Michelangelo Buonarotti

Unfinished Portrait of Michelangelo (ca. 1544) by his student, Daniele da Volterra, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Michelangelo, Italy, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Unfinished Portrait of Michelangelo (ca. 1544) by his student, Daniele da Volterra, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Arguably the greatest artist who ever lived, part of the Holy Trinity of Italian Renaissance masters

Irascible, moody, and manic-depressive, Michelangelo was quite simply one of the greatest artists of all time—and was even acclaimed as the greatest artist of his age while still a teenager.

Supremely talented, divinely inspired, both a great craftsman and insightful innovator, seemingly able to master effortlessly any artistic pursuit he attempted, he would become the High Renaissance's greatest painter and sculptor, and renowned architect, and trusted military engineer.

He also wrote excellent poetry.

Michelangelo's early life

Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475–1564) was born in the tiny town of Caprese, near Arezzo, in the Tuscan hills east of Florence. His Florentine father—an exceedingly minor Tuscan noble—was serving a term as a podestà (visiting mayor) of Capreses.

Michelangelo grew up on the family farm at Settignano, outside Florence, and was wet-nursed by the wife of a local stonecutter—he used to joke that he sucked his skill with the hammer and chisel along with the mother's milk.

He was apprenticed early to the fresco studio of Domenico Ghirlandaio who, while watching the young apprentice sketching, once remarked in shock, "This boy knows more about it than I do."

After just a year at the studio, Michelangelo was recruited by Lorenzo the Magnificent de' Medici to become part of his new school for sculptors.

Michelangelo learned quickly, and soon after his arrival at the school took a chunk of marble and carved it to copy the head of an old faun from an ancient statue in the garden. Lorenzo happened by and saw the skill with which the head was made, but when he saw Michelangelo had departed from his model and carved the mouth open and laughing with teeth and a tongue, he commented only, "But you should have known that old people never have all their teeth and there are always some missing."

The young artist reflected on this. When Lorenzo returned a while later, he found Michelangelo waiting anxiously, eager to show he had not only chipped out a few teeth but also gouged down into the gums of the statue to make the tooth loss look more realistic. Impressed, Lorenzo decided to take the boy under his wing and virtually adopted him into the Medici household.

After his success at age 19 with the Pietà sculpture in Rome, Michelangelo was given the opportunity by the city council to carve the enormous block of marble that became David. He worked on it behind shuttered scaffolding so few saw it until the unveiling.

Legend has it that when Soderini, the head of the city council, came to see the finished work, he remarked the nose looked a tad too large. Michelangelo, knowing better but wanting to please Soderini, climbed up to the head (out of view), grabbed a handful of leftover plaster dust, and while tapping his hammer lightly against his chisel, let the dust sprinkle down gradually as if he were actually carving.

"Much better," remarked Soderini when Michelangelo climbed down again and they stepped back to admire it. "Now you've really brought it to life."

Michelangelo enjoyed great fame in a life plagued by a series of never-ending projects commissioned by Pope Julius II and the Medici.

Michelangelo's contributions to art

Michelangelo's fresco palette broke from the staid tradition of primaries-plus-gold and plunged painting into a festive new world of vibrant color. His figures—carved or painted—twisted and turned and carried their weight believably. Every face he created had a character behind it.

His proportions were mathematically precise and his creations exactingly naturalistic—except where they weren't; Michelangelo knew how to distort or exaggerate the rules to achieve an even greater artistic effect (study The David's hands and head sometime; they're all outrageously oversized, yet somehow they look right).

In art, he worshipped the male nude as the ultimate form and twisted the bodies of his figures (torsion) in different, often contradictory directions (contraposto) to bring out their musculature. 

The list of his artistic innovations is endless, but some of his most intriguing stylistic flourishes included working marble to both polished stages as well as leaving parts chisel-toothed and rough, partly to show the artistic process but mainly to create mood and convey emotion through texture alone.

When forced against his will to paint the Sistine Chapel in Rome, he nevertheless broke almost all the rules and sent painting headlong in an entirely new direction—the mannerist movement—marked by non-primary colors, impressionistic shapes of light, and twisting, muscular figures.

He was also temperamental, whiney, sycophantic without loyalty, and all around a bit of a jerk.

On the Sistine Chapel ceiling job, he was utterly dissatisfied with his assistants and ended up firing all of of them save one he kept on to help grind pigments (and, possibly, to help warm his bed at night; though he maintained a deep and spirited friendship with a woman later in life, that relationship was, by all accounts, utterly platonic and Michelangelo was, by all innuendo, gay).

