British painter David Hockney, readying for a show in London at age 78, told Radio Times, the Brit’s weekly TV and radio program, that he became a better painter as he aged. “The Chinese have a saying, ‘Painting is an old man’s art’... It means it’s an accumulation of things.” Picasso would likely agree. As he famously said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child,” implying that aging liberated him from the traditional cannons of art. And last week British art critic Jonathan Jones seemed to underline the point by noting how Lucien Freud paintings got freer as he matured.

But how does any of that square with Michelangelo’s ability to carve his greatest works, “Pieta” and “David,” before he was thirty and the Sistine Chapel ceiling just three years later? Yes, experience teaches us. Practice and persistence also help, which explains why some talented people fail to achieve. And yes, some things get better with age, like cheese and single malt scotch, but people? Not necessarily. When Michelangelo was 78, he carved another Pieta (“Florentine Pieta”) and at age 89 still another (“Rondanini Pieta”), neither with much distinction.

Childhood matters

Michelangelo had something else going for him that would account for his early success. He was raised in a village rich in quarries of stone used by sculptors. And because his mother was not well, he was nursed by a nearby stonecutter’s wife. As he told his art historian friend Giorgio Vasari, “What good I have comes from suckling in chisels and hammers with my nurse's milk." But there were more solid reasons for his facility with stone-carving.

Given his mother’s poor health, he was sent to live with the stonecutter and his wife where he became familiar with the tools of the trade.

Wait, there’s more. As his friend Asconio Condivi’s biography of him in 1553 noted, in boyhood, Michelangelo often went to the gardens of the Medicis filled with ancient statuary where, disregarding his school work, he’d stayed captivated the day long. At age 13, his father apprenticed him to the celebrated fresco painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio -- clearly an advantage when it came time to paint his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.

Who you know matters

Still it was the boy Michelangelo’s skill with the chisel that impressed Lorenzo de' Medici so much that he brought him into his household to live. Condivi said that when Medici saw the boy carving a god of Love out of marble in the shape of a sleeping boy, he said, “If you were to treat it so it seemed to have been buried I the earth, I would sent it to Rome and it would pass for an antiquity.”

But here’s the kicker.

According to William Wallace’s biography “Michelangelo: The Artist, The Man and His Times,” the artistwould have disagreed with Hockney and Picasso that age makes artists better artists because when he got old, he stopped caring about art in favor of his family.

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