Michelangelo in Bologna

In 1494, a 19 year old Michelangelo Buonarroti left Florence. The city was in turmoil due to the rise of the friar Savonarola and Michelangelo’s patrons the Medici had fled the city.

He first went to Venice where there was said to be much work, but his tender years prevented him from gaining any commissions. Soon after he went on to Bologna where he was fined 50 scudi for not having paid the entry tax required for the Papal States, of which Bologna was part. He was unable to pay, but fortunately he met the nobleman Giovan Aldrovandi who paid the fine and employed him to read the works of Dante and other authors  to him and his family as he liked to hear these in a Tuscan accent as opposed to the local Bolognese pronunciation.

Raphael portrait of Michelangelo 1511
Raphael’s ca 1511 portrait of Michelangelo in ‘The School of Athens’

Aldrovandi was also head of the commission to complete the “Arca di San Domenico” which is a tomb containing the body of Saint Dominic in the church of that name. Work had commenced centuries earlier around 1264 and the city council was intent on completing additional ornamentation.

The Arca di San Domenico

In a strange twist of fate, the artist Niccolo dell’Arca who was engaged on the work had just died. Aldrovandi, recognizing the young man’s talent, commissioned Michelangelo to produce the 3 small sculptures needed for completion, using remaining pieces of marble in Niccolo’s studio.

One of the 3 sculptures is a candle holder in the form of a kneeling angel on the front right side of the monument. It’s interesting to compare this with the angel on the left side completed by Niccolo which was modelled on his wife.

Michelangelo's Angel in Bologna
Michelangelo’s angel candle holder

Michelangelo also completed a statue of Bologna’s patron saint, San Petronio, that Niccolo dell’Arca had commenced before his death. With its Roman toga, it demonstrates Michelangelo’s understanding of classical art.

San Petronio

Perhaps the most interesting is the statue of San Procolo at the rear of the Arca. There is a clear similarity with Michelangelo’s later statue of David.

Michelangelo San Procolo Bologna San Domenico basilica
San Procolo

For comparison, here’s the David that Michelangelo completed some 10 years later.

Michelangelo’s David (Wikimedia)

Michelangelo is commonly thought to have also completed the second of two eagles found on the wall of the Palazzo d’Accursio near the statue of Neptune. The other eagle by Niccolo dell’Arca has been unkindly referred to as looking more like a pigeon. Some sources though cast doubt on this attribution, and does seem strange that a work by Michelangelo would be left in such an exposed position.

Eagle Michelangelo Bologna
The eagle popularly attributed to Michangelo.

Michelangelo’s year long stay in Bologna helped mature his style as he came into contact with art works different to those he had studied in Florence. He has said to have admired the work of Jacopo della Quercia which adorns the main door of the basilica of San Petronio.

Jacopo della Quercia’s Creation of Eve , San Petronio door
Jacopo della Quercia’s Creation of Eve , San Petronio door

The Sistine Chapel depiction of the creation of Eve bears a strong resemblance to that of Jacapo della Quercia’s at San Petronio.

michelangelo creation of eve sistine chapel
Michelangelo’s creation of Eve from the Sistine Chapel (Wikimedia)

If you pay a visit to the San Petronio doors, my post Curiosities of Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore provides some ideas about other things to see there.

Michelangelo returned to Bologna in 1506. Pope Julius II had just regained control of the city, expelling the Bentivoglio family. He wanted Michelangelo to make a large bronze statue of him to place in front of the basilica of San Petronio, as an assertion of control.

Michelangelo completed the statue which was installed above the main door. The location of the foundry he used is marked by a plaque in Piazza Galvani behind San Petronio. This is also where Giambologna made his statue for Bologna’s famous fountain (see my post The Fountain of Neptune  ).

The foundry in Piazza Galvani was used by Michelangelo and also Giambologna to cast the statue of Neptune

In 1511 the Bentivoglio returned to the city and destroyed the statue. The pieces were sold by Annibale Bentivoglio to his brother-in-law the Duke of Ferrara who used them to make a cannon which he called ‘Giulia’ after the Pope.

Michelangelo never made another bronze statue.

Further reading:

This scholarly article written in Italian goes into much more detail on this topic.

Quando Bologna distrusse un Michelangelo

8 thoughts on “Michelangelo in Bologna

  1. Hi
    I enjoyed your essay on Michelangelo in Bologna very much.
    I was surprised to learn that he completed an eagle sculpture while there. I had never heard of this before. Can you please tell me where I might find a citation on this. I would appreciate any help you can be.
    Thank you, John Edwards


    1. Hello John,

      There are numerous references such as these.



      However, I recently came across an article in Italian ( link below) which convincingly argues that there is no strong evidence to support the idea and that’s it’s a popular misconception. I might rewrite this part of the post to reflect the uncertainty.




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