September 2003 Reads

March 28th, 2007

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In 1508 Michelangelo Buonarroti received a commission from Pope Julius II to re-paint the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Given Michelangelo’s inexperience with the art of fresco, his selection was a curious choice by Julius. However, it turned out to be an inspired one, though not by any conscious vision by either man. In Ross King’s The Pope and the Ceiling, the story of one of the world’s foremost masterpieces is brought to life.Early in his career, Michelangelo Buonarroti won a commission to paint one of two very large frescos on the walls of a church. The other commission went to none other than the greatest Italian painter of his time, Leonardo da Vinci. These two frescos were to be painted at the same time, with the two artists working more or less side-by-side. This “battle of the frescos” between these two renowned artists was never fought- both artists backed out of the engagement immediately before painting was to start. But it is interesting to note that da Vinci thought little of Michelangelo at the time; he even reverted to ridicule of the young artist, singling out Michelangelo’s original craft, sculpture, as the “lowest form of art” suited to “labors of the hands” which was intended as an insult from someone whose hands were tasked with brushes which kept his hands from directly touching the respective medium.

Indeed, Michelangelo would exclaim time and time again during his long career, albeit occasionally to garner nothing more than sympathy from his benefactors, that he was a sculptor first and foremost. He had precious little experience as a painter, and almost none working in the difficult medium of fresco. Yet after seeing Michelangelo’s sculptural depiction of the Virgin with Child Pieta (1498-1500), Julius II chose Michelangelo for a project which would become synonymous with his genius- the re-painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In 1508 Michelangelo was commissioned by Julius to repaint the ceiling of the chapel; the work was completed between 1508 and 1512 (he later painted a final scene, “The Last Judgment”, over the altar between 1535 and 1541, being commissioned by Pope Paul III Farnese). The relationship between Julius and Michelangelo was a difficult one, often times antagonistic in nature, and always tenuous from either man’s perspective. This relationship forms the backdrop for Ross King’s book, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling. Any discussion of this masterpiece of fresco must be considered in the context of the relationship between these two very strong-willed and complex personalities. Julius, “el Papa Terible” to his subjects and foes alike, was a warrior pope who, like so many popes of that age, elevated to the papacy through his political connections and singular thirst for power, with little interest in advancing the spiritual and theological needs of the Church. Julius was more or less obsessed with the complete subjugation of all the major Italian city-states to the Vatican’s control, including Michelangelo’s home town of Florence. During his reign he conducted three major military campaigns, his last against the French as part of a coalition he built between the Vatican, Henry VIII, and the Emperor. Michelangelo was mindful of the Pope’s nature, yet he often pressed the Pope on various issues, such as payments he felt were due him.

The chapel itself is rectangular in shape and measures 41 meters long by 13 meters wide by 21 meters high, which are precisely the dimensions of the Temple of Solomon, as described in the Old Testament. Its ceiling is shaped like a flattened barrel, with a collection of small side vaults over the center windows. The original architectural plans were made by Baccio Pontelli and the construction work was supervised by Giovannino de’ Dolci. The first Mass in the Sistine Chapel was celebrated on August 9, 1483.

The challenge of the work itself was formidable, to say the least. One of the largest preparatory tasks was the design and construction of a scaffolding apparatus to support not only the artist, but the team of assistants as well as the flow of necessary supplies of brushes, paints, and other materials needed on a daily basis. This scaffold was most likely designed by Michelangelo himself, but the work itself was hired out to a separate team which completed the task in a matter of months. Once the scaffold was constructed, it spanned across the chapel itself, thereby leaving the floor of the chapel available to the priests and cardinals who conducted services with the elaborate wooden network of bridges and platforms suspended over their heads. Then there was the preparation of the surface itself, which displayed the work of a previous artist. This existing fresco work had to be stripped (broken off, essentially), and the surface cleansed and prepared. Then, a special paste was applied upon which the fresco itself would be painted. This was tricky- the fresco work needed to be applied to the plaster while it was still wet; if the plaster hardened, the pigments would not seal and harden properly. So only enough paste was applied for that day’s work. It is interesting to note that, according to King, the term “all in a day’s work” comes from this practice.

Over the next several years, through family conflicts and quarrels, payment delays, ill health, team changes, and threats of the project being canceled altogether, Michelangelo and his team worked. As opposed to the depiction in the 1965 movie “The Agony and the Ecstasy” with Charleston Heston and Rex Harrison, Michelangelo did not paint the ceiling of the chapel on his back, working alone with his brushes and paints. Rather, the artisans worked standing up, arching their backs to bring their torsos to bring them as even with their target surface as possible. At times Michelangelo would only design portions of the work, subsequently directing other artists on his team to physically paint the surface while he would move on the design of another portion of the ceiling. Although fresco was not Michelangelo’s first love, he grew quickly adept at the techniques involved, and essentially learned the craft as he moved from one end of the ceiling to the other. One calculation of his incredible genius is the fact that his first piece of the ceiling took more than 2 months to paint, and made use of initial sketches and templates; his last took a single day and was painted free-hand on the surface itself. Later, Michelangelo wrote about the work’s effect on him with these words: “After four tortured years, more than 400 over life-sized figures, I felt as old and as weary as Jeremiah. I was only 37, yet friends didnot recognize the old man I had become.”

Michelangelo devised an intricate system of connected, thematic illustrations that included nine scenes from the Book of Genesis beginning with God Separating Light from Darkness. Other scenes include the Creation of Adam and Eve, the Temptation and Fall of Adam and Eve, and the Flood. These scenic narratives are located on the central portion of the ceiling, and they are in turn surrounded by alternating images of prophets and sibyls on marble thrones, other Old Testament characters, and by Christ’s traditional ancestors. Michelangelo drew hundreds of preparatory sketches and cartoons. It is interesting to note that Julius had other ideas for what would be painted; in fact, the two went back and forth on this issue with some contention. But in the end, Michelangelo was given more or less free reign over his dominion. His earlier study of sculpture from various teachers in his hometown of Florence served the work before him rather well. It was common practice for sculptors to master the intricacies of the human anatomy for their pieces. And as Michelangelo’s artistic interests resided almost exclusively in the depiction and glorification of the human body in various states of motion, his skills as a master sculptor carried over to the work at hand. For the time, the various collections of nude figures depicted on the ceiling, in various states of contortion, motion and repose was a bold leap in imagination. The realism of the figures, combined with the radical use of colors, brought more than one observer at the official unveiling to tears; others, including Michelangelo’s principal rival for the chapel’s work, Raphael, to stand awe-struck in amazement at the feat of skill that stretched before his upturned eyes.

One of the coolest things about this book is the realization that this masterpiece was truly an incredibly challenging undertaking. And given his frustrating relationship with Julius, constant internal family conflicts, his lack of fresco experience, unmerciful self-imposed deadlines, and the physical demands of the work itself, it makes the masterpiece that much more amazing in its accomplishments.

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