It is easy to forget when looking celestially at the dizzying brilliance of the Sistine Chapel’s intricate ceiling that Michelangelo was, at one time, a complete and total hack.
At a recent exhibition at the British Museum, the public was invited for the first time to examine the so-called genius’s early notebooks. A placard suggested that had Michelangelo known these preliminary noodlings would be exhibited, he would have been mortified. No man wants to be seen in his underwear, and in the case of Michelangelo, it’s all too clear that in the early years of 1475 to 1505, the dude was desperately in need of practice.
One oversized parchment notebook was filled with eyes. Just eyes. Sketch after sketch of them. Opened, closed, lids half-mast, capillaries criss-crossing the whites like an ice-skating surface. Then ears. All ears. Scratched out in various stages of non-polish, others simply abandoned. There were literally hundreds of these repetitive anatomical studies, all sucking really badly.
And how many poorly drawn pairs of hands are we supposed to find interesting? Pages and pages and pages of them? How about feet? Or Adam’s apples, scapulae, pelvic bones: all barely presentable. There was not a single completed drawing in the entire exhibit– I wanted my 12 pounds 50 back. Still, the hoi poloi ooh’d and ahh’d and lined up to get in. But I knew the truth: Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (four names, really?) was not perfect from birth, and worse, clearly a quitter.
For starters, he was really lazy. He didn’t start his apprenticeship with Ghirlandaio until when he was 12. Mozart was touring internationally at 5. Why did Michelangelo slack for 7 years? Then, n 1501, he left for Florence, where he made the David. Volumes have been written about this sculpture, and it may be the finest ass in all of marble. But anyone able to spend that much time on that particular part of the body, has to be sexually conflicted.
Instead, we hear about how inspired he was by some gal in a covenant named Vittoria, and their ostensibly “spiritual” relationship. His ”physical” relationship was with a hairy wop named Tommaso, who apparently didn’t love him back.
Freud was the first to purport that many artists were merely repressed homosexuals. His essay on Da Vinci goes so far as to claim that Leonardo would have been a hack too had he actualized his sexual drives. Instead, he was forced to sublimate them, and in so doing became an obsessional neurotic of the highest order: if he couldn’t have a boyfriend in real life, he would at the very least sculpt his ideal.
Even back then it was all about who you knew. Mich understood the benefits of kiss ass around church officials, and eventually, after enough kowtowing, Pope Julius asked him to paint the ceiling of his chapel. Not inquiring about the details, Mich said sure.
He showed up with overalls, a drop cloth and a 3-pack of rollers, assuming he was doing his Holiness the favor slapping a coat on the “chapel” ceiling. When he saw 12,000 square feet of segmented, bowing roof surface, he said fuck this in Latin and walked out. Two bishops ran after him and explained that what the Pope really wanted were angels and saints, and God, if he was bold enough to take a crack at the big guy.
Why the Pope wanted him so badly is a mystery. Da Vinci had more experience with frescos. But Mich got the commission and rode it to five centuries of celebrity, all while having shouting matches with the Head of the church about how to depict the all-being master of time space and dimension.
“Take as much time as you need,” they said, not thinking four years would go by.
A re-creation at the exhibit shattered the legend that Michelangelo painted most of it on his back. The brush strokes reveal it was mostly painted standing, forever ruining Charlton Heston’s epic role in the The Agony and The Ecstasy.
Mich struggled with the 40-meter ceiling and walked off the job many times, as hacks will. History books claim he left over artistic quarrels, but after seeing these early notebooks, it’s clear the guy just didn’t have a clue what to cover all that space with.
We are tought to believe Michelangelo was one of the great tortured geniuses of all time, but what I saw at this exhibit was clear enough: save a few things like the David and the Sistine Chapel, the guy was basically faking it.
So many of these guys were… They had good agents though, and they’re still getting commissions hundreds of years later.