Michelangelo’s Handwritten 16th-Century Grocery List


Click for larg­er image

I admit to hav­ing a hard time keep­ing gro­cery lists. Do I write them by hand? If so, do I do it in a ded­i­cat­ed note­book, on a refrig­er­a­tor pad, or on any old scrap I find around? Do I com­pose them elec­tron­i­cal­ly, using some com­bi­na­tion of my com­put­er, my phone, and oth­er, more spe­cial­ized devices? And do I keep sep­a­rate lists for sep­a­rate trips to sep­a­rate stores? (Cer­tain del­i­ca­cies, after all, you can only get at Trad­er Joe’s.)

Liv­ing in the 15th and 16th cen­turies, the Ital­ian High Renais­sance sculp­tor, painter, archi­tect, poet, and engi­neer Michelan­ge­lo faced a rather less com­pli­cat­ed shop­ping prob­lem: he had only to send assis­tants off to mar­ket to bring back what he need­ed. Though van­ish­ing­ly few of this pro­lif­ic cre­ator’s papers sur­vive today, we do hap­pen to have a few of the gro­cery lists he sent with them, like that which you see above.

John Updike once wrote that “excel­lence in the great things is built upon excel­lence in the small,” and the obser­va­tion holds up ide­al­ly when we think about Michelan­gelo’s numer­ous great achieve­ments — PietàDavidThe Last Judg­ment, St. Peter’s Basil­i­ca — in com­par­i­son to this hum­ble yet strik­ing run­down of ingre­di­ents for a meal, of the same basic kind each of us scrawl out reg­u­lar­ly. But when Michelan­ge­lo scrawled, he scrawled with both a craftsman’s prac­ti­cal pre­ci­sion and an artist’s evoca­tive flair. “Because the ser­vant he was send­ing to mar­ket was illit­er­ate,” writes the Oregonian‘s Steve Duin in a review of a Seat­tle Art Muse­um show, “Michelan­ge­lo illus­trat­ed the shop­ping lists — a her­ring, tortel­li, two fen­nel soups, four anchovies and ‘a small quar­ter of a rough wine’ — with rushed (and all the more exquis­ite for it) car­i­ca­tures in pen and ink.” As we can see, the true Renais­sance Man didn’t just pur­sue a vari­ety of inter­ests, but applied his mas­tery equal­ly to tasks excep­tion­al and mun­dane. Which, of course, ren­ders the mun­dane excep­tion­al.

via Bib­liok­lept

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Take a 3D Vir­tu­al Tour of the Sis­tine Chapel, St. Peter’s Basil­i­ca and Oth­er Art-Adorned Vat­i­can Spaces

The Anatom­i­cal Draw­ings of Renais­sance Man, Leonar­do da Vin­ci

Zoom­ing into Ital­ian Mas­ter­pieces

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, lit­er­a­ture, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Face­book page.

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Comments (21)
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  • Ben IncaHutz says:

    Thats alot of fish. I’m sure his breath smelled amaz­ing.

  • jethro full says:

    What a waste of time to draw pic­tures of your gro­cery list items.

  • Meximo says:

    I live with three artists — hus­band and our 2 boys. My hus­band will draw next to my hand­writ­ten gro­cery list. It amus­es him. My old­est son will also draw on the gro­cery list espe­cial­ly when he wants some­thing spe­cif­ic. I’m high­ly enter­tained.

  • Doug Metcalfe says:

    That is awe­some! Even the images he scrib­bled down to describe what he want­ed from the mar­ket look bet­ter than most peo­ple’s draw­ings. What a extra­or­di­nary look at the ordi­nary!

  • Mike says:

    Karl Pilk­ing­ton taught me this years ago!

  • MMatias says:

    I find it most beau­ti­ful and kind.
    A true mas­ter. I will try to have a copy of it in my kitchen wall. What a great human being he was.
    My oth­er half must have a dia­gram with all the spec­i­fi­ca­tions of the item on the shop­ping list. He is an Oxford grad­u­ate and holds a
    PhD.We are very dif­fer­ent indeed. I am for­ev­er mak­ing do.

