Michelangelo: Fact vs Fiction
I’ve lost count of how many people have messaged me already this year saying they read something somewhere and wanted to know if it was true or not.
Did Cesare Borgia really sleep with his sister? – Most likely false rumours spread by people who held a grudge… of which there were many.
Did Raphael really die because he had too much sex? – That’s what Vasari says, but contemporary research suggests it was illness.
Did Caravaggio really murder someone? – Yep! Caravaggio was the originally bad boy of art!
Interestingly, most seem to be related to Michelangelo.
Is it true he painted a portrait of a cardinal getting his penis bitten off?
Did he really paint the first picture of God’s butt?
Was he really that smelly?
It’s safe to say I can’t answer the last one – I haven’t met him, and even if I did, I have a limited sense of smell – but I can definitely answer the rest…
The Angel Michael
Born in March 1475, Michelangelo Buonarroti was one of the triumvirates of the High Renaissance (the other two being Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael Santi).
Michelangelo lived longer than most of his contemporaries, dying three weeks before his 89th birthday. He is the first western artist to have a biography written about him while he was alive – two, in fact – and created some of the most iconic images in the world. Ask someone how Adam was created, and most people will refer to the image of his Creation of Man on the Sistine Ceiling.
Given the sheer volume of surviving documents written by, to, and about Michelangelo, it’s a wonder that we have such a myriad of myths relating to him. Here are the ten myths I’m most asked about:
Michelangelo regretted signing the Pietà. FACT
According to Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo overheard a group of people attributing his masterpiece to Christoforo Solari. The then 23-year-old snuck into the basilica after hours and, on the sash across the Virgin Mary’s chest, chiselled the words:
MICHELAGELUS BONAROTUS FLORENTIN FACEIBA
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, Made This
Recognising the impulsive decision as an act of pride and vanity, he swore never to sign another piece of work again. The Pietà remains his only signed work.
Michelangelo was a fraud. FICTIONALISED FACT
Early in his career, Michelangelo was hired to create a marble sculpture that could pass as an Eros sculpture from antiquity. It was then sold upon ‘discovery’ for a vast amount of money.
The Sleeping Eros was sold to Cardinal Raffaele Riario. When Riario discovered the scam, he got his money back and Michelangelo was called to Rome where he won the commission to carve the Pietà. After the Riario incident, Michelangelo never made another dupe.
Michelangelo’s nose was broken by a rival artist. FACT
While under the wing of Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence, Michelangelo fast fell under the envious gaze of other art students. Pietro Torrigiano was one such student.
Torrigiano was known for being quick to anger, and when Michelangelo was bantering with the other students while copying Masaccio’s frescos in the Church of the Carmine, Torrigiano became enraged and punched him in the face. Scared of the repercussions, especially from Lorenzo, he fled from Florence to Rome – where he helped Pinturicchio on the stucco decorations of the Apartamenti Borgia in the Vatican for Pope Alexander VI – and then from Rome to London, under the service of Henry VIII.
Michelangelo was deliberately given dodgy marble for David. FICTIONALISED FACT
When Florence’s Opera del Duomo decided to decorate the roof around Brunelleschi’s dome with biblical prophets and mythological figures, artists such as Donatello and Duccio were commissioned to create them. When it came to David, the commission, along with the marble, was passed from artist to artist, each one abandoning the project or complaining about the material’s quality.
Michelangelo took on the commission for David with determination when it arrived on his doorstep. At the time, it was common to depict the biblical hero with a sword in hand and the head of Goliath at his feet. The reason Michelangelo could include neither of these into his version was simply because there was no space. Michelangelo’s predecessors had already begun work on the marble. Duccio, for example, had begun with the legs, chiselling away, and leaving no space for Michelangelo to add anything else.
So, while the marble was given to Michelangelo, and while it wasn’t the greatest quality, it wasn’t to see him fail.
Michelangelo fortified Florence against the Medici. FACT
After the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Medici fell out of favour in Florence.
While it was officially a republic, the Medici were the de facto rulers of Florence. With the expulsion of Lorenzo’s son, Piero, the city fell into the control of the extreme (to put it nicely) friar, Girolamo Savonarola. After he was burnt at the stake – another story for another time – the city tried to become a true republic. But the Medici were having none of it!
