Poor Michelangelo. He lived like a pauper and was chronically miserable. The image of an indigent and moody artist accords well with our idea of the creative genius. But there’s an interesting twist to Michelangelo’s story. It turns out that he was one of the richest men of his time!
After years spent combing through the artist’s financial records, Rab Hatfield wrote The Wealth of Michelangelo, in which he reveals the extent of the enormous riches that Michelangelo managed to accumulate. Paranoid about his financial security, Michelangelo invested above all in carefully chosen, totally safe farms and houses. Furthermore, painfully conscious of his own humble upbringing, he was determined that the Buonarroti family be restored to its former patrician status.
In 1508, using money that he had earned as a sculptor, together with what he expected to receive for the Sistine Ceiling, Michelangelo purchased three houses on via Ghibellina, core of the present Casa Buonarroti. His father and brothers, who had been renting a house in via San Procolo, promptly moved in. Michelangelo did some improvements in 1514 and purchased a fourth adjacent house. He joined his relatives when he returned to Florence in 1516, and things would have continued comfortably if only they had shared Michelangelo’s penchant for thriftiness. In 1523, because they failed to repay what he had loaned them, Michelangelo forced his father and brothers to cede to him their rights to the entire Buonarroti family estate and make him the sole owner. Michelangelo’s father became hysterical, and together with his other sons promptly departed from via Ghibellina. Michelangelo moved out a year later and put the property up for rent. It was Michelangelo the Younger, son of Michelangelo’s nephew and heir, who nearly a hundred years later transformed the property into the Casa Buonarroti as it stands today.
Michelangelo, acting through agents, acquired several farms to the south and west of Florence between 1506 and 1549, but his prime interest was the Buonarroti’s ancestral home south of Settignano, which had been in their possession since the fourteenth century. For fifty-five years, between 1507 and 1562, he steadily increased the size of the estate until he owned an unbroken sweep of land running down the hill as far as Rovezzano. It was approximately three-quarters of a kilometre long and measured a half kilometre at its widest point. The main house, now Villa Michelangelo, stands on the original part of the property, and although the villa has been altered in recent centuries, a few of its architectural features, such as the front loggia, probably date from Michelangelo’s lifetime. To the south is a property today called La Porziuncola (it was known as Scopeto in 1515 when Michelangelo bought it), which became Eleonora Duse’s home in 1902. A stroll down via Capponcina will take you past these villas and all along the western border of the former Buonarroti estate. Take the #10 bus, get off at Fermata 17, walk straight ahead, turn right into via Capponcina and continue down the hill. For a panoramic view, walk through Settignano and turn right into via Rossellino. When you are within a stone’s throw of Villa Gamberaia, look west and you’ll see Villa Michelangelo (with a squat white tower) on the crest of the hill in the middle distance.
In 1534 Michelangelo left for Rome and never returned to Florence. Two years earlier he had bought the house in Rome where he’d lived and worked, on and off, since 1513. Located across from S.Maria del Loreto, it was demolished in 1902 to make way for the Vittorio Emanuele II monument, but the courtyard façade is believed to survive, reconstructed near Porta San Pancrazio on the Janiculum.
Michelangelo died in February 1564. His house was found to be bare but for two beds, glasses, three barrels (two empty), twenty-four shirts, mostly old, a few of his own works of art and one horse, the latter a surprising luxury since most people rode around town on a mule. But what was discovered in his bedroom was even more mind boggling – a locked and sealed chest containing 8,289 gold ducats, a tidy sum to keep around the house, equal to about 66 pounds of solid gold in present terms.
The fortune in cash, credit and property that Michelangelo’s nephew Lionardo inherited was enormous, greater than that amassed by any other artist up to that time. According to Hatfield’s calculations, Michelangelo’s salaries were staggeringly high. Moreover, he demanded, and got, huge advances. While he was engaged on the Laurentian Library, Clement VII paid him the equivalent of $600,000 a year. During the decades when he was working on the tomb of Julius II, which he never finished, the equivalent of millions of dollars flowed into his pocket. Hatfield neatly sums it up when he points out that Michelangelo’s lifetime earnings equalled five and a half times the value of the mid-16th-century Palazzo Pitti.