Fake It ‘til You Make It

In 1496, Cardinal Raffaele Riario of San Giorgio purchased an ancient marble sculpture of a sleeping cupid from Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco of the House of Medici. The cardinal must have been delighted with the artistry of the piece, its exquisite detail found only among the works of the ancient greats, because even after he discovered the sculpture was really a modern creation, he remained impressed with the young forger who had pulled it off.

The artist was then twenty-year-old Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, who you probably know as the Michelangelo widely remembered for lending his name to one of the teenage mutant ninja turtles. He also painted a pretty famous ceiling.

Sistine_Chapel_ceiling_photo_2
You might have heard of this little thing he did over in Vatican City. Sistine Chapel Ceiling painted by Michelangelo. By Aaron Logan, from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/italy/4_G & Talmoryair / Public domain

But before any of that, he was a young artist just trying to break into that mystical world in which it’s possible to make a living based upon one’s creative endeavors. There’s a chance that he was entirely innocent in the whole art forgery scheme and that it was either Lorenzo, or the shady art dealer he employed, who treated The Cupid with acidic earth. It’s also possible that a very young man was influenced by an unscrupulous banker who knew he could make a lot more money off a classical sculpture than he could a modern one.

Whoever was ultimately responsible, it was only Lorenzo who got the blame. While Cardinal Riario didn’t take kindly to being swindled and was quick to demand a refund of his investment, he also recognized talent. The cardinal invited Michelangelo to Rome and commissioned a piece he later decided he didn’t want. Still, the artist’s credibility began to grow.

It makes sense to learn as much as possible by studying, and at least initially, imitating the great artists who have come before. Of course, it’s also true that chemically treating your pieces to make them fraudulently appear older and passing them off as the works of a different artist is probably over the line. Way over.

But I’m not sharing this story because I think artists should begin their careers with forgery. I’m sharing it because there are times when we all find ourselves flailing a little bit, trying to learn a new task, to break into a role we want to fill, and we don’t know exactly what we’re doing, so we fake it a little until we do.

homeschool2
Hang in there. We’ll all be back to our normal routines eventually. photo credit: woodleywonderworks first drop of water is the best drop of water via photopin (license)

I suspect a lot of us are there right now. Social distancing has forced many of us to work at home, struggling to master new technologies and skills that make that possible. And for many of us, our children are doing the same. That means we’ve also suddenly been thrown into becoming teachers, facilitating academic learning for our children with the materials teachers quickly pulled together, even though many of them previously didn’t really know how to do that and certainly never expected to have to.

From what I’ve seen, and in our experience, the teachers have been wonderful. And you know, the parent have been, too. Everyday my social media feed is filled with pictures of at home learning—kids working alongside and with their parents. I’m also seeing the sharing of online resources and suggestions between parents, offers of help from educators, and yes, a little bit of commiserating when homeschool students are not as cooperative as their makeshift teachers hoped they would be.

'David'_by_Michelangelo_Fir_JBU013
I mean he really was a pretty good sculptor. David by Michelangelo. Jörg Bittner Unna / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

For the time being, we’re all faking it a little. Will there be some academic slips? Probably. Are there some students whose home environments are not as conducive to learning outside of a structured classroom? I’m sure there are. Are there lots of parent who simply cannot work from home and are struggling to figure out childcare, let alone homeschool? Of course.

Still, I think this experience of just making it work, of doing our best to imitate the professional teachers and provide our children with whatever we can, will likely produce some beauty. It will definitely result in some unique learning opportunities for our kids, who like Michelangelo, will move on having survived the experience.

Allegedly, while Michelangelo’s star rose, his Cupid changed hands a few times, often displayed among legitimate classic sculptures because it was good. Eventually the piece wound up in the possession of England’s Charles I and was most likely lost to fire in London’s Whitehall Palace in 1689.

I don’t know anything about art valuation, but if I had to guess, that sculpture, forgery or not, would be worth quite a lot of money today. I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard of this Michelangelo guy. He may have started out faking it, but he ended up making it.

