What Michelangelo Teaches Us About Art and Business

The Sistine Chapel was one for the money


Damon Ferrara

3 years ago | 5 min read

Photo by Calvin Craig on Unsplash

The Sistine Chapel was yet another installment in one of the two franchises that dominated Renaissance art: Greek Mythology and the Bible.

Like many of the era’s most popular works, it originated with a corporate mandate: The wealthy Catholic Church had launched a new flagship chapel, a reboot of the old Cappella Maggiore. It was already built, but the paintings were sparse inside.

Pope Julius II was intent on building a grander Vatican. His purpose was to inspire awe, but practically, it meant creating a lot of art. There were already many churches in Rome. He built more. And he established the Vatican Museums, began redesigning Saint Peter’s Cathedral, and commissioned Raphael to paint a suite of reception rooms.

This was art mass produced. A kind of “content production,” the rapid creation of pretty things by institutional mandate. And for this rapid content production, he was willing to open the Vatican’s wallet.

That generous financial backing attracted a top-tier talent: Michelangelo, who signed on to paint the chapel’s ceiling for 3,000 ducats, thirty times a typical artisan’s salary.

And he did sign on for the money: Michelangelo personally disliked Pope Julius II. He’d been working on the Pope’s tomb, but the project repeatedly stalled out under the weight of Vatican bureaucracy.

Even with a sterling reputation, Michelangelo still had to fight for his vision. He’d originally received an outline to follow, assistants to carry it out, and middle management to review it. Eventually, he convinced Pope Julius II to give him full control of the project. But even then, he still didn’t enjoy it.

After all, Michelangelo only had artistic freedom if he stuck to the usual beats. He was working for the Vatican. If he painted something that went against their teachings, they would replace it. And possibly brand him a heretic. It was risky for him to be subversive or experimental.

And so Michelangelo painted a series of classic Bible scenes on the chapel’s ceiling. They were all frescoes, of course.

Frescoes were trendy at the time. Michelangelo hated them.

Of course, they were some of the best frescoes ever painted. And Michelangelo sneaked in plenty of subversiveness. The chapel’s nudity was controversial for one of these squeaky-clean Vatican productions. Michelangelo painted some of the meddling executives into the work as unsavory characters. A central scene subtly frames God inside a brain, alongside other anatomical Easter eggs. It represents a humanistic theme, slyly critiquing his distributors.

But still, it’s a tragedy that a rising talent like Michelangelo got sucked into the Church’s assembly line of Biblical frescoes. History can only imagine what he’d have made on his own, if he could have spent that time focused on his passion for sculpting.

If Michelangelo Were Alive Today

The Sistine Chapel wasn’t a passion project. It was a Disney blockbuster.

So, I do wonder, what would Michelangelo do if he were alive today?

Not literally brought back…he’d be a medical miracle and could have his choice of projects. What would Michelangelo do, if he was simply another person alive today?

In truth, there are more options now. Far more. Sculpting would still be a hard career, the same way my novel sits lonely on Amazon. Yet Michelangelo became disillusioned with Pope Julius II and had nowhere else to turn.

We do.

Today he could code, blog, post on social media, sell photography, make indie movies, write copy, live on the cheap traveling abroad, sell custom t-shirts on Etsy, model on OnlyFans…

We’re luckier than white men in the Renaissance. They had to make peace with the Medici. We can always switch to Vocal.

Commercialism and Art: A Love Story

But what Michelangelo did make was, uh, pretty good.

The same goes for many of history’s most famous artists, sponsored by powerful institutions, private backers, or just the fickle demands of the public. In time, we forget the commercial and only see the art.

But the commercial was there.

Because we’ve forgotten this, we look at art today, and, upon seeing the commercial, assume it must not be art.

That’s a mistake. That’s forgetting history. And that’s not your own content, either, whether you’re a no-name blogger, or a blockbuster filmmaker. Because 700 years from now, our descendants will find the appeal of the Sistine Chapel, in these messes we make.

Mad Men’s considered one of the greatest TV shows of all time. Many of its scenes celebrate real-life advertisements from the 1960s, projects made solely for marketing.

Right now, WandaVision is a tribute to decades-old cheap sitcoms written on the fly.

Like life, great art can thrive in the most hostile of environments.

Then again, Michelangelo wasn’t happy about the limitations placed on him, even after largely taking control of the project. And since he was obviously great regardless, doing something you’re good at, isn’t enough to bring you happiness if you just don’t like the work.

But even if you truly can’t make something you love right now…

Remember Michelangelo didn’t want to paint. But, faced with the wrong project, he decided to fight to make it his own, and turn it into something worth loving. Something beautiful.

Why We Visit the Sistine Chapel

And here’s a final secret about the Sistine Chapel: It’s still commercial.

It’s one of the most-visited tourist attractions in the world. For the Vatican, it’s evergreen content. And yes, it requires upkeep, but so does passive income.

I spent two years in Italy. There’s a church every 200 feet. And to the last day, I kept visiting them.

Not for any religious reasons, mind you. For the art, contemplation, and a chance to take pictures. I always knew they’d provide me with those three services. And there was just enough variation between them to give me a new experience with every cathedral, while still fulfilling my expectations.

It’s the same dynamic when I watch the next episode of a TV show, stream a favorite artist’s album, click on another blog post by a friendly writer.

Creativity within consistent parameters.

And everybody goes to the Sistine Chapel when they visit Rome — because it’s a reliable bet for everyone. It’s the broadest-possible version of these parameters, the crowd pleaser.

High art: Lowbrow plus time.

It’s great to be outside the box, and there’s a broad range within it, too. I’m not disparaging the box, or closing its lid. As a passionate traveler, I intend to take trips both inside and out of it.

But I think we must remember making “content” is an honorable tradition. Working within the constraints of a larger enterprise, following rules and the money, adjusting for your audience.

That was the Renaissance.

So, you’re not selling your soul if you feel like an artist but don’t want to be a starving one. And finding ways to profit from your writing doesn’t mean giving up its heart, though you might still have to clash with your clients. Because sometimes greatness pays 3,000 ducats.

And we have more ways to earn it than Michelangelo did.


Created by

Damon Ferrara

A traveling poet discussing culture, usually seriously | Screenwriter/Marketer/Author, “And One Day My Stars Will Burn.” | Open to opportunities | Let's connect! | IG/Twitter: wayfaringwit







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