How Did Michelangelo Get So Rich?

Michelangelo by Jacopino del Conte

Michelangelo complains a lot. He never has a cent and his patrons don’t pay him. He goes months without pay while he works like a dog, and eats like a dog, in the Sistine Chapel. His father asks him for a little help and Michelangelo writes back: “I don’t have any money. What I am sending you now I tore out of my heart and it doesn’t seem right to go begging.”
And so on all through his letters.

So the reader of Michelangelo’s life is puzzled when he learns that Michelangelo bought four farms and other property while he was complaining like that; and that he lent—that he had them to lend—thousands of ducats to his father and brothers. He even donated a thousand ducats to the city of Florence to help pay for its defense works. (How much was a ducat? For comparison: he was paid 400 of them for his colossal David statue, the work of 18 months or more). He got richer and richer; and when he was old he was a millionaire. Where did all that money come from?

One, he was paid well; two, he received untold amounts of goodwill cash and gifts from grateful popes and princes; and three, he lived like a monk and stashed every maravedi away.

It wasn’t really true what Vasari says, that Michelangelo earned all his money by the sweat of his brow. Rich patrons gave him presents. Pope Julius sent him 500 ducats once just to make up for clobbering him with his staff. Cardinal Ippolito de’ Medici on one occasion, “having heard that a beautiful Arab horse of his had taken Michelangelo’s fancy,…. sent it to him as a gift, along with ten mules laden with fodder with a groom to look after it.”

He worked hard but a lot of other sweaty brows didn’t see it pile up like that. And sometimes he accepted advances for jobs he never finished. The wall of the Council Hall in Florence, for example, or the twelve statues for the cathedral, of which he began only one, the St. Matthew. Did he afterwards square up with those who commissioned the projects? Not always. The main reason Ascanio Condivi wrote his biography of Michelangelo was to clear him of the accusation of misappropriation of the money Pope Julius and his heirs had advanced Michelangelo for his tomb. It was said as soon as Julius died, and it was repeated for years and years afterwards, that Michelangelo had used that money for himself, not to buy marble. Even the last contract between the parties stated that the sculptor had money in his possession, as well as finished work, which belonged to the Della Roveres (Pope Julius’ family).

See Michelangelo’s Money to learn what he did with it all.
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14 Responses to How Did Michelangelo Get So Rich?

  1. erikatakacs says:

    Yes, I heard before that Michelangelo had financial success and owned a lot of property. One of the few artists who became rich thanks to their talent. Sounds like he was quite spoiled by all kinds of dignitaries. I say good for him. I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s blog. I’ve always been fascinated by the person and his art.

  2. iondanu says:

    Yes, you catch very very well the contradictions of Michelangelo’s persona, I had the same impression when I’ve read his biographies (romain rolland’s and marcel brion’s) Curiously, I think both asertions were true: he was, sometimes, very poor (and he forced himself to live like a monk or a lot worse: bad food, overworked, bad sleeping habits etc) also because he was, practically, exploited by his family (father, brothers,etc.) and sometimes, very rich. It seems, as you said, he let a great fortune at his death…

  3. I love this quote so much:

    “I don’t have any money. What I am sending you now I tore out of my heart and it doesn’t seem right to go begging.”

    It struck me as hilarious– kind of like the martyr moms who are experts at making their kids feel guilty. “Okay, don’t call or visit me– I’ll just sit here and wither away until I die a slow, painful death. Tear my heart out, it’s okay.”

    Maybe I should drink more coffee before leaving comments.

  4. 100swallows says:

    Moonbeam and erika: I don’t want to be unfair to Michelangelo. As Danu says, he wasn’t always rich, nor did he have real financial security for years. Both Julius and Leo unexplicably cancelled projects that he had been working on for months. They kicked him around for years and made him suffer very much before “spoiling” him–Julius, for instance. Once his reputation was unassailable, the later popes–Clement and Paul– made him wealthy.
    Danu: I’ll write something about his relatives tomorrow.

  5. kimiam says:

    Perception is a tricky thing.

  6. 100swallows says:

    Too laconical, kimiam. I don’t know where you’re going.

  7. kimiam says:

    If Michelangelo considered himself poor, perceived himself underpaid, to him, he was. From my limited understanding, he worked in high places, commissioned by the wealthy.

    From the outside looking in is a different view. Comparison with others in meager circumstances adds a new perspective.

    One mans floor is another man’s ceiling. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure…etc.

    I guess it boils down to finding joy in the life you have.

  8. kimiam says:

    btw, I had to look laconical up in the dictionary. :P~

  9. 100swallows says:

    Kimiam–Sorry about that word, which, as you found out, I made too long. Laconic is an old word for Spartan. You remember that they were famous for their military training, austerity, and toughness. They were also famous for their wit—a very peculiar kind.

    Lycurgus, the man who gave them their laws and customs, wasn’t interested in manners as such, but, like everyone else in the ancient world, in wisdom—in bringing up wise men. He wondered about how to make everyone think a little. He hated babblers. He didn’t allow talk for talk’s sake. Spartan children were brought up without much chatter: everything they heard (ideally) was short and with a double—a wise—meaning.

    They were trained to think before they spoke and to speak, finally, with grace, with sense. The shorter the sentence, the better. Plutarch gives examples of Spartan wit. Once a Spartan king was watching a show with a sword-swallower. “That’s easily done here in Sparta,” laughed an Athenian who was in the audience. “Your swords are so short.”
    What was the pithy Spartan King’s reply? “We find them long enough to reach our enemy.” Bang!

    “Would you like to hear a man imitate a nightingale to perfection?” someone asked the king.
    “No,” he answered. “I have heard the nightingale itself.”

    Someone asked Lycurgus whether he thought the gods themselves liked Spartan austerity. “Why do you offer them such lean and measly sacrifices?”
    The answer, without a moment’s delay (though speed wasn’t essential, it gave a greater punch): “So that we will always have something to offer them.”

    “How many of you are there?” a visiting foreigner asked a Spartan boy. Did the lad frown and stutter and scratch his head and say the obvious: that he didn’t know exactly? Of course not. He replied: “Enough, Sir, to keep out wicked men.”

  10. kimiam says:

    I very much enjoyed the new word so please don’t shorten anything on my behalf.

    I am a fan of Michelangelo. He has a huge influence on my work.

    Now I will refrain from making jokes about 100swallowings of swords, of swallowing a sword to cut short the speech and other things of that nature that would be corny and make my post too lengthy.

  11. 100swallows says:

    That’s a good Spartan girl, kimiam.

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  14. john reano says:

    so he ate like a dog.

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