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Michelangelo for Kids
His Life and Ideas, with 21 Activities
By Simonetta Carr
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2016 Simonetta Carr
All rights reserved.
AN UNQUENCHABLE PASSION
* * *
Beauty I was given at the time of my birth — lamp and mirror of both of my arts — as trustworthy model of my vocation.
— MICHELANGELO, SONNET 164
* * *
Just a few hours before daybreak, in a stone house on the hills east of Florence, a man dipped his quill in ink and wrote by candlelight, "A male child was born to me." It was March 6, 1475.
Lodovico Buonarroti must have put down his quill with a feeling of relief. The child was healthy, and it was a boy — a good thing for a father who, under financial pressure, had been forced to accept a low-paying job as temporary government administrator of a small and remote area (Caprese and nearby Chiusi). In 15th-century Italy, boys had brighter prospects for earning an income than girls. Lodovico's relief might have been expressed in the child's name — Michelangelo. It was not, following tradition, a name passed down through generations. It had been chosen with care, maybe as a prayer or a fulfillment of a vow to the Archangel Michael, a great heavenly warrior according to Christian beliefs.
WHEN LODOVICO'S temporary job was about to end, he prepared to return to his native Florence, one of Italy's most culturally and economically important cities. At 31 years of age, he still hoped his financial situation would improve. The prospects were dim. His family, once prominent and successful, had been in decline for decades.
As part of his moving arrangements, he traveled to Settignano, a small town three miles from Florence, in an area rich with olive trees and vineyards. There, he owned a villa and a little farm producing grains, meat, eggs, figs, wine, and olive oil — a source of moderate but steady income. One purpose of his visit was to hire a woman who could take care of Michelangelo.
Hiring a wet nurse for the time-consuming task of breastfeeding and caring for an infant was very common in Lodovico's day, especially for well-to-do families. In Lodovico's case, it also gave his young wife, Francesca de' Neri, a chance to rest after giving birth. Their oldest son, Leonardo, was only 16 months, and Lodovico was hoping to have more children. At a time of frequent wars and violent uprisings, when many died before the age of five and contagious diseases wiped out entire towns, children were a source of security. Sons could work hard, defend the family and its properties, and provide for their parents. Daughters could marry into good families and create a network of support and protection.
Michelangelo was too young to understand what was happening when his parents left him with a wet nurse in Settignano. As the months went by, he probably grew close to his nurse, who came from a family of stonemasons and had married a stonemason. In fact, almost every man in Settignano was busy working stone. The town's quarry produced a very popular gray stone called pietra serena ("serene stone"), which had been used for centuries for some of the most important buildings in Florence.
Later in life, Michelangelo thought this early environment had inspired his great love for sculpture. Following a popular belief, he believed "the milk of the foster-mother has such power in us that often it will change the disposition." In any case, in Settignano he might have learned to appreciate the feel and appearance of the finest stone.
Growing Up in Florence
In the spring of 1478, by the age of three, Michelangelo was back with his parents in Florence. It was at that time that the city ruler, Lorenzo de' Medici, was almost killed in a rebellion that took the life of his brother and coruler Giuliano. Filled with fury, Lorenzo ordered that the main culprits be beaten and then hanged from the windows of his palace for all to see. Others were brutally killed as well, and their families exiled. At the end of his life, Michelangelo still remembered witnessing this awful scene as his father carried him around town.
Even in peaceful times, however, life for the Buonarroti was not easy. Lodovico kept getting deeper in debt. Unable to get other government jobs, he and his family had to stay in a small, dim house near the majestic church of Santa Croce, living off the small proceeds of his farm in Settignano. A few blocks north of the house stood the dreary brick walls of the debtors' prison, with four guard towers looming above them. To Lodovico, it was a constant reminder to keep his debts in check.
As was common at that time, Lodovico shared the home with his aged mother, his brother, and his sister-in-law. Extended family units were convenient, as each person could help and protect the others. In the meantime, his immediate family was growing. After Buonarroto, Francesca had two more sons, Giovan Simone and Gismondo. The arrival of Gismondo marked a time of both joy and deep sorrow. Like many mothers in those days of limited medical resources, Francesca died while giving birth, leaving Lodovico alone to care for his five boys. Michelangelo was only six years old.
Out of the Classroom
In spite of his financial woes, Lodovico strove to uphold the memory and maintain the respectability of the Buonarroti name. He taught his sons to be proud of the family's coat of arms-blue with two golden diagonal stripes — and told them fascinating stories of their ancient lineage, which extended back to the medieval counts of Canossa, an illustrious family related to the head of the Holy Roman Empire. This story — quite certainly a legend — was very dear to Michelangelo, who made frequent mention of his lineage and imperial blood later in life.
