West Surrey Area
Museums & Art Galleries
The Genius that is Michelangelo
Reflections on the Special Interest Day
led by Shirley Smith
on November 11th
Shirley Smith, our
speaker for the day, graduated from the University of East Anglia with
First Class Honours in the History of Art and was winner of the
Dissertation Prize, specialising in the Italian and Northern
Renaissance. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, she has
lectured part-time at the University of East Anglia and with the
Institute of Continuing Education of the University of Cambridge, for
whom she runs Residential Weekend courses and Day Schools.
Her essay on ‘The Fresco Decoration in the Sistine Chapel: Biblical
Authority and the Church of Rome’ appears in The Edinburgh Companion to the Bible and
the Arts published by Edinburgh University Press in 2014.
Session 1: Michelangelo’s
life and work
Michelangelo considered himself principally as a sculptor, although he
is equally renowned as a painter. What I was surprised to hear
he was also a poet. Much is known of his life, as over 1400 of
letters/contracts/bank statements survive, and 2 biographies were
written at the time.
He was born in Caprese in 1475, and spent his early years in
Florence. Aged 15, he was brought to the attention of Lorenzo de
Medici, who took
him into his palace, and he studied the sculptures in its antique
sculpture garden. Between 1492 and 1494 he carved the Madonna of the Stairs
showing the child Jesus asleep, not feeding; was this an intimation of
death as Christ was born to die? In 1492 he carved the Battle of the
Centaurs, emphasising light and shadow by undercutting the
skill shown in both of these sculptures was remarkable for an artist
still in his teens.
Charles VIII invaded Italy in 1494, leading to the expulsion of the
Medici from Florence to be followed by the rule of Savonarola, who
preached divine retribution, but was himself burnt at the stake.
Michelangelo moved to Rome, and the wealth of the papacy led to rich
pickings for him. He was commissioned to carve Bacchus by Cardinal
Riario, for which he introduced the contrapposto style, with bent knee
to express movement. By so doing he flouted classical form, and
statue was androgynous in appearance. The Cardinal rejected his
which was thereafter bought by Jacobo Galli, who introduced him to the
Cardinal who commissioned the Pieta.
This remarkable sculpture presents
some anomalies - Mary appears younger than Christ (Dante’s Divine
Comedy may have a bearing here); her lap is disproportionately large,
to hold Christ’s body; the work shows a rock foundation – St Peter
refers to the Christian Church being built on a rock. The Pieta is the
only work signed by Michelangelo.
Galli commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Entombment as the alterpiece for
San-Agostino in Rome, which demonstrated his knowledge of anatomy, with
strong muscularity on the naked Jesus. In 1501, he returned to
Florence where the Wool Merchants Guild commissioned him to carve a
figure of David to stand on a
buttress of Florence Cathedral. The biblical tale of David v
Goliath epitomised the political struggle experienced by Florence in
seeking to retain its independence against outside influences.
The torso Belvedere, a 2nd Century work in the sculpture garden, may
have inspired Michelangelo. Although David was intended for the
Cathedral’s buttress, it was decided to locate him outside the Palazzo
Vecchio, the seat of civic government in Florence. It came to
symbolise the defence of the civil liberties embodied in the Republic
In 1504 the Wool Merchants commissioned Michelangelo to carve the Pitti and Taddei Tondi, interesting
in particular as they were circular in design, and showed very human
depictions of Madonna and child. It seems that they were used for
private devotion rather than for public display.
Later that year, he began work on the cartoon for the Battle of Cascina, for the Palazzo
della Signoria, as an adjunct to Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari. The
difference was marked, as Michelangelo painted naked soldiers, full of
twisting movement, as opposed to Leonardo’s formal, armoured military,
some on horseback, in a far more conventional depiction. Neither
painting was completed, and we are left with copies of the two cartoons.
In 1505, Pope Julius II called Michelangelo back to Rome, to commence
work on the Pope’s tomb. Julius, the Warrior Pope, was determined
to re-establish a “proper” papacy. His tomb was not completed
until 1545! Julius halted work for the first time in 1506, which
resulted in Michelangelo returning to Florence. However, he was
back in Rome in 1508 to commence work on the Sistine Chapel (see second
lecture). A second contract for Julius’s tomb was granted in
1512, and he started carving Moses
and the Slave figures.
