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Michelangelo: The Ingredients of Greatness.

Michelangelo Buonarrotti (1475-1564) was born in Caprese, Tuscany. In 1488, he was apprenticed to painter Domenico Ghirlandaio (1448-94) with whom he spent a year (1-4). Ghirlandaio, at the time, ran the largest workshop in Florence (5). Then, recognizing his precocious talent, Lorenzo de' Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent), effectively the leader of the Florentine Republic, took Michelangelo into his household, where the boy was exposed to the company of leading humanists such as Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, and Poliziano. He was also taught by the artist Bertoldo di Giovanni, a pupil of Donatello. Michelangelo had the opportunity to draw classical statues from the collection owned by the Medicis.

As a very young man, Michelangelo was invited to Rome by Cardinal Raffaele Riario, where he spent 5 years. At the age of 24 he created the Piet', which can be seen today at St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. Michelangelo returned to Florence in 1501, and in the next few years completed the statue of David, which became the civic symbol of the city (6). Pope Julius II, one of the great patrons of art during the Italian Renaissance, commissioned him to design his monumental tomb, which was to include 40 statues. The commission was later withdrawn, to Michelangelo's frustration, because funds were needed to build the new Basilica of St Peter. However, Julius II later recalled Michelangelo to Rome, asking him to paint the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel in the Apostolic Palace (7). As the story goes, this assignment was the result of political maneuvering by Michelangelo's rival, the architect Donato Bramante (1444-1514), who plotted to divert him from sculpture and make him work outside his area of expertise. After putting up some resistance, Michelangelo agreed to carry out the work, and when the ceiling was unveiled on October 31, 1512, it was a stunning success. The Sistine Chapel established Michelangelo's reputation as a great artist and "placed him beyond all envy" (1). He was 37 at the time.

The issue of the tomb of Julius II, who died in 1513, kept resurfacing over several decades. Eventually, in 1545, the scaled-down version was completed in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. The central statue there is Michelangelo's Moses (8). Other sculptures originally intended for the tomb are today in the Louvre (the Rebellious Slave and the Dying Slave), with several others remaining in Florence. Fig. 1 shows the Rebellious Slave, an unfinished figure emerging from stone (9). Note the precise anatomical detail, strained muscles, and twisting of the figure. Michelangelo often courageously attempted complex poses in both painting and sculpture; numerous preparatory chalk drawings illustrate his constant experimentation (10).

In his later years Michelangelo, again somewhat reluctantly, focused on architecture. His works include the Laurentian Library, designed to house the Medici book collection, and the Medici funerary chapel, built in the 1530s, in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in Florence, which contains the figures of Night, Day, Dusk, and Dawn. Both were commissioned by the Medici pope Clement VII. Clement VII also commissioned Michelangelo's last major fresco, The Last Judgment, in the Sistine Chapel. Ascanio Condivi wrote that "in this work Michelangelo expressed all that the art of painting can make of the human body" (1).

Clement VII's successor, Paul III, made Michelangelo the chief sculptor, painter, and architect in the Apostolic Palace, and in 1546, the chief architect of St Peter's Basilica. Michelangelo is credited with the design of the Basilica's dome, completed by Giacomo della Porta between 1580 and 1585.

Michelangelo was also a poet. He wrote more than 300 poems, many of them addressed to a young Roman aristocrat, Tommaso de Cavalieri (1). Many of Michelangelo's letters, in beautiful handwriting, have also survived (10).

We know so much about Michelangelo's life because it was recorded during his lifetime by Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) (2). The first edition of The Lives of the Most Excellent Artists, Sculptors, and Architects was published in 1550 and the second in 1568. A rival account, published in 1553 by Michelangelo's associate Ascanio Condivi, is based on conversations with the artist and thus is closer to an autobiography (1).

What are the ingredients of greatness for this exceptional man? There is no doubt that he showed an early talent. Piet' and David were created before he was 30 years old. This talent was nurtured, if informally, from a very early age by prominent artists and scholars. This in turn gave him access to the most important (and the richest) patrons of art in Italy; during his working life, he worked for 7 popes and the Medici family (2 of the popes, Leo X and Clement VIII, were from the Medici family).

