Genius of Michelangelo

Course No. 7130
Professor William E. Wallace, Ph.D.
Washington University in St. Louis
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Course Overview

The Sistine Chapel ceiling. The Pietà. The David. The Last Judgment. The Moses. The Dome of St. Peter's Basilica. Michelangelo's artistic achievements, in their scope and execution, seem unimaginable. His brilliance is apparent in every medium he worked in and with every tool he used. Today, more than 500 years after his unique artistry burst forth on the Renaissance world, the breadth and depth of his accomplishments still confound our attempts to grasp their full importance.

How much do we really know about Michelangelo? Conflicting viewpoints and much confusion surround many aspects of the Renaissance artist's life and art; myth and legend so envelop him that he sometimes seems more like a caricature than a complete human being. Despite a familiarity with some of his works, aspects of Michelangelo's art and life remain open to interpretation. For example:

  • Was he, in fact, difficult to work with?
  • Why did he fall out of favor with art critics until the 18th century?
  • Did he work alone or with assistants?
  • What was the significance of his name, his birthplace, and his religious beliefs?

In The Genius of Michelangelo, internationally recognized Michelangelo expert and award-winning Professor of Art History William E. Wallace gives you a comprehensive perspective on one of history's greatest artists, unavailable in any other course. Drawing on a vast command of artistic knowledge and period detail, these 36 intellectually rewarding and visually dazzling lectures explore the relationship between truth and legend to reveal a groundbreaking new picture of Michelangelo as an artist, a businessman, an aristocrat, and a genius.

Rediscover a Master

Living nearly 89 years (twice as long as most of his contemporaries), Michelangelo Buonarroti's career spanned the glories of Renaissance Florence, the discovery of the New World, the Reformation and the stirrings of the Counter-Reformation, and the pontificates of 13 popes—9 of whom employed him at some point.

"Few artists have achieved as much as Michelangelo in so many diverse endeavors," notes Professor Wallace. "Few so completely embody our very notion of genius."

Arranged as a chronological survey of the artist's life, The Genius of Michelangelo presents a thorough understanding of Michelangelo's life and work, informed by a broad consideration of the artist and his times, as well as the specific circumstances and contexts in which he crafted his art. As you follow Michelangelo's rise, you learn to separate fact from fiction and to penetrate the myths that have long hampered a complete understanding of this unforgettable artist.

"We cannot help but wonder at the humanity, tenacity, and awe-inspiring accomplishments of such a man," remarks Professor Wallace. "Although deeply human and sometimes vulnerable, Michelangelo rose above mundane circumstances and employed his incomparable gifts and transcendent genius to create sublime works of art, for the world and for all time."

New Insights, Fascinating Stories

"The truth," notes Professor Wallace, "is that we are less likely to discover new works of Michelangelo but rather to discover new things about him." Throughout the course, you discover new insights about aspects of Michelangelo's formative years:

  • Born into a patrician family, Michelangelo spent his youth in the town of Settignano, a village of craftsmen in the stone trade whom he would later hire and use as his assistants.
  • By the time he was 12, Michelangelo was apprenticed to Domenico Ghirlandaio, one of the great Renaissance masters and the greatest artist in Florence.
  • At age 15, Michelangelo was brought by Lorenzo de' Medici into the Medici household, where he was educated alongside two Medici princes and future popes.

You also explore fascinating stories behind the creation of Michelangelo's most beloved works, all of which give you new vantage points from which to see this genius's personality at work:

  • The Pietà: Michelangelo insisted on traveling to the marble quarry himself to supervise the extraction of the marble block for this project, which is unusual considering the great number of places he could have purchased readily quarried marble in Rome. Off and on, he spent a total of four years of his life in marble quarries, supervising the extraction of marble for his favorite artistic medium: sculpture.
  • The David: Originally intended as a buttress for the Florentine Cathedral, its magnificence compelled the civic government to place it at Florence's very heart: the Piazza della Signoria. Shifting the statue from its expected religious context was the start of our modern conception of art, with an increasing burden of responsibility placed on the viewer to interpret a work's meaning.
  • The Sistine Chapel ceiling: Michelangelo was originally commissioned to paint the 12 apostles, but he successfully lobbied for a much grander and more complex scheme that illustrated major scenes from the book of Genesis, including the now-iconic scene of God bestowing Adam with life. The project was completed in four years.

