Monday, January 28, 2008

Did Michelangelo really Paint the Sistine Chapel?

Read this this morning:

It's anniversary time. The genesis of the Greatest Work of Art Ever, Anywhere – so popular that the curators of the Vatican Museums have made seeing it insanely complicated and expensive in an effort to reduce the crowds – began 500 years ago this spring, when Pope Julius II persuaded a reluctant Michelangelo Buonarroti to take on the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But even before the festivities can properly begin, they have been overshadowed by the return of an ancient controversy.
In contrast to other great Renaissance figures such as Shakespeare, of whose lives we know practically nothing for certain, Michelangelo was intimately chronicled during his own lifetime – in dozens of letters he wrote to his beloved father and brothers, and in two biographies, one by Vasari. We know in vivid detail what the great artist was up to month by month, often day by day. His tortured relationship with the warrior pope who was his greatest patron emerges vividly from the chronicles of his age.
We can even picture him at work, thanks to a sketch he drew illustrating a humorous poem on the torment of painting the ceiling – head thrown back, bottom thrust out to give him support, "belly hanging like an empty sack,/ beard pointing at the ceiling... my face, from drips and droplets/patterned like a marble pavement..."
We can also readily imagine the speed at which he worked, slapping paint on to wet plaster, driving himself across the enormous surface to get it covered in time.
The critic Waldemar Januszczak, who had the chance to scrutinise the ceiling from close quarters from the top of a television scaffold, wrote: "I could see the bristles from his brushes caught in the paint, and the mucky thumbprints he'd left along the margins. The first thing that impressed me was his speed. Michelangelo worked at Schumacher pace. Adam's famous little penis was captured with a single brushstroke: a flick of the wrist, and the first man had his manhood."
But behind the rich, almost cinematic certainties that history has given us about the painting of the ceiling – concerning the people, the relationships, the materials, the time frame, the technology – lies an impenetrable area of shadow.

I remember visiting the History Museum in San Diego a couple of years ago when they had an exhibition of artifacts from the Vatican Achieves. These included some sketches of the great artist himself. Awesome exhibit.

Some day I'll make to Rome.

It was in any event an impossible commission, from the artist's most demanding, impossible patron. Raphael's painting of Pope Julius II as a hollow-eyed, white-bearded figure clutching a money bag in one hand and the arm of his throne in the other, fails to do justice to one of the most bellicose megalomaniacs ever to occupy St Peter's chair, which is saying a bit.

Julius was, writes the papal historian Eamon Duffy, "a very dubious Father of all the Faithful, for he had fathered three daughters... while a cardinal, and he was a ferocious and enthusiastic warrior, dressing in silver papal armour and leading his own troops through the breaches blown in the city walls of towns who resisted his authority."

He was, however, the greatest papal patron of the Renaissance, giving inspired commissions to Raphael, Bramante and Leonardo as well as to Michelangelo.

Michelangelo's relationship with the pope was tormented. The artist from Arezzo, who turned 33 in 1508, was already famous as the sculptor of David, completed in 1504, and recognised as the genius of the age. Julius summoned him to Rome and commanded him to create a preposterous thing – a vast sepulchre worthy of a Pharaoh more than a pope, which was to contain 40 life-size figures and would become the eighth wonder of the world.

Perhaps fortunately, this monstrous monument was never finished, but what the artist called "the tragedy of the Tomb" pursued him long after Julius's death and interment in 1513, with rows over lousy assistants, inadequate budgets and revisions of the contract. In 1506, after one nasty spat, Michelangelo bolted from Rome on horseback.

But Julius, for all his megalomania, had a clear view of Michelangelo's worth, and after the artist had been prevailed on to apologise, got him to execute a bronze statue of him – subsequently melted down into a cannon.

Then, even while the agonies of the tragic tomb continued to pile up, Julius threw another amazing job at Michelangelo. The walls of the Sistine Chapel, the private chapel of the papal household, were already adorned with works by 15th-century masters including Botticelli and Perugino. The ceiling was painted blue, dotted with gold stars. The chapel had long been in disuse because of a large crack in the ceiling. Now Julius wanted it to be drastically renovated, and commanded him to paint 12 large figures of the Apostles on the ceiling.

At first, Michelangelo was reluctant because, as he told the pope, painting "is not my profession". The discussions continued through March and April. Finally, in May the artist grudgingly agreed, writing stiffly on the receipt for the initial payment of 500 ducats, that he, a sculptor, had received 500 ducats for the painting in the Sistine Chapel.

Did he actually paint it? bet he did.

Additional links:

Pope Julius II-New Advent

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