Arte al Fresco

Michelangelo's lament: 'I'm no painter.'

In 1509, during the second year of his work in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo Buonarroti sent to a friend a poem detailing, in self-pitying tones, the great hardship he was forced to endure while frescoing the now famous ceiling. In it, he complains about the physical strain resulting from the daily contortions of painting above his head, the failing eyesight, warped spine and incipient hernia, not to mention the indignity of having his face covered with dripping paint. The poem ends with a stanza so woebegone it would have even given pause to one of Michelangelo's characters, the ever-lamenting prophet Jeremiah:

Giovanni, come to the rescue
Of my dead painting now, and of my honor.
I'm not in a good place, and I'm no painter.

It's disconcerting to hear that one of the artistic wonders of the world was produced so unwillingly, and astonishing that the artist in question should openly declaim his own credentials. This was not a case of Christian humility; all his life Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor and believed his true medium to be marble. Having completed his much celebrated statue of David, he had earnestly begun carving what he hoped would become his magnum opus, an immense and ornately sculpted tomb for Pope Julius II. But early into the project his patronage was scrapped, and soon afterwards a papal injunction forced the grudging artist to his destiny with the 65-foot ceiling.

In Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, Ross King laudably chronicles the birth and maturity of this Vatican masterpiece, paying generous attention to the lives of the characters that surround it. The book comes fast on the heels of King's popular release, Brunelleschi's Dome, a slim and confectionary retelling of a Renaissance architect's construction of the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence. The story of the Sistine Chapel makes for bulkier material, but in it King has stuck to the formula that made Brunelleschi's Dome a success. Rather than dwell upon the ponderous technicalities of architectural design, King applied his focus to the brilliant personalities, artistic rivalries and power politics of the time. This strategy makes for some weaknesses in both books.

But for the most part these lacunae are easily overlooked--like small nail holes in the fresco--as King brings his (and history's) wonderful cast of characters to the forefront. The most memorable may be the aforementioned Pope Julius II. Nothing like the infirm pontiff of present, Julius was a hard-drinking, tax-crazy, megalomaniacal warmonger--the embodiment of all that so offended Luther and Erasmus alike. King points out that, "Besides being representatives of Christ on Earth, popes were also