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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: June 2012



In 1550, a seventy-five-year-old artist was paid six scudi to gild eight knobs on the pope's two beds. The papal secretary recorded the payment to “Michelangelo pittore.” This was the world-famous sculptor, painter, architect, and poet, Michelangelo Buonarroti, but to the Vatican functionary, he was just another employee on the pope's payroll.

Michelangelo is universally recognized to be among the greatest artists of all time. His career spanned from the glories of Renaissance Florence and the discovery of a new world to the first stirrings of the Counter-Reformation. Living nearly eighty-nine years, and twice as long as most of his contemporaries, Michelangelo witnessed the pontificates of thirteen popes and worked for nine of them.

Although his art occasionally has been criticized (he was accused of impropriety in the Last Judgment), his stature and influence rarely have been questioned. Many of his works – including the Pietà, David, Moses, and Sistine Chapel Ceiling – are ubiquitous cultural icons. Despite the familiarity of Michelangelo's art and a large quantity of documentation, many aspects of his art and life remain open to interpretation. Only Shakespeare and Beethoven have inspired a comparable scholarly and popular literature.

Contemporaries began writing about Michelangelo in his own lifetime; as early as 1527, the humanist Paolo Giovio penned a short sketch of the artist in Latin, which celebrated his fame as nearly “equal to the ancients.” Of these contemporary sources, the biographies written by his young admirers Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi are the most important. The painter, architect, and writer Giorgio Vasari first published his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects in 1550.