniele da Volterra and others to realize as paintings. A design for a salt-cellar (1537; London, BM) was prepared for Francesco Maria I, Duke of Urbino (see Rovere, della family, §3), heir of Julius II, a gift designed to signal Michelangelo’s intention to finish the tomb of his relative. More characteristic were the ‘presentation drawings’ made for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri and Colonna, Vittoria, Marchesa di Pescara (e.g. London, BM, see fig.; Boston, MA, Isabella Stewart-Gardner Mus.). These highly worked sheets were offered, with letters and poems, as tokens of courtly love. Although those addressed to Cavalieri seem today among the most enigmatic examples of Michelangelo’s art, they were not essentially private documents and quickly became well known through copies, engravings and gem-carvings.

During the 20th century acceptance or rejection of these presentation drawings as the work of Michelangelo became an indicator of shifting views on his artistic personality. For writers in the early part of the century, who believed such daintiness uncharacteristic of Michelangelo, they were regarded as copies of lost originals. Berenson even removed from the oeuvre preliminary studies that bore formal resemblances to the Cavalieri drawings. Following Wilde, most modern connoisseurs have accepted the status of these sheets, emphasizing the variety and richness of Michelangelo’s achievement; only Perrig retains an exceptionally sceptical position.


  • B. Berenson: The Drawings of the Florentine Painters, 3 vols (London, 1903, Chicago and London, 2/1938)
  • K. Frey: Die Handzeichnungen Michelagniolos Buonarroti, 3 vols (Berlin, 1909–11)
  • H. Thode: Michelangelo: Kritische Untersuchungen über seine Werke: Verzeichnis der Zeichnungen, Kartons und Modelle, 3 vols (Berlin, 1913)
  • A. E. Popham and J. Wilde: The Italian Drawings of the XV and XVI Centuries … at Windsor Castle (London, 1949)
  • J. Wilde: Italian Drawings in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum: Michelangelo and his School (London, 1953)
  • P. Barocchi: Michelangelo e la sua scuola: I disegni di Casa Buonarroti e degli Uffizi, Accademia Toscana di Scienza e Lettere, ‘La Columbaria’, Studi, 8, 2 vols (Florence, 1962)
  • P. Barocchi: Michelangelo e la sua scuola: I disegni del Archivio Buonarroti, Accademia Toscana di Scienza e Lettere, ‘La Columbaria’, Studi, 8 (Florence, 1964)
  • F. Hartt: The Drawings of Michelangelo (London, 1971)
  • Drawings by Michelangelo from English Collections (exh. cat. by J. A. Gere and N. Turner, London, BM, 1975)
  • C. de Tolnay: Corpus dei disegni di Michelangelo, 4 vols (Novara, 1975–80)
  • A. Perrig: Michelangelo-Studien (Frankfurt am Main, 1976–7); Eng. trans. by M. Joyce as Michelangelo’s Drawings: The Science of Attribution (New Haven, [1991])
  • P. d. Poggetto: I disegni murali di Michelangiolo e della sua scuola nella Sagrestia Nuova di San Lorenzo (Florence, 1978)
  • C. Elam: ‘The Mural Drawings in Michelangelo’s New Sacristy’, Burlington Magazine, 123 (1981), pp. 593–602
  • M. Hirst: Michelangelo and his Drawings (New Haven and London, 1988)
  • J. Roberts: A Dictionary of Michelangelo’s Watermarks (Milan, 1988)
  • C. Fischer: ‘Ghirlandaio and the Origins of Cross-hatching’, Florentine Drawing at the time of Lorenzo the Magnificent: Papers from a Colloquium held at the Villa Spelman: Florence, 1992, pp. 245–53
  • C. H. Smyth, ed.: Michelangelo Drawings, Stud. Hist. A., 33, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, Symposium Papers, 17 (Washington, DC, 1992)
  • L. Bardeschi Ciulich: ‘I marmi di Michelangelo’, La difficile eredità: Architettura a Firenze dalla Repubblica all’assedio, ed. M. Dezzi Bardeschi (Florence, 1994), pp. 100–105
  • P. Joannides: ‘Bodies in the Trees: A Mass Martyrdom by Michelangelo’, Apollo, 140/393 (Nov 1994), pp. 3–14
  • P. Joannides: ‘A Drawing by Michelangelo for the Lantern of St Peter’s’, Apollo, 142/405 (1995), pp. 3–6
  • W. E. Wallace: ‘Instruction and Originality in Michelangelo’s Drawings’, Craft of Art: Originality and Industry in the Italian Renaissance and Baroque Workshop, ed. A. Ladis, C. Wood and W. U. Eiland (Athens, GA, and London, 1995), pp. 113–33
  • Michelangelo and his Influence: Drawings from Windsor Castle (exh. cat. by P. Joannides, Washington, N.G.A., and elsewhere, 1996–8)
  • D. Rosand : Drawing Acts: Studies in Graphic Expression and Representation (Cambridge and New York, 2002)
  • P. Joannides : Michel-Ange, élèves et copistes, Musée du Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, Département des Arts Graphiques: Inventaire général des dessina italiens, ed. R. Bacou, vi (Paris, 2003)
  • Michelangelo und seine Zeit/L’età di Michelangelo (exh. cat., ed. A. Gnann; Vienna, Albertina, Venice, Fondazione Peggy Guggenheim, and Bilbao, Museo Guggenheim, 2004–5) [exhibition of drawings from the Albertina]
  • Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master (exh. cat., ed. H. Chapman; Haarlem, Tyler Museum, and London, Brit. Mus., 2005–6)
  • M. J. Amy : ‘Michelangelo’s Drawings for Apostle Statues for the Cathedral of Florence’, Viator, 37 (2006), pp. 479–517
  • C. Elam, ed.: Michelangelo e il disegno di architettura (Venice, 2006)
  • U. Roman D’Elia : ‘Drawing Christ’s Blood: Michelangelo, Vittoria Colonna, and the Aesthetics of Reform’, Renaissance Quarterly [prev. pubd as Ren. News; later incorp. into Stud. Ren.], 59 (2006), pp. 90–129
  • P. Joannides : The Drawings of Michelangelo and his Followers in the Ashmolean Museum (Cambridge, 2007)
  • C. Brothers : Michelangelo, Drawing and the Invention of Architecture (New Haven, 2008)
  • J. G. Cooper : ‘Two Drawings by Michelangelo of an Early Design for the Palazzo dei Conservatori’, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians [prev. pubd as J. Amer. Soc. Archit. Hist.], 67 (2008), pp. 178–203

4. Architecture.

The myth of Michelangelo’s reluctance to take on architectural commissions was coloured by his retrospective shame at the ‘tragedy of the tomb’ of Julius II (see §1(ii) above). In fact, Michelangelo actively manoeuvred to obtain his first major architectural project—the façade of S Lorenzo, Florence—and from then on the design of buildings played an increasingly dominant role in his career. The originality of his architectural language, at a period when Vitruvianism was hardening into dogma, meant that, while his influence on subsequent architecture was profound, he was also blamed for fostering rule-breaking and licence.

(i) Projects in Rome and Florence for the Medici family, 1516–33.

Michelangelo’s interest in architecture developed from designing complex monumental sculptural ensembles within a coherent architectonic framework. Indeed, the concept of architecture as a grid intended to set off sculpture, as in the Julius tomb, links all his early architectural designs. His first building, the marble façade (c. 1515–16) of Leo X’s chapel at Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome, is like a pedimented wall tomb without sculpture, and it incorporates the niches, lions’ heads and Medici devices found in other Leonine buildings. Leo’s triumphal entry into Florence in November 1515 sparked off many architectural projects there, including the insertion (c. 1516) of pedimented windows designed by Michelangelo into the corner bays of the Palazzo Medici. Their elongated volute brackets supporting both lintel and sill introduced the fashion for ‘kneeling windows’ in 16th-century Florence.

