Mohamed Dekkak standing near Captif known as the ‘Dying Slave’ 1513 1515 Paris France

Dying Slave by Michelangelo

Dying Slave by Michelangelo
Dying Slave by Michelangelo


The two slaves are to Michelangelo what the Mona Lisa is to Vinci, one of his most famous works. If at first the two statues were to be part of the tomb of Pope Julius II in 1515, the project was modified after his death and they were finally excluded for the sake of economy. Following this change, they leave Italy and arrive at the court of the King of France through a Florentine exile, Roberto Strozzi. They are then deposited in the castles of Ecouen and Richelieu and will remain there until the revolutionary whirlwind takes them to the Louvre in 1794.

More important than the ancient inspiration visible in these statues as in most works of this period, their symbolism remains uncertain. In view of the postures, some think that the Slaves represent the enslavement of the arts after the death of the Pope, a great patron, others look for an explanation drawn from Antiquity which takes up the idea of Plato who wants the soul human being chained to a heavy body, others see it as a symbol of the Pope’s political power. Whatever the message, his expression is worked in marble and accentuated by the opposition between the two slaves. The one on the right, the rebellious Slave, has a posture that gives the impression that he is trying to free himself from a mysterious hold, his arm is trying to pull away, his right leg

The other, the dying Slave, lets himself be carried away by his fate. In reality he does not die but is absorbed by a dream that leaves him in a state of enslavement. One has an exaggerated musculature showing his effort, his head is straight, his eyes open and a veil hides his masculine attribute. The other has a musculature that remains shy with a leaning head and closed eyes, symbols of abandonment. On the other hand he is naked. Everything opposes the first in the will and acceptance of the state of servitude in which they are both immersed.

Michelangelo: Sculptor, painter, architect and Italian poet (Caprese, near Arezzo, 1475-Rome 1564).


Florentine Apprenticeship

First artist considered during his lifetime in all the dimension of his genius, Michelangelo was a master of the sublime at the time of the second Renaissance . His insistence on perfection and his perception of the opposition between human distress and the divine world endow his work with eternal strength. Son of a ruined family, Michelangelo is not supposed to make an artistic career. In Florence, where he spent his adolescence, however, he entered the studio of the Fresco painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, which he left after a year (1489). He feels and wants to be a sculptor – marble sculptor. Noticed by Laurent I er de Medici , he was hired to “casino” of San Marco, where he can study at leisure the antique collection Prince. He also attends the humanist milieu, which will have a decisive influence on his spiritual formation and his artistic ambition. Her first works are a Combat of Centaurs and Lapiths and a Virgin at Staircase , which translates her debt to her great predecessor, Donatello.


To the Celebrity

Leaving the Medici palace in 1492, Michelangelo leaves for Venice, stays in Bologna, where he immerses himself in the example of a master of the early quattrocento, Jacopo della Quercia , and arrives in Rome: this first Roman stay date its most famous Pietà , that of St. Peter’s Basilica (1498), which offers the highest expression of purity, and, paradoxically, a drunken Bacchus , who is the most pagan of his figures. Returning to Florence in 1501, Michelangelo received the commission of David , a colossal statue of which he is the symbol of his personal ideal of virile beauty. Now famous, he also began a fresco, the Battle of Cascina , which must be the counterpart of that of Leonardo da Vinci (Battle of Anghiari) , in the hall of the Grand Council at Palazzo Vecchio; of the work, which will never be executed, we know sketches with animated nudes. At the same time, Michelangelo composes large medallions, either carved (Madonna Pitti) or painted (Holy Family, so-called Tondo Doni), whose figures, linked together in a powerful block, belong to sculpture.


The apotheosis of the Sistine

In 1505, Michelangelo went again to Rome, at the request of Julius II , who intends to entrust to him the sculptures of his tomb (the Slaves)  ; but, the project being suspended, the pope uses the artist to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel , in the Vatican: titanic work, populated by more than three hundred characters, which will be carried out in four years (1508-1512) , without the contribution of any help. The ensemble presents the history of humanity based on the main episodes of Genesis , from Creation (Adam’s Creation) to the Flood. The scenes rising above the vault like celestial visions, the figures of sibyls and prophets, announcing the coming of Christ, and the astonishing ignudi(naked teenagers), who seem to support the vault, represent the most perfect accomplishment of linear drawing, Florentines, amplified by the Roman monumentality.

