Michelangelo from the Inside

 In which I claim Michelangelo was aiight.

Michelangelo was on top of the game during his lifetime, and his legacy seems to speak for itself. But how much of his success can we attribute to his unique skill as an artist? There are certainly other drivers – like leverage of high visibility commissions, and the explosion of the art world itself during the Renaissance. Instead of vaguely throwing our hands up and saying “yes, those matter, but you can’t deny he was talented”, I’d like to actually address the relative weights of these factors. This ties back to a larger conversation on the nature of innovation.

One of my larger goals is to address what innovation looks like from the inside. Michelangelo’s portfolio looks incredible to someone 500 years removed. The statue of David, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel ceiling? They’re all beautiful and famous, not to mention cornerstones of achievement across sculpting, architecture, and fresco. And he didn’t even like painting. At this point, most people end their analysis. It’s self-evident! Michelangelo must have been remarkably talented in order to have built such a portfolio.

I’m not so sure. For starters, look at what else was happening in his time. At least two other artists from the same setting who built comparable legacies: Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael Sanzio da Urbino. To complete the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle gang, Donatello was making history only a generation earlier. These artists – and other notables like Giambologna and Titian – are the people I would consider Michelangelo’s peers, and therefore his competitors. They saw it the same way. These artists, and many more remarkable artists, are relevant because in order to understand Michelangelo’s merits we must view them in the context of other artists at the time.

Central Italy was the Wall Street of medieval Europe. The Medici dominated the financial capital Florence, and these bankers in particular routed an unprecedented flow of capital into art education and projects – grand cathedrals, sculptures, and paintings. (There’s a larger point here on the unappreciated benefits of modern financial institutions). Are you surprised that so many influential artists came out of this setting? Those individuals lived at the right point on the S-curve of their fields. It’s easy to produce novel improvements when you’re among the first people in a group to do something. These artists were among the first since the Classical period (hence ‘Rennaisance’) to be backed by this much capital, and they had the advantage of significant technological advancements. Don’t sleep on the printing press.

This setting should temper how we view the relation between Michelangelo’s skill and his legacy. It would be anomalous for an artist now to achieve Michelangelo’s level of influence – but that’s because the fields of marble sculpture, painting, and architecture are saturated. We’re too far along on those S-curves. It’s not because no one approaches Michelangelo’s level of skill – actually, I bet there have been a ton of marble sculptors since Michelangelo that surpass his merits. I’ll go so far as to say that maybe there were some of those artists during his lifetime as well. So why is Michelangelo the go-to artistic genius? Why didn’t every artist in Florence get to that level?

Michelangelo was perhaps more artistically skilled than his contemporaries, but he was certainly better leveraged. Take a look at the political leverage one of his most influential (and note: one of his earliest) works: the statue of David. David stood in the center of Florence, in Palazzo Vecchio, as a symbol of the essence of the city.

Because of the nature of the hero it represented, the statue soon came to symbolize the defense of civil liberties embodied in the Republic of Florence, an independent city-state threatened on all sides by more powerful rival states and by the hegemony of the Medici family. The eyes of David, with a warning glare, were turned towards Rome. – Wikipedia

David is certainly well sculpted, but the placement of the statue was a bigger win for Michelangelo than any of its artistic merits. The amount of social capital this placement earned him should not be underestimated.A smart man – which Michelangelo certainly was – could leverage this attention for more valuable commissions without necessarily demonstrating a meaningful level of skill over his competitors  which he certainly did. Being rich makes it easier to get richer, being famous makes it easier to get more famous, and having clients makes it easier to acquire clients. I’m not making the assertion that Michelangelo was less skilled than his competitors. I am denying a relation between outlying artistic skill and outlying fame. I’m saying that the order of magnitude difference between Michelangelo’s legacy and the legacy of an average Florentine artist should not be attributed to an order of magnitude difference in skill, if there was even a skill difference at all. Skill grows linearly. Legacy does not scale with skill – it scales with social capital, which grows exponentially.

None of this precludes Michelango being in another league than other artists. It does set the bar for supporting that claim very high – even higher than it already was. And before establishing Michelangelo was an especially remarkable artist, you need to at least examine works of his contemporaries. In painting, Leonardo da Vinci has The Last Supper, The Mona Lisa, and Adoration of the Magi. Raphael has the School of Athens. In sculpture Donatello (although a generation earlier) has Judith and Holofernes. Bandinelli has Hercules and Cacus and Giambologna has The Rape of the Sabines. If you want to validate the claim that many make – that Michelangelo is one of the greatest artists of all time – it’s not enough to show he was skilled, or even a little better than his peers. You have to show he was significantly more skilled, without relying on the fact that he gained a significant amount of influence on the art world.


Which of these came from divine talent, and which from mere mortals?