  • Barbara Corbeil says:

    Beau­ti­ful gro­cery list, thanks for the love­ly arti­cle. I tried to fig­ure out some of the list, lol, and did­n’t do well:) I too would like this piece up in my home. Hap­py 2014

  • PacRim Jim says:

    John Updike once wrote that ”excel­lence in the great things is built upon excel­lence in the small”

    I read Rab­bit, Run. Had Updike evinced such con­cern for detail in his own work, I would­n’t have had to plod uphill through page after tedious page.

  • Pete Walrath says:

    @jethro full

    what a waste of time? not if that’s what he want­ed to do… what are you doing right now, hang­ing out on Face­book and crit­i­ciz­ing a great man’s use of his time 400 years ago? do you see the irony here? moron.

  • Abhi says:

    “[Jeeves] eats tons of fish and moves in mys­te­ri­ous ways” as Bertie Woost­er used to say. Charm­ing dia­gram.

  • Captain Obvious says:

    Srsly? Those doo­dles would not have helped his ser­vant fig­ure out a her­ring, tortel­li, two fen­nel soups, four anchovies and ‘a small quar­ter of a rough wine’. They’re just doo­dles peo­ple.

  • Joanne says:

    Seri­ous­ly?? Some­one actu­al­ly finds a trea­sure like this and peo­ple are cri­tiquing it and crit­i­ciz­ing his pur­pose for doing so? Get real peo­ple!! This is a find.…..who cares why he did this, I’m just glad he did!

  • Teri Dean says:

    Does any­one know where I can pur­chase a print of the gro­cery list??

  • Anne Lewis says:

    Two ques­tions.

    Why do you think he wrote the list if it was for the illit­er­ate ser­vant? Did he make the list for him­self first so he would­n’t for­get any­thing (or maybe he kept a run­ning list, adding to it as he had need) then illus­trate it?

    Also, what is that fad­ed writ­ing on the side?

  • Debbie Tabor says:

    Even though he used iron gall ink, I doubt it’s fad­ing. More than like­ly it’s the real mes­sage. Writ­ten in invis­i­ble ink. Age seems make it more vis­i­ble. It’s ledg­i­bile on the 5ft by 7ft CANVAS, OIL paint­ing I’m study­ing. Ancient Ital­ian, Michelan­gelo’s real bio, cov­ers the back form­ing a Giant MB. His sig­na­ture, first and last name and it’s dat­ed. Pho­tos to ver­i­fy this, all true, but I doubt this will be print­ed because some group does not want the truth exposed.

  • Lizzie says:

    It’s inter­est­ing that this has been inter­pret­ed to be a shop­ping list. I thought , when I first saw it , that it was a list of the items he was going to put on the table for the Last Sup­per that he paint­ed, as some things were in bowls,; but yes I see now it’s prob­a­bly a shop­ping list. But then Deb­bie’s the­o­ry that it was real­ly mask­ing a mes­sage is intrigu­ing and believ­able too, for those were dif­fi­cult times.

  • Danny Welsh says:

    This is some­thing I’ve tried to share for years with employ­ees and mentees: how you do any­thing is how you do every­thing. That may or may not be a direct quote from Michelangelo…but I remem­ber years back learn­ing it as such and believ­ing it. In fact, my cur­rent com­pa­ny CubicZirconia.com has two max­ims: 1) bet­ter every day, 2) how you do any­thing is how you do every­thing. What a great way to exem­pli­fy such a core con­cept, thanks “Mic”!

  • dr pepper says:

    This reminds me of anoth­er arti­cle i saw once. It was about a small odd sketch attrib­uted to Michelan­ge­lo that baf­fled schol­ars for years. Final­ly some­one fig­ured out that it was a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a man’s shoul­der from above, appar­ent­ly prac­tice for a detail in one of his paint­ings.

  • Judy Adams says:

    His ser­vants were his pupils who spoke dif­fer­ent lan­guages, from dif­fer­ent coun­tries. They may have been illit­er­ate to his lan­guage but by no means une­d­u­cat­ed.

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