Michelangelo was born in Arezzo but moved as an infant to Florence. The family lived in the Casa Buonarotti near the Santa Croce and the house still stands to this day. He was given a formal education including Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, wrote poetry, had fine handwriting, lived a religious life. We know nothing definitive of this personal life, though through his poetry he expresses emotions, friendships and loves. He was a small, but strong man.
He had a connection with stone masons and a quarry through a distant relative, who was a mason. In Settegnano, a town where his wet nurse lived, he developed strong bonds with the industry of stone cutting. He was apprenticed maybe at Ghirlandaio’s studio at Santa Maria Novella for two years. Later, when working on the Sistine Chapel, he hired workers from Ghirlandaio’s studio.
He was a lousy student at school, liked to draw in class, as many students do. As he grew up, around him were the Giotto frescos and alters at Santa Croce, the Peruzzi chapel, the Brancacci Chapel, where the Florentine artists went to draw. There are drawings which show the influence of Giotto and Brancacci. There are the cross hatchings in his sketches which presage the later cross hatching of his sculpture.
In the 1490s Lorenzo the Magnificent was thinking about the lack of fine arts in Florence. Donatello had sculpted his grandfather, Cosimo, but there had been no fine artists since then. He began to scout around for talent to include in his school of arts, to be opened in the Medici Palace. Mich was 15 years old and was chosen from Ghirlandaio’s studio to live in the Palace with the Medicis. He was about the same age as the eldest son, who would become Pope Leo? And was given referred treatment by Lorenzo who basically educated Mich in the neoclassical schools. Mirandola and Poliziano were his teachers.
Bertoldo di Giovanni was the master of the sculpture school and under his tutelage, Mich completed as “exercises” , Madonna of the Steps (after Donatello) and The Battle of the Greeks and Centaurs (1491), which shows his emerging style in high relief. This work revealed the psychological conflict and tension that Mich was to exhibit in his life and work.
After Lorenzo died, Mich went back to his father’s house and started dissections of corpses at Santa Spiritu church in an effort to understand more about the human anatomy. Though his drawings were not extensive and scientific, like Leonardo’s, what he found out informed his sculpture profoundly. His drawings were not done in situ; he was studying them for movement and the drawings and wax sculptures he did revealed his understanding. Mich gave the prior at Santo Spiritu a wooden crucifix as compensation for letting him get into the mortuary (now exhibited at the Santo Spiritu chapel, although contested as to its authenticity).
Politically, Savonarola is now preaching divine punishment and repentance sermons in the piazzas of Florence, against the Medici, who had become corrupted by power. Threats were also coming in from France and in 1494 Charles VIII of France entered Florence. For the next 30 years Florence was in turmoil., changing governments and rulers every few years.
Mich went to Venice, then Bologna. He is 19 years old. Piero di Medici is thrown out of Florence, Charles VIII enters and tentatively welcomed by the Florentines.
From Bolongna, Mich went to Rome and worked on private sculpture commissions. The Bacchus (1496-7) and the Pieta (1497-1500) established him as a major talent. The Pieta form had come to Rome’s attention from work done in Northern Europe and a French cardinal commissioned it for Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Background history of Michelangelo’s David. In the 1460s, the Medicis planned to decorate the great Duomo with Old Testament prophets. Agostino di Ducchio is commissioned to make David for the rear o the Duomo. He, in his arrogance, decides he wants to carve a colossal figure (2 or 3 times human size) to compete with the ancients and wants to do it out of one piece of marble. This had never been done before, as most sculptures (even small ones) are carved in several pieces and then resined together. A huge piece of marble was cut at Carrera… 20 feet tall and weighing 6 tons. It is brought with great effort and care into Florence and installed at the wool guild where Agostino will begin work on the David. At the beginning of his work, Agostino breaks into the stone and finds a unacceptable black stain, thereby wrecking the marble for the design he had planned. In the dead of night, he leaves Florence, and goes to England, never to return. The block of marble sits in the wool guild quarters for 40 years, untouched.
1492--Lorenze d’Medici is on his deathbed. Mich has been at the Medici Palace for only 2 years. Savonarola s preaching against the neo Platonists, who have been Mich’s tutors. Savonarola refuses to give Lorenzo the last rites unless he promises to give up his power and supposedly wicked ways; Lorenzo refuses to abdicate power and thereby refuses the last rites. Next in line, Piero di Medici takes power uneasily and defensively, and this doesn’t go down well with the public, or Savonarola, who leads a rebellion against the Medicis. Some of them go to Rome, leading in later years to their ascension to the papacy. Savonarola starts a reign of terror against the art of the Medicis, burning books, paintings, etc. This is known as the Bonfire of the Vanities, The Pope in Rome commands him to cease and desist his rants. Savonarola refuses and insults the Pope, who then lets the Florentines know that they may do what they like with him. They promptly arrest, condemn and burn him to death, and a new republic is instituted.
In 1501, the president of this new Florentine republic asks Mich to come back to Florence to sculpt the colossal David, which has been waiting for 40 years. This will be a symbol of humanism, liberty and individuality. Mich offers to do it without pay until it’s finished, and let the government of Florence pay what they will. As the figure is finished, Mich wonders about the placement of the statue. It is so huge that there are logistical problems with installing in on the Duomo. The government and various artists (including Leonardo) meet over the controversy. It’s decided that David will be placed at the door of the Palazzo Vecchio and become a civic symbol rather than a religious one.
Neo Platonists believed that creation came about by the removal of the obscurities of nature to reveal the soul and essence in objective form. Mich adopted this philosophy in his sculpture, preferring to sculpt stone with the intention of taking away that which obscured the artist‘s vision, rather than adding paint or clay to create the piece of art. David was the ultimate ‘ex uno lapide’ (one piece of stone, which, in tact, could reveal the figure of perfection, the soul). David reveals the ‘vita activa--active life; as well as ‘vita contemplativa’ the thoughtful life, that were (and are) present and in conflict in every human being. He shows us both as David stands, alert and planning to throw the stone that will kill Goliath. On one of the drawings Mich made before the sculpting he writes “David with the sling, but I (Mich) with the arc (the sculpting tools.).