This is why the divine Michelangelo was named after him. A suggestion with Giuliano Amidei's triptych.

In Michelangelo's birthplace in Caprese, Valtiberina, the room where the genius was given birth houses a triptych by Giuliano Amidei. A work that offers us a suggestion: the possible story of how Michelangelo's parents chose that unusual name for their son.

We are in the sanctum sanctorum, I am told as soon as one enters the last room of the Palazzo del Podestà of Caprese, a severe and square stone building over which the shadows of the mountains of the Valtiberina stretch. Here, in this bare and austere room, amidst the cold and damp, a girl of twenty-four and unsteady health, Francesca, gave birth to her second son on March 6, 1475: the titan Michelangelo was born in this castle hidden among wind-whipped and snow-covered woods, next to the office of his father Ludovico, who, in order to ensure a little economic serenity for a family in ambitches, had accepted the post of podestà of Chiusi and Caprese. Far from his beloved Florence, far from comfort, to administer a hamlet of a few houses in exchange for a salary of five hundred liras for a semester, less than one-fifth of what the podestàs of rich and coveted cities paid.

Long gone were the days when the Buonarroti nobles held the highest public offices in the Florentine state: the family’s decline had forced the 30-year-old Ludovico to move to those remote mountains to fulfill a secondary position, but one that offered him the chance to add income to the family budget and not lose contact with the state administration. Ludovico and Francesca had given the child a name that was rare in Florence and which, moreover, no one in the family had ever borne until then: a strange fact, since in the lineages of the Florentine patriciate, traditions dictated that the name of an ancestor should be used for the unborn child. In the poor room where the divine Michelangelo was born today there is a triptych by Giuliano Amidei to remind us why the relatives had decided to give the little one such an unusual name, to remind us of the anguished episode from which a name destined to resonate in the world and in history was derived. Or at least, that is the suggestion it offers us.

It is a well-preserved work, clearly influenced by the lesson of Piero della Francesca, another native genius of these places: in the center, an imposing Virgin and Child sits on a marble throne, flanked by two angels. The Child bears the coral twig that mothers of good families used to place around the necks of newborn babies, because it was believed to preserve them from disease. But it is also a reference to the blood shed by Christ on the cross, on par with the red stain on the snout of the ever-present goldfinch: we see the little bird tied to Jesus’ finger with a thin thread, interested in a cherry that the left-hand angel is offering him. In the compartments appear the figures of Saints Martin and Romuald on the left, Benedict and Michael on the right. The figure of the Blessing Father, with the book bearing the alpha and omega, stands out in the cusp surmounting the central panel, while above the side panels, in the two roundels, are the figures of the Announcing Angel and the Virgin Announced. In ancient times, the triptych adorned the church of the monastery of Saints Martin and Bartholomew in Tifi, a village not far from Caprese: the ancient Camaldolese abbey, first mentioned as early as 1057, had been founded by Saint Romuald himself. Conservation needs suggested in the early 2000s that the triptych be moved from the small abbey church to the Palazzo del Podestà in Caprese.

Giuliano Amidei, Madonna col Bambino e i santi Martino, Romualdo, Benedetto e Michele (1460 circa; tempera su tavola, 196 x 213 cm; Caprese Michelangelo, Museo Casa Natale di Michelangelo, Palazzo del Podestà)
Giuliano Amidei, Madonna and Child with Saints Martin, Romualdo, Benedict and Michael (c. 1460; tempera on panel, 196 x 213 cm; Caprese Michelangelo, Museo Casa Natale di Michelangelo, Palazzo del Podestà)

