The great Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo ate fish and bread like most everybody else. In his 16th century handwritten list of 15 grocery items with accompanying illustrations, the artist requested fish, bread, two fennel soups, a herring (un aringa), four anchovies, tortelli, and wine (“un bocal di vino”), among other items. He sketched the food items not just for the fun of it, but rather because his servant was illiterate. This grocery list is archived at the Florence museum Casa Buonarroti, where one can find more of the artist’s handwritten notes, and works of art such as “Madonna of the Stairs“ (1490).
This same grocery list appeared in an exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum a few years ago, alongside 11 other drawings, also from the Casa Buonarroti. Yet this grocery list, along with any sketches of masterworks of art rather than the works themselves, is the opposite of what Michelangelo would have wanted the public to see.
The sketches on display in Seattle showed the artist’s creative process behind the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508–1512) and the Last Judgment fresco (1536–1541). The Seattle Times’ Gayle Clemans writes:
None of the drawings was meant to be seen by the public. Art historian [Gary] Radke states that Michelangelo didn’t want anyone to see anything less than the perfected, finished works, and that the artist was a shrewd businessman who cultivated his an image as an inspired genius.
Considered in a contemporary art museum context, one might expect to see this list reproduced as an excellent souvenir sticker or fridge magnet on sale at the museum’s gift store. Yet despite Michelangelo’s best intentions to keep his non-masterpieces private, this grocery list comes across as inspired if only because it reminds us that even famous artists need to eat.