Peter Barenboim

The Mouse of Medici and Michelangelo

The sculpture of Lorenzo de Medici by Michelangelo from the Medici Chapel is also known by the name of “The Thinker.” Despite the armour covering his body, Michelangelo’s Lorenzo personifies The Thinker more persuasively than the famous bronze statute by Rodin.

Officially this statue is attributed to Lorenzo de Medici, the Duke of Urbino, who was a military commander, but hardly a thinker. Moreover, he was extremely unpopular in Florence. More probably, the statue was actually attributed by Michelangelo to the grandfather of the Duke of Urbino, — Lorenzo the Magnificent whom the young Michelangelo had considered to be his godfather. The latter indeed was a great thinker, philosopher and poet. It is worth mentioning he was also celebrated as the winner of many a jousting tournament.

Furthermore, Lorenzo the Magnificent was the last banker in the Medici family who formally controlled their European banking network. Most of the Medici money at the time of his rule, however, were spent on public and cultural life of Florence. As a result, Lorenzo’s banking business had gradually declined, while his profusive donations to artists, philosophers and sculptors, including Michelangelo Buonarroti, largely contributed to his fame and won him the title of “Magnificent.”

The marble Lorenzo is holding under his left elbow a small box with a murine head, either looking out from it or serving as an ornament (some still argue it is a bat’s head). Michelangelo’s pupil Ascanio Condivi, in his Michelangelo biography book, says the sculptor wanted to use a block of marble for carving a mouse as a symbol of the time devouring us.

More frequently, this box is regarded as a money box. This assumption commands a special attention as a money box would be the most appropriate attribute for Lorenzo the Magnificent as a banker, while hardly being suitable for his grandson — also Lorenzo — who died early and was infamous for his notoriously bad rule of Florence. Lorenzo Junior never had anything to do with banking nor was he ever remembered for his charity exploits.

Or maybe a money box could serve to ascertain the statue was dedicated to Lorenzo the Magnificent rather than to his lackluster grandson. Famous art expert John Pope-Hennesy, in his book entitled “The Italian Renaissance & Baroque Sculpture”, makes a very important point. He writes, “It is often difficult to trace the thoughts and motives of a great artist, and at first sight it appears strange that in 1534 Michelangelo should have looked at the great statues strewn about the Chapel floor for the last time, and then had been for 30 years persistently refusing not only to place them in position, but even to explain how he intended to do it. His motive, however, becomes much clearer when we examine the individual sculptures.”

But how can one prove that the box under the statue’s elbow is related to money? What does a mouse have to do with it? A clue can be unexpectedly found in the Orient.

We will not take the risk of stating that — based on some of its features — the statue of Lorenzo resembles Indian statuettes depicting Hindu deities and gods. Several scholars have already noted its distinctions from the European tradition of sepulchral sculpture existing before Michelangelo. However, in doing so, they usually attributed it to the great sculptor's innovative approach. We will now try focusing on the murine image directly associated with the image of Hindu and Buddhist God Ganesh who is usually depicted with an elephantine head. Ganesh is the god of wisdom and success. The mouse serves as his symbolic vehicle. It is usually depicted under his arm or foot, or (in considerably larger-than-life proportions) as Ganesh's carrier. Sometimes, Ganesh holds a pot of jewels (ratna kumbha) in his hand. We also found some statuettes of Ganesh where this pot of jewels was offered by a mouse.

Throughout our stay in Nepal, where the mixed Hindu-Buddhist tradition has been preserved in the same form it had existed at the Hindustan peninsula fifteen hundred years ago, we discovered that, according to the generally accepted belief, Ganesh’s mouse merges with and plays the same role as the mongoose, usually depicted under the hand of God Kubera, the god of wealth and prosperity (his Buddhist name being Jambhala). Both animals are depicted disgorging precious stones, thereby symbolizing the creator of affluence. Such images may be found on traditional Buddhist thangkas — the icons painted on paper or silk. During our conversation with former Buddhist monk Lama Tsonamgel (now he owns the famous workshop in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, where thangkas are produced, we discovered that the image of Ganesh’s mouse as a symbol of the producer of wealth is very similar, or even identical, to the mongoose of Kubera, the god of wealth and prosperity. On many thangkas the mongoose of Kubera (Jambhala) resembles the mouse of Ganesh, and both are depicted disgorging precious stones. Lama Tsonamgel explained to us that this tradition exists both in Nepal and Tibet.

