Michelangelo FAQ

How do we know so much about Michelangelo?

We know so much about Michelangelo for many reasons. Because he was known as one of the most talented artists of his time, he worked on many government or papal projects. Whenever an organization spends money they have to record that, and luckily for us today, those records still exist. From these documents we can see what Michelangelo was commissioned to do, when he did it, how much he was paid, and where he

was. Beyond these official documents, there is further evidence as to who Michelangelo really was. Because of his popularity, many people who came in contact with him wrote about him in letters, some of which still survive today. Also, other artists who admired his work would sketch Michelangelo’s works sometimes while they were still unfinished. Michelangelo was so admired and so well known that he was the subject of two biographies by the artist and writer Giorgio Vasari. These biographies create one of the most definitive documents about the life of Michelangelo. Michelangelo himself gives us insight into who he was. Michelangelo's poems and sonnets not only describe his feelings about life, but about himself. At the end of one describing his troubles with painting the Sistine Chapel, he famously declares “I am not a painter.”

Who was Vasari?

Giorgio Vasari was an Italian artist who was younger than Michelangelo but worked in the same time. In his time, he was very well known and had a reputation as a great painter. His paintings can still be seen today in museums and churches, and the influence Michelangelo had on his work can too be seen.Today, Vasari is most famous for his biographies of Renaissance artists. His “Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors, and Architects” includes biographies of some the most well-known and not so well-known artists of the time. It still stands as one of the most important art historical documents available to scholars.  

What is a fresco painting?

The term “fresco” refers to a type of painting usually murals for walls or ceilings. In fresco painting, the paint, or “pigment” is applied on top of wet or damp plaster. In doing so, the pigment creates a chemical bond with the plaster, making it part of the wall.  The first step in beginning a fresco painting is to draw the image on paper. This drawing is called a cartoon. The artist then hangs the cartoon on the wet plaster and traces the lines into the plaster. The cartoon is usually cut up and ruined in the process.With the image outlined, the artist can then begin to fill in the color with the pigment, made from ground minerals, clays, or plant materials. Because this is being applied to wet plaster, it has to be done quickly before it dries. However, once it is completed, the image is chemically locked in place permanent for generations to admire.

What makes a building a Basilica, Cathedral, or Chapel?

All three are a church or part of a church. A chapel is the smallest. It is usually part of a large church or part of a church complex. When part of a church, they have specific uses; such as a chapel to the Virgin Mary where someone can pray, or the Medici Chapel where Michelangelo designed monuments and tombs for the Medici family. A basilica is a church that the Pope has deemed important. They may also have special privileges, such as a throne or altar that only the Pope may deliver mass from. A cathedral is also a special church. For a church to be a cathedral, it has to be the church of a bishop. St. Peter’s Basilica may be one of the most famous churches in the world, but because it is not the church of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, it is not a cathedral.  A church can be a basilica, a cathedral and have a chapel inside.

Why is it called the Renaissance?

The word “renaissance” comes from the Latin “again” and “birth.” It marked a time when Europe, specifically the areas of Italy from the 14th to 17th century, was beginning to go back to the humanist thoughts of the ancient Greeks and Romans. For artists, this brought back a renewed interest in the human form and nature.

Want to know where you can see Michelangelo today? View a list of Michelangelo sites and follow his life in his steps.

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Other Great Masters

Michelangelo Prints >

Creation of Adam (hands detail)

Creation of Adam

Drawing of a Woman

Delphic Sibyl

Sistine Chapel Ceiling The Creation of Eve

“Faith in oneself is the best and safest course.”

More Michelangelo Quotes