At the invitation of Pope Paul III Farnese , Michelangelo will return to the site of the Sistine, to realize the immense fresco of the Last Judgm ent (1536-1541), which decorates the wall of the bottom of the chapel. There he paints the high figure of a righteous Christ dominating a visionary space where the souls of the damned are swirling. Forgetting the classic style, he anticipates the wide pulsation of the Baroque , while delivering the message of anguish raised by the idea of the Last Judgment. The frescoes of the Sistine Chapel make Michelangelo the apostle of Mannerism , grouping painters who prefer curved lines with straight lines and favor the scenes appropriate to the expression of a dramatic tension.


The other major sponsors

While in Florence from 1515, Michelangelo was asked by Pope Leo X to build the funerary chapel of the Medici. He then undertakes the tombs of the Dukes Julian and Lorenzo II, who are themselves carved in the guise of young captains dressed in antique fashion, one representing the thinker, the other the man of action. At their feet is a sarcophagus depicting the allegories of passing time: Day and Night, Dawn and Twilight, alternately male and female characters. All the decorative elements are borrowed from the ancient repertory, but never the authority of the composition and the modernity of the style will have been more evident.

In Florence again, Michelangelo supplies the drawings that will be used to build the vestibule and staircase of the Laurentian Library , located within the walls of San Lorenzo Church. It was in 1534 that he settled permanently in Rome. He is then called to resume the project of tomb for Julius II. But Leo X and the heirs of the deceased pope gave up the grandiose monument to which Michelangelo had thought; this one, death in the soul, will have to be satisfied with a reduced model, which will be placed in the small church San Pietro in Vincoli ( Saint-Pierre-with-Links , 1545); he added to it certain marble already carved, including the impressive Moses (c.1515-1516).


The genius superior of his time

From 1546, Michelangelo devoted himself mainly to architecture. He is then, officially, the successor of Antonio da Sangallo the Younger  : he draws the famous dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, but, being in the grip of the maneuvers of the friends of his predecessor, he can not realize it; he also works at the Farnese palace , which he has on the top floor and the cornice.

Also urban planner, he built the Capitol Square , taking advantage of the topography, develops plans for the transformation of the baths of Diocletian into a church (Santa Maria degli Angeli, 1561-1566) and designs the monumental Porta Pia (circa 1565). His last sculptures are three Pietà  : that of the cathedral of Florence, the Pietà da Palestrina , finally the Pietà Rondanini (unfinished), which repudiates the beauty, even the physical reality, for the benefit of the only spirituality


Poet too

Michelangelo is also a poet in love. One of his nephews proves this by having Florence print in 1623 a collection of sonnets and madrigals from the hands of the great artist.

The latter is part of Rome, circle that meets around the poet Vittoria Colonna . Is she the inspiration of Michelangelo’s lyricism, which Petrarch would not have denied?

A young and handsome Roman, Tommaso Cavalieri, also entered the life of Michelangelo – who taught him to draw and who called him his “precious genius” – is he the beloved object, dedicatee of so many verses and recipient of so many letters? Or the substitute of the tender Vittoria, whom Michelangelo – as platonic as his flame was – is forbidden to name publicly? Today, the first hypothesis is clearly privileged. Until the end of his life, Michelangelo remained active and took part in the artistic life of his time, advising or recommending one or another of his disciples, as a patriarch already invaded by his myth. He died in Rome at almost 90 years, but it is in Florence, his true homeland, that he rests (church Santa Croce)

