Early years and the Republic

Michelangelo was the second of five sons, born in March 1475 near Arezzo in Italy. His family was middle-class - his father was a minor Florentine civil servant - but the family had fallen on hard times.

Michelangelo's artistic career began at the age of twelve, despite his family's disapproval because of the low status of artists at the time. He was apprenticed to the successful Florentine artist Domenico Ghirlandaio. Although later in life he claimed to be entirely self-taught, Ghirlandaio's influence can be seen in his work.

After leaving Ghirlandaio's studio Michelangelo went to work for Lorenzo the Magnificent, the ruler of Florence and head of the powerful Medici family. Lorenzo spotted his gift as a sculptor and soon Michelangelo was invited to join his household. Here he met two of his most important future patrons: Giovanni de' Medici (the future Pope Leo X) and his cousin Giulio, who became Pope Clement VII.

When Lorenzo died in 1492, Michelangelo went on to serve his heir, Piero, whose control of Florence only lasted two years. To avoid the political turmoil surrounding the Medici's fall, the artist went to Rome, where he made his name with the celebrated marble sculpture the Pietà, now in St Peter's basilica in the Vatican. He returned to Florence in 1501 and the next four years - during which he became a lifelong supporter of Florentine republicanism - was one of the most productive periods of his life.

Illustration: A youth beckoning; a right leg by Michelangelo, drawn around 1504-05.