Michelangelo believed that the models were actually contained in the
marble blocks, which he simply had to release.
The lecture concluded with Shirley reciting Michelangelo’s sonnet 25,
revealing his emotional state at the time.
May I conclude by expressing how outstanding I found Shirley Smith’s
presentation. Her depth of knowledge and insight into her subject
was exemplary, and the explanation of how the politics of the age
affected the artists was of particular interest to me.
Session 2: Continuing
Florence and the Sistine Chapel
In our second session Shirley focused on the transition Michelangelo
made from sculptor to painter, and in particular on the fresco of the
ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Work on building the chapel had
been started in 1477 by Pope Sixtus. A building fit for the
coronation of popes, important church festivals and conclaves, it could
accommodate about 200 of the church hierarchy and matched the
dimensions of the Temple of Solomon. In 1480 a number of artists
from outside Rome decorated the walls with figures of popes, martyrs,
themes from the life of Moses. It was assumed that the ceiling
would be the traditional blue with gold stars. The chapel was
built on poor foundations and by 1504 cracks appeared and following
inadequate redecoration and repair in 1508, Pope Sixtus summoned the
33year old Michelangelo to Rome from Florence to fresco the ceiling.
This was an enormous challenge for the sculptor and as yet untested
painter and he was by no means given a free hand in the design.
The wishes of the patron Julius would have been paramount and informed
by his learned advisers. As an artist Michelangelo would not have
been highly educated, did not read Latin and would not have led the
design. His sonnets reveal a degree of reluctance to take on the
physically demanding task. But his genius lay in making a
monumental work of art based on the Book of Genesis.
Shirley took us through the sections of his work on the prophets of the
Old Testament, the Sibyls, Christ’s ancestors and the depiction of
scenes from the Salvation of Israel and onto the nine scenes from the
Creation which were painted out of order so that Michelangelo could
focus on refining his technique with the human form before moving onto
the ethereal and the divine. She showed how he drew on all his
skill as a sculptor to get as much movement as possible in to the
twisted, pivoted figures, thrones painted to look like marble and
foreshortening to accommodate being looked at from below. The
first sections are more crowded than the second which may have been
simplified to show up more clearly from the floor.
Julius and Sixtus justified the Sistine Chapel as a means of fostering
piety through art at a time when the church needed to reinforce the
importance of obedience in the face of criticism from figures such as
Erasmus. However, not all of the detail on the ceiling is about
biblical texts. Across the centre of the ceiling nude figures
hold up sacks of acorns, a reference to the oak trees in the coat of
arms of these popes.
Pope Julius was pleased with Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling and the
latter hoped to then move onto work on the proposed tomb for
Julius. Leo X became pope on the death of Julius and there
followed a time of turmoil in relations between Florence and Rome as a
Medici power base grew in Florence and all against the backdrop of
Leo’s excommunication of Luther and the Protestant Reformation.
By 1526 the next key project for Michelangelo that Shirley examined was
the New Sacristy for the Medici Chapel, San Lorenzo, in Florence which
in troubled times was never finished.
Then in 1530 he began work on the Laurentian Library in the cloisters
of San Lorenzo in Florence. This was to be built over the living
quarters of the monks and designed so as to reduce the risk of fire
from drunk monks. His work here included an extraordinary grand
staircase which turned a structural element into a work of
sculpture. Difficult to use and resembling almost a lava flow, it
was avant garde for this period.
This was a time of great unrest with battles between the Emperor
Charles V and the King of France and the papacy was seen as supporting
the French. Rome was sacked, the pope was in hiding, the
Florentines ousted the Medicis and established a short-lived republic
again. In 1528/9 Michelangelo was appointed Superintendent of
Fortifications with the task of designing fortifications to defend his
beloved Florence. But by 1534 a Medici was made the first duke of
Florence and so brought to an end 400 years of republican life.
At this Michelangelo decided to leave his beloved Florence, went to
Rome and never returned.
