stephanie suh's Reviews > Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling

Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King
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Read 2 times. Last read December 30, 2017 to January 16, 2018.

Pope Julius II was a fastidious man whose eye for the arts was always set on his lofty standards of beauty and perfection that few artists could satisfy. So when the pope saw the Pieta whose beauty surpassed the ancient Greek and Roman sculptures adorning the tomb of a French cardinal, he wanted the same awe-inspiring adornment for his tomb, whereupon one Michelangelo Buonarroti from Florence was summoned for the commission of the work. From then on, that’s how Michelangelo at age thirty-three reluctantly embarked on his Herculean task of covering the vault of the Sistine Chapel. This book by Ross King recounts such background stories of the making of the Sistine Chapel frescos and descriptions of the personal traits of Michelangelo.

Michelangelo’s work on the frescoes resulted from part Divine Providence of endowing the humanity with an awe-inspiring masterpiece of art to delight the senses of mankind through the ages and part secular ambitions to mark the names of both the commissioner and the artist themselves. Pope Julius II also wanted to renovate the Sistine Chapel that had been used as a living quarter for the guards, a fortress against papal enemies, and a jail. As no one pours new wine into old wineskins as said in the bible, the pope’s plan to revert the chapel to its original place of worship, which made him drop his tomb project, was met by his idea of frescoing the vault in its entirety. Michelangelo, who was a breadwinner of his family, accepted the commission and commenced four-year of labor of woes and dramas on the vault of the chapel.

There are revealing truths that should be known concerning the process of frescoing the Sistine Chapel as follows: Contrary to popular belief that Michelangelo did the work while lying prone on his back was false, he worked with his upper body bent backward like a bow. Also, it wasn’t done by solely by Michelangelo but a work of consorted efforts made by a contingent of his assistants chosen by Michelangelo’s friend Francesco Granacci. Michelangelo was innately a solitary worker who had a strong distrust of others who worked with him. As a matter of fact, Michelangelo was never a jolly fellow whose sociability would have endeared him to all, as in the case of his contemporary Raphaello Sancti.

It is also interesting to pay special notes on the figures Michelangelo used for the frescoes, which shows his ingenuity of selecting unique subject matters distinguished from his contemporaries. To illustrate, he used 7 prophets from the Old Testament and 5 sibyls from pagan myth to decorate the Sistine vaults. He was fascinated with prophetic knowledge of the sibyls who dwelled in sacred shrines and predicted the future in fits of inspired madness. This offered a compelling link between the sacred and the profane, the church and the esoteric pagan culture by reconciling pagan mythology with orthodox Christian teachings.

From this book, readers will find that the position of a painter/sculptor was not esteemed highly; he was more of a skilled laborer, a craftsman, given exact orders how to produce his work by his commissioner or patron. As a matter of fact, the image of a solitary genius who would wield his brush and pallets to portray his world of imagination from the fathoms of his soul was a romantic fable. In Michelangelo’s time, an artist’s imagination and creativity was fettered by the demands of marketplace or his patron. Nevertheless, Michelangelo often disagreed to the pope’s own artistic direction and even had a temerity of broaching the shipping charges incurred in transporting the marbles from Carrara for the use at the aborted tomb project at a dinner table with the pope .

Michelangelo might have been a man of aesthetically unpleasing appearance without sociability; his direct altercation with Leonardo da Vinci as described in this book was amusing to discover. Both of the masters of the arts did not like each other publicly, but it was on the part of da Vinci who instigated such heated feud. He disregarded sculptors, including Michelangelo, as mechanics in the appearance of unkempt bakers.

King’s research into this daunting subject matter is indeed impressive and highly laudable. Reading his account of how Michelangelo worked on his frescoes enables me to envision the scene very vividly. The descriptions of the streets, alleys, and the Sistine Chapel are realistically rendered as if they were pictures. However, I could not help but feeling a subtle tone of anti-papacy or even a remote sense of anti-Catholicism in this book. Evidently, there were corruptions among the church officials, clerics, not to mention the laypersons. But I wonder if King should have spent several chapters about Pope Julius II to discern just what kind of person he was in a negative shadow, the fallacy of his character, of the papacy in general. I ascribe such tendency to culturally transmitted anti-Catholicism in England, a home of the Episcopalian Church, from the time of Henry VIII because this is not the first time I recognize such sentiment in English writers.

Notwithstanding the above sentiment, the book has its magical way of transporting readers to Italy in the early 16th century and invites readers to meet with Michelangelo as he was in his disheveled hair and untidy outfit dripped with colors from the unfinished fresco. Despite all his personal foibles, he is indeed a person bizarre fantastico whose muscular nudes in frantic but graceful gyrates have both the beauty and the sublime that produce in the spectator a kind of astonished wonder so formidable and so fantastic throughout the ages.

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading (Paperback Edition)
December 30, 2017 – Started Reading
December 30, 2017 – Shelved
January 16, 2018 – Finished Reading
October 23, 2019 – Shelved (Paperback Edition)

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