Michelangelo's report card would definitely have read "Does not play well with others." These character faults were unfortunately indulged or endured by those around him because he was so incredibly good at what he did.

He was the first artist to be treated like a rock star rather than a common laborer or simple craftsman, and might well be counted as the art world's first true prima donna and enfant terrible.

We forgive him, too, because—hey, we all have faults; we're all human.

Michelangelo just also happened to be, quite simply, the greatest artist who ever lived.

Photo gallery
  • Unfinished Portrait of Michelangelo (ca. 1544) by his student, Daniele da Volterra, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Michelangelo, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
  • The David (1501–04) by Michelangelo, in the Accademia, Florence, Italy, Michelangelo, Italy (Photo by Jörg Bittner Unna)
  • The Libyan Sybil, a detail from the Sistine Chapel (1508–12) by Michelangelo, in the Vatican, Rome, Italy, Michelangelo, Italy (Photo by Unknown)
  • La Pietà (1497–99) by Michelangelo, in St. Peter
  • The Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508–12) by Michelangelo, in the Vatican, Rome, Italy, Michelangelo, Italy (Photo by власне фото)
  • The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (
  • The Dying slave (1513–18) by Michelangelo, in the Louvre, Paris, Michelangelo, Italy (Photo by Jastrow)
  • The Doni Tondo (1506–08) by Michelangelo, in the Uffizi Galleries, Florence, Italy, Michelangelo, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Uffizi Galleries)
  • The Bearded Salve and Atlas, two of the nonfiniti (unfinished) Slaves, or Prisoners, (c. 1520–23) by Michelangelo, in the Accademia, Florence, Italy, Michelangelo, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Accademia, Florence)
  • The Last Judgment (1536–41) by Michelangelo, in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, Rome, Italy, Michelangelo, Italy (Photo courtesy of the Vatican)
  • Pietà Rondanini (1564) by Michelangelo, in the Museo d
  • The dome of St. Peter

Selected works by Michelangelo in Italy


The tomb of Michelangelo in the Santa Croce, Florence

"Bacchus" (1497) by Michelangelo in the The Bargello, Florence

"Apollo" or "David" (1530–32) by Michelangelo in the The Bargello, Florence

Group of Soldiers by Michelangelo in the Museo Capodimonte, Naples

Michelangelo's Pieta, carved when he was 25 years old in the St. Peter's, Rome

Michelangelo's dome atop St. Peter's in the St. Peter's, Rome

"The Risen Christ" (1514–21) by Michelangelo in the Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome

"Crucifix" (1492) by a 17-year-old Michelangelo in the Santo Spirito, Florence

Pietà Rondanini (1552–64) by Michelangelo in the Castello Sforzesco, Milan

Pietà Rondanini (1552–64) by Michelangelo in the Castello Sforzesco, Milan

The lower register of Michelangelo's Monument to Julius II (1505–45) in the San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome

Michelangelo's Monument to Julius II (1505–45) in the San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome

Michelangelo's "Moses" (1513–15) in the San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome

Michelangelo's "Moses" (1513–15) in the San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome

A recreation of Michelangelo's original design for the monumental Tomb of Julius II in the San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome

"Battle of the Centaurs" (c. 1492) by Michelangelo in the Casa Buonarotti, Florence

"Madonna della Scala" (c. 1491) by Michelangelo in the Casa Buonarotti, Florence

"Allegorical figure" (1530) by Michelangelo in the Casa Buonarotti, Florence

"Model for a River God" (1524) by Michelangelo in the Casa Buonarotti, Florence

"Study of a Head" (1530) by Michelangelo in the Casa Buonarotti, Florence

"Two Fighter" in white clay (c. 1530) by Michelangelo in the Casa Buonarotti, Florence

"Madonna Nursing her Son" by Michelangelo in the Casa Buonarotti, Florence

"Plan for a Church" (c. 1560) by Michelangelo in the Casa Buonarotti, Florence

"Study for a Nude for the Battle of Cascina" (1504) by Michelangelo in the Casa Buonarotti, Florence

Sketch of Michelangelo's proposed facade on the church of San Lorenzo in the Casa Buonarotti, Florence

Wooden model of Michelangelo's proposed facade on the church of San Lorenzo in the Casa Buonarotti, Florence

