The Ultimate Michelangelo Guide To Florence
Updated: Dec 13, 2020
"I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free." -- Michelangelo
Are you bitten by the Michelangelo bug? If so, here's my guide to finding all of Michelangelo's art in Florence Italy, for art lovers and admirers of the famed artist.
Michelangelo has been famous for over 500 years. He was a giant of the Renaissance, showing virtuosity in every medium -- sculpture, painting, poetry, and architecture. Dubbed the "divine artist," Michelangelo was the first sculptor to be hailed as a genius in his lifetime, as early as his 20s.
Michelangelo created some of the world's most beautiful and revolutionary art. He was a master at creating idealized, technically perfect visions of the human body. Psychological and physical realism had never been portrayed with such panache.
In this guide, you'll get a short biography of Michelangleo's life. The artist was a complicated personality. He was a perfectionist and solitary creator. He went down in history as a tormented and quarrelsome genius, toiling tirelessly against adversity. This dramatic characterization no doubt helped cement his legacy and fascinates people to this day.
I'll also describe and tell you where to see each and every piece of Michelangelo's art in Florence. His works are on view in Florence's museums and churches, many of which are must see sites in Florence for art lovers.
A Biography of Michelangelo
In 1475, Michelangelo was born in the small village of Caprese. He was named Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti-Simoni, a real tongue twister. Michelangelo grew up in Florence, which he considered his true home for most of his life.
From the outset, Michelangelo showed prodigious talent. But his banking family had other plans for him. A stubborn Michelangelo eventually persuaded them to let him pursue art. At age 14, Michelangelo began a 4 year apprenticeship with the artist Ghirlandaio.
That didn't last long though. After just a year, Michelangelo left, believing he had nothing else to learn. Michelangelo landed in the powerful and humanist Medici Court, taken under the wing of Lorenzo the Magnificent at the Medici Palace, now called the Medici-Riccardi Palace. There, he attended art school, studied sculptures in the Medici gardens, and became bosom buddies with the Medici family (for a time).
Michelangelo's Early Work
Michelangelo initially built his career on lucrative forgeries, although he went beyond mere imitation. It seems shocking, I know. But back then, forgery wasn’t considered a crime. Good forgeries were a sign of artistic ability, and a way for young artists to train.
In 1496, when Michelangelo was only 21, he copied the marble sculpture Sleeping Eros. Through an art dealer, Michelangelo sold the fake for a large sum of money to Cardinal Raffaele Riario, a Roman antiquities collector.
Instead of becoming angry when he saw through the forgery, Riario became the artist’s first patron. He commissioned Michelangelo's first major sculpture, Bacchus, which is in Florence's Bargello Museum.
But Riario didn't appreciate the unconventional tipsy sculpture Michelangelo carved for him. He rejected it and Michelangelo resold it a banker. Bacchus later ended up in the Medici's collection.
In 1497, Michelangelo was commissioned to create his iconic Pieta for a chapel in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. The Pieta is tragically beautiful, a sculpture in which stone seems soft. And just look at Mary's exquisite face ...
After the Pieta's resounding success, Michelangelo received the commission for what would become the world's most famous statue, David. The 17 feet tall David would become the symbol of Florence.
Patronage of Pope Julius II and the Sistine Chapel
Michelangelo's fame didn't go unnoticed by Pope Julius II. After the resounding success of David, Julius commissioned Michelangelo to create a massive tomb, intended to go in St. Peter's Basilica. Michelangelo was thrilled. He would work on the project sporadically for most of his life, and shuttle between Rome and Florence for Julius.
But the tomb project was a source of great frustration for Michelangelo. The project was continually delayed, cancelled, underfunded, and modified. Today, what remains of the tomb is on display in the relatively obscure Church of St. Peter in Chains in Rome.
The only really sublime piece is Michelangleo's stunning Moses sculpture. It's one of his best works -- an intense horned boulder of a man about to pounce glares out at you.
But Julius had other plans for Michelangelo, an even better memorial in mind. Julius wanted the Vatican redecorated in grand style. The architect Bramante and painter Raphael whispered in Julius' ear that Michelangelo should paint the vast ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums, hoping the sculptor would fail dismally.
