In A Nutshell
The history of art is full of lost masterpieces. Works by Picasso were burned by the Nazis, and frescoes by Leonardo da Vinci were painted over. But none of them can hold a candle to Michelangelo’s greatest lost work. In January 1494, an unseasonable snowfall occurred in Florence. At the insistence of his patron, Michelangelo went outside and sculpted a snowman. It’s been called the greatest snowman ever built.
The Whole Bushel
In early 1494, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was an up-and-coming young artist under the patronage of Piero de’ Medici. Still over a decade away from creating his world-famous sculpture of David, and not quite 20 years old, he wasn’t yet the titan of Renaissance art he’d come to be known as. Yet even at this young age, Michelangelo was supremely talented.
That winter had been an unseasonably cold one in Florence. Mild weather had given way to freezing winds and ice, of the likes that wouldn’t be seen again until the intensely cold European winters of 1550–1700. Then in January something wholly unexpected happened. A snowstorm descended that left the city covered in deep drifts. This wasn’t the usual light dusting of a cold Florentine winter; this was the sort of snowfall more suited to Northern Europe. Evidently not one to waste an opportunity, Piero de’ Medici sent his young artist out into the snow-covered courtyard with instructions to make him a snowman. It’s a task Michelangelo apparently took to heart.
According to the 15th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari, the snowman Michelangelo made wasn’t just any snowman. It was possibly the greatest snow sculpture in the history of the world. The New York Times claims it was a dry run for his sculpture of David; if true, Michelangelo’s snowman would have been a heroic figure looming over the courtyard, all poise and muscle and magnificence. It was a true work of art. Those that saw it called the figure “very beautiful.”
Sadly, by its very nature the sculpture couldn’t last. Vasari neglects to mention how long it stayed there, slowly warming in the sun’s rays, but it can’t have been much more than a day or two before this proto-David vanished into history. With it went one of Michelangelo’s earliest masterpieces and, in all likelihood, what was probably the greatest snowman in human history.
Show Me The Proof
The Guardian: Michelangelo’s snowman and other great lost works of art
NY Times: Fleeting Artworks, Melting Like Sugar
1616: The World in Motion, by Thomas Christensen