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The Challenge of Michelangelo

22 July 2016

One face, many stories

We are closing our in-depth trilogy with two curious stories that bind Michelangelo Buonarroti to Piazza della Signoria.

Not many know that, looking at the facade of Palazzo Vecchio, on the right side towards Via della Ninna (almost around the sculpture of Ercole and Caco by Baccio Bandinelli), down on the edge of the building, there is a stone with the profile of a man's face carved like a graffiti, perhaps with hammer and chise.

Most tourists - and the Florentines themselves are not immune - attracted by the artistic wonders of the square completely ignore the presence of this graffiti head that, if you do not look carefully, is hardly noticed among the many stones of what is certainly one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.

The anecdote we are going to tell today enjoys a broad popular credit and tells that the head engraved in the walls of Palazzo Vecchio was sculpted by Michelangelo as a result of a bet. The Master would have been challenged by his friends to portray in the rock the face of one of them, but keeping the hands tied behind his back! Michelangelo, who would never have retreated from the great opportunity to demonstrate his talent, took up the challenge and carved this small work of art. It is unclear whether the head perfectly resembled the subject chosen, but the attribution to Michelangelo is undisputed. Despite the precarious conditions in which it was created, the work is still very sharp and vigorous.

Among the popular versions of the portrait, the one we have just told you is certainly the most "trustworthy". However, another version exists we believe deserving of attention, not because it is based on more credible witnesses, but because it is very amusing. The story would ascribe the etched face to a Michelangelo's opponent for trivial reasons of money (probably a debtor). The Master, who was passing by chance in Piazza della Signoria, noticed the victim sentenced to death trapped in the wooden beams near the Loggia dei Lanzi. Approaching a guard, Michelangelo asked how long the man would have remained attached ''to the woods''; at the guard's answer, Michelangelo exclaimed: "Too little time! The Florentines need to remember this man for longer!" and immediately set himself to work, in order to capture the man's face so that people could remember him as long as possible. The purpose was definitely achieved, since today the portrait is prominently engraved in the ashlar of Palazzo Vecchio.

And you, which version you believe?