Michelozzo was born in the very late 14th century and was integral to the new styles of architecture that appeared across the Italian Renaissance. He was also a Florentine native which made him ideally placed to help shape this impactful art movement.
As a young man Michelozzo received a well rounded education that concentrated on the key subjects such as languages and mathematics before starting to develop as an artist through an early apprenticeship. He learnt the technical skills behind producing currency whilst at the Florentine mint and joined when we was fourteen. He worked with copper and bronze for the first time as well as learning about casting, which would later prove a transferable skill as his own artistic career took off. To work with coins, where small sculptures are essentially cast onto their sides, it would be a lot more similar to his later work than one might initially have believed. To work alongside other more experienced craftsman as well as having employment for the first time would have left a lasting impact on the young man and helped enormously to build his confidence and inspiration for the years to come.
Having become highly accomplished in working in miniature, Michelozzo now desired to complete sculptures on a much larger scale and sought new influences in his career. He had come along way since his first entry into the mint in 1410, but only could see what more he had to learn at this stage, rather than appreciating the progress that he had made over a decade. The early 1420s therefore marked the point at which he would break away from his apprenticeship and seek out the finest sculptors in Florence in order to push his career ever onwards. His entry into a Florentine guild helped him to make new connections within the art industry but his biggest break would have to be when he was taken under the wing of Lorenzo Ghiberti, one of the most famous Italian sculptors in history. From that point onwards, he could never have any excuses for failing to make the most of his natural artistic talents and was now learning from one of the best.
Ghiberti's most famous sculptures were for the North Doors of the Baptistry in Florence. He, himself, worked on the project between 1417 and 1423/4 and called upon the help of Michelozzo from around the midpoint of that period. Michelozzo was not at a stage yet where he was allowed artistic licence upon these squared panels and, like all of the assistants, had to follow directly in line with his master's direction. He did, however, learn an incredible amount during his time on the doors, though. Besides seeing a master at work, and all that this entails, he also became involved in managing parts of the project, skills which were particularly handy during the Renaissance. He would use these later in his career once he had become the established figure himself. He also learnt the style used by Ghiberti which combined traditional and modern influences in order to put the sculptured panels together, one by one. Whilst impressing in this role he would also start to be rewarded with small scale projects of his own, perhaps a as a result of impressing his well-connected master.
Michelozzo's stock rose again after he forged a successful, lasting partnership with another great Renaissance name - Donatello. The two were perhaps stylistically more similar than with Ghiberti and they set about completing a number of projects together. Initially, Michelozzo's role with be more supportive than anything, providing decorative features where Donatello had produced the main element of each project. Over time, though, Michelozzo began to become more of an equal partner as shown in a pulpit for the Cathedral of St Stephen in Prato. Many sources from the period have described this artist as a pleasant character who was much easier to work with than some other architects and sculptors of the time, which perhaps explains how he was able to forge many significant relationships with artists and patrons alike across his career, and that they would last the test of time in most cases. The same cannot be said for Brunelleschi, for example, who was notoriously forthright and uncompromising.
"...Michelozzo was able to adopt ideas and turn them to good account as well as to transmit new ones. The styles of Manetti, Bernardo Rossellino, Giuliano da Maiano, and even of Giuliano da Sangallo are unimaginable without the support and influence of Michelozzo's artistic idiom in addition to that of Brunelleschi, and later, of Donatello..."
Ludwig Heinrich Heydenreich
Michelozzo would become known as the 'Medici architect' due to his relationship with Cosimo dei Medici that would last around forty years in all. This prominent member of the Medici family found Michelozzo an easier individual to deal with than some other creative architects that he had previously worked with. He also particularly appreciated that this architect would listen to his ideas and take them onboard, implementing them wherever possible. Others would often dismiss suggestions arrogantly, which would frustrate, even anger the patron. They would become good friends who trusted each other and their relationship is amongst the strongest of patron-artists within the Renaissance. Michelozzo was asked to design the Palazzo Medici in Florence and this was amongst the highest profile of projects that they delivered in conjunction together, though there was a large catalogue of different structures in total from this fruitful collaboration.
San Marco Church was a project funded by Cosimo dei Medici that some have termed the first Renaissance Church. Construction commenced around 1437-1438 and the majority of the work took around three years to complete. The requirements were fairly comprehensive of the entire site, including a re-development or addition of the church itself, plus sacristy, cloister and also some living quarters for the staff. Additionally, there was a library too, which was to house a variety of scripture for the education of the residents. The project delivered was considered a great success and Michelozzo impressed with the speed at which this construction was completed. Cosimo dei Medici provided sufficient funds throughout, without even a quible, and these two friends accomplished something special in an impressively short period of time. The various parts of the site were handled separately, so the focus was always clear on the particular task at hand at the time.
The building work for the Palazzo Medici commenced in 1444 and Cosimo dei Medici opted for his favoured designed for this highly personal project. Michelozzo drew on a variety of different influences in order to put these plans together and even showed touches from other architects who had been overlooked for this commission. This was entirely normal for the time, when the major names would learn from each other, though rarely admitting it openly. Brunelleschi was a difficult personality to deal with but he was still highly respectd by others in the industry and there are particular flourishes of his career within this Michelozzo design. There are so many different features within a building design, that comparisons can be made with all manner of architectural periods and sculptured styles. The blend of modern and traditional as well as the relative symmetry and overpowering strength of the entrance areas have been compared to early works of Brunelleschi, including the Ospedale Degli Innocenti.
The palace would further strengthen the relationship between Michelozzo and the Medici family, with several of his own sons living in the palace for a number of years, having also received their education from this influential and powerful family. In all, he would have seven children, five of whom lived to a good age. Bartolomeo, his first born, would later become a sculptor himself and continue the family name, whilst the other boys would establish prominent careers within local society. Their father had clearly risen through the ranks during his own lifetime and left them with a better start in life than he had himself, not that had risen from any type of poverty. Connections were key to success and survival at this time and Michelozzo used his personable character to charm those of higher circles, which ultimately first benefitted himself, and then later, the rest of his growing family.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.