Lodovico tried to direct his sons to a lucrative and esteemed trade as cloth merchants or money changers, traditional professions in his family. Noticing Michelangelo's quick intelligence and exceptional memory, he sent him to grammar school at about eight years old. To his dismay, he discovered the boy was not very interested in his studies. In spite of his father's rebukes and even beatings (a more accepted form of discipline at that time), Michelangelo preferred to spend his time drawing — on countless sheets of paper and even on walls — or watching artists at work.
It was the Renaissance — an exciting period of renewal and discovery in every aspect of human learning and expression. Filled with busy workshops and famous artists who competed with each other, Florence was the best place in Europe for art lovers.
Michelangelo might have passed some of these workshops on his way to and from school, or when he ventured to other areas. Florence, while a bustling city, was relatively small and could be walked across in less than an hour. So Michelangelo could easily visit not only his local church of Santa Croce, to gaze on the work of famous artists such as Giotto and Donatello, but also other churches, like Santa Maria del Carmine, which housed paintings by Masaccio. All these artists had a great influence on young Michelangelo's art.
He often visited these churches with friends who had an equal passion for art. His closest friend was Francesco Granacci, a young man five years older than him, who had already worked in a few workshops. When Michelangelo met him, Francesco was an apprentice for one of the most popular and renowned Florentine artists, Domenico Ghirlandaio. To young Michelangelo, Francesco must have been an exciting role model.
Francesco and Michelangelo were different in many ways. The older boy was handsome and well built, so much so that he had been chosen as a model for a famous painting displayed in a local chapel. Michelangelo was thin and delicate and looked almost sickly or undernourished. Francesco was from a simple family of small merchants who sold mattresses and used furniture, while Michelangelo's father, even in the midst of his financial distress, emphasized his noble lineage and maintained a disdain for humble occupations. In spite of these differences, the boys became good friends.
When Francesco understood Michelangelo's passion for art, he gave him some drawings to copy. Stunned by the young boy's abilities, he then took him to Ghirlandaio's workshop and introduced him to the artist. For Michelangelo, it was a dream come true.
Excitement in the Workshop
An artist's life was not what Lodovico had envisioned for his son. As much as people appreciated art, artists were still considered simple workers. Until then, for example, there had been little or no distinction between sculptors, masons, and stonecutters, and Lodovico didn't want his son to be a lowly laborer. Michelangelo, however, was a very strong-willed child, and nothing would change his mind. In the end, Lodovico consented to let him join the workshop as an apprentice.
Besides, the family's financial situation made the small additional income appealing. By 1487, Michelangelo was already earning a small pay. The next year, his father signed a three-year contract allowing him to work for Ghirlandaio at an increasing rate of pay.
Apprentices learned to paint by working for their masters. They started out, at the age of seven or eight, with humble tasks — preparing the tools, grinding colors, and cleaning up after others. When they became fully familiar with the materials and the methods, they were allowed to help in more creative ways — preparing surfaces and painting small portions of the background. It was hard work, lasting 10 to 12 hours a day. Only after six or seven years of apprenticeship did young people start to work more independently.
Michelangelo's experience was somewhat different. He entered the workshop later than usual, was allowed to progress very quickly, and had plenty of time to study and copy the works of great masters, even outside the workshop. He also received a stipend soon after he started working, while many other apprentices paid their masters for the education they received. One of the reasons for this special treatment might have been Lodovico's influence as a member of a noble Florentine family.
Probably Michelangelo helped Ghirlandaio with the large fresco paintings in the best renowned church in Florence — Santa Maria Novella. There, he learned valuable lessons on how to master the difficult fresco technique and how to build the scaffolds that supported the artists and their materials.
Ghirlandaio soon noticed Michelangelo's extraordinary talents. He also discovered the young man's boldness and impertinence when, after giving his apprentices some of his own sketches to copy, he noticed Michelangelo had corrected them with bold, thick strokes. Many years later, Michelangelo smiled when his friend and biographer Giorgio Vasari showed him one of the same edited drawings. He "recognized it and was pleased to see it again, saying modestly that he knew more of the art when he was a boy than he did at that time, when he was an old man," Vasari explained.
On another occasion, Michelangelo copied with precision a drawing by a skilled artist, aged the paper with smoke, and gave it to the owner of the drawing, who realized it was a copy only when he saw the boy laughing with his friends. It's no wonder that Ghirlandaio never allowed Michelangelo to borrow his sketchbook.
