Michelangelo was born in 1475 to a Florentine family while they were temporarily residing near Arezzo (Caprese), and he was sent out to a wetnurse near Settignano whose husband was a marble-cutter. He told Vasari that he drank in a love of stonecutters’ tools with his wet-nurses’s milk.
He was apprenticed at age 13 to the Ghirlandaio painting workshop in Florence but he didn’t stay long… From 1490-92 he was welcomed into the Medici Palace where he began training as a sculptor under Bertoldo di Giovanni, and where he created some of his earliest works which can be seen at the Casa Buonarroti in Florence – notably the Madonna of the Steps and the Battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs. With the death of Lorenzo in 1472 he returned to his paternal home in the Santa Croce area of Florence. Although he worked for many years in Rome for Pope Julius II, with whom he had a tumultuous relationship, he kept strong ties to Florence – to his own family and to the Medici family - leaving Florence with a wealth of works by Michelangelo that you can explore by following this itinerary.
Here is the Michelangelo itinerary on Google Maps!
Casa Buonarroti Museum
Via Ghibellina 70, open 9.30-14, closed Tuesday (see website)
This is the Buonarroti family home created by the artist’s great-grandson, Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger (1568-1647), who did everything he could to keep the memory of his divine ancestor alive, including painting rooms with allegorical figures to glorify the artist and the whole family. Not to be missed is the figure of Inclinazione comissioned from the important female artist Artemisia Gentileschi around 1615; she’s on a ceiling and she was considered rather fleshy and sexy at the time.
In the first room upstairs, you’ll see the two earliest works we have by Michelangelo, the Madonna of the Steps and the Battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs(1492). He did these when he was not yet eighteen years old, just to make us feel like we’ve accomplished rather little in our longer lives. The extraordinarily weighty Madonna is carved in low relief, a technique he learned from observing works by Donatello but never used again. It has a calm weightyness to it that is fully in contrast with the Battle, which is carved in high relief and charged with energy. Its subject matter comes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis and is inspired by antique sarcophaghi, but is in every way 100% Michelangelo. It is an excuse to show the nude male body in a variety of twisting and turning poses, a visual tour de force that would obsess him for a good 70 more years. Note that centaurs have a half horse body – can you spot the horses? For a battle that is supposed to involve centaurs with horse bottoms raping greek women, there is a remarkable lack of horse parts, and of women here!!
Church of Santo Spirito, Piazza S. Spirito
Around 1492, Michelangelo made a wooden crucifix for the prior of Santo Spirito; the one in the sacristy here is attributed to the great artist (that means we’re not totally sure this is the right one). About it the art historian Hartt writes (in F. Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance Art, 4th ed., p. 460):
It is in a languorous style that contains more than an echo of Botticellian grace, and the sculpted figure is absolutely nude, in keeping with the artist’s reverence for the human body as the mortal veil of divine intention… The sculpture, the only work in wood that we know by Michelangelo, foreshadows his later statues on a grander scale…
Bargello Museum, Via del Proconsolo 4
At the Bargello, in the large room on the main floor (to the right of the entrance), you’ll find Michelangelo’s Bacchus, a young work (1496-7) that some years later is documented in the garden of a Roman collector, Jacopo Galli. While we are used to seeing antique sculpture looking herioc, this statue is clearly drunk! Bacchus, god of wine, has partaken of his product and now stands in tipsy contrapposto, eyes glazed over, accompanied by a satyr enjoying grapes. What a challenge Michelangelo has overcome by managing to make hard, cold marble seem so supple.
In the same room there’s the Pitti Tondo (1505). Tondo in Italian just means round, but in art it also refers to a round painting, usually of the Madonna. While this tondo is sculpted in marble, Michelangelo also did another very famous tondo that you’ll see in the Uffizi – the Doni Tondo. Like many of M’s works, this one is unfinished and bears the marks of the chisel. See also the Bust of Brutus and the unfinished Apollo/David in this room.
Via Ricasoli 60, Tuesday-Sunday: 8.15 – 18.50 (website)
The David is the star of the Accademia, the reason that tourists line up to get in. Having been carved (begun in 1501) from a block of flawed marble that another sculptor had abandoned, it was deemed too great for its intended destination – a buttress high up on the Duomo of Florence. So a committee of artists and citizens was called to decide where to place it, and they decided on the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, where it stayed until it was moved to inside the gallery in 1873.
Of this work, Vasari writes:
Without any doubt this figure has put in the shade every other statue, ancient or modern, greek or roman… such were the satisfying proportions and beauty of the finished work… to be sure, anyone who has seen Michelangelo’s David has no need to see anything else by any other sculptor, living or dead.
However, if you don’t listen to Vasari, do take a look at the line of unfinished Captives by Michelangelo that line the hall that leads to David, as if they were a bunch of failed attempts that make you sigh with relief when you see “he finally made one”… although really, these are later works intended for the large and failed papal tomb project for Julius II.
