Yesterday evening I found myself eating curry and recounting Michelangelo’s dalliances in the forging of ancient statuary to a group of bored but polite innocent bystanders friends (so my usual Thursday night really). It occured to me that while I had written about the possible scandal surrounding the Laocoon, I had neglected to elaborate on some of the other forgeries Michelangelo has been credited with. Not only is this another interesting insight into the lives of one of the great sculptors, it is also fundamentally an important lesson in the value of proper self-marketing and knowing your audience, you’ll see why shortly.

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As there are no images of this piece, I decided to give you an image of something completely random, like the title page from Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, considered by many to be the first European Art History book. (image borrowed from here) (if you want to see the Wikipedia article that references Michelangelo’s forgery, you can check it out here)

Antique sculpture was all the rage during the Early Renaissance, and artists left, right and centre were trying to capitalize on the collective mania for anything that looked vaguely Ancient Greek or Roman. Including Michelangelo. In 1496, when he was still a young whippersnapper and just getting started in the art world, he decided to sculpt a small statue of Cupid asleep, rub the surface in acidic dirt of some kind to artifically age the piece, and then claim to have found it in his backgarden when he went to sell the statue. The dealer he sold it to in turn sold it to a cardinal, who upon discovery of the fraud demanded his money back from the dealer. Now this is where it gets interesting. Not only did Michelangelo get to keep his profits from first selling the statue, the incident made him an instant celebrity among the art community and helped to launch his career as a sculptor. According to Vasari, he was even invited by that same cardinal to work in Rome for year. Now that doesn’t sound like a natural reaction right? Surely the cardinal would have been enraged, seeking retribution and condeming Michelangelo from all the rooftops in Rome?

Not so my friends, and here is why. The concept of the sanctity of individual genius and talent is something we only begin to see during the Renaissance, prior to that it was much more of an anything goes mentality (you can thank the guilds for that). So to a certain extent, imitation being the most sincere form of flattery still applied, and moreover the ability to successfully imitate an earlier artist or style was considered a true gift. And like I said, antique sculptures were highly sought after for their skill and lifelike appearance. In short, Michelangelo’s pranks were treated as impressive feats of ingenuity and raw talent rather than wilfull deception, which ironically is how forgeries are still treated over five centuries later.

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