Michelangelo more a prince than a pauper


Michelangelo, who painted the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel and designed the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, passed himself off as poor but was actually too miserly to show his huge wealth, a U.S. art historian says.

“He was a funny sort of man, somewhat paranoid and somewhat dishonest, who didn’t want it to be known he was fabulously rich,” Rab Hatfield, a professor at the Florence branch of Syracuse University, said in an interview Monday.

Michelangelo complained in his old age that he was living in poverty, but Hatfield says he had amassed a massive fortune from creating masterworks such as his gleaming white marble David, now in Florence’s Accademia Gallery.


Hatfield has unearthed two of Michelangelo’s bank accounts and numerous deeds of purchase that show the prolific painter, sculptor and architect was worth about 50,000 gold ducats when he died in 1564, more than many princes and dukes of his time.

“It was an enormous, truly enormous amount of money,” said Hatfield, who has published his findings in a book titled “The Wealth of Michelangelo.”

By way of comparison, he pointed out that the Pitti Palace, a grandiose construction in central Florence that is now a vast art gallery, was sold to a duchess during Michelangelo’s lifetime for 9,000 gold ducats.

“He liked to keep large amounts of money in a wooden box by his bed. When he died, 8,400 ducats were found in the box,” Hatfield said.

Most of the fortune, however, was tied up in real estate, including a farm near Rome that produced a handsome income, as well as houses in central Rome and Florence.

“Michelangelo tried to give the impression that his patrons, especially the popes, had treated him unfairly, when the reverse was true,” Hatfield said. “They paid him extremely good money, but he bit off more than he could chew and sometimes didn’t deliver.”


The artist’s bank account in Rome showed that Pope Julius II shelled out colossal advance payments on 40 life-size statues Michelangelo was supposed to create for the pope’s tomb. Busy with other commissions, Michelangelo completed only three of the statues -- although one of them, a seated Moses, is among his masterworks.

“If that Moses were on the market today, I can hardly imagine the sums it would be worth, so in a way you could say the payment was fair,” Hatfield said. “But by the standards of the time, he was way overpaid.”

Hatfield said the legend of a cash-strapped Michelangelo had endured because the bank accounts hadn’t yet come to light and because it was a more pleasing story than the truth.

“We like our artists to be poor and suffering; we don’t like them to be filthy rich,” he said.