(a) S Lorenzo façade.

Leo’s entry prompted thoughts of completing the Medici church of S Lorenzo (started 1418) with a marble façade decked in sculpture (see Florence, §IV, 5). Many artists hoped for this commission, which in the winter of 1516 was awarded to Michelangelo in collaboration with Baccio d’Agnolo. It was initially intended that the lesser sculpture should be contracted out to others, but as Michelangelo gradually shed his collaborators, his ideas for the façade—envisaged as a ‘mirror of all Italy for sculpture and architecture’—grew to unworkable proportions, and, although an agreement with Leo was signed (Jan 1518) and marble quarried (1517–20), the project was shelved by March 1520.

Elevation drawings and some plans survive (Corpus, 496–510) as evidence of Michelangelo’s successive ideas for the façade. An early idea (Florence, Casa Buonarroti, 45A; Corpus, 497r) envisaged a two-storey central section with recessed bays for the side doors and high tabernacles over the side chapels. A modified version of this modello, known from copies, probably formed the basis for an initial agreement with the Pope in Rome in December 1516, and for a wooden model (destr.) by Baccio d’Agnolo. By mid-January Michelangelo’s second thoughts (Corpus, 498r) led him towards a more regular rhythm; in March he sacked Baccio and started again from scratch, making a terracotta sketch model of a more ambitious design, embodied in the wooden model (Florence, Casa Buonarroti) presented to the Pope in December. The façade had now become an immense two-storey screen with single-bay projections at the sides. Vastly more expensive, it involved over 40 pieces of sculpture. It was not built, however, because the structural problems would have been considerable. The detailed vocabulary of the wooden model (see Architectural model) is relatively conventional, but embodies qualities that were to endure in Michelangelo’s architecture—respect for vertical and horizontal continuity and the use of overlapping elements and receding planes, producing a complex and enriched silhouette. The orders are laid against plain pilaster strips, at one remove from the wall, an effect that was fundamental to Michelangelo’s architectural thinking.

(b) New Sacristy.

The New Sacristy (1519–33) of S Lorenzo, Florence, and the Biblioteca Laurenziana (begun c. 1524) were singled out by Vasari as marking a conscious break with ancient and modern tradition in their use of licentious non-Vitruvian detail. Both projects were conceived by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (later Pope Clement VII) in summer 1519, although the designs for the library were not produced for another five years (see Medici, de’ family, §9). The New Sacristy was to house the tombs of the recently deceased Medici dukes Lorenzo of Urbino (d 1516; see fig.) and Giuliano of Nemours (d 1519)—the Capitani—and their 15th-century forebears Giuliano (d 1478) and Lorenzo (d 1492) de’ Medici—the Magnifici. Intermittent plans to introduce additional tombs for the Medici popes were not realized. Again, a large sculptural component was involved. The new chapel was to balance Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy (1421–8; see fig.) opposite, and its exterior treatment matches the levels and detailing of the 15th-century transept. For the plan and interior elevation, Michelangelo’s starting-point was also the Old Sacristy, but he introduced an intermediate level with tabernacle windows, arches and pilasters between the main order and the pendentive zone.

Work began in autumn 1519, and by April 1521 the first interior order was largely in place. The pace of construction slackened after Leo’s death that year, but picked up after Clement’s election in 1523. In 1525 the exterior was crowned by the innovative marble lantern with its lively broken silhouette and faceted bronze ball, deliberately varied by Michelangelo from the 15th-century example on Florence Cathedral. The marble ornament of the interior was begun in 1524, with the construction of the tombs of the Capitani and the doors and tabernacles in the corners. The Magnifici tomb opposite the altar was never finished, nor was the sculptural programme, which remained incomplete when Michelangelo moved definitively to Rome in 1534 (see §1(iii) above).

The rapid development of Michelangelo’s architectural language in these years can be traced in the successive elements of the interior architecture. The pietra serena articulation of the first two levels draws on Florentine tradition, but with the layering effect first used on the S Lorenzo façade model. Above the second cornice the more adventurous tabernacle windows with their upwardly converging frames show Michelangelo improvising from an antique motif: the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli (2nd century bc; see Tivoli, §1). The wholly unorthodox marble architecture of the tombs and doors seems deliberately contrasted with the sober grey stone pilasters between which it is squeezed. In extending the sacristy upwards to bring in more light (see Elam, 1979) Michelangelo did not entirely succeed in unifying the interior space, which remains rather box-like and planar, but its wealth of invention in detail makes it a pioneering if awkward building (see also Mannerism, §3, (iii)).

(c) Biblioteca Laurenziana.

When Cardinal Giulio was elected to the papacy in November 1523, he commissioned Michelangelo to design at S Lorenzo a public library, the Biblioteca Laurenziana, to house the library of his uncle Lorenzo the Magnificent (see also Library, §II, 1). The result was one of the most beautiful and coherent interior spaces in Western architecture (the reading room) and a vestibule (ricetto; see fig.) that continues to inspire both controversy and artistic emulation.

After various sites had been considered, it was decided to build the library above the west range of the canons’ cloister, with an entrance on the upper level. A system of arches supported by stone piers built up from ground level was inserted to support the new structure; the blind arcading (visible at the rear) does not (pace Ackerman) determine the rhythm of the window bays. The reading room, complete with its stone membering, was built in 1525, followed by the lower levels of the entrance vestibule. As at the New Sacristy, building was interrupted by the Medici expulsion from Florence in 1527 and the siege of 1529–30. After a flurry of activity in 1533, Michelangelo departed for Rome, again leaving the work unfinished. Under Grand Duke Cosimo I (see Medici, de’ family, §14), most of the missing pieces were filled in, Niccolò Tribolo and Santi Buglioni (see Buglioni family, §2) making the floor of the reading room (1549–53), Bartolomeo Ammanati building the staircase (1559–62) in consultation with Michelangelo and Vasari supervising the completion of the desks and ceiling. The exterior windows of the vestibule are an early 20th-century pastiche.

The patron was discriminating, demanding and absent; thus we can follow the library’s design through letters and drawings (Corpus, 523–62), and see how Clement spurred Michelangelo on to unusually inventive solutions. For the reading room ceiling, Clement wanted ‘some new idea’, asking Michelangelo to avoid the standard deep coffering found in contemporary Roman interiors. Clement said of Michelangelo’s design for the library entrance door that ‘he had never seen one more beautiful, neither antique nor modern’. He rejected, however, Michelangelo’s suggestion of lighting the vestibule with round skylights, which, although ‘beautiful and novel’, would have required incessant cleaning.

The reading room interior is one of Michelangelo’s most lucid and rigorous designs. The pilaster articulation of the walls begins just above the level of the desks, which thereby provide visual ‘support’ for the order. The wide central and narrow outer bays of the short walls are reflected in the tripartite divisions of the ceiling, in turn echoed in Tribolo’s pavement. The layering of the walls, whereby the windows and blind tabernacles are set into recessed panels, is matched by the subtle recessions of the ceiling. The detailing is outstandingly crisp and lively.

