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Authors: Alexander Lee

Tags: #History, #Renaissance, #Social History, #Art

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It would have been by means of precisely these streets that Michelangelo would have arrived at the doors of the church of Santa Maria del Carmine. On his journey from the gardens of San Marco, he would have seen his native Florence both as a city aspiring to the ideal and as a city of inequality, division, unrest, violence, and privation. Stepping across the threshold and into the hallowed calm of the church, he perhaps had cause to reflect on the dual character of his world as he walked toward the Brancacci Chapel.

Inside the chapel, to the left of the altar, was
Masaccio’s fresco
Saint Peter Healing the Sick with His Shadow
. In this piece, the serenely statuesque figure of Saint Peter is shown walking peacefully down a typical city street in the company of Saint John and an old man with a beard and a blue cap. Despite the amazement of the two onlookers to his right, Saint Peter seems almost unaware that his saintly shadow is miraculously alleviating the ailments of the paralyzed Aeneas of Lydda and his older, crippled companion.

Despite its religious theme, the fresco is a portrait of Michelangelo’s Florence. Masaccio had striven to make the scene as naturalistic as possible and had attempted to bring the drama into the fifteenth-century city. Although clad in classical garb and modeled after a piece of antique statuary, Saint Peter is walking down a street lined by buildings that are recognizably contemporary. In the foreground, there is the rusticated
facade of a palace belonging to a rich gentleman, and farther down the unpaved road there are two or three much simpler buildings covered with stucco and with their ill-supported upper stories jutting out over the street. What’s more, there are not merely beggars but crippled beggars in the street. Even in Masaccio’s fresco, riches and poverty coexist. It is, in other words, a scene that Michelangelo would have recognized as having been painted from life.

It’s an idealized representation, just like the image of Florence given by
Coluccio Salutati and
Leonardo Bruni. As we have seen from Michelangelo’s trip through the city, no fifteenth-century Florentine street would have been so neatly arranged or so clean and well constructed. The two—very restrained—beggars aside, there is no hint of the disorder, bustle, and noise that filled the city’s roads and
, and the street vendors, shopkeepers, robbers, prostitutes, and animals that Michelangelo would have encountered en route are entirely absent from Masaccio’s scene. It was not so much a representation of reality per se as a representation of how Masaccio wanted reality to be. As such, the pictorial story of Saint Peter’s shadow tacitly—and perhaps ironically—testifies not only to the self-confident artistic utopianism of Renaissance Florence but also to the grim and often unpleasant character of the city that Masaccio and Michelangelo knew so well.



have been thoroughly acquainted with the hustle and bustle of city life in 1491, Michelangelo was as yet comparatively unconscious of the social, political, and economic forces that were influencing his life behind the scenes. An honored guest of Lorenzo de’ Medici, a friend of leading humanists, and a pupil of
Bertoldo di Giovanni, he would have had little reason to worry about money or to trouble about such distasteful subjects as politics and religion.

But all that was to change. On April 8, 1492, Lorenzo de’ Medici died. He was succeeded by his son Piero. An unstable and intemperate young man, Piero lacked his father’s political skill. As
Francesco Guicciardini put it, “
He was not only hated by his enemies, but also disliked by his friends, who found him almost intolerable: proud and bestial, preferring to be hated rather than loved, fierce, and cruel.” He rapidly alienated the majority of the political elite. Tensions rose, and on November 9, 1494, Piero was expelled from Florence. In his wake, the fiery Dominican friar
Girolamo Savonarola gradually asserted his control over the Republic.

Sensing the danger, Michelangelo fled Florence in mid-October 1493. Without a patron, without money, and without any clear plans, he traveled first to Bologna and then to
Rome, where he determined to make a go of things as best he could. Although he had some notable successes—especially the
—several of his projects misfired badly, and he experienced no end of troubles with materials and payment. He struggled.

