Michelangelo Buonarroti was born into a prominent Florentine family during the final decades of the early Renaissance. Trained first in painting, which was considered the most elevated of the arts, Michelangelo then turned his attention to sculpture and made a point throughout his career to champion the cause of sculptors by propagating the idea that sculptors, like painters, could be divinely inspired in their work. Michelangelo was hired initially by the Medici family in Florence and exposed to classical ideals via the Neo-Platonic Academy set up by the Medici to highlight the ideas of Plato. Due to his spiritual discourse, Plato was considered most suitable of all the pagan philosophers to the Christian world. By linking the artistic act of creation to both religious beliefs and these Platonic ideals, Michelangelo was able to elevate the status of artists, and mainly sculptors, to the degree that many of them became internationally famous and very wealthy. After having completed his famous Pietà in 1500, his David in 1504, and finally, his Sistine ceiling project in 1512, Michelangelo turned to architecture.
   The Medici family, who had been expelled from Florence for a brief time, returned in 1515 with a renewed desire to establish authority in the city, and that authority was made powerfully visual through the commissioning of various architectural projects. That year, Michelangelo was called back to Florence from Rome and made chief architect to the Medici family. In the 1440s, Filippo Brunelleschi had built the Medici church of San Lorenzo, located right behind the family palace, but San Lorenzo never received a marble façade, and to this day it is covered in a rough-cut brick edged in layers with ridges meant to support large blocks of stone facing. At San Lorenzo, Michelangelo was commissioned to finish the façade, build another sacristy across from Brunelleschi's "Old Sacristy," reface the Medici library held at the monastery of San Lorenzo, and complete a stairway leading up to the reading room of the library. Beginning just after 1515, he designed a classicizing façade for San Lorenzo, which exists today only in its original wooden model that would have been used by builders to complete construction. The three-part marble façade would have risen up in a square shape, matching the taller height of the nave and masking the lower heights of the side aisles. Probably due to Michelangelo's multiple commissions for the Medici, this façade was never completed. Instead Michelangelo built the "New Sacristy" to house funerary monuments for Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici. This sacristy was so big that the height of its dome towered over the church and echoed the large dome of the Florence Cathedral. Architectural parallels such as this made visually concrete the political connections between the Medici family and Florentine government.
   Inside the chapel, Michelangelo began to experiment with a new flexibility in his use of classical references. Instead of carefully mimicking the principles of the Roman engineer Vitruvius, as Bramante had done, Michelangelo created a more crowded wall, articulated with a darker stone called pietra serena, which stands out against the white wall background. Fluted pilasters are pressed into the four corners of the room, niches stand empty over the doorways, volutes do not support entablatures, and additional decorative elements not described by Vitruvius appear on the wall. This new style, which is not so much a breaking away from classical ideals but an expansion of classicism, is called Mannerism.
   The library stairwell, which dates to the 1520s, also reveals this new Mannerist style. Never before has a stairway received so much attention, which in the Renaissance helped to emphasize the idea that even the most functional elements of a building could be created in a beautiful, artistic way. The Laurentian Library, located off the ground floor in one of the upper-story wings of the courtyard of the Monastery of San Lorenzo, had a narrow vestibule or foyer, which could have hampered Michelangelo in his stairway design. Nonetheless, Michelangelo was still able to design a monumental stair based on the idea, or conceit, of flowing water. Thus, the steps come down from the top in wider increments, and curve at their edges to suggest the idea of water pooling at different levels as it flows downward. The main stairs are broken about two-thirds of the way up at a landing that opens onto the sides to allow side stairs to "flow" downward as well, thereby creating a tripartite stair at the bottom, separated into its three parts by a classical banister. The walls of the room are articulated in a manner similar to those of the New Sacristy. That is, pairs of columns sink into the wall, suggesting that their function is merely decorative rather than part of the support system. Blind niches, or niches devoid of sculpture, also function as blind windows that do not open to the outside, while pairs of columns sink into the corner, negating the idea of the corner as structurally reinforced from two walls that come together at a 90-degree angle. Typical of the Mannerist style, here Michelangelo uses classical motifs but in a manner different from that proposed by Vitruvius.
   In the 1530s, when the Medici once again began to lose political favor in Florence, Michelangelo returned to Rome and worked for Pope Paul III on major commissions at Saint Peter's Church and the Capitoline Hill. At Saint Peter's, Michelangelo picked up where Bramante had left construction, at the crossing beneath the proposed dome. Because Bramante's piers were cracking, Michelangelo had to reinforce them, modifying the ground plan slightly and building the walls around the south end of the transept. After his death, the dome was finally completed in the 1580s by his student Giacomo della Porta.
   For the Capitoline Hill project, Pope Paul III envisioned a new government center that would match the grandeur of Saint Peter's. Earlier government structures on the Capitoline Hill include a Senate building and an office building with a long loggia, or open porch, both of which were constructed in the 1300s. The entire site was located in downtown Rome on a hill that was accessible by a dirt path leading to an irregularly shaped unpaved piazza, or urban square. Michelangelo's plan involved renovating the buildings and adding a new classical façade to each, paving the piazza, and making the area symmetrical. Directly across from the old office building, he added one that angled slightly away from the Senate building to the same degree as the opposite structure, thereby bringing symmetry to the piazza in the form of a slight trapezoid. The new façade was built to match the opposing renovated façade, both with an open loggia and colossal columns that ascended through both stories of each building and were topped by a Roman-style balustrade with roof sculpture. The center of the piazza was designed with an intricately patterned oval shape of intersecting marble lines that frame a bronze equestrian figure of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. This sculpture, placed on a tall pedestal, served to anchor the entire program by recalling imperial Rome and thus providing historical validity to the current Renaissance political system. Furthermore, during the Renaissance this equestrian figure was thought to be a statue of Constantine, who would have provided an additional historical link to the establishment of Christianity in Rome.
   The entire complex provides powerful expression of Michelangelo's skill in adapting classical architectural style and symbolism to current Renaissance issues. It also highlights his ability not just as a painter and sculptor, but as an architect as well. Indeed, these works show that Michelangelo epitomizes the ideals of the true Renaissance man.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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  • Michelangelo Buonarroti — noun Florentine sculptor and painter and architect; one of the outstanding figures of the Renaissance (1475 1564) • Syn: ↑Michelangelo • Instance Hypernyms: ↑sculptor, ↑sculpturer, ↑carver, ↑statue maker, ↑old master, ↑ …   Useful english dictionary

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