The Pope’s unwillingness to entertain the idea of skylights in the vestibule did not entail a change in the proportions and detail of the main order—for the stone membering was already arriving by that date—but it did mean that an upper order to accommodate windows had to be inserted (begun 1533/4). A series of drawings shows Michelangelo working towards the bizarre articulation, with its embedded columns flanking sections of wall that break forward into the room, themselves hollowed out by empty tabernacles. Giant ornamental volutes hang ‘like dewdrops’ (Wittkower) below the columns. The tabernacle surrounds take the abstract licence of the New Sacristy door bays one stage further, while the capitals of the recessed columns were described in Michelangelo’s lifetime as a composite Doric (see §IV, 2 below)—a reading supported by isolated elements of the Doric order, triglyphs and guttae, which punctuate the herm-like frames. The vestibule’s function was to house the stairs bridging the level between the upper cloister and the reading room (see fig.). After experimenting with double-ramp stairs like those of the Villa Medici at Poggio a Caiano, and with combinations of convex and concave as at the Vatican Belvedere, Michelangelo hit on the notion of three flights meeting and fusing into one at a central landing. The central flight is a series of ‘overlapping oval boxes’ as Michelangelo himself wrote of it, flanked by side ‘wings’ (for servants when the central flight was being ceremonially used). As built by Ammanati, the stairs diverge slightly from Michelangelo’s intentions, but retain the flowing, dream-like invention evident in his description. The vestibule has been seen as the epitome of Michelangelo’s Mannerist architectural style. Although Vasari spoke of its ‘resolved grace’ in the whole and the parts, subsequent commentators have been disturbed by its tall, cavernous proportions, the compressed tension of the paired columns and the apparently arbitrary detail. Wittkower analysed the vestibule’s forms in terms of irreconcilable conflict, ambiguity and inversion, although, as Ackerman pointed out, the recessed columns are in fact more functional than many applied orders of the High Renaissance. It is likely that Michelangelo derived the idea of using large monolithic columns from Giuliano da Sangallo’s Sacristy vestibule (begun 1492) at Santo Spirito, Florence, and recessed them to reduce the weight on the chapter house below. But no functionalist analysis can explain away the deliberately fantastic qualities of the vestibule.

Michelangelo: vestibule of the Biblioteca Laurenziana, Florence, 1524–62; photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY

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The rare-books room planned to open off the opposite end of the reading room from the vestibule was never built, but is recorded in two drawings of 1525 (Corpus, 559r, 560r). The triangular design is a link between Michelangelo’s work on the library and his fortification designs for the Florentine government three years later.

(d) Fortification designs.

During the short-lived Republican government of 1527–30, Michelangelo, whose political sympathies were guardedly republican despite his close ties to the Medici pope, was ready to harness his design skills to modernizing the city’s medieval defences (see Florence, §I, 3). In April 1529 he was appointed governor general of the city’s fortifications, and supervised the construction of bastions and bulwarks (destr.). In late September, despairing of the outcome of the war, he fled to Venice and was declared a rebel. Induced to return in October, he resumed his work in a city now under siege to papal and imperial forces. Michelangelo’s fortifications were constructed of earth faced with unbaked bricks, and although the whole circuit of walls was strengthened in this way, more is known of his work at S Miniato and the southern circuit, whereas the magnificent series of surviving drawings in the Casa Buonarroti (Corpus, 563r–83v) concentrate mostly on the northern perimeter. The complexity and impracticality of these designs suggests they were not intended for rapid construction under pressure in 1529, but are proposals drawn up the previous year. They are among the most exciting architectural drawings that Michelangelo ever produced—both in their dynamic response to the needs of modern defence against artillery, and in the extraordinary forms themselves. Making them seems to have aided Michelangelo’s development from a planar to a plastic conception of architectural space, from a static to a dynamic architecture. In them he incorporated the curving double volutes and dislocated outlines—which up to now had been applied to the wall as sculptural ornament—into spatial solutions. This more liberated approach to space found its consummation in Michelangelo’s last works in Rome.

(ii) Works in Rome, 1534–64.

Uncomfortable in the new Medici ducal regime in Florence, Michelangelo moved permanently to Rome in 1534. Here two popes in particular—Paul III and Pius IV—had the imagination to entrust him with architectural projects of the greatest importance.

(a) Piazza del Campidoglio.

Redesigning the Piazza del Campidoglio on the Capitoline Hill was one of Michelangelo’s most successful architectural achievements and one of the most perfectly realized examples of Renaissance urban planning. Although the project was only partially completed in his lifetime, the engravings published by Etienne Dupérac in 1568 and 1569 made it possible in later centuries to follow the general lines of his design (see fig.).

Michelangelo: Piazza del Campidoglio, Capitoline Hill, Rome, showing (right) the façade of the Palazzo dei Conservatori (after 1561), with (left) the Palazzo Nuovo (built 1603–60 to the same design) and (centre) the staircase to the Palazzo Senatorio (1544–52); from an etching by Etienne Dupérac, 1569 (Vienna, Graphische Sammlung Albertina); photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

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Initially Michelangelo was asked to design a base for the ancient equestrian statue of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, which Paul III had moved from the Lateran to the Capitoline in 1538. His choice of an oval base is echoed in the oval pavement (from 1561), and Ackerman argued that Michelangelo produced the designs for the whole piazza, including the façade of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, at this early date, although the latter was not executed until after 1561. Certainly the triangular, double-ramp staircase in front of the Palazzo Senatorio (rest. 1984) was carried out in 1544–52, but it would have been uncharacteristic for Michelangelo to adhere to fixed overall designs for over 30 years. After the election of Pius IV in 1559, the monumental stairway ramp (cordonata) up to the Piazza del Campidoglio was built and the oval steps around the piazza put in place. The year before Michelangelo’s death, the façade of the Palazzo dei Conservatori was started according to a new set of drawings produced under his supervision, and the building was completed (1568–84) by Giacomo della Porta. The construction of a palazzo of the same design across the square, the Palazzo Nuovo, which established the symmetry of the composition, followed in 1603–60.

The Palazzo dei Conservatori’s giant order of Corinthian pilasters on high pedestals gives the façade its immensely powerful character, culminating in a sculpture-crowned balustrade, which dissolves the skyline. A minor order of Ionic columns on the ground floor supports monolithic stone beams, the wide intercolumniations producing effects of dense shadow. The composition is a dramatic opposition of verticals and horizontals, in which the pilaster order is laid like a grid over wider brick piers that form the structural support. Few Renaissance buildings convey such a powerful sense of structural forces at work.

As completed according to Michelangelo’s design, the trapezoidal piazza has strictly symmetrical flanking façades and an oval central space and statue podium, which serve to divert circulation to left and right towards the Palazzo Senatorio staircase. The pattern on the pavement tends to magnify the effect of the statue. It illustrates Michelangelo’s firmly held belief in bilateral symmetry around a prominently marked central axis, affirmed in a celebrated letter (untraced), which states that ‘the central elements are always free’, but that corresponding parts of a plan must be identical, just as ‘one hand is obliged to be like the other’ in the human body.

(b) St Peter’s.

Michelangelo’s work at St Peter’s is unquestionably the crowning achievement of his architectural career. When he was appointed chief architect by Paul III in November 1546, succeeding Antonio da Sangallo (ii), it seemed to Ascanio Condivi that Judgement Day would come sooner than the completion of the basilica. Since Bramante’s first designs of 1506, half a dozen architects had worked under five successive popes, all bringing their own revisions with them (see Rome, §V, 14(ii)). In the 18 remaining years of his life Michelangelo succeeded in ‘uniting into a whole the great body of that machine’ (Vasari), ensuring that the crossing and dome would follow his overall design, even though the façade and nave remained unresolved.

Soon after his appointment, Michelangelo outlined in a letter his objections to Sangallo’s model, praising Bramante’s ‘clear, pure and luminous’ plan and attacking Sangallo’s proposed high ambulatories, which would have deprived the crossing of light. His radical plans for reducing and unifying the building were initially outlined in successive models of terracotta and wood (Millon and Smyth, 1976), then put swiftly into execution. In 1547–8 the north arm walls were constructed; in the following two years the north arm was vaulted and the first and second orders of the south hemicycle erected. The drum was partially built in 1556–7, the southern hemicycle completed in 1557 and the north hemicycle up to the entablature followed in 1558–60 (the vault and attic facing are shown half-finished in an engraving of 1565).

