Michelangelo, a sculptor, painter and architect, was certainly the greatest artist of the sixteenth century. Not only known for his exceptional talent, Michelangelo, in his lifetime, changed popular perception of the role and stature of the artist in society.
Born in 1475 in Caprese, Michelangelo apprenticed with Ghirlandaio as a young man. During this time, he mastered the fresco painting technique. He then moved on to work in a sculpture studio which was patronized by Lorenzo de Medici. Michelangelo came in contact with Lorenzo's circle of philosopher and writer friends. Although artists at the time were considered simple craftsmen and inferior to the types frequenting Lorenzo's circle, Michelangelo thought himself an equal. By living his life this way, he brought about a permanent change in public perception of the artist.
Michelangelo's first great work, the Pièta, was produced in Rome between 1496-1501. This magnificent statue of the Virgin Mary holding her crucified son established Michelangelo as the leading sculptor of his day. Returning to Florence, Michelangelo produced David in 1504. This sculpture of the artist's ideal, heroic male nude furthered the artist's great reputation and may have inspired Pope Julius II to commission Michelangelo in 1505. The relationship between these two men would prove stormy, but would also lead to the creation of Michelangelo's finest, most celebrated work.
Pope Julius II originally hired Michelangelo to create the grandiose tomb in which the Pope would be buried. The two men argued fervently over the tomb and it was not completed by the time of the Pope's death in 1513. Although under pressure to finish the contract, Michelangelo did not finish the tomb until 1545. He included only one of the forty figures he had planned for the work.
Despite the arguments over the tomb, Pope Julius II also commissioned Michelangelo to paint the vault of the Sistine Chapel. In 1508, the artist would embark on the greatest achievement of his life. Michelangelo painted almost the entire ceiling himself, constantly modifying and changing plans. The final work glorifies the human body; Michelangelo was convinced this was the only real subject of visual arts. The ceiling also promotes the artist's Neo-Platonic philosophical views on theology. The Sistine Chapel directly influenced ceiling painting for the following two centuries and led to the general recognition of Michelangelo as the greatest artist since classical times. He was venerated until his death at eighty-nine years old in 1564.
Michelangelo's style in painting, sculpture and architecture dominated Italian art for generations. He was the first modern artist to have two biographies written about him during his lifetime. From these works, we understand the immense astonishment of the artist's contemporaries. Michelangelo's art and life changed public perception of the role of the artist forever.