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Chapter

Sculpting vs. Painting (2)

Michelangelo felt completely confident in his ability as a sculptor. In fact, he suspected — no, he knew — that he was the best sculptor alive. Michelangelo had seen grown men kneel and weep in front of his Pietà. No one but Michelangelo had dared to carve the David in one piece, and he had not only done so but pulled it off masterfully. No one else could carve the tomb he was about to carve, which would be his most amazing work yet.

The Pieta Jesus by Michelangelo

The Pietà Jesus by Michelangelo

Still, thoughts of painting lingered. Painting had been, in a way, his first love, and he had never given it a fair chance. Each night when he woke up from his nightmare of Leonardo, he remembered something Ghirlandaio had said: To be good, you have to really understand the way the materials work.

He knew exactly what Ghirlandaio meant, because it came naturally to him with the stone. He clambered happily through the quarry selecting the right stone for Julius’s tomb, and when he found the right piece he always knew it. With his hands on the stone, he could envision the figure that was waiting within it.

It was the same way a painter like Leonardo operated with paint. It was what had made Michelangelo want to paint when he was a boy.

He remembered how he felt when he saw Giotto’s frescoes. The beauty of those faces on the wall brought tears to his eyes. With just one look he knew what each man was thinking and feeling, as if by magic. It wasn’t just the expressions on the faces he loved. Giotto’s frescoes were bright and beautiful, and the colors made him think of spring even in the dead of winter.

Whereas marble and its shadows were only shades of white and grey.

The Doni Tondo by Michelangelo

The Doni Tondo by Michelangelo

Michelangelo knew he was talented. He was sure that if he had stayed with fresco he would have been exceptional at that too. But he had given it up for Lorenzo’s sculpture garden, at 14, and then he’d panicked in the Great Hall because of Leonardo, at 30.

Who can say why a man decides what he does? Michelangelo didn’t regret any of his decisions. But he couldn’t help wondering how things would have turned out had he stayed with painting: whether he would have been the best at that too. Better than Leonardo.

He imagined Leonardo working away in the Great Hall with his oils. In another lifetime Michelangelo would have been there too, mucking around with fresco. Instead he was here, in Carrara. He loved these mountains and these people. He understood them.

It was around this time that Michelangelo came up with his next great idea. It would be something far greater in scale than a pope’s tomb or a fresco in the Great Hall.

It would be another sculpture, in the biggest block of marble there was: the side of one of Carrara’s mountains. Michelangelo would carve the greatest statue the world would ever see, a colossus, a man so large it would be visible by sailors on ships traveling the coast.

The white marble mountains above Carrara

The white marble mountains above Carrara

Michelangelo loved dreaming big. At the same time, he knew he needed to focus on the task at hand: the tomb.

When he was finished mining all the marble blocks he needed and had arranged for their transport, Michelangelo’s thoughts turned to Rome. It would be lonely there with Sangallo gone to Florence, the pope urging him to work faster and better, and Bramante’s scheming.

He decided to stop in Florence on the way to Rome. That way he could see his family and visit Sangallo and Granacci, before losing himself in the work of Julius’s tomb. While he was there, maybe he would stop in at the Great Hall and see what Leonardo was up to.

Next: Sculpting vs. Painting (3)

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