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).