I went on my first solo trip abroad end of June, and spent a week in Florence—in 15th century Florence…which of course explains why I had no cell service.
OK fine. I had cell service. But. I feel like I time traveled, because I spent days immersed in the Renaissance. Oh, I was ALL UP in the Medici family’s business, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Brunelleschi. And of course, Michelangelo. I’m getting a little obsessed with him.
While I was there I picked up a copy of Irving Stone’s famous novel about Michelangelo, The Agony & The Ecstasy.
Here’s the scene that I wanted to share with you:
Michelangelo is 14 years old and has been released from his painting apprenticeship and admitted to work in Lorenzo the Magnificent’s sculpture garden. He’s beside himself excited.
One of his peers, a kid unfortunately named Soggi comes up to him one day and says:
“Michelangelo, let’s you and I get out of here. All this stuff is so…so impractical. Let’s save ourselves while there is still time… They’re never going to give us any commissions or money. Who really needs sculpture in order to live?”
“I do,” Michelangelo responds.
Soggi then lays out an argument that might have happened in the 1400s (or may not have—I am quoting from a novel, after all)…but it’s also happening today, in offices all over the world. Maybe even in yours.
He says (I’m paraphrasing), Oh yeah? Where will we find work? What if Lorenzo dies? What if the garden closes? Who the heck needs a marble cutter? We can’t feed ourselves with that!
It’d be much better to trade in pork or wine or pasta, things people need, he says. This art business is for the birds.
Michelangelo declines, of course. He says sculpture is not only at the top of his list, there is no list. That’s it.
Soggi quits. And when the teacher, Bertoldo, hears about it the next day, he says of people like Soggi:
“Their prompting is not love or affinity…but the exuberance of youth. As soon as this first flush begins to fade, they say to themselves, ‘Stop dreaming. Look for a reliable way of life.’”
And then, this gem:
“One should not become an artist because he can, but because he must.”
Maybe you don’t spend your day slaving over stone in a sculpture garden (who does?).
But I’m guessing you’ve felt that tug, that fear that says, “What am I spending time on ‘x’ for, when it’s not practical? How can I make money doing this?”
Sure, painters and sculptors ruled the day in Florence in the 1400s. But ask Seth Godin who the artists are today, and they’re not people who necessarily work in paint or marble.
Modern-day artists, Seth says, create meaning in their work, whatever that work is.
You don’t have to do that, of course. You can just ping emails back and forth and stay busy.
But the real work, the thing that gives your work meaning, requires emotional labor—a lot of heavy lifting that you may not be getting paid specifically to do.
Be wary of the temptation to do something else, something easier, just because it’s practical or seems like a sure thing.
Who knows what Soggi’s life turned out to be? Maybe he turned out to be one hell of a pork salesman.
But one thing we can all agree on is that we don’t go to Florence to see what Soggi created.