Sunday, October 4, 2015

Michelangelo Buonarroti

In 5th grade art class, my teacher taught a unit on Michelangelo and made everyone do a Sistine Chapel drawing. We taped a sheet of paper to the underside of our desks and lied on the ground underneath it, attempting to scribble with what fifth grade artistic abilities we had. Ten minutes in, I had to pee and 15 minutes in, my arms ached, and then I spent the rest of the class wondering how Michelangelo painted an entire ceiling without his arms falling off. The imitation of Michelangelo’s work might have been lost on fifth grade me, but the awe of his art stayed all these years.

Michelangelo was born on March 6, 1475 in Caprese, Italy, and became apprenticed to Domenico Ghirlandaio, a famous painter, at an early age [2]. Soon after, he was chosen to study at the Humanist academy, founded by Lorenzo de’ Medici, the de facto ruler of Florence. The political upheavals of the time forced Michelangelo to move in and out of Florence, but during it all, he continued to sculpt and draw and expand his artistic repertoire. Although he lived most of his life in Rome, he always considered himself a Florentine [1]. His most notable works include the ‘David’ and ‘Pieta’ statues, and the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo died in 1564 at the age of 88, but his art remains ageless as its influence spans to modern day.

Group of Two Figures, after Giotto [3]
Pen and Brown Ink on Paper

This was one of the earliest known works by Michelangelo, completed when he was around 15 years old. This quill and ink sketch is based on Giotto’s fresco The Ascension of St. John. Michelangelo was drawn to Giotto’s works because of the weight and gravity of the figures and the unique orientations and gestures of the people within them. Even at the age of 15, Michelangelo shows talent beyond his years, which can be seen in the detail hashing in shading.

Preparatory Drawing for the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel [3]
Red Chalk and Pen and Brown Ink on Paper

How did Michelangelo even start painting the giant ceiling? He started with a sketch. This is only one of many preparatory sketches he did for the Sistine Chapel, though he burned most of them, hoping that people could see only his finished product. This sketch shows several figures, quickly drawn, with no real collection between them, meaning Michelangelo used this to practice poses for the over 250 figures that appear in his actual ceiling painting. Once again, his shading is precise and controlled, and contrasts the straightness of the architectural sketch in the top left corner.

Pieta [3]
Black Chalk on Paper

Towards the later part of his life, Michelangelo created several pieces of art for a close friend, Vittoria Colonna, one of which was the drawing Pieta. At the same time, he was reinventing the art of drawing in a time where pencil to paper was often a discarded preparatory medium for sculptures and paintings. This drawing emphasizes symmetry and focus, with the darkest shading at the center and light sketches on the edges.

[1] Editors, B. (n.d.). Michelangelo Biography. Retrieved October 4, 2015, from
[2] Ventura, P. (1988). Michelangelo's World. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons
[3] Wallace, W. (2012). Discovering Michelangelo: The art lover's guide to understanding Michelangelo's masterpieces. New York, NY: Universe Publishing.

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