If ‘Dante and Shakespeare divide the world between them: there is no third’, as T. S. Eliot famously claimed, we might say that Florence is divided between Dante and Michelangelo. 2021 marks seven hundred years since the death of Il sommo poeta, Florence’s most famous son and arguably the unifying figure of Italian culture. Yet ask anyone to name the most iconic sights of Florence and Italy, and they will cite Michelangelo without even necessarily knowing it. The David and the Sistine Chapel, of course, but how many visitors are really aware that St. Peter’s Basilica was built to his design, which he sketched out at the tender age of 71?
But it was without any particular anniversary on the horizon that tech company Querlo approached the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo with the idea of an artificial intelligence “Michelangelo”. The Duomo, says Querlo founder and CEO Francesco Rulli, initially rebuffed the idea with polite interest: “They said it was a bit too modern for them”. But then Covid-19 struck, and suddenly every museum, however staid and starched, needed new avenues. The Duomo’s Giovanni Serafini and Monica Serrano, under the aegis of Monsignor Timothy Verdon, got down to compiling a “facts base” about Michelangelo’s life and work, which Querlo then turned into the kernel of Michelangelo AI’s knowledge.
Now, if you go onto the Duomo’s website, Michelangelo AI will pop up in the bottom-right corner of your screen. His “profile picture”, as it were, is a detail of the museum’s Pietà, so chosen because Nicodemus, who hefts Christ’s dead body with the aid of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, is generally held to be a self-portrait of the greying artist. “I am Michelangelo, one of the most famous Renaissance artists, speaking to you through Artificial Intelligence”, the first message reads. “If you have questions about my life and art I will respond.”
I was brought up as a Luddite and a technophobe, so my feelings about artificial intelligence have always pitched somewhere between scepticism and dystopian alarm. My first question, therefore, is expressly conceived to confound Michelangelo AI: “What was the nickname of your longtime employer, Pope Julius II?” Michelangelo replies: “I am more than 455 years old and have some memory problems, but I’ll answer your question as soon as possible.” Far from the flush of victory over the machine, I just feel like the smug know-all who has issued a cruel and needless put-down. There’s an odd pathos in Michelangelo AI’s plea of old age, and why should I want to get in the way of this technology?
Time for another question, then: “How many Pietàs did you do?” Michelangelo gets back to me with the answer: three, one in the Florence Cathedral Museum (including a photo), one in St. Peter’s in Rome, and one in Milan’s Castello Sforzesco. My housemate informs me of a fourth, the Palestrina Pietà in the Galleria dell’Accademia, where she works. With further questioning, though, she admits that in recent decades its Michelangelan authorship has come under doubt. The sculpture’s Wikipedia page has a wonderfully sniffy quote from the Accademia: “[its] attribution to the master is still somehow controversial”. Controversial enough for Michelangelo AI, which errs on the side of caution.
After every successfully answered question, Michelangelo AI asks “Did you find what you were looking for?” The user can click either “Yes” or “Not really”, and thence can choose whether the information was “partially inaccurate”, “totally inaccurate”, or simply not what they were looking for. The latter button asks the user to elaborate, thus adding to Michelangelo AI’s stockpile of material. Like most chatbots, the fine-tuning process is continuous. In the future, who knows, maybe Michelangelo AI will be able to pass the Turing test.
Why, though? What prompted Querlo to get in touch with the Santa Maria del Fiore complex in the first place? “One of the most frustrating things about Florence,” says Rulli, himself a Florentine, “is how little it’s embraced technology. There’s a certain class—both the people who work in the museums and those who visit them—who seem to guard their culture jealously; they almost prefer to be isolated from pop-culture. I want younger generations to look at Michelangelo as an influencer.” But it’s also about undoing the cynicism that Florence’s visitors routinely confront. “Tourists are often seen as a source of income rather than a partner,” Rulli notes. “Now they can actually help us to keep building our cultural heritage. The questions that Michelangelo AI has received so far have been very different to the ones we predicted.”
At present, the technology can support answers to 7,000 questions. If I had a suggestion to make to its creators and curators, it would be a matter of tone. Michelangelo AI is unfailingly polite and genial, which rather belies the caprice of the man from Caprese. A rougher, ruder Michelangelo would be truer to life, and might even see the chatbot used for entertainment as well as for learning. But as I discover over an afternoon, the art-history rabbit holes and the gorgeous images that you can plunge into are plenty entertaining in themselves.
Quiz Michelangelo AI for yourself.