Surly, often sullen, perpetually brooding, argumentative, distrustful, highly competitive, monstrously creative and ugly to boot, Michelangelo Buonarroti was a sculptor of genius. Ross King’s superlative book Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling tells the story of how this tempermental artist created one of histories greatest art treasures, the ceiling frescos of the Sistine Chapel.
King draws a crisply written and fascinating portrait of Michelangelo, including his stormy relationship with his family, patrons and fellow artists, his chaotic life and times, and the myriad background sources of his artistic and creative vision. A contemporary of Leonardo Da Vinci and later Raphael, Michelangelo famously sculpted both the Pieta and David. His skill as a sculptor brought him to the attention and patronage of Pope Julius II, il papa terrible. Known for his fiery temper, a penchant for striking his cardinals and servants liberally with his walking stick and a highly militaristic, almost imperial ambition, Julius commissioned (almost coerced actually) Michelangelo into painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – all twelve thousand square feet of it.
King’s book is filled with insight and detail, outlining the difficulties that Michelangelo faced “painting in the wet” (fresco literally means “fresh” as in wet or fresh plaster, as the colors are applied before the plaster can dry), the engineering of the Sistine Chapel’s scaffolding, the usage of fixed perspective, the color scheme and biblical and mythic themes of the various frescos.
The book is, thankfully, well illustrated with details, including excellent color images of the Sistine Chapel, a necessary element that helps unfamiliar readers such as myself enormously in understanding the overwhelming scale of the projects (it took more than four years to complete).
Here’s a brief excerpt on the bitter rivalry between Da Vinci and Michelangelo when both were commissioned to fresco opposite walls of the refectory in Santa Maria delle Grazie:
“This artistic duel was made even more compelling by the two artists’ well-known dislike of each other. The surly Michelangelo had once taunted Leonardo in public for having failed in his attempt to cast a giant bronze equestrian statue in Milan. Leonardo, meanwhile, had made it clear that he had little regard for sculptors. ‘This is a most mechanical exercise,’ he once wrote, ‘accompanied many times with a great deal of sweat.’ He further claimed that sculptors, covered in marble dust, looked like bakers, and that their homes were both noisy and filthy, in contrast to the more elegant abodes of painters. All Florence awaited the outcome.”
Among other items, King points out the habit of many artists (Michelangelo among them) of putting sly jokes and hidden messages within the content of their work, much as medieval monks would draw humorous pictures in the margins of their lavishly illustrated books (called “marginalia”) or, in a more modern context, the ‘easter eggs’ found in many software programs. Check out this image (click to enlarge) and zoom in on the cherub in the back’s right hand. He’s giving her “the fig”…