"Young Michelangelo Sculpting the Head of the Faun" (c. 1890) by Cesare Zocchi in the Casa Buonarotti, Florence

A portrait-bust of Michelangelo above the door in the Casa Buonarotti, Florence

"Noli me tangere" (1531) by Pontormo based on a sketch by Michelangelo in the Casa Buonarotti, Florence

"Michelangelo present to Julius II his model for the Palazzo del Tribunale della Ruota" by Fabrizio Boschi in the Casa Buonarotti, Florence

"Portrait of Michelangelo" (1633-35) by Antonio Novelli in the Casa Buonarotti, Florence

"The David" (1501–04) by Michelangelo in the Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze, Florence

"Awakening Slave" (ca. 1520–30) by Michelangelo in the Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze, Florence

The 'Michelangelo Corridor', lined by his Slaves and leading to his David in the Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze, Florence

"Atlas Slave" (ca. 1520–30) by Michelangelo in the Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze, Florence

"Bearded Slave" (ca. 1520–30) by Michelangelo in the Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze, Florence

"Bearded Slave" (ca. 1520–30) by Michelangelo in the Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze, Florence

"St. Matthew" (ca. 1504–08) by Michelangelo in the Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze, Florence

"Young Slave" (ca. 1520–30) by Michelangelo in the Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze, Florence

"The Pietà di Palestrina" by students of Michelangelo in the Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze, Florence

Michelangelo's David in the Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze, Florence

The Salone dei Cinquecento, with Vasari frescoes and statues by Michelangelo, Giambologna, and others in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

"The Genius of Victory" (1533–34) by Michelangelo, in the Salone dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

The Michelangelo monument, with replicas of the David, Dawn, Dust, Day, and Night in the Piazzale Michelangiolo, Florence

The Michelangelo monument, with replicas of the David, Dawn, Dust, Day, and Night in the Piazzale Michelangiolo, Florence

Creation of Adam (1508–12) by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling in the The Sistine Chapel, Rome

Dividing the Water from the Sky (1508–12) by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling in the The Sistine Chapel, Rome

The Delphic Sibyl (1508–12) by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel Ceiling in the The Sistine Chapel, Rome

The Libyan Sibyl (1508–12) by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel Ceiling in the The Sistine Chapel, Rome

The Cumean Sibyl (1508–12) by Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel Ceiling in the The Sistine Chapel, Rome

Hezekiah, Manasseh of Judah, and Amon of Judah (1508–12) by Michelangelo, lunette in the Sistine Chapel Ceiling in the The Sistine Chapel, Rome

One of the Ignudi (nudes) by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling in the The Sistine Chapel, Rome

Last Judgement (1536–41) by Michelangelo in the The Sistine Chapel, Rome

A Michelangelo self-portrait hidden in the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew, detail from the Last Judgement (1536–41) by Michelangelo in the The Sistine Chapel, Rome

A portrait of Biagio di Cesena as Minos, Master of Hell, detail from the Last Judgement (1536–41) by Michelangelo in the The Sistine Chapel, Rome

The spectacular staircase by Michelangelo in the vestibule of the Biblioteca Laurenziana in the Basilica di San Lorenzo, Florence

The nave, looking toward the entrance and the Tribuna delle Reliquie (1531-32) by Michelangelo in the Basilica di San Lorenzo, Florence

Michelangelo's vestibule of the Biblioteca Laurenziana in the Basilica di San Lorenzo, Florence

"Doni Tondo" or "Sacra Famiglia" (Holy Family) (1506) by Michelangelo in the Uffizi: Secondo Piano—The second corridor, Florence

The Bandini Pietà (1545–55), left unfinished and partially destroyed by Michelangelo, restored by Tiberio Calgagni in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence

A 1550 engraving of Pasquino by French artist Nicolas Beatrizet (who was studying in Rome under Michelangelo at the time). in the Pasquino, Rome

The entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, flanked by a marble replica of Michelangelo's "David" and Baccio Bandielli's "Heracles and Cacus" in the Arringheria, Florence

Replica of Michelangelo's "David" and Baccio Bandielli's "Heracles and Cacus" in the Arringheria, Florence

Marble replica of Michelangelo's "David," placed where the actual "David" long stood in the Arringheria, Florence

The entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, flanked by a marble replica of Michelangelo's "David" and Baccio Bandielli's "Heracles and Cacus" in the Arringheria, Florence

Michelangelo's Tomb of Giuliano de' Medici, Duke of Nemours, featuring the figures of "Day" and "Night" (1524–34) in the Medici Chapels, Florence