Shirley finished this session by providing us with insights into two
significant relationships that Michelangelo had at this time. He
met in 1534, Tomasso de Cavalieri who was years his junior but they
developed a deep bond. It is for him that Michelangelo does his
most erotic drawings, for example The
Rape of the Ganymede in 1550. The depth of emotion in this
relationship is also set out in Sonnet 89. This friendship
sustained even when Tomasso married and he was present at the death of
In 1536 he met Vittoria Colonna. She was a strong advocate of
church reform and became his patron and confidante. It is to her
he dedicated his most tender of sonnets and was distraught on her death
in 1547. Now in Rome and with a new Pope Paul III, Michelangelo
found a significant patron.
Session 3: The
the rebuilding of St Peters and the Capitol and the Pauline
Chapel. His final work and sculptures
The last session of the day takes us from 1534 when Pope Paul III was
elected. Pope Paul wanted to try and restore the Church in
response to Protestantism; Henry VIII was in power in England at this
time and had issued his Act of Supremacy where he was to break from
Rome and establish himself as Head of the Church. It was Pope
Paul who was to take over the commission for Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgement in the Sistine
In 1536, Michelangelo was to start work on the alter wall which had
been damaged by fire and needed restoring. The fresco of the Last Judgement took over four years
to complete and was to depict the Second Coming of Christ and the final
judgement by God of all humanity.
At the time, a normal depiction of the Last Judgement showed a clear
distinction between heaven and hell, but Michelangelo decided to blur
this division and everyone in the painting seems to be united by the
dread of Judgement.
The iconography in this painting is Michelangelo’s own work even though
he still would have been given advice from scholars. At the
centre is Christ who is unusually shown without a beard. This
statement together with the vast number of nudes caused outrage among
The Pope’s Master of Ceremonies, who is reported by Vasari to have said
that "it was most disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should
have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so
shamefully, and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather for
the public baths and taverns".
The darkness of the painting is said to have possibly reflected
Michelangelo’s feelings of abandonment by the Church and his
realisation of getting old. Saint Bartholomew is displayed in the
painting holding a sagging empty skin, which was said to be
Michelangelo’s face. Michelangelo was taught that a divine soul
was personified by beauty and now that his beauty was failing him with
age, he wondered whether this was a reflection of his soul. His
work was criticised and condemned for the amount of nudity in it.
The Vatican threatened to destroy the fresco but instead artists were
ordered in to paint clothes on some of the figures.
Paul III however, protected Michelangelo’s work and if he hadn’t his
work probably would have been destroyed. Paul continued to
commission Michelangelo and his next task, although 69 years old by
this point, was to redesign the Capitoline Hill. Two years later
he was also appointed to become Superintendent of Construction for the
re-design of St Peters, which was by the 16th Century, in a terrible
Shirley made a point that the re-building of St Peters is a great story
in itself and something that she lectures on separately. A
lecture I think I would like to attend!
The design of St Peters by Michelangelo is fluid like a sculpture and
not rigid like the usual buildings of the period. Michelangelo
has an organic approach to architecture.
Also during this time, even though Michelangelo was suffering from
kidney stones, he still worked for Pope Paul creating the Conversion of Saul (circa
1542–1545) and the Crucifixion of St
Peter (circa 1546–1550). Shirley said that we can’t
overlook these two frescos as Michelangelo’s declining works as they’re
too important for that.
Pope Paul died in 1549, however Michelangelo was to live for another 15
The designs for the Capella Sforza, the church of San Giovanni, the
Porta Pia and the remodelling of the Diocletian thermae all show how
far ahead of his time Michelangelo was. He dared to think outside
the box when it came to his architecture and try things never seen
before. This is why he was to become so influential for many
centuries to come.
His last sculpture Rondanini Pieta
isn’t thought to have been commissioned by anyone. He worked on
this up until the day he died and remains unfinished with quite
prominent chisel marks present, which as we know is quite unlike his
previous work from when he was younger.
Michelangelo died on 18th February 1564 of fever, aged 89 and is
considered to be one of the greatest artists of all time. His
tomb can be seen in the Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence.
This last lecture concluded a most wonderful Special Interest Day and I
would like to thank Shirley on a mesmerising insight into
Shirley Smith who educated, entertained and
with her authoritative account of Michelangelo's life and work