To rationalize Bramante’s plan, Michelangelo consolidated the main and subsidiary piers and removed the passages through the latter that had been created for the ambulatories, inserting spiral staircases instead. He demolished the external ambulatory ring and transformed Sangallo’s inner transept arms into the external walls, clothing them on the exterior with a system that repeats the internal giant Corinthian order. The rhythm of wide and narrow bays of the exterior elevation is also derived from the interior, but given an added Michelangelesque tension by the multiplication of niches in the narrow bays and the characteristically complex layering of the order. Perhaps most brilliant is the way in which, to make the transition between the rounded apses and the pointed corner chapels, Michelangelo as it were drew between them a diagonal curtain, which both consolidated and unified the plan. Nowhere in his architecture are the expressive results of his habit of squeezing and shaping architectural models out of terracotta to be felt so strongly.

Erection of the present attic facing with its clustered pilaster strips and bizarre detailing began in 1565, the year after Michelangelo’s death, and is visible in Dupérac’s engraving of 1569 which purports to convey his design. Behind the attic walls of the transepts are the highly innovative gored vaults of the apses, their three curves swelling out behind the ribs. To Michelangelo’s mortification, the foreman on site misunderstood the novel stereometry of the vault, despite the existence of a model, and a great number of stones had to be removed. Michelangelo wrote to Vasari that the error had occurred because his age made frequent visits to the site impossible.

The cupola was probably not included on Michelangelo’s 1547 model, and it was not until 1558 that the carpenters began work on the larger-scale model (1:5; Rome, Vatican, Mus. Stor. A. Tesoro S Pietro) for the drum and dome, which Michelangelo justifiably felt to be the last task of his life (he was then 83). Whereas Bramante and Antonio da Sangallo (ii) had favoured an all’antica single-shell dome, Michelangelo’s was to be composed of two hemispherical shells. His starting-point for the double shell—and the design in general—was Brunelleschi’s cupola of Florence Cathedral (he had made an unexecuted project c. 1520 for the completion of its drum; Saalman, 1978). Even closer to Brunelleschi’s cupola (see fig.) was Giacomo della Porta’s dome as built, with its pointed profile, but despite the changes he introduced he retained most of the salient features of Michelangelo’s concept (see fig.). Particularly impressive is the vertical correspondence of the 16-sided lantern and drum, connected by the emphatic ribs of the dome.

Michelangelo: View of the facade and dome of St Peter’s, Rome; 1546–64; dome completed by Giacomo della Porta, 1590; photo credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY

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Michelangelo’s plans for the façade are unclear, and the east arm of the basilica remained untouched during his lifetime. Certainly Carlo Maderno’s screen façade (1607–14) and the longitudinal nave behind it have destroyed the unity of Michelangelo’s plan. Only from the Vatican gardens is it possible to experience the extraordinary organic power of Michelangelo’s design, the massive verticals of the giant order continued up through attic and drum to lantern, the undulating rhythms of the great slow curtain pulled around the apses.

(c) Palazzo Farnese.

Michelangelo also took over from Antonio da Sangallo (ii) as architect to Paul III at the Palazzo Farnese, despite the bitter opposition of Sangallo’s relatives and supporters (see Rome, §V, 25). At the Palazzo Farnese, Michelangelo gave the decisive final direction to the exterior cornice and to the upper levels of the courtyard. The design for the cornice was tested in March 1547 in the form of a full-scale wooden model of one corner hoisted into position. It was strongly attacked by Battista da Sangallo for its failure to accord with Vitruvian proportions and ancient practice. With its frieze of Farnese lilies alternating with acanthus, its dentils, egg and dart and thickly set lions’ heads, the cornice is indeed neither Doric, Ionic nor Corinthian, but gives a subtly variegated and powerful termination to Sangallo’s façade. Above the central doorway Michelangelo replaced Sangallo’s double-arched window with a straight entablature crowned by a gigantic Farnese coat of arms.

In the third order of the courtyard, Michelangelo demonstrated how distant his sensibility was from that of Sangallo. A light order of clustered Corinthian pilasters on high pedestals supports an entablature studded with grinning masks and misplaced triglyphs, while the windows themselves continue the mode of fragmentation and dislocation found in the Medici Chapel: scaly triglyph brackets slip down the frames to be replaced by bucrania, while the pediment floats above brackets detached from the lintel below.

(d) S Giovanni dei Fiorentini and the Sforza Chapel.

In 1559 Michelangelo was asked by the Florentine community in Rome to make fresh designs for their church of S Giovanni dei Fiorentini, begun c. 1519 by Jacopo Sansovino and Antonio da Sangallo (ii), but abandoned thereafter. The aging artist agreed, on the condition that he could leave the final drawings and models to others. After one of his five designs had been selected, Antonio Calcagni prepared models in terracotta and wood (the latter destr. 1720; known from engravings), and began to direct the works. In 1562 Michelangelo was replaced, and no further work was done. Michelangelo’s designs survive in large pen and wash drawings in the Casa Buonarroti (Corpus, 608–12). He seems to have had access to early unexecuted projects by Antonio da Sangallo (ii) and Baldassare Peruzzi, and he returned to the idea of a centralized plan, which was appropriate for a Florentine baptismal church. Perhaps the most original of the surviving designs (Corpus, 610) is an octagon or blunted diamond, with semicircular chapels in the corners and diagonally placed piers, which sets up a dynamic of strongly conflicting axes, emphasized in the drawing by construction lines and by four human eyes drawn in to represent the four principal views.

The chosen design (Corpus, 612) is redolent of St Peter’s in its use of massive masonry piers of irregular contour and softened exterior transitions. From a central circle spokes of space radiate, terminated by oval and rectangular chapels. In the final version represented by the model, the inner ring of paired columns was pushed out and attached to the eight piers. The exterior was to be simply articulated with pilasters at the lower level, while the drum and dome were apparently to be left bare. Inside, however, the detailing is shown as rich, with the verticals of the superimposed orders continued up into the coffering of the dome. The angled window embrasures are very striking, directing light down into the central space as at the New Sacristy of S Lorenzo. Michelangelo’s drawings for S Giovanni dei Fiorentini represent his architectural thinking at its most advanced, providing a starting-point for the radical spatial innovations of Francesco Borromini in the next century.

The same is true of the burial chapel (1561–4) he designed for the Sforza family off the nave of S Maria Maggiore, Rome (see Rome, §V, 20). Although Michelangelo was not involved in its execution (and some of the detailing is patently not his), the chapel as built owes everything to his vision. The tombs are placed in niches shaped from gently curving concave arcs, and the vault is supported by four columns pushed diagonally out from the piers into the central space, creating an almost explosive spatial experience in a chapel of modest dimensions.

(e) S Maria degli Angeli and the Porta Pia.

As part of his urban improvements to this area of Rome, Pope Pius IV took up the campaign of a Sicilian visionary Antonio del Duca (brother of the architect Giacomo del Duca) that a part of the ancient Baths of Diocletian (ad 298–306) should be re-dedicated for Christian use. Michelangelo was called in to convert the tepidarium into the Carthusian church of S Maria degli Angeli (built from 1562). He oriented it north-east/south-west, with the main door and high altar on the short axis and long ‘transepts’ ending in side-entrances. His interventions were minimal. Because the original groin vaulting and the great rose-granite columns that supported it were largely intact, Michelangelo simply walled off the transepts from the rooms beyond, built a long barrel-vaulted choir behind the altar, whitewashed the vault and tiled the roof. The present opulent interior is the result of a major reworking by Luigi Vanvitelli in the 18th century, which obscures Michelangelo’s intentions (for further discussion, see Duca family, §1).

