The One about Michelangelo and the Onions: Jokes and Cultural Anxiety in the Early Sixteenth Century
By Jill Burke
Studies on Florence and the Italian Renaissance in Honour of F. W. Kent, edited by Cecilia Hewlett and Peter Howard (Brepols, 2016)
Introduction: When Raphael died on April 7 1520, much of Rome was devastated by the loss of such a talented young man. The Rome-based Venetian painter, Sebastiano del Piombo, however, saw a job opportunity. Less than a week after Raphael’s death, Sebastiano wrote to his friend in Florence, Michelangelo, to ask him for a recommendation to take over some of Raphael’s work in the Vatican. Michelangelo sat down to compose a letter some time near the end of June. He wrote to Bernardo Dovizi da Bibbiena, the Cardinal of Santa Maria in Portico:
‘Monsignore. I beg your most reverend Lordship, not as a friend or as a servant – for I am not worthy to be neither one nor the other – but as a vile, poor and crazy man, that you will cause Bastiano the Venetian painter to be given some part of the work at the [Vatican] Palace now that Raphael is dead. And if it seems to your Lordship that kindness to people like me would be thrown away, I think that even in helping the crazy you can occasionally find a certain sweetness, like the kind you get in onions when you change diet, for those who are tired of capons. You are served by men of account every day; perhaps your lordship should try me out. The service you give us would be very great; and if your kind offices are thrown away on me, they will not be thrown away on Bastiano, for I am certain that he will bring honour to your Lordship; Bastiano is a worthy man, and I know he will do you honour.’
On July 3, Sebastiano reports that Dovizi ‘asked me if I had read your letter. I said no; he laughed a lot, almost as if it were a practical joke, and left me with good words. Afterwards I understood from [Baccio Bandinelli] … that the Cardinal had showed him your letter, and had showed it to the Pope, that there was almost no other subject to talk about in the palace but your letter, and it made everyone laugh’.
Why was this letter so funny – and why did Michelangelo write a comedic letter in the first place? The correspondence between Michelangelo and Sebastiano in 1520 is an extraordinarily rich source of information about artistic personality, patronage processes and social mores. Not surprisingly, these letters have been discussed before by art historians, most recently by Rona Goffen.
This article takes Michelangelo’s joke letter as a central starting point to investigate the texture of relationships within elite circles in Rome and Florence in the early sixteenth-century, and in particular, to show how visual and verbal humour at this time acted as a means through which to express anxieties about the pace of social change.