Michelangelo & The Medici
A synopsis by Emily Fenichel, Ph.D., recently presented at the Boca Raton Museum of Art for The Friends of the Uffizi Gallery
One of the most enduring relationships in Michelangelo’s life was his personal and professional entanglement with the powerful Medici family. The Medici were responsible for Michelangelo’s early education, some of his major commissions in Florence, and ultimately, his exile from the city as an elderly man. This is a comprehensive view of the influence of the Medici on Michelangelo’s art, life, and legacy.
Michelangelo’s biography is full of myth. Apocryphal stories abound about the artist – some of which were started by Michelangelo himself. One of my favorite tales surrounds Michelangelo’s birth. As the story goes, Michelangelo’s mother and father were on a journey to Caprese in 1475. Francesca was in the final stages of her pregnancy with Michelangelo and her horse startled on a mountain path, throwing her off. Michelangelo’s mother survived and gave birth to the artist a few weeks later. In Michelangelo lore, this story is used to explain the artist’s unusual name. His parents thanked the archangel Michael and God for delivering their son safely by naming their son Michelangelo.
We could say plenty about the story of Michelangelo’s birth. We might note there are elements that mirror Christ’s birth, which I am sure is no accident. Michelangelo’s mother stands in for Mary, heavily pregnant and on a journey. However, Michelangelo’s parents were sent to Caprese because his father, Ludovico, the Florentine government had given him a job as a Judicial Administrator. Who controlled the Florentine government at this time? The Medici family. The Medici might have provided the job on the behest of Michelangelo’s mother who had a genealogical connection to the powerful family.
The Medici were important, not only in Michelangelo’s life, but also in Florence. The family’s power can be traced back to Cosimo de’ Medici, the father of the country. He built his family’s wealth through banking (particularly as a banker to the Pope).
Cosimo controlled Florence for nearly 30 years, followed by his son, Piero the Gouty, and then by his grandson Lorenzo in 1469. Cosimo de’ Medici built the family palace in Florence and contributed money to build the San Marco monastery and a chapel in the church of San Lorenzo. Lorenzo developed his own relationships with prominent artists, such as Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci. They spent the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars on paintings, sculptures, and architecture because they recognized that by commissioning art accessible to the public, they could influence how other Florentines saw them. When Cosimo commissioned the Medici family palace, he was ever aware the thick stone and the heavy cornice projected the family strength.
The name Medici is nearly synonymous with Florence, but the Florentines were not always keen on the family. After the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the family was forcibly expelled from the city for several decades. This cycle repeated at least once more in the 16th century before the family took control for good.
Michelangelo’s relationship with Lorenzo de’ Medici would be among the most important of his life. His familial connections through his mother’s side and father’s employment probably earned Michelangelo a spot in the Medici sculpture garden, a school for young sculptors led by Bertoldo de’ Giovanni, who had studied with Donatello who taught Michelangelo the rudiments of sculpture.
Michelangelo carved several works in the Medici Garden – two of which still survive: the Madonna of the Steps and the Battle of the Lapiths and the Centaurs. Lorenzo was pleased with the young artist and gave Michelangelo a room in his household. He spent most of his formative years with the Medici children, two of whom grew up to become Popes and Michelangelo’s patrons; Giovanni became Leo X, and Giulio became Clement VII.
The Massive Commission
Leo was keen to add his stamp to the Florentine church of San Lorenzo, the Medici family church. It lacked a completed façade. Eager to exploit his childhood friendship with Michelangelo, Leo X commissioned the artist to create a façade. Being Michelangelo, he was particular about the materials and carving of the architectural elements. He insisted the columns must be cut, quarried, and sculpted from one solid piece of marble. The artist selected high quality stone from a quarry hundreds of miles away.
Think about this. In the 1510s, we have 12 massive marble columns being quarried and hauled down steep mountain paths, across a valley, loaded onto boats to the port at Pisa, and then onto barges to float to Florence – all without modern equipment. We are talking ox carts and sledges here. The expense and the difficulty persuaded Leo X to abandon the project. To this day, San Lorenzo church does not have a façade.
With his family’s continuation in serious doubt – Leo decided they needed memorialization and quickly. He asked Michelangelo to design and build another family burial commission.