This intensely religious, reforming project went together with Michelangelo’s most wilfully eccentric secular design, the Porta Pia (1561–4). The function of this city gate was to terminate the vista from the Quirinal to the Aurelian walls down Pius IV’s new street the Strada Pia, which was then lined with villas and gardens. In it Michelangelo combined elements of Medieval and Renaissance city-gate tradition with ideas derived from garden and festival architecture, as well as his own rich invention. Thus joky castellation, remnants of rustication and the Doric order are used as metaphors for strength, while the main portal evolved through a series of extraordinary drawings (Corpus, 614–21), superimposing and metamorphosing one solution over and into another. The result is a compendium of all the most fantastic elements of Michelangelo’s architectural vocabulary—broken pediments, swags, masks, displaced fragments of the orders, overlapping planes and juxtaposed façades and profiles.

There has been a temptation to see Michelangelo’s late architecture as an expression of deepening religious feeling and resignation at the end of his life. The Porta Pia shows that in this last decade a tendency to simplification and spareness (as at S Giovanni dei Fiorentini and S Maria degli Angeli) could go alongside a reaffirmation of the most extremely licentious side of his architectural personality. The same contrasts can be seen at St Peter’s.


  • R. Wittkower: ‘Michelangelo’s Biblioteca Laurenziana’, Art Bulletin, 16 (1934), pp. 123–218; also in Idea and Image (London, 1978), pp. 11–71; review by P. Joannides in Burlington Magazine, 123, pp. 620–22
  • H. Siebenhühner: Das Kapitol in Rom: Idee und Gestalt (Munich, 1954); review by J. Ackerman in Art Bulletin, 38 (1956), pp. 53–7
  • J. Ackerman: The Architecture of Michelangelo, 2 vols (London, 1961, rev. 2/1986)
  • P. Portoghesi: ‘Michelangelo fiorentino’, Quaderni dell’Istituto di storia dell’architettura, n. s., 2 (1964), pp. 27–60
  • P. Portoghesi and B. Zevi, eds: Michelangiolo architetto (Turin, 1964)
  • G. de Angelis Ossat and C. Pietrangeli: Il Campidoglio di Michelangelo (Milan, 1965)
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  • T. Buddensieg: ‘Zum Statuenprogramm in Kapitolsplan Pauls III’, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte [merger of Z. Bild. Kst with Repert. Kstwiss. & with Jb. Kstwiss.], 30 (1969), pp. 177–238
  • D. Summers: ‘Michelangelo on Architecture’, Art Bulletin, 54 (1972), pp. 146–57
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  • H. Saalman: ‘Michelangelo and St Peter’s: The Arborio Correspondence’, Art Bulletin, 60 (1978), pp. 483–93
  • S. Sinding Larsen: ‘The Laurenziana and Vestibule as a Functional Solution’, Acta ad archaeologicam et artium historiam pertinentia, Institutum Romanum Norvegiae, 8 (1978), pp. 213–22
  • C. Elam: ‘The Site and Early Building History of Michelangelo’s New Sacristy’, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Instituts in Florenz, 23 (1979), pp. 155–86
  • R. Manetti: Michelangiolo: Fortificazioni per l’assedio di Firenze (Florence, 1980)
  • H. Thiess: Michelangelo: Das Kapitol (Florence, 1982)
  • M. Hirst: ‘A Note on Michelangelo and the S Lorenzo Façade’, Art Bulletin, 67 (1986), pp. 323–36
  • H. Millon and C. H. Smyth: Michelangelo Architect: The Façade of S Lorenzo and the Cupola of St Peter’s (Washington, DC, 1988)
  • W. Wallace: ‘The Lantern of Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel’, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Instituts in Florenz, 33 (1989), pp. 17–36
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  • A. Morrogh: ‘The Palace of the Roman People: Michelangelo at the Palazzo dei Conservatori’, Römisches Jahrbuch der Bibliotheca Hertziana, 29 (1994), pp. 129–86
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II. Working methods and technique.

1. Sculpture.

In sculpture, the expense and physical intractability of marble discourages flexible working methods. Here Michelangelo acted with the care and parsimony of any craftsman. He first made drawings and small models in wax or clay in order to clarify ideas for figures. Only when the design had been concluded did he send specifications for the block to the quarries. Measurements could be accompanied by diagrams, some indicating the form that was ultimately to be ‘revealed’ by the process of carving. He also spent several weeks at Carrara to ensure the choice of flawless blocks.

Roughing out was done by masons at the quarry; the extent of this process is debated, however. It has been suggested that only two of the four unfinished Slaves (Florence, Accad.) should be regarded as authentic (Kriegbaum, 1940), although most scholars see Michelangelo’s work in all of them. The notion that he attacked a cube of stone aided only by inspiration is a romantic fallacy, as is the assertion, elaborated from brief accounts by Vasari and Benvenuto Cellini, that he invariably began carving on the front face of the block, only gradually exposing the flanks of the statue. Examination of surviving unfinished statues reveals that work proceeded according to the nature of the figure. Although the St Matthew (Florence, Accad.) does seem to have emerged almost as a relief carved from the front, the Atlas Slave (Florence, Accad.), devised as a corner figure for the tomb of Julius II, was excavated from two adjacent faces of the block simultaneously.

These varied practices indicate that Michelangelo took the greatest pains to predetermine the appearance of his carvings. On at least one occasion, for the New Sacristy (Florence, S Lorenzo), he also made full-scale models for several of the figures. Only one such model, the River God (Florence, Accad.), has survived. Pressure to finish the decoration of the chapel may have forced him to act uncharacteristically in this instance since, during this period, he was also assisted by contemporaries including Raffaello da Montelupo and Niccolò Tribolo, who were contracted to carve figures under his direction. This episode in Michelangelo’s career may have been unusual, but some degree of studio intervention should be assumed, especially in completed works. Finish was the responsibility of subordinates. When Sebastiano del Piombo wrote that Michelangelo’s assistant Pietro Urbano had spoilt the Risen Christ (Rome, S Maria sopra Minerva) while giving it the final touches, he did not imply that it was unusual for Michelangelo to entrust the figure to an assistant, but that Urbano had done his job badly.

In spite of the evidence that Michelangelo carefully planned his work and was less unwilling to delegate than has been assumed, it is true that, even as a sculptor, he did alter plans. In parts of the St Matthew and the Taddei Tondo (London, RA) he deliberately allowed for the adjustment of contour, as might be expected of an experienced carver. There are indications of more radical changes elsewhere, however: in the New Sacristy, the figures of Night and Day do not fit the curve of the lid of Giuliano de’ Medici’s sarcophagus; the Day was carved from a block of different size from that of the other figures and the left arm of Night has been adjusted. From these indications, it has been argued that Michelangelo modified his designs as work proceeded.

A certain willingness to improvise seems to match the description of Michelangelo at work given by the 16th-century French writer Blaise de La Viginère, who vividly described the ferocity with which the artist assaulted the marble. The impression of recklessness, however, may be misleading. Blaise saw Michelangelo as an old man, working without commission. The reliability of this report has been questioned (Steinberg, 1968). It is possible that Blaise saw Michelangelo roughing out a new block. On the other hand his savage treatment of the two late sculptures of the Pietà may indicate that the Frenchman witnessed an expression of Michelangelo’s dissatisfaction with himself, or, as hinted in one of the sonnets, with the limitations of his art. A contrary view, that Michelangelo was careless of finish even in his early maturity, has been proposed, based on observation of the forceful use of the chisel on the ‘perilously thin skin’ of the Taddei Tondo (Larson, 1991). The Tondo may not be a sound basis for generalization, however. Like the Brutus (Florence, Bargello) and the Rondanini Pietà (Milan, Castello Sforzesca), it was almost certainly worked on after Michelangelo abandoned it. In sculpture, as in painting, Michelangelo’s standards of craftsmanship were high. Perhaps, as Vasari hinted, they proved too exacting to allow him to complete many works.


