Updated: Jun 18, 2022
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was a long-lived Renaissance artist, famous for his iconic David and the Sistine ceiling frescos. He outlived two other Renaissance artists, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. His work defined sixteenth century Italian art and influenced many artists. His legendary status survived centuries as he remains an iconic figure. He was by all contemporary documentation and accounts the wealthiest and most famous artist in his time.
Portrait of Michelangelo from his tomb in Santa Croce, Florence.
Close to 1400 letters survive by Michelangelo or to Michelangelo along with 300 pages of his personal and professional records. In addition there is excellent archival documentation regarding his landowning and bank records. These records give us a good sense of his personality, how he conducted business, and what he valued.
He worked primarily in Florence and Rome, serving many Popes and the Medici. He was a remarkable painter, sculptor, architect, draughtsman, and poet. His persona and artistic masterpieces, witnessed by hordes of people who have visited the museums and churches where his artwork resides, have taken on a life of their own. The giant marble statue of David has become one of the most reproduced trinkets and souvenirs in Italy.
Michelangelo, David, Accademia Gallery, Florence
(public domain photo, Pixabay)
The fascination with his creative process, sexuality, and artistic personality was brought to life in the book and 1965 film The Agony and the Ecstasy. Guidebooks tend to represent him as a solitary artist, reclusive in his creative process and a loner. Let’s set the record straight by looking more closely at the myths that have surrounded Michelangelo’s life.
He was bad-tempered.
Cranky, sometimes yes, but he could, on occasion, also be caring and demonstrative towards close family and friends. He had numerous friends. He complained mightily in his letters, especially of old age, money, and family, but very much valued his friends and family. William Wallace describes him as a permanent pessimist in his personal life and an unrealistic optimist in his professional life. In correspondence he constantly nagged his nephew Lionardo, his estate successor, to marry well for the sake of the family name, to invest well, to be careful with money and sporadically threatened to disinherit him for various reasons. Many times, Michelangelo seemed much more concerned with the Buonarotti reputation and patrimony than whether or not his family was happy. Preserving his patrimony was of utmost importance to Michelangelo. Family was everything as family position determined an individual’s status.
He lived alone and was reclusive.
Nothing could be further from the truth. While working in Rome in the mid-1550s his household consisted of over six people including servants, assistants and their children. Michelangelo’s faithful household and artistic assistant for twenty-five years, Urbino, died in his master’s arms. Michelangelo established a fund for Urbino’s children. He also had very close friendships with other artists, nobility, and long lasting friendships with assistants and their families. Perhaps his perceived irascibility was due to his fame as everyone wanted to be his friend or get a drawing or something from him. He was very loyal to his close friends and patrons as they were to him.
It’s tempting to characterize him as a crazed, tortured artist (ala Irving Stone in the Agony and the Ecstasy) but it is more accurate to think of him as intense, devoted, greedy and pious. He was a complicated man. And a good business man. He could drive a tough deal, not always ethical, but to his advantage. There may have been a few crazed artists in the Renaissance but surviving documentation from the period suggests very few artists might fit this nineteenth century image of the withdrawn, solitary genius.
He worked alone and did not collaborate with other artists. Michelangelo did not take the typical route in his career by maintaining a studio. He never joined a guild, which was nearly unheard of at the time. Some artists had almost a factory-like studio with many assistants which he eschewed. However, he did not paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes alone. He had assistants in the first year. Not as many as some other artists in great demand, but he did not work alone. Late in his life, the architectural work on San Lorenzo and the Laurentian library required intense collaboration since Michelangelo lived in Rome and the work took place in Florence.
He's so gay!
Well, we’ll never know with certainty about his sexual life, but he never married. He was a very religious man and chaste. Were his iconic representations of muscled male nudes an indicator of his preference for men? Probably not as it was more of a tribute to classical sculpture than a desire to paint or sculpt toned males. He was a prodigious poet and wrote what we would interpret as love sonnets to male contemporaries. But that was not usual for the time period.
Identifying as gay means something very different now than it did in the 1500s. There wasn’t even a word to identify someone as “homosexual” or “gay” in Michelangelo’s day. It was very common for elite older men to mentor younger men in a relationship that included sexual contact. Part of the rationale at that time was the late age of marriage for men and that most families sought to place their young sons with older established men for training and education. These types of sexual relationships were not openly encouraged but it was a hush-hush arrangement that supposedly provided a sexual outlet until marriage. Very hard to believe that was so acceptable.
