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SOURCE: Notes in the History of Art, 33, 1 (2013

)
© Norman E. Land

MICHELANGELOAND THE STONECUTTERS
NormanE. Land

As a sculptorand an architect,Michelangelo
(1475-1564)used stone;and becausehe
used stone,he often employedscarpellini
(stonecarvers
or stonecutters)
such as, for
Piero
Basso,
Bartolommeo
di Chiexample,
menti, and GiovanniNanni della Grassa,to
all of whom he refersin his letters.rUnsurprisingly,in his Lives of the Artists, in both
the first edition of 1550and the secondedition of 1568,GiorgioVasari(1511-1574)
tells storiesaboutMichelangeloandvarious
The sameis true of the sculptor
stonecutters.
(1525-1514)in his Life of
Condivi
Ascanio
Buonarrori,
first publishedin
Michelangelo
in
Vasari
Rome 1553.
and Condivi are not
the only sixteenth-century
authorsto recount
Michelangelo
tales about
and stonecutters.
Florentine writer and publisher Anton
Francesco
Doni ( 15I 3-1574)tellstwo such
tales,one of which has beenlargely overlooked.
Accordingto Condivi, stonecuttersshaped
Michelangelo'spersonalityeven in his infancy.After his father,Lodovico, had served
aspodestdof the village of Caprese,where
his son was born, he returnedto Florenceto
live on a family farm at Settignano,a village
not far from the city. Soon,Lodovico found
a wet nursefor his son,a woman whosefather and husbandwere stonecutters.
Either
seriously or in jest, Michelangelolater
claimedthatbecauseof his nurse,his delight
in the chisel seemedinevitable.He became
a sculptorbecausethe natureof his nurse's
milk chansedthe innate"heat"of his infant

body and divertedhim from his naturalinclination.Although Condivi is not clear on
the point, Michelangeloseemsto have believed that he had been destinedfor a life
appropriateto his noble origins,but his wet
nurse's relationshipto stonesand stonecutterssomehowinfluencedher milk. which
Suchan opinchangedhim into a sculptor.2
ion would have been in keeping with
Lodovico'sinterestin his son'splacein life.
Accordingto Condivi,Michelangelo'ssocial
statuswas of greatconcernto his father.
Impressedby the young artist'sability in
imitatingthe marbleheadof a faun,Condivi
continues, Lorenzo "il Magnifico" de'
Medici (1449-1492) wantsthe boy to live
in the Medici palaceand work in his sculpture garden.Accordingly, he asks to see
Michelangelo'sfather, who does not want
his son to become a stonecutter("scarpellino"), evenafterhis son'sfriend andfellow artistFrancescoGranacci(1469-1543)
explainsto him the significantdifferences
betweena sculptorand a stonecutter.Nevertheless,in his conversationwith Lorenzo
de' Medici, Lodovico grantspermissionfor
Michelangeloto live in the Medici household and to study in the sculpturegarden
under the supervisionof the aging pupil of
Donatello,Bertoldo di Giovanni (c. 1420I49I). Lodovico also explainsthat he has
"neverpracticedanyarte," implying that he
had never used his hands to earn a living.
The situationis ironical.The politicallypowerful, wealthv,and culturedLorenzoadmires

