Michelangelo stood at the very pinnacle of the Renaissance. The revolutionary ideas of the Renaissance were based on novel ways of living which in turn gave rise to powerful new forms and techniques of artistic expression.
The basis of this was new forms of wealth creation, with production beginning to be orientated on market exchange rather than immediate use (either for the peasants’ subsistence or the lords’ stomach). The wealth of Florence and its great banking families such as the Medici was based on its domination of cloth production, which at its height employed 30,000 people.
But while such developments looked forward to the new world of capitalism they gestated slowly within the womb of the old order, with feudal and non-feudal social relations co-existing for centuries.
The new and old co-existed within the ideas and art of the Renaissance too. The new “humanism” of the Renaissance focused on the natural and human rather than the abstract symbolism of the divine, yet the subject matter remained dominated by the Christian narrative. In Michelangelo’s greatest sculptures, such as David or his Pietá depicting the Virgin Mary holding the body of her son, the dead Christ (a reproduction of which is featured in this exhibition — the original is in the Vatican), the emotional intensity of loss and suffering he evokes reaches heights unseen in western art for centuries.
The early work of Michelangelo is full of confident optimism about the growth of human capacities. The two marble statues of The Risen Christ, on display here represent a profound sense of confidence with Christ depicted as perfected humanity, a second Adam.
But Michelangelo also lived through the traumatic end of the Renaissance. The Church faced unprecedented challenges which would lead to the Counter‑Reformation and princely rule which would destroy the new society emerging in Italy’s city states. In 1517 Martin Luther published his scathing attack on the Church’s corruption, drew the southern German towns behind him, and launched the Protestant Reformation. A decade later, the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor sacked Rome and besieged the Pope for months.
With the papacy paralysed, Florence rebelled against Medici rule and established a new Republic, one of the most radical episodes in the city’s history. Michelangelo directly participated, overseeing the reinforcement of the city’s fortifications. But the Republic was smashed with the Medici restored by papal armies three years later. No wonder Michelangelo’s stunning Last Judgement could evoke so powerfully the biblical vision of the end of time — an era was ending, at least in Italy.
This exhibition only provides a glimpse of all this. The focus is on the relationship between Michelangelo and Sebastiano, the leading Venetian painter of his day but who has long slipped into obscurity. They clearly learnt from each other and Sebastiano’s use of oil to paint, something Michelangelo rarely used, had a great future before it. But Michelangelo was a giant and Sebastiano stood in his shadow.
The curator’s guide and notes barely hint at the tumult of the High Renaissance and its coming eclipse in favour of a narrower focus on the development of artistic style and the protagonists’ personal history. No matter — even a glimpse of greatness is worth it.