To approach the work of Michelangelo is to meet an art placed under the sign of the essential complexity, the desired difficulty and the incessant renewal. The extreme richness, formal and semantic, of this work stems from the diversity of fields and techniques in which Michelangelo expressed himself: sculpture, painting, architecture and poetry, like so many exercises of style to the laws and constraints variety. However, if his most important achievements are universally famous, the omission too frequent of his secondary creations oversimplifies the image of the artist as if he had, unlike his contemporaries, only exceptional tasks to accomplish. This feeling, this extreme variety is still aroused by his double career, Florentine and Roman, which pushes him to adopt very different modes according to whether he works in the Tuscan city or in the capital of the Church . And the duration of his career, exceptional for the time (nearly seventy-five years), certainly contributes. What is there in common between the artist who polishes with so much love the Pietà of Saint-Pierre and, moved by the just pride of his own virtuosity, the signa, and the one who, assaulted by doubts, lassitude and an authentic disgust for the vanity of this art, sketched, mutilated and began again the Pietà from Milan? And what changes in his working conditions and especially in his conception of art and its role! how far, from the humanistic enthusiasm of his first patrons, passionate collectors of the ancients who saw in beauty the reflection of the divinity to this mistrust of the beautiful , if he is not “decent” and strictly subordinate to religious doctrine, reformist circles he attended at the end of his life!

Few works completed in the artisanal sense of the term to be included in Michelangelo’s catalog: a small number of sculptures, dating mainly from his youth, a single panel surely painted autograph and vast paintings painted frescoof the Vatican. But a great deal of unfinished or finished works by others, such as his late architectural enterprises, or well known by drawings that suggest only the future of a sculptural or architectonic project. The historical distance that separates us from Michelangelo is also the cause of misunderstandings that weigh on the interpretation of his works. One would misunderstand his conception of art by wanting to find personal messages, psychological or philosophical, dissociable from the form that manifests them, while both have always been elaborated by him in a close dialectical relationship. In his eyes, art was an autonomous language, which he sought, to triumph more gloriously, the greatest subtleties. It would be wrong to imagine that life than his own “satisfaction from the point of view of art” (as he told Pope Julius II about the vault of the Sistine Chapel) and the approval of an extremely limited number of true connoisseurs , belonging to the artistic world or to the cultured social elite. Finally, just as the artist rethought the means and the sense of art at every new opportunity, the approach of Michelangelo’s work is constantly challenged by new factors. Rediscovered works, such as the mural drawings of the premises located under the apse of the Medici funeral chapel in 1975 or the first version of the torso of Christ of the Pietà of Milan in 1972;and the Sistine Chapel (1980-1994), which gave these works a radiance and limpidity of surprising colors at first sight; revaluations of works such as Christ on the Cross of Santo Spirito (Casa Buonarroti, Florence), which is defeated by the candid purity of its adolescent forms; confrontations with new documents (explicit contracts in particular) or new reading of ancient sources, biographies of the artist or his own correspondence; progress in the knowledge of contemporary artists of Michelangelo, in relation to him as Sebastiano del Piombo or Daniele da Volterra; best study of its “debts” to the Tuscan masters of XIV th and XV th centuries. All these elements, combined with the changing curiosities of the generations and new types of surveys on patronage (Michelangelo and the Medicifor example) and the social and economic aspects of artistic and architectural practice, lead to a renewed vision. Michelangelo appears as a practitioner struggling with the same difficulties as his contemporaries to win a competition and take away an order, to convince his sponsor of the validity of its plastic or functional solutions, to meet his professional commitments, to finally reconcile his thirst for honor, dignity and freedom with the need to work for a living. To the romantic vision of the Saturnian genius still flourishing in the books of great diffusion is gradually replacing the image, which does not diminish it in any way, of a man caught in a multiplicity of dialectical relations, reacting to the constraints imposed by his material, the place where he works and builds, elements built or painted before his intervention, the financial resources of the promoters of the enterprise and the inconstancy of their intentions. As Raphael , to whom he has been systematically opposed in his style as in his character, Michelangelo has shown a prodigious spirit of assimilation (“It was enough for him to see once the work of another to retain it perfectly and use it occasionally without anyone noticing it, “says Vasari) and a great sense of adaptation to demand, evidence of the deep and deep intelligence that he have recognized his most enlightened contemporaries.



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