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Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling
304 pages, over 100 illustrations
"On this day, May 10, 1508, I Michelangelo, sculptor, have received on account from our Holy Lord Pope Julius II five-hundred papal ducats toward the painting of the ceiling of the papal Sistine Chapel, on which I am beginning work today." The fresco would not be completed until 1512, after four years of gruelling labor by Michelangelo and his assistants. During that time, the pope would ride off to war. Italian city-states would be won and lost. Rome would be tremble at the carnage of Ravenna and the imminent invasion of the army of Louis XII, King of France. And Michelangelo Buonarroti, sculptor pressed into service as fresco-painter, would paint one of the greatest works of art of all time: the 12,000-square-foot vault of the Sistine Chapel, a project ambitious by any standard, and certainly so by a man who admitted from the outset that the chisel was more his tool than the brush.
Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling details the four years surrounding the painting of the Sistine Chapel, the art, the politics, the commission itself, in a lively and evenly-paced narrative that commingles these elements with ease. Author Ross King captures the stormy nature of the relationship between Michelangelo and his patron, Pope Julius II, supporter of the arts and man bent on reclaiming lands due the Holy See. King places, as well, the project in its historic setting of politics and turmoil in early sixteenth-century Italy. This was the era of which Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in his book The Prince: a time of shifting loyalties and statecraft, the thriving freedom and power of the city-states, the 'warrior pope's' subjugation of the proud republics of Ferrara and Venice, the threat of French invasion. Such outer rivalries mirrored Michelangelo's own daily turmoil: the lament of insufficient pay, the problems of brothers who expected him to find them work in Rome, as well as a father who dipped unauthorized into the household bank account. Michelangelo's Sistine commission brought the surly, secretive artist into competition with another celebrated artist and his seeming opposite: the gracious boy genius Raffaello Santi, better known as Raphael, who had been commissioned to adorn the papal apartments mere yards from the chapel. And the fresco itself was to absorb his thoughts and energies for the next four years of his life, hindering the project for which he had real desire, the forty figures to be sculpted in white Carrera marble for Pope Julius's ornate tomb.
At the beginning, problems beset. The painted plaster itself caused problems, the artist's composition of The Flood efflorescing after the first six weeks with a horrifying excrescence of nitre and mildew. And Michelangelo was new to fresco, a sculptor who had not picked up a paintbrush since his student days. Donato Bramante, celebrated architecht, had already told Pope Julius that Michelangelo was "simply not the man for the job" -- "'he has not done too many figures and, above all, the figures are high and in foreshortening, and this is another thing from painting at ground level.'" Bramante's assessment may at first have seemed correct. The chapel vault was a complex space, not flat at all, but punctuated with curving surfaces angling off every which way. And the artist's initial figures were stiff, their compositions reflecting the understanding of a man accustomed to the dictates of sculpture. But by the end he was painting with aplomb, his figures imaginative, superbly executed, setting new standards for power and grace. King describes the technical tour de force of one of the final works, the artist's rendition of the prophet Jonah:
King enlivens the tale with a wealth of technical and anecdotal detail. Buon fresco was a demanding medium, from the dangerous and toxic mixing required to prepare the mixture, to the swift technique required to paint upon the intonaco, the thin skin of damp plaster meant to receive and bind the pigments. (One could prepare only as much as one could paint in a day: hence in the term giornata, literally, "day's work.") Michelangelo's choice of figures were Old Testament scenes, chosen over the more common New Testament images, possibly because, being more often sculpted, they were figures with which he had greater familiarity. He added to them a mingling of Old Testament prophets and pagan sibyls, symbolic of the superstitions of the age; and finished his work with a 'supporting cast' of ignudi, putti, and secondary figures, grotesques to balance the grace, and redolent of medieval gargoyles and his own unlovely appearance -- in marked contrast to Raphael and his graceful Madonnas.
Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling provides a sympathetic portrait of the artist, curmudgeonly, suspicious, unwashed, terribile ("dreadful" or "terrifying"); yet hard-laboring, magnificently inventive, and as indicated by numerous letters, intimately involved in the affairs of his father and brothers in distant Florence, even when such affairs irked and plagued him. The book gently debunks some of the legends grown up around the artist and his great work: that he painted it solo; that he painted lying on his back, staring up at the ceiling. King notes that technical considerations alone -- the expertise and labor of preparing the intonaco and required pigments, the vast size of the undertaking -- and other letters, receipts and accounts indicate that Michelangelo had assistants; and that their working conditions, though far from total comfort, involved an ingenious scaffolding of Michelangelo's own design which allowed them to stand as they painted.
The Herculean labor ends with surprisingly little fanfare on the part of the artist. "I have finished that chapel I have been painting," he writes to his father and brothers, paused already on one foot, it seems, to depart this excursion into fresco and return to the project he longed for, the forty life-sized figures for the pope's tomb. As coda, King traces the further fates of rivals Michelangelo and Raphael, one destined to live long, the other to die relatively young, as well as the fate of the fresco itself, which underwent various types of 'restoration' through the centuries. The most recent, an international effort in 1989, restored it to the glorious color of its initial painting -- a cause of some controversy, as centuries of soot-darkened patina had long been accepted as the artist's intended, subdued palette. If there is one regret to Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, it is that we do not get much opportunity to see for ourselves. Incidental illustrations abound, but the celebrated ceiling itself receives only two panoramic photos (it takes two to capture the length of the vault) and three details. One hungers to see more, in particular, the pendentives depicting The Crucifixion of Haman and The Brazen Serpent, both detailed in the text as remarkable works.
Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling blends with success the troubles of an era, the rationale behind the art, and the day-to-day struggles with plaster, paint, and pigments. It is the tale of Michelangelo's grumbling, undeniable artistry, Raphael's grace-filled genius, Pope Julius's temporal ambitions; and it is not the tale of any of these, but that of the fresco itself, teeming and tumbling with life and narrative, setting eternal standards for excellence: the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which has survived time, soot, earthquakes and well-meant restoration to bring us the visual record of Michelangelo's mastery. As in his earlier book, Brunelleschi's Dome, Ross King constructs an engaging, very readable account.
--Katherine Rook Lieber
Editorial Note: All quotes, unless otherwise identified, are from the reviewed book itself.
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