Well, Aren’t You Just Like Michelangelo!

“I live and love in God’s peculiar light.”


When my son, the Heir Apparent, was a youngster he asked me who I liked best: Donatello, Raphael, Michelangelo or Leonardo?  What a clever boy! (Indeed, I wondered how to casually let slip to the other moms what a genius my son was.) Yet a small niggling thought made me hesitate. I couldn’t recall sharing a single story, children’s book, or television program about these particular artists with Andrew. So I asked the precocious tyke where he learned about these giants of art. In the way that only our children can humble us, he sighed deeply, rolled his eyes and said, “Mom, they’re not artists, they’re Ninja Turtles!”

Well, there went my bragging rights on the playground.

I often retell that story and from time to time, I wonder how to answer the “who do you like best” question. All these years later I still answer “Michelangelo”.


Jacopo del Conte's Portrait of Michelangelo
Jacopo del Conte’s Portrait of Michelangelo:

I think it’s because I relate to Michelangelo Buonarroti in ways that I can’t with the other big guys. Based on what I’ve read about Michelangelo, he had shortcomings that were beyond my understanding. By most accounts, his personal habits were slovenly enough to cause comment (and this was at a time when everyone’s hygiene, was shall we say, a wee bit on the stanky side.) He was antisocial, paranoid and had such a quick temper that one of his nicknames was Il Terrible. (His other well earned moniker was Il Divino.) He was a complicated individual living in a complex, volatile society. Still, here are five reasons how most of us artists, not just me, can relate to Michelangelo:

  1. Family

We hold family dear but let’s be honest, sometimes when you are trying to accomplish something artistic, doesn’t their wants and needs get on your nerves a tiny bit? Although he never married, Michelangelo understood trying to balance work and family obligations. After receiving a letter from his father asking once again for assistance, Michelangelo complained that he didn’t have the time to take away from work to deal with family issues. Inspite of his annoyance, Michelangelo continued to lend considerable help when needed, just like we find ourselves doing.

2. Dealing with the Boss 

Adam_na_restauratieWe’ve all had to navigate the expectations of a boss or client. Imagine dealing with the demands of a Pope, at a time when Papal authority was absolute, literally, “do or die”, and then multiply that by nine! Yep, from 1505 on, Michelangelo worked under nine consecutive popes. One, Julius II, had the temperament and ambitions that matched the artist, earning Julius a similar nickname, Il Papa Terrible. One can only image that their encounters were like the Clash of the Titans! Think about that the next time you are asked to modify a piece, or change direction on a job. After all, it is likely no one recently told you knock off the tomb idea and go slap some paint on a chapel ceiling.

3. Find Success Where Others See Failure

Michelangelo's_DavidOkay, who hasn’t been told at least once that an idea or process won’t work; admit it, you bowed to the naysayers. Imagine if Michelangelo had listened when everyone said that a certain piece of Carrara marble was too flawed to carve. In fact, two other sculptors had tried, both abandoning the marble due to imperfections and leaving it exposed for over 25 years to the elements. Michelangelo saw the possibilities in the stone, and with a firm belief in his own skills, he undertook the commission from Opera del Duomo, and produced one of the world’s most recognizable sculptures, the much beloved David.

If Michelangelo could turn an unusable block of marble into something magnificent can’t you and I find success when we are confronted by small challenges in our artistic practice? Darn right, we can! Now hand me a chisel!

4. A Bad Beginning Doesn’t Mean a Bad End

We all have moments that we are less than proud of, particularly if we had an impetuous youth or fell under the influence of someone who had something other than our best interest at heart. Did you know Michelangelo began his career as a forger, carving and then passing off a sleeping cupid as an ancient Roman sculpture? Some suggest that Lorenzo de Medici was behind the scam in selling the work to Cardinal Riario, and that Michelangelo was equally duped, while others believe Michelangelo was complicit in the arrangement. Either way, the fraud was uncovered; but like a really good fairy tale, Cardinal Riario ended up being so impressed by Michelangelo’s talents that the rest, as they say, is history.

No way am I suggesting that committing a misdemeanor is the way to jump start a career, but learning from past mistakes seems a worthy lesson. Speaking of learning, this takes us to one of Michelangelo’s most endearing virtues:


5. Keep Learning Until the End

Michelangelo,_pietà_rondanini,_1552-1564,_05It’s unlikely that “Ancora Imparo”,  a quote attributed to the 83 year old Michelangelo, was actually ever uttered by him. He may not have said the words, “I am still learning”,  but he lived them. He considered himself a sculptor but he learned to master painting. At age 74 he was called upon to supervise the ongoing work at St. Peter’s Basilica, a project he continued to work on for the next 14 years, right up to his death at age 88. Two days before he died, he was still working on his final piece, the Rondanini Pietà. If the great Michelangelo could keep learning, who are we to assume that all we need to know, we know?

So now’s is your turn. Donatello, Raphael, Michelangelo or Leonardo? Turtles or artists, you decide!

Note: all Michelangelo images from commons.wikimedia.org

This Week in the Studio 

IMG_2099 2Took a break from studio work to tie up the flotsam and jetsam of the winter semester and prep for summer teaching. But not all was work, as we managed a couple of days away for some R and R. Of course, every adventure has to include art! Here is a photo from a visit to the Grand Rapids Art Museum’s exhibit on Maurice Sendak’s classic masterpiece, Where the Wild Things Are, because inside every artist is a little bit of a wild thing!




  1. I am sharing/forwarding the above to my family and some of my friends. What a productive day I had in my studio, just because my family stayed the distance and let me take over and expand the space and time I needed to work. A grey cloudy threat of rain day growing cooler was all creative sunshine indoors in the studio.

    • martinemacdonald says:

      Thanks Richard! See, I was right about you and Michelangelo! I am glad you are able to continue growing your creative voice stronger.

  2. Julia Kovach says:

    Love this, Martine! After a particularly trying day, you’ve once again amused, educated, and delighted me! Your words flow easily and take us quite willingly to wherever you lead! Thank you for another wonderful post! Xojulia

    • martinemacdonald says:

      Hi Julia! That’s a much nicer comment than Michelangelo would say! As always, I offer my thanks for taking the time to read and to respond. XO

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