Michelangelo was born in Caprese in Tuscany, where his father Lodovico was mayor. He was brought up in Florence and placed in the care of a stonemason and his wife at Settignano, where Lodovico owned a small farm and marble quarry. At school he devoted his energies more to drawing than to his studies. In 1488, against his father's wishes, he was apprenticed for three years to Domenico Ghirlandaio. He was recommended by Ghirlandaio to Lorenzo de' Medici, and entered the school for which Lorenzo had gathered together a priceless collection of antiques (1490-92). To this period belong two interesting reliefs. In the Battle of the Centaurs the Classical influence of Lorenzo's garden is strikingly apparent, though the straining muscles and contorted limbs, which mark the artist's mature work, are already visible. A marvellous contrast to the Centaurs is the Madonna of the Steps, conceived and executed in the spirit of Donatello.
After Lorenzo's death in 1492, Piero de' Medici, his son and successor, is said to have treated the artist with scant courtesy; and Michelangelo fled to Bologna for three years, returning to Florence in 1495. During this time he made a marble Cupid, which was bought by Cardinal San Giorgio who recognized the talent of the sculptor and summoned him to Rome in 1496. The influence of Rome and the antique is easily discernible in the Bacchus, now in the National Museum in Florence. The Pieta (1497), now in St Peter's, shows a realism wholly at variance with the antique ideal. For four years the sculptor remained in Rome and then, returning to Florence, fashioned his David out of a colossal block of marble. David is the Gothic treatment of a classical theme; in pose and composition there is a stately grandeur, a dignified solemnity.
During the same period he painted the Holy Family of the Tribune and the Madonna now in the National Gallery in London, proving that he had not wholly neglected the art of painting. His genius, however, was essentially plastic, and he had more interest in form than in colour. In 1503 the new pope, Julius II, summoned Michelangelo back to Rome, where their dealings were continually interrupted by bitter quarrels and recriminations. The pope commissioned the sculptor to design his tomb, and for 40 years Michelangelo clung to the hope that he would yet complete the great monument; but other demands were continually made upon him, and the sublime statue of Moses is the best fragment that is left to us of the tomb of Julius.
Instead of being allowed to devote himself to the monument, he was instructed, despite Michelangelo's urgings to consider Raphael, to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with paintings (1508-12). In the event, Michelangelo achieved a masterpiece of decorative design, depicting the Creation, the Fall and the Flood. Almost superhuman invention, and a miraculous variety of attitude and gesture, place this work among the greatest achievements of human energy. No sooner had he finished his work in the Sistine Chapel than he returned with eagerness to the tomb. But in 1513 Pope Julius II died, and the cardinals, his executors, demanded a more modest design.
Then Pope Leo X, of the Medici family, commissioned Michelangelo to rebuild the faade of the church of San Lorenzo in Florence and enrich it with sculptured figures. He reluctantly complied, and set out for Carrara to quarry marble; from 1514 to 1522 his artistic record is a blank, as the elaborate scheme was ultimately given up, although Michelangelo remained in Florence. In 1528-29 he devoted his energies to improving the fortifications of Florence, now under siege. After the surrender he completed the monuments to Giuliano and Lorenzo de' Medici, which are considered to be among the greatest of his works.
In 1533 yet another compact was entered into concerning Pope Julius's ill-fated sepulchre; Michelangelo was once again commissioned to adorn the Sistine Chapel with frescoes. After some years he began in 1537 to paint The Last Judgement. In 1547 he was appointed architect of St Peter's, and devoted himself to the work with loyalty until his death.
Michelangelo is by far the most brilliant representative of the Italian Renaissance. He was not only supreme in the arts of sculpture and painting, in which grandeur and sublimity rather than beauty was his aim, but was versed in all the learning of his age, and wrote copious poetry.