Michelangelo: The Greatest Artist of the Renaissance

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Podcast Transcript

In 1475, Michelangelo Buonarroti was born in Caprese, Italy. 

Over the next 88 years, he left a legacy of paintings and sculptures, unlike any artist before or since. 

His art shaped the city he came from, the era he lived in, and, eventually, the entire world of western art. 

Today, the works he created are some of the most treasured and valuable artworks in the entire world. 

Learn more about Michelangelo and how he became the greatest artist of the Renaissance on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

The full name of the man who is the subject of this episode is Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. However, for the rest of this episode, I’m just going to refer to him by the name with which everyone knows him, Michelangelo.

Michelangelo was born in 1475 in the town of Caprese in Tuscany. Shortly after his birth, his family moved back to the city which had been their home for several generations, Florence

There are times in history when a person, time, and place all come together perfectly. 

This is one such case. 

Michelangelo was an unquestionable artistic genius who just so happened to live in the one city in the world which spawned an artistic and intellectual movement at the exact time that movement, the Renaissance, came into full bloom. 

While Michelangelo was far from the only great artist from Florence during this period, it was as if the lenses of geography, art, and history all focused their beams so they could hit this one person. 

Michelangelo’s family was not rich, but they were also not poor. His father had some financial problems, which was why he was in the town of Caprese when he was born and not Florence. 

His mother died when he was only six years old, and he was sent to live with a nanny in the town of Settignano, just outside of Florence. The nanny’s husband just so happened to own a marble quarry. 

It was here that he developed a love of marble and where he learned how to shape the stone with a hammer and chisel. 

He was later sent to Florence for his education, in which he seemed to show no interest. He eventually secured an apprenticeship ship with a local artist by the name of Domenico Ghirlandaio. Ghirlandaio was a master fresco painter, a skill that Michelangelo would certainly use later in his life. 

Here I need to explain more about just how important Florence was to the world of art at this time. Florence in the late 15th and early 16th century was like Vienna in the late 18th century for classical music, or what Silicon Valley is to technology today.  Florence was “the” palace to be.

If you don’t know art that well, I can put it in a way you might understand. All of the namesakes of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lived and worked in Florence sometime around this period. 

Michelangelo very quickly found success. At the age of 14, he was being paid by Ghirlandaio, which was almost unheard of for an apprentice. 

The de facto ruler of Florence, and the premier patron of artists, Lorenzo de Medici, then invited Michelangelo to live in a room in his palace. Michelangelo participated in the informal Platonic Academy of Florence, where philosophers and intellectuals of the era would congregate to discuss ideas.

At the age of 15, he created works that made people take notice. He began carving marble reliefs. One of the first of his works was the Madonna of the Steps. It isn’t at the same level as his later work, but you can tell there is an immense talent there and that this wasn’t the work of a normal 15-year-old. 

However, Lorenzo de Medici died in 1492, and there was a religious revival in Florence which resulted in Michelangelo leaving for several years. He bounced around Venice and Bologna, working on small art projects before returning to Florence in 1495 at the age of 20.

Here he got caught up in a scandal when he created a sculpture of St. John the Baptist for one of the lesser members of the Medici family.  He made Michelangelo rough it up a bit so it looked like an ancient Greek statue that was dug up, so they could sell it for more money. 

Their scam was discovered, but the statue’s buyer, Cardinal Raffaele Riario, was so impressed with the work that he invited Michelangelo to Rome.

It was here that he was commissioned by a French Cardinal to create a Pietà.  A pieta, generically, is an image showing Mary cradling the body of Jesus after he was taken down off the cross. 

Michelangelo finished the sculpture in 1499 when he was only 24 years old. It was immediately seen as one of the greatest sculptures of all time.  For my money, this is Michelangelo’s greatest work. It is on display at the Vatican inside St. Peter’s Basilica. Seeing this sculpture is worth visiting St. Peter’s all by itself. 

Creating this at the age of 24 was like Orson Wells making Citizen Kane when he was 25, Mary Shelly writing Frankenstein at the age of 18, or Prince’s first album where he wrote, produced, arranged, and played every instrument on every song at the age of 19. 

One thing I should note about the Pieta is that in 1972, a deranged Australian geologist by the name of Lazlo Toth attacked it with a geologist hammer shouting, “I am Jesus Christ; I have risen from the dead!”. He hit the statue 15 times, knocking off Mary’s arm and nose. They did a masterful restoration of the sculpture, and you can barely tell any damage was ever done to it.

If you go to see the Pieta in person, and you should, this is why you will find it behind bulletproof glass. 

With the Pieta under his belt, Michelangelo was now getting bigger commissions. He returned to Florence in 1501 and was given the commission to create a sculpture for the Florence Cathedral. It was originally designed to be one of 12 sculptures with an Old Testament theme. 