In the Sala del Cinquecento there’s a Victory (1527-8) by Michelangelo. The Victory is one of the more finished works from the disastrous projected Tomb of Julius II. The figure twists one way, his head the other way, creating a strong torquing action. I had the privilege of seeing him up close while i was studying abroad in Florence in 1999 – there was scaffolding around the figure and we had special permission to get up on the scaffolding and examine the piece while the restorer talked to us about it. In my journal that day I wrote “Who needs a man when you have Michelangelo”.
Galleria degli Uffizi
This is the major painting museum of Florence, and Michelangelo thought of himself primarily as a sculptor, so it should come as little surprise that there is only one work by Michelangelo in here: The Doni Tondo of 1503. This panel painting was likely commissioned to commemorate the marriage, in late 1503 or early 1504, of the patron, Angelo Doni, to Maddalena Strozzi, the same couple whose portrait would soon be painted by Raphael. The tondo shape is by this time the most common shape for domestic devotional works, and is also closely associated with marriage. The extremely sculptural, twisting form of the Madonna anticipates the sybills on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Church of San Lorenzo: Medici Chapels
opening hours: Daily (with alternating Sunday/Monday closures), 8,15-13,50
The Medici chapel, also known as the New Sacristy at San Lorenzo, is a massive project that combines architecture and sculpture – and that predictably, Michelangelo did not finish. In 1519, the last legitimate heir to the Medici family died, and the Pope, who was a Medici (Leo X) wanted Michelangelo to make a funerary chapel to commemorate the most recently deceased Medici. Although the artist planned four tombs and started work in 1520, by the 1550s Vasari was rearranging what he could to make a passable chapel; only two of the tombs really got finished thanks to the usual changes of government, wars, assassinations, and Michelangelo fearing for his life.
On opposite walls of the chapel you’ll find the tomb of Giuliano de’ Medici (active life, murdered 1478) with allegories of night and day; and the tomb of Lorenzo de’ Medici (contemplative life, d. 1492) with allegories of dusk and dawn.
Michelangelo wrote a sonnet that helps explain the theme of the sculptures:
Heaven… and Earth
Day and Night speak, and say: We with our swift course have brought the Duke Giuliano to death… It is only just that the Duke takes revenge as he does for this, and the revenge is this, that, as we (day and night) have killed him, he dead, has taken the light from us…
On a third wall is the Medici Madonna which was planned for the joint tomb of the two “magnifici” (another Lorenzo and Giuliano – the Medici liked to repeat family names). On the opposite wall is the altar; masses would be held for the dead with the priest facing the Madonna and what small audience there might be sitting on the small bench inside this space. From there you can admire the very strange architecture of this chapel, which takes as its base the more conservative Sacristy by Brunelleschi on the opposite side of the church, but adds to it many amusing tricks of the Mannerist style that Michelangelo was just starting to develop.
Complex of San Lorenzo: Laurentian Library
(open only for special exhibitions, recently for the summer months each year)
Michelangelo is hired by the Medici to build a library in honor of Lorenzo il Magnifico’s collection of books, now called the Laurentian Library. He worked on this at the same time as the medici chapel, in the 1520s. You can see the exterior of the library from the courtyard to the left of the (unfinished) facade of the church of San Lorenzo. Michelangelo’s job was to build around and above the existing courtyard and monks’ quarters, so it was a great architectural challenge.
The Laurentian library has two main spaces: the monumental stairway inside the entrance hall (also called vestibule), and the reading room. The vestibule is generally an odd room because its only function is to house a stairwell, and it’s a very weird set of stairs, too! To me it looks like lava flowing downwards, or a strange carpet being rolled out. It’s truly impractical; the rounded bits catch your foot, and there is no handrail.
The Reading Room is decidedly more regular and calm a space. Michelangelo planned everything in here including the floor design, ceiling design, and the reading desks, although he didn’t execute them – many things were done in the 1550’s based on his plans.
San Lorenzo Church: Facade
It’s not something you can see right now, but Michelangelo at one point was designing the facade for this church that Brunelleschi (the architect) left unfinished! There is a wooden model of the facade in Casa Buonarroti museum.
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo
Piazza Duomo 9 (behind the cupola), opening hours: daily 9 to 19:30, Sunday 9 to 13:45 (website)
Michelangelo conceived of this Pietà for his own funerary monument in the church Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome so you can imagine how lively he must have been feeling at the time. Michelangelo died in 1564, although this work dates to before 1555 and in these years, death was always near for him, as is reflected also in his poetry. The awkwardness of this statue is due only in part to the missing leg of Christ that the artist hacked off in a fit of rage. The disproportionately small figure of Mary Magdalen was finished by one of his students. Despite these elements, the work is very powerful, not to mention that it gives us great insight into the the artist’s working method. Although it was normal to proceed from rough to smoother tools, Michelangelo tended to get impatient and work out the parts that most interested him – resulting in a highly finished chest of Christ while other parts of the work are still just roughed out with the largest chisel.
Church of Santa Croce
Not a work by Michelangelo, but his tomb is located in the Church of Santa Croce – a fitting end for this itinerary.
CREDITS: The inspiration and general source for this itinerary is Michelangelo in Florence by Andrea Giordani - I have started my itinerary using his locations and added my own observations based on my own visits, study, and lecture notes.