December 6, 2023

Image of Casa Buonarroti, via Wikimedia Commons

I admit I have trouble keeping a grocery list. Do I write them by hand? If so, do I do it in a dedicated laptop, fridge pad or some old junk I can find? Do I file them electronically using some combination of computer, phone, and other more specialized devices? And should I keep separate lists for separate trips to separate stores? (You can only find certain treats at Trader Joe’s, after all.)

The Italian High Renaissance sculptor, painter, architect, poet and engineer Michelangelo, who lived in the 15th and 16th centuries, faced a somewhat less complicated shopping problem: he had only to send helpers to the market to bring back what he needed. Although very few of this prolific creator’s documents survive today, we do happen to have several grocery lists he sent with them, like the one you see above.

John Updike once wrote that “excellence in great things is built upon excellence in small things” and this observation holds up perfectly when we consider Michelangelo’s many great achievements – Piety, David, The Last Judgement, St. Peter’s Basilica—compared to this modest but striking list of food ingredients, of the same basic kind that each of us regularly scrapes by. But when Michelangelo scribbled, he scribbled with both the practical precision of a craftsman and an artistically suggestive flair. “Because the servant he sent to market was illiterate,” writes Steve Duin of the Oregonian in a review of the Seattle Art Museum exhibit, “Michelangelo illustrated shopping lists—herring, tortelli, two fennel soups, four anchovies, and a ‘little.’ quarter of coarse wine” — with hasty (and more exquisite) caricatures in pen and ink.” As we see, the true Renaissance man did not only pursue various interests, but also applied his mastery to extraordinary and mundane tasks. Which, however, makes the mundane extraordinary.

Related Content:

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