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  • Writer's pictureAmy Burvall

Learning from the Artist Series II: Michelangelo

While brainstorming for an upcoming keynote on Creativity, I started thinking about the artists whose lives I have studied a bit (as a former World History teacher) and what we could learn from them – not particularly from their oeuvres, but from their creative process and the way they lived. At first I set out to make one comprehensive post, but then recoiled, thinking it would be too overwhelming. So, this will be a blog series of sorts, highlighting one artist per post. 


( March 6 1475 – February 18 1564 )


It’s a well known assumption that Michelangelo preferred sculpting to painting, and regarded the former as a superior art form. He is thought to have said:

“In my opinion painting should be considered excellent in proportion as it approaches the effect of relief, while relief should be considered bad in proportion as it approaches the effect of painting”.

But, like any Renaissance artist, he had to “work for the man” and did not always get to choose his medium or subject. Working within those constraints, he nonetheless produced some of the undeniably greatest works of human history, such as the Sistine Chapel ceiling. That didn’t mean it was all cakes and roses, as you can read in this heartfelt poem Michelangelo composed about his grueling experience.

He was also a “radical architect” – ahead of his time, brilliant, and a bit confusing. It is suggested that his irreverence for traditional Roman architecture enabled him to be more innovative.

“By challenging our expectations and defying the accepted sense of what architecture can do, Michelangelo started a debate about architecture’s proper role that is still going on today…Should it frame the art or be the art?”  

For Michelangelo, the arts were interconnected. For example:

“He who does not master the nude cannot understand the principles of architecture”

Even if he privileged sculpting, he dabbled in other creative pursuits and experimented with different mediums. His metaphorical palette was limitless, and he personified, like Da Vinci, the “Renaissance Man”.


Perhaps my favourite unsung hero of Michelangelo’s work is his poetry. He was the Morrissey of his day, I have to think. Much of it betrayed his homoerotic feelings, and unfortunately the pronouns were apparently altered when first published in 1623 by his family. Most verses have the melancholy I tend to seek out in poetry and literature, and I must say I was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon them as a teen.

You can get a taste of them here, but here is an excerpt from one of my favourites, “I Feel as Lit By Fire”

I feel as lit by fire a cold countenance That burns me from afar and keeps itself ice-chill; A strength I feel two shapely arms to fill Which without motion moves every balance. Unique spirit and my minds sole tendance, Who is undying yet others seeks to kill, I find one binds my heart, unbound his will, And for who gladdens only I feel grievance. How can it be, lord, that a face so lovely Should work on mine in contrary fashion, For who has no ill can hardly others harm? To the glad life that’s taken from me, It behaves, save you forbid it, like the sun, It heats the world and yet itself’s not warm.

The points?

1. Break out of your comfort zone and explore other ways of creating – you never know what you’ll be good at until you try.

2. Realize that sometimes you have to do work you aren’t particularly fond of, or think you aren’t good at, but who knows? – something unexpectedly brilliant might come out of it.

3. Don’t be pigeonholed into being “that guy/girl  that…” For a long time, people only recognized me for my YouTube work, but now I’ve moved on to public speaking and metaphorical sketchnotes.

My Takeaway: Diversify or Die



While called “Il Divino” (the “Divine One”) Michelangelo was to some extent humble about the notion of “genius”. Besides attributing inspiration to God, he seems to have believed in the power of hard work and persistence, poignantly lamenting:

“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.” 

“If you knew how much work went into it, you wouldn’t call it genius. ” 


“Genius is eternal patience. ” 

We have a tendency to idealize the great ones, without fully comprehending their struggles, or even the time it takes them to achieve their accomplishments. From our school days we are fed synthesized, watered-down, glossed-over versions of these historical figures and artistic icons which neglect (perhaps logically so)  to delve into the full picture of their human-ness.

Moreover, being a professionally creative person does not necessarily mean it’s a free-for-all where you get to indulge in every artistic whim. Just like the glamourized sports or music stars of today, it’s not all celebrity bacchanal…there’s a lot of pounding pavements, learning the ropes, battling critique, and refining one’s craft (or one’s persona) for a sometimes unforgiving public or employer.

There’s a great TED talk by Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert describing the shift in Western thought from “HAVING genius to BEING genius” (which, ironically happened #becausehumanism in the Renaissance), where the former, disembodied and temporal divine inspiration became replaced by notions of individual  “talent”, thereby putting a lot of performance pressure on the artist as a person. She comforts us by counseling:

“Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, for just one moment through your efforts, then “Olé!” And if not, do your dance anyhow”

I like this philosophy, because it’s both mystical and realist at the same time.  It’s about acknowledging it’s not always about you- that perhaps you are lucky, or blessed, or whatever you ascribe to, but that those qualities aren’t always reliable, and you have to often times be “the mule”, as Gilbert calls it.


Back to Michelangelo – as “Il Divino” he could have rested on his proverbial laurels, but didn’t. He admitted to having to work hard to perfect his craft and he put an emphasis on “lifelong learning”, as we now refer to it. One of his most well-known quotes is


My Takeaway: Perspiration Trumps Inspiration



One of my favourite stories about Michelangelo is that he attributed his affinity towards sculpting to his experience with his wet-nurse / nanny / foster-mother, who came from a family of stonemasons.

When I first started studying the Renaissance as a child, a quote attributed to Michelangelo struck me, and has enthralled me ever since:

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free”.


You can see the embodiment of this in his “Unfinished” (and I use quotes purposefully) Slaves series of stone figures – some of the most provoking sculpture in my opinion.

