As a youth, Michelangelo Buonarroti knew he was destined to create, despite his father's attempts to beat the notion out of him.

He was a product of—and a major contributor to—the Renaissance, a cultural reawakening that began in his hometown, Florence, Italy, in the 14th century. Sparked by the rediscovery of classical Greek and Roman sculpture and texts, its influence was felt in all aspects of society—philosophy, politics, science, religion, and the arts—when Michelangelo was born in 1475.

It revived realism and three-dimensional perspective lost in Medieval painting and sculpture. But Michelangelo went beyond simply copying the ancients. He practically conjured real people with salient human emotions from pigments and stone, capturing universal feelings in his paintings and sculpture that still resonate today. Also, he loved spinning new interpretations of old tales. Consider his famous sculpture: David…

David is a biblical hero—a poor naked shepherd who, armed with only a slingshot, five pebbles, and faith, kills the armor-clad giant Goliath with a single stone. Florence, then a tiny Republic buffeted on all sides by more powerful forces, adopted David as its political symbol: a courageous underdog jealous of its independence.

Before Michelangelo, Florentine artists depicted their mascot after his victory, standing triumphant over Goliath’s bloody severed head. Michelangelo chose the moment before battle, conveying David’s tense and focused concentration. One leg takes his body’s full weight; the other is poised, ready to step forward when David takes aim. The slingshot lies limp on David’s shoulder; a finger laced through it suggests that any instant it will be put to use. In his eyes we see confidence mixed with a glimmer of doubt — though he has five pebbles, David knows the stakes: one shot or death.

Everyone knows the outcome of David’s story, so Michelangelo thinks, why tell that tale again? By capturing the moment before Goliath falls, he shows us not a saint or hero, but a thinking man. He reveals, too, that real triumph comes from accepting the challenge, despite the odds.

No one in Florence expected such a revolutionary interpretation of the biblical hero, and while many didn’t like it, most understood, even then, that Michelangelo saw the world differently and was able to communicate his unique vision through his art. Little wonder he remains one of the most studied artists of all time, even now, 455 years after his death.

The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.
— Michelangelo Buonarroti

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