In Rome Michelangelo found himself a commission at last. His new employer provided lodging in surroundings that had become somewhat familiar: another palace.
This time he was employed by the richest cardinal in the city, Raffaele Riario, the nephew of Pope Sixtus IV. The cardinal was a great lover of ancient statues and architecture, and he gave the 21-year-old sculptor a commission to carve a six-foot marble statue of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine.
For a year of work the commission provided Michelangelo with 150 gold florins. This was roughly six times what his father made annually in the customs job arranged by Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Michelangelo was proud of his first major statue, but the cardinal was not so impressed. When he saw the finished statue, he must have decided that the staggering, drunk, nude Bacchus was not a good likeness, for he refused to make the final payment.
It was this payment Michelangelo was waiting for when he wrote home to his father, who had sent word that the family in Florence was in need of a large sum:
August 19, 1497
Dearest Father, Do not be surprised if occasionally I write you in anger; at times I am quite upset by things that happen to me while I am away from home. You must realize I too spend money and have my own troubles. In spite of all this, I shall send what you ask of me even if I should have to sell myself as a slave.
Michelangelo wasn’t in financial trouble for long. The Bacchus quickly became the talk of Rome, and a rich banker bought it.
Soon after, Michelangelo was offered a new commission from a dying French cardinal. It offered the chance for Michelangelo to make a real name for himself.
“I want a pietà,” explained Cardinal Jean de Bilheres. “As a monument for my grave. But I don’t want just any pietà. This should be the most beautiful statue Rome has ever seen. Are you good enough to do that?”
“Yes,” Michelangelo said firmly. Was there any other possible answer?
“What guarantee are you willing to offer?” said the cardinal.
“I will deliver exactly what you ask. If my pietà is not the most beautiful in Rome, then you will owe me nothing. You may write it into the contract.”
Michelangelo got to work. He had no intention of making his Pietà into a celebration of sorrow just as every other sculptor had done before him. No, he wanted his Blessed Mary to look young, not haggard — the way he remembered his own mother. And Mary would have a serene look on her face, Michelangelo decided, from knowing all that her son had accomplished in his life.
Michelangelo also made the face of Jesus, lying dead in his mother’s arms, different from other depictions of the same moment. There was no sign of pain or exhaustion. Why should there be? Jesus had delivered his message, faced his accusers, and accepted their punishment. He had not run away.
The Pietà was hailed throughout the city. Many said it was indeed the most beautiful statue ever Rome had ever seen, and suddenly everyone knew about Michelangelo. He had finally earned the fame and fortune he had promised his father.
News of Michelangelo’s Pietà quickly made its way back to Florence and to the city’s new head of government, the gonfaloniere of justice, Piero Soderini. Eager to make a name for himself, Soderini wanted to bring Michelangelo back home to carve a great statue for the city. He wanted only the best.
Soderini strategized about how to best lure the young sculptor back home. Finally he and his aide, a capable man by the name of Niccolo Machiavelli, came up with the perfect solution. They would offer Michelangelo the chance to compete for a commission they knew he wanted. His competition would be none other than the great Leonardo da Vinci.