The opening next week of the major exhibition Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art1 prompts me to post the following brief item about a little-known side of this master.
The awe-inspiring grandeur of Michelangelo’s work earned him the reverent epithet of “Il Divino” among his contemporaries. It is therefore remarkable to discover that this most profoundly serious of artists also possessed a wicked sense of humor. In 1525, on learning that Pope Clement wished him to stop his work on the Medici library and chapel to build a Florentine colossus some 80 feet high (made of blocks and placed at the corner of the Medici garden loggia)—to honor the Medici family and rival the David—Michelangelo responded in mock seriousness through a letter to an intermediary in Rome, observing:
The colossus does not suit the corner, because it would take up too much of the road.
However, on the other corner, where the barber’s shop is, it would, in my view, turn out much better, because the piazza is in front and so it would not cause so much trouble with the street. And then, perhaps because removing the shop wouldn’t be tolerated, thanks to the income it provides, I’ve come to think that the figure could be sitting down, and that the seat could be made so high that if the work were made hollow inside, which could conveniently be done using blocks, the barber’s shop could go underneath, and so the rent would not be lost. And in order that the shop may, as now, have somewhere for the smoke to escape, I am thinking of giving the statue a horn of plenty in its hand, all hollow, to serve as a chimney.
Then if I have the statue’s head hollowed out, like the other members, I also think I can derive some benefit from that, because there is on the piazza here a huckster, a great friend of mine, who has told me privately he would make a fine dovecote inside it. Another idea has occurred to me that would be even better, but it would be necessary to make the figure very much bigger; yet it could be done, seeing that the towers are made up of blocks. This is that the head should serve as the bell-tower for San Lorenzo, which badly needs one. And then, with the bells flying round inside and the sound coming out through the mouth, the colossus would appear to be howling for mercy, and especially on feast days, when the bells ring out more often and the peals are louder.
Needless to say, the pope was not amused. But when renewed efforts failed to engage the sculptor in the proposed project Clement eventually dropped his request for a colossus.
For more on this hilarious epistle and its many irreverent references, see page 182 of George Bull’s Michelangelo: A Biography (from which it is quoted), as well as the account in The Last Judgment: Michelangelo and the Death of the Renaissance, by James O’Connor.