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To write a biography of Michelangelo is a daunting task. He was a titan whose life spanned almost nine decades at the centre of European politics, an artist who gave the world its archetypes of Biblical figures such as Adam and David, a man equally adept in the three arts of sculpture, painting and architecture and a writer who created some of the most beautiful Italian poetry since Dante. Long before his death in 1564, Michelangelo achieved mythic status as a godlike figure.

Broadly speaking, Michelangelo's life is familiar enough: his early success in carving the colossal statue of David for his native city of Florence led to a summons by Pope Julius II to create an equally colossal tomb which would have kept a dozen sculptors hard at work for a lifetime. The impulse that made Michelangelo drop other commitments to serve the Pope illustrates an unattractive tendency to pursue the main chance and elbow out competition. In the end, Michelangelo paid bitterly for his eagerness; Julius dropped the project in favour of the challenge of frescoing the ceiling of the papal chapel, a backbreaking feat for someone such as Michelangelo, with limited experience as a painter.

Of course, the Sistine ceiling succeeded beyond even Michelangelo's dreams and may well represent the high water mark of his reputation in terms of popular opinion. But it set in motion a pattern for much of Michelangelo's career: a series of demanding projects for successive popes, some of which were finished while others languished incomplete, a source of shame and embarrassment. Of the latter, none was worse than Julius's unfinished tomb, which kept recurring like a nightmare for almost 40 years. Defending himself against charges of financial impropriety in this matter became a burning issue for Michelangelo as he sought to justify his behaviour against the insinuations of powerful enemies, who claimed that he pocketed enormous sums with little to show for it. Moreover, Michelangelo secretly gave two of the sculptures from the tomb to a close friend, Roberto Strozzi, who then passed them on to the king of France.

It was Michelangelo's longevity that helped him prevail, for he outlived his scandal-mongering foes. He spent his last two decades as architect of St Peter's Basilica, creating a structural masterpiece by fashioning a dome to cap the huge dimensions of its crossing piers. Both the scale and novelty of Michelangelo's architecture posed challenges for later architects, as well as setting them free to experiment with the classical tradition. By the same token, unfinished works — like the so-called Slaves or Captives that were intended for the tomb of Julius II — were considered bizarre in Michelangelo's day only to be regarded as precursors of modern sculpture by late 19th-century artists such as Rodin.


The Punishment of Tityus, (c1953), one of the many erotic drawings that Michelangelo dedicated to Tommaso de' Cavalieri

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