Michelangelo and the
Pope's Ceiling

Ross King
John Lee, Reader

(Books on Tape)
Michelangelo was a handsome and noble young Florentine who spent many of his happiest hours flat on his back, alone with his paintbrush, doing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which, when unveiled, got him immense praise and made him rich beyond compare.

That's what I thought until listening to this reading of Ross King's Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling. Now I know the truth. That:

  • Michelangelo was no noble-looking prince. Not only was his family impoverished, he was homely --- jug-ears, flattened nose, ungainly body. And he was a grouch of the first order. Raphael, who didn't care for him at all, said that he reminded him of a "solitary hangman."
  • Pope Julius II, the one who commissioned the Sistine Chapel fresco, was continually nagging at Michelangelo to get on with it. That is, when he wasn't running off to wage wars against the French, the Papal states, or his one-time allies. He was also unbearably slow on payments to the artist;
  • When he began work, Michelangelo didn't know squat about the intricate art of frescoing (he saw himself mostly as a sculptor). So he hired on an army of assistants to help him get going, and was so uneasy about his earliest efforts --- Noah and the Flood; the Drunken Noah --- that he tucked them away in a not-too-visible corner of the ceiling;
  • When he wasn't dickering with the Pope over getting paid, or hiding out because he thought that Pope Julius' mignons might be wanting to poison him, Michelangelo was arguing long distance --- by post --- with his family of loafers and spendthrifts. Sometimes he would have to drop his work to pop over to Florence to get everyone in line;
  • Rather than encouraging Michelangelo to be an artist from early on, his father and uncles boxed him mercilessly on the ears whenever they found him doodling with pen and paper (his family considered artists to be lower class);
  • Michelangelo didn't do the frescos in the reclining position, nor did he do them alone. He and his helpers prepared and painted the vault from the standing position (albeit leaning back a bit);
  • He had many assistants --- to scrape, prepare the wall for plaster, to mix the paints, and to carry up supplies from the floor sixty feet below. He did a few of the later characters free-hand, but most were detailed in "cartoons" (preparatory drawings). Often, work had to be done while services were going on below. The bishops and cardinals often complained about the dust and noise;
  • He stuck up a number of visual jokes here and there on the vault, thinking --- in that pre-binocular, pre-video time --- that they would never be spotted from below. A dwarfish angel is seen giving "the fig" (the finger) to one of the sibyls. Several other angels appear to be either nakedly jousting or having congress over the shoulders of Libica. And Michelangelo's own face appears as that of Jeremiah --- the tortured lamentor of the Old Testament ("O why was I born," "Life is a bitter bitter vale," etc.);
  • The famous finger of Adam receiving the touch of life from the divine is not by Michelangelo at all. The ceiling cracked in the mid-16th century, and this particular segment of Genesis collapsed and it had to be redone by another artist;
  • All them nekkid Michelangelio-esque bodies didn't sit well with some of the ecclesiastics. The successor to Pope Leo X --- Adrian VI --- planned to get the whole enchilada scraped off, but, fortunately, he died before he could put his plan into action.
Ross King not only writes knowingly about the painting of the Sistine Chapel and about classical and contemporary (14th - 16th century) art and artists --- he offers exquisite details on the art of frescoing, information on how to cast bronze statues, and insights into the continual and often alarming (to Michelangelo) bickering between popes, papal states, independent Italian republics, French armies, Spanish soldiers-of-fortune, and Swiss freebooters.

King is no sourpuss, and the story is often quite merry. He lets us in on the rich eccentricities of the characters of the times --- not only Michelangelo Buonarroti, but Raphael Sanzio, Leonardo da Vinci, and most fun of all, Pope Julius, "Il Terrible." Indeed, Julius II reminds us of a lusty character out of Rabelais --- a fearsome hunter, a noisy warrior, an intemperate fighter, an opinionated crackpot. He was forever hitting on people when he was angry (or ecstatically happy).

How strange it is in retrospect that this noisy, syphilitic-ridden rowdy selected the young and inexperienced Michelangelo from all other possible artists to paint the fresco in the Sistine Chapel --- that holy of holies --- and continued to support him even when Michelangelo was being his most obstreperous.

The great figures --- over 300 in number --- that ended up on the 12,000-square-foot vault represent a radical departure in 15th-16th century artistic tradition. They've been characterized as "twisted, muscle-bound supermen," placed by the artist in some of the most agonized postures possible.

Too, there is the astonishing variety. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel has been called a "portfolio" for succeeding artists in succeeding generations. There are not only five Biblical prophets and seven sibyls (seers drawn from classical literature), there are angels and dwarfs and divines and the common folk: the latter being the supposed family of Jesus.

There are the classic Old Testament scenes --- the parting of light from dark, the giving of life, the flood. Then there is the eating of the forbidden fruit where, as King suggests, both Eve and Adam seem to be helping themselves, spreading the guilt equally among the two of them.

The writing here is fine and John Lee's reading is perfect. Not only is Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling an excellent study of a crucial time in western art, it is an equally powerful study of two passionate, perverse characters. Perhaps, suggests the author, the key to it all was that Michelangelo and Pope Julius II were very much alike.

I heard this one --- all seven tapes --- from beginning to end to prepare this review. Then I listened to it all over again, just for the hell of it, for the sheer description of a grandiose portrait of a grandiose time. And for the narcissistic pleasure of hearing de Medici's name, and Ghiberti's name, and my own, repeated over and over again.

--- Lorenzo W. Milam
Send us e-mail


Go Up     Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH