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The Genius that is Michelangelo


Reflections on the Special Interest Day
led by Shirley Smith
on November 11th 2017




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 early life and work

Michelangelo considered himself principally as a sculptor, although he is equally renowned as a painter.  What I was surprised to hear was that he was also a poet.  Much is known of his life, as over 1400 of his 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 marble.  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 the statue was androgynous in appearance.  The Cardinal rejected his work, 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 of Florence.

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.

Philip Akroyd


Session 2:  Continuing work in 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 Michelangelo.

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.

Vivien King


Session 3:  The Last Judgement, 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 Chapel.

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 state.

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 years!

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 Michelangelo’s life.

Louise Taylor




Shirley Smith who educated, entertained and captivated us
with her authoritative account of Michelangelo's life and work