There’s a lot going on with his reflection – perhaps something quite metaphysical, yes, but I like the fact that he has what we now identify as “vision”. He sees beyond what is overtly present , and can imagine the future potential that is, perhaps, embedded within this blob of material (insert your own blob of material here, should it be a project or person).

Oscar Wilde had this same idea when he identified “dreamers” as ones who

“see the dawn before the rest of the world”. 

I like to think of myself as someone who can embrace the beyond, but it’s something we all need to work at – or maybe not. Perhaps recognizing potential in something has more to do with letting go (no, I will not hyperlink to a certain Disney song although I made you think about it, didn’t I?).

There’s a lot written on divergent thinking, and even games, like Disruptus, (a favourite in my classroom) can help hone those skills and develop our ability to innovate. I think giving students more opportunities to exercise visual and spatial thinking, such as with sketchnoting and maker culture could enable them to, as Apple once suggested,

“Think Different”.


Preconceptions, misconceptions, and assumptions limit our thinking and can even have a destructive, self-fulfilling prophesy effect. I want to push myself to see the untapped potential in my students – and in others in general – instead of assigning them to a box, a label, or (heaven forbid!) giving up on them.

One of the necessities of 21st century education is that it becomes more personalized and “differentiated”, but that is achievable only if we can virtually chip away at some marble. The problem is, marble is strong, and it’s been around for ages, and you need the proper tools (and mindset!) to get any results. Benjamin Zander references the-angel-in-the-marble in respect to education in his “How to Give and A” talk at about 4:14.

Michelangelo’s quote is like H.C. Andersen’s “Ugly Duckling” in a way. It’s about thinking of possibility, potential, and the positive. It could mean appreciating the mundane, or finding hope in the lost, or discovering a lesson in a failure.

My Takeaway: Beyond the Blob…to the Beautiful


One of the coolest of Michelangelo’s many claims-to-fame is that he was the first Western artist to have his biography published while still alive. One was published in 1553 by fellow painter Ascanio Condivi, which you can read thanks to Project Gutenberg. Some think Michelangelo commissioned it in response to Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550)..after all, he once quipped:

“Critique by Creating”

which is a bit like a quote I have in my classroom by LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy:

“The best way to complain is to make things” 

The preface of Condivi’s piece forewarns that his

“description of his master’s personal appearance is so detailed that we can see him with his sculptor’s callipers measuring the head of his dear master, and gazing earnestly into his eyes, recording the colours of their scintillations, with the patience of a painter”

Condivi claims that Michelangelo himself conferred with him throughout and most of the writings do reflect what he seemed to have gained from their personal working relationship. In pre-copyright splendour, Condivi also promises to share his research:

“hearing that others wish to reap the reward of my labours, which I had confided to their hands; so, if it should ever happen that another should undertake this work again, I hereby offer to tell him all I know, or most lovingly to give it to him in writing”

(on a side note regarding the fact that intellectual property is a modern construct, check out Swedish Pirate Party’s Falkvinge’s excellent series on the History of Copyright)

Giorgi Vasari highlighted his friend Michelangelo in Part III of his compilation of lives of contemporary artists  but my favourite is the section about his final years and personality. He gets to my point by stating that:

“the genius of Michelagnolo (sic) was recognized in his lifetime, and not, as happens to many, after death…”

So many people -forward thinking artists, especially – are not really appreciated until after their demise. We seem to take some sort of sick pleasure in glorifying the dead- particularly if the circumstances surrounding their death are untimely or scandalous in any way – and neglect honoring the living. That may sound funny coming from a History teacher, and someone who is writing a blog series about lessons we can learn from (long dead!) artists. Creative people, especially if they achieve celebrity, are disproportionately plagued by demons – usually in the form of substance abuse (the “27 club” anyone?). There has been much research linking addiction to creativity , and neuroscientists have suggested the classic “tortured artist” has biological roots .

But what if we turned our focus to the living? Vasari counted it “among the greatest blessings” to have “been born at the time when Michelangelo was alive”, work with him and know him as an intimate – so much so that he

“…contrived to write many things of him, and all true, which many others have not been able to do”


The lesson here is that we should be giving shout-outs to our “greats” – those friends, colleagues, peers, and students who influence us daily, and those artists, authors, journalists, and the like who inspire us profoundly. It’s fine if their fabulosity extends past their time on Earth, but I want to share the love now! Perhaps honouring them publicly (even if it’s just a RT on Twitter) will help them feel appreciated or even score them more opportunities.

My Takeaway: Don’t Wait to Appreciate




When asked why he never married, Michelangelo referred to his art as “his wife” and his works as “his children”. Nevertheless, we know from his poetry at least that although very private, he was an extremely passionate and conflicted man.

He was said to have been enamored with Cecchino dei Bracci, the 15-year-old nephew of one of his friends. He gushed:

“With his face God wished to correct nature”

and after Bracci passed at age 16, the artist composed almost 50 epigrams.

That kind of adoration can get you in trouble – (it certainly has in my life).

Model Gherardo Perini, (“He who stole myself from me and never turned back.” ), took advantage of the artist emotionally and perhaps financially. Another admired model, Febo di Poggio, Michelangelo dubbed “the little blackmailer” for obvious reasons.

For those of use who tend to wear our hearts on our sleeves, life can be at times torturous, and Michelangelo’s experiences remind us that no matter how “Divine” you are , you are not impervious to Cupid’s arrow, which stings as much as it electrifies. We serve ourselves best by taking off the rose-coloured glasses from time to time.


As always, I will leave you with one thought from the artist – this one a bit controversial:

“The greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.” 


#art #lifelonglearning #lifelessons #sketchnotes #creativity #ElizabethGilbert #TED #work #michelangelo #amplification #poetry #artists #divergentthinking #differentiation #perserverence #visualthinking

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