A well-known U.S. expert on the Medici Chapel and professor of Carnerie-Mellon University Edith Balas presumed after another expert—Erwin Panofsky—that the iconography of Lorenzo was much similar to that of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, justice and strength. She writes, “The cash box Lorenzo leans upon refers to Saturn’s speciality as the god of hidden things. Metaphorically, this is in line with Michelangelo’s habit of developing secret, elaborate iconographies...

Michelangelo's success in accomplishing his intent may be judged by the deep mystery enveiling his images, the one so deep that even Vasari and Condivi, his closest contemporaries and colleagues, were unable to fathom it.” So the existence of a certain relation between the iconography of the statue of Lorenzo and that of some ancient god was already noted by some art experts.

We suggest considering a possibility that Michelangelo might also have been aware of the mouse as a symbol of prosperity and wealth, and that he used the imagery he might have observed in some Indian thangkas or statuettes. In this booklet we supply the illustrations substantiating the above Hinduist-Buddhist pictorial and sculptural traditions.

Someone, however, may raise a doubt that Michelangelo could have ever seen any images of Indian deities. To assuage such concerns, we should say that Indian soldiers definitely visited ancient Greece as part of the Persian troops already in 480 B.C.[1]

[1] Famous British historian Arnold Toynbee in his book “A Study of History” mentions the usage of ratlike and murine deities in the Buddhist iconography. Also, in his description of the role of various Hindu gods, he makes a reference to the thangka created in the fifth century A.D. Thangkas and statuettes from India could have been brought to Italy together with other Oriental products, and Michelangelo might have seen some of those; he also could have met people familiar with them.

Later in the fourth century B.C., the troops led by Alexander the Great were sure to bring back home from India as their trophies the statuettes of Hindu deities made from ivory, gold and silver.

The Indian thangkas have been known in Europe since the seventh century A.D. The flourishing trade with India carried via the Mediterranean in the days of Michelangelo was very likely to bring to Europe a steady supply of Indian statuettes and silken thangkas.

Socrates was once mentioned to engage in a dialogue with an Indian Brahmin, and there exists a thought-provoking historical hypothesis according to which Pythagoras had acquired most of his scientific and philosophical ideas in the sixth century B.C. when he was travelling across India. Incidentally, the distance from the ancient Greek colonies in Asia Minor to India exceeds but slightly that to France.

Neo-Platonism—the state ideology in Florence during the reign of Lorenzo the Magnificent in the time of Michelangelo’s maturity—had taken its root in ancient Alexandria, the city known to have contained both Hindu and Buddhist communities.

We should not forget that Buddhism is six centuries—and Hinduism – three millennia—older than Christianity.

The circulation of the works of art between India and Europe might have provoked the circulation of ideas and artistic concepts that could have laid the basis for deliberations at the Florentine Platonic Academy which young Michelangelo might have attended to hear such renowned philosophers as Pico della Mirandolla, Ficino, and Policiano indulge in a philosophical discourse.

We should also remember that in the ancient Greek tradition the mouse was associated with Apollo and Dionysus, while the ancient Greeks often referred to India as the sacred land of Dionysus.

We hope that future researchers of the Medici Chapel would pay more attention to the significance of the mouse under the arm of the statue of Lorenzo, and that our materials might prove useful for further clarification of that symbol.

A well-known English journalist and writer Michael Palin in his book “Himalaya” (2005) makes an interesting comment on the mural he saw on his way to Taksang — a Buddhist temple in Bhutan.

He writes, “What I thought was a rat, turned out to be a weasel seen here disgorging the pearls of wisdom.”

As we can see from this quotation, Michael Palin was told by the local Buddhist monks that the mythical mouse-rat-mongoose-weasel-like animal in fact produced not the precious stones, but “the pearls of wisdom.” This leads us to yet another “Orient-oriented” concept of the mouse of Medici and Michelangelo.

In any case, the sketch made by Michelangelo for his statue of Lorenzo clearly shows to us that what he had in mind was indeed a mouse, and not just a box.