  • B. Cellini: Due trattati alle otto principali arti dell’oreficeria: L’altro in materia dell’arte della scultura (Florence, 1568); Eng. trans. by C. R. Ashbee as The Treatises of Benvenuto Cellini on Goldsmithing and Sculpture (London, 1888/R New York, 1967)
  • B. de la Viginère: Les Images ou tableaux de plate peinture (Paris, 1579)
  • F. Kriegbaum: Die Bildwerke (Berlin, 1940)
  • L. Goldscheider: A Survey of Michelangelo’s Models in Wax and Clay (London, 1962)
  • E. Battisti: ‘I “coperchi” delle tombe medicee’, Arte in Europa: Scritti di storia dell’arte in onore di Eduardo Arslan, ed. E. Arslan (Milan, 1967), pp. 517–30
  • L. Steinberg: ‘Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà: The Missing Leg’, Art Bulletin, 50 (1968), pp. 343–59
  • C. Klapisch-Zuber: Les Maîtres du marbre: Carrare, 1300–1600 (Paris, 1969)
  • T. Verellen: ‘Cosmas and Damian in the New Sacristy’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes [prev. pubd as J. Warb. Inst.], 42 (1979), pp. 274–7
  • C. Avery: ‘“La cera sempre aspetta”: Wax Sketch Models for Sculpture’, Apollo, 119 (1984), 3–11
  • J. Larson: ‘The Cleaning of Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo’, Burlington Magazine, 133 (1991), pp. 844–6

2. Painting.

As a painter, Michelangelo’s working procedures were traditionally methodical. Through drawings ranging from first sketches to cartoons, the process of preparation seemingly allowed little room for spontaneity. The unpainted areas of the Entombment (London, N.G.) are firmly contoured blanks awaiting colour. While cleaning has revealed the brilliance and, in fresco, the brio of his brushwork, his painting nevertheless was based on controlled analysis of outline and internal modelling. His method was the opposite of the improvisatory approach to image-making developed by Giorgione in Venice, and his reputation as the exemplar of Florentine disegno is deserved.

It is characteristic that for mural painting Michelangelo favoured buon fresco, a technique demanding unerring swiftness of execution. After Sebastiano del Piombo prepared the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel for oil paint, Michelangelo had the surface demolished, reputedly declaring that oil painting was fit only for women and idlers. For Michelangelo, true fresco, like stone cutting, was manly work because it allowed no correction of errors. Comparing the arts of painting and sculpture, he wrote that he had once thought carving nobler than painting as it represented the fruit of ‘greater judgement … difficulty, obstacles and labour’.

In spite of Michelangelo’s insistence on decisiveness, however, he made important alterations to many of his works at the eleventh hour. The change in style between the earlier and later parts of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling is an example of adjustment on a large scale, but he also often altered details traced from the cartoon. For some of the lunette figures of Christ’s Ancestors, he worked without a full-scale drawing. As a rule, the more time he had to spend on a project, the more likely he was to develop it.


  • M. Levey and others: Michelangelo’s ‘Entombment of Christ’: Some New Hypotheses and Some New Facts (London, 1970)
  • M. Hirst and J. O’Malley: The Sistine Chapel: Michelangelo Rediscovered (London, 1986)
  • C. B. Cappel: ‘Michelangelo’s Cartoon for the Crucifixion of St Peter Reconsidered’, Master Drawings, 15 (Summer 1987), pp. 131–2
  • J. Beck: ‘The Final Layer: L’ultima mano on Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling’, Art Bulletin, 70 (1988), pp. 502–3
  • F. Hartt: ‘L’ultima mano on the Sistine Ceiling’, Art Bulletin, 71 (1989), pp. 508–9
  • F. Hartt and G. Colalucci: La Cappella Sistina, 3 vols (Milan, 1989–90)
  • J. Shearman and F. Mancinelli: Michelangelo e la Sistina: La tecnica, il restauro, il mito (Rome, 1990)
  • Atti del convegno ‘Michelangelo e la Sistina’: Vatican City, 1991

3. Architecture.

An unusually large body of surviving architectural drawings (Corpus, iv) makes it possible to reconstruct Michelangelo’s design process from the site plan through to drawn profiles of mouldings to be cut in metal for the stonemasons. Early in his architectural career, c. 1515–16, he made copies after the Codex Coner, Bernardo della Volpaia’s recently completed model book of studies after ancient buildings. Characteristically, Michelangelo ignored the archaeological identifications and measurements and copied freehand, concentrating especially on lively profiles. The drawings for the rare-books room of the Biblioteca Laurenziana (see §I, 4, (i), (c) above) show him first sketching over a ruled site-plan, then working up the revised design into a modello in pen and wash, adding a scale and explanatory annotations for his patron. Drawings of this type continued to be a feature of his practice up to the time of the S Giovanni dei Fiorentini project. From the 1520s he increasingly elaborated designs for such details as windows and doors by superimposing ideas one over the other on a single sheet (e.g. the Palazzo Farnese window drawing, Corpus, 589; and designs for the Porta Pia). The layered, palimpsest-like character of his finished buildings often owe much to the process of drawing itself. Instructions to the work-force would be conveyed through template profiles, full-scale drawings on walls, wooden models and, above all, by constant personal supervision.

Wooden models had long been used in Italian architectural practice to convey three-dimensional ideas to a patron more effectively than drawings, and to provide an enduring record of the design during building. Michelangelo also made ‘study’ models from clay, which must have helped him towards the more moulded spatial forms of his later architecture. In addition to the normal small-scale wooden models of complete designs, he liked to make full-scale models of wood to judge the effect of a solution in situ—as with the cornice of the Palazzo Farnese and the cornice below the drum of St Peter’s. Distrusting proportional systems and preconceived rules, he was quoted as believing that the artist should ‘have his compasses in his eyes and not in his hands’. For similar reasons, he tended to design each stage of a building as construction proceeded, rather than working out every detail in advance.

Michelangelo’s anxiety to distance himself from workshop practice and the mechanical arts is evident in his angry response to his nephew’s demeaning gift of a measuring rod when asked for the length of the Florentine braccio ‘as if I were a builder or a woodworker’. However, his belief in design as an intellectual activity did not mean that he confined his contribution to initial designs and models. He was suspicious of such bureaucratic offices of works as those of the St Peter’s fabbrica and the Florentine Opera del Duomo, and liked to gather control of the executant team and the ordering of materials into his own hands, using a small, trusted group of assistants wherever possible. Perhaps because he did not espouse the increasingly sophisticated techniques of architectural drafting, his presence was needed on site, as the débâcle of the St Peter’s hemicycle vaults demonstrated. Only at the end of his life did he restrict architectural involvement to the supply of drawings. Thus, despite his role in freeing the Renaissance artist from the workshop, he remained in many ways faithful to 15th-century Florentine architectural practices.

For bibliography see §I, 4 above.

III. Character and personality.

Michelangelo was below average height, wore a sparse beard and had ‘horn-coloured’ eyes flecked blue and yellow. Surprisingly, he loved natural scenery and was a good judge of a horse. For years, a kidney stone made urination painful for him. These details were recorded by Condivi in 1553. But the sense of intimacy they promise is false. Michelangelo’s personality remains elusive. His words, as Vasari remarked, were often ambiguous: so was his behaviour. There is, for instance, no doubt of his family piety. He lost no chance to promote the status of the Buonarroti clan, even claiming kinship with the counts of Canossa. He hectored his nephew on the need to marry and maintain the family name. Yet he himself remained celibate and solitary.

