Sculpture, Painting, Architecture. He did it all, and he did it supremely well, even for an era that was filled with geniuses in those fields.
Michelangelo Buonarotti lived to nearly 89 years of age (1475-1564) and offered his gifts to the world for nearly eight decades with an amazing generosity of spirit. It is said that in his 18 years of work on the Dome of St. Peter’s he never accepted a cent from the pope who commissioned him. He did all for the glory of God alone.
That’s not necessarily a pitch for his canonization. Michelangelo surely was a man of faith, but, despite his name, he was hardly an angel!
The Infamous Portrait
To give you an idea of what I mean, when he was painting the Final Judgment scene on the back wall of the Sistine Chapel (from 1536 to 1541), Michelangelo painted the face of one of his enemies onto an ugly, donkey-eared figure enveloped by a snake. He placed this mythical creature in the very bottom corner of the mammoth painting (so that observers could see it more easily.)
Said enemy was actually the pope’s Master of Ceremonies, and when Archbishop Baigio da Cesena found out about this insult to his dignity, he complained bitterly to Pope Paul III about the uppity artist. But the pope is alleged to have replied,
“Well, if he had put you in Purgatory I might be able to do something about it….”
It seems that Michelangelo had placed the good prelate in Hell. Done deal.
Mentors or Influencers?
There is some debate as to whether a world class genius in any field can actually be taught the elements of his particular realm of genius or whether he has them innately. I maintain that both are true, and Michelangelo is a prime example.
Here we have to make a distinction between those who teach (in the sense of apprenticeship) and those who exercise influence (in the sense of opening up avenues for that person’s genius to express itself).
The question has a direct answer in Michelangelo’s two mentors. As an early teen, he was apprenticed to a master painter in his own right who became one of the more famous Renaissance painters. Domenico Ghirlandaio (1448-1494, inset picture), who was himself a student of the famous Donatello (1386-1466). This was quite an artistic pedigree.
But Ghirlandaio is the very reason Michelangelo had the ability to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling so many years later. He had been taught to paint frescoes by a master of that technique.
In his later teens, his sculptural mentor was more of an influencer than a teacher – at least Michelangelo thought so. The man was a Florentine sculptor named Bertoldo di Giovanni (1420-1491), who was the master in residence and caretaker of the Medici family’s art academy. He is almost entirely unknown today due to his being eclipsed in reputation and talent by his most famous student.
In terms of influence, however, Bertoldo held a key that opened a door for the young artist. He was the one who recommended his prize student to Lorenzo di Medici for further opportunities at artistic development. This recommendation exposed Michelangelo to a vast range of other artistic prodigies and launched the young sculptor into his prime work of sculpting for rich patrons.
The first and grandest of all his masterpieces followed soon after: namely, his famous Pietà, which he sculpted at just 24 years of age.
Taught or Caught?
Michelangelo always claimed that no one could have taught him his trade, and it’s not hard to see that he had a point. When you observe the incomparable grandeur of the Pietà or his David, for example, how is it possible that one could be taught to sculpt works like these?
Rather, he “caught” or picked up the elements of sculpting from his influencers and environment, but he did not get his talent or techniques from them. So he claimed.
There is another little-known story of Michelangelo’s life that showed a certain artistic influence on him as a child. His mother died when he was just six years old, and he was then given over to the care of a nanny in those tender years. The nanny’s husband was a stone mason. The artist’s love-affair with stone writes itself after that.
As for architecture: if you can believe it, the creator of the dome of St. Peter was entirely self-taught. Imagine. Further wonder: he only began to study architecture at the age of 40. He was 71 years old when the pope commissioned him to do something no one had ever done before: raise a dome the size of Rome’s ancient Pantheon 200 feet off the ground and place it on the top of the still unfinished St. Peter’s!
Genius vs Talent
The famous French philosopher, Etienne Gilson, says that genius differs from mere talent in one major respect: genius absorbs and assimilates the best examples of one’s field of expertise and then produces unique creations in that field out of whole cloth.
Talent, on the other hand, is something less than genius. It may express itself in precocious and fascinating ways, but talent is essentially imitative. It reproduces the designs that have gone before it and adapts what it sees to its own style.