Lessons from the Master

I’ve been reading bits and pieces of The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene, and recently came across this story:

In 1502, in Florence, Italy, an enormous block of marble stood in the works department of the church of Santa Maria del Fiore. It had once been a magnificent piece of raw stone, but an unskilled sculptor had mistakenly bored a hole through it where there should have been a figure’s legs, generally mutilating it…So, despite the money that had been wasted on it, it gathered dust in the dark halls of the church.

This was where things stood until some Florentine friends of the great Michelangelo decided to write to the artist, then living in Rome…Michelangelo traveled to Florence, examined the stone, and came to the conclusion that he could in fact carve a figure from it, by adapting the pose to the way the rock had been mutilated. Soderini [the mayor of Florence] argued that this was a waste of time—nobody could salvage such a disaster—but he finally agreed to let the artist work on it…

Weeks later, as Michelangelo was putting the final touches on the statue, Soderini entered the studio. Fancying himself a bit of a connoisseur, he studied the huge work and told Michelangelo that while he thought it was magnificent, the nose, he judged, was too big. Michelangelo realized that Soderini was standing in a place right under the giant figure and did not have the proper perspective. Without a word, he gestured for Soderini to follow him up the scaffolding. Reaching the nose, he picked up his chisel, as well as a bit of marble dust that lay on the planks. With Soderini just a few feet below him on the scaffolding, Michelangelo started to tap lightly with the chisel, letting the bits of dust he had gathered in his hand to fall little by little. He actually did nothing to change the nose, but gave every appearance of working on it. After a few minutes of this charade, he stood aside. “Look at it now.”

“I like it better,” replied Soderini. “You’ve made it come alive.”

The statue was Michelangelo’s David. And there are a few very applicable things to take away from this story.

1) The first is a lesson in diplomacy. As Greene points out, arguing with a man like Soderini would have earned Michelangelo nothing and perhaps endangered future commissions.

2) Michelangelo worked with what he had. He worked “inside the box,” as Ernie Schenk might say. To bring this down to the level of what we do, if you know, in your TV spot, you have to show a big product shot and have someone say “Wow! This magic lotion sure does make my legs feel younger!” try starting there and building the spot around it.

3) Perspective is everything.