Like most young artists Michelangelo copied the works of the masters, but he was better at it than the rest. A pen-and-ink copy he made of a copper engraving by Martin Schongauer—a picture of St. Anthony being tormented by demons—impressed everyone. It was perfect.
The Temptation of St. Anthony by Martin Schongauer in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Michelangelo, The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Michelangelo, c. 1487-88. Oil and tempera on panel, 18 1/2 x 13 1/4 in. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. Description courtesy Kimball Art Museum. Public domain photo
He was so good at copying that he thought he’d have a little fun.
“At that same time,” writes Condivi, “another work of his aroused no less amazement, although it was spiced with a certain playfulness. Having been given a head to copy, he rendered it so precisely that, when he returned the copy to the owner in place of the original, at first the owner did not detect the deception, but discovered it only when the boy [Michelangelo] was telling a friend of his and laughing about it. Many wanted to compare the two, and they found no difference because, apart from the perfection of the copy, Michelangelo had used smoke to make it seem as old as the original. This gained him a considerable reputation.”
Did the temporarily-deceived owner laugh along and congratulate the young prankster and praise him for his skill? What did Michelangelo do with the imitation head? Sell it perhaps? As an antique perhaps?
Next we see Michelangelo taking this challenge of copying strangely far. “Michelangelo also copied the work of other masters, with complete fidelity,” says Vasari enthusiastically. “He used to tinge his copies and make them appear black with age by various means, including the use of smoke, so that they could not be told apart from the originals.”
Was he trying to delight some group of friends? Just whom was he trying to please with these little forgeries?
“He did this,” says Vasari, “so that he could exchange his copies for the signed originals, which he admired for their excellence and which he tried to surpass in his own works; and these experiments also won him fame.”
Presumably he returned the signed originals once he was finished copying them. Or was he tempted to keep them for awhile, just to see if their owner detected the forgery? Michelangelo wouldn’t have tried to actually sell them, would he?
One of the reasons Condivi wrote his Life of Michelangelo was to defend him against the charge of fraud in the notorious Cupid case. With stories like the ones above it can’t be said that he has prepared his readers to take the artist’s innocence for granted.
What was the Cupid case?
Michelangelo carved a marble figure of a Cupid and then, through a shady merchant, sold it to a cardinal as an original antique statue just unearthed in a Roman garden. There is no doubt that he did this. The only question is about his role in the scheme, his guilt. Whose idea was it?
Both Condivi and Vasari say it wasn’t his own—far be it from our hero! It was Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco d’Medici who put the idea into his head. “I’ve been thinking about your Cupid,” he told Michelangelo one afternoon. “You and I know it is as good or better than an antique statue. But people won’t pay much for a modern work, no matter how good it is. Do you think you could somehow treat it to make it look old?—do something with acids or smoke or dirt—maybe bury it or something? If you could, I would send it to Rome and there you could sell it as an antique original and fetch good money for it.”
Neither of the biographers denies that Michelangelo jumped at the idea. “Upon hearing this,” says Condivi, “Michelangelo, to whom none of the ways of genius were obscure, reworked it immediately so that it looked as if it had been made many years earlier.”
Says Vasari: “And this is not to be marvelled at seeing that he was ingenious enough to do anything.” The two biographer/worshippers of Michelangelo don’t seem able to see farther than the pleasing curiosity of Michelangelo’s now well-known skill in imitating other people’s works of art. But this is beyond fun and games: he and others were going to perpetrate a fraud: they were scheming to cheat someone and profit by the deception.
See Was Michelangelo Crooked? (Part 2) and read how they hoodwinked a famous art collector with the dirty little Cupid.