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     Michelangelo the sculptor

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Art and architecture in Florence: 1411-1430

Three Florentine friends, an architect, a sculptor and a painter, are recognized in their own time as being the founders of a new direction in art - subsequently known as the Renaissance. In the preface to an influential book on painting, published in 1436, Alberti says that the work of these three has convinced him that the ancient arts can be revived.

They differ considerably in age. The architect, Brunelleschi, is the oldest. The sculptor, Donatello, is about ten years younger. The painter, Masaccio, is about fifteen years younger again, though he is by a wide margin the first to die.


Brunelleschi's first biographer (Antonio Manetti, writing in the 1480s) states that Donatello accompanies the older man on trips to Rome to study the style of the ancients. Whether true or not - and scholars tend to doubt the story - it is undeniable that between 1411 and 1417 Donatello carves two free-standing figures in a more purely classical style (and with much greater artistry) than anything attempted by predecessors such as Nicola Pisano.

These figures, profoundly significant in the story of sculpture, are commissioned by two of Florence's guilds. The linen drapers and the armourers need statues of their patron saints.


Donatello: 1411-1450

In 1406 the authorities in Florence order the guilds to commission statues for the niches already allotted to each of them in the outer wall of Orsanmichele, a building erected in the mid-14th century as a combination of trading place and shrine (in honour of a miracle-working image of the Virgin Mary which is housed here). Any guild which has not provided a statue within ten years will lose all claim to its desirable and prestigious niche.

In 1411 the linen drapers commission the young Donatello, in his mid-twenties, to provide a marble statue of St Mark. In about 1415 he delivers to them the first free-standing Renaissance sculpture.


The larger-than-lifesize St Mark stands in a completely relaxed pose, with his weight on one foot. Folds of loose drapery vividly suggest a projecting knee and jutting hip. The figure has the solid and uncompromising quality of Roman portrait sculpture, even though the beard and long robes seem to echo the saints on the façades of Gothic cathedrals.

Donatello's next work for Orsanmichele, probably completed in 1417, has much more openly a classical quality. St George, a clean-shaven young man scantily clad in Roman armour, confronts the viewer with a direct look closer to the heroic quality of Greek sculpture than to the brutal realism of Rome.


The same openness, amounting now to a positively provocative sense of physical confidence, is characteristic of Donatello's most famous statue - the astonishing bronze David, a boy in a saucy hat with the head of Goliath at his feet.

Done in about 1430, to stand in a courtyard of the Medici palace, this is the first life-size nude sculpture since classical times. It reintroduces one of the great themes of Greek sculpture in a burst of glorious confidence, and with a new mood of wit and playfulness.


Donatello revives yet another ancient tradition, in a work of lasting influence, when he is commissioned in 1443 to provide an equestrian portrait for Padua of the Venetian condottiere Erasmo da Narni, known as Gattamelata. The work is completed in about 1450 and is set up in Padua in 1453.

The massive composition (horse and rider together stand more than 11 feet high) harks back to the mounted statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. This is the predecessor of every dignitary riding in bronze through the streets of modern cities, but few have the stern severity of this uncompromising soldier of fortune.


Renaissance man: 15th - 16th century

The term Renaissance Man has come to mean someone with exceptional skills in a wide range of fields. The description applies to many people during the Renaissance (a period when it is assumed that artistic talent can be easily adapted to differing crafts), but there are two outstanding candidates for the title.

They are Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. The older man, Leonardo, is exceptional in that he excels in two entirely different disciplines - experimental science and the visual arts. But on the artistic side alone, Michelangelo must be the man. He creates works, all of the highest quality, in the four distinct fields of sculpture, painting, architecture and poetry.


Michelangelo the sculptor: 1499-1516

Early in 1499 a sculpture of the Virgin Mary, holding on her lap the dead Christ, is placed in one of the chapels of old St Peter's in Rome. This Pietà is still one of the most beautiful works of art in the mighty new St Peter's, completed a century later. It is by a sculptor who has just turned twenty-four - Michelangelo.

The precocious genius receives a commission two years later in his home city of Florence. The authorities want a marble statue of David. Michelangelo, using a vast slab of marble abandoned by another sculptor, presents the biblical hero (more than twice lifesize, about 13 feet high) as a naked youth standing with petulant confidence, sling thrown over his shoulder, before the encounter with Goliath.


Michelangelo works on David from September 1501 until January 1504. In 1505 the pope, Julius II, summons him to Rome with a commission to provide a sculpted tomb, with many figures, for the pope's own memorial. The vast project hangs over Michelangelo for the next four decades. Some of his best known works are later carved to form part of it (the great marble Moses and the two tormented Slaves of 1513-6). But the project is doomed to remain unfinished.

Part of the reason is that Julius II has an even more challenging task for this multi-talented artist. In 1508 he commissions Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine chapel.


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