His difficult character impressed people in different ways. According to anecdote, he overawed Pope Leo X. Battista Figiovanni, prior of S Lorenzo, however, declared that Job would have lost patience with him. Greed for commissions and contempt for peers led him to behave unscrupulously early in his career and he poisoned many friendships. In 1517 Jacopo Sansovino sent a memorably bitter letter, justifiably accusing him of breach of faith about the S Lorenzo façade project. Although he experienced considerable guilt concerning mismanaged transactions and more than once offered to make financial restitution for unfinished work, he remained sensitive to professional rivalry. He accepted admirers, but trained no pupil of merit. Nevertheless he was capable of great generosity, for example towards his assistant Antonio Urbino and his wife.

Michelangelo’s sexual history is unknowable. Condivi claimed that he remained perfectly chaste; Pietro Aretino perniciously hinted at pederasty. His writings are often used illegitimately to reconstruct a secret life of the affections. Although he undoubtedly experienced a powerful erotic attraction to Cavalieri, the language of letters and poems he sent to him is highly conventional. It no more constitutes evidence of sexual involvement than the Petrarchan courtesies he addressed to Vittoria, Marchesa di Pescara Colonna with whom there is no question of a physical liaison. In both cases, he was engaged in highly publicized exchanges with social superiors: a large element of refined and courtly play is to be expected.

About Michelangelo’s religious life, there is no doubt. At all stages of his career Michelangelo was sensitive to climates of piety. According to Condivi, he never forgot the voice of Girolamo Savonarola, whose sermons he heard as a youth in Florence. Especially in later years, his commitment to Christian observance deepened. Condivi recorded clandestine works of charity. In letters, poems and drawings he meditated on death and redemption. It is this grand, sombre, secretive adherent of the Catholic reform movement that probably forms the most persistent image of the artist.


  • G. Spini: ‘Politicità di Michelangelo’, Rivista storica italiana, 76 (1964), pp. 557–600; repr. in Atti del convegno di studi michelangioleschi: Florence, 1964, pp. 110–70
  • R. De Maio: Michelangelo e la controriforma (Bari, 1978)
  • C. Gilbert, ed. and trans.: Complete Poems and Selected Letters of Michelangelo (Princeton, 1980)

IV. Critical reception and reputation.

1. General.

The Michelangelo literature is vast, and much material was produced in the artist’s lifetime. Throughout the 16th century his name was cited in a variety of documents. Already by 1527, the first biography of him was written, a short account by Paolo Giovio. In the very earliest documents he was not always represented as the intimidating giant familiar from later accounts. He appears, for example, as an unusually urbane and modest authority on Dante in a dialogue by Donato Giannotti. With the first edition of Vasari’s Vite in 1550, however, the outlines of the Michelangelo myth were already apparent. Michelangelo was virtually the only living artist included in this edition, and he was depicted as the man sent by God to perfect the arts of painting, sculpture and architecture. Although Vasari’s tone was adulatory he still portrayed Michelangelo as an artist firmly rooted in Florentine history and culture and this sense of historical placement was given greater emphasis in the second edition of 1568, in which he included other living artists, with Michelangelo as the first among equals. A great deal in Vasari’s life is fabulous rather than strictly historical, as Barolski has pointed out, but the Michelangelo myth was created largely by Ascanio Condivi, probably in close consultation with Michelangelo. Condivi’s biography was written to ‘correct’ the first version of Vasari’s Life, especially the implication that the artist had behaved badly over the tomb of Julius II. Condivi remains a valuable source in some matters of detail, but he deliberately represented Michelangelo as a force of nature, virtually untutored, owing nothing to predecessors or contemporaries. Although his extravagant estimate found echoes, especially in the romantic biographies of the 19th and 20th centuries, Condivi’s book is probably the most uncritical evaluation of Michelangelo ever offered.

During his lifetime Michelangelo’s authority became very great, and he was frequently invoked by 16th-century artists. He left behind no aesthetic teaching, however, apart from a few, ambiguous remarks, either reported by his biographers or scattered among letters or poems. Attempts have been made to piece together a theory from these fragments (Clements, 1961) and to see how 16th-century terminology was modified by Michelangelo’s practice and dicta (Summers, 1981), but as both writers acknowledged, although he was a profoundly reflective artist, Michelangelo held to no particular system. It is difficult, therefore, to determine to what extent certain texts reflect Michelangelo’s opinions. The problem is acute in relation to the dialogues on painting recorded by Francisco de Holanda, but it also occurs with later 16th-century literature. ‘Michelangelo’s’ explanation of the figura serpentinata in Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo’s Treatise on the Art of Painting (1584), for example, may derive from some crumb of table talk, but it is set out in implausibly systematized form by Lomazzo.

Even for 16th-century Italians, Michelangelo’s authority was not absolute, but varied according to the art under discussion or a writer’s local patriotism. In contemporary opinion he was almost unanimously accorded pre-eminence as a sculptor, but his reputation as a painter came to be higher in central, than in northern, Italy. In Venice his abilities were questioned by Ludovico Dolce (1557) who unfavourably compared Michelangelo’s narrow expertise in depicting the male nude with the greater variety displayed by Raphael and Titian. Dolce’s attack was part of the dispute about the relative merits of Florentine and Venetian painting (see Disegno e colore), in which Michelangelo was cast as the chief representative of disegno, the model for the ‘grand manner’, an intellectual rather than sensuous style, totally lacking in sweetness.

In Dolce’s Dialogo these complaints are voiced by Pietro Aretino, who had been among the first to write that Michelangelo’s fresco of the Last Judgement was a licentious display of skill rather than a proper depiction of a holy subject. Although Aretino’s comment separates form from content in a seemingly modern way, it was a malicious appeal to pious sensibilities, and the accusation became a commonplace of clerical literature. Opinion about the Last Judgement was never uniform, however. Engravings of the fresco were published throughout the late 16th century, and the inquisitor who interrogated Paolo Veronese remarked that there was nothing that was not ‘spiritual’ about the nudes of the Last Judgement.

Michelangelo continued to be admired throughout the following centuries. For Joshua Reynolds, the major proponent of a grand manner in the 18th century, he was a touchstone of value for the visual arts, and while Reynolds’s ‘classicist’ view was conservative, his tone of homage anticipated a more emotional literature that represented Michelangelo as a dark, titanic, often tortured spirit. Alexandre Dumas’s Vie de Michel-Ange initiated a series of romantic biographies of a kind still popular in the 20th century. Even scholarly works shared characteristics with the novelistic lives. The study by Grimm, in which Michelangelo is presented as the transcendent expression of Renaissance Italy, is the best-grounded historically. In a strictly scholarly sense, Grimm was superseded by Gotti, whose biography was deeply informed by Milanesi’s great edition of the letters and contracts. There was dissent from this general hero worship, however. The most dramatic attack was by John Ruskin, who characterized Michelangelo’s sculpture as dishonest and violently theatrical.

