Mission Michelangelo | Following the Master in Rome


Sculpture, painting, urban planning and architecture: Michelangelo Buonarroti did it all. He was recognized as a genius nearly from the moment he picked up a chisel, and spent his long life executing high-profile commissions for cardinals, popes, and princes. Not only did he have a monumental reputation but he was prolific in many different fields and combined frenetic periods of nonstop creativity with long bouts of idleness. What he produced has captivated viewers for half a millennium and inspired generations of artists. Many of his works are in Rome, which makes a Michelangelo pilgrimage possible.

The Sistine Chapel (Vatican Museums) contains the mother of all ceilings, a project that took Michelangelo four years to complete and recounts man’s ascent to heaven. Two decades after the frescoes were finished, Pope Clement VII recalled the artist to paint The Last Judgment in the same chapel. It’s a rare opportunity to compare Michelangelo’s creative evolution and witness how changing politics had an influence on his brushstroke.

One of Michelangelo’s earliest sculptures, the Pietà (St. Peter’s), is now safely behind glass after it was vandalized in 1972. But the figure of the lifeless Christ in the arms of Mary still makes a big impression. Although commissioned as a funeral monument, it was later moved to St. Peter’s and is the only work signed by the artist.

Michelangelo wasn’t just paid to decorate the Vatican; he also had a hand in its physical expansion. He was appointed chief architect in 1564 and spent most of his time planning the dome (St. Peter’s). Although he died before its completion, his designs served as the blueprint for what was later built.

To see a building that Michelangelo did have a hand in completing, cross the Tiber and head to Palazzo Farnese. The building’s third floor façade and elaborate cornices are all his doing, along with a renovation of the inner courtyard that can be visited upon request from the French embassy, which now occupies the palace.

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Pope Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to renovate Piazza del Campidoglio and give what was then a dilapidated part of Rome new splendor. The resulting urban plan took four years to complete and required realigning the square with St. Peter’s, constructing a palazzo and adding new facades to existing buildings. Michelangelo also looked after the smaller details and it was his idea to place the equestrian statue in the center of the square.

Anyone who was someone wanted Michelangelo to build their monumental funeral tombs and Pope Giulius II chose the great artist to construct his. Unfortunately the pontiff died before the project’s completion and the work was moved to San Pietro in Vincoli (Piazza di San Pietro in Vincolo 4a) rather than the Vatican where it was originally intended. Michelangelo sculpted a muscular Moses (1513-15) who sits in the center of the tomb and is notable for its anatomical perfection and long, life like beard. The master famously altered the statue years later so that Moses looks pensively to the side.

Michelangelo also undertook a private commission for a statue of Jesus inside Santa Maria sopra Minerva (Piazza della Minerva 42), a small Gothic church near the Pantheon. The two-meter statue of Cristo della Minerva (1518) is actually a second version, as the first suffered from a crack in the marble, and forced the artist to start again. A second version was hastily delivered from Florence and said to have suffered from the journey. Michelangelo offered to sculpt a third but the impatient client refused. The statue is notable for its intricate posture and life like nature. Originally intended as a nude the bronze loincloth was added later.

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