A Lesson from Michelangelo

In old age, Giambologna used to tell his friends the story of how, as a young man, a Flemish sculptor newly arrived in Rome, he made a model to his own original design, finished it coll’alito, “with his breath”—that is to say, with the utmost care, bringing it to the very peak of finish—and went to show it to the great Michelangelo. And Michelangelo took the model in his hands and completely destroyed it, and then remodeled it according to his way of thinking, and did so with marvelous skill, so that the outcome was quite the opposite of what the young man had done. And then Michelangelo said to Giambologna: Now go and learn the art of modeling before you learn the art of finishing.

One supposes from this terrible story that the model must have been made of wax. One supposes that, even on a hot summer’s afternoon in Rome, it would have needed a certain amount of working before the wax became malleable enough for Michelangelo to shape according to his own wishes. Who knows, perhaps several minutes were involved. They must have seemed like hours, as the young sculptor watched, and the wrathful old genius, biting his lower lip, squeezed and squashed and pounded away at the model that had been so lovingly finished. And well before the new model began to emerge, and with it the ostensive reason for the exercise—learn to model before you learn to finish—another point was being made: See how I crush all your ambitions and aspirations, see how feeble your work is in comparison with mine, see how presumptuous you were even to dare to cross the threshold—Thus I destroy you!

There were compensations, of course, for the young Giambologna. He had walked in with an example of his juvenilia, and he left carrying a vibrant little Michelangelo. You might say that he was lucky the master had thought him worthy of the lesson, even if the lesson had to be delivered in such a devastating way. You might say this. Or you might argue that the ostensive lesson was only a pretext for the destruction of the young man’s work.

There is no such thing as the artistic personality—not in poetry, not in the visual arts. Michelangelo’s personality was just one of the colorful range on offer. He was paranoid about his productions, keeping his drawings secret not only from his contemporaries who might include potential plagiarists, but also from posterity itself. As his days drew to a close he made two large bonfires, and not a drawing or cartoon was found in his studio after his death. And this paranoia extended to his relations with other artists. He did not “bring on young talent.” He appears to have surrounded himself deliberately with no-hopers, and it is easy to imagine that it was the skill, not the shortcomings, of Giambologna that drove him into such a rage …

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