By late 1500, Michelangelo’s situation was dire. On December 19, he received a heartfelt letter from his father, Lodovico. Lodovico was worried. His third son, Buonarroto, had just returned from visiting Michelangelo
in Rome, and what he had heard had given him cause for concern. “
Buonarroto tells me that you live with great thrift,” Lodovico
wrote, “or rather, in true misery.” He was, as Lodovico warned him, in danger of falling into poverty. Indeed, Buonarroto had reported that Michelangelo was already suffering from a painful swelling on his side, brought on by impecunity and overwork. Now that Savonarola was gone and the old Republic had been restored, Lodovico begged his son to return to Florence.
There, his fortunes might improve.

Michelangelo seldom took much heed of his father’s advice, but on this occasion he relented. Putting his affairs in order, and taking out a loan from
Jacopo Gallo to pay for the journey, he set out for Florence in the spring of 1501.

It was money that persuaded Michelangelo to return. He needed cash badly. From family and friends, he had learned that the
Opera del Duomo—the four-man committee responsible for managing the affairs of the cathedral—was looking for someone to take on a project that had been in the air for more than thirty-five years. Back in 1464, a huge block of marble had been bought with a view to having a statue carved for one of the cathedral buttresses. Two artists had previously been given the task, and both had failed. Now the
were keen to find someone new. Arriving back in Florence, dusty and dirty from his journey, Michelangelo had high hopes. Bankrolled by the
Arte della Lana—which controlled the Opera—it promised to be a lucrative project.

He was in luck. After briefly considering
Leonardo da Vinci, the
finally commissioned Michelangelo to carve the statue of
that would ultimately become one of his most famous works. Initially, the remuneration was modest.
When the committee granted the twenty-six-year-old Michelangelo the contract on August 16, 1501, it agreed to pay him 6 large gold florins each month for a fixed period of two years. Given the scale of the project, it was hardly generous.
The best weavers in Florence were then being paid up to 100 florins each year—in other words, more than 38 percent more than Michelangelo was getting. Given that he would have had overheads to cover, he would probably have been left quite tight for cash. By February 1502, however, the statue was already “half finished,” and the
were sufficiently impressed not only to up Michelangelo’s pay to 400 florins, but also to discuss, less than two years later,
transferring the completed work to a more suitable—and public—location. This would easily have put him on a par with a well-paid manager at one of the branches of the city’s major merchant banks. His financial position was now secure.

He never looked back: from this moment on, he stopped being a struggling sculptor who counted the coppers and became a man of means. More than that, he became a person to be reckoned with. With money behind him and with the
in his pocket, he could count on the support of some of Florence’s most powerful figures—including the
gonfaloniere di giustizia
(standard-bearer of justice; effectively the city’s chief executive),
Piero Soderini, and the businessmen
Jacopo Salviati,
Taddeo Taddei,
Bartolomeo Pitti, and
Agnolo Doni—and the backing of the city’s major institutions: the guilds, the priors, and the Church. In the years that followed, he would go from success to success. The pieces he subsequently undertook—including the unfinished (and now lost)
Battle of Cascina
and the
Doni Tondo
—would cement his fame and bring him offers of employment from both
Pope Julius II in Rome in 1505 and the
Ottoman sultan Bayezid II in Constantinople in 1506.

There is no doubt that the eight years between his flight from Florence in 1493 and his return in 1501 marked a critical period in Michelangelo’s development. Navigating the storms of poverty and uncertainty while still in the first flush of youth, he had transformed himself from an up-and-coming young trailblazer into an artist of international repute, as the
amply demonstrated even before its completion. Yet the course of Michelangelo’s life during this period had been determined not by his own interests and preferences but by the shifting currents of politics, business, and religion. Dominating contemporary Florentine life and providing the context for everyday existence, the interaction and influence of each of these streams of activity had not only induced him to return to Florence but also prompted his hasty flight in the first place. What was more, the
itself was a product—whether direct or indirect—of all three.

In this, Michelangelo was not untypical. Still tied to the will of
patrons, artists of all stripes were aware that their capacity to live, thrive, and survive in an unstable and unpredictable world depended on their ability to adapt to the changing demands of business, politics, and religion. Yet this is not to say that the role played by each of these spheres of activity in early-sixteenth-century urban life was as beautiful as the artworks to which they contributed. Indeed, quite the opposite. Just as the physical landscape of Florence revealed a hidden underside to the realities of the Renaissance, so the worlds of business, politics, and religion concealed an altogether uglier side to the art of the period.

