Ross King

"Michelangelo & the Pope's Ceiling"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAR 3, 2003)

By October 1512, Michelangelo had been working on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for four arduous years. In a letter to his father, who had written from Florence asking for money, he wrote: "I lead a miserable existence. I live wearied by stupendous labours and beset by a thousand anxieties. And thus have I lived for some fifteen years [as an artist] and never an hour's happiness have I had."

In his masterful portrayal of Michelangelo's four-year effort to fill the 12,000 square foot, vaulted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with new frescoes for Pope Julius II, a commission Michelangelo had tried to avoid, Ross King examines and places in context the known details of Michelangelo's life, the images he includes in the frescoes, and his relationship with Pope Julius II, called the "terrifying Pope," a man who is thought, ironically, to have been much like Michelangelo himself in personality. This was a tumultuous and monumental era artistically, one in which Pope Julius II tore down the existing St. Peter's Basilica and started a completely new cathedral, created new papal apartments and a library, planned an immense tomb for himself, and determined to have the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel frescoed in a way which would confer even greater status upon himself and the church. This vibrant and exciting atmosphere offered Michelangelo and his contemporaries many opportunities for work, but competition was fierce, artists were always at the mercy of their patrons, and they didn't have much, if any, choice in their subject matter, a fact that author King stresses in his choice of title -- Michelangelo & the Pope's Ceiling.

Michelangelo was a sculptor, not a painter, and he was angry at Pope Julius II for commissioning him to design and build the Pope's tomb in 1507, only to abandon it in favor of the Sistine Chapel project after Michelangelo had bought all the marble. He was unpracticed with the technique of fresco, having never worked in it before, and he had returned home to Florence to avoid the Pope's entreaties to accept this commission. Fresco is a technically difficult process, in which the artist applies a layer of wet, plaster-like material (intonaco) over a smooth base, then brushes pigment over it while it is wet, binding the pigment to the surface and preserving it forever. Any imbalance in the ingredients can be disastrous. When the inexperienced Michelangelo finally accepted the commission and began work on the Sistine Chapel, his first panel was ruined by the build-up of salts and efflorescence on the surface of the painting, and when he worked with a too-wet surface, he soon found mold and mildew discoloring his fresco. Such mistakes cannot simply be corrected or painted over. Michelangelo had to chip away the entire fresco in order to correct his mistakes on the tumultuous "Noah and the Flood," a project which had taken him six weeks.

Designing the ceiling to tell the stories of Genesis in the Old Testament in the brightest and most costly pigments it was possible to obtain, Michelangelo depicted subjects like the Sacrifice of Noah, the Temptation and Expulsion, and the Creation of Eve, powerful visions of a terrifying God, "undoubtedly part of Savonarola's legacy" from his early days in Florence, where Savonarola drew huge crowds with his fire-and-brimstone sermons. "Turbulent visions of a vengeful God, doomed sinners, and prophets crying in the wilderness…tragic, violent narratives of crime and punishment…hangings, plagues, propitiations, and beheadings" all appear in the twelve panels in the center of the ceiling. The New Testament God of love, hope, and redemption is absent.

Because the megalomaniacal Pope Julius saw himself as a "messianic agent of the Lord," Michelangelo incorporated several portraits of Julius in the ceiling, one of them as the prophet Zechariah. He portrayed himself as the beheaded Holofernes. Five sybils from Greek mythology appear alongside the prophets of the Bible, and twenty-five women are included among the ancestors of Jesus, an unusual consideration in this male society. Most striking are twenty, incredible, six-foot high nude male figures in dramatic poses, flanking five of the Genesis scenes.

A yearlong hiatus occurred between the first and second halves of this commission, a time in which the Pope left Rome to wage war and regain papal lands. It was then, when the scaffolding was removed for the first time, that Michelangelo could see his frescoes from the floor, as a viewer would. He decided that his first panels were too "busy," with too many figures painted too small to carry the impact he wanted. When he resumed work on the second half of the ceiling, beginning with the Creation of Adam, he painted much simpler designs, with larger figures, dramatically foreshortened and contorted. Because his technique and facility with his medium had improved, he was able to paint much faster, sometimes painting freehand on the intonaco, an unheard of risk. The dramatic differences between the first six panels and the last six are seen particularly in the appearance of God. In the early panels, he appears in classical attire, formal and fully robed; in the later panels he is far more vigorous, muscular, and "human" in appearance, and more exotic in his poses. In the later "Creation of Adam," for example, his chest is bare, and he is reclining, with bare toes and kneecaps facing the viewer, as he touches Adam with his finger. In the final panels, God is so dramatically foreshortened that he seems to be leaning down into the chapel in trompe l'oeil fashion. No longer in parallel plane to the viewer, he seems "to tumble [down] toward the viewer."

Despite his difficulties with the Pope, with the medium, and with the four years the painting took from his life, Michelangelo was ultimately able to achieve the sublime and do so in ways which would revolutionize painting forever. Vasari commented that "When the work was thrown open [in 1512], the whole world could be heard running up to see it, and, indeed, it was such as to make everyone astonished and dumb." The power and grace of his figures were said to surpass those of the ancient Greeks. "Never before, in either marble or paint, had the expressive possibilities of the human form been detailed with such astonishing invention and aplomb…or with the brute visual force of Michelangelo's naked titans." Raphael, a rival painter, commented that Michelangelo had "brought the power, vitality, and sheer magnitude of works of sculpture…into the realm of painting."

Author King's careful analysis of the individual panels and details shed light on who the various Biblical characters are, the stories associated with them, their significance to the audience of the day, and their merits as individual works of art. His text is full of memorable details -- how Michelangelo constructed the scaffold for the fresco (which did not require him to lie on his back), how a child in one panel is "making the fig" (an obscene gesture in that day), and how the fingers of God and Adam at the Creation, one of the most famous of the fresco's images, are not the work of Michelangelo or of his assistants but complete restorations. A "map" of the ceiling is included and is especially helpful in allowing the reader to locate particular details, though the colored pictures of the ceiling itself, reproduced almost in its entirety, are extremely small.

Well researched and written with enthusiasm, Michelangelo & the Pope's Ceiling is a fascinating story about one of the world's most important artworks, a work which is as fresh and as captivating today as it was when it was painted almost six hundred years ago. Anyone with an interest in art history should find this highly readable piece of scholarship to be a can't-put-it-downer.

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About the Author:

Ross KingRoss King was born and raised in Canada, but has lived in England since 1992. He has an astonishing knowledge of European cultural history. He originally planned a career in academia, earning his Ph.D. in English Literature and moving to England to assume a research position at the University of London.

King’s highly acclaimed Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture, was an instant hit in the U.S., landing on the New York Times, Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle bestseller lists and becoming a favorite among booksellers. Brunelleschi’s Dome was chosen "The 2000 Book Sense Nonfiction Book of the Year" and a Book Sense 76 top ten selection.

King lives near Oxford, England, in the historic town of Woodstock, the site of Blenheim Palace. He is a devoted cyclist and hikes regularly in both the Pyrenees and the Canadian Rockies.

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