Michelangelo suspected a conspiracy. He wasn't experienced in fresco and immediately saw the difficulty of the task. Despite Michelangelo's protests that he was a sculptor, Julius II told him to "paint or hang." Michelangelo's rivals were ultimately proved wrong.
In 1512, to great acclaim, Michelangelo triumphantly unveiled the Sistine Chapel at age 37. It's a mind bogglingly complex fresco, a tour de force of illusory architecture and tromp l'oeil effects. The Sistine frescos are now Michelangelo's best loved work.
In 1533, Michelangelo returned to the Vatican to paint The Last Judgment on the altar wall. This rather licentious painting delivers an emotional blow. It's an entirely different Michelangelo. It's full of demons, sinners, naked humans, and sexually suggestive vignettes.
The Last Judgment upset people. In the Counter Reformation, the nudes got "underpants" to make them appear "decent." But when the fresco was cleaned and restored in the 1980s, much of the non-authentic drapery was removed.
When Michelangelo was 74, he was asked to "save" the never-ending project of rebuilding St. Peter's Basilica. He became head architect of the church and helped create its iconic dome. Michelangelo couldn't leave the project undone, and never returned to Florence.
Michelangelo's Complicated Personality
Michelangelo was a brooding, aloof, and sometimes cantankerous fellow. He was arrogant and yet paradoxically hypersensitive. Michelangelo refused to compromise on his art. He used it to express his own ideas about the world, even if they were unconventional.
Michelangelo was also a tireless workaholic. He rarely bathed, as if he couldn't bear any time away from his beloved marble. Legend holds that his dirty clothes and boots had to be cut off him when he died.
Michelangelo couldn't stand competition either. When he mouthed off to a jealous rival as a teen, he was punched in the nose. That blow left him -- to his enduring humiliation -- with a crooked nose for life. Michelangelo also had intense rivalries with Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. He even accused Raphael of copying his Sistine Chapel frescos.
Michelangelo was also gay, at a time when sodomy was a crime. His most noted infatuation was with a much younger Roman nobleman, Tommaso de' Cavalieri. Cavalieri posed as the model for Michelangelo's sculpture the Genius of Victory (more on that sculpture below) and may also have appeared in the Sistine Chapel.
Cavalieri ultimately rejected Michelangelo's ardent advances, poured out in lusty poetry and letters. But Michelangelo had other less passionate affairs. Near the end of his life, Michelangelo was infected by the terrible puritanism of the Counter Reformation. He feared for his soul, obsessively working on pietas for his own tomb.
Some historians believe that Michelangelo disdained women. He certainly thought men were superior and his enduring artistic obsession was with male nudes. But he did have a close friendship with Vittorio Colonna, a marchioness. His poems to her are beautiful testimonials of Platonic affection.
In terms of politics, Michelangelo was a republican who disdained authoritarianism. In 1527, his fellow Florentines stormed the Piazza della Signoria to drive out the Medici. Michelangelo sided with the protestors over his old patrons. He became the commander of fortifications in Florence. Eventually, Florence was starved out and surrendered.
After the defeat, Michelangelo hid in a secret room under the Medici Chapel, while assassins stalked him. Michelangelo was eventually pardoned by Pope Clement VII. But he had made enemies of the Medici. Michelangelo moved to Rome for the last 30 years of his life.
In 1564, Michelangelo died at age 89. Though he lived like a pauper, he died enormously wealthy. His body was spirited out of Rome to Florence by his nephew and heir. Michelangelo was buried in the Basilica of Santa Croce in a tomb designed by his Giorgio Vasari -- his admirer, fellow artist, and first biographer.
Following in Michelangelo's Footsteps in Florence
With that long winded introduction to Michelangelo's life, I'm sure you're ready to get down to brass tacks. If you're looking for artsy things to do in Florence or like to travel with a theme, here's where you can find all of Michelangelo's art -- every bit of it -- in Florence.
