Michelangelo Buonarroti, the greatest of the Italian Renaissance artists, was born in the small village of Caprese on March 6th 1475. The son of a government administrator, he grew up in Florence, a centre of the early Renaissance movement, and became an artist’s apprentice at age 13. Demonstrating obvious talent, he was taken under the wing of Lorenzo de’Medici, the ruler of the Florentine republic and a great patron of the arts. For two years beginning in 1490, he lived in the Medici palace, where he was a student of the sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni and studied the Medici art collection, which included ancient Roman statuary. His most important early work was the Pieta (1498), a sculpture based on a traditional type of devotional image that showed the body of Christ in the lap of the Virgin Mary. Demonstrating masterful technical skill, he extracted the two perfectly balanced figures of the Pieta from a single block of marble. This led to his commission to sculpt the biblical figure of David and in 1508 he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, one of his most memorable works.
Michelangelo worked until his death in 1564. In addition to his major artistic works, he produced numerous other sculptures, frescoes, architectural designs, and drawings, many of which are unfinished and some of which are lost. He was also an accomplished poet, and some 300 of his poems are preserved. In his lifetime, he was celebrated as Europe’s greatest living artist, and today he is held up as one of the greatest artists of all time, as exalted in the visual arts as William Shakespeare is in literature or Ludwig van Beethoven is in music.
Polymaths like Michelangelo are those who have expertise in many different area and are often referred to as Renaissance Men (because so many all-round geniuses emerged in that period). However, what leads some people to be brilliant at everything? Geniuses are incredibly rare statistically (some argue there are no more than one genius per million people), and it seems inconceivable that a brilliant physicist could also be a first-rate musician.
But Robert Plomin, professor of behavioural genetics at King’s College London, argues that those with exceptional intelligence tend to be brilliant in many areas, not just one. Somebody who excels in any particular area – whether it be in sports, music or the arts – tends to have an above average IQ. And those who insist that they’re brilliant in just one subject aren’t simply being modest – they consider their other talents to be poor compared to their greatest achievement.
Aesop’s fable tells the tale of a hedgehog who knows a lot about one little subject, and a fox who knows a little about a lot of subjects. Whilst Academia today seems to favour hedgehogs rather than foxes, arguably the really big advances come from the foxes who know a little bit about a lot of things and can put two and two together, rather than the hedgehogs who are burrowing away and trying to find out more and more about less.
Of course, most of us would love the chance to be a hedgehog and be considered a genius in a specific field. But if you’re already a hedgehog then it’s difficult not to wonder: how does the world look from the perspective of a fox?