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Torture of a First-Year Apprentice

For the first six months of his apprenticeship Michelangelo worked under Giorgio Riccio, learning how to make plaster and paint. It wasn’t easy.

A place in Ghirlandaio’s workshop would have been hard no matter what, but Riccio worked Michelangelo especially hard. Riccio hated teaching the first-year apprentices about materials. Also, Riccio was suspicious of this scrawny new kid, the golden boy who everyone was saying might be as good as Ghirlandaio himself.

The worst part for Michelangelo was making plaster. The brew of quicklime and water generated heat and sent up nasty plumes that stung his eyes. Then he had to stir the lumpy mix until it became a smooth paste. His arms and shoulders ached constantly from the churning.

When he wasn’t slaking lime, he made pigments for paint by grinding rocks and metals between a granite roller and a flat stone. The stone dust coated his sweaty forearms and filled his nostrils. Every night Michelangelo came home covered in lime and pigments, his eyes watery and red, and his hands swollen and blistered.

The only break Michelangelo got from making plaster was when he was told to lug heavy buckets of plaster into Santa Maria Novella. On those occasions he got to see his friend Francesco Granacci.

Santa Maria Novella

Santa Maria Novella

“I hate this,” Michelangelo said to Granacci early one morning.

“Everybody does, but you have to do it,” replied Granacci. “That’s how it works.”

They took a break in the Green Cloister, leaning against an old fifty-foot cypress tree, tossing crumbs to the chirping starlings. From where they sat in the middle of the cloister they could see all of Uccello’s Genesis scenes on the east wall, from the Creation of the World to the Drunkenness of Noah.

Green Cloister of Santa Maria Novella

Green Cloister of Santa Maria Novella

When their crumbs were gone Michelangelo walked over to look at the most famous fresco, of Noah’s Flood. Granacci followed him.

“I love this scene,” said Michelangelo. “I’m not sure why.”

The Flood by Paolo Uccello

The Flood by Paolo Uccello

“Do you see what he did?” asked Granacci. “He forces us to see down the middle of the scene by way he positions the two arcs. From where we stand we can look back in space and time at the fury of the storm in the distance. What an incredible effect.”

“Someday I want to paint something this good,” said Michelangelo. “But I’m so tired at the end of the day I don’t even feel like drawing anymore.” He turned to his friend. “Working here isn’t what I thought it would be, Francesco.”

“You need to learn everything there is to know about the materials. If you don’t, you’ll fail at fresco.”

“How long does that take?”

“To learn the materials, at least another six months.”

“Six more months! Do you have any idea what an ass Riccio is?”

“There’s no way around it. You have to work with the materials over the course of a whole year because of the way they change with the weather. Otherwise you won’t know enough.”

“I’m so tired of being someone else’s slave.” Michelangelo sighed.

“Welcome to the life of an apprentice.”

Next: Michelangelo’s Four Brothers


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