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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

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talentedsculptorsand treatsMichelangelo
asif he werea son.Michelangelo'simpecunious but noble father is concernedabout
his reputationand doesnot want his son to
becomean artisan,a mere stonecutter.3
In the secondedition of the Lives,Vasari
repeatsCondivi's accountof Michelangelo
and his wet nursebut with somesignificant
differences.Vasari says that the farm near
Settignanowas full of stonesand attracted
andartists,manyof whom were
stonecutters
born in the area.Vasari also explainsthat
later in his life Michelangelomodestlyremarkedin jest, "Giorgio, if I have anything
of the good in my brain, it has come from
my beingborn in the pure air of your country
of Arezzo,even as I also suckedin with my
nurse'smilk the chisels and hammer with
which I makemy figures."aIf Vasariis to be
believed,Michelangelo,the supremeartist,
in spiteof his noble ancestry,felt a kind of
Michelfundamentalbondwith stonecutters.
are both manuallaangeloand stonecutters
borers.Even though, as workers in stone,
they are not equally talented,he and they
use the samekinds of tools-"chisels and
hammef"-tO CarveStOne.
In the first andsecondeditionsof theLives,
Vasari tells anothervery different kind of
story aboutMichelangeloand a stonecutter,
one that Condivi ignores.As he is finishing
the tomb of PopeJulius II in San Pietro in
Vincoli, Michelangelo,now a maturesculptor, asksan unidentifiedstonecutterto make
a terminalfigure for it and instructshim in
how to proceed."Cut away here,"he says,
"level there:polish here."Soonthe man has
carveda figure without reahzingwhat he has
done.As the stonecuttetgazesin amazement
at the finishedpiece,Michelangeloaskshim:
"What do you think of it?"
"I think it's fine," saysthe man,"and I'm
muchobligedto you."

"Why?" asksMichelangelo.
"Because,thanksto you, I've discovered
a talentI neverknew I had."s
There is ambiguityhere.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.On
the other hand,the stonecutterbelievesthat
Michelangelohas revealedthe sculptor in
him to him.
In either case,the story is related to Michelangelo'sbelief that the sculptor'staskis
to removebits of stonefrom a block in order
to discoverthe figure inside.In a sonnetwritten around1538-1544,hefamouslysays:
Not eventhebestof artistshasanyconception
Thata singlemarbleblockdoesnotcontain
andthatis only attained
Withinits excess,
theintellect.6
obeys
By thehandthat
In Vasari'sstory,Michelangelois the "intellect," and the stonecutteris the "hand."The
stonecutterobeysMichelangelo'sintellect
makes
ratherthan his own but nevertheless
a worthy figure. Michelangelo,known for
uncoveringthe figure within a marbleblock,
instructsthe stonecutterin how to discover
the figurein his stone.T
In his I Marmi (Venice: 1552),Doni has
one of the interlocutors,a turnernamedCerrota, repeatalmostverbatimVasari'stale of
the stonecutterwho assistedMichelangelo
in completingthe tomb of JuliusII. Because
Doni doesnot cite his source,we may assumeeither that he silently lifted it from the
first edition of Vasarl'sLives or that the story
originatedand circulatedindependentlyof
both authors.The extentto which the story
reflectshistoricalrealityis impossibleto determine,but the terminalfigureson the tomb

l8
of Julius II seem crudely executedwhen
comparedto Michelangelo'spowerful figuresbelow.
In the secondedition of his Lives, Vasari
also tells a tale about another stonecutter
and friend namedDomenicoFancelli(born
1465) and called Topolino, or the "Little
Mouse." Vasari observes that although
Topolino,who was a simplefellow, believed
himself to be a capableartist, he "was in
truth very feeble" as a sculptor.He worked
for many years in the quarries of Carrara,
cutting marble that he would send to
Michelangelo.Among the marbleblockshe
dispatchedto his friend, Topolino would
sometimesincludeseveralcarvedfiguresof
his own making. When Michelangelosaw
Topolino's sculptures,he would laugh out
loud.
Once,Topolinoattemptedto carvea figure
of Mercury and,when it was almostfinished,
calledMichelangeloto seeit. Michelangelo,
who found Topolino'ssimplicity ridiculous,
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."Undaunted,Topolinosaidthat
he would put his sculptureright and,cutting
the figure below the knees, added a new
length of marble, which made the proportions correct. He also carved a pair of
buskinsfor his figure,the topsof which covered the seam in the marble made by
Topolino'saddition.When Topolinoshowed
his correctedfigure to Michelangelo, the
sculptorlaughedand,Vasarisays,marveled
"that such uncouth men, when pressedby
necessity,find solutionswhich capablemen
cannot."ETopolino's simplicity, Michelangelo seemsto suggest,is the sourceof his
success.Had he respondeddifferently to
Michelangelo'scriticism of his figure, he

might have ruined it. Michelangelo brings


out the best in Topolino.
In a published letter from Padua dated
February IJ, 1544, to the poet Bernardino
*mezza
Daniello da Lucca, Doni relates a
novella" (short story) that is similar in structure to Vasari's story about Topolino. This
time the stonecutter is an old man who has
a high opinion of his own talent, and he has
carved a single, ridiculous figure of Jupiter.
As fate would have it. 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.
This miracle was the one Michelangelo
Buonarroti made with great perfection in
his youth, that Giant [that is, the David]
standingin the prazzain Florence.The good
man, having heard about the work and that
it was madeby a youth, went to Florenceto
seeit. There,dazzledand stupefied,he went
to find him [Michelangelo]to tell him that
his work was admirableand took much joy
in doing so. Then he said: "I have made a
small figure that I know will not displease
you, so much so that if it will not be bothersome,I will bring it hereto showyou." And
returning [to Florence] another day, he
brought a Jupite4 a thing baptized in his
[Jupiter's]style, [at least] in so far as this
figure, or dummy lfantoccio], was nude.
And, sincehe had madeit with one shoulder
smaller than the other, with a certain modesty Michelangelo said to him that one
addedbadly to marble, and that he'd rather
not passjudgment; but becausehe lthe
stonecutterlhad asked,he would give his
opinionto him: with that shoulderthe figure
was maimed. Whereuponthe stonecutter
said to him: "I will do somethingto it." He
departed,and havingcut a sectionout of the
shoulder,he addeda largerpieceof marble,

