Was Michelangelo a Coward?

A deserter he certainly was.

Michelangelo by Giulio Bonasone (1546) Copperplate print, 23.7 x 18.3 cm.   public domain photo

Florence was under siege and the authorities put Michelangelo in charge of the city’s defense. He strengthened the city walls, built bastions in strategic places around the city, and encircled the San Miniato hill above town with fortifications. Everyone agrees he did a good job.

One of his sketches for the defense works.  The idea was to have no area uncovered by artillery fire.  Public domain photo at Wikipedia

But in spite of his well-planned defense things got worse and worse for the town as the siege went on. There was no help in sight. Anyone could see it was just a matter of time before Florence would have to surrender. There were persistent rumors of a secret plot to turn over the city to the enemy. Things would probably go badly for Michelangelo when the enemy marched into Florence. He got to thinking all this over and…

And then he did the worst thing on his curriculum. He stuffed into bags all the money and jewels he could carry and, using his authority as an army official, he ordered one of the city gates opened and rode out of town with two servants in the middle of the night. “To save himself,” as Vasari puts it plainly.

Before passing sentence on Michelangelo read this:

Why Michelangelo Deserted

When Michelangelo realized that there really was a secret plot to surrender the city and that there was nothing he could do about it, he decided to get out before the enemy came to arrest him.

He had done his share and more than his share in defending Florence. A republican in spite of his patrons and friends, he had decided to fight for the freedom of his city and had put himself on the line. He even made a big cash donation to the war effort.

But more than all that, he was sacrificing his future as an artist. The enemy that lay outside the city and who was trying to restore the tyrant to power was none other than Michelangelo’s patron, Pope Clement, a Medici!

And the tyrant was the Pope’s illegitimate son, Alessandro.

Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence by Cristofano dell Altissimo   public domain photo here

Michelangelo had spent years of his life working for the Medicis. Even now he was carving those great figures for the family chapel. By defending Florence against the Pope he was as good as destroying his work and the great projects of the future. Should he throw away his life now as well?

What happened finally?
When the victorious enemy army came into Florence Alessandro de Medici ordered Michelangelo’s murder. Michelangelo hid in a cellar until the coast was clear.

Read here about these drawings Michelangelo made on the wall of the basement where he hid

How did the coast clear?  The Pope, Alessandro’s father, intervened and gave orders that “his” artist should be spared.  Afterwards he ordered Michelangelo to go on with his work in the Medici Chapel.


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18 Responses to Was Michelangelo a Coward?

  1. justme22 says:

    It’s a great post Swallows.
    Wasn ‘t our Michelangelo brave, to be able to stand up to these powers who had such big egos, and fight for the republic. At the same time he was a pragmatist – hiding allowed things to cool down and for Clement to get involved. Otherwise we would have lost him at about the age of 50, imagine..
    Even in the time of the bad tempered Pope Julius (Il Terribile) he was standing up to him, but for other reasons, and winning! There, an idea for another post?

    As a new grandmother, it will be one of the stories I will tell my grandson for sure.

    • 100swallows says:

      Justme22: Thanks. Michelangelo’s temper made him do things he afterwards regretted, such as standing up to Pope Julius. But he was cool-brave too. Only a courageous man would undertake projects like the Sistine ceiling (when he had never painted much), competing with the best artists in the world (like Rafael). It probably didn’t take much “pragmatism” to hide when he knew assassins were after him.
      See my posts on his flight from Rome and his last quarrel with Julius.

  2. wrjones
    wrjones says:

    Fabulous story. How tough it would be knowing your city was going to be overrun and you would certainly be killed. A coward would have left the city long before it was getting close to falling. “Sorry, I’m leaving fellows, but grandma needs help with her hip replacement.”

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Bill. Yes, very tough. The trouble was, right then Michelangelo was working for the Medici, doing their chapel. His great statues were half-done. He must have kept working, hoping the worst (a war) wouldn’t happen. Then suddenly the town authorities put him in charge of the defense and his goose was cooked.

  3. kimiam
    kimiam says:

    I love reading your stories!

  4. robertmileham
    Robert Mileham says:

    Was he an artist or a soldier? You can be both and sometimes it works, but forgive me for bringing all this up again.

    I recently heard a story about the grandson of a very well known Pre-Raphaelite painter who had refused to allow quite a large number of his paintings to be sold; indeed they are not signed and live in the grandson’s garage to this day. The painter did not think them good enough. I understand that Michelangelo had a similar problem and even had a swing at one of them! The issue here is “good enough”. Michelangelo’s women (all his women I have seen) were not good enough and not worthy of the space that they occupy.

    I think that it is time to bring this guy to account. He was only good at some things. He really was not that special as a sculptor. Lots of Italian spin over the centuries ok, but he had his limitations “the male figure” and if you count “David” it that… mediocre”. Some of his works are very good, not necessarilly something you want to have in your “livingroom” but, yes good work: Slave is a good example of good work to my mind.

    • 100swallows says:

      Robert: Benvenuto Cellini said that though he was successful as a goldsmith, he would have preferred to be a soldier–he had missed his real calling. Just read how he enjoyed himself firing those cannons at the French from the Castello San Angelo. But Michelangelo became a soldier out of duty. I would guess he would have made a good general but he was an artist first.

      Michelangelo was not trying to sculpt conventional female beauty. Maybe he was incapable. What he came up with has pleased many of the best critics over centuries, so most would say it was “good enough”. To this day he has ardent imitators (though it’s true, they don’t imitate his female figures). I’d say he is more important to our concept of the nude than the very Greeks. Of course many great artists have disliked his work and resented his primacy. You aren’t alone.

    • Wrathful says:

      You talk so lowly of Michelangelo, as if you are more skilled or accomplished as he…and we certainly all know that isn’t true, right? Right, now quiet down and know your place.

    • Lesley says:

      He was an architect as well as a sculptor and painter. He designed and oversaw the construction of the fortification around Florence during the aforementioned ousting of the Medicis.

  5. Ken Januski says:

    Chiuso per ferie??? I assume so Swallows. Looking forward to your return and hoping that you’re enjoying yourself.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Ken. You are right. I suppose I should have hung out a cerrado por vacaciones sign or at least posted some little quip now and then. I will put in something soon.

  6. artmodel – New York City
    artmodel says:

    Come back, Swallows!! We miss you! There is a gaping art history hole in the blogosphere these days.

    Kidding around :) Enjoy your well-deserved time off, friend . .

    • 100swallows says:

      Claudia: Now you didn’t dog it this summer, so the hole isn’t all that big. I enjoyed your posts even while I lazed. Being away from a blog becomes addictive so I’d better get back, huh? Thanks, kid.

  7. fashindiva
    rebecca salcedo says:

    Great story! At that point, he wouldn’t have been able to do much anyway! Thankfully, he hid, so we could have some more to drewl over!

  8. janvi yadav says:

    Life is very beautiful and keeps on teaching something all the time.In the same way, you saw this post today and seeing that it was as if I had never imagined such a post that someone can make your beautiful post.

  9. Pingback: Michelangelo Buonarotti: notes from biography – ModernParnassian

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