Sodomy (any act between same sex partners) was officially against the law. In 1432 Florence created the “Office of the Night” to control and police sodomy. The Night Officers, which operated until 1502, found 10,000 persons incriminated for same sex activities. Very few of those were artists. A few famous examples are the twenty-four year old Leonardo da Vinci accused of sodomy with a seventeen year old. Leonardo was not convicted. Sandro Botticelli, painter of the famous Birth of Venus, was also accused of sodomy.
Michelangelo was a miser.
This is spot on. The creator of some of the world’s greatest art was a pinch penny and obsessed with building and maintaining wealth, but not living in a wealthy manner. He was handsomely paid for his work from nearly the get go, about 1600 large gold florins for the Sistine Chapel ceiling (completed 1508-12). Consider that 50 large gold florins would be considered a decent yearly salary for a skilled worker. Michelangelo earned ten times the wage of a stonecutter. He was paid astronomical prices for artwork in his twenties. His net lifetime income after taxes and expenses was more than 50,000 large gold florins – unprecedented for artists of his lifetime. Leonardo da Vinci was also well paid for his art but was a spender rather than a saver.
Michelangelo invested his money early on, purchasing his first real estate when he was thirty-one, a farm outside of Florence. Two years later he owned two farms outside of Florence and three houses in Florence. His living expenses were very low in order to invest for the future of the family. The last property he acquired just two years before his death was a small house nearby his other farms. He established quite an estate in Tuscany as well as maintaining the houses in Florence, which now are the Casa Buonarroti museum on Via Ghibellina.
Casa Buonarroti, Florence (Sailko, Wikimedia Commons)
Michelangelo died in February of 1564 nearly eighty-nine years old. He had outlived other most major Renaissance artists including Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. As was the custom, a judge and a notary conducted an inventory of belongings the day after his death. The record of his belongings included a horse, twenty-four shirts, five of which were new (he liked fine fabrics and good shirts, preferably black), two beds, basic household items, and some unfinished statues. Beds and horses were a valued household item and often the most valuable items in a common person’s household. No books were recorded in the inventory. No jewels. No art other than his own.
There was a large locked walnut chest in his room. The chest contained 8,289 gold ducats and scudi in various containers, and silver pieces. Nearly 66 pounds of gold locked up in a chest! The unfinished artwork and uncollected salary along with the assets in his chest totaled nearly 10,000 florins. That would be enough to purchase a sizable palazzo in Florence and it was enough to financially secure the Buonarroti family for quite some time. Despite our modern notion that truly gifted artists should suffer and live in poverty (a nineteenth century concept) Michelangelo was true only to the later – he chose to live rather wretchedly and with a bare minimum of material goods. Unlike his contemporary Leonardo da Vinci had only 289 florins when he died.
Michelangelo is buried in the church of Santa Croce, in his old neighborhood in Florence. The marble for his tomb was taken from his Florentine studio.
Michelangelo's Tomb, Santa Croce, Florence
His lifetime earned income was about 50,000 large gold florins – about enough to purchase five very large palaces. About 2,000 large gold florins would be a lifetime earnings for a skilled professional.
His lifetime earned income derived equally from painting, sculpture and architecture.
96 percent of his art was produced for popes or cardinals. There were thirteen popes during his lifetime; he worked for about ten of them.
85 percent of his art was produced in Rome.
Michelangelo, Sistine Ceiling detail, Vatican City, Rome
(public domain photo, Pixabay)
Examples of what Michelangelo was paid, listed from early to later works: (the florin, scudi and ducat were all about the same value)
Doni Tondo (round painting done early in his career; in the Uffizi Gallery) 70 florins
Bacchus (statue in the Bargello Museum, Florence) 150 florins
David (marble statue in Florence, Accademia Gallery) 400 florins
Pieta’ (marble statue, Rome, St. Peter’s) 450 florins
Sistine Ceiling 3200 ducats
Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel 6000 scudi
A Vatican scudo from the time of Pope Paul III, pope from 1534-49.
Hartt, Frederick and David G. Wilkins. History of Renaissance Italian Renaissance Art. Seventh edition. Prentice Hall, 2011.
Hatfield, Rab. The Wealth of Michelangelo. Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2002.
Paoletti, John T. and Gary M. Radke. Art in Renaissance Italy. Fourth edition. Laurence King, 2011.
Rocke, Michael. Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence. Oxford University Press, 1996.
Wallace, William E. Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and his Times. Cambridge University Press, 2010.