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Michelangelo's Elements of Design

Michelangelo's masterworks include his sculpture of David.
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The great Renaissance artist, Michelangelo -- born Michelangelo Buonarroti in 1475 in the small village of Caprese -- grew up in Florence, Italy, surrounded by ancient Greek and Roman statues and inspired by artists of the early 1400s. Initially, his father disapproved of his interest in art, but relented, and at the age of 13, Michelangelo became the apprentice of Domenico Ghirlandajo to learn the art of fresco painting. The study of Classical statuary, medieval and early Renaissance art and human anatomy merged with his religious devotion, genius and prodigious ability, enabled Michelangelo to produce such masterworks as the sculpture of David and "The Creation of Adam" painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

Early Influences

Ancient Roman statue.
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Classical art influenced Michelangelo’s personal style. At the recommendation of his early mentor, Ghirlandajo, Michelangelo lived in and studied sculpture in the palace of the ruling Medici family from 1489 to 1492 where he had access to their collection of ancient Roman statuary; further, the Medici family introduced him to well-known scholars where he gained a love of literature, specifically poetry. In fact, Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” became the model for his own verse. Upon the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Michelangelo trained under Bertoldo, a student of well-known sculptor Donatello. At the same time, Michelangelo continued to study the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel.

Study of Anatomy

Michelangelo demonstrated a dynamic sense of naturalism in
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Michelangelo began his study of human anatomy with ancient Classical sculpture, but at the age of 16, he became a resident at the convent church of Santo Spirito in Florence where he drew and dissected corpses at the hospital there. Later, he continued to draw using living human models. This detailed knowledge of the human body resulted in his ability to create the human form in action, whether in sculpture or painting, and a dynamic sense of naturalism, such as that found in the foreshortening of Adam’s arm in "The Creation" or "The Pieta," which he created at the age of 24 in 1499.


Michelangelo's dome in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
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Ancient Classical architecture figured heavily in Michelangelo's design and renovation of civic and religious buildings. He repeatedly used figures reminiscent of Roman statuary, and he transformed Renaissance architecture with his use of massive columns, or pilasters. In 1520, he began work on the Medici Chapel in Florence, which contained two tombs, each with an image of the deceased and the symbolic images of Morning and Evening. In 1535, Pope Paul III appointed Michelangelo his chief painter, sculptor and architect, commissioning him to renovate the Campidoglio in Rome – now the most famous and influential civic center in the world – and to design the dome of Saint Peter's Basilica.


The painting of
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Michelangelo’s painting and sculptures, while not exclusively religious, concentrated on Christ’s life, the Holy Family, Old Testament figures such as Moses and King David, and scenes such as “The Last Judgment.” He expressed his religious beliefs particularly in his late drawings of Christian themes such as the crucifixion, in which he sometimes included his own image as an observer.

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