The Casa Buonarroti: some of Michelangelo’s early works
The museum, Casa Buonarroti, was originally a house that Michelangelo bought in 1508, but where he lived for only a short time. After Michelangelo’s death, his family, in particular his nephew Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, turned the house into a museum.
In addition to a number of paintings depicting Buonarroti’s life, there are drawings, some clay models, a crucifix, a wooden model for the facade of the San Lorenzo and two early works by Michelangelo.
Nine years after Donatello’s death in 1466, Michelangelo Buonarroti is born. At a young age, Michelangelo performed anatomy in the monastery of Santo Spirito. The prior of the monastery, Bichiellini, secretly gave permission for him to dissect the corpses in the morgue. To thank the bodies he was allowed to dissect, he made a wooden crucifix ‘to please the prior.’ The knowledge of anatomy will play an important role in Michelangelo’s sculpture, but more about this later. The crucifix was later found in Santo Spirito. For a long time there was some doubt whether this was really the crucifix Vasari and Condivi wrote about. Since 2001,Umberto Baldini alleges that we can with certainty attribute this sculpture to Michelangelo. It is the only wooden sculpture Buonarroti ever made. Nowadays the crucifix is no longer on display in this museum, but hangs in the sacristy of the Santo Spirito.
Like all other wooden sculptures it is painted with polychrome paint. The Christ on the cross almost always had a crown of thorns and a loincloth. There are two famous crucifixes that Michelangelo must have known: those of Donatello and Brunelleschi. We have already looked at and discussed these two sculptures before. Brunelleschi made his crucifix to show Donatello what a real Christ on the cross should look like, rather than a ‘peasant Christ’ like Donatello had made. Of course Buonarroti wanted to surpass the work of these two artists. He clearly deviates from his predecessors. Like the Christ of Brunelleschi his figure is completely naked, but completed ‘in all parts’ and not just a vague indication of the male gender as Brunelleschi had done. Also, the wooden part around the loins of Donatello’s Christ can be removed and here too we don’t see any ‘private parts’ (Wikipedia).
We take a look in the room with some of Michelangelo’s works. Here you can see a statue that Cesare Zocchi made of the young Michelangelo Buonarroti. Michelangelo arrives to the studio of the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio when he is 13. A year later he gets the chance to be trained as a sculptor.
Bertoldo di Giovanni, Donatello’s assistant, who we have already met in the pulpits, teaches the young Buonarroti the art of sculpture. Bertoldo worked for Lorenzo de Medici and had been commissioned to train young sculptural talent in his garden, where a plaque is now on display, near San Marco and Accademia on Via Cavour. The story goes that Michelangelo had to copy the classic head (previously attributed to Michelangelo) of a faun. This is exactly what Cesare Zocchi shows with his sculpture. Condivi and Vasari write extensively about this.
“And while Michelangelo had never touched marble or chisels before, the copy succeeded so well that Il Magnifico [Lorenzo de Medici] was amazed; and when he saw that the young man had deviated somewhat from this antique head, and that he had put his imagination to work, and had given the faun an open mouth, in which the tongue and all the teeth could be seen, this lord said to him jokingly, in his usual friendly manner: “You should know that old people never have all their teeth and that they always miss one.” Michelangelo found that his lord, whom he both feared and loved, was right; and Lorenzo was barely gone, or he tore the faun out a tooth and worked the gums so that it looked as if it had fallen out; in suspense he waited until Il Magnifico would come back, and when that time came and Lorenzo had seen how great Michelangelo’s simplicity and craftsmanship were, he had to laugh about it repeatedly, and he told it to his friends like a beautiful story.” Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’ Deel II blz. 201-202 (originele editie 1568).
Here, Michelangelo wanted to surpass the Greek painter and sculptor Polygnotus. According to Pliny the Elder, he was the first artist to carve a sculpture with open mouth and teeth. Landino, who also stayed at the court of the Medici, had translated Pliny. Michelangelo must have heard of this story via Landino. Ottavio Vannini also made a fresco of this in 1635.
