When Michelangelo was finishing the David, along came Piero Soderini, the town mayor or boss, to have a look. Michelangelo had put a canvas around the scaffolding so no one could watch him work. He didn’t like gawkers and he didn’t like intruders, not even patron intruders. So when he saw that canvas flap open and the mayor come in, though he had to smile, he must have cursed to himself.
Sculptors in Ancient Rome by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema (Creative Commons license)
Piero Soderini put on the show of the art connoisseur, walking around under the huge figure. “It’s coming along wonderfully,” said Piero Soderini. “But do you know what? The nose is too thick.”
Criticism like that must have made the irascible Master’s blood boil. He knew that from where Soderini was standing it was impossible to judge whether the nose or anything else was right. “Well, we’ll fix that right now,” he said; and quickly grabbing a hammer and chisel, climbed up the scaffold like a monkey. Clink, clink—Soderini heard the hammer against the chisel and saw marble dust fall. Clink some more. “How’s that?” Michelangelo called down from the scaffold. Of course he hadn’t touched the figure at all but only pretended to be altering the nose.
“Oh, that’s much better!” exclaimed the mayor. “Now you’ve really put life into it.”
Vasari says Michelangelo “climbed down, feeling sorry for those critics who talk nonsense in the hope of appearing well-informed.”
Now Soderini was no more of a hypocrite than most; and it’s possible that he was no hypocrite at all when he criticized the nose. It looked too big to him and he said so. Perhaps after Michelangelo had done the hammering, it still looked too big but out of politeness (there are all kinds of hypocrisy) or simple deference towards the man who was supposed to be his superior in this art, he acquiesced.
Piero Soderini might actually be seen to come off better than our hero Michelangelo in this story, who “felt sorry” for the mayor but didn’t say so: he wasn’t that dumb (wink, wink). You don’t bite the hand…..
Why didn’t he explain outright to the man that there at the foot of the scaffolding it was impossible to criticize a colossal figure like the David properly, that it had to be viewed from a distance, and that later when the figure was finished he, Soderini, would see that the nose was right? Michelangelo might have tried. Instead, he instantly conceived and carried out the cheating act to make a fool of him. Maybe Soderini’s airs were hard to take; maybe he deserved it. However it was, Michelangelo was “smart” enough to keep the story to himself while he took two more commissions from the mayor, who, by the way, paid him good money for the David when it was done and ordered it to be set up in the most prominent place of Florence. Later, after Soderini had fled to Rome and was no threat to anyone, the Master confided the mean story to Vasari and Condivi. As long as the mayor was handing out big marble blocks and awarding commissions, Michelangelo kept smiling and showing respect. Funny. Wasn’t our Michelangelo the man who didn’t let himself get kicked around; who spoke his mind frankly? Sometimes, depending. This Soderini story is plain back-biting.
This post, entitled His Nose Is Too Big , was originally published on September 22, 2007
Ah again the masters show us the way! It will always be like this you know, you don’t see anyone criticizing the work of a mathematician because no one can comprehend it whereas art, everybody can see and feel it. It’s not a bad thing, but sometimes like on this precious tale… it’s exasperatingly comic.
Aren<t those “art critics” and indestructible bunch?!
Michelangelo must have been a AB blood, since those are so quick tempered, with adrenalin flowing all over their blood…
Danu: I defended Soderini here because I suspected the whole story was invented by Vasari to please his Medici patrons, Soderini’s enemies. Most of them must have been equally bad judges of art and just as pretentious. Remember how a Medici Duke argued with Cellini about his Perseus? In fact, the Gonfalonier admired Michelangelo’s work and was responsible for giving him the order to do the Consiglio Hall frescoes. He also helped him hide from Pope Julius and sent his brother to Bologna with Michelangelo to shield him from Julius’ wrath. He really stuck his neck out for him. If this nose story does come from Michelangelo it shows him to be very ungrateful. Michelangelo was lucky he didn’t have to make real concessions to the Gonfalonier, who respected him enough to let him do his own thing.
All that pleasant reading we get from you for free, Swallows!
Was just imagining this somewhat pert Soderini having a glimpse of the far off future: Imagine him seeing Michelangelo’s David as the world-famous icon of art that he has become in our times…
What would he have said then? Would he perhaps have kept quiet?
I’m just wondering: can such inspired work of sheer genius be criticised at all? Or are these works beyond art-criticism?
In other words: is Soderini’s criticism verging on blasphemy?
Rich. Thanks for the idea. From now on, I’ll charge a euro weekdays and two on Sundays.
As for the great works being above criticism, I’ve sometimes thought about that too. I felt terrible a few months back when a reader told me I had spoiled the David for her by pointing out the oversized right hand. I hadn’t meant to present it as a mistake of the Master’s but I might as well have told her that Santa Claus drank and beat his reindeer. Once the work has become an icon you dare not touch it. This whole story with Soderini is common enough—every artist will tell you a similar one. But here because it is about Michelangelo and the David it has greater punch.
What I love most about your blogs is that you make me feel like I know all of these people well and personally, like I’m really right there with them. You’ve put life into them. Are you sure you didn’t actually KNOW them in another lifetime?
“Expat Abroad” in the Middle East
Expat 21: No, I didn’t know them in another lifetime. I probably know them in this one as well as I could in any other.
This story actually sounds true as opposed to the Verrocchio one. If Soderini admired his work, maybe Michelangelo was more forgiving at that moment. Receiving criticism depends a lot on who is it coming from. Soderini wanted to seem like a connaisseur, but Michelangelo’s brilliant answer made him such a dilettante. He made sure to make an ass out of the man who dared to criticize him later– when it was safe for him.
Erika: The story is just a bit too slick. Michelangelo was probably that mean but Soderini was probably not that dumb. Cellini has stories like this and the reader just nods and smiles, suspending disbelief, happy for the entertainment the old braggart affords.
Good story, sounds like normal business relations.
No doubt, the David is a wonderful work of art. However, modern critics have also mentioned some slight discrepancies. So, I think, Piero Soderini had got some point in his criticism. That nose does seem a bit too thick, or big maybe.
So we find some slight discrepancies with hand and nose here, which may lead to another question:
Has there in this world ever existed any sculpture which, from the critics` point of view, would be ranked as “perfect perfection”?
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