The subject he chose for the sculpture was biblical King David. He was given a giant block of marble purchased the year he was born and went unused. He was given the contract at the age of 26 over many other older, more well-established sculptors. 

He spent two years working on it, and the final product was 5.17 meters or 17 feet tall.

It was so good that it was moved to a prominent position outside of the Palazzo Vecchio, which was the Florence City Hall. It remained there from 1503 to 1873, when it was moved indoors to its current location in the Galleria dell’Accademia. 

With these two major wins, he began to get more and more attention and contracts for smaller projects. 

In 1505, however, he got the attention of the man who was probably the biggest art patron there could possibly be in Italy, Pope Julius II. 

Julius wanted Michelangelo to build a massive tomb for him that would have 40 statutes….and he wanted it done in five years. 

The problem was that Julius wanted Michelangelo to do a whole bunch of stuff which took his focus away from the tomb. The two fought constantly, and Michelangelo even left Rome for a spell and returned to Florence. 

In 1508, Julian asked Michelangelo to paint a fresco on the roof of the Sistine Chapel. I previously did an entire episode on the Sistine Chapel, so I’m not going to go into too much detail, but Michelangelo basically got permission to paint his own vision rather than what the pope wanted, and the result was the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. 

It took him four years to complete, and it was finished in 1512. 

Your assignment for this episode is to go and watch the 1965 film The Agony and the Ecstacy. Charlton Heston plays Michelangelo, and Rex Harrison plays Julius II. I checked, and it is available to rent on Amazon Prime, and I highly recommend it. 

Soon after the completion of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Julius II died in 1513 without his tomb being completed. 

In 1513 Michelangelo was 38 years old and already had a first ballot hall of fame career. He could never have made another thing and still have gone done as one of the greatest artists of all time.

Julius’s replacement was Leo X, who happened to be the son of his former patron, Lorenzo de Medici. 

He was commissioned to continue working on the tomb of Julius, which he did for several years until politics got in the way. 

He was then commissioned by the Medici to create a facade for the Basilica di San Lorenzo in Florence. It was never built due to a lack of funds, but the wooden models of it that Michelangelo created still exist.

There is still debate about finishing Michelangelo’s design for the facade today, over 500 years after he designed it. 

He also designed what is known as the Medici Chapel inside San Lorenzo’s. 

After a revolution and series of political upheavals in Florence, he moved back to Rome in 1534. 

In Rome, he was commissioned by Pope Clement VII to create another fresco for the Sistine Chapel. This time it was to be a depiction of the Last Judgement, which would appear on the altar wall. 

The image depicts the souls of the dead either ascending into heaven or descending into hell. 

It took him seven years to complete the fresco, which was highly controversial because of the nudity, especially the fact that Mary and Jesus were depicted without clothing. The genitals on the painting were eventually painted over shortly before Michelangelo’s death by one of his assistants, Daniele da Volterra. 

After the completion of the Last Judgement, he also received two more commissions for frescos in the Vatican, which are not as well known. The Crucifixion of St Peter and The Conversion of Saul. They are both located inside the Vatican Palace, so they are seldom seen by the public.

After this, he began receiving architectural commissions. In particular, in 1546, he was appointed as the head architect for St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. 

Construction of the church had been underway for 50 years, and the original design was not Michelangelo’s. He was the third person appointed to the position. 

By the time Michelangelo was appointed, the main thing which had been built was the four giant piers that were to support the dome. There was still a lot of room to determine the final outcome of what the church would look like. Michelangelo stuck with the original design created by Donato Bramante but made the entire building more cohesive.

Michelangelo’s biggest contribution is in many ways, the biggest and most important part of St. Peter’s, the dome. The dome’s design was Michelangelo’s, and he lived long enough to see the beginning of the dome’s construction. 

The dome of St. Peter’s is still today, almost 500 years later, the largest dome in the world as measured by its inner height. 

The Dome of St. Peter’s has been considered the greatest work of the Renaissance.

In addition to the sculptures, paintings, and architecture, he also was a poet. Over 300 of his poems have survived, although the quality of his poetry pales in comparison to his other works.

He even continued working on the tomb of Julius II for most of his life, although he was never truly satisfied with the outcome. It was much smaller than originally planned, and it was not placed in St. Peter’s but rather in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome.

Michelangelo passed away in 1564 at the age of 88. He left behind an incredible legacy of art both in terms of the quantity and quality of his work. I have only touched on a few of his greatest works in this episode. 

The greatness of Michelangelo can be seen in the fact that 500 years later, there are still millions of people who go out of their way to witness his genius. 


The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener gofish 123, over at Apple Podcasts in the United Kingdom. They write:

So good

So good love what you are doing my favourite is the one about your podcast.

Thanks, gofish! I don’t do too many podcasts about my podcast because if I podcast about the podcast, I fear people would stop listening to the podcast, and then I wouldn’t have a podcast to podcast.

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.