he and they use the samekinds of tools-"chisels and hammef"-tO CarveStOne. they are not equally talented.Michelangeloaskshim: "What do you think of it?" "I think it's fine.Michelangelo. "level there:polish here.6 obeys By thehandthat In Vasari'sstory.Vasari says that the farm near Settignanowas full of stonesand attracted andartists." "Why?" asksMichelangelo. In the first andsecondeditionsof theLives.As the stonecuttetgazesin amazement at the finishedpiece.As he is finishing the tomb of PopeJulius II in San Pietro in Vincoli.the supremeartist."Cut away here. one that Condivi ignores. Michelangelo.On the other hand.manyof whom were stonecutters born in the area. instructsthe stonecutterin how to discover the figurein his stone. Michelangelo."aIf Vasariis to be believed.known for uncoveringthe figure within a marbleblock. I've discovered a talentI neverknew I had.thanksto you." saysthe man.even as I also suckedin with my nurse'smilk the chisels and hammer with which I makemy figures. "Because.now a maturesculptor."s There is ambiguityhere.a turnernamedCerrota." and the stonecutteris the "hand."and I'm muchobligedto you.felt a kind of Michelfundamentalbondwith stonecutters.The story might gently mock the stonecutterfor believing that he is more than a stonecutter-that Michelangelohas brought forth his innate talent for sculpture-when in fact he has merelyfollowed the artist'sinstructions.t7 talentedsculptorsand treatsMichelangelo asif he werea son. In either case. "Giorgio.3 In the secondedition of the Lives. asksan unidentifiedstonecutterto make a terminalfigure for it and instructshim in how to proceed.Doni has one of the interlocutors.The extentto which the story reflectshistoricalrealityis impossibleto determine. theintellect.a mere stonecutter."he says."Soonthe man has carveda figure without reahzingwhat he has done."The stonecutterobeysMichelangelo'sintellect makes ratherthan his own but nevertheless a worthy figure.Michelangelois the "intellect.the story is related to Michelangelo'sbelief that the sculptor'staskis to removebits of stonefrom a block in order to discoverthe figure inside. if I have anything of the good in my brain.Vasari repeatsCondivi's accountof Michelangelo and his wet nursebut with somesignificant differences.T In his I Marmi (Venice: 1552). are both manuallaangeloand stonecutters borers.we may assumeeither that he silently lifted it from the first edition of Vasarl'sLives or that the story originatedand circulatedindependentlyof both authors.Vasari also explainsthat later in his life Michelangelomodestlyremarkedin jest. as workers in stone.hefamouslysays: Not eventhebestof artistshasanyconception Thata singlemarbleblockdoesnotcontain andthatis only attained Withinits excess.but the terminalfigureson the tomb .Michelangelo'simpecunious but noble father is concernedabout his reputationand doesnot want his son to becomean artisan. repeatalmostverbatimVasari'stale of the stonecutterwho assistedMichelangelo in completingthe tomb of JuliusII. it has come from my beingborn in the pure air of your country of Arezzo.In a sonnetwritten around1538-1544.the stonecutterbelievesthat Michelangelohas revealedthe sculptor in him to him. Because Doni doesnot cite his source. Vasari tells anothervery different kind of story aboutMichelangeloand a stonecutter.Even though. in spiteof his noble ancestry.

As fate would have it.marveled "that such uncouth men. ridiculous figure of Jupiter.and havingcut a sectionout of the shoulder.Had he respondeddifferently to Michelangelo'scriticism of his figure. He also carved a pair of buskinsfor his figure. And.He worked for many years in the quarries of Carrara. was nude. In the secondedition of his Lives. and he has carved a single. Doni relates a novella" (short story) that is similar in structure to Vasari's story about Topolino. or the "Little Mouse. having heard about the work and that it was madeby a youth.the topsof which covered the seam in the marble made by Topolino'saddition. calledMichelangeloto seeit. Vasari also tells a tale about another stonecutter and friend namedDomenicoFancelli(born 1465) and called Topolino." Vasari observes that although Topolino. with a certain modesty Michelangelo said to him that one addedbadly to marble.dazzledand stupefied. an old stonecutter from Fiesole-a man who in his entire life had made one small marble figure a half a braccio high-in his old agesaw a miracle. There. he might have ruined it. This time the stonecutter is an old man who has a high opinion of his own talent. 1544.Vasarisays. When Michelangelosaw Topolino's sculptures. when pressedby necessity. or dummy lfantoccio]. believed himself to be a capableartist. which made the proportions correct. This miracle was the one Michelangelo Buonarroti made with great perfection in his youth.Among the marbleblockshe dispatchedto his friend. cutting marble that he would send to Michelangelo. so much so that if it will not be bothersome.cutting the figure below the knees." He departed.I will bring it hereto showyou. went to Florenceto seeit."ETopolino's simplicity.who was a simplefellow. and that he'd rather not passjudgment. Then he said: "I have made a small figure that I know will not displease you. Once.find solutionswhich capablemen cannot. Michelangelo seemsto suggest. but becausehe lthe stonecutterlhad asked.he would laugh out loud. In a published letter from Padua dated February IJ. sincehe had madeit with one shoulder smaller than the other.he would give his opinionto him: with that shoulderthe figure was maimed.is the sourceof his success. that Giant [that is. Michelangelo brings out the best in Topolino.When Topolinoshowed his correctedfigure to Michelangelo. the David] standingin the prazzain Florence. he "was in truth very feeble" as a sculptor. Whereuponthe stonecutter said to him: "I will do somethingto it. [at least] in so far as this figure."Undaunted.he went to find him [Michelangelo]to tell him that his work was admirableand took much joy in doing so. Michelangelo.The good man.l8 of Julius II seem crudely executedwhen comparedto Michelangelo'spowerful figuresbelow. he brought a Jupite4 a thing baptized in his [Jupiter's]style. added a new length of marble.he addeda largerpieceof marble." And returning [to Florence] another day. . to the poet Bernardino *mezza Daniello da Lucca.Topolinosaidthat he would put his sculptureright and.Topolinoattemptedto carvea figure of Mercury and.when it was almostfinished. who found Topolino'ssimplicity ridiculous. the sculptorlaughedand. Topolino would sometimesincludeseveralcarvedfiguresof his own making. told his friend that he was "a madmanto try to make figures" and pointed out that the "dwarfish and misshapenMercury was a third of a braccio short betweenthe knees andthe feet.