This is a judgement call on your part. A priori it’s objectively harder to take the position that Michelangelo was extraordinary, because extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I’m not an expert in art criticism, but I could not find any distinguishing features of David that made it obviously more skillfully sculpted than the other sculptures on display in Florence. I could be convinced that it was the best sculpture there, but I would be surprised to hear an argument that marks it far above Giambologna’s The Rape of the Sabine Women, for example. The same goes for Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement compared to da Vinci’s The Last Supper or Veronese’s The Wedding at Cana. The Sistine Chapel ceiling, Pieta, the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica…they are beautiful and awe-inspiring. So are most of the other works done by skilled artists of the period. The point is that it is clear that Michelangelo was definitely good, but its not clear that he was incredibly good when you look at what everyone else was able to do at the time. There’s not enough evidence that an average competitor in his time and place couldn’t have attained a similar legacy.

2 thoughts on “Michelangelo from the Inside”

  1. I love when prevailing wisdom is questioned but I’m not sure I’m convinced by your argument. How many artists do you think matched his skill at the time? Any of those in the list you linked? I want you to quantify your position because the number of potential candidates is limited. Apparently the population of Florence at the time was somewhere around 50000 (correct me if I’m wrong). Michelangelo could have very well been the best artist in the city. Isn’t the intelligent positioning of David an important aspect of its merit and a reflection of his artistic skill? It was his intelligence, his prolific output, the consistently exceptional quality of his works and the versatility he displayed with different media that brought him his reputation. Who could’ve competed with him across all those dimensions? I don’t think the comparison of individual works is going to yield valuable insight. And on the point of his legacy eclipsing the legacies of his peers–it’s human nature to idolize the very best. You may only run the 100 meters .1% faster than anyone else, but does that mean you should only be .1% more famous? That final increment is the most statistically improbable increment and therefore the most fascinating. Did his legacy bloom as a result of modest but significant superiority in skill or was it luck and social capital? I think there is a lot of evidence to suggest the former.

    1. To name artists that “matched his skill”, I would address Michelangelo as a painter and a sculptor separately. As a painter I think you can make a case for Leonardo da Vinci (here’s one such case: http://nassifblog.blogspot.ae/2012/08/leonardo-da-vinci-was-original.html). I have a less strong case for sculpture but I offer Giambologna: Fountain of Neptune, Hercules and Nessa, Rape of the Sabine women – a Medici favorite although he is a generation later than Michelangelo. However, whether or not he was the best artist in the city is besides my point – I offer these competitors not as sure bests but rather as examples of people in the same league as Michelangelo, for whom arguments can be made.

      You raise a good point on the case of Michelangelo about skill across a range of disciplines – but I still do want to emphasize that this wasn’t unique at the time (“Renaissance Man”). He did particularly excel at more than one, which can arguably place him at the top of a reasonable framing of total ranking on artistic talent.

      Even given Michelangelo was the greatest artist in Florence on this ranking, my dissection of his success still stands. I don’t rely on Michelangelo *not* being first, I rely on his skill being at best, as you said in the sprinting example, some fraction of a percent above the competition.

      I think the second half of your comment raises a more interesting point: “And on the point of his legacy eclipsing the legacies of his peers–it’s human nature to idolize the very best. You may only run the 100 meters .1% faster than anyone else, but does that mean you should only be .1% more famous?”. I wanted to include this idolizing aspect of human nature as some observation of a cognitive fallacy that encourages base rate bias, but didn’t get around to articulating it clearly.

      I do think the orders of magnitude difference between skill improvement and fame improvement is deserved in some moral sense. I’m personally okay with Michelangelo having this powerful legacy. My motivation behind writing this post is not that this difference is in some way *unfair* – rather, I want to make exactly the point that you just made – a fractional improvement of skill can be very, very significant. I’ve seen the inference go 10x more famous -> 10x more skilled, which discourages those people (or companies) who are actually only 0.1% away from competing with the 10x more famous entity.

      And finally, “Did his legacy bloom as a result of modest but significant superiority in skill or was it luck and social capital? I think there is a lot of evidence to suggest the former.” You’ve given a false dichotomy. I would be fine accepting arguments for “a modest but significant superiority in skill and social capital” in the case of Michelangelo. However, the part that’s going to be debatable is the skill part. The crucial point is that the “significant superiority in skill” can’t be inferred from his legacy, these are weakly correlated.

      I’d also like to point you to a summary of some experimental evidence for this *type* of phenomena in music: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/15/magazine/15wwlnidealab.t.html?_r=1 . I abstractly discuss interchangeability in this article and its parent on incremental innovation, but this makes it concrete. The experiment set up different communities of music consumers, gave them the same songs from the same artists and tracked which songs and artists gained attention and recognition in the communities. They talk about how some musicians are evidently objectively better across communities, but the amount of attention they receive in each community largely varies depending on the pattern of social capital accumulation. In this experiment you can see how the inference pattern of 10x legacy -> modest skill improvement fails. There seems to be a set of musicians capable of achieving that prestige, but its a roll of the dice for which ones actually do.

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