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Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiliing

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In Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling Ross King gives a penetrating look into the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti during the four years he spends painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. At a scale of nearly five thousand and eight hundred square feet and almost seventy feet above the ground, this would be an incredible task for the artist. He faces many challenges, mentally and physically, during the process, but still finishes the ceiling in an incredibly short amount of time considering the size of his work. Michelangelo is renowned for his moody temper and reclusive lifestyle. Most people find him to be an extremely difficult person, due partially to his lack of concern for anyone but himself, and to his undaunted stubborn nature. The one man with whom he will despise and contend with all his life was Pope Julius II; he is also the man who commissions him to paint the ceiling. Ross King’s purpose in writing this book is to detail Michelangelo’s magnificent struggle with personal, political, and artistic difficulties during the painting of the Sistine ceiling. He also gives an engaging portrait of society and politics during the early sixteenth century.

Michelangelo is an unequivocal example of an eccentric and egotistical artist whose entire life revolves around his work. Anything not related to his art he considers to be void and worthless. He spends all day working and only stops to eat and sleep when it is absolutely necessary. He very rarely spends time with anyone except for the artists he works with and his assistants. He is extremely distrustful and intolerant of others, especially other artists. In fact Michelangelo seems to make enemies or offend someone everywhere he goes. He even goes so far as to accuse Bramante, a fellow artist and architect, of plotting to have him killed.

There is no one Michelangelo will ever detest more than Pope Julius II, who has a fearsome reputation for being violent and unforgiving. His uncle is Pope Sixtus IV and since nepotism is tolerated at this time, Julius goes on a jet set ride through church hierarchy. Once he becomes the pope he has only one goal: to ensure the power and glory of the papacy. He begins raising taxes, supporting simony, and offering indulgences to raise funds for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilca. Bramante is in charge of the rebuilding of St. Peter’s, which is Julius’ largest project at this time. Meanwhile Michelangelo, who is sculpting Julius’ funeral tomb, stops receiving his payments. He tries to talk to Julius about the matter, but Julius refuses to see him. In response to the supposed threats on his life, and more realistically because of the fight with Pope Julius II, Michelangelo leaves Rome in April of 1506, vowing never to return again.

Michelangelo always considered sculpture to be his speciality. This is why many people, including Bramante, do not think he would be the best artist to paint the Sistine. Julius had seen Michelangelo’s David and the work he started on his tomb, and wanted him to paint the Sistine. The pope is also at war during this time because he is trying to gain back control of the papal states lost during the Great Schism. Yet he never loses sight of his dream to restore glory to Rome, and is determined to get Michelangelo to paint the Sistine for him. Michelangelo would agree to paint the ceiling of the Sistine for Julius, but not before spending two years away from Rome avoiding Julius’ attempts to bring him back. Finally he gives in and begins working on the ceiling in May of 1508.

The beginning of this great project is the most trying time for Michelangelo. He has a very negative outlook on the whole project, because it is a task he does not want in the first place. He has very little experience with fresco painting, which is what the entire ceiling will be done in. Fresco painting is very difficult because the artist must work in wet plaster and only has a certain amount of time before it dries and hardens. This meant that the whole ceiling would be done in small sections, plastering a little more as they went along. Hundreds of sketches had to be drawn and the basic design of the ceiling had to be planned. He also needed to find a way to get to the ceiling. He needed something permanent, yet functionally since the chapel still had to be used for masses. He designed the scaffolding himself creating it so that it stretched across half of the ceiling and could be torn down and rebuilt on the other side when they finished with the first side.

The design of the ceiling is designed almost completely by Michelangelo, which is highly unusual for this time period. Artists in the early sixteenth century were not much different from brickmakers, obeying the demands of their patrons. Julius gives Michelangelo his ideas for the ceiling, but Michelangelo tells him that it would be a poor sight for the ceiling. For once the pope

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