asyou see."Certainly. Each stonecutterrepresentsan ancientgod. (Stanfbrd:StanfbrdUniversityPress.is structurallysimilar to the latter.1963).p. no.ed. "I will do somethingto it.in his attempts to respondto Michelangelo'scriticisms.the old man saidin departing. 2." And returningto his house.I.. 46.Imaginehow beautifula sighta nude figure wearing boots could be. n o . That man. my father. havingcarefullyexamined his figure. ed. When Michelangelosaw the figure. and he [Michelangelo]said to him: "I must warn you. Doni's novella may be pure fiction. trans. He is just the oppositeof the stonecutterin the tale told by both Vasariand Doni.t9 andwith much diligencecompletedthe task.reflectMichelangelo's involvementwith stonecutters andhis affinity with them. however.and he madea pair of boots on the legs worked with grace. TheLfe of Michel-Angelo. p. addingpiecesof marbleto his sculpture. he began to laughand saidto the old stonecutter:"Now.And he carried the figure to Florenceagain to show. H. my father.Alice SedewickWohl . and trans.Doni's tale. 87. no.he ruinshis figure.like the otherspresentedhere. His figure. Hellmut Wohl. again following Michelangelo'sinstructions.respectively. In any case. alsosimilar to the tale of the stonecutter whom Michelangeloguides in the carving of a figure. you have indeed 'done something': you have madea pair of boots for a figure that was nude and now has 'something'. that in carving the figure you must take care not to go in too much [thatis. the correctedwork was pleasing. or it may be a historically accuraterepresentation of an event in Michelangelo'slife.unlike the others. which appearedin print abouta quarterof a century before Vasari published his account of Topolino. working the figure with grace so that the [new pieceofl marblehardly seemedadded.the tale.he took away so much that he cut the legsof his little figure into two piecesof drilled marble." The stonecuttersoonreturnedanothertime. 92 (Bartolommeodi C h i m e n t i ) . becauseyou hardly could add marblethere [in the legs] as [you havel to the shoulder."e Part of the humor of this tale lies in the transformationof the figure of Jupiter that is appropriatelynude into one that wears boots.And.but there was somethingelse to address. A third possibility is that the story is a mixture of fact and fiction. The Letters of Michelangelo.2 vols.createsa worthy figure and in so doing believeshe discoversa talenthe never knew he had. do not take awaytoo much marble].p . my father. 43 (PieroBasso).Both storiesare.is not ridiculous and even appears on one of Michelangelo'smajor works.Each alters the appearanceof his figure after Michelangelocriticizesit. and he had made the figure's legs so thin that it could hardly standon its feet.I haverepairedit. "This.in turn. Returningto Michelangelohe said: "My son. you can hardly remedy. believing that he had a Colossusor a Laocodn." said Michelangelo.Perhapsmost significantly. Ramsden. 1 1 4 ( G i o v a n n iN a n n i d e l l a Grassa)."doessomething". which were somewhat large. See Michelangelo Buonarroti.Znd ed. NOTES l. Mercury and Jupiter. AscanioCondivi. The inept old stonecutter. 1 0 4 .the legs.E.

p. 1999). Novelle.1544). 2 (Fall 2OO9):54. p.pp.who kindly correctedthe first drafi of my translation.1996).pp.I .pp . MichelangeloBuonarroti. 2 vols. .302. I am grateful to Carol Lazzaro-Weiss. William E. 4. 5. II. 6.( F l o r e n c e1: 8 6 3 ) .Sculptors. sonnet152: "by taking away. p. I Marni. Gastondu C. sonnetl-51.. p.20 (UniversityPark:Pennsylvania StateUniversityPress.[ . JamesM. Saslow (New Haven: Yale UniversityPress.. ed.pp. de Vere. 3.Live.letterCI. trans. Giorgio Vasari. no. GiuseppePetraglione (Bergamo:lstitutoItalianod'Arti Grafiche. 7 46. 643.notices the discrepancybetweenMichelangelo'snoble birth and his lowly profession. .srf the Painters.trans. Lettere (Venice:GirolamoScotto.. 6-7.74-75. Vasari. 745-146."Michelangelo's Wet Nurse. pp. Anton FrancescoDoni. PietroFanf a n i .II. 2 v o l s . I haveused the text in id. ed. 8. . 9. Original text in Anton FrancescoDoni.See also Paul Barolsky. (NewYork: Knopf.r. 10 -13. 17-18.Seealso ibid.1907)."Arion 17. Con divi. Ibid. Wallace. and Architecl. ThePoetryof Michelangelo. ] one puts / into hard and alpine stone/ a figure that'salive / and that grows larger whereverthe stonedecreases tl 7.II. 1992).l99l).305. Giotto's Father and the Farnily of Vasari's "Lives" (UniversityPark:Pennsylvania StateUniversityPress. 1 2 9 . p .

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