The path to greatness is seldom smooth or straight. Indeed, excellence is a hard won standard. When I think of greatness and excellence in art, Michelangelo is certainly one of the names that fairly quickly comes to my mind. But art was not Michelangelo’s most predictable career, it was his most passionate calling.
On March 6, 1475 Michelangelo was born Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni in Caprese in Tuscany, Italy. For generations the men in his family had been bankers, his father was a banker, and everyone expected that Michelangelo would carry on the family tradition, and that he too would make the honorable and respectful choice – that he would become a banker. Banking was in his blood after all. But life is not always predictable. Life is often not predictable.
In 1481, when Michelangelo was 6 his mother became very ill, and died. This was more than his father could bear, and that year Michelangelo was sent to the country to live with a stonecutter and his family. Michelangelo was fascinated with the work of the stone cutter. He was entranced with the man’s ability to step up to the side of a mountain and elicit from it blocks of stone which the man then transformed into shapes and figures. Michelangelo would watch the stonecutter for hours, noticing how he held and used the tools, how he stood and moved in relationship with the mountain.
But Michelangelo was six and had just lost his mother. For a young boy, love and hate are very near neighbors. One day Michelangelo’s grief at his loss of his mother exploded as he witnessed the stonecutter’s happiness. If he (Michelangelo) was miserable and unhappy, it was not fair that this man should have such peace and contentment in his life. (Of course Michelangelo could not have put these words to his feelings, but in later years, he found his way to a similar expression as he thought back on this day.) He raged at the stonecutter. He berated him for his lowly station in life, for the lack of comforts, for the lack of power and influence that the stonecutter had achieved.
The man listened thoughtfully to the young boy. He let him go on until his emotions were spend, and when the anger and run its course and became tears, the stonecutter gathered Michelangelo into his strong arms and hugged him tenderly as if he were his own son. Then he sat down with Michelangelo on his lap and told him this story.
Michelangelo, the things you say to me are nearly true. They are matters that have come to my mind in the past, and I have considered them most carefully, for at one time I was quite dissatisfied with myself and with my position in life.
Then, one day I was walking by a very wealthy merchant’s home. Through the gate and past the door of his house I was more riches than I could ever have imagined. The man had important visitors coming and going all day. “How important and powerful this merchant must be.” I thought to myself. I envied him like no other, and wished that I could be him. Well, to my astonishment, I became the merchant. I was enjoying luxuries and power beyond my greatest dreams. I was envied – and detested – by those less wealthy than myself.
But then the Governor passed by, carried in a sedan chair, accompanied by servants and soldiers and musicians and dancing girls. Everyone bowed before the procession. And I thought, “How important and powerful this Governor is.” I envied him like no other, and wished that I could be a great Governor.
And before I could blink my eye, I was the Governor. I was carried everywhere in a beautiful sedan. I had servants, and guards and musicians. My wishes became commandments, and all bowed before me. And then one day was especially hot, and I became sweaty and sticky and uncomfortable in my chair. I looked up and saw the sun. The sun beamed magnificently in the sky, unaffected by my presence and commands, unaffected by anyone. And I thought, “How powerful is the sun.” And I wished that I could be the sun.
And as soon as I had finished my thought, I was the sun. I was shining brightly, fiercely on everyone. I scorched the fields and dried the ponds, and the farmers and sweating laborers cursed at me. And just then a magnificent storm cloud moved between me and the earth, so that my light could not be seen by anything below. And I thought, “How magnificent and powerful that storm cloud is.” And I wished that I could be the storm cloud.
I became the cloud, and I sent out my rain. I flooded the rivers and the fields. The villagers looked up and shouted at me. And as they did, I could feel myself being moved. It was the wind blowing me away. And I thought, “How powerful the wind is!” And I wished that I was the wind.
And in the instant of that thought, I was the wind. I was a splendid and powerful wind. I blew roofs off houses, uprooted trees. I was feared by everyone. But then I came up against something that I could not move, no matter how I blew against it, no matter how much force and speed I used. It was a huge towering stone mountain. And I thought, “How powerful that mountain is.” And I wished that I could be that mountain.
And, I became the mountain. Standing strong and sure, I was more powerful than anything else on this earth. But as I stood there, I heard the sound of a hammer pounding a chisel into the solidity of my rock. I felt myself being changed. “What could be more powerful than me? I am solid stone?” And I looked down and saw a stonecutter.
And once again I became how I was and always will be.
And Michelangelo snuggled into the stonecutter’s arms and murmured, “I will be who I will always be” even as he held onto the stonecutter’s chisel.
Michelangelo is often quoted as saying, “If there is some good in me, it is because I was born in the subtle atmosphere of Arezzo. Along with the milk of my nurse I received the knack of handling chisel and hammer.” Michelangelo grew to be one of the world’s most respected stonecutters.
with thanks to Benjamin Hoff for his version of the stonecutter in the Tao of Pooh, and to the myriad versions of the Chinese/Japanese/Indian parable on the web.