Romantic interpretations of Michelangelo’s life should not be dismissed as vulgar sideshows. The view that his art could be understood as a form of autobiography has continued to inform many of the most ambitious scholarly accounts of the 20th century. Michelangelo’s adherence to some form of Neo-Platonism, first argued by Hettner, has had several supporters. Frommel’s study of Michelangelo’s relationship with Tommaso de’ Cavalieri convincingly relates the artist’s letters and poems to the circle of Neo-Platonists he met in the household of Lorenzo the Magnificent. J. A. Symonds’s The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti was significant as it acknowledged a homosexual Michelangelo. Since then a significant strand of the literature has been psychoanalytic in character: examples include the intelligent popular introduction by Hibbard and the unconvincing clinical study by Liebert. Psychoanalysis also informs the writings of Steinberg. Among the legacies of the 19th-century tradition are the iconological interpretations offered by Panofsky, Tolnay and Hartt that have dominated mid-20th-century Michelangelo studies. Although these were inspired by a genuine desire to explain Michelangelo’s imagery historically in 16th-century terms, their claims are often unconvincing. Many such iconological readings now seem fantastic in detail, but they still contain valuable information and comment. Panofsky’s interpretation of the presentation drawings is notably persuasive, and the huge monograph of Charles Erich de Tolnay, despite its old-fashioned emphasis on the influence of Neo-Platonism, remains the most sustained attempt this century to deal with the total range of Michelangelo’s work apart from architecture. The subsequent trend, however, has been towards more cautious, sociologically orientated interpretations, continuations of the scholarly literature that has been devoted to the discovery and editing of sources and to solving particular problems. During the 20th century this genre was best represented by Barocchi, Elam, Frey, Hirst, Steinmann, Wallace and Wilde.


  • P. Giovio: Michaelis Angeli Vita (1523–7); repr. in P. Barocchi: Scritti d’arte del cinquecento, i (Milan and Naples, 1921); Eng. trans. by L. Murray in Michelangelo: His Life, Work and Times (London, 1984)
  • D. Giannotti: Dialoghi di Donato Giannotti, de’giorni che Dante consumò nel cercare l’inferno e il purgatorio, ed. D. Redig de Campos (Florence, 1939)
  • J. de Vasconcelos: F. de Holanda: Vier Gespräche über die Malerei, geführt zu Rom 1538 (Vienna, 1899); Eng. trans. by C. Holroyd in Michael Angelo Buonarroti (London, 1903, London and New York, 2/1911)
  • L. Dolce: Dialogo della pittura intitolato l’Aretino (Venice, 1557); repr. in P. Barocchi: Trattati d’arte del cinquecento, i (Bari, 1960); Eng. trans. by M. W. Roskill in Dolce’s ‘Aretino’ and Venetian Art Theory of the Cinquecento (New York, 1968)
  • G. A. Gilio da Fabriano: Due dialoghi di M. Andrea Gilio da Fabriano (Camerino, 1564); repr. in P. Barocchi, ed.: Trattati d’arte nel cinquecento, ii (Bari, 1961)
  • G. Paleotti: Discorso intorno alle immagine sacre e profane (Rome, 1582); repr. in P. Barocchi, ed.: Trattati d’arte nel cinquecento, ii (Bari, 1961), pp. 117–503
  • G. P. Lomazzo: Idea del tempio della pittura (Milan, 1584)
  • J. Reynolds: Discourses on Art (London, 1778); ed. R. R. Wark (San Marino, CA, 1959/R New Haven and London, 1975)
  • H. Grimm: Leben Michelangelos (Vienna, 1860–63)
  • J. Ruskin: The Relation between Michael Angelo and Tintoret: Seventh of the Course of Lectures on Sculpture Delivered at Oxford, 1870 and 1871 (London, 1872)
  • A. Gotti: Vita di Michelangelo Buonarroti con l’aiuto di nuovi documenti, 2 vols (Florence, 1875)
  • A. Dumas: Vie de Michel-Ange (Paris, 1878)
  • H. Hettner: ‘Michelangelo und die Sixtinische Kapelle’, Italienische Studien zur Geschichte der Renaissance (Brunswick, 1879), pp. 247–72
  • J. A. Symonds: The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti: Based on Studies in the Archives of the Buonarroti Family at Florence, 2 vols (London, 1893)
  • K. Frey: Michelagniolo Buonarroti: Quellen und Forschungen zu seiner Geschichte und Kunst, 1 (Berlin, 1907)
  • E. Steinmann: Michelangelo im Spiegel seiner Zeit (Leipzig, 1930)
  • E. Panofsky: ‘The Neoplatonic Movement and Michelangelo’, Studies in Iconology: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (New York, 1939, rev. 2/1962), pp. 171–230
  • R. Clements: Michelangelo’s Theory of Art (New York, 1961)
  • L. Steinberg: ‘The Metaphors of Love and Birth in Michelangelo’s Pietàs’, Studies in Erotic Art (New York, 1970), 231–85
  • C. L. Frommel: Michelangelo und Tommaso dei Cavalieri (Amsterdam, 1979)
  • H. Hibbard: Michelangelo (London, 1979)
  • J. Bury: Two Notes on Francisco de Holanda (London, 1981)
  • D. Summers: Michelangelo and the Language of Art (Princeton, 1981)
  • R. S. Liebert: Michelangelo: A Psychoanalytic Study of his Life and Images (New Haven and London, 1983)
  • J. M. Saslow: ‘“A Veil of Ice between my Heart and Fire”: Michelangelo’s Sexual Identity and Early Modern Constructs of Homosexuality’, Genders (1988), pp. 77–90
  • W. E. Wallace: ‘Michelangelo at Work: Bernardino Basso, Friend, Scoundrel and Capomaestro’, I Tatti Studies, 3 (1989), pp. 235–77
  • P. Barolsky: Michelangelo’s Nose: A Myth and its Maker (University Park and London, 1990)
  • F. Ames-Lewis and P. Joannides, eds: Reactions to the Master: Michelangelo’s Effect on Art and Artists in the Sixteenth Century (Aldershot, 2003)
  • M. Hirst : ‘Michelangelo e i suoi primi biografi’, Tre saggi su Michelangelo (Florence, 2004), pp. 30–57

    For further bibliography see the relevant sections above.

2. Architecture.

Responses to Michelangelo’s architecture have always been divided between admiration for his originality and distaste at his licence. Even Vasari, whose biography of Michelangelo was the culmination of the first edition of the Vite, and who considered his ‘grazia’ the summit of art as the product of visual judgement rather than rules, was uneasy at the ‘grotesque’ architectural forms perpetrated by Michelangelo’s more presumptuous followers. He tried to assimilate Michelangelo’s eccentricities into the Vitruvian language of the orders by classifying his detail as ‘composite’, and others defended the ‘grotesque’ as legitimate artistic licence. But Michelangelo’s successor at St Peter’s, Pirro Ligorio, attacked his use of capricious ornament in sacred buildings as an offence against decorum, and this was the first example in a critical tradition that extended from Inigo Jones through to Francesco Milizia, and as far as Michelangelo’s best 19th-century biographer, John Addington Symonds.

Michelangelo did not write an architectural treatise. Neither his drawings nor his finished buildings furnished examples that could be exported or adopted wholesale, and there is no real ’Michelangelesque’ movement in architecture although his motifs soon became influential through engravings. In Italy his influence in Florence was enduring but superficial; architects who trained in Rome, such as Galeazzo Alessi, took his ornamental ideas to northern Italy, but it was in the Rome of Borromini that his spatial inventions were taken up and developed. As the ‘father of the Baroque’ (Wölfflin, 1964) Michelangelo was further vilified by Neo-classical critics.

A more balanced reconsideration of Michelangelo’s architectural achievement came with Heinrich Wölfflin’s re-evaluation of the Baroque in 1888. The pioneering monographic studies of Geymueller, Frey and Thode before World War I were followed up by Tolnay’s detailed consideration of the Casa Buonarroti drawings, by Wittkower’s classic article on the Biblioteca Laurenziana and by Ackerman’s exemplary monograph. As Ackerman pointed out, understanding of Michelangelo’s architectural ideas has not been greatly enhanced by the 20th-century predilection for ‘Mannerism’ as a stylistic label.


  • H. Wölfflin: Renaissance und Barock (Munich, 1888; Eng. trans., London, 1964)
  • H. Thode: Michelangelo: Kritische Untersuchungen über seine Werke: Verzeichnis der Zeichnungen, Kartons und Modelle, 3 vols (Berlin, 1913)

    For further bibliography see §I, 4 above.