Michelangelo’s Illustrated Grocery List

Image by Casa Buonar­roti, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Michelangelo’s David: The Fas­ci­nat­ing Sto­ry Behind the Renais­sance Mar­ble Cre­ation

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

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Hand­writ­ten Resume (1482)

The Sis­tine Chapel: A $22,000 Art-Book Col­lec­tion Fea­tures Remark­able High-Res­o­lu­tion Views of the Murals of Michelan­ge­lo, Bot­ti­cel­li & Oth­er Renais­sance Mas­ters

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