In a small second-floor home on Via Bentaccordi in Florence, Lodovico and Francesca Buonarroti worried about their four sons. A paralyzing fear was gripping the city, for the latest outbreak of the plague had already killed hundreds. The young parents were particularly concerned for their second son, Michelangelo, who had always been sickly.
It was Michelangelo’s fifth birthday, and his parents decided to take him the few blocks to Santa Croce to receive a blessing for his health. It was a beautiful day in early March when the promise of spring and rebirth floated on the warm air, overpowering the threat of sickness and mortality.
Michelangelo had never been to Santa Croce. He had spent most of his early years on the family farm outside the city in Settignano. When he saw the inside of the church, full of Donatello’s marble statues and Giotto’s frescoes, his world came to life in a new way.
Michelangelo’s mother was the first to see the astonished look on his face when he saw the frescoes in the Bardi Chapel. He pointed at the faces of the priests and smiled. He moved close to the paintings, peering in fascination. When it was time to go home he resisted, not ready to leave those faces behind.
Francesca came from a family that appreciated fine art, and she liked to see Michelangelo responding to the paintings at such a young age. She used his interest to settle him down when his behavior at home got too wild. Michelangelo could be hyperactive, and to calm him she would give him a piece of chalk and tell him to draw.
She was astonished by what she saw. Her son drew many of Giotto’s scenes from memory, filling some paper and small sections of a wall with good likenesses of the same expressive faces. Michelangelo was gifted, a natural born artist.
Francesca took him to see other paintings in Santa Croce by Gaddi, Cimabue, and Orcagna. He drew them all, wanting to please her — and he did. Francesca thought maybe someday he would become a painter too, and she might see his frescoes adorning the walls of Santa Croce.
It wasn’t such a far-fetched hope. There was never a better time or place to become a great painter than in Florence in the early 1480s. Painters everywhere were busy creating great works all over the city. Domenico Ghirlandaio and Sandro Botticelli were competing head-to-head in a battle of frescoes on the walls of Ognissanti. Cosimo Rosselli was putting the finishing touches on his Madonna and Child. And Leonardo da Vinci was the talk of the town, with his drawings of the Adoration of the Magi.
Someday Michelangelo might be as great as they were, Francesca thought.
Unfortunately for them both, she would not live to see it. She would not even live to see her gifted son’s next birthday.
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