What he came up with was more than a little strangely unique. These blind windows, for example. Why have a window cut into the wall if it does not open to the outside? And then there are the Medici tombs flanked by figures of Giuliano and Lorenzo de’ Medici that look nothing like the men they commemorate. Instead, dressed in ancient armor, they resemble Roman heroes. Michelangelo himself remarked that viewers hundreds of years from now wouldn’t care what the men actually looked like, but instead would know them as heroic figures.
Leo X died in 1521, right in the middle of Michelangelo’s work on the New Sacristy, but a second Medici pope, Clement VII, was elected two years later. Not only did he want Michelangelo to complete the New Sacristy, but he added another project: the Laurentian library.
Unfortunately, Clement VII was a terrible politician. His poor decisions came to a head in 1527 when Rome was sacked by the Holy Roman Empire army. Naturally, if the Pope is dealing with an invasion, he couldn’t possibly pay artists at work at San Lorenzo. Work there ground to a halt.
Florence expelled the Medici from the city for a second time. Clement VII was absolutely distraught, and by 1529, he had signed a treaty with the Holy Roman Empire that restored authoritarian Medici rule in Florence.
A Quandry for Michelangelo
This left Michelangelo in a pickle. He supported the republican government as a patriotic Florentine, but he turned his back on his patron and childhood friend,
Clement VII. Michelangelo could have easily defected from Florence. Instead, he declared himself a patriotic Florentine and offered his services to the republic for free.
As war with the Papacy became inevitable, the republic charged Michelangelo with strengthening the defensive city walls for a long siege by the Holy Roman Empire and the Medici Pope. The artist oversaw construction. His strange design angles actually deterred much of the heavy artillery and the fortifications held for 10 months. Eventually, however, the Medici ruled again.
Michelangelo had embroiled himself in this political conflict and had chosen the losing side. In fear for his life, Michelangelo escaped to Venice. Pope Clement VII quickly forgave Michelangelo’s patriotic fervor and invited him to come back to Florence to resume his work. Michelangelo agreed. However, when Alessandro de’ Medici became the despotic ruler of Florence in 1532, he had little sympathy for republican supporters. Michelangelo’s life was probably only saved by the intervention of Pope Clement VII. When the artist learned the Pope was gravely ill in 1534, he left the city, never to return.
Michelangelo spent the remainder of his years in Rome, along with a small band of republican Florentines. One such family was the Strozzi. In 1544, they brought Michelangelo into their home when he was ill. Michelangelo’s close friendship with them gives evidence of the artist’s continued political interest and how ardently he opposed Medici rule in Florence.
After Michelangelo recovered, he made an extraordinary gift to the Strozzi family: two so-called “Slaves.” These figures are bound, muscular men. The only problem is that they weren’t really Michelangelo’s to give away. The figures were to have been included in the tomb of Julius II – in fact, Michelangelo had already been paid by the Pope’s family. The situation is a bit fishy – why would the artist risk giving away sculptures that weren’t technically his? It turns out these works were a deliberate political gift, evidence of Michelangelo’s opposition to the Medici.
You see, the Strozzi had been working with the French to strengthen the position of republican Florence against the Medici. They gave the French King gifts – including the Slaves made by Michelangelo. We cannot know if Michelangelo knew this would be the fate of his gift, but considering his closeness to the Strozzi family, it’s likely his gift was always intended as a political tool. These sculptures are still in France at the Louvre.
The Final Connection
Even Michelangelo’s death and funeral were shaped by the Medici family. Cosimo Primo de’ Medici tried desperately to get Michelangelo to return to Florence, even establishing an art academy, naming Michelangelo as the head in absentia. Michelangelo was not moved. He only returned to the city after his death. His body was taken from Rome to Florence, directly against the artist’s plans, where Cosimo de’ Medici and the artist/biographer Vasari arranged a lavish funeral. It was said that, despite taking nearly a week to get back to Florence, the artist’s body did not stink on arrival, but instead gave off a lovely odor. As I said at the beginning, Michelangelo’s biography is full of myth. The episode is a testament that, even after death, Michelangelo could not escape the powerful Medici family. From sculpture gardens to facades, wars and ramparts to political gifts, Michelangelo spent eight decades pleasing, avoiding, working for, and working against the Medici family of Florence.