A Well-Documented History

Michelangelo's work is among the most well documented and well preserved in the history of art; the bulk of his output in sculpture, painting, and architecture survives to this day. The Genius of Michelangelo draws on the master's works, as well as a wealth of additional documentation that survives, to help reconstruct the details of Michelangelo's life:

  • Nearly 1,400 letters in which more than 1,100 persons are named, creating a veritable cross-section of 16th-century society
  • More than 600 drawings, even though Michelangelo burned many of them toward the end of his life
  • Some 300 poems that he wrote, reflecting the artist's talent not just as a painter and sculptor but as a poet as well
  • Some 300 pages of miscellaneous records
  • Two biographies written during Michelangelo's lifetime that serve as testaments to his contemporary fame

A Passionate, Knowledgeable Instructor

The author of numerous books on Michelangelo, Professor Wallace has been enchanted by the Renaissance artist since a visit to St. Peter's Basilica as an undergraduate student, where he encountered the marvels of the Pietà, the Moses, and the Sistine Chapel ceiling for the first time.

His passion and knowledge of Michelangelo and his works earned him an invitation by the Vatican in 1990 to confer about the conservation of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. In addition, Professor Wallace appeared in the BBC film The Private Life of a Masterpiece: Michelangelo's David, and served as the principal consultant for the BBC film The Divine Michelangelo.

Professor Wallace puts his teaching skills on display throughout these lectures, which feature more than 800 visuals, including stunning reproductions of Michelangelo's sculptures, paintings, and architecture, as well as rough sketches, preparatory drawings, and photographs of the places he lived and worked.