When Giulio de’ Medici became Pope Clement VII, he joined with Emperor Charles V and fought to restore the Medici in Florence. Together, they lay siege to the city.
Michelangelo was elected by the republic as Nove della Milizia. He was tasked with fortifying the city and constructing a number of bastions along the wall that were able to both give the city’s defenders a place to shoot from, while also deflecting incoming cannon fire. These were so efficient that it took nearly eleven months for Florence to fall.
Michelangelo was an autodidact, and never took lessons. FICTION
The idea that Michelangelo was never taught by anyone, and that his talents were God-given and not learned, is a rumour put into circulation by Michelangelo himself. 100% false!
It’s true that Michelangelo spent most of his school days copying paintings found in churches rather than practicing his grammar with the humanist, Francesco da Urbino, but Michelangelo did have artist apprenticeships. One of his first apprenticeships was with Domenico Ghirlandaio, who was painting the walls of the Sistine Chapel in 1488. After the job was done, Michelangelo’s father persuaded Ghirlandaio to take his son on for longer. In 1489, Lorenzo de’ Medici – who financed an academy for artists in Florence – asked Ghirlandaio for his two best pupils. Ghirlandaio sent Francesco Granacci and Michelangelo.
In the academy, Michelangelo studied under the tutelage of Bertoldo di Giovanni, and it was in one of Giovanni’s lessons that Torrigiano broke his nose. Lorenzo also took Michelangelo under his wing and had him educated alongside his own children.
Michelangelo was a poet. FACT
Michelangelo was a big writer, and over 300 of his poems have survived through the ages. The most prevalent of these are likely those he wrote to his close friend, Vittoria Colonna, a poet in her own right and widely accepted as Michelangelo’s muse.
Where art thou now? Earth holds in its embrace
Thy lovely limbs, thy holy thoughts the skies.
Vainly did cruel death attempt to stay
The rumour of thy virtuous renown,
That Lethe’s waters could not wash away!
Michelangelo painted the Sistine Ceiling lying down. FICTION
This a fiction that comes from Irving Stone’s novel The Agony and the Ecstasy which was later made into a movie with Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison. Sorry Irving Stone fans, Michelangelo painted the Sistine Ceiling standing up. Not only does he include a sketch of himself doing so in one of his notebooks, but he also complains tirelessly about it in letters. Moreover, he designed his own scaffolding to help him which was put together by Pietro Rosselli and his team.
Michelangelo always worked alone. FICTION
While it’s true that Michelangelo was a solitary artist, as are many artists, that he always did everything by himself is nothing more than fiction. Take the Sistine Ceiling, for example.
Michelangelo was a sculptor, not a fresco painter, so when he was given the commission, he asked Francesco Granacci – who apprenticed with him in Florence under Ghirlandaio – to help him put together a team to help with the ceiling. The team Granacci assembled included Bastiano da Sangallo, Giuliano Bugiardini, Agnolo di Donnino and Jacopo del Tedesco. Granacci also became Michelangelo’s second in command.
Another member of Michelangelo’s team was Pietro Rosselli, who cleared the old plaster from the original ceiling, and set the new one for him. Rosselli, with his own personal team, also built the scaffolding Michelangelo requested.
Michelangelo exacted revenge through his art. FACT
There’s a lot of speculation about Michelangelo’s painting of God’s bottom on the Sistine Ceiling. Pope Julius II was… aggravating, to Michelangelo, to say the least, and it’s believed that the image of God’s bum is the artist claiming that his commissioner is being a ‘pain in the butt’. That, however, is speculation.
What’s 100% fact is that in the bottom right corner of The Last Judgement, just above the door, you can see the figure of Minos in Hell. Minos was the tyrannical King of Crete, who fed children to the Minotaur in Daedalus’ labyrinth. After his death (he was scalded to death in a bathtub), he became a judge of the dead in the Underworld.
When his work in the Sistine Chapel was unveiled, the papal Master of Ceremonies, Biagio di Cesena, commented that Michelangelo’s work was worthy of a pleasure house, not of the house of God. Michelangelo’s revenge? He painted the prude’s likeness into his work, giving him Minos’ jackass ears and covering his nudity with a serpent biting his penis. Eternal shame.
Do you have any myths you want to know are fact or fiction? Get in touch!