Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475 – 1564) was known merely by his first name and was a prolific sculptor, painter, and architect. Most famous for his fresco work of Sistine Chapel, and David, Michelangelo was a multifaceted man with little known about his personal life. His works hid small nuggets of his personality in various parts. Across four and a half centuries, art critics and historians have pulled together a glimpse of his professional and personal life.
1. He started his career as an art forger.
He was the protégé of Domenico Ghirlandaio at the age of 13. His professional career began as a con artist in 1496. Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici saw a Greek-style sculpture of Cupid, the Roman god of love and desire created by Michelangelo. The art patron encouraged the sculptor to sell it under the guise of being recovered in an archaeological dig. The buyer, Cardinal Raffaele Riario was later refunded for the forgery. Extremely impressed by the quality of work, he invited the young sculptor to Rome under his patronage to hone his skills. The sculpture of the Sleeping Cupid is believed to have been lost in the 17th-century fire that destroyed London’s Whitehall Palace.
2. He excelled in all forms of expression, including poetry.
Other than being a well renowned visual artist, Michelangelo was also an eloquent poet. He wrote over 300 sonnets and letters in eloquent prose to his lovers. His poems overflow with ellipses and inverted word order making it difficult to comprehend. His poems also serve as an interpretation of his art. He wrote about his art being a conduit to God and reflected Him through the depiction of Biblical stories. One can see self-hatred in some of his sonnets portraying his relationship with faith and God.
3. David was carved from discarded marble.
“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” David was also known as ‘the Giant’ and was hewn out of a single slab mined around forty years before David. Many had struck the hammer and chisel onto the rough, weathered surface. Michelangelo worked around the scarred monolith as he carved a masterpiece. However, this has resulted in the gradual deterioration of the famed statue. A recent analysis of David shows cracks and fissures in the otherwise magnificent marble.
4. He fortified the city of Florence.
Michelangelo designed defensive works and military fortifications for the city of Florence. He was appointed as the ‘Governor-General of Fortifications’ for the massive city-wide project. The work was an extension of his artistic capabilities. The design was composed of three lunettes and two ravelins to break up frontal assault. The various parts are connected by removable bridges or planks. Most run along the perimeter of the entire fort. The entire compound was triangular with pincer-like protrusions for extra fortification.
5. He had a unique knowledge of human anatomy.
The Catholic Church revered the human body as a divine mystery, forbidding anatomical study and portrayal. They believed it as the return of paganism. Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel has the figure of the brain in precise detail. The figure of God overlays a vague cloudlike form. This is believed to be a diagram of the limbic side of the brain, the area of the brain controlling creativity. The portrayal of ram skulls imitates the outline of the female reproductive system. This knowledge was impossible to obtain unless Michelangelo studied human anatomy by dissecting cadavers.
6. He was believed to be possessed by evil.
Michelangelo worked from daybreak through the night depending on whenever inspiration struck. To ensure perfection and detailing, he fashioned a helmet with a candle attached to it, akin to those worn by miners today. This created horrific, demonic shadows to fall on the artwork he was creating. His neighbors and other observers were led to believe that this was a satanic ritual or that evil spirits emerged from the great sculptor at night.
7. He signed only one of his works.
The Pieta was the only work signed by Michelangelo. He immediately regretted the vanity of this act. The sash of the Virgin Mary has the inscription of his complete name. This was done in arrogance as he overheard several patrons crediting an older, more experienced artist. He wanted his work to speak for itself and the quality of workmanship and vision to credit him. His works became famous for being true to themselves rather than a vain expression for rewards and riches.
8. He portrayed himself with extreme self-loathing.
Michelangelo hid self-portraits within the biblical scenes rather than signing his works. However, they were grotesque portrayals with the most famous being the one in the Judgement Day panel at Sistine Chapel. It portrays him as being flayed and skinned alive. The painting depicts the souls of the dead facing the judgment and wrath of God, including St. Bartholomew holding Michelangelo’s skin. Recent restorations have shed light upon a self-portrait in the Crucifixion of Saint Peter in the Vatican’s Pauline Chapel. He is hidden as one of the horsemen, pointing towards the crucifix. It seems as though he blames himself for the instances in the scene.
9. He was non-heterosexual.
Michelangelo was known to have been in love with Tommaso Cavalier, a young model in the 1530s. The artist wrote several sonnets and letters to Tommaso with deep affection and love portrayed. Tommaso was one among few at Michelangelo’s deathbed in 1564. Most of his works focused on the male anatomy lending a homoerotic theme to the paintings. The subject of his works were men more often than not, except in the case of Biblical scenes.
10. He hated his most famous work of art.
Michelangelo considered painting as the lowest cheapest form of art. He had no passion for it and accepted painting commissions merely for financial reasons. He was chosen to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on the recommendation of Raphael. The latter believed the former to be a shabby, poor painter and wanted to destroy his reputation. This backfired on Michelangelo’s peers when it turned out to be his most renowned work.