He was completely devoted to his art, and the human body fascinated him. In his youth, he studied anatomy and dissected corpses. Rooted in the Florentine school, his art was based on drawing, as opposed to the Venetian emphasis on color. Several of his drawings are on display in the current exhibition in the National Gallery London (10). His art was strongly influenced by classical antiquity. The David, for instance, is the first large-scale nude sculpture created since the classical period. His focus on human body became controversial as rules tightened in the run-up to the Counter-Reformation. Nudity in The Last Judgment, for instance, caused so much controversy that the Pope ordered over-painting of clothes on Michelangelo's figures.

Although his route to prominence seems straightforward, Michelangelo lived in turbulent times, spanning the Reformation and the beginning of the Counter-Reformation. After Lorenzo the Magnificent died in 1492, the Medicis were expelled from the city from 1494-1512, in the aftermath of the French invasion of the Italian peninsula. Florence became a popular republic dominated by a Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498). Michelangelo avoided trouble by fleeing to Bologna. Then, in 1527, Rome was looted by the troops of the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and the Medicis were again expelled from Florence. The city was besieged in 1529 by the Imperial and Spanish armies. Michelangelo took the side of the Republic and supervised Florentine fortifications during the siege. When the Republic lost and the victors reinstated the Medicis, he fled to Rome. At the end, his artistic reputation probably saved his life.

Michelangelo spent most of his life in Rome, but he kept returning to Florence and is regarded as a Florentine. He is buried in Florence in the Basilica di Santa Croce. The village where he was born is now called Caprese Michelangelo.

The story of Michelangelo's life illustrates that the ingredients of great success, artistic or otherwise, which include talent, passion, quality of education, access to patrons and mentors, and the ability to negotiate political crises, have not changed much over the past 500 years. Perhaps this should motivate us to keep leafing through the life stories of great people from all periods.

DOI: 10.1373/clinchem.2016.266841

Author Contributions: All authors confirmed they have contributed to the intellectual content of this paper and have met the following 3 requirements: (a) significant contributions to the conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; (b) drafting or revising the article for intellectual content; and (c) final approval of the published article.

Authors' Disclosures or Potential Conflicts of Interest: No authors declared any potential conflicts of interest.


(1.) Michelangelo. Life, letters and poetry. (Oxford World's Classics) Bull GA, Porter P, translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2008.

(2.) Michelangelo Buonarotti (1465-1574). Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists. http:// (Accessed July 2017).

(3.) Murray L. Michelangelo. London; Thames and Hudson: 1980.

(4.) Gayford M. Michelangelo: His epic life. London: Fig Tree; 2017.

(5.) Beck JH. Italian Renaissance painting. Koln: Konemann; 1999. p. 296 -305.

(6.) Michelangelo's David. Italian Analysis of the Art of Renaissance Italy. (Accessed July 2017).

(7.) Gallery of Sistine Chapel ceiling. Chapel_ceiling (Accessed July 2017).

(8.) Michelangelo Gallery. Moses. aspx (Accessed July 2017).

(9.) Louvre. Rebellious Slave. (Accessed July 2017).

(10.) Wivel M with Joannides P, Barbieri C (Academic consultants), and Verdon T, Baker-Bates P, Danesi Squarzina S, Moore Ede M, Sliwka J, Goudie A (Contributors). Michelangelo and Sebastiano. London: National Gallery Company Ltd; 2017.

Marek H. Dominiczak [1] *

[1] College of Medical, Veterinary, and Life Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, United Kingdom.

* Address correspondence to the author at: Department of Biochemistry, Gartnavel General Hospital, 1053 Great Western Road, Glasgow G12 OYN, Scotland G12OYN, UK. Fax +44-141-211-3452; e-mail

Received July 9, 2017; accepted July 12, 2017.

Caption: Fig. 1. Michelangelo Buonarrotti (1475-1564). The Rebellious Slave, detail of the head and torso, 1513-15 (marble). Created in 1513-15 for the tomb of Pope Julius II. Louvre, Paris, France/Bridgeman Images. Reproduced with permission.
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Title Annotation:Science in the Arts
Author:Dominiczak, Marek H.
Publication:Clinical Chemistry
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Oct 1, 2017
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