Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) is one of the greatest (and most varied) of artists — sculptor, painter, and architect — of all time.
While born a Florentine, his indelible stamp can be found all over Rome, where he came to work for a number of cardinals and popes. Indeed, he came to Rome as a young man of 21 in 1496; he died in Rome 1564, an old man of 88. Here is a list of Michelangelo’s work in Rome and the Vatican:
La Pietà – St. Peter’s Basilica (1499)
Michelangelo was only 24 when he completed this emotional masterpiece, housed in St. Peter’s Basilica (alas, behind bullet-proof glass after being attacked and damaged at one point). The very young and beautiful Virgin Mary holds the dead Christ; her calm demeanor contrasts with the brutalized corpse in her lap.
This is the only work Michelangelo every signed: on a ribbon than runs across the Virgin’s chest, he carved, “Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this.”
Tomb of Pope Juius II in the Church of St. Peter in Chains – San Pietro in Vincoli (1505-45)
In 1505, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to build him a monumental tomb, to consist of 40 giant statues. Michelangelo was to work on this tomb, on and off, for 40 years, occasionally getting dragged off it by other projects … but it was never completed as planned. Indeed, Michelangelo completed a single monumental figure, that of a muscular, bearded Moses. Surprisingly, Moses has horns, based on a Latin translation of the Old Testament which translated rays of light coming from Moses’ head into horns.
Christ Carrying the Cross – Santa Maria sopra Minerva (1520)
The church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, one of Rome’s loveliest churches, is home to Michelanelo’s Christ Carrying the Cross. This Christ, a powerfully built and graceful figure, carries his cross, but with a peaceful expression.
Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508-12)
One of the greatest works of art ever made, Michelangelo was hired by Pope Julius II (who also commissioned Michelangelo to decorate his tomb) to paint frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Pope Julius clearly got the greatest bargain ever had. Michelangelo’s monumental composition — approximately 500 square meters — covers the ceiling of the chapel in a colorful, powerful glory. The center of the chapel has chapters from the Book of Genesis, including the famous composition of God creating Adam, where the two figures reach out a finger to touch each other. Decorative figures of prophets and Sibyls surround the central paintings.
The Last Judgement – Sistine Chapel wall (1534-41)
Years later, in 1534, another pope, Clement VII commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgment on the wall of the Sistine Chapel behind the altar. Once again, Michelangelo hit a home run. The Last Judgment shows Christ judging the living and the dead.
Those being found not worthy of heaven are cast down to a terrifying hell.
Pauline Chapel (Cappella Paolina), Vatican (1542-49)
If you can get into to see this jewel box of a chapel, by all means do so! Michelangelo was hired by Pope Paul III to paint the Crucifixion of St. Peter and the Conversion of Saul for this tiny chapel.
The Capitoline Hill (Piazza del Campidoglio) (1536-46)
Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Paul II redesign the Capitoline Hill. This effort was clearly designed to show the supremacy of the church, as in ancient times the Capitoline (one of the original seven hills of Rome) was home to the Temple of Jupiter, the king of the pagan gods. Michelangelo designed a magnificent piazza, at the center of which was placed the bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback.
Michelangelo also designed the three palazzi that surround the piazza, making them harmonious and integrated examples of Renaissance beauty. Approached by going up an enormous staircase designed by Michelangelo, the focus of the site is now away from the pagan Roman Forum, and pointed towards the Vatican.
St. Peter’s Basilica (1546-64)
At 74, Michelangelo succeeded Antonio da Sangallo as the architect of St. Peter’s Basilica, the most important church in the world. Michelangelo reworked the footprint as well as the façade, and designed the massive dome. The dome (the interior is the featured image at the top of this blog post) was completed after his death, based on a somewhat modified version of his design.
Palazzo Farnese (1548)
Michelangelo designed the upper floor and other elements of the façade of one of Rome’s most beautiful Renaissance palaces.
Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs (Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri) (1564)
Michelangelo constructed this immense church out of the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian. Being built out of this massive pre-existing structure, the church is highly unusual, but breathtaking.
Porta Pia (1565)
Michelangelo designed this monumental gate in the Aurelian Wall.