It’s late afternoon in Florence, early April, 1504, in a small, poorly lit sculpture studio. The sculptor is Michelangelo Buonarroti, and he has just completed a thirteen foot sculpture of the Bible’s giant-killer, David.
The room is small and crowded with well-dressed, well-educated, well-fed and well-off people. They are seeing the sculpture for the first time. Like a flock of nesting geese, the discussion is heated and unintelligible.
A fine dust covers everything in the room except the onlookers, who make every effort not to touch anything. As time passes, the conversations between the critics move from rhetorical questions to negative criticism of the work.
One group questions the selection of the subject. Another is not sure what’s in David’s hand, and a third group wonders out loud if the money spent for the sculpture – and particularly the expensive marble – could not have been better used to create a fountain that could at least water the livestock.
But the most vehement criticism comes from Giacomo di Medici, the youngest member of the wealthy family who commissioned the work. Although he was only in his early twenties, he had already demonstrated a talent for finance and was thought of by many – including himself – to be a hot property and rising star in the family business.
“His nose is too big,” he said. Giacomo felt that the nose on the sculpture was not representative of the fine aquiline noses that distinguished the well-to-do families of Florence.
“It is a grotesque nose, one that insults the people of Florence and particularly my family.” He demanded that it be altered and made less offensive, or the sculpture would be removed from the city and destroyed.
The mood of the crowd changed from concern to agreement. Their collective protests grew louder and more intense until Michelangelo could no longer tolerate the noise.
He stood in the open doorway between his living quarters and the studio. He appeared calm but inside he seethed.
He walked purposefully through the crowd towards this vocal young man. A few steps before reaching Giacomo, the master bent over and picked up his hammer and chisels from a mound of marble dust on a work bench. He didn’t look at his hands grasping the tools; his eyes were focused on those of his critic. The cackling flock grew quiet as they anticipated what might become a violent confrontation. Giacomo became rigid, like the sculpture.
As the two men faced one another, Michelangelo reached over his critic’s shoulder to retrieve a flimsy work ladder. Without a word he moved toward his sculpture in the crowded but now silent studio, hammer and chisel in one hand and ladder in the other.
Quickly he was at the top of the ladder and hammering his chisel into David’s nose. Clouds of dust swirled up around him. The room was becoming thick with it. The dust settled over the sculptor and his work, into the creases on the faces of the onlookers, and of course, onto Giacomo.
As quickly as the hammering had started it stopped. Without acknowledging anyone in the group, Michelangelo descended his ladder and removed himself and his tools from the studio. Giacomo looked at David’s nose and started to smile. He smiled the smile of satisfaction. Others began to share his smile as they looked from David’s nose to Giacomo, to each other.
They left the studio collectively, honking the geese noises they had displayed earlier in the day. They were walking the walk that can only come from self-satisfaction and a sense of superiority.
The last to leave were the master’s two young assistants. Carlo was smiling as he looked at David’s nose. Anthony was dismayed and disillusioned at what appeared to be the acquiescence of his master. He was also a little surprised to see a pleasant smile coming from Carlo.
“How can you be so pleased to see our master disgrace himself?” he asked. Carlo turned to Anthony, smiling a knowing smile, and said, “It’s only dust. He didn’t change a thing.”
This story could be viewed as a devious attempt to manipulate the public, to manage their feelings and control their actions. It could also be seen as a method for teaching a lesson to know-it-alls who have money and no taste, power without purpose, but it isn’t.
The real meaning of the story is simple: perception is reality. If we believe something is so, then it is. If others agree, it becomes reality. Agreement becomes truth. Therefore, if we want to correct a perception, we must address the perception, not the reality it has become.
Most corporate, commercial and personal communication is about presenting information in ways that promote understanding and foster participation. Acknowledging and defining what people know as well as what they perceive is not a game. Success in this arena comes from honesty and a willingness to share information. The rewards are well worth the effort, with returns in more then money.