The Medici family was heavily involved in the excavation of priceless artifacts from around the Florence area. Exposure to these excavations, many of which were financed by Michelangelo's key patrons, undoubtedly had an affect on his affinity for classical art and art forms. Through his use of ancient works in his own art, as well as his propensity to copy the style of these ancient artifacts, Michelangelo managed to preserve them for future generations.
In Michelangelo's time, these ancient artifacts were held in the private collections of individuals. They were meant only for the eyes of the power elite and not for the eyes of the average citizen. Through Michelangelo's publicly displayed works, the average public had the ability to enjoy and learn about these national treasures. Michelangelo brought knowledge of Italy's past and the civilizations to those who were not members of the upper class. In doing so, he brought an appreciation of them and the importance of the need to preserve them to the general population. At the same time he also established the rightful place of he power elite in their positions by helping to demonstrate their wealth.
Interest in archeology began in earnest in the 15th century (Library of Congress). Ownership of antiquities became further associated with power and prestige, the search for more antiquities led to numerous archeological expeditions in and around Florence. These excavations were largely funded by families such as the Medici (Library of Congress). Michelangelo's alignment with the Medici allowed him to experience new artifacts first hand. The discovery of numerous Greek artifacts led to a Greek revival. Michelangelo's experience of these artifacts first hand gave him credibility both as an artist and as an art consultant. He was allowed to align himself with the power elite and build a considerable business based on these credentials (Bruce, p. 1).
Antiquities and the Art of Michelangelo
One does not have to look far to see how the antiquities to which Michelangelo was exposed contributed to his own artistry and inspiration. One of the key difficulties that the new art student faces in the examination of collections, such as those of the original Medici collection is distinguishing the older artifacts from those created by Michelangelo and his contemporaries. Many of the older, original Greek artifacts had missing parts. Seldom were they found intact, often with extensive damage to the limbs and head. When statures of gods and goddesses were recreated during the 15th century, they were created intact (Freeman, p. 121).
When originals were not available, a reasonable "modern" representation was acceptable. This created a market for Michelangelo's growing reproductions of Greek style art. Whether a piece was a real antiquity or a reproduction made little difference in the 15th century (Freeman, p. 121). Michelangelo's affinity for Greek, Etruscan, and Roman reproductions was a response to a need in the market that he could fill. His experience with the artifacts at the excavation site gave him particular credibility when it came to knowledge of the pieces that he recreated or restored.
One of the most controversial pieces in regards to reproductions is the statue of Bacchus. This statue originally had damaged parts, which made it look like a more genuine antique. This act might have been for political, as well as aesthetic reasons. The Bacchus statue originally was a missing hand. The hand and bowl were restored sometime after the original sculpting by Michelangelo. The original Bacchus with a broken hand might have been influenced by the discovery of an Apollo statue in 1491, which found its way into the treasure collection of Pope Julius II (Freeman, p. 121). Bacchus was commissioned for Cardinal Riario. It is suggested that the missing hand in the Bacchus statue is supposed to be reminiscent of the original Apollo stature. This brings up a question of what might have been the motivation to do such as thing, to create a work and then destroy part of it.
When one consider the world of the rich and famous during the Renaissance, it is important to consider the politics involved in the commissioning of pieces. Artwork was commissioned to increase the collector's worth and prestige among his contemporaries. It was "acceptable" for a Catholic leader to have in his possession the "antique" statue of a pagan God or Goddess, but to commission the sculpting of such as piece could be considered blasphemy or politically incorrect. If a leader of the Catholic church commissioned a statue of a pagan God or Goddess, it might be construed as condoning the worship of this deity. Therefore, it can be suggested that the sculpture might be intentionally made to look as if it were an antique to hide the fact that it had been recently commissioned by a member of the Catholic Church.
The politics surrounding the possession and commissioning of art at the time of Michelangelo might have had a more significant influence on the pieces that he created than his own inspiration. Michelangelo's study of the Greek, Etruscan, and Roman artifacts to which he was exposed obviously played a significant role in his ability to render reproductions of these statues that were difficult to distinguish from the original, particularly when they were intentionally damaged to make them look antique. When Michelangelo viewed the collections at the Medici palace, attended archeological digs, and was invited to view the private collections of Cardinals and Popes, he was more than likely doing what any craftsman who wanted to make a living would do. He was carefully analyzing the tastes and preferences of those whose business he wished to obtain. It was unlikely that he would gain a hefty commission if he did not produce works that were likely to please them and that they would wish to obtain for themselves.
However, few consider the fact that Michelangelo was just like anyone else, either living then, or living in today's society. He had to keep a roof over his head and keep food on the table. The rich and powerful people with whom Michelangelo chose to align himself with were not only the best market for his works, during the Renaissance, they were his only market and his only change to make a living selling his artwork. Artists needed patrons in order to continue to be able to make a living at their art. It can easily be argued, by virtue of his need for survival, that the preferences of the rich and powerful had a greater influence on the direction that Michelangelo's art took than his own artistic inspiration (Houghton, p. 230).
It is likely that as the 15-year-old Michelangelo studied the pieces in the Medici Palace gardens, he might have been thinking as much about the new market for his art that he had found, as his artistic inspiration. The collections of antiquity undoubtedly had an influence on his career and success as an artist. If he did not produce works that were within the tastes of his key clients, he would have more than likely been a starving artist, rather than the desirable artist of the elite. Michelangelo was as much as shrewd business man as he was a talented artist. He was able to identify his target market and carefully analyze their needs and wishes. He then shaped his work to resemble what he had seen in their own private collections. In doing so, he was able to earn space in these prestigious collections for his own work. It would be difficult to say how much of Michelangelo's work was artistic inspiration and how much of it was the practicality of the need to sell art to make a living. His alignment with the Medici's and leaders of the Catholic church allowed him access to a world that few were privileged to see at the time. This presented Michelangelo with an excellent business opportunity, of which he was prepared to take full advantage.
Michelangelo strived for the perfection that he saw in the Greek, Roman, and Etruscan statues of old. He tried to copy these details in form and style in his own work. This style would soon set the trend of the art world in Florence that would later spread throughout Europe. The seeking of ideal beauty and perfection of the human body are apparent in the progression of Michelangelo's work. He improved in his ability to reproduce the human body throughout his life. However, when one begins to understand the politics behind his powerful clientele, one has to question whether, his striving for perfection in form was of his own desire, or a desperate need to satisfy his patrons.
In a world before the carbon dating and the miracles of modern archeology, it was much easier to pass off a spoof for an actual antiquity.
The artists that made the antiquities to which Michelangelo and his contemporaries were exposed were long gone. There was no ancient mentor with whom Michelangelo could learn from or consult. Michelangelo had to…