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Michelangelo’s uncelebrated birthday and uncertain death

We will scarcely acknowledge, much less celebrate, the unremarkable 542nd anniversary of Michelangelo Buonarroti’s birth. Nor would Michelangelo. While the aristocratic artist was alert to the precise time and date of his birth, he paid absolutely no attention to any of his subsequent birthdays.

Michelangelo was born on 6 March 1475. According to the Florentine calendar which recognized March 25 (Annunciation to the Virgin) as the beginning of a new year, Michelangelo was born in 1474, some three weeks shy of 1475. The discrepancies between calendars—the one observed by Florentines and the reformed calendar of Pope Gregory XIII which began the New Year on January 1—spawned long-time confusion. An example is the fact that there are four slightly varying accounts of Michelangelo’s birth date. Thanks to the careful work of scholars we have a reasonable explanation for these discrepancies. It’s still true, as astrologer Don Riggs has demonstrated, that Michelangelo may have abetted the confusion. The artist was not born under Saturn, the astrological sign most associated with creative individuals, but under a mediocre configuration of planets, dominated by Mars. Through his biographer, Ascanio Condivi, Michelangelo encouraged the belief that he was born with a more favorable natal chart, which better predicted the course of his brilliant career. In this, Michelangelo was behaving like many of his famous contemporaries. For example, Marsilio Ficino and Lorenzo de’ Medici both made certain that astrology retrospectively predicted their illustrious lives.

Statue of Michelangelo in Florence, Italy. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Statue of Michelangelo in Florence, Italy. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But other than manipulating his natal chart, Michelangelo remained uninterested in birthdays. Of the more than 1600 extant letters to and from the artist over the course of some 70 years, as well as more than 300 miscellaneous records (ricordi), not one makes reference to the fact of his birthday. But was a birthday important? In Renaissance society, the feast day of one’s namesake saint might be an occasion for public and/or personal celebration. Michelangelo was born on March 6, the feast day of an obscure Bishop of Tortona, San Marziano, who was martyred in the second century CE. Marziano is of little importance—then and now—to persons outside the parochial ambiance of Alessandria in northwestern Italy. Michelangelo may have been born on San Marziano’s feast day, but he was named after the Archangel Michael, whose feast day is 29 September. There is no evidence that Michelangelo celebrated either his birthday saint or his namesake’s feast day. Indeed, he and his contemporaries proved remarkably inattentive to birthdays and often erred in declaring their age. In 1560, Leone Leoni cast a medal of Michelangelo with an inscription claiming the artist to be 88 years old: he was 85. When the Frenchman Blais de Vignère visited Michelangelo in Rome in 1549, he recorded that the artist was “more than 60 years old”; in fact, he was 74.

Michelangelo and his contemporaries may have manipulated the facts of birth and proved careless regarding age and birthdays, but they had scant control over death’s inexorable finality. Yet here too, death could be elusive. When still in his thirties Michelangelo, who equaled Mark Twain in possessing a dry wit, began a letter to his father: “I learn from your last that it is said in Florence that I am dead. It is a matter of little importance, because I am still alive.” Nonetheless, from about this time, Michelangelo began expecting to die and continued in this expectation for the next half century. When it finally arrived, his death was carefully noted, but variously. Despite the Renaissance penchant for record keeping, the length of Michelangelo’s life and the date of his death were confusingly reported, even by those who cared most.

Shortly after Michelangelo’s death, his nephew, Lionardo Buonarroti, noted that on Friday, 18 February, his uncle “died in Rome, having lived 88 years, 11 months, and 14 days.” However, this is an inherently contradictory statement. If Michelangelo died on 18 February, then he had lived 88 years, 11 months, and 12 days. If, on the other hand, he lived 14 days then this would suggest that he actually died on 20 February. Giorgio Vasari records that Michelangelo died at the twenty-third hour of 17 February 1563, which, according to the Roman reckoning, would be the afternoon of 18 February 1564, the date that most scholars accept. However, the inscription on Michelangelo’s tomb states that he lived 88 years, 11 months, and 15 days, which would indicate that the great man had died on 21 February. These discrepancies are not terribly significant and probably can be logically explained; nonetheless, they reveal something of Renaissance notions of historical accuracy. The real surprise is that Michelangelo’s closest living relative, his biographer, and his tomb inscription all state slightly different “facts” with seemingly unassailable precision.

Given such attitudes, Galileo Galilei had no compunction in claiming that he was born on the day of Michelangelo’s death, thus reinforcing a pervasive contemporary belief that genius never dies but passes from one brilliant individual to the next. The conjunction between the two geniuses was enshrined in stone when the monument to Galileo was erected directly opposite that of his predecessor in the basilica of Sta. Croce in Florence. When next in Florence, pay homage to these two Florentine geniuses, but do not worry much about their birth and death dates.

Featured image credit: Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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