Michelangelo was not born famous. No, he labored in obscurity for several years before rocketing up into stardom. But it wasn’t an organic discovery that brought him to the attention of the Roman elites: it took trickery, forgery, and a masterful grasp of marketing.
We like to pretend art is objective, that beauty is truth and recognized as such universally. But not everyone agrees on what is beautiful. Various trends, styles, and names come in and out of fashion. Someone has probably painted the most beautiful painting known to humankind, but if they tried to get it in a gallery, they’d be rejected because their name isn’t known.
Artists can’t just be good on their own merit to find success. Marketing your art matters.
It’s true now and it was true in 1496, too. Michelangelo was just a disillusioned young man like many of us today — possessed of enormous amounts of talents, convinced he had what it took to make it big, and just a single lucky break away from having his dream career. The lucky break didn’t come.
Back in the day, patrons of the arts were fascinated by antiquities. The contemporary style was not in. Art collectors didn’t want some random up-and-coming artist’s work; they wanted real sculptures from Roman and Grecian times. The Medici family especially were obsessed with Greek and Roman works — and willing to shell out to acquire them. Michelangelo’s sculptures were ignored because nobody thought they were as good as the ancient works.
He knew he had the chops to be successful, but nobody believed in him. What was a young, entrepreneurial sculptor to do?
An Ancient Sculpture Brought Michelangelo’s Talents to Light
At the tender age of 21, Michelangelo came across a beautiful, and obviously antique sculpture of Cupid. As he hawked his ware to drum up some bids, he must have been pleased when art dealer Baldessari del Milanese agreed to sell it for him. Eventually, it found its home among the very respectable Cardinal Raffaele Riario, lover of fine arts and especially sculpture.
Except Riario realized he’d been duped. The item he’d been sold was a fake. Furious, he demanded del Milanese give him his money back — but he kept the Cupid. Why? Because he was so impressed with the quality of the work that despite being tricked, he said he’d rather destroy it than see it back in Michelangelo’s hands.
This could have been disastrous — the destruction of a budding artist’s reputation. But instead, Riario extended an invitation for Michelangelo to join him in Rome, which was the beginning of Michelangelo’s illustrious career. In Rome, he found patrons, success, and money. Just three years later, he created a sculpture that was regarded as one of the world’s masterpieces in sculpture.
Giorgio Vasari, the very first art historian and a contemporary of Michelangelo’s, said: “It is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh.”
This same creator had been unable to find commissions just three years previously.
Michelangelo Forged His Way to Success
Seriously, he forged it. He sculpted a figure in the classical style and artificially aged it by burying it in his garden. It was a fake all along.
But the splash with which the news came out allowed him to make a name for himself. He was not just a talented artist who’d tricked one of the greatest art lovers in Rome — he was talented enough to pass off his work for what was considered the most refined and desired styles.
It was a gamble, but it paid off. His name became known in the art patronage circles of Rome and led him to fame and acclaim.
The quality of his work didn’t alter that much, just the perception of it. By closely emulating the successful styles of the time and proving he was good enough to trick anyone, he rose in prominence in his field, becoming one of the greats we revere today. It may have been over 500 years ago, but it remains one of the most successful marketing stunts of this millennium.