Scary Little Devils by Michelangelo

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

See this.

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.


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8 Responses to Scary Little Devils by Michelangelo

  1. wrjones says:

    Great story. I’m practicing my stick people right now to see if I can get a beer.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Bill. There are quite a few empty walls left around here for you to practice on, but you might have to pay the vandals protection money to work in peace.

  2. Ken Januski says:

    Another fascinating post, Swallows, including the lengthy trail of ‘The Crook’. As always so many of these stories are about the past but can always be applied to the present. Do contemporary artists have visual memories anything like that of past artists? Could an artist we admire greatly also be a crook? As usual a pleasure to read.

    It’s also interesting to think of Michelangelo copying Schongauer. Their styles seem so different. And yet at the time style might have been of no importance at all. Perhaps it was just as you indicate a chance to see a rare and well drawn image and then learn what he could from it.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Ken.
      Hear Johnny Ruskin on this: “Imagine that all that any of these men had seen or heard in the whole course of their lives, laid up accurately in their memories as in vast storehouses, extending, with the poets, even to the slightest intonation of syllables heard in the beginning of their lives, and with the painters, down to minute folds of drapery, and shapes of leaves or stones; and over all this unindexed and immeasurable mass of treasure, the imagination brooding and wandering, but dream-gifted, so as to summon at any moment exactly such groups of ideas as shall justly fit each other: this I conceive to be the real nature of the imaginative mind….from Modern Painters, Vol. 4. Part V, chapter 2

      But besides having this prodigious memory the great men exercise it, develop it. Hemingway spoke of always trying to spot and remember for use in stories the details of everything he saw.

      Anyone can develop his memory. You bird-watcher/draftsmen do it. Students of art obviously don’t do it enough. They learn to copy and call that art (which it could be, of course). If you want to see what an artist really knows, have him draw action figures for you or any imaginative scene with interacting figures. Then you will see not only what visual resources he has but what else is inside him.

      Another thing those old-timers didn’t have was a lot of paper. And they had to make their own materials and grind their colors. They had to be careful, sparing, with everything. If you had trouble getting a nice piece of paper from the Duke and you knew the drawing you were about to make would be scrutinized by him and everyone, you would plan that drawing very well before starting to make the lines. Great respect. (Of course water-color people still become pretty concentrated before painting on those expensive sheets.)

      It’s true that the Schongauer seems to have nothing to do with Michelangelo. There was a tradition (cf. Giotto) of inventing fantastic animals and demons and Leonardo took it up very readily. And there are a few by Michelangelo (see his dragon in my post on Leonardo’s pet dragon); but it wasn’t his cup of tea. Of course he was out to impress the kids in Florence then.

  3. kimiam says:

    I love to read your stories, swallows!

  4. Rich says:

    I had also been asking myself how these artists managed to depict figures, men and beasts in action without any photographic evidence.
    Still more so when it comes to figures in flying poses, puttis, angels, godheads in most daring perspectives. Not to speak of those frescoes on ceilings and church cupolas where one stands below with a worms eye view looking at all those foreshortened figures. How did they manage that? I was imagining them lying on the floor doing sketches from a model located on a table.

    But it must be that memory thing you speak of. In those times quite a few people were also reciting volumes of poetry from memory.

  5. Ken Januski says:

    Hi Swallows,

    Thanks for the Ruskin quote on artistic imagination. I remember liking Ruskin when I studied Victorian Literature in college a few centuries ago. And then I read more about him a few years ago and saw a beautiful painting of a Creeper, I think it was. So I asked for a book of his writing, ‘On Drawing’ I think, for Christmas. I got it but, sadly, found it unreadable. I guess it’s time to pick it up and try again.

    I know my posts here are long so I’ll try not to ramble on forever. I have elaborated on this on my own blog, art, birds, nature: Crimes in Science and Art. As I’ve been thinking about artists and visual memory I realize that mine is very poor. If someone were to ask me to draw figures, or birds, from my memory, they might look much like Michelangelo’s stick figures. Yet if I draw from life, and the subject sits still, unlike my bird subjects, I think that I can get a fairly good likeness, including some of the individuality of my subject.

    It almost makes me wonder if there are two types of artists: those who keep a mental visual inventory of all they’ve seen and can call it up and render it at will, and those like me who really need to see something in front of them but can then portray what they see. Of course this could be one great rationalization on my part! My guess is that the truly great artists, especially in a time before photography, both had great visual memories and were also able to portray the individuality of their subjects. They might just have been far more accomplished than today’s artists.

    You also bring up a great point about paper. Who knows how rare it was back then but I’m sure that good paper really was scarce, and if you’d bought it for the Duke or he for you, I’m sure you really thought twice about what you put down! That’s so different from today. Even when I was a poor art student I’m sure I didn’t need to be anywhere near as frugal with my materials as artists a few hundred years ago. Who knows though? It may just have concentrated their focus and energy.

    And as Rich says people might just have had better memories then. They didn’t have many books or pictures, no tv, movies, radio, books on tape, etc. Their memories might just have been far better and more developed than ours.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: I know what you mean about Ruskin. Often he is just too much to take. But when he is good…

      There are two types of artists, or two extremes–and everything in between, no? There are artists who can’t draw unless they have a subject in front of them to copy and “inspire” them, and others who always start with an imagined figure or picture and only consult the “real” version for details to give their lie credibility (as Degas says). Someone like Van Gogh was able to make a very personal work of art WHILE he copied. Very rare. Most can’t do that: they can’t copy without letting the object tyrannize not only their drawing but their very perception. Photos are already copied scenes, of course; so if an artist uses one, he is twice tyrannized.

      I think the first writer I read who recommended practicing drawing from memory was Slobodkin (in his book on sculpture). But I was already doing what he suggested because my aim was precisely imagined work. I would try very hard to get an accurate copy of my model during the life-drawing sessions, then go home and draw from memory what I had just seen and drawn. I could then compare it with my first one. I did the same with famous drawings, trying to reproduce them from memory.

      Part of the secret is the almost tense concentration: you will have one look at this, buddy, and never again. You will have one sheet for your sketch and one dribble of ink and you will be able to make one line. No eraser. This teaches you to look hard and to plan well.

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