The ruler of Florence, Piero de’ Medici, ordered Michelangelo to make a snowman in the courtyard of his palace.
He is usually censured for that and the snowman is cited as the supreme example of a patron’s abuse of an artist. How could anyone order a great genius to waste his time like that?
But Michelangelo might have liked the idea—it may even have been his.
It rarely snowed in Florence. So everyone was delighted when they woke up one morning in 1494 and saw the ground covered. Michelangelo was nineteen. He must have thrown a snowball or two on his way to the Medici palace, or dodged one. He might even have seen a snowman like this one:
And he must already have had an idea for a great snowman even before he greeted Piero. He could do a swell devil or monster of some kind. Or maybe a beautiful angel. Piero was a young man himself and he and Michelangelo had been friends since the days when Michelangelo lived in the Medici palace, invited by Piero’s dad, Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Now on that exciting day they stood together at the window and looked down at the snow-covered courtyard. “Come on, Michelangelo,” Piero said. “Go out there and make us a real snowman.”
And Michelangelo was probably half-way down the stairs before Piero had finished giving his “order”.
What was the subject of his snow figure? What was it like?
We’ll never know.
His biographer Vasari says only this:
“It is said that Piero de’ Medici, who had been left heir to his father Lorenzo, often used to send for Michelangelo, with whom he had been intimate for many years, when he wanted to buy antiques such as cameos and other engraved stones. And one winter, when a great deal of snow fell in Florence, he had him make in his courtyard a statue of snow, which was very beautiful…”
Life of Michelangelo, p. 332 in the Penguin Classics translation by George Bull.