Michelangelo and the Art of the Deal

When Michelangelo carved his statue of David, everyone proclaimed the young man a genius—especially the artist himself. Well almost everyone, Pier Soderini who had commissioned the piece, had a concern.

He thought the nose was a little broad at its base.

So Michelangelo took a hammer and chisel and climbed back up the scaffold.

He also palmed a handful of marble dust.

While he tapped the hammer against the chisel, he let the marble dust fall to the ground.

He didn’t change the nose at all but his client was none the wiser.

We know this from not one, but two contemporary biographies.

One by Giorgio Vasari published in 1550.

And another by Ascanio Condivi published in 1553.

Michelangelo wasn’t taking any chances, Vasari’s original was a little too objective for his taste.

He knew being a genius was no guarantee of success.

In fact it could work against you, because you were doing things that hadn’t been done before, things outside most people’s frame of reference.

He understood art was a business and patrons needed to be reassured that they were investing wisely.

So he encouraged Condivi to write the second and worked very closely with the author.

Condivi was a former pupil of his and most art historians agree Michelangelo virtually dictated it.

The text verges on hagiography, but no matter.

One biography meant you were important.

Two biographies proclaimed you as the greatest artist living, nicknamed Il Divino.

The Divine One – that’s brilliant branding.

Picture yourself as Renaissance nobility, looking for something nice for the palazzo.

Would you rather buy from Luigi the sculptor, or the Divine One?

Not surprisingly the commissions rolled in and people felt good parting with their money.

At least most people did, but there were exceptions.

Angelo Doni wanted a painting to commemorate his marriage.

He protested Michelangelo’s price of 70 ducats was a little high.

So the artist doubled it on the spot.

Presumably Doni anted up, because the Doni Madonna hangs in the Uffizi Gallery today.

Picasso was a fan of this pricing strategy; he gleefully and repeatedly used the same ploy on hesitant collectors.

Michelangelo was a devout man who spent his life creating art for the glory of God.

But he understood that the art of the deal went hand-in-hand with the art.

And his attitude towards the business of art was surprisingly avant garde.

He saw there was a difference between what people buy, and what they think they’re buying.

And he knew how to leverage it.