Two boys stole drawings from Michelangelo. “We only wanted to copy them,” they told the judge. “And we always meant to give them back.”
“They had gone into Michelangelo’s house,” says Vasari, his great biographer, “and, prompted by their love of sculpture rather than by any wish to offend him, they stealthily filched from his servant…many of his drawings; subsequently, through the intercession of the magistrates, these were returned, and Michelangelo himself with the help of the canon of San Lorenzo saved them from any further punishment.”
Michelangelo was understanding but he didn’t like the prank much, of course. So when Vasari asked him to allow one of the boys, Bartolommeo Ammanati, now a competent sculptor, to carve some figures for a project under Michelangelo’s direction, the great man made a face.
“Oh, come on,” Vasari told him with a laugh, “those kids don’t deserve any blame. If I had had the chance I wouldn’t merely have taken a few drawings–I’d have stolen everything of yours that I could lay my hands on in order to learn. One should encourage and reward those who try to improve themselves and not treat them as if they had stolen someone’s money or other important belongings.”
In the old days there weren’t many pictures around. Originals of the great works were on church walls or in private collections. The most a young artist got to see, unless he travelled, was a copy, often a bad one. He himself made copies of what he liked. If he wanted to see the work more than once, that was the only way.
When the copy of a famous or curious painting reached a town like Florence, with dozens of workshop-schools where young artists were learning, it made a big hit. One of Michelangelo’s first works was a copy of an engraving from Germany that all the kids were admiring. It showed St. Anthony being tormented by devils.
The Temptation of St. Anthony by Martin Schongauer in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Vasari says Michelangelo “made a perfect pen-and-ink copy of Schongauer’s engraving…soon after it had been brought to Florence. He also did the scene in colors; and for this purpose, in order to copy some of the strange-looking demons in the picture he went along to the market and bought some fishes with fantastic scales like theirs. The skill with which he did this work won him a considerable reputation.”
Condivi, his other biographer, says Michelangelo was particularly interested in getting the colors right for his painted version: “Michelangelo worked with such diligence that he would not apply color to any part [of his painting] without first consulting nature. Thus he would go off to the fish market, where he observed the shape and coloring of the fins of the fish, the color of the eyes and every other part, and he would render them in his painting, so that by bringing it to that perfection of which he was capable, from that time he excited the admiration of the world and…a certain envy in Ghirlandaio.”
This might be the work recently acquired by the Kimbell Art Museum of Fort Worth.
Michelangelo, The Torment of Saint Anthony, 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
Hellmut Wohl in a footnote to Alice Wohl’s translation of Condivi’s biography says: “Michelangelo’s copy of Schongauer’s engraving has been identified with a small panel in the style of Ghirlandaio sold at Sotheby’s in London in December, 1960.”
See Was Michelangelo Crooked (Part One)? and read about the trouble his skill got him into.