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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Book: Michelangelo Was a Miser

FLORENCE, Italy -- A visitor to this gilded city is struck almost instantly by Michelangelo's creative munificence. In domes, chapels and statues, he left the world with some of its most sublime works of art.

But that is only part of the picture, and the rest turns out to be less flattering. Half a millennium after the carving of the David, it is now known that the man who lavished his time and energy on many a Renaissance masterpiece did not lavish his money on many people, including himself.

Michelangelo, beneath it all, was a miser.

That is one conclusion of a recently published book, "The Wealth of Michelangelo," by an art historian who found a surprising financial profile of unacknowledged wealth and unwarranted thrift in Renaissance archives.

Although Michelangelo bellyached aplenty about deprivation and has often been cast as somewhat poor, he died in 1564 with the modern equivalent of tens of millions of dollars, according to American professor Rab Hatfield, who teaches at the Syracuse University program in Florence.

That money was not some late-in-life windfall. Hatfield's research shows that for most of Michelangelo's nearly 89 years, he was marginally, moderately or massively rich. But he often refused to show it, and often declined to share it.

"He was the richest artist of all time," at least until that time, Hatfield said. "It was phenomenal."

And yet, Hatfield said, Michelangelo would complain to family members about how short of money he was, melodramatically bemoaning his lot while warding off their requests for help.

On the road with a pair of assistants, Michelangelo would get just one bed for all of them, and the reason, Hatfield said, was not erotic but economic.

Hatfield's research, begun nearly eight years ago, started to draw widespread attention only over the last few months after the release of his book, published in Italy in English.

That research confirms, and adds copious detail to, something that art historians have come to realize about Michelangelo but many other people have not: Any agony that sullied his ecstasy wasn't financial.

By the time he was 30, he already had the David and Piet? under his belt, and his fee, like his reputation, was gigantic.

Hatfield homed in on that through several bank accounts that had never been studied before during a research mission with other purposes.

He was trying to come up with a better timeline for the painting of various scenes on the Sistine Chapel's ceiling, and some of Michelangelo's undated letters from that period, talking about that work, referred to bank deposits.

"If you could locate the bank accounts, you could date the letters," Hatfield explained. So he located them, in a place where records of Leonardo da Vinci's exhaustively scrutinized accounts had previously been found.

He spotted references to sums of gold currency that equaled hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars.

"When I saw the figures, I forgot all about the ceiling," he said.

Hatfield wove together information in those records; the records of another bank account, in Rome; Michelangelo's frequently studied letters; and biographies of Michelangelo.

One result was a portrait of the artist as a hugely successful, strangely parsimonious entrepreneur -- and as a pivotal figure in the transition of creative geniuses from people regarded, and paid, as craftsmen to people accorded a greater level of treatment and compensation.

Michelangelo was treated, and compensated, very well.

When Michelangelo worked on the Laurentian Library here in Florence, he was on a monthly salary from Pope Clement VII that equaled about $600,000 a year, Hatfield said.

For a tomb for Pope Julius II, according to Hatfield, Michelangelo got the rough equivalent, by one calculation, of more than $10 million over time, even though he did not come close to completing the project.

"He accepted about four times as much work as he could ever possibly do, but he got big fat advance payments," Hatfield said.

While he owned land, paid his assistants well and, in fact, helped his family immensely, he held tight to much or even most of his money.

Hatfield said that the house in Rome in which Michelangelo died had little furniture, no books and no jewels, but it did have a chest with almost enough gold currency to buy the Pitti Palace.

What kind of person did that make Michelangelo?

"I guess you could say cheap," Hatfield said.

"With sports stars, movie stars, you think of how much money they make, but artists we like to think of as poor," the professor said. "If you're rich, it's cheating. You've got to starve."