One internet meme that is taking flight on social media is the handcrafted glory of a grocery list Michelangelo created in the 16th century for his illiterate servant to use while shopping.
“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.
I found great, revelatory joy, in that shopping list.
However, I was disappointed — but not surprised by — many of the lame and forlorn comments made in the streams against the grocery list. Instead of celebrating the genius in the Artist, the internet Neanderthals instead placed modern cudgels against the ancient images by making pizza jokes and sloppy handwriting insults.
What I find most gracious in the imagery is the vast imagination of a man who was able to communicate beauty across the centuries — and who, we now know, was also able in his own time to be tender enough, and thoughtful enough, to not be bound by traditional communicative dyads.
Michelangelo stretched the boundaries of language and text and ciphers and drawings and images to hone in on the way to overcome the wants and merits stranded between educational and cultural crevasses. The brilliance in the effort is one of a simple effectiveness. Don’t understand me? I’ll make it easy and draw what I want so the vendor in the stall and the servant in my employ can both, universally, share an understanding of what is needed.
I admire Michelangelo for finding the most visceral path for getting the job done. Is drawing the real universal language? Is the outline of a fish one of the most commonly understood images across cultures and the call of centuries?
Right communication must be total. If there is a moment for misperception or misunderstanding, then the entire effort fails. How do we know we understand each other without using a verbal reply? We can use facial expressions and hand gestures to let the other person know we are receiving what is being expressed. We could, also, draw a smiling face to help construe comprehension — imagine how our modern text emoji may have roots back to Michelangelo’s hand or, perhaps, even deeper into antiquity, with scratchings on the cave wall.