Sunday, May 23, 2010

a little history: Michelangelo, his marble, his patron

A little offbeat history, from Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power (Penguin 1998) [directly quoted]


"In 1502, in Florence, Italy, an enormous block of marble stood in the works department of the church of Santa Maria del Fiore. It had once been a magnificent piece of raw stone, but an unskilled sculptor had mistakenly bored a hole through it where there should have been a figure's legs, generally mutilating it.

"Piero Soderini, Florence's mayor, had contemplated trying to save the block by commissioning Leonardo da Vinci to work on it, or some other master, but had given up, since everyone agreed that the stone had been ruined. So, despite the money that had been wasted on it, it gathered dust in the dark halls of the church.

"This was where things stood until some Florentine friends of the great Michelangelo decided to write to the artist, then living in Rome. He alone, they said, could do something with the marble, which was still magnificent raw material.

"Michelangelo traveled to Florence, examined the stone, and came to the conclusion that he could in fact carve a fine figure from it, BY ADAPTING THE POSE TO THE WAY THE ROCK HAD BEEN MUTILATED [emphasis mine].

"Soderini argued that this was a waste of time- nobody could salvage such a disaster-but he finally agreed to let the artist work on it. Michelangelo decided he would depict a young David, sling in hand.



"Weeks later, as Michelangelo was putting the final touches on the statue, Soderini entered the studio. Fancying himself a bit of a connoisseur, he studied the huge work, and told Michelangelo that while he thought it was magnificent, the nose, he judged, was too big.

"Michelangelo realized that Soderini was standing in a place right under the giant figure and did not have the proper perspective. Without a word, he gestured for Soderini to follow him up the scaffolding. Reaching the nose, he picked up his chisel-- as well as a bit of marble dust that lay on the planks.

"With Soderini just a few feet below him on the scaffolding, Michelangelo started to tap lightly with the chisel-- letting the bits of dust he had gathered in his hand to fall little by little.

"He actually did nothing to change the nose, but gave every appearance of working on it. After a few minutes of this charade he stood aside: 'Look at it now.' 'I like it better,' replied Soderini, 'you've made it come alive.'

Michelangelo knew that by changing the shape of the nose he might ruin the entire sculpture. Yet Soderini was a patron who prided himself on his aesthetic judgment. To offend such a man by arguing would not only gain Michelangelo nothing, it would put future commissions in jeopardy.

"Michelangelo was too clever to argue. His solution was to change Soderini's perspective (literally bringing him closer to the nose) without making him realize that this was the cause of his misperception."

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