Lessons from Life Masters: Michelangelo
Love the Work
From November 2017 till February 2018, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City ran a block buster exhibit of Michelangelo’s drawings. It was a mammoth exhibit of over 130 items many from collections most of us will never see.
If you live or visited New York, I hope you were lucky to see it. It was popular — meaning crowded. The exhibit lighting was muted (to protect these invaluable drawings) and the items mostly done in red pencil were best appreciated with close-up viewing; sometimes a challenge.
If you missed The Met exhibit in person — the images and videos available on The Metropolitan Museums website are well worth viewing. The video does not quite capture the amount of work Michelangelo produced but it is a reminder of the breadth of Michelangelo’s talent, curiosity and interests.
Michelangelo was constantly drawing; working until a few weeks before his death at the age of almost 89. He loved the process — he worked and reworked his creations. I had a sense when viewing the exhibit that though he knew he was good — even great — he was always striving to get better; there was always something new to learn and explore. His sense of curiosity must have been prodigious.
As the curator of the exhibit, Carmen Bambach says,
“It’s an extraordinary opportunity to see many works from 53 different museums and collections that are never seen together, to see Michelangelo in many guises as he uses drawing as a language, from his very quick sketches to the finished drawings that come from the Royal Collection in Windsor. Drawing is the first thing he uses to create a painting, to create a sculpture, to create architecture. It’s what unifies his career.”
A Lesson to Learn:
After each of my visits to the exhibit, I left with the desire to work and work and work at my designated craft; to work (verb) at the work (noun); a co-mingling to craft, as it were.
I define the noun ‘work’ broadly. Good work requires skill acquisition, curiosity, reimagining, a love of the process. Michelangelo was relentless with his drawing, doodling, experimenting, always it seems playing with his pen.
When I walked through the many galleries of the exhibit, it hit me that one person created most of the exhibit — and that the rooms were only a smattering of what this man created. Michelangelo must have been working constantly. (Late in life, he destroyed many drawings he felt weren’t good enough.)
Today, we boast if we write two blog posts in one week. Our standards are so low. I keep asking myself — isn’t it time to increase your creative output?
There are may excellent books on Michelangelo and his time. Below are a few bookbundle recommendations.
Questions I invite you to consider as you read & explore:
- What parts of your current ‘work’ do you love?
- Do you love the process of that work?
- Is there a way for you to engage in more of that ‘work’ to build your skill set? Either at work or elsewhere?
- Is there a mentor or relationship you could leverage that would help you build more of the work you love?
MICHELANGELO’S NOTEBOOKS EDITED BY CAROLYN VAUGHN
I am not a Michelangelo expert. Those with more official knowledge may disagree with my comments and selections.
There are several excellent books available that reproduce the pages from Michelangelos’s notebooks — the hundreds of pages produced by this prodigious mind.
As a pure pedestrian, novice Michelangelo devotee — I have chosen the Carolyn Vaughn edited book, Michelangelo’s Notebooks as my book of choice to discover his Notebooks.
Physically, Vaughn’s book has a lovely feel. It’s substantial in weight and unique in design with an odd smaller size (many of the Notebook books are huge, mammoth tomes that can only be held in one’s lap and do not invite reading), rounded corners, an indented spinal hinge and lovely cream paper. Congratulations to Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers (an imprint of Hachette Books).
I do not know Carolyn Vaughn but she is a knowledgeable guide throughout the Notebooks. She is a former editor at The Metropolitan Museum. Her choices of inclusion and juxtaposition — letters next to drawing — make one feel like you are dialoguing with a old friend over Barolo.
I urge you to consider doing just that. Gather your pals, grab this Notebook with a good glass and start a conversation. It will likely improve your life!
MICHELANGELO: The Artist, the Man and his Times BY WILLIAM E. WALLACE
William Wallace has spent his lifetime on Michelangelo scholarship with countless articles and at least six books on the topic. This 2010 biography is widely considered one of the best on an artist that historians claim is one of the most documented figures from history.
Like many, I over idolize my heroes imbuing them with qualities: honesty, integrity, kindness, thoughtfulness ignoring the possibility that they might have been political, cunning, ruthless and self-serving. And so it is with my vision of Michelangelo.
