Michelangelo Buonaroti was raised in Florence, Italy. Florence is in the region of Tuscany that was incorporated into Rome in the first century. Tuscany was civilized by the Etruscans before Rome was established, and much of what is called classical Roman art has its roots in Etruscan art. Michelangelo’s art in the 15th and 16th centuries was an evolution of the Roman artistic tradition rather than a truly different kind of art.
Roman art was stylistically influenced by both the Etruscans and the Greeks. The Hellenistic influence on Roman art was also part of Greece’s philosophical influence in a time when philosophy and art were not seen as distinct from one another. Renaissance means “rebirth,” and the Renaissance period was seen by its major artists as a rebirth of the classic traditions of Rome and Greece. Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo, studied Roman art very closely, and many – including Michelangelo – imitated Roman styles so well that some of their work was passed off as earlier Roman art.
One of the major artistic breakthroughs during the Renaissance was the discovery of linear perspective – changing the sizes of objects along converging planes to give the sense of three dimensions where there are only two. Some call that a rediscovery, because there are examples of work with perspective in both ancient Greece and Rome. But the geometry was not understood as it was during its Renaissance discovery, and the examples of Roman art without linear perspective far outnumber the examples with it. Michelangelo and his contemporaries would actually rule on their converging lines before beginning a painting to ensure greater verisimilitude. Michelangelo’s “Noah and the Flood” is seen as great example of linear perspective.
Roman art had very secular motifs, often imperial, that emphasized power, conquest and grandeur. A celebration of the human form was integrated into this world view. Michelangelo was philosophically influenced by the neoplatonists -- a Hellenistic philosophy that had great influence on the Roman Catholic Church. The neoplatonists believed that the soul yearned to escape the confines of the body, and Michelangelo’s sculptures, drawings and paintings often represented agonized, twisted poses that seemed to be trying to break free of the body. In these representations, his work differed dramatically from earlier Roman art.
Nothing more dramatically distinguishes Michelangelo’s art from early Roman art than his themes. Michelangelo was a Christian, and a great number of his works represent Christian themes. His most famous sculpture is David, from the biblical story. His most famous painting is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – a tour de force that took him four years of excruciatingly hard labor to complete, much of it laying on his back atop high scaffolds. Each fresco represents a biblical story.
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