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I was on a work-related course on Friday, and while the lecturer was going from desk to desk, checking our exercises as if we were still at school, I overheard her tell one of the others that “Michelangelo was left-handed, but of course he fiddled his taxes”….

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The door of the office deep inside the Vatican opened, and in stepped the Pope, with a small man who had “Government Official” written all over him, or at least all over his Government Official uniform.

Michelangelo was seated at a table, and the two sat down opposite him.

“Ah, Michelangelo,” said the Pope. “I’ve called you here to discuss a rather delicate matter. As you know Vatican City is a small statelet with a tiny population, so small that indeed we can barely field a soccer team. In fact, we had to play two of the nuns in our last World Cup game, and so could only manage a one-all draw with Scotland.”

“So I heard,” said Michelangelo.

“With so few people we need to ensure that everyone pays their fair share of taxes, which is why we’d like to discuss your return for the year MDXI.”

“Yes?” said Michelangelo.

“You are now a huge success. Indeed much of your work is for us, here in the Vatican, so we are well aware that you were paid 20 thousand quid (no, really, it’s a Latin word, this is where it comes from) for painting the Sistine Chapel that year. Yet your return gives your taxable income as 5 quid and 27 centum.”

“That’s my net income, after expenses,” said Michelangelo.

“Yes, well, I am not an expert in tax fraud,” said the Pope (Michelangelo noticed the small man’s eyes raise ever so slightly towards Heaven), “so I have brought along my assistant, Revenus, who will go through some of the items on your return with you.”

Revenus opened a folder in front of him. “The first item you have claimed,” he said, “is three thousand quid for paint. I believe that a large tin of emulsion costs three quid, so you appear to be claiming for 1,000 tins, which I calculate would paint every house from here to Worms.”

“Where?” asked Michelangelo.

“It’s some sort of health resort in Germany,” said the Pope. “Apparently they have a special diet.”

“I see,” said Michelangelo. “Well, for your information it’s three quid for a tin of white emulsion. Flesh-colour needs special pigment, and costs 50 quid a tin. Plus, I have to sign ‘Michelangelo’ on all of my paintings. It would be a lot cheaper if my name was Raphael.”

(And the story would be a lot easier to write, thought a historian who would later chronicle this event).

“You have in two hundred quid for, um, adult magazines,” said Revenus.

“Research,” said Michelangelo. “I have to know exactly what the naked human form looks like, in many different positions.”

“Do you still have these magazines?” asked the Pope. The other two looked at him. “I’d like to form my own opinion about their relevance,” he said, blushing slightly.

“Moving on,” said Revenus, after a short silence, “you have claimed five hundred quid for brushes.”

“Left-handed brushes,” said Michelangelo. “They’re a lot more expensive.”

Revenus gave him a withering look. Michelangelo remained unwithered.

“You’ve put in a hundred quid for a chisel,” said Revenus, “but in fact you did no sculpting that year.”

“No, I didn’t,” agreed Michelangelo. “The chisel was to put the cracks in the painting of The Creation of Adam.”

“I thought they were caused by age,” said the Pope.

“How could they be?” said Michelangelo. “The painting’s only just been finished.”

Revenus sighed, but had one card left to play. “Finally, you have a figure in for five thousand quid that just says ‘God’.”

“That’s what He charged for modelling for the painting,” said Michelangelo. “He had to stay in the same position for seven months.”

“You’re seriously claiming,” said Revenus, “that you got God to model for you?”

“Of course,” said Michelangelo. “I could hardly paint him from memory.”

Revenus stared hard at Michelangelo. It was the stare which had broken the spirit of many a tax defaulter, making them admit to second bank accounts, to not declaring company chariots as benefit-in-kind, to running shell companies (it’s where Botticelli hid his royalties from The Birth Of Venus).

To his surprise, Michelangelo stared calmly back. The two locked gazes, like antelopes locking antlers, for over two hours. Eventually Michelangelo spoke.

“I watch paint dry for a living,” he said. “You’re out of your league this time.”

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