And we will, too.

50,000 Words and Lots of Paint Dribbles

In 1508 Pope Julius II decided the Sistine Chapel with its blue, star-spangled ceiling was in need of a little interior punching up, and he knew just the artist for the job. Already the thirty-three-year-old sculptor Michelangelo was hard at work on the Pope’s marble tomb and it was only grudgingly that he accepted the new commission.

Not known for painting, the artist had made a name for himself producing marble masterpieces like Pietà and David, carefully detailing human anatomy and capturing subtle expressions of emotion like no one else. He hadn’t really had a great deal of experience with painting, and none with frescoes.

mikey
I bet this young Michelangelo wondered from time to time if he could really be a ninja. photo credit: Gonmi Tortuga Ninja via photopin (license)

There are some theories about why the pope may have approached this unlikely choice to spruce up the chapel ceiling. Perhaps Pope Julius, not especially happy with his tomb-in-progress anyway, decided it might be tempting fate for his tomb to be built while he was still alive and so wished to redirect the artist’s efforts. It’s possible, too, that some of Michelangelo’s biggest rivals on the art scene encouraged the choice, suspecting the sculptor would fail spectacularly when forced to work in such a different medium.

Obviously that notion backfired. Though he claimed to have despised every moment of it, Michelangelo bent and stretched and painted his heart out above his head. Over the years he worked on the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo sealed his reputation as one of the greatest painters in history, and got quite a bit of paint on his face.

ceiling
I mean for a non-painter, it’s not too bad. By By Aaron Logan, from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/italy/4_G & Talmoryair [CC BY 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons
I share this story today, on November 1, because this is the day when a lot of artists throughout the world are stepping out to create something new. Today is the kickoff for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), that time of year when otherwise sane people from all walks of life, sit down at their computers (or typewriters, or notebooks) and attempt to scribble out a minimum of 50,000 words that will hopefully become the rough draft of a novel.

Some of these folks, like me, have written novels before, and though 50,000 words in a month can be a pretty tall order, they may not find the experience too overwhelming. However many other NaNo writers aren’t quite sure what they’ve gotten themselves into. They have regular day jobs and responsibilities that have nothing to do with writing, and the experience can seem pretty uncomfortable and messy.

But they have these great ideas that’ve been tickling the backs of their minds for years just looking for an opportunity to jump onto a page and into the world.

These are the writers I think are the most exciting part of NaNoWriMo, and the reason that year after year, more and more people join in the agony fun. Not everyone will finish. Even some of the more seasoned writers won’t make it to the end of 50,000 poorly written words. Those that do will find the hard work has only just begun.

But that’s okay. Even Michelangelo took a break in 1510 from painting the chapel ceiling. When he returned to the work, it was with a new eye and a somewhat altered style, and that is when he produced many of the most iconic scenes, including The Creation of Adam.

adam
This kind of iconic image is probably worth a little agony and a few paint dribbles on your face. Michelangelo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
He was still in agony and struggled with the work, writing in a poem to a friend (because Michelangelo was also not a poet, who wrote quite a bit of poetry), “My painting is dead. . .I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.”

In this next thirty days, I suspect a lot of NaNo writers, experienced or not, will utter similar words. They may hit walls when they feel overwhelmed and exhausted by a creative effort that pushes them outside their usual spheres.

When they do, and when I do, I hope we remember that the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was painted by a man who claimed he was not a painter and who suffered a lot of cricks in his neck and had a lot of paint on his face. But this amazing work is imbued with the exquisite textural depth perhaps only a sculptor could have produced and that millions of people have literally looked up to.

I hope we remember that no one would ever tell our stories the way we will tell them. Whether you’ve written twenty-seven novels or work as a full-time accountant but have one really great idea for a book, know that even when you think your writing is dead, you’re not in the right place, and you have paint dribbling onto your face, your words might offer a perspective and textural depth the world has never yet seen.

Happy NaNoWriMo!