Inside the Sagrestia Nuova, or New Sacristy, with Medici tombs by Michelangelo in the Medici Chapels, Florence

Michelangelo's Tomb of Giuliano de' Medici, Duke of Nemours, featuring the figures of "Day" and "Night" (1524–34) in the Medici Chapels, Florence

"Night" (1526–31) from Michelangelo's Tomb of Giuliano de' Medici, Duke of Nemours in the Medici Chapels, Florence

"Giuliano" (1521–34) from Michelangelo's Tomb of Giuliano de' Medici, Duke of Nemours in the Medici Chapels, Florence

"Day" (1526–31) from Michelangelo's Tomb of Giuliano de' Medici, Duke of Nemours in the Medici Chapels, Florence

Michelangelo's Tomb of Lorenzo de' Medici, Duke of Urbino, featuring Dusk and Dawn (1524–34) in the Medici Chapels, Florence

"Dusk" (1524–31) from Michelangelo's Tomb of Lorenzo de' Medici, Duke of Urbino in the Medici Chapels, Florence

"Lorenzo" (1524–34) from Michelangelo's Tomb of Lorenzo de' Medici, Duke of Urbino in the Medici Chapels, Florence

"Dawn" (1524–27) from Michelangelo's Tomb of Lorenzo de' Medici, Duke of Urbino in the Medici Chapels, Florence

Tomb of Lorenzo the Magnificent, with Michelangelo's "Madonna and Child" (1521–34) flanked by St. Cosmas by Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli (left; 1537) and St. Damian by Raffaello da Montelupo (right; 1531) in the Medici Chapels, Florence

Tomb of Lorenzo the Magnificent, with Michelangelo's "Madonna and Child" (1521–34) flanked by St. Cosmas by Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli (left; 1537) and St. Damian by Raffaello da Montelupo (right; 1531) in the Medici Chapels, Florence

Michelangelo used pietra serena to outline his intricate architecture for the Sagrestia Nuova, or New Sacristy in the Medici Chapels, Florence

The finished fresco of The School of Athens (1511) by Raphael—which is in the Vatican in Rome, but I include it here so you can compare the preparatory cartoon (previous picture) to the end product (note the addition of Michelangelo brooding on the steps) in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan

Where to find works by Michelangelo in Italy

★★★
"The Birth of Venus" (1484–85) by Sandro Botticelli (Photo Public Domain)
Uffizi
Florence: Centro Storico

Visiting the Gallerie degli Uffizi is like taking Renaissance 101: A smorgasbord of paintings by Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, and Botticelli—including his iconic "Birth of Venus"

 
★★★
Inside the Sistine Chapel (Photo by Neil Howard)

The most famous fresco in the world: from Michelangelo's famous ceiling to his Last Judgment and the sadly overlooked walls by Perugino, Botticelli, and Signorelli

 
★★★
"The David" (1501–04) by Michelangelo (Photo by Jörg Bittner Unna)
Galleria dell'Accademia
Florence: San Lorenzo / San Marco

Florence's Galleria dell'Accademia has long lines for one reason—Michelangelo's David—but is packed with other artistic delights, from Michelangelo's amazing unfinished Slaves to works by Giambologna, Andrea del Sarto, and Botticelli

 
★★★
Niobids (Photo by Михаил Бернгардт)
Uffizi 3rd floor 2nd corridor
Florence: Centro Storico

Visiting the Gallerie degli Uffizi is like taking Renaissance 101: A smorgasbord of paintings by Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, and Botticelli—including his iconic "Birth of Venus"

 
★★☆
The castle as seen from the air (Photo by Zheng Yan)
Castello Sforzesco
Milan: Castello / Sempione

Milan's sprawling 15C castle is home to several excellent museums, of tapestries, archaeological artifacts, paintings by Bellini and Mantegna, and sculptures from medieval to neoclassical—including Michelangelo's final sculpture, the Rondanini Pietà

 
★★☆
The Salone dei Cinquecento, with Vasari frescoes and statues by Michelangelo, Giambologna, and others (Photo by Juan Carlos Peaguda)
Palazzo Vecchio
Florence: Centro Storico

Florence's Palazzo Vecchio is a Gothic town hall decorated by Renaissance masters

 
★★☆
The statue-filled upper hall (Photo Public Domain)
The Bargello
Florence: Centro Storico

A flock of Donatellos and other great works in this sculpture gallery annex of the Uffizi