t9
andwith much diligencecompletedthe task,
working the figure with grace so that the
[new pieceofl marblehardly seemedadded.
Returningto Michelangelohe said: "My
son,I haverepairedit, asyou see."Certainly,
the correctedwork was pleasing,but there
was somethingelse to address,the legs,
which were somewhat large, and he
[Michelangelo]said to him: "I must warn
you, my father, that in carving the figure
you must take care not to go in too much
[thatis, do not take awaytoo much marble],
becauseyou hardly could add marblethere
[in the legs] as [you havel to the shoulder."
The stonecuttersoonreturnedanothertime.
and he had made the figure's legs so thin
that it could hardly standon its feet. "This,
my father, you can hardly remedy," said
Michelangelo.And, havingcarefullyexamined his figure,the old man saidin departing,
"I will do somethingto it." And returningto
his house,he took away so much that he cut
the legsof his little figure into two piecesof
drilled marble,and he madea pair of boots
on the legs worked with grace.And he carried the figure to Florenceagain to show,
believing that he had a Colossusor a Laocodn.Imaginehow beautifula sighta nude
figure wearing boots could be. When
Michelangelosaw the figure, he began to
laughand saidto the old stonecutter:"Now,
my father, you have indeed 'done something': you have madea pair of boots for a
figure that was nude and now has 'something'."e

Part of the humor of this tale lies in the


transformationof the figure of Jupiter that
is appropriatelynude into one that wears
boots. The inept old stonecutter,in his attempts to respondto Michelangelo'scriticisms,"doessomething";he ruinshis figure.
He is just the oppositeof the stonecutterin
the tale told by both Vasariand Doni. That
man, again following Michelangelo'sinstructions,createsa worthy figure and in so
doing believeshe discoversa talenthe never
knew he had.
Doni's novella may be pure fiction, or it
may be a historically accuraterepresentation
of an event in Michelangelo'slife. A third
possibility is that the story is a mixture of
fact and fiction. In any case,the tale, which
appearedin print abouta quarterof a century
before Vasari published his account of
Topolino,is structurallysimilar to the latter.
Each stonecutterrepresentsan ancientgod,
Mercury and Jupiter,respectively.Each alters the appearanceof his figure after
Michelangelocriticizesit, addingpiecesof
marbleto his sculpture.Both storiesare,in
turn, alsosimilar to the tale of the stonecutter
whom Michelangeloguides in the carving
of a figure. His figure, however,unlike the
others,is not ridiculous and even appears
on one of Michelangelo'smajor works.Perhapsmost significantly,Doni's tale,like the
otherspresentedhere,reflectMichelangelo's
involvementwith stonecutters
andhis affinity with them.

NOTES
l. See Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Letters of
Michelangelo,ed. and trans.E. H. Ramsden,2 vols.
(Stanfbrd:StanfbrdUniversityPress,1963),I, p. 46,
no. 43 (PieroBasso);p. 87, no. 92 (Bartolommeodi

C h i m e n t i ) ;p . 1 0 4 , n o . 1 1 4 ( G i o v a n n iN a n n i d e l l a
Grassa).
2. AscanioCondivi, TheLfe of Michel-Angelo,Znd
ed., ed. Hellmut Wohl, trans.Alice SedewickWohl

20
(UniversityPark:Pennsylvania
StateUniversityPress,
1999),pp. 6-7. William E. Wallace,"Michelangelo's
Wet Nurse,"Arion 17, no. 2 (Fall 2OO9):54,notices
the discrepancybetweenMichelangelo'snoble birth
and his lowly profession.See also Paul Barolsky,
Giotto's Father and the Farnily of Vasari's "Lives"
(UniversityPark:Pennsylvania
StateUniversityPress,
1992),pp.74-75.
3. Con divi.pp . 10 -13.
4. Giorgio Vasari,Live.srf the Painters,Sculptors,
and Architecl.r,trans. Gastondu C. de Vere. 2 vols.
(NewYork: Knopf,1996).II, p. 643.
5. Ibid., II, p. 7 46.
6. MichelangeloBuonarroti, ThePoetryof Michelangelo, trans. JamesM. Saslow (New Haven: Yale

UniversityPress,l99l), p.302. sonnetl-51.Seealso


ibid., p.305, sonnet152: "by taking away,[ . . . ] one
puts / into hard and alpine stone/ a figure that'salive
/ and that grows larger whereverthe stonedecreases

tl

7. Anton FrancescoDoni. I Marni. ed. PietroFanf a n i , 2 v o l s .( F l o r e n c e1: 8 6 3 ) ,I , p . 1 2 9 .


8. Vasari,II, pp. 745-146.
9. Original text in Anton FrancescoDoni, Lettere
(Venice:GirolamoScotto,1544),letterCI. I haveused
the text in id., Novelle, ed. GiuseppePetraglione
(Bergamo:lstitutoItalianod'Arti Grafiche.1907),pp.
17-18. I am grateful to Carol Lazzaro-Weiss,who
kindly correctedthe first drafi of my translation.

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