Home / General / Erik Visits a (Non)-American Grave, Part 1,606

Erik Visits a (Non)-American Grave, Part 1,606


This is the grave of Michelangelo.

Hey, you might know this guy!

Born in Caprese, the Republic of Florence in 1475, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simon, our future genius grew up well-off, but not super duper elite. His father was a failed banker forced to take government positions. That still made the family probably in the upper 2 or 3 percent of Florence, where Michelangelo grew up. Of course, he got the best schooling one could get in that time and place. He was a terrible student though. But he loved drawing and he was obviously very good at that. So his father decided to just roll with it. In 1489, he convinced Domenico Ghirlandaio, an important painter in his own right, to take on his son as a paid apprentice. Soon after, Lorenzo de’Medici asked Ghirlandiao to send him the two best pupils in his workshop. One was Francesco Granacci, the other Michelangelo.

The Medicis would become important patrons of Michelangelo. He started working in marble in the early 1490s while being in their court and attending their Platonic Academy, which was a school run by the family to educate new generations of elite artists and thinkers. Think of it as Renaissance School.

But in 1493, Michelangelo’s father died (his mother had died when he was a child) and he had to return home to run his father’s estate. That didn’t stop him from continuing to work though. He was rapidly rising through the Florence elite and seen as a very real talent. True enough. He started doing a bunch of sculpture that sold well and got him some attention. He headed to Rome for awhile and while there, in 1497, the French ambassador to the Vatican commissioned him to create what became known as the Pieta, which was a statue of the Virgin weeping over the body of Christ. This is widely considered to be Michelangelo’s first true masterpiece. It’s now in St. Peter’s Basilica.

After the execution of the proto-Puritan priest Savornola in 1498, Michelangelo returned to Florence the next year. Soon after, the Guild of Wool asked him to complete a project long ago started but halted, which was the statue of David. It took until 1504 for him to complete it.

So let’s talk about David. It’s somewhat ridiculous for me to wax on about Renaissance art, a subject about which I don’t know much and which, frankly, kind of blends together, as religious art does. When I was in Florence, I mean, it was an astounding experience. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The whole time, I’m just like, this is ridiculous, how am I even here? Going in January was even better–the crowds so much smaller, the weather perfectly warm enough to walk around, even if there were a couple of rainy days. And unlike the kind of idiot American tourist who wants to do the Grand Tour of Italy in a week and spends all their time checking off boxes in Rome and Florence and Venice to tell their friends on Wall Street where they went, we slowed it waaaaaay down and did a whole 10 days in Florence alone, with day trips to Siena and Pisa in there. Even that was too much moving around (Siena obviously deserves multiple days on its own). I remember that a few blocks from our hotel, there was a piece of religious public art from this era that was preserved on the side of a building. I think I enjoyed that historically neat but minor piece as much as almost anything I saw in the museums, just because I could stand and look at it alone and also kind of imagine seeing it on the streets of Florence 500 years ago (no doubt while I had the plague or dysentery or whatnot).

The point is that even with the greatest artists of all time, you can get so overwhelmed that you stop paying attention to the details when there is so much of it.

That is not the case with Michelangelo’s sculptures. When you see a really famous piece of art, it can overwhelm, but it can also underwhelm. Or just whelm. When I saw the Mona Lisa, I was like, well that’s pretty cool, but more because it was iconic than because I was really stunned by the greatest painting ever made or something like that. I don’t know how one even approaches a painting like that otherwise. But when I went to see the David, I am not going to lie, it completely blew my mind. That perfect depiction of a human body, at that size and made at that time, is perhaps the most profound experience I’ve ever had with a piece of art. The gallery where the David is displayed also has a bunch of partially-finished Michelangelo sculptures as well that you can get much closer to and I found this also astounding, like watching a master at work at different points of creation. Really cool stuff.

Also, Michelangelo had another 60 years of work ahead of him when he finished it.

Well, I am not going to go into that much detail about all the art–we can do that in comments. Let’s just say that while I have not seen the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, I hope to do so someday. That’s the same with Moses, The Last Judgment, and the other critical pieces of his work. I haven’t been to Rome, basically and while I hope to have plenty of traveling ahead of me, I also know at this age that time does begin to play a factor and it’s a big world and most of my traveling is dictated by something academic for myself or my wife, so who knows. I did see pretty much the rest of his work in Florence though, such as the Medici tombs and the Basilica of San Lorenzo.

Just a few other things–Michelangelo actually fought in the battles to stop the Medicis from returning to Florence in the late 1520s and they were going to kill him after they won back power in 1530 and he hid in a tiny hidden room for some months. The room was not discovered until 1975 and lo and behold, here was a huge cache of Michelangelo drawings he made to pass the time until the Medici anger faded. They did eventually let him come out of hiding, in part to finish their own tombs. But mostly he was in Rome after 1534.

And let’s not forget the greatest honor he ever had, if only he had known it–having a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle named for him.

Personally, Michelangelo was bisexual, with a lot of love poetry to other men that his descendants changed the pronouns of to hide this fact. This did not come to light until new translations of them in 1893. He wasn’t much of a lover either way though–an intense Catholic and personal acetic who barely ate or bathed, he was a man almost singularly focused on his work. I think we have all benefitted from that. Of course, he battled with all the other leading artists of the time for the best commissions, which meant a lot of sucking up to kings and popes and a lot of slamming on the other artists. He was as cutthroat as anyone on this stuff; he and Raphael particularly loathed each other.

Every now and then, some new piece of Michelangelo’s work shows up. In 2007, the Vatican archives revealed a chalk drawing of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, believed to be the last existing piece by him, showed up. It was unusual in the sense that he often destroyed his drawings. And of course any addition to what we know about this genius is great. He died in 1564 in Rome, at the age of 88. Pretty amazing lifespan for the sixteenth century!

Anyway, we can leave the mass of stuff here to talk about to the comments. But hey, Michelangelo, pretty cool!

Michelangelo is buried in the Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy.

Well, there’s no one quite like Michelangelo in the U.S., but if you would like this series to visit some American sculptors, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Louise Nevelson is in Acworth, New Hampshire and Duane Hanson is in Spruce Hill Township, Minnesota. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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