Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, is home to one-third of the world’s most important works of art. This city, inextricably linked to Michelangelo, boasts a wealth of masterpieces created by the artist, as well as other geniuses such as Dante Alighieri, Filippo Brunelleschi, and Lorenzo Ghiberti. In this article, we delve into three less-known works by Michelangelo, including a Pietà he made for his own tomb, a controversial naked Jesus Christ created when he was just a teenager, and a Bacchus rejected by the man who commissioned it, for being too “raunchy”.
Michelangelo: A Protegé of the Medicis
Michelangelo went to study in Florence at the age of 13, where he was taken under the wing of Lorenzo de Medici. The Medicis, a ruling Florentine Merchant family with untold wealth, funded the explosion of the arts and Michelangelo, as the star protegé at their Arts Academy, took advantage of their financial clout. He created “The Madonna of the Stairs” and “Battle of the Centaurs” for Lorenzo when he was just 15 years old.
After Lorenzo’s death in 1492, Michelangelo was taken in by the monks at Santa Spirito Basilica, where he was allowed to continue his studies. It was here that he began dissecting bodies coming from the convent’s hospital with the blessing of the church. The expertise he picked up as a teenager would carry through his entire career.
A Controversial Sculpture in Santa Spirito Basilica
The Basilica de Santa Spirito houses a controversial sculpture by Michelangelo, created in 1492 when he was 17. The 55-inch wooden crucifix, sculpted as a gift to the monks, went missing for 500 years, and when a historian found it, it was studied for a further 50 years. In 2017, it was finally declared a genuine Michelangelo. The church, designed by Brunelleschi, the same architect who created the Dome of the Florence cathedral, has a plain and simple exterior, in keeping with Augustinian principles, but an extravagant baroque interior.
The main reason to visit the Basilica is to see teenage Michelangelo’s crucifix. Renaissance artists transformed the course of Western art history by making the nude central to artistic practice, but nudity in sacred art was mainly used to either represent the natural state of humanity before the fall, often depicted in scenes connected to Eden or Paradise, or to represent the horror of lustful passions and vanity.
A naked Jesus Christ was unusual and even considered a bit shocking at the time, but this wasn’t a case of blasphemy, as Michelangelo was a devout Catholic. Nudity or lack of clothes is actually mentioned in the scriptures. The removal of the clothing of Jesus Christ by Roman soldiers is mentioned in the gospels, but the question as to whether a loincloth remained is debated by Biblical Scholars. From what we know about first-century Roman crucifixions, Jesus could have been crucified naked to maximize his humiliation, as part of the crucifixion was humiliation, heightened by public nakedness.
The crucifix was made to decorate the high altar of the Basilica, and the congregation would have only seen the front of it from a distance. Now it is displayed in a side chapel, where visitors can admire its intricate details up close. The sculpture is notable for its vivid depiction of the suffering of Jesus, with the carving of the muscles and veins showing the physical toll of the crucifixion. The twisted position of the body and the anguished facial expression are also striking and demonstrate Michelangelo’s mastery of anatomy and his ability to convey emotion in his works.
Michelangelo’s Bacchus for the Bardi Chapel
In 1501, Michelangelo was commissioned by Jacopo Galli, a wealthy merchant, to create a sculpture of Bacchus, the god of wine, for the Bardi Chapel in Florence. Bacchus was often portrayed in Renaissance art as a jovial and drunk figure, but Michelangelo chose to depict him in a more serious and contemplative manner. The Bacchus sculpture depicts the god holding a cup of wine, with a melancholic expression and one hand resting on his hip.
However, Jacopo Galli rejected the sculpture, stating that it was too “raunchy”. It is said that the Bacchus sculpture was seen as controversial because of the depiction of the god’s bulging veins and the sensual curves of his body. Michelangelo’s work was so ahead of its time that it was difficult for contemporary viewers to fully appreciate its beauty and innovative style. The Bacchus is now housed in the Bargello Museum in Florence, where visitors can admire its striking realism and Michelangelo’s unique interpretation of the god of wine.
Michelangelo’s Pietà for His Tomb
Finally, we take a look at Michelangelo’s “Pietà for His Tomb”, a smaller version of the famous Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Michelangelo created this work for his own tomb, which he designed to be located in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence. The sculpture depicts Mary holding the body of Jesus, after the crucifixion. It is a smaller version of the famous Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and is considered to be one of Michelangelo’s most intimate works.
The sculpture is notable for its depiction of Mary, who is shown as a mature woman, rather than a traditional youthful Madonna. Michelangelo’s mastery of anatomy is evident in the depiction of the muscles and veins of the two figures, and the serene expression on Mary’s face is also striking. The work was never placed in Michelangelo’s intended tomb, as he was buried in Rome after his death. However, visitors can still admire this beautiful work in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence.
In conclusion, these three lesser-known works by Michelangelo offer a glimpse into the artist’s versatility and mastery of various themes and subjects. They demonstrate his ability to create works that are both beautiful and thought-provoking, and show why Michelangelo remains one of the most revered artists in the history of Western art.