If we look at the personalities and the backgrounds of three of the figures whose influence helped shape Michelangelo’s work,
Jacopo Salviati,
Piero Soderini, and Archbishop Rinaldo Orsini, the image of the world in which the
came to fruition is one of inequalities marked by vigorous exclusion, fierce rebellions, pitched battles, and tormented souls.

: E

Jacopo Salviati was one of Florence’s richest and most powerful men. A son-in-law of Lorenzo de’ Medici, he was a bastion of the government, a towering personality in communal affairs, and a mainspring in the machine of the Florentine economy. The owner of the magnificent Palazzo Gondi, he was a man upon whom countless hundreds depended for their livelihoods and whose favor artists courted.

It was perhaps inevitable that a man with such enormous financial reserves at his disposal should have been a character in the life of the
. Michelangelo quite simply needed men like him. An artist’s capacity to pursue his craft was reliant on his ability to make a decent living. This was not always easy. Although
Raphael is reported to have “
lived more like a prince than a painter” and
Luca della Robbia became rich in the service of Francis I of France, many often had difficulty in making ends meet.
Correggio was forced to become something of a miser in his old age, while
Andrea del Sarto had to content himself “with very little.” Indeed,
Piero Lorentino d’Angelo, a pupil of
Piero della Francesca’s, experienced a poverty that was almost Dickensian. On one occasion, his sons begged him to slaughter a pig for the carnival celebrations, as was traditional. Having not even two pennies to rub together, Lorentino could do little more than pray, and his poor children went without. Their tears were, however, saved when Lorentino agreed to paint a picture for an impecunious patron in return for the much-hoped-for pig.

Reliant on the wealth and willingness of patrons, Michelangelo—like all other Renaissance artists—was unwittingly tied to the fortunes of the Renaissance economy and, most of all, to the wealth of men like Salviati.

Salviati’s wealth had grown out of his involvement in merchant banking. He had entered the business at exactly the right time. As will be explained more fully in a later chapter, Florentine merchant banking
had originally emerged out of the massive explosion in trade that had occurred at the dawn of the fourteenth century as a means of facilitating commercial transactions across large distances.
Within decades, super-companies had been formed that not only used branches scattered across the continent to engage in speculation but also operated as full-scale banks. The profits that could be made were already staggering even at this formative stage in the sector’s development. As early as 1318, for example, the
Bardi had a working capital of 875,000 florins. That was more than the king of France had to run his entire country. By the end of the fifteenth century, the money Salviati was able to make from merchant banking was on a whole new level.

But while Salviati had made a fortune out of lending and exchanging money, what had really allowed him to join the ranks of Florence’s wealthiest men had been his willingness to invest so much of his cash in the city’s second, and most characteristic, industry—the cloth trade. Consistently generating profits far in excess of those earned by the merchant banks, the wool and
silk industry was the real engine of Florence’s prosperity, and it was emblematic of the sector’s immense importance that Michelangelo was commissioned to carve the
by a committee controlled by the
Arte della Lana.

Salviati had chosen his investment well.
Although the Salviati family’s interests have been poorly studied, it is evident that their entry into the
cloth industry (particularly the trade in silk)—which appears to date at least to the lifetime of Jacopo’s pioneering kinsman,
Alamanno di Iacopo (d. 1456)—was even better timed then their role in merchant banking. In the beginning, Florence’s role in the cloth trade was limited simply to working up ready-made cloth that was imported from elsewhere in Europe. Before long, however, the city’s merchants realized there was more money to be made from importing the very best wools from Spain and England and producing their
high-quality cloth for sale on the international market. Buoyed by capital investment from the new merchant banks and aided by the gradual decline of the
cloth industry in Flanders, Florence weathered the shocks of the mid-fourteenth century to achieve a dominant position in European trade by ca. 1370.

BOOK: The Ugly Renaissance
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