Painter, sculptor and architect Michelangelo Buonarroti was born in Caprese, Italy on March 6, 1475. During a more than 70-year career, he won near-mythical fame as one of Europe’s preeminent “Renaissance Men,” and counted kings and popes among his many admirers and patrons. Temperamental and brilliant, Michelangelo crafted several masterpieces including the “David,” the “Pieta” and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. On the 540th anniversary of his birth, learn nine surprising facts about the artist often called “the Divine One.”
1. A jealous rival broke his nose when he was a teenager.
As a teen, Michelangelo was sent to live and study in the home of Lorenzo de’ Medici, then one of the most important art patrons in all of Europe. His steady hand with a chisel and paintbrush soon made him the envy of all his fellow pupils. One young rival named Pietro Torrigiano grew so enraged at Michelangelo’s superior talent—and perhaps also his sharp tongue—that he walloped him in the nose, leaving it permanently smashed and disfigured. “I gave him such a blow on the nose that I felt bone and cartilage go down like biscuit beneath my knuckles,” Torrigiano later bragged, “and this mark of mine he will carry with him to the grave.”
2. He first rose to prominence after a failed attempt at art fraud.
Early in his career, Michelangelo carved a now-lost cupid statue in the style of the ancient Greeks. Upon seeing the work, his patron Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici proposed an elaborate con. “If you were to prepare it so that it should appear to have been buried,” Medici said, “I shall send it to Rome and it would pass for an antique, and you would sell it much more profitably.” Michelangelo agreed, and the sham cupid was sold to Cardinal Raffaele Riario under the guise of being a recently recovered archeological wonder. Riario later heard rumors of the scam and got his money back, but he was so impressed by Michelangelo’s skill that he invited him to Rome for a meeting. The young sculptor would linger in the Eternal City for the next several years, eventually winning a commission to carve the “Pieta,” the work that first made his name as an artist.
3. He carved the “David” from a discarded block of marble.
Michelangelo was notoriously picky about the marble he used for his sculptures, yet for his famous “David” statue, he made use of a block that other artists had deemed unworkable. Known as “the Giant,” the massive slab had been quarried nearly 40 years earlier for a series of sculptures, eventually abandoned, for the Florence Cathedral. It had deteriorated and grown rough after years of exposure to the elements, and by the time Michelangelo began working with it in 1501, it already bore the chisel marks of more than one frustrated sculptor. Michelangelo eventually crafted the discarded block into one of his most luminous works, but recent analyses of the “David” have revealed that the poor quality of its stone may have caused it to degrade at a faster rate than most marble statues.
4. He completed artworks for nine different Catholic Popes.
Beginning in 1505, Michelangelo worked for nine consecutive Catholic pontiffs from Julius II to Pius IV. His breadth of work for the Vatican was vast, and included everything from crafting ornamental knobs for the papal bed to spending four grueling years painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s dealings with his holy patrons were not always pleasant. He had a particularly fraught relationship with the combative Pope Julius II, and once spent three years working on a marble façade for Leo X, only for the Pope to abruptly cancel the project. The artist later enjoyed more convivial partnerships with other pontiffs, and found a famous champion in Pope Paul III, who defended his work “The Last Judgment” after church officials deemed its many nude figures obscene.
5. He inserted his own likeness into some of his most famous works.
Michelangelo rarely signed his works and left behind no formal self-portraits, but he occasionally hid stylized depictions of his face in his paintings and sculptures. The most famous of these secret self-portraits is found in his 1541 Sistine Chapel fresco “The Last Judgment,” in which St. Bartholomew is shown holding a piece of flayed skin whose face appears to be that of the artist. Michelangelo also portrayed himself as Saint Nicodemus in his so-called Florentine Pieta, and art historians have suggested he may be depicted in a crowd scene in his fresco “The Crucifixion of St. Peter.”
6. He designed military fortifications for the city of Florence.
In 1527, the citizens of Michelangelo’s native Florence expelled the ruling Medici family and installed a republican government. Despite being in the employ of the Medici Pope Clement VII, Michelangelo backed the republican cause and was appointed director of the city’s fortifications. He took the job seriously, making extensive sketches for lookout bastions and even traveling to nearby towns to study their defensive walls. His designs later proved a significant obstacle when the Pope’s forces arrived to reclaim the city, and Florence survived 10 months under siege before finally falling in August 1530. Michelangelo could have easily been executed as a traitor, but Clement VII forgave him for his role in the rebellion and even immediately re-hired him. The artist’s position in Medici-ruled Florence remained tenuous, however, and when the Pope died in 1534, Michelangelo fled the city for Rome, never to return.
7. He was an accomplished poet.
Michelangelo is best known as a visual artist, yet in his day he was also a respected man of letters. He produced several hundred sonnets and madrigals over his career, often jotting down stray lines of verse as he hammered away at statues in his workshop. Michelangelo’s poetry makes use of extensive wordplay, and touches on everything from sex and aging to his overactive bladder (he bemoans a “drippy duct compelling me awake too early”). While none of these works was formally published in his lifetime, they circulated widely among Rome’s 16th century literati, and composers even set some of them to music.
8. He kept working until the week he died.
Michelangelo spent most of his golden years overseeing construction on St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Even after he became too weak to go to the work site regularly, he still supervised the job from home by sending drawings and designs to trusted foremen. Sculpture remained Michelangelo’s true love, however, and he continued chiseling away in his home studio until the very end. Only days before he died at the age of 88, he was still working on the so-called “Rondanini Pieta,” which depicts Jesus in the Virgin Mary’s arms.
9. Two of his most famous works have been victims of vandalism.
In 1972, a mentally unstable geologist named Laszlo Toth hopped a guardrail at St. Peter’s Basilica and took a hammer to Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” The attack broke off the Madonna’s nose and forearm as well as part of her eyelid and veil. Restoration crews later recovered dozens of bits of marble from the priceless statue, including one mailed to the Vatican by a guilty American tourist who had picked it up during the commotion. It took 10 months of repair before the “Pieta” was finally put on display again—this time behind a layer of protective glass. A similar fate later befell the “David” in 1991, when a chisel-wielding vandal hammered off part of a toe on its left foot.