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In Tornabuoni Chapel

Granacci suspected Ghirlandaio might lose his new apprentice to impatience if Michelangelo didn’t get a chance to paint fresco soon.

“Come to the chapel early tomorrow morning,” Granacci said to Michelangelo one evening. “Don’t be late. I want to show you something before anyone else shows up.”

Granacci arrived at Tornabuoni Chapel before dawn and laid the intonaco, the final layer of plaster, for a small portion of a scene where he was to paint three men standing against a wall under a tree. By the time Michelangelo arrived, Granacci had already pounced the outline of the two men onto the wet plaster, using coal dust.

Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio

Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio

“Watch me,” Granacci said, as Michelangelo took a seat. Granacci painted the man on the left, starting at the top. When he finished, he glanced around to make sure no else was in the chapel. “Now you paint the other one.”

Michelangelo took the brush and stared at it for a moment, envisioning how he would do it. Then he started painting the back of the man’s head. He applied too much paint and it began to run down the wall.

“Don’t worry about that,” Granacci said. “We’ll fix it. It’s happening because you put on too much paint. Too much and it sits on the surface and runs. Too little and the colors will be inconsistent. You have to use just the right amount.”

Michelangelo took his time, wanting to do a good job. Granacci grew increasingly nervous. Ghirlandaio could arrive any moment, and if they were discovered Granacci could be fired on the spot for breaking the rules. To let a novice work on the fresco was to risk very costly errors.

Michelangelo stood back, surveying his work. His figure was not as good as Granacci’s.

“You’ll get better with time,” Granacci said.

“Let me just try the legs,” Michelangelo said, returning to the wall.

As he began to paint the reddish brown legs, the rear door of the church slammed. Ghirlandaio barked out orders as he walked down the center of the nave.

Granacci didn’t have time to take the brush out of Michelangelo’s hands before Ghirlandaio saw them.

Domenico Ghirlandaio Selt-portrait

Domenico Ghirlandaio Selt-portrait

“What have we here?” Ghirlandaio walked over. He did not look amused.

“Master, forgive me,” Granacci said quickly. “I thought it would help Michelangelo understand patience if he could see how precise the application of the paint needs to be.”

Ghirlandaio studied the pair. His most skilled apprentice, nurturing this boy with extraordinary talent. Ghirlandaio suspected the combination would either lead to great things, or result in spectacular failure — for which he, Ghirlandaio, might have to pay the price.

“You know the rules, Francesco. Why should this first-year be treated any differently than anyone else in the workshop?”

“Please, I can do better than this,” Michelangelo said to Ghirlandaio. “I just want you to teach me how to paint!”

“Young man, you need to understand that I am teaching you,” Ghirlandaio said sternly. “It’s going to take you years to learn.”

“I can’t wait that long,” moaned Michelangelo.

“I assure you, if you rush this you will never be any good. One of the things you need to learn is that there are no shortcuts if you want to be a good painter. Shortcuts bring disaster. Don’t forget that.”

Next: San Marco Sculpture Garden


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