Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King


This popular history of the painting of the Sistine Chapel focuses, of course, on Michelangelo, but ranges into the area of the military history involving Pope Julius II, as well as quite a bit about Raphael.  Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor and a few years before he began painting the Sistine Chapel, had been contracted to create a marble tomb for the Pope and in fact had accumulated tons of marble in Rome for the task.  Somehow, this project was derailed and he was conscripted to paint the fresco, though this tricky process was new to him.  The ancestors of Christ was the subject of the ceiling and he began with the section showing the Flood.  It did not go easily as he was learning the process, and in fact, had to chip away the first effort. 

Michelangelo was not naturally a sunny character.  His brothers and father were troublesome and he wrote carping letters, complaining about his hard life.  And of course, painting on a scaffold leaning back (he did not lie on his back to paint) for four years would not improve one's temper.  He painted the family of Christ as being as unruly and miserable as his own.  The portrait of Josiah, one of the great heros of the Old Testament,  shows him apparently in "a domestic spat in which a mother with a squirming child angrily turns her back on a husband who gestures at her in helpless exasperation as he wrestles with a child on his own lap." 

Michelangelo's view of sex was summed up in advice he gave his first biographer, Ascanio Condivi.  "If you want to prolong your life, practice it not at all, or the least that you can."  In the panel showing the temptation of Adam and Eve and the expulsion from the garden, on the left side as they are being tempted, the virginal Eve is lovely.  On the right side, after the fall, she is haggard and old.

One of the figures Michelangelo incorporated was Cumaea, an ancient prophetess.  One of Julius' associates believed her prophesy recorded in Virgil's Eclogues, the birth of a child who would bring peace to the world and return it to a golden age, could be said to refer to Julius.  Now there's a stretch.  Ultimately, the figure Michelangelo depicted was a grotesque behemoth; two children by her side add to the insult by making the gesture still referred to in Italy as "making the fig," or for us, giving the finger.  It does seem Michelangelo was making a point about his patron Julius, who could hardly be considered a peaceful man.

Near the end of October of 1512 he wrote to his father, "I have finished the chapel I have been painting."  Not an effusive fellow, he goes on, "Other things have not turned out for me as I had hoped."

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