Portrait of Michelangelo
The image painted by Michelangelo’s contemporaries and biographers, Condivi and Vasari, is not always reliable. Because Michelangelo was a ‘spin doctor’ before the term even existed, he wanted to keep control not only over his works of art, but also over their publicity. For example, the biography of Condivi, a student of his, was approved by the master himself. After the first edition of his Lives from 1550, Vasari also changed the biography about Michelangelo in such a way that it was more in line with the artist’s views.
In one of the rooms we find another Buonarroti clay bozzetto of 41 cm high. He made this as a study model for the Hercules and Cacus of Samson and the Philistines statue, but more about this when we discuss the statues in Piazza della Signoria.
Besides bozzetti, the museum owns some drawings by Michelangelo including a study of a bastion to defend the city of Florence.
In another room where the wooden model for Michelangelo’s San Lorenzo is also on display, there is another model to be seen, life-sized.
It is a river god with a length of 180 cm, consisting of clay, wool and wood, made by Michelangelo for the New Sacristy. Here, the model stood until the sixteenth century under the Dawn and Twilight. These kinds of models are not meant to be measuring models for carving marble sculptures, but more about this when we arrive at the Pietà that was destroyed by Michelangelo out of anger.
We continue our way through the rooms of the Casa Buonarroti and go to the room with two marble reliefs of Michelangelo.
‘It was at that time  that Michelangelo, advised by the exceptional writer Poliziano, in a piece of marble his lord had given him, depicted Hercules’ fight with the Centaurs, a fine work so beautiful that some viewers today believe that it is not the hand of a young man but of a respected master who studied and practised this art for a lifetime.’ Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’ Deel II blz. 2202 (originele editie 1568).
Condivi also describes this sculpture as a battle of the Centaurs, in which Deianira is kidnapped. In reality it is about the Centaurs and Lapiths, as described by Ovid and Boccaccio. The Lapiths and their guest Theseus had to control the beastly nature of the centaur, half man and half bull. The moral of the story is that the beast in you must be tamed by the mind. The idea probably comes from the philosopher Poliziano.
The influence of Bertoldo’s bronze relief on Michelangelo’s battle relief
The ‘Accademia’ of the Medici was led by Bertoldo di Giovanni. Vasari provides a clue as to how the work was done. Another pupil of Michelangelo, Pietro Torrigiani, was given a piece of clay and had to work following an example. That is how Buonarroti must have worked, too. When Michelangelo lived in the Medici palace, a bronze battle relief by Bertoldo di Giovanni hung above the mantelpiece.
The biographers, Condivi and Vasari, but also later writers, suggested the idea that Michelangelo Buonarroti was an autodidact, who really had thought up everything himself. This is considered nonsense now, Michelangelo was indeed influenced by his teachers, Ghirlandaio, Bertoldo, and other artists. Michelangelo, for example, used Bertoldo’s statue, ‘Hercules‘, in his combat relief. This can be seen in a male figure on the back for which Michelangelo used Bertoldo’s Hercules. Buonarroti also copied the middle figure at the top with his raised right arm from the rider on horseback in the relief of his sculpting teacher. Michelangelo turns this riding and fighting figure into a centaur. This results in the centaur hovering awkwardly in the air, however.
Bertoldo’s bronze relief is based on a Roman sarcophagus. According to the Renaissance artists, the classical reliefs on the sarcophagi had one major defect: the layout was poorly organized.
Bertoldo achieves this, among other things, by involving two figures with each other, creating a unity. Below, slightly to the right of the center, two back figures are intertwined. This, for example, creates a diagonal in the relief running from the slanting arm through the legs of the nearest horse to the outstretched legs of the other rearing horse, on the left and slightly higher in the image. Michelangelo adopts this organizing principle in his work as well, as can be seen with the two back figures at the bottom in the middle. The figure on the back slightly left of centre holds the hair of the other figure on the back, the only woman in this relief. The whole gives the impression of a confusing tangle of combating bodies and it seems as if only naked men are depicted. Neither the bull legs of the centaurs nor the one woman really stand out, but if you look closely, you can discover at least two legs.
Pollaiuolo had already drawn the theme of fighting men about twenty years earlier. If you compare the work in marble by Buonarroti with the engraving by Antonio Pollaiuolo, it becomes clear that Michelangelo’s rendering is much more realistic and convincing.
