Where? Hall of the Five Hundred in the Palazzo Vecchio
Commissioned for? The tomb of Pope Julius II
What do you see? Two male figures. A vigorous young man is standing with a crown of oak leaves and is holding a sling. The body is twisted in an extreme way, but Michelangelo makes it look like a comfortable position. The body of the young man is finished to perfection. In contrast, at the feet of the young man is an old and wrinkled conquered warrior. The knee of the young man seems to push hard onto the head of the old man. The sculpture is unfinished at the bottom, which allows you to admire the sculpting techniques of Michelangelo. More about Michelangelo’s sculpting techniques can be learned in this video.
Backstory: Michelangelo made this sculpture of almost 9 feet tall (2.61 meters) for the tomb of Pope Julius II (1443-1513). He was the Pope from 1503 until his death in 1513. Pope Julius II was also known as the ‘Warrior Pope,’ as he was very active to make the papacy the most dominant military and political force in Italy. This is also the reason that a statue of a victorious young man seems fitting for his tomb after his death. It is also no coincidence that Michelangelo was asked to create this statue as Pope Julius II was the one that commissioned Michelangelo’s famous frescos at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Symbolism: The oak leaves in the crown of the standing man refer to the emblem of the house of Della Rovere (which means ‘of the oak tree’), a noble Italian family that produced two popes. Several interpretations have been given to the statue, but one of the popular ones is that this statue is an allegory of the victorious overlooking the defeated.
Why the tomb of Pope Julius II? In 1505, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to create the Pope’s tomb for after his death. The original idea was to create a freestanding tomb seven meters wide, eleven meters deep, and eight meters high, with about 40 statues. However, due to a lack of funding and people convincing the pope that it was bad luck to have his tomb built while he was still alive, the project got delayed. After the death of the Pope, the project got gradually less ambitious, and the final tomb includes substantially fewer statues and is not freestanding anymore. The tomb can be found in the San Pietro in Vincoli Church in Rome.
Who is Michelangelo? Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564) was an architect, engineer, painter, poet, and sculptor. He is considered to be one of the greatest artists ever and was considered the best artist of his time. He is probably most well-known for his sculptures (think about the David and the Pietà) and his frescos in the Sistine Chapel such as the Creation of Adam and The Last Judgment.
Fun fact: The standing young man in this statue is believed to be Tomasso dei Cavaleiri. Michelangelo was 57 when he met Cavaleiri, who was 23 at that time, and fell in love with him. Michelangelo dedicated 30 poems to Cavaleiri in which he expressed his love for him and also used him as inspiration for some of his other works. They remained lifelong friends, even though, Cavaleiri married in 1538 and got two children with someone else. The adoration of the male body was not completely uncommon during the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci also showed this appreciation in his work.
Written by Eelco Kappe