 
★★★
The Baldacchino over the altar of St. Peter's (Photo by Jorge Royan)
Free
St. Peter's
Rome: Vatican

St. Peter's Basilica (Basilica di San Pietro) in Rome: Motherchurch of Christendom

 
★★☆
Recreation of Arnfolo di Cambio's original facade for Santa Maria del Fiore (Photo by Sailko)
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Florence: Centro Storico

Florence's Duomo Museum is filled with works by Michelangelo, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, and other Titans of the early Renaissance

 
★★☆
Michelangelo's Tomb of Giuliano de' Medici, Duke of Nemours, featuring the figures of "Day" and "Night" (1524–34) (Photo by Avia)
Medici Chapels
Florence: San Lorenzo / San Marco

The Michelangelo-adorned tombs of the Medici in the Sagrestia Nuova and the ornate Cappella dei Principi (Chapel of the Princes) of San Lorenzo

 
★★★
The Basilica of Santa Croce on Piazza Santa Croce (Photo by Augusto Mia Battaglia)
Santa Croce
Florence: Santa Croce

Santa Croce church is the Westminster Abbey of Florence: The tombs of Renaissance giants Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo, and Rossini (plus some great Giotto frescoes—and a renowned leather school)

 
★★☆
A private tour of the Sistine Chapel (Photo by Unknown)

See the Sistine Chapel with a small private tour—and no one else around

 
★★☆
Detail of "The Tribute Money" (1425) by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel (Photo Public Domain)

The amazing Masaccio frescoes of the Cappella Brancacci

 
★☆☆
"Presentation to Pontius Pilate" (1460s) on the Pulpito della Passione by Donatello (Photo Public Domain)
San Lorenzo
Florence: San Lorenzo / San Marco

The Medici family church, with Donatello sculptures and architecture by Brunelleschi and Michelangelo

 
★☆☆
 (Photo by Mac9)
Free
San Miniato al Monte
Florence: Oltrarno

A gem of a Romanesque church perched atop a hill overlooking Florence

 
★☆☆
 (Photo by Tim Adams)
Free
Piazzale Michelangiolo
Florence: Oltrarno

The greatest viewpoint over Florence

 
★★☆
Room 2 in the museum (Photo courtesy of the museum)
Museo Capodimonte
Naples: Capodimonte

The most important painting gallery in all of Southern Italy

 
★★★
The Duomo
Around Siena's Duomo

Siena’s striped cathedral is a rich treasure house of Tuscan art.

 
★★★
 (Photo )
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Villa San Michele
Florence: Fiesole

This used-to-be monastery has made a turn into an luxurious hotel teeming with elegance

 
★☆☆
The distinctively Gothic nave (Photo by Saint Joseph)
Free

Sculptures by Michelangelo and Bernini, the bodies of Fra' Angelico and St. Catherine, and the tombs of two Medici popes—so why isn't this church right behind the Pantheon more famous?

 
★☆☆
 (Photo by Mike)
Free
Campidoglio
Rome: Tiber Bend

The Capitoline Museums, a Michelangelo-designed piazza, and killer views atop Rome's Campidoglio

 
★☆☆
 (Photo by Arnaud 25)
Free
Arringheria
Florence: Centro Storico

The statue-lined terrace in front of the Palazzo Vecchio tells Florence's story in sculpture

 
★☆☆
This Filippo Brunelleschi–designed church was called the most beautiful church in the world by Bernini (Photo by Randy Connolly)
Free
Santo Spirito
Florence: Oltrarno

The church of Santo Spirito in the Oltrarno: Brunelleschi at his best

 
☆☆☆
"Battle of the Centaurs" (c. 1492) by Michelangelo (Photo Public Domain)
Casa Buonarotti
Florence: Santa Croce

This former home of Michelangelo's nephew has some early works by the Renaissance's greatest master

 
☆☆☆
Transept (Photo by Fczarnowski)
Free
Santa Maria degli Angeli
Rome: Termini train station

Rome's Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri is a church designed by Michelangelo to inhabit the remains of an ancient Roman bathhouse...you'd think it'd be more famous

 
☆☆☆
The lower register of Michelangelo's Monument to Julius II (1505–45) (Photo by Andrea Moroni)
Free
San Pietro in Vincoli
Rome: Downtown Ancient Rome

Michelangelo's famous Moses statue on tomb of Pope Julius II—plus the chains that bound St. Peter—at the chruch of "St. Peter in Chains"

 
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