Michelangelo’s shelter – [V2.4]

Michelangelo the man is tactile, mundane, relevant. Michelangelo the god is just an idea.

It is said that the David was carved from a shoddy piece of marble. The 25,000 pound chunk was oddly shaped and considered poorly chosen, and may have even cracked when it fell into a muddy ditch on its 80-mile journey from Carrara. When it got to Florence, it must have seemed dead on arrival, because the sculptor who chose it was fired, the project was scrapped, and the block was left lying on its side in the city for thirty years – uncarved, unattended, and exposed.

Until its redeemer arrived. When Michelangelo began his work, he hid himself and the marble block in a roofless wooden shelter. He labored for months in private before revealing the man he had found in the marble.

I’m no Michelangelo. Still, I want my work to be good. I want it to be beautiful. And while I’ve done and made some things I’m proud of, all of it pales next to what I’m hoping for. And so I find myself thinking of Michelangelo in his wood shelter. Twenty six years old, alone with his tools and the stone. The sounds of the city barely muffled, the open sky above his head, in limbo between the public and the private world. 

Did he feel confident? Excited? Afraid? And why work behind a curtain of wood, hidden from the rest of society? This is Michelangelo we’re talking about – the striding genius of the Renaissance, whose name is etched in history, literally carved in shining marble, for all time. The David was his followup to the Pietà. Surely he had little to be ashamed of!

I, of course, have plenty to be ashamed of. I, of course, feel entitled to hide my work. I’ve wrought no Pietà; my greatest works often strike me as dim and uninspired.

As anyone who tries to create things will know, the love of beauty can be an incredibly frustrating thing. The sweetest vision becomes a curse; the greatest love goes sour; the line of poetry becomes an ode to its creator’s mediocrity. The beauty you envision becomes a mirror in which you see only your own ugliness. It’s love entwined with suffering; indeed, in the words of Gaiman’s Morpheus: “What power would Hell have if those here imprisoned were not able to dream of Heaven?” [1]

But let us leave that tortured ecstasy behind. Let us come back to earth. There’s self-indulgence in this tale of unworkable mediocrity; self-servingness in the insistence on Michelangelo’s divinity and unreachable perfection.

However godly his work, Michelangelo was not a god; he was a man. Every Great Work was carved by mortals. We ought to recall how Socrates chastised his fellows at the Symposium: in offering praise, we should speak the truth about the thing we’re praising. [2]

And the truth is this: We don’t start off good at much. We start off 8 pounds and drooling. Posit what you want about genetics or inborn talent, some of our lamest excuses for not working until our fingers bleed. Neither Caesar nor Shakespeare sprang from the womb fully formed. 

In some ways this mundanity makes the Greats all the more titanic. The ideal, the divine, is safely out of reach, up in the clouds; the real is painstaking, shaped with callused and blistered hands. Michelangelo the man is tactile, mundane, relevant. Michelangelo the god is just an idea.

I’m not a scholar of Michelangelo, but I’d guess his story goes something like this: before he lifted beauty from the stone, he produced a lot of crap. He had insecurities. He fucked up. And at least before his skills and taste were fully formed, he probably hated his flaws even more than I hate my own. But he conquered that; he kept going. He saddled and tamed that tendency towards ugliness. And one day, Michelangelo woke up, and before sleep found him again, he was visited by the vision of the David

The creator grasps at beauty, but he labors in ugliness. On Earth, the land of the mundane. There’s no getting around this, only patiently trying to conquer it, until beauty finally comes naturally. 

The wooden shelter was always meant to be temporary. Don’t let it become your coffin! [3]


[1] Gaiman, Neil. The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes. Vertigo, 2010.

[2] “It was then I realised what a fool I had been in agreeing with you to take my turn and deliver a eulogy of Love, and in saying I was an expert on the subject of love, despite, as it turned out, knowing nothing about how to compose a eulogy of anything. For in my naivety I thought I had only to speak the truth about the subject of the eulogy.” (Symposium, 198c-d)

[3] For more on Michelangelo and the David, I recommend this incredible article, from which I learned about the wooden shelter [link] [mirror].

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