Was Michelangelo Crooked? (Part 3)

Sleeping Cupid by Caravaggio

Probably the Cardinal, like the man who gave Michelangelo the head to copy years before, would never have smelled a rat. But one day what Vasari calls an “eyewitness” told him that the Cupid wasn’t old at all but had been made by a sculptor in Florence. This naturally made the Cardinal indignant and he sent a messenger, a spy, to Florence to ask around and see whether he could find out who had carved the statue. And after casually questioning several other sculptors, he came to Michelangelo’s door.

Condivi, who is telling Michelangelo’s own version of this story and who believes in his innocence, has the unsuspecting artist welcome the stranger without a twitch. He assumed he was a potential customer.
“Could I see some of your work?” asked the spy. “Do you have anything here in your workshop right now for me to see—to get an idea of the kind of thing you do?”
“Not right now,” said Michelangelo. But he wasn’t going to let the man go without impressing him and he quickly grabbed a pen and a piece of paper and drew his hand for him as proof of his ability, just as Giotto so many years before had drawn for another messenger a perfect circle.
“Very nice,” said the man. “Do you ever do any sculpture—anything in marble?”
Michelangelo told him about every figure he had ever carved, including the Cardinal’s Cupid.
“A Cupid? How big was it? Do you remember who you sold it to?”
“I didn’t sell it myself,” said Michelangelo. “I gave it to an art dealer named Baldassare del Milanese. I think he sold it to a cardinal in Rome.”

The Cardinal’s messenger now told Michelangelo who he was and why he had come. “Your Cupid was sold to my patron as an antique,” he said.

Here Condivi would have us imagine the poor, distraught, duped, Michelangelo. Such a possibility had never crossed his mind. How could anyone do such a thing? He had worked hard and his only real aim was to make people see that he could carve a figure as good as an ancient one. And what was his luck but to run into a scoundrel who took advantage of his skill to deceive someone.
Yet: what about the aging of the Cupid? Had he done that or not, and why? Did he confess that to the messenger? Did he tell him the whole story?
“May I ask how much your patron paid him for it?” Michelangelo said finally.
“Two hundred ducats.”
“Two hundred ducats! But Milanese paid me thirty!”

The sympathetic messenger here made an offer to Michelangelo that changed his life. Years before, his copy of an old faun in Lorenzo de Medici’s garden had so impressed the Magnificent that he had invited him to live in his own palace. Now this Cupid was his ticket to Rome and to the center of the world, art and otherwise. “Come with me to Rome,” said the messenger. “You can stay at my house, which is near the Cardinal’s palace. I will explain everything to him and we will see that you get the money that you deserve for your figure.”

The Cardinal

Raffaele Riario, Cardinal San Giorgio) by Raphael

What is striking in both biographers’ account of this fraud is their attack on the Cardinal. He wanted nothing to do with the statue once he had discovered it wasn’t antique. He was one of the first collectors of antique sculpture in Italy and basically he wasn’t interested in modern things, however fine. But neither Vasari nor Condivi has any mercy on him for returning the Cupid to Milanese; according to them, he should have seen the quality of the thing and bought it anyway. It was a Michelangelo, after all. “Some were critical of the Cardinal of San Giorgio in this affair because, if the work was seen by all the artists in Rome and by them all equally it was judged very beautiful, it did not seem that he should be so offended by its being modern as to deprive himself of it for the sake of two hundred scudi (ducats) when he was an affluent and very wealthy man.” (Condivi) And Vasari: “Cardinal San Giorgio cannot escape censure for what happened, since he failed to recognize the obviously perfect quality of Michelangelo’s work…… Every age produces the kind of man who pays more attention to appearances than to facts.”

Another surprise is that the Cardinal treated Michelangelo very kindly. He must not have believed that he was party to the fraud. He welcomed him to his palace and showed him his great collection. He even asked his opinion about certain works (“Are they frauds, in your opinion?”). Afterwards he gave the artist a room in the palace for over a year, though he never gave him a commission, for which Vasari and Condivi censure him again.

What became of the Cupid?

Michelangelo tried to get it back by returning the measly thirty ducats but Milanese told him to go to the devil. The story about the attempted fraud was known all over Rome and it had hurt the dealer’s reputation. “He answered me with great rudeness,” Michelangelo wrote to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco from Rome. “He said he would break the statue into a thousand pieces rather than return it to me; that it was his, that he had documents to prove he had had paid for it; and that he hadn’t the least intention of returning it. He strongly complained about you, Lorenzo, saying you had spoken ill of him….” (Letter 1, 1496)
Yet the resouceful Milanese had no trouble finding another buyer for the Cupid: he sold it to Cesare Borgia, who apparently didn’t care what year it was made.

