Nose Knows: Michelangelo and his Nose

What could Michelangelo and Michael Jackson possibly have in common? Well, for one thing, they both have Michael in their name. They were both brilliant and popular artists of their time who were terribly misunderstood and harped upon. And last but not least, they both held a serious grudge against their noses.

It may be difficult for us to conceive of someone being so distressed by a single feature on their face long before plastic surgery was even thought of, but Michelangelo bemoaned his nose for most of his life and would have leaped at a chance to get a rhinoplasty.

My art history teacher introduced this topic to us when we were studying several of Masaccio’s frescos in the Brancacci Chapel. When the powerpoint hit his most famous, “The Tribute Money,” she turned to us and asked, “Do you know what happened in front of this fresco?” We expected some sort of dramatic historical event, like the signing of a document or it being a hiding place during a war. Her answer was far more blunt.

“Michelangelo got punched in the face.”

The story goes that as a young art student, Michelangelo was visiting the chapel to study the frescoes with the rest of Lorenzo de Medici’s art school. He could be a bit obnoxious at times, and apparently this was one of those times, as he nastily criticized the copies other students were making in their sketchbooks. Finally, one of the students, Torrigiano, got sick of Michelangelo’s attitude and punched him right in the face. Hard.

Michelangelo’s nose was broken, essentially squashed into his face, and medical care not being great at the time, he remained disfigured for the rest of his life. Torrigiano fled Florence for fear of what Lorenzo would do to him for harming the “star student.” He was forever known as “that guy who messed up Michelangelo’s nose.”

Michelangelo continued his art, depressed and plagued by a dearth of problems besides his nose, which remained as the icing on the cake. Yet, if one good thing came out of the experience, it was that he became obsessed with his own damaged face, including representations of himself in a great many of his works. His imperfect nose may have been one of his many inspirations.

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