It is not only refreshing — and sometimes a bit titillating — to read a more realistic life history, but it also give me hope that greatness is born from mere mortality and open to all of us if we are willing to work at mastery of our given craft.
William Wallace’s lecture at the 2012 Michelangelo Symposium at The Metropolitan Museum is a gentle reminder that even our heroes are human.
MICHELANGELO AND THE POPE’S CEILING BY ROSS KING
Michelangelo began painting the Sistine Chapel at the age of 33. He finished the work an incredible short time frame four years later. He would go on creating for another 55 years.
The commission from one of the most formidable men known to history, Pope Julius II was a creative and entrepreneurial journey. It required that Michelangelo:
- have a vision (what story should be on the ceiling)
- a strategy to execute the vision (what figures would go where?)
- a set of skills (how much water is needed to keep the plaster wet enough to hold the paint)
- an ability to hire the best subordinates then manage them well (who can be trusted to build the scaffold, mix the plaster, stir the paint, show up on time and work long hours)
- an execution plan that is driven by a tight schedule without the outcome being crystal clear (four years to design, draw, build half the scaffold, paint, dismantle the scaffold, re-build the scaffold, redraw and keep painting all without any ability to see a full picture of the work from the Sistine floor)
- all the above executed while sticking to a budget and keeping his main investor happy.
It required not only creative power at the genius level but formidable entrepreneurial skills.
Criticized by some reviewers for his popularizing of history, Ross King nonetheless tells this story in an accurate if compelling and entertaining fashion. The characters and drama from this history are as good as any fiction and need little embellishment from any writer.
DEATH IN FLORENCE BY MICHAEL STRATHERN
The Italian Renaissance was not always filled with beauty. It was a unique period in history with its fair share of moral and financial corruption, nepotism, cronyism, favoritism (all possible ism’s), decadence, poverty and political unrest.
Paul Strathern, an award winning and skilled academic, philosopher and novelist accurately portrays the period in his many books about the period.
Savonarola, the charismatic Dominican friar stepped into this world in Florence. His message to the masses was a combination that called for a strict religious adherence with a more democratic message of rebellion against the Catholic hierarchy in Rome and the reigning political families of the city states like Florence.
Not unlike many of the political movements seen round the world today, Savonarola swiftly rose to prominence with a aggressive following, including bands of young men who patrolled the streets of Florence enforcing their brand of morality; his fall was just as swift when his followers turned against him; Sadly, the violence his rhetoric encouraged, was unleashed upon him when he was brutally tortured and burned at the stake.
It was a tricky time — the Italian Renaissance of Michelangelo. There were plenty of opportunities to misstep and find oneself ostracized, excommunicated or dead by some gruesome method.
Though Savonarola lived before Michelangelo’s adulthood, I’ve included Paul Strathern’s detailed and graphic book in the bundle lest we forget what it was really like to live in the Italian Renaissance of Florence and Rome.
Additional Thought-Provoking Resources:
When I was in college I took a course on the history of biography. Now, decades later, I can’t confess to remembering much except for the Professor’s repeated insistence that biographies were never fully ‘factual’ (even as hard as the biography might try) because they required the biographer to always be omitting and editing ‘the facts’ in order to meet the limitations of the book format. Not to mention, that unlike today’s Instagram world, many famous people throughout history, mindful of their legacy, have gone to great lengths to destroy important documents that might reflect poorly upon their person. Dickens had a veritable bonfire going in his backyard one afternoon.
With these thoughts in mind, I found William Wallace’s lecture on Michelangelo at the University of Mary Washington Great Lives Series interesting and entertaining.
Another Book To Consider:
Some might argue that Michelangelo was a lucky guy — he lived in an age without electricity, running water, television, radio, computers or YouTube videos. So, he was not distracted by email notification, I-phone rings or text message pings.
But that said, I am a fan of running water, indoor plumbing and electricity to run my computer. The inventions we rue also add greatly to our lives — if we learn to manage them rather than allow them to manage us.
In his book, Deep Work computer scientist, Cal Newport explores the price we pay for our modern distractions and offers important and implementable suggestions to help anyone not fall prey to the false lure of feeling like you’re ‘working’ when you’re not!
Here’s a podcast from NPR’s Hidden Brain — a wonderful show if you’re not familiar — on the power of focus and deep work in our very distracted age.