1. Galleria dell'Accademia
Michelangelo Works at the Accademia:
The Awakening Slave
The Young Slave
The Bearded Slave
The Galleria dell'Accademia houses one of the world's most famous sculptures, Michelangelo's David. The 17 foot Renaissance statue is considered the embodiment of male beauty, a Calvin Klein-like model of physical perfection.
David is based on an Old Testament story of an underdog and his giant competitor. David was a young man brave enough to take on the evil enemy, Goliath, on behalf of the Israelites. He went into battle without armor. Guided partly by the magical hand of God, David defeats Goliath with an unorthodox choice of weapon -- a slingshot and a stone.
Michelangelo portrays David in the moment before battle. With intense concentration, he scans for his enemy. David is in a classical contrapposto stance -- a twisting position where the weight is shifted mostly to one leg.
The Signoria, or City Council, commissioned David for Florence Cathedral. The city intended to place the statue high above in a niche. But it was deemed too beautiful for that spot. Instead, David was placed in the Piazza della Signoria, the city's main square, until 1873.
For my complete guide on David and how to skip the line to see this iconic sculpture in Florence, click here.
The Accademia has five other Michelangelo sculptures. Michelangelo's unfinished Slaves line the Hall of the Prisoners. The slaves have been named The Awakening Slave, The Young Slave, The Bearded Slave, and The Atlas.
The Slaves' bodies press and rage against imprisoning stone, seeming to struggle for their freedom. They were likely intended for the ill fated Tomb of Pope Julius II.
But they seem odd images for a pope's tomb. Perhaps they were a vehicle of Michelangelo's private fantasy, and he intentionally left them unfinished. Michelangelo's non finito tendency was well established. If the perfectionistic Michelangelo wasn't content with a work in progress, he often abandoned it.
The Accademia also houses Michelangelo's sculpture of St. Matthew. The statute was commissioned for one of the niches on Florence Cathedral. But it was abandoned and left unfinished when Michelangelo went to Rome at Julius' behest.
2. National Museum of the Bargello
Michelangelo Works at the Bargello:
Bust of Brutus
The Bargello Museum boasts Michelangelo's first major sculpture, Bacchhus. As I mentioned above, Bacchus was commissioned by Cardinal Raffaele Riario.
Michelangelo carved it when he was only 21.
Bacchus was the Roman god of wine, madness, and ecstasy. Michelangelo's Bacchus embodies the new realism of the Renaissance.
His nude Bacchus appears a little tipsy, leering and holding a goblet of wine. He appears unbalanced, held up by a tree trunk and a fawn who steals his grapes. His hair is adorned with an identifying wreath of ivy leaves.
Bacchus wasn't a hit. It was considered rather vulgar. No one liked the awkward and ungainly pose or the slightly soft and feminine body. But, in a way, the statue was groundbreaking. No sculptor had ever before portrayed Bacchus drunk and in a flawlessly controlled disequilibrium.
The Bargello also owns a handsome Michelangelo Bust of Brutus. This is Michelangelo's only known bust. It was commissioned by Michelangelo's friend Donato Giannotti for Cardinal Niccolo Ridolfi. The handsome bust is stylistically similar to ancient Roman busts, in particular a bust of Emperor Caracalla.
In the bust, Michelangelo depicts the man who successfully plotted to kill Julius Caesar. Caesar was the first Roman emperor after centuries of republican rule. Michelangelo intended the bust to represent freedom from tyranny.
Finally, the Bargello has Michelangelo's Pitti Tondo. This graceful relief carving was a private commission from Bartolomeo Pitti. The tondo, or round format, is typical of domestic art.
Pitti Tondo depicts a common Renaissance theme -- Mary with baby Jesus and St. John the Baptist. It's similar to Michelangelo's painting, Doni Tondo, in the Uffizi. As was Michelangelo's tendency, the Pitti Tondo is unfinished, the contours left raw.
In the relief, Mary sits on a square bolder, holds an open book, and looks meditative. Next to the stern madonna is a playful Jesus with pudgy flesh. Because of her size, Mary seems almost to burst from the carving. She holds the book toward Jesus and, to underscore the moment, points an index finger his way.
3. The Medici Chapel | New Sacristy of the Basilica of San
Michelangelo Sculptures in the Medici Chapel:
Madonna With Child