The Genius of Michelangelo, infused with the passion and knowledge of an expert instructor, enriches your appreciation of Michelangelo's many accomplishments and enhances your understanding of one of the world's greatest and most familiar artists.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 29 minutes each
  • 1
    Who Was Michelangelo?
    Michelangelo is a highly mythologized figure. This lecture begins to peel away much of the fiction that surrounds him, enabling us to approach the truth about the man, his art, and his prodigious impact on the history of art. x
  • 2
    Artist and Aristocrat—Michelangelo's World
    This lecture discusses the places and people of Michelangelo's world, establishing a "mental geography" and genealogy—in essence, a capsule history of the artist—that can serve as a framework for the course. x
  • 3
    An Unconventional Beginning
    Why, when, and how did Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni become an artist? We start by examining the family connections that gave the young Michelangelo such privileged access—first to the shop of Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio and then to the household of Lorenzo de' Medici himself. x
  • 4
    Michelangelo's Youth and Early Training
    We consider how Michelangelo's two years in the privileged environment of the Medici retarded his artistic "career" but furthered his connections among the social elite who would become his patrons before introducing his first works in marble. x
  • 5
    Florence and Bologna in the Early 1490s
    The death of Lorenzo de' Medici leaves Michelangelo with neither a patron nor a means of support. We follow him to Flor­ence, where he begins his serious study of anatomy, and then to Bologna, where his work for the Sienese sculptor Jacopo della Quercia furthers his artistic maturation. x
  • 6
    First Visit to Rome and Early Patrons
    This lecture recreates Michelangelo's earliest impressions of the Eternal City—his first extensive exposure to the art of the Classical past—and introduces Cardinal Raffaelle Riario and the marble sculpture he commissions from Michelangelo, the Bacchus. x
  • 7
    The Bacchus and the Pietà
    We look at the two principal works—the Bacchus and the Pietà—carved by Michelangelo during his first sojourn in Rome. These two works represent contrasting currents that consistently run through Michelangelo's art: his interest in pagan antiquity and his profound commitment to the Christian faith. x
  • 8
    The Return to Florence and the David
    After first looking at the commission that brings about Michelangelo's return to Florence—the Piccolomini altar—we turn to the history of the David, examining what Michelangelo achieved in extracting that magnificent figure from what was considered a ruined block of marble. x
  • 9
    The David and St. Matthew
    We continue our discussion of the David—including the implications of the city's decision to move it from its cathedral setting to Florence's very heart, the Piazza della Signoria—before turning to his commission to carve 12 apostles, only one of which, the St. Matthew, was ever begun. x
  • 10
    For the Republic—The Battle of Cascina
    We take up one of Michelangelo's most important, although never executed, commissions, the Battle of Cascina, a giant fresco intended for the Florentine Hall of State in direct competition with a work by Leonardo da Vinci—whose own fresco was also never completed—before turning to Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna. x
  • 11
    The Taddei Tondo and the Pitti Tondo
    Between 1501 and 1507, an ambition-driven Michelangelo achieved both astonishing success and equally astonishing productivity, appearing to refuse no one. His commissions included the round compositions known as tondi, executed in both marble and paint, and we introduce three of these unique and surprising works. x
  • 12
    The Doni Tondo
    We continue our examination of the Doni Tondo introduced in the previous lecture, the only painting in tempera ever created by Michelangelo and one of the greatest treasures of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. x
  • 13
    Rome and the Tomb of Julius II
    This lecture introduces one of Michelangelo's most steadfast patrons, Julius II, as well as the ambitious project they conceived together. The Julius Tomb would have a 40-year history; it was a project that dogged Michelangelo for much of his life. x
  • 14
    Bologna and the Return to Rome
    We discuss the tumultuous relationship and rift between Michelangelo and Julius II and the monumental bronze statue of the pope he was directed to carve in penance—a prelude to the even greater penance that lay ahead: the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. x
  • 15
    The Sistine Chapel
    This lecture looks at the overall organization of one of our greatest works of art. We examine the halting beginning, the earliest narratives, and the emergence of a masterpiece: the visualization of the book of Genesis for all Western Christianity. x
  • 16
    The Sistine Chapel, Part 2
    We continue an examination of the major narratives of the ceiling's central spine—especially the Creation of Adam, Creation of the Sun and the Moon, and Separation of Light and Dark—before taking up a discussion of the ceiling's other decorations, beginning with the Prophets and Sibyls. x
  • 17
    The Sistine Chapel, Part 3
    We conclude our discussion by looking at the Prophets and Sibyls and the well-known, but little understood male youths, or ignudi, before concluding with the lunettes and a final consideration of the Sistine Ceiling as a magnificent whole. x
  • 18
    A Story of Marble
    In looking at the three years Michelangelo devotes to an unrealized commission to create an all-marble façade for the Medici church of San Lorenzo, we follow him to the quarries themselves, examining the effort required to extract tons of marble and transport it to Florence. x
  • 19
    The Medici Chapel Sculpture
    With more than 300 people assisting him on two large and simultaneous Medici projects—the Medici Chapel and Laurentian Library—Michelangelo proves that he is an effective business manager as well as something of an entrepreneur. x
  • 20
    The Medici Chapel Sculpture, Part 2
    The Medici Chapel is the first realization of Michelangelo's longstanding ambition to combine architecture, painting, and sculpture. Although the painting campaign was aborted, and the sculpture only a fraction of his original intentions, the ensemble is satisfying, complex, and one of his foremost masterpieces. x
  • 21
    The Medici Chapel Sculpture, Part 3
    Continuing a focus on some of the difficulties of marble carving, we look at the profound challenge Michelangelo faced in carving figures essentially at eye level, with no opportunity to view them at the much higher level at which they would ultimately be placed. x
  • 22
    The Laurentian Library
    While working on the Medici Chapel, Pope Clement VII asks Michelangelo to also design a library at San Lorenzo. We focus on that library, including the magnificent staircase that leads to its entrance, and briefly consider a number of simultaneous projects also undertaken during an incredibly busy period. x
  • 23
    Florence—A Republic under Siege, 1527–34
    In a little-known episode of his life, Michelangelo devotes himself to the defense of Florentine liberty. We examine his long-lasting contribution to fortification design and military science before considering a series of sculpted and painted works undertaken after the war, including the David/Apollo marble sculpture and the painting of Leda. x
  • 24
    Inventing a New Aesthetic—The Non-Finito
    This lecture considers some of the greatest of Michelangelo's unfinished works—including the four Slaves or Prisoners in the Accademia Gallery—and considers the possibility of his increasing interest in intentional incompletion: a genuine exploration of the idea of the non-finito as a new aesthetic. x
  • 25
    Michelangelo's Drawings, 1520–40
    We look at a remarkable series of drawings Michelangelo makes for his closest friends that will revolutionize attitudes toward drawings—making them a medium to collect and treasure—before introducing the great work that would occupy him for nearly six years: the Last Judgment. x
  • 26
    The Last Judgment
    The fresco of the Last Judg­ment in the Sis­tine Chapel is Michelangelo's first great work for Pope Paul. More than 20 years after com­plet­ing the chap­el's ceiling, Michel­angelo again finds him­self painting a monumen­tal work at the heart of Christendom and papal au­th­or­ity, a vision of enormous scale and power. x
  • 27
    The Last Judgment, Part 2
    The individual figures and details of the Last Judgment demonstrate Michelangelo's great inventive capacity but also reveal the unconventional nature and multiple meanings of the gigantic fresco. The work's reception was not always positive, reflecting a controversy about the number and appropriateness of the artist's nudes. x
  • 28
    The Pauline Chapel
    The frescos of the Conversion of Saul and the Crucifixion of Peter in the so-called Pauline Chapel, begun for Pope Paul III immediately after completing the Last Judgment, will be Michelangelo's final paintings. x
  • 29
    The Completion of the Julius Tomb; Poetry
    This lecture brings to a close the long, convoluted history of this compromised but still magnificent monument—completed only after 40 years of delays and re­negotiated contracts—and considers Michel­angelo's deep friendship with Vit­toria Colonna, to whom he presented some exquisite drawings and many poems. x
  • 30
    The Capitoline Hill Projects; the Brutus
    In some ways, architecture occupied most of Michelangelo's creative energies in his last decades. This lecture begins a consideration of his many architectural contributions to Rome, including the transformation of the Capitoline Hill, or Campidoglio, before turning to one of his final sculptures, the bust Brutus. x
  • 31
    The New St. Peter's Basilica
    This lecture is devoted to Christendom's finest monument and one of Michelangelo's most successful architectural achievements—the design of a new St. Peter's—undertaken in 1546 after nearly 30 years of ill-designed accretions. It would remain a constant concern for the rest of his life. x
  • 32
    Michelangelo's Roman Architecture
    In the first of two lectures devoted to Michelangelo's architectural projects for Rome, we consider his additions and "corrections" to the Farnese Palace and his innovative drawings for the new church of the Florentine nation in Rome, San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. Although the church was never built, Michelangelo's drawings vividly demonstrate his inventive, "sculptural" conception of architectural space. x
  • 33
    Michelangelo's Roman Architecture, Part 2
    We conclude our look at Michelangelo's architectural legacy to Rome with his innovative gate to the city, the Porta Pia; his transformation of a pagan place of leisure, the partially ruined baths of Caracalla, into a Christian church; and the more modest chapel he designed for the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. x
  • 34
    Piety and Pity—The Florentine Pietà
    We focus on a single sculpture and singular work of art: the Florentine Pietà, which Michelangelo carved to be his own grave marker. It is an intensely personal work of art, made not on commission, but for himself; an artist's last will and testament. x
  • 35
    The Rondanini Pietà and the Late Poetry
    This lecture considers Michelangelo's final works. They include the Rondanini Pietà—which he worked on until a few days before dying—and a series of drawings of the Crucifixion, through which he revealed his most private thoughts and prayers and prepared himself for death. x
  • 36
    Death of Michelangelo—The Master's Legacy
    In this lecture, we review Michelangelo's last two decades, summing up where his life and goals stood as he approached death, before going on to those final days and our attempt to come to grips with the meaning and legacy of this extraordinary life. x

