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[15] Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling – Ross King

None of Michelangelo’s other works ever won him quite the same renown as his fresco in the Sistine Chapel, a building now virtually synonymous with his name. Almost immediately after Michelangelo unveiled it in 1512, the fresco became like an academy for artists, who had since long been using the Sistine Chapel as storehouse of ideas. They treated works of Michelangelo as some kind of a portfolio through which they concocted new ideas. The prestigious style of buon fresco generated intense interest, in particular, among a new generation of painters that pioneered a movement later known as mannerism.

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling recounts the beguiling, fascinating story of the four extraordinary years Michelangelo Buonarroti spent laboring over the 12,000 square feet of the vast ceiling made up of concave vaults, spandrels, and lunettes. The works marked an entirely new direction in which he had brought the power, vitality, and sheer magnitude of works of sculpture into the realm of painting.

The commission, however, did not commence on an auspicious note, as Michelangelo had meager experience as a painter, let alone working in the delicate medium of fresco and painting bent-back the concave and curved surfaces of vaults. Having been a masterful sculptor who had unveiled the statue “David” four years prior to the pope’s summon, his rival Bramante took advantage of his lack of experience to thwart Michelangelo’s ambitions and so to destroy his reputation. Such alleged conspiracy as perceived by Michelangelo made the dreadful commission all the more invidious. He would either refuse the Sistine project, and in doing so incurred the ire of Pope Julius II, or else failed miserably in his attempt through lack of experience.

The outcome of Michelangelo’s works had proudly (and vindictively) served as a triumphant reply to the sneer of his insidious rival, who had once stated that he would be unable to paint overhead surfaces because he understood nothing of foreshortening. What Michelangelo had achieved was exactly the sheer opposite: he demonstrated how vastly more daring and successful his foreshortening technique had become following four years on a special scaffold he designed for the purpose. It was through the power, arm-raced politics, vicious personal rivalries, and a constant paranoia over the possible hiatus of the commission that Michelangelo achieved a virtuoso performance at the summit of his powers.

Battling against illness, financial difficulties, consistent changes of assistantships, domestic problems, family drama, predatory rival of the commission, and the pope’s impatience and petulance, Michelangelo created his masterful scenes – The Creation, The Temptation, The Flood, The Crucifixion of Haman, The Brazen Serpent, David and Goliath – so beautiful that the telling movements lent the figures their verisimilitude and intense drama.

The book is not a critique of Michelangelo’s art works, but to a small extent it does make comparison to works of Raphel, a brilliant young painter who was working in fresco on the neighboring Stanza del Segnatura, the papal apartments. Michelangelo’s ability to generate, in a short space of time, so many of hundreds of postures for the Sistine’s ceiling stunned the young artist. Raphael’s works after 1512, the unveiling of Michelangelo’s fresco at Sistine, manifested absorption of Michelangelo’s style: the tumult of bodies, throngs of figures in dramatic, muscle-straining poses showing gradations of tone along anatomically accurate knots of muscles.

Ross King has written a brilliant book that combines uncommon insight on Michelangelo’s works with historical facts. Woven through the artist’s progress on the Sistine commission was history of upheaval during 16th century Italy, when Pope Julius II devoted on military campaigns against other Italian city states and against Louis XII of France. Niccolo Machiavelli defended Florence, Michelangelo’s hometown, against Julius’s attacking forces bent on restoring the Medicis to power. Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling painted a portrait of life in Michelangelo’s Rome, on the ingenious scaffold in Sistine Chapel, as well as the daily minute history of Italy. It is a book through which history and art converge.

One Response

  1. […] I’m very photogenic] 48. Gone deep sea fishing 49. Seen the Sistine Chapel in person [Read about it] 50. Been to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris [Gosh this person must really like Europe?] 51. […]

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