Michelangelo’s Problem Apprentice



What would you do if you were a skilled worker, and you had a lazy apprentice?


The year is 1510.  My name’s Michelangelo.  I’m a famous Italian painter and sculptor.  These days, many fathers get their sons jobs with men who have special skills.  In exchange for doing free work for their masters, the boys are taught a skilled trade.  I, myself, was apprenticed to a painter at the age of 13.  But now, I am the master.  Unfortunately, my apprentices are often failures.  Some weeks ago, my father sent me an apprentice, and this boy has turned out to be the greatest disaster.


At present, I’m in Rome working for the Pope.  I’m painting religious scenes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.  Today, as I’m working, Vasari, a friend, comes into the Chapel.


“Michelangelo,” he shouts.  “Climb down from that scaffold and greet your friend properly.”


Although I’m only 35, I move like a cramped crab, the result of lying on my back with a candle strapped to my head, twisting my body into all sorts of positions to paint the ceiling.


After looking around the Chapel, Vasari says, “Where’s your apprentice?”


I step onto the floor and give him a disgusted look.  “I wish I knew,” I tell him.  “The boy is hopeless.  All he does all day is amuse himself.  He does no work.”


Vasari’s eyes widen.  “Good heavens, Michelangelo!  Don’t tell me you’re stuck with another useless apprentice.  With all the work the Pope has given you to do, you don’t have any time to deal with such domestic problems.”


With a cloth, I wipe the paint from my face and hands.  Shaking my head, I say to Vasari, “The boy annoys me greatly.  I wish I didn’t feel obliged to not humiliate his family.”


Suddenly, my apprentice walks into the Chapel.  He barely looks in our direction before sitting down and beginning to sketch.


Two choices face me:


I can ignore the boy’s laziness and let him carry on as my apprentice, or I can try to find a way to get rid of him.


What should I do?




I wrote a letter to my father, begging him to have the boy taken out of my hands.  In it, I wrote,


“Then there comes this dried up shit of a boy, who says, and says, that he does not want to lose time and that he wants to learn.  When he was in Florence he said that two or three hours would be sufficient: now the whole day is not enough and he wants to be drawing all night as well.  His father has put him up to this.  If I were to say anything to him he would declare that I did not wish him to learn.  I wanted somebody to look after the house; and if he was not prepared to do this they ought not to have put me to this expense.  But they are schemers and working for their own ends: but enough.


“I beg you to have him fetched away, for he annoys me to such an extent that I can bear with him no longer.  The muleteer has received so much money that he can very well afford to take him back again: he is a friend of the boy’s father.”


Points of Interest:


Many people, especially other artists, were jealous of me because of my talent.  What fools!  Had they known how hard I had to work for my art, they would never have spared me a jealous thought.  Painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, I suffered the greatest physical miseries.  Poor lighting meant I was confined to a dark and gloomy place, often lying on my back on tall scaffolding.  My neck caved in, my bones grew funny, paint dripped all over my face, my skin grew loose and long in the front and tight in the back, and my eyesight suffered.  In a letter to my brother Buonarroto on the 24th of July 1512, I wrote,


“I am suffering greater hardships than ever man endured, ill, and with overwhelming labor; still I put up with all in order to reach the desired end.”


Were my efforts worth it?  You be the judge.  Five hundred years later, my work is still there for you to see.