Tifi’s triptych is one of the rare known panels by Giuliano Amidei, a Camaldolese monk of Florentine origin who dabbled in painting and miniature. Indeed, the observation of certain descriptive minutiae, notably the very fine transparencies of the Madonna’s veil and the Child’s robe, or the floral decorations of St. Michael’s armor, or even the ornamental motifs of the throne, the rendering of the dragon’s scales, the Virgin’s rings (never seen with such charged fingers!), reveal the skills of an artist who was more miniaturist than painter. The figurative culture is that of mid-15th-century Florence, where in all probability Giuliano Amidei must have been trained: the large, solid volumes are those of Piero della Francesca, the angels flanking the Madonna seem almost a quotation from the Baptism of Christ now in the National Gallery in London, the full, rubicund faces recall the painting of Filippo Lippi, and the bright, vivid colors bring us back to the visions of Beato Angelico. We speak, of course, of a modest work, however fascinating: a “woody modeling,” as art historian Giovanna Damiani has written, “characterizes the saintly monks both in their faces, with their large, dumbfounded eyes, and in their robes, furrowed by deep, regular folds like organ pipes,” and then again Pierfrancesco’s experience is declined according to a somewhat naïve spontaneity, evident in the half-hearted attempt to impart a regularity to the forms and in the even less successful attempt to spread a uniform, crystalline light on the faces of the characters. It is thus in the often realistic rendering of certain details, evidently complacent, that one must find the qualities of this triptych, the work of a painter whom Damiani calls a “pleasant provincial interpreter” of Piero della Francesca.

At the time Michelangelo was born, Giuliano Amidei’s triptych, which we can imagine was executed in the 1560s, was perhaps already being shown to the faithful entering the church of the monastery of Tifi. The artist had painted it at the behest of Abbot Michele da Volterra, whose name is mentioned in the inscription that occupies the lower frame of the work: this explains the presence of St. Michael, next to the dedicatory saint of the abbey, its founder, and the saint who wrote the rule also respected by the Camaldolese. And perhaps Michelangelo’s parents knew that image. Of course, we do not know, and it is likely that we will never know. There are, however, elements that, while not enough to tie the work to Michelangelo with indissoluble bonds, still manage to take the imagination of visitors to the birthplace of the great artist on a journey, but without losing their connections with reality.

It was Alessandro Cecchi, a Michelangelo scholar and director of Casa Buonarroti, who reconstructed the possible story at the origin of the future sculptor’s name in the catalog of the Buonarroti exhibition held at the Palazzo Ducale in Genoa in 2020. It all stemmed from an event that had something miraculous about it. “It seemed that [Michelangelo] in a particular way was preserved from Heaven,” his descendant Filippo Buonarroti had to write in 1746: “for his mother, being pregnant with him, in the journey fell from her horse, and was straggled for a piece and did not dishevel.” Francesca was on her way to Caprese when she fell from her horse and was dragged for a few meters: yet, she emerged unharmed from the accident. And with her, so did the child with whom she was pregnant.

The episode was also painted by the great Florentine painter Francesco Furini in one of the two monochromes in the Camera della Notte e del D́ of Casa Buonarroti, since Francesca’s fall from her horse has been part of family mythology for centuries. A story, then, known to all Michelangelo scholars. Cecchi, however, has tried to suggest a possible and precise temporal collocation: “The incident,” the scholar wrote, “must have occurred most likely on September 29, 1474, when Ludovico was moving with his wife from Florence to the podestarile seat assigned to him, with obligation of residence, from the end of September, in Caprese.” September 29, the day of St. Michael the Archangel: perhaps then precisely by grace received from the saint the child was named in his honor. Now, it is true that art history is not the science of the impossible, and every risky hypothesis must be rejected without hesitation. Art history is, however, the discipline of the plausible, and it is not certain that messer Ludovico di Leonardo Buonarroti Simoni and madonna Francesca di Neri del Miniato del Sera, in their six months’ stay in Caprese, did not on some occasion see Giuliano Amidei’s triptych, assuming it was really painted before 1475. And so sometimes, staying within the realm of the plausible, it is also nice to fantasize about what might have been. And, if it all adds up, imagine Michelangelo’s parents intent on revering the image of the saint who had given birth to their son under a happy star. That same image that can be admired today in the palace that for a few months was their home, Michelangelo’s birthplace.