How Michelangelo taught me all I need to know about creative life and business
Okay I’m being hyperbolic, but seriously Michelangelo taught me a lot.
My dad’s parents were Southern Italians I’m lucky enough to be back in the mother country yet again as I write. I’ve backpacked Italy as a 19 year old, lived and taught English here as a 20 something single and right now am travelling here with my family. Somehow in all my time in Italy, between restoration closures, tight time frames and crazy cues, it has never conspired for me to visit the Sistine Chapel and finally I have now ticked it off the list. It fricken blew my mind and packed a series of mighty fine lessons in creative living and business.
1. Don’t be afraid of Expanding Your Boundaries (even if it isn’t to prevent wars)
Michelangelo was a famous sculptor of his time, a wealthy artist, renown for his anatomically bold nude statues. When pope Julius the 2nd requested Mikey paint the ceiling of the Sistine chapel he first refused, basically ’cause it wasn’t his thing. Julius however was a mad war mongering bastard and threatened to go to war with Michelangelo’s hometown of Florence unless he agreed. Michelangelo agreed and in the process massively challenged his creative edges, bringing to life one of the most famous works of art.
2. Don’t be afraid to stay true to your niche
He may have been forced out of his sculptural comfort zone but Michelangelo stayed true to the kind of work that was his calling card. Namely detailed nudity and masculine naked bodies. Over time churchly folk protested, but Michelangelo stuck to his guns. Certain parts of his work were painted over later down the track at the behest of more prudish religious men to include clothing, but Michelangelo dug his heels in to preserve the integrity of his niche.
3. Age is Irrelevant
Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the roof of the Sistine chapel at the age of 40. And while rumours that he painted lying down on his back have been disproved, the process sure did include years, 5 of them, of neck craning, back bending and being on his feet. I personally nestled in on a bench between a couple of old nonnas after only 10 minutes staring at the famed ceiling to preserve my own neck from aching. At 65 he was brought back to the chapel and painted The Last Judgment, wrapping up when he was 70 years old. He died aged 89, which is kind of like the equivalent of 200 years old these days (err, no scientific basis to back this up, but you get what I mean), so it pays some stead to creativity and productivity keeping you young.
4. Don’t be Afraid Share Your Wisdom
The young whipper snapper Raphael at 23 got the job of painting the room adjacent to the Sistine chapel whilst old Mike was cracking on. Raphael really wanted to be mates with the legendary artist who he admired massively. Mike on the other hand was not interested, at best seeing him as a competitor at worst a wee young pipsqueak of no value to offer. Raphael still looked up to the guy and paid homage to him in the piece he was working on, but imagine the outcome of this mentorship had it got off the ground.
5. Creative Theft isn’t just a Postmodern Problem and Is it a problem?
Unfortunately for the closed off Michelangelo, Raphael had the presumptuousness and recklessness of youth on his side and snuck in to cop a look at the work in progress. He then took what he saw and gave it a go for himself, copying the style of nude painting. It was a style all of it’s own in spite of being inspired by Michelangelo’s work. Being cagey didn’t help Michelangelo protect his work from imitation or emulation as is the reality for all creators putting work into the world. Whether he liked it or not he became a part of an evolution of nude form painting.
6. Learn From Younger People
The young upstart Raphael was way ahead of his time and was outsourcing his grunt work in like some kind of High Renaissance Fiverr.
Raph worked with a team and got shit done really fast. Mike, with a more open minded approach to his young neighbor, could have kicked back and downed a few vinos while minions got to work instead of straining his own neck. Michelangelo’s self portrait as the skinned Saint Bartholomew suggested he’d prefer to be skinned alive than paint in that infernal chapel again. Maybe if he’d grabbed a knock off brew or two with Raph instead, he would have had a less brutal experience and got the work done in half the time.
7. Make Sure You Have Solid Contracts in Place (artists have been getting screwed and screwing themselves for yonks.)
Possibly distracted by the threat of war, Michelangelo failed to sort out a proper contract for his initial work on the chapel ceiling. War was averted but he was only ever paid for materials. 24 years later when he was commissioned to paint The Last Judgment he asked for up front payment. You know what they say, when you lose don’t lose the lesson.
8. Learn and Adapt as You Go
Michelangelo wasn’t afraid to review his work, analayse strengths and weaknesses and change up his approach accordingly. The first panels he knocked out were way too detailed to see from the ground and so he began to simplify the scenes he was painting. Not only did this make the process move quicker, it also made the work more impactful. Win, win. God I love good review session.
9.Use Your Creative Platform to Challenge the Status Quo and stick it to the man (if that’s your thing)
Wingey and prudish old Vatican’s Master of Ceremonies, Biagio de Cesena wasn’t at all keen on all these nude dudes and kicked up quite a fuss insisting on covering up all their rude bits as it was more tavern art than religious. Michelangelo keen to spell out how ignorant he thought the guy was about art, gave him his place in hell as Judge Minos replete with donkey ears and snake biting his private parts. Biagio, demanded that the depiction be amended but cheeky Pope Clement VII said he was a heaven kind of guy with no power over what goes down in hell and let the proverbial middle finger remain. Stick it to ‘em Mike.