There is little or no space in the marble relief of Buonarroti, there are no trees or landscape like Pollaiuolo. Michelangelo was not interested in this, he was interested in human bodies in all kinds of complicated postures. The barely defined space overflowing with bodies in this relief is reminiscent of the work of Nicola Pisano in his pulpit at Siena.
Besides the fascination for the human body and especially for the male, there is another characteristic in this relief that would remain essential for all of Buonarroti’s later works: the work is unfinished. Many a theory has been applied to the non finito, but according to Pope-Hennessy this is mainly due to the fickle character of the artist. Once Buonarroti had devised an artistic solution, he no longer felt like completing the work.
We now look at Michelangelo’s work, ‘The Madonna of the stairs’, which hangs on the other wall on the left. This is probably also an early work by Michelangelo. The battle relief in mezzo-reilievo is classical, while the Madonna of the stairs in rilievo schiacciato is a Christian theme. In a certain sense, the reliefs look like pendants: Christian and classical. Buonarroti uses a technique that we have already seen with Donatello in the recess of St. George: the so-called rilievo schiacciato or the printed or low relief. This technique is extremely difficult. Donatello, the greatest sculptor of the fifteenth century, was a master of this skill and had created a work with the same theme: the Pazzi Madonna, which is now on display in Berlin. While Buonarroti was proud of his battle relief he kept silent about the low relief. This silence of the artist makes sense when you take a closer look at this relief.
If you base yourself on the standard of that time, namely that art must resemble reality, and must be naturalistic, Michelangelo is in violation of this commandment. Just look at Mary’s right foot or her left hand. Yet Vasari, who presents this work by Michelangelo as a true triumph of the emulatio (surpassing), writes the following: ‘[…] In this work Michelangelo – during the same time, as a young man – wanted to imitate Donatello’s style, which he did so well that it indeed seems to be his own, except that it is more elegant and better in design.’ Translated from: Giorgio Vasari, ‘De levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione’ Deel II blz. 202 (originele editie 1568).
Throughout his life Michelangelo anxiously hid the ‘Madonna of the stairs’. In 1507 he wrote another letter to his father in which he remarked that ‘no one should see it.’ Presumably Michelangelo did not agree with the positive verdict of Vasari and was disappointed in the result of his paragone (fight or rivalry) with Donatello.
In the ‘Madonna of the stairs’ nothing moving can be seen. No joyful relationship between mother and child, nor comfort like Donatello’s Pazzi Madonna or Madonna of the clouds. The behaviour of the figures is distant. The child’s sleep resembles an allusion to his later death on the cross. Does the cloak that still partly falls over the child refer to the shroud? Mary does not look at her child, but reflects. The staircase with the five steps is probably meant for the man or woman who stands in front of the relief. Such a staircase may have been based on a book popular at the time entitled ‘della … scala del Paradiso’. The views in this book reflect on church father Augustine. He compared Mary with a staircase that led God down to earth. This kind of thought also existed in the circles at the court of the Medici, among others with the philosopher Poliziano.
The young Michelangelo lived years in the Medici palace for years. Moreover, at that time a book by Benivieni was published, titled: Scala della vita spirituale sopra il nome di Maria. The name of Mary [Maria] has as many letters as there are steps in the relief. If this interpretation is correct, this work is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s later carved Pietà (St. Peter). Just like an Andachtsbild or an icon, this kind of artwork has the function of inciting the believer to think. The theme of the ‘Madonna of the stairs’ is one of contemplation: the sacrifice God the Father made for mankind. The striking square boulder on which Mary sits, is a reference to the rock on which the church is built, such a boulder returns later in the Pitti Tondo. This sculpture will be on display in Bargello.
In her book, ‘Renaissance Rivals’, Rona Goffen makes an interesting comparison between the works of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo on the subject of Madonna and Child. When Leonardo left Florence, Michelangelo was only seven years old (Goffen, R., ‘Renaissance rivals Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian’, Yale University Press, New Haven/ London 2002 pp. 85, 87). Nevertheless, he must have known many works by Da Vinci that remained in Florence and the surrounding area. Michelangelo certainly studied the religious work of Leonardo. It differs completely from the style of Da Vinci and looks like an antithesis of it. The close relationship between the Madonna and the Child at Leonardo disappears completely at the Madonna of Buonarroti.