Michelangelo's Rome, 450 Years Later
What better way to celebrate Michelangelo's long life and immense body of work, than spending the 450th anniversary of his death taking a tour of his works. If you're lucky enough to be in his hometown of Florence today, you'll have even more opportunity to do so. But here in Rome, where Michelangelo lived and worked for much of his life, there's still a lot to see.
It is not often that one of an artist's earliest works becomes appreciated as one of his greatest masterpieces, but such is the case with the Pietà, sculpted in the last years of the 15th century, when Michelangelo was barely 25 years old.
So much could be––and has been––said about this work, that I can't even scratch the surface in this little post, so I won't try. One curiosity is that it is the only work that Michelangelo ever signed, according to legend because he was frustrated that he was not receiving the proper recognition for the work, as he was new to Rome when he created it, and not yet well known there. He did this in secret, after the work had been completed and presented, and in fact, he was in such a hurry that he made a few mistakes! If you look closely you can see that he even misspelled his own name, leaving out a few letters and inserting them inside of others. I guess no one is perfect, although he came as close as anyone on Earth ever did, I'd wager.
After a stint in Florence, during which Michelangelo sculpted the David, he was back in Rome and working, against his will, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, from 1508 to 1512. There are probably close to 7 trillion blog posts about the Sistine Chapel, so I won't bore you with another, but I will post my absolute favorite image from the ceiling. This glorious lady is the Libyan Sybil, called Phemonoe, who foretold of the "coming of the day when that which is hidden will be revealed." I have stood in the Sistine Chapel over one thousand times, and of the some three hundred figures on the ceiling, this is the one that has struck me over and over.
Sometimes looking at a great artist's plans and sketches is more revealing that looking at the finished version. Here are Michelangelo's studies for the Libyan Sybil.
The great tragedy of Michelangelo's life was that, due to forces beyond his control, he was never given the time and space to complete the tomb of Pope Julius II, the work that he believed was going to make his career and put him on the map. He of course couldn't know that he would one day be remembered as one of the greatest––if not the greatest––artists who ever lived, and he didn't need the tomb to prove that. His only completed figure of the planned tomb is the Moses, and it is only by standing in front it that you can get a true sense of its power and majesty. It is almost unbelievable that Michelangelo made drastic changes to this work, specifically changing the positioning of the left leg.
I love this whimsical drawing of what it might have been like to witness Michelangelo at work on the Moses. Somehow I doubt he would have had knights and nobles loitering around his studio while he worked, and since the work was sculpted between 1513 and 1515, this image makes the artist look a little old. But it does give you the idea of the size of the great work.
It's impossible to call any work by Michelangelo "little known," but in Rome, at least this one might come close. After delighting in Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Elefantino in the piazza outside, venture inside the glorious Gothic church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva (with its starry blue ceiling that looks something like what the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel looked like before our hero got his hands on it), to find the Risen Christ, sculpted by Michelangelo between 1519 and 1521.
From 1536 to 1541, Michelangelo found himself back in the Sistine Chapel frescoing another colossal work of art. The Last Judgement is about as different from the chapel's ceiling as one work can be from another by the same artist. Sadly, by the 1530s, the Renaissance was over, and the Counter Reformation had come to Rome. What did that mean for art? Lots of hell and damnation to scare those naughty Protestants into coming back to the Mother Church. And it also meant that shortly after Michelangelo's death, this work would be vandalized by Daniele da Volterra (but don't blame him; he was forced to do it), who added lots of scarves and other modest coverings to some of the more scandalous figures.
Don't forget that Michelangelo was not only a sculptor and a frescoist; he was an architect too. Talk about a Renaissance man! From 1536 to 1546, more or less the same period he was working on The Last Judgement, Michelangelo was also redesigning the entire Capitoline Area, reversing the orientation of the square so that it turned its back on the ancient ruins of Rome's past, and looked instead toward the Vatican, and providing the Palazzo Senatorio with a new Renaissance facade. He also designed the glorious starburst pavement in the center of the square (which I love so much that I chose it as my wedding symbol), and which was not actually laid out as Michelangelo had desired until 1940.
In 1547, Michelangelo began designs for the dome of St. Peter's Basilica. This would be his last major work, and for the twelve years that he worked on it, he refused to receive any payment. He realized that his life was drawing to a close, and he chose to create this masterpiece for the glory of God alone, as a kind of final offering. Although the dome was not completed until after his death, his designs were adhered to with only a few exceptions.
Michelangelo's very last project, built between 1562 and his death in 1564, is the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, an ingenious structure in which he created a Renaissance church out of a section of the ruins of the Roman bath complex, the Terme di Diocleziano. It is a stunning place to visit, however, some unfortunate "restorations" in 1749 by Luigi Vanvitelli take away significantly from the simple harmony of Michelangelo's design.
This list is not quite conclusive of the works by Michelangelo in Rome. To be exhaustive, I'd have to add Palazzo Farnese, a project Michelangelo took over after Antonio da Sangallo, the arch of Via Giulia, that was originally meant to be a private bridge across the Tiber, just for the Farnese family, to link their palace with their "country" home, Villa Farnesina, and of course the magnificent frescoes in the Pauline Chapel in the Vatican. The Pauline Chapel is, alas, not open to the public and its unlikely that it ever will be, as it is the pope's private chapel. But we can dream, right?