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19 Responses to Was Michelangelo Crooked? (Part 3)

  1. Pingback: Was Michelangelo Crooked? (Part 2) « The Best Artists

  2. wpm1955 says:

    I really enjoyed reading this story–as usual, with your excellent recounting, you make me feel as if I was standing right there…

    Madame Monet
    Writing, Painting, Music, and Wine

  3. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Mary, for letting me know. Don’t go too hard on Michelangelo. The Cardinal didn’t, and his biographers didn’t, so why should we?

  4. rich says:

    Fine story!
    A fake isn’t necessarily always a fake, it seems.

    How might something similar have worked out in ancient Greece? Were there antiques en vogue too?
    Trying to track back: Was there this kind of reference to the past too, i.e. did they sell and fake Pharaonic sculptures, for instance, or Assyrian?
    Perhaps I’m on a misleading trace, because finally I might end up with some forged cave paintings…

  5. 100swallows says:

    Rich–I don’t know. There must have been a lot of forgery and fraud in the art market always. Of course you wouldn’t get a High Renaissance collector interested in a Gothic Virgin or a Romanesque relief. Some old Roman collectors must have been easy prey for crooked Greek artists. I wonder how many fake Apelles’s and “genuine” Praxiteles statues were around for sale in around 50 BC.
    The Phoenicians peddled a lot of Egyptian art, as well as their own, didn’t they? And what about the Greek vase business? There was plenty of opportunity for swindlers to do their thing in distant places like Massilia and Iberia.

  6. wrjones says:

    I’m waiting for the next installment. I like a good crook story.

    Collectors lock on to something that drives them to collect. It might be old statues or salt and pepper shakers. If you are a collector of old cars, a new Lexus is not all that appealing although it is much superior as a machine.

  7. erikatakacs says:

    I was so rooting for young Michelangelo, somehow I couldn’t imagine him forging for money. Wasn’t he the guy who carved his name all across the Pieta? He couldn’t take his work being attributed to someone else. And I can’t blame the cardinal either. He didn’t get what he paid for. If you want apples, oranges won’t satisfy you.
    Swallows, your writings are getting better and better.

  8. kimiam says:

    You do what you have to. Another nice one, Swallows.

  9. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Kimiam. Should we put your motto over the penitentiary door?

  10. 100swallows says:

    Erika: Keep rooting for Michelangelo. What you say is true. Along with the story of his forgery both biographers keep insisting how proud he was, always looking for praise (when he was young). Do you know why his nose was flat? Because another sculptor punched him for going around bragging. In spite of what they write, there is still a chance that he didn’t really mean to cheat–or at least that getting the money wasn’t his real objective, which was to IMPRESS. He was no crook. In fact, he had a super-ego as big and heartless as Cyclops.
    And I can’t blame the Cardinal either for handing back the Cupid.
    There’ll be one more part to this Cupid story but today let’s take a break.

  11. 100swallows says:

    Bill: Fortunately there aren’t any more crook stories in Michelangelo’s biography–unless he did the big Laocoön job. More on that soon.

  12. What a great story! Would you mind if I include an excerpt of it on my blog with a link to your blog and the entire story?

  13. 100swallows says:

    Sure, Peggi. Include any of it you want to–I’m glad you liked the story. Thanks a lot.

  14. Thank you for permission. BTW, I’m lovin’ the little green bat avatar for my post. Makes me feel like a superhero.

  15. kimiam says:

    swallows, yes. They would feel understood and forgiven as they march out to their execution. We made them what they are, then punish them for being it. Conflict isn’t about right vs. wrong, truth vs. lie, good vs. evil. It’s about balance of power.

    The wind blows… Why do you think I like to sculpt the wind? It’s how the universe seeks balance when there is imbalance.

  16. 100swallows says:

    kimiam: You can blame society but you can also blame nature itself. Let’s disagree with a lot of top philosophers and say there is no “natural law”: that man naturally does not feel wrong killing and stealing. He’s a beast. Our murderers and thieves, then, are the animals that society was not able to tame. In that sense, society does what it can, and what according to a social contract, it has to, when it puts them away. Your motto could be hung up on both sides of the penitentiary door.

  17. kimiam says:

    sure could, swallows. There are as many truths as there are points of view.

  18. Another fantastic swallows story!

  19. 100swallows says:

    Another kind comment from Moonbeam!

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