Michelangelo interpreted the master's denial as an expression of envy. Years later, he told his biographer Condivi that Ghirlandaio "gave him no help whatever." In reality, he learned from Ghirlandaio much more than the simple foundations of fresco painting. His drawings show he had successfully adopted some of Ghirlandaio's techniques, especially his method of simplifying sketches by reducing them to geometrical patterns and his method of cross-hatching. On the other hand, they also show that Michelangelo surpassed his master. He drew more powerful and specific lines, and his drawings look more real.
In the Ruler's Palace
In 1490, probably on request of Lorenzo de' Medici, Ghirlandaio allowed Michelangelo to attend the Garden of San Marco, a restricted area by the Medici Palace hosting a collection of antique statues and paintings. The curator of the area, Bertoldo di Giovanni, was an experienced sculptor who patiently taught a group of promising young artists the secrets of the trade. Michelangelo was fascinated. His brown eyes, shining with flecks of yellow and blue, surveyed the incalculable opportunities around him. Immediately, he spotted the best students and challenged himself to surpass them.
After receiving permission to study daily in the garden, Michelangelo never returned to the workshop. Given the young man's independent and brazen spirit, Ghirlandaio probably consented to his departure with some measure of relief.
Even this turn of events might be due to the influence of Lodovico, who was a distant cousin of Lorenzo. In those days, family ties, even if distant, were extremely important. In spite of his contempt for artistic professions, Lodovico must have been happy when Lorenzo offered the 15-year-old boy a generous salary and a place at his table as resident artist.
Family ties, however, can't make up for lack of talent, and Michelangelo's talent was truly impressive. According to his early biographers, what caught Lorenzo's attention was a copy of an ancient head of a laughing faun, a mythical figure that was half human and half goat. Lorenzo admired Michelangelo's rendition but chided him by asking why the old-looking faun still had all his teeth.
"Surely you should have known that old folks never have all their teeth, and that some are always wanting," he remarked. The comment was a sore stab to the boy's pride. The short wait for Lorenzo to leave the room felt like a thousand years. Finally, Michelangelo took back his chisel and knocked out one of the faun's teeth. In fact, he carved it out so carefully that it looked like the faun had naturally lost it. Immediately impressed by the young man's skill and desire for excellence, Lorenzo called for Michelangelo's father, who in front of the powerful ruler could only reply, "Not only Michael Angelo, but all of us, with our lives and all our best faculties, are at the service of your Magnificence."
Whether this story, reported by Michelangelo's early biographers, is completely true or not, Lorenzo admired the young man and offered to help him and his family in any way he could. This could have marked a change of fortune for the Buonarroti. Lodovico humbly asked only for a low-level, low-paying government position that had just become available. The position was long term and, however low paying, probably preferable to Lodovico over a better, short-term position. Lorenzo, however, interpreted this request as a lack of ambition. Smiling, he placed his hand on Lodovico's shoulder and said, "You will always be poor."
From the start of his residence in the Medici home, Michelangelo displayed a very personal and original sculpting style, daring to improve on the classics he was given to copy. He probably also learned how to model wax and clay for bronze casting, since that was Bertoldo's specialty. In one of his marble carvings, the Battle of the Centaurs, he used a chisel to make dramatic contrasts where more prudent artists would have used a file. With the chisel, a small slip of the hand could cause irreparable damage, but Michelangelo was confident and bold. In fact, some of the marks in the marble suggest he may have been carving with both hands.
He also received a thorough education, since the Medici household was attended by some of the greatest minds of his time. For example, Angelo Poliziano, a well-respected scholar and poet, encouraged Michelangelo's love for poetry and probably suggested the theme of the Battle of the Centaurs. He might have also assisted the boy in his study of The Divine Comedy, the best-known work of 13th-century poet Dante Alighieri. Apparently Michelangelo had such a great memory that he could quote all three books of the Comedy. He also started to write short poems around this time.
Excerpted from Michelangelo for Kids by Simonetta Carr. Copyright © 2016 Simonetta Carr. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
ContentsNOTE TO READERS,
INTRODUCTION: Michelangelo — An artist to discover,
1 AN UNQUENCHABLE PASSION,
2 FROM FORGER to WONDER,
3 TO PLEASE a POPE,
4 A DAUNTING CEILING,
5 FOR the LOVE of FLORENCE,
6 JUDGMENT and GRACE,
7 AT the SERVICE of a TROUBLED CHURCH,
8 THE LAST YEARS,
RESOURCES TO EXPLORE,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,