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  • 272-page printed course guidebook
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Your professor

William E. Wallace

About Your Professor

William E. Wallace, Ph.D.
Washington University in St. Louis
Dr. William E. Wallace is the Barbara Murphy Bryant Distinguished Professor of Art History at Washington University in St. Louis, where he has taught since 1983. He earned his B.A. from Dickinson College, his M.A. from the University of Illinois, and his Ph.D. from Columbia University. He has written more than 80 essays on Renaissance art and four books on Michelangelo, including Michelangelo at San Lorenzo: The Genius as...
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Genius of Michelangelo is rated 5.0 out of 5 by 74.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Genius of Michaelangelo says it all Professor Wallace certainly knows hie subject and his Italian language skills enabled me to learn from him. Although I have read extensively about Michaelangelo, I learned a lot..
Date published: 2020-06-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well researched This course covers the entire life, not only of Michelangelo but his predecessors and contemporaries, and generally anyone that influenced him. We enjoyed the course and were somewhat disappointed to finally reach the end and realized that it was over.
Date published: 2020-05-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brings Michelangelo to life Great lecturer puts the artist and his work in context of the time and cultural aspects of Renaissance Italy
Date published: 2020-02-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Masterful Discussion Michelangelo is a giant in the world of art and one of the most influential artists of all time. Professor Wallace's close examination of Michelangelos' works makes the artist's genius all the more apparent. A must have for all artists and those who have or will visit Italy.
Date published: 2019-11-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loved every minute! I bought this a couple weeks ago and just finished it. I loved every minute of it! There was much to learn that wasn’t covered in my Art History classes in college. The professor had a deep passion, knowledge and understanding of Michelangelo. It was a joy to be educated about this inspirational genius and gift to all mankind.
Date published: 2019-10-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Learned a lot Professor Wallace brought out a lot of interesting facts, many were newly discovered. He goes in great detail about many of Michelangel’s Masterworks
Date published: 2019-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Marvellous! Unparalleled insight into the great genius Michelangelo!
Date published: 2019-02-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful course!! This is the best course I have taken so far, and I have done 4 excellent ones. The instructor, William Wallace, is so much more relaxed and personable than those who just read a script. He is looks like he is actually lecturing: glancing all around and doing some reading, obviously. But after you get used to that, I really love his style and he keeps my interest. I just pretend he is talking to a full class and not just to me through the camera. He is either Extremely well-prepared and has all this memorized, or is just lecturing and explaining so well that I remain glued to his every word. And he knows his stuff!! I love art history but this is my first class in a long time and I find he is really instructing for beginners right up to moderately advanced. Facts on Michelangelo's life, his beliefs, history of the day and people of that era enrich the main text which is the study of his work. It all comes together with wonderful photos and a great deal of information. I have learned FAR more than I expected. I can't wait to open up the next session each time! Really marvelous!!!
Date published: 2018-08-22
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