Rossi was born in Genoa, where he studied with his uncle, Lelio Rossi (organist from 1601-1638), at the Cathedral of San Lorenzo. Around the year 1624 he moved to Rome to enter the service of Cardinal Maurizio of Savoy. It was there that he met the madrigal composer Sigismondo d'India as well as the keyboard composer Girolamo Frescobaldi, with whom he may have studied. Rossi's two books of madrigals, which have only comparatively recently come to scholarly attention, were likely written during this period. Rossi's madrigal output from this period is remarkably chromatic, to a level matched only by the music of such experimental composers as Carlo Gesualdo. The circumstances of Rossi's dismissal from the Cardinal's service in 1629 are unclear.
Rossi's first known opera dates from his second period of Roman service, while in the retinue of the wealthy Taddeo Barberini. His opera Erminia sul Giordano was premiered during the Carnival of 1633 at the theatre of the Palazzo Barberini (Rossi himself apparently sang on stage as the sun-god Apollo), and appeared in print four years later. A second opera, Andromeda (1638, partly lost) was first performed in Ferrara in 1638. By 1649, Rossi had returned to Rome and was residing in the palace of Camillo Pamphili (a relative of Pope Innocent X), perhaps in semi-retirement. He died in Rome in July 1656 and may have been buried in the church of Sant'Andrea delle Fratte.
Although Rossi was famed as an outstanding violinist in his lifetime, no violin compositions survive and today his reputation rests chiefly on one surviving volume of keyboard music. Those 10 Toccatas are highly regarded (amongst these, Toccata VII with its wildly chromatic ending is best known). They are stylistically close to the music of Girolamo Frescobaldi, Carlo Gesualdo and Johann Jakob Froberger, while being individual, and they enjoy a reputation as a significant milestone in the keyboard literature.
While the publication date of these toccatas is usually cited as 1657 [the year after Rossi's death], which is printed on one of the four surviving copies, it seems clear from research and deduction by Alexander Silbiger that they more likely were first published in the early 1630s, which not only fits with the characteristics of their style but also implies that the other keyboard composers such as Frescobaldi could easily have been influenced by Rossi as well as vice versa.
- Rossi, Michelangelo The Madrigals of Michelangelo Rossi. Edited by Brian Mann. 240 p., 6 halftones, 7 musical examples, 1 table. 9 x 12 2002 Series: (MRM) Monuments of Renaissance Music ISBN 978-0-226-50338-7 (ISBN 0-226-50338-0), 2003
- Moore, Catherine. "The Composer Michelangelo Rossi: A `Diligent Fantasy-Maker' in Seventeenth-Century Rome". Garland: New York and London, 1993. [Outstanding Dissertations in Music from British Universities]
- Silbiger, Alexander. 'Michelangelo Rossi and His Toccate "e Correnti"'. Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Spring, 1983), pp.18-38. http://www.jstor.org/stable/830953