The Death of Seneca by Peter Paul Rubens 1612-1615
This quote is often misattributed to Michelangelo and occasionally to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Even the American illustrator, Norman Rockwell, is sometimes said to have said it first. Interestingly, all of whom were believe to have said it later in their careers. The quote is actually from Seneca's 76th Letter to Lucilius published in 65AD during the last year of the author's life when he was almost 70 years old. When one considers the age of the author in this letter advising a younger man it is a startlingly humble and at the same time, a heartening revelation. Learning is both difficult and wonderful. And the discomfort that comes from learning is less welcome as we age. Yet life's experiences teach us that to stop learning is to stop creating. It is fitting too that this quote is associated with Michelangelo. It is safe to say that he was one of the most influential and significant artists of Western Civilization. He was born in the small town on Caprese near Florence on March 6th, 1475. He was a renown sculptor, painter, and architect in his own day. And had he not had a famous legacy for his works in the fields of the visual arts, he surely would have been remembered as one of the most significant poets of the High Renaissance. Michelangelo created the iconic Pieta at the age of 23, worked as a designer of military fortifications for the city of Florence for whom he also carved The David. Mid-life he painted the Sistine Chapel and designed large portions of the Vatican complex. There are over 800 works of art and over 300 poems attributed to his hand.
Like many artists I find his work an inspiration, but reading his personal letters has had an even more profound impact on my spirit as an artist. Michelangelo's perseverance, and work ethic would shame any Puritan of the early American colonies. Despite experiencing financial success and great fame in his own lifetime, he lived humbly and simply. He avoided society and sought out time and space for contemplation and his creative endeavors both of which for him provided a deep connection to the Divine. His letters reveal a practically mind man of the world, and a romantic dreamer who was intensely interested in spiritual matters. An introvert by nature, he did not reveal his heart easily, but had the joy of several deep friendships that lasted a lifetime. In his letters he was just as likely to describe a sunset, or the nature of the human soul as he believed it to be, as he was to complain about the cost of pigments and slow paying clients.
His dreams, philosophical musings, as well as day to day business frustrations resonant with freshness today despite the passing of the centuries. Just as his work and the strength of spirit and commitment to excellence which shaped those works continues to inspire today. Michelangelo never stopped working, dreaming, wondering, problem solving, or learning. In his example, I find hope on those more difficult days facing my own work in the studio.
Interested in reading more?
Check out Michelangelo Life, Letters, and Poetry translated by George Bull and edited by Peter Porter