Michelangelo Biography: The Guest of Lorenzo de' Medici

Stories about Michelangelo's life as Ghirlandaio's apprentice are trying to explain how he became a sculptor: Lorenzo de' Medici, the Magnificent, had adorned his garden with antique statues and had placed a pupil and follower of Donatello, the great sculptor, over these collections, virtually to instruct any young men who might wish to use them. Ghirlandaio was asked to select from his pupils the most promising. From among them Michelangelo was chosen and learned the practice of stone-cutting as a workman, acquiring as a boy that practical skill which he developed further through a long life so that the mark of his laborious effort became famous.

An anecdote is told that serves as a beginning of his relations with the Medici which were to influence all his life. He had used a piece of refuse marble to carve a grinning mask, upon which he was at work when Lorenzo passed by. The Magnificent was astonished at the quality of the work with regard to the age of the boy, so that joking with him as with a child he said: "Oh! thou hast made that faun an old one, and yet thou has left him all his teeth. Dost thou not know that with old people of such an age there is always wanting some?" So that as soon as Lorenzo de' Medici had left, Michelangelo struck out a tooth from the upper jaw, showing as if it had dropped from the gum, and waited anxiously for the Lorenzo on the following day. The latter having come and seeing the keenness and simplicity of the boy, made up his mind to favor such a talent and to take him into his service, and learning whose son he was, said: "Go tell thy father that I should like to have a talk with him."

With great disgust at Michelangelo's artistic friends and with great objection to his son becoming a stone-cutter, the father dared not refuse the services of his son to the great ruler of Florence, but replied that not only Michelangelo, but all the family were at the pleasure of the Magnificent. Lorenzo insisted upon doing him some favor in exchange. The father modestly asked for a place in the Customs, saying in the old democratic way of Florence: "Lorenzo, I am fit for nothing but reading and writing, I have never practiced art nor trade, I have lived on property that has come from my ancestors, and it has been my care to preserve these estates and to increase them as I have been able to do by my industry." Lorenzo laid his hand upon his shoulder, saying with a smile: "Thou wilt always be poor. If thou desirest a place I can arrange it for thee until a better become vacant."

For three years, from his 15th to his 18th, Michelangelo lived under the roof and in the company of Lorenzo the Magnificent, a man whose name remains representative of culture and patronage of art, associated with the other great name of Pericles in Athens.

Michelangelo's position was that of a guest. He had a room in the palace and was treated as one of the Sons of the house. With these sons he continued an acquaintance through the greater part of his life. One was to be the famous Pope Leo X., another Pope Clement VII. In the household were men of the noblest birth and highest rank, assembled around the daily board. It was the custom for guests to take their places next to the master in the order of their arrival. Those who were present at the beginning of the meal sat, each according to his degree, next to Lorenzo de' Medici, not moving afterward for any one who might appear. So it happened that Michelangelo found himself frequently seated above Lorenzo's children and other persons of great consequence with whom that house was constantly filled. All these great people paid him attention and encouraged him in the art which he had chosen. Chief of all was Lorenzo the Magnificent himself, "who often sent for him during the day in order to show him jewels, cornelians, medals, and badges of great variety."

The business of Michelangelo in the house of Lorenzo de' Medici was to make himself a great sculptor, and thus confer glory upon the illustrious City of Florence which the Medicean house presided.

Most of what Michelangelo produced during that period belonged to himself. These beautiful years of study and encouragement were to remain the few years of peace in Michelangelo's long life.

More on Michelangelo's life:

Michelangelo: Biography

Michelangelo in Rome and Florence

Michelangelo's return to Rome

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