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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.1

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.2 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.

But you don’t have to be like that in order to be a great artist, or a great poet. If Michelangelo was both, so, apparently, was Leonardo, of whom Vasari tells us that, in addition to his gifts as a musician, he was the most talented improviser in verse of his time.3 We are told by one scholar that while “Michelangelo jealously guarded his artistic property against other artists, it was not in keeping with Leonardo’s nature to trouble himself to preserve the authorship of the wealth of ideas which poured out of him,” that he was

amiable by nature, communicative and ready to be of help… when he turned to the greater themes of painting or sculpture, he was interested above everything else in the solution of some fundamental problem; when he had succeeded to his own satisfaction, perhaps only theoretically, he liked to leave its execution to others; and what happened further to the work of art seems to have troubled him but little, much less did it occur to him to sign it. He was so independent and had so little vanity that in the execution of his work the identity of the patron had not the slightest influence with him. 4

And yet there were, as Vasari makes clear, limits to Leonardo’s lack of vanity: he did not tolerate insulting behavior, he could not stand a foolish, ignorant patron, and he couldn’t bear to remain in the same city as Michelangelo. Nor Michelangelo with him. So one went off to Rome, and the other to the court of the King of France, and thereby they put between themselves about as great a distance as they possibly could, without falling off the edge of what they deemed the civilized world.

But it does not follow from this that genius always repels genius. Verrocchio presents a further type, a teacher who was happy to surround himself with talent, who trained Lorenzo di Credi and loved him above all others. Verrocchio it was who took on the young Leonardo and who famously decided to renounce painting when he recognized that Leonardo’s angel in the Baptism outshone his own work. He was ashamed to have been outpainted by a mere boy. But if this renunciation seems hysterical, I would say that it is less so in Verrocchio’s case than it would have been in others’. Verrocchio had plenty of other fish to fry. He had begun life as a goldsmith. In Rome, he

saw the high value that was put on the many statues and other antiques being discovered there, and the way the Pope had the bronze horse set up in St. John Lateran, as well as the attention given even to the bits and pieces, let alone the complete works of sculpture, that were being discovered every day.

So he decided to give up being a goldsmith and be a sculptor instead. And when he had won honor as a sculptor so that “there was nothing left for him to achieve,” he turned his hand to painting.

I take these stories about artists, from Baldinucci and Vasari, because they date from a period when it appears that one could acknowledge straightforwardly motives of which we would today be obscurely ashamed. Verrocchio observes that there is much honor to be gained in the field of sculpture, so he becomes a sculptor, and when he feels he has won the honor that is going, he turns to painting with the same motive, but when he sees his way blocked by Leonardo he turns back to sculpture again. There is something equable about this temperament and something generous about the recognition of which it was capable. But this generosity was far from typical of its time and place. It was noteworthy. It was a cause célèbre.

Otherwise one feels that the Italy these artists worked in was a place of the most vicious rivalry and backbiting, maneuverings for commissions, anglings for patronage, plots, triumphs, and disappointments. You had to wait literally for years to be paid. If your work was deemed ugly, you soon learnt about it from lampoons or pasquinades. You got stabbed in the back. Anonymous denunciations for sodomy would arrive, as regular as parking tickets.

Since your work, standing, and honor were all bound together, the award of a grand commission to a friend or rival would be a devastating blow. It would make you rethink your life, as—and this is the last of the Vasarian exempla—Brunelleschi and Donatello were forced to do when Ghiberti won the famous competition for the Florence Baptistry doors. The contest had taken a year. When the entries were exhibited, it was clear to the two friends that Ghiberti’s work was better than theirs, and so they went to the consuls and argued that Ghiberti should get the commission. And for this, Vasari says, “they deserved more praise than if they had done the work perfectly themselves. What happy men they were! They helped each other, and found pleasure in praising the work of others. What a deplorable contrast is presented by our modern artists who are not content with injuring one another, but who viciously and enviously rend others as well!”

So Vasari praises the two artists, and he is not sentimental either, for he goes on to relate how the consuls asked Brunelleschi, who had clearly come a very good second, whether he would cooperate with Ghiberti on the doors, but Brunelleschi said no, since “he was determined to be supreme in some other art rather than merely be a partner or take second place…” Nor was this a passing fit of pique, although both artists eventually did return to Florence and did help Ghiberti. Perhaps the strength of their sense of failure may be gauged from the fact that Donatello, who had not done so well, took a year away from Florence, whereas Brunelleschi, the honorable runner-up, took at least five, and when he did return, he did so principally as an architect.

It’s not enough to fail. You have to come to feel your failure, to live it through, to turn it over in your hand, like a stone with strange markings. You have to wake up in the middle of the night and hear it whistling around the roof, or chomping in the field below, like some loyal horse—My failure, my very own failure, I thought I’d left it behind in Florence, but look, it’s followed me here to Rome. And the horse looks up at you in the moonlight and you feel its melancholy reproach. This is after all the failure for which you were responsible. Why are you neglecting your failure?

Many people live in such a horror of failure that they can never embark on any great enterprise. And this inability to get going in the first place is the worst kind of failure because there truly is no way out. You can cover up. You can hide behind a mask of exquisite sensibility. You can congratulate yourself on the fact that your standards are so high that no human effort could possibly match up to them. You can make yourself unpleasant to your contemporaries by becoming expert on their shortcomings. In the end, nothing is achieved by this timidity.

Or you can permit yourself one failure in life, and devote your remaining days to mourning. “Alas, alas, the critics panned my play.” “When did this happen, friend?” “In 1894!” This failure, it would seem, has been kept like a trophy, lovingly polished and always on display. But for a productive life, and a happy one, each failure must be felt and worked through. It must form part of the dynamic of your creativity.

The judgment on Donatello’s competition entry was: good design, poor execution. Donatello could decipher from that a message saying: You are not yet fully formed as an artist; you must study. But the message received by Brunelleschi was: You will never be as good as Ghiberti. This was a hard blow. Brunelleschi did what he felt necessary—sold a small farm and, with Donatello, walked down to Rome. And there something happened to them which I hope will happen to any poet reading this. Failure rewarded them a thousandfold.

  1. 1

    Filippo Baldinucci, Notizie de’ Professori del Disegno…Florence 1681–8 (1846).

  2. 2

    Michael Hirst, Michelangelo and His Drawings (Yale University Press, 1988), p. 19.

  3. 3

    Vasari, Lives of the Artists, translated by George Bull (Viking Penguin, 1988).

  4. 4

    W. R. Valentiner, Studies of Italian Renaissance Sculpture (London: Phaidon, 1950), p. 134.

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