Born to a family of minor nobility in Florence, Italy in 1475, Michelangelo Buonarroti became one of the world’s most famous artists. However, his path to artistic greatness was not smooth. His father sent him to study with an eminent Humanist, but Michelangelo copied the paintings on the walls of the church instead. At 13, he became an apprentice of painter Domenico Ghirlandiao. Unusual for the time, Ghirlandiao paid the Buonarroti family for the apprenticeship not the other way around. This had to be due to the burgeoning talent of young Michelangelo. When Lorenzo de’ Medici requested two of Ghirlandiao’s most promising students, Michelangelo was sent to study at the Humanist Academy the de’ Medici palace.
Lorenzo de’ Medici was the head of the powerful banking family, who more or less controlled Florence. Known as Il Magnifico, Lorenzo was a great patron of the arts and brought Michelangelo into a circle of scholars, poets and artists all heavily influenced by the Greco-Roman rediscoveries being made.
Michelangelo made a strong impression on Lorenzo, and he loved to tell the story. The account is retold in The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici, by Christopher Hibbert:
“It was while making a copy of one of these antiquities – the head of an old faun – that Michelangelo is said to have first come to Lorenzo’s notice. Although this was the first, Michelangelo succeeded in copying the faun so well that Lorenzo was amazed. Then, when he saw that Michelangelo had departed a little from the model and followed his own fancy in hollowing out a mouth for the faun and giving it a tongue and all its teeth, Lorenzo laughed and said, ‘But don’t you know old people never have all their teeth; there are always some missing.’
“As soon as Lorenzo had gone away, Michelangelo broke off one of the faun’s teeth and dug into the gum so that it looked as if the tooth had fallen out; and he waited anxiously for Lorenzo to come back. After he had seen the result of Michelangelo’s simplicity and skill, Lorenzo laughed at the incident more than once and used to tell it to his friends. He resolved that he would help and favour the young Michelangelo; and first he sent for his father, Lodovico, and asked whether he could have the boy, adding that he wanted to keep him as one of his own sons.
Lodovico willingly agreed, and then Lorenzo arranged to have Michelangelo given a room of his own at the Palazzo Medici and looked after him as one of the Medici household.”
This began a strong patronage of Michelangelo by the Medici. Only two pieces survive from Michelangelo’s four years in the Medici palace- the Battle of the Centaurs and the Madonna of the Steps.
After Lorenzo’s death in 1492, Michelangelo left the Medici Palace and returned to his father’s house. He left Florence altogether after the Medici were expelled from Florence in 1494. He traveled to Venice and then Bologna. There he worked briefly with Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, Il Magnifico’s cousin, which brought him to the attention of patrons in Rome.
When his old schoolmate, Giovanni de’ Medici, Il Magnifico’s son, became Pope Leo X, Michelangelo was once again in the employ of the Medici. He was commissioned to finish the facade of the Medici tomb and the construction of the Medici Chapel. Due to construction issues and disagreements with his patron, both remain unfinished. The next de’ Medici Pope, Clement VII, commissioned Michelangelo to designing a building to house the Medici Library. Although he worked on it, the library was not completed until after Michelangelo’s lifetime.
Michelangelo’s life and work was only half complete, with arguably his most famous work ahead of him. However, he would not have gotten his start without an observant patron noticing a fawn.