Ever wanted to follow in Michelangelo’s footsteps? Now you can. Here we take you on a journey through the city that inspired him and show you the art that still inspires us. From the very early work in Casa Buonarroti to the world-famous statue of David at the Accademia. Follow us as we walk through Michelangelo’s genius.
Florence saw Michelangelo taking his first steps in the art world as a young protege of Lorenzo “the Magnificent” de’ Medici, who hosted him in his own house in Via Larga (Palazzo Medici Riccardi) and was one of the first to discover his talent. This meeting happened in the San Marco Garden school of sculpture that Lorenzo himself had opened, where young artists could learn by copying classical statues.
Michelangelo in Florence – His early works
The “Madonna della Scala” and “Lotta di Centauri” (around 1490-2) – Casa Buonarroti
These marble reliefs are two of his very first works and, incredibly, were done when he was still a teenager. A fact which only makes them more impressive. The “Madonna of the Stairs” shows a tender and protective (maybe even prophetic) gesture, Mary covering his child’s head with a masterfully executed marble drape, while the “Battle of the Centaurus” is an unfinished depiction of a popular classical subject (the battle between the Centaurus and the Lapiths). It’s a complex sculpture that presage Michelangelo’s future achievements.
You’ll find these in the Casa Buonarroti (via Ghibellina, 70), the house that Michelangelo’s nephew inherited after the death of his uncle. His heirs converted it into a small museum dedicated to the artist, which hosts some of his unfinished projects (like the model for San Lorenzo Church façade) and sketches.
Wooden Crucifix (around 1493) in the Church of Santo Spirito
This delightful and elegant wooden sculpture was donated by Michelangelo to the prior of Santo Spirito, who hosted him in the monastery after the death of his patron Lorenzo the Magnificent. This pious man also gave the young Michelangelo the opportunity to dissect the corpses taken from the hospital annexed to the monastery so that, as Vasari said, he could “discover the secrets of anatomy”. Knowledge which was proved very useful to improve his art.
Access to the Sacristy, where the crucifix is hosted, is through the Santo Spirito Church cloister, to the left of the facade.
Reaching maturity – from Bacchus to David
The drunken Bacco (1496-7), Bargello Museum
Michelangelo studied classical statuary in Rome, and it was here, among collections like those of his patron the Cardinal Riario, that he perfected his art. The sculpture of Bacchus defines his artistic maturity and was carved in Rome just before the famous Pietà. The unsteady Bacchus reflects his craft and artistic sensitivity: the pose, the awkwardness of the eyes, the details of the grapes and the hair, everything startled – and shocked – his contemporaries.
In the exceptional setting of the Bargello Museum in Florence, you can admire two other works by Michelangelo: the wistful portrait of Brutus and the delicate Madonna with child, known as “Tondo Pitti”.
David (1501-4) and the “Slaves” (1520-34), Accademia Gallery
When in 1504 Michelangelo unveiled his masterpiece of gleaming white marble, he left his fellow citizens speechless. After much deliberation, the gigantic David was stationed outside Palazzo Vecchio in Piazza Signoria. A magnus opus in every sense, this statue continues to enthral visitors in its new home at the Accademia Gallery.
The Accademia, as it’s known, is also where you can admire the unfinished statues of the “Slaves” (originally destined for the tomb of pope Giulio II) – super dramatic pieces that reveal a great deal about Michelangelo’s technique. These powerful male figures seem to be struggling to free themselves form the stone, creating a truly vivid effect. Never before has marble been made to seem more alive.
A Michelangelo painting at the Uffizi in Florence
Tondo Doni (1503-4), Uffizi Gallery
This work by Michelangelo has been said to resemble a “sculpture on canvas” with the figures of the Holy family looking like they’re about to step out of the painting. In the background a series of naked figures mimic classical statuary.
By his own admission, Michelangelo believed that the best paintings were the ones close to sculptures, with plasticity of figures, almost three dimensional effect. For him in fact sculpture was the highest art, more complete compared to painting.
Michelangelo as architect – the Medici Chapels
The Medici Chapels are a combination of Michelangelo’s skills as an architect and a sculptor, the celebration of the ‘total’ Renaissance artist. The design of the space borrows something from Brunelleschi’s Old Sacristy in the Church of San Lorenzo, but Michelangelo adds more dynamism in the architecture and decoration. The theme of the chapel is “Time consumes everything”, a reflection on human mortality.
The two groups of sculpture that adorn the tombs of Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino and Giuliano, Duke of Nemours are amongst his greatest works. They feature the departed dukes seated in niches above, and allegorical figures reclining on the sarcophagus below.
Read more about Michelangelo’s sculptures.
Lorenzo the Magnificent, who was Michelangelo’s patron, ironically doesn’t have a monumental tomb. He’s buried in this very room, with his beloved brother Giuliano. They have a very simple burial place, and on the top three small statues. The “Madonna col bambino” (known as Madonna Medici) is by Michelangelo. Notice the two bodies of Mary and the child positioned in such a way as to complement each other.
A late work full of pathos
Pieta’ Bandini (1547-55), Opera del Duomo Museum
A work rich in pathos, done when he was old, most likely as a decoration to his own tomb. His self portrait in the figure of Nicodemus bears all the drama holding the dead body of Christ next to Mary and Mary Magdalene.
Michelangelo tried to destroy this sculpture, probably because the marble was defective and frustrated with the imperfection of his work, he left it unfinished. You can see clearly that Mary Magdalene (the figure on the left) has been added later by his pupil Calcagni and clashes with the rest of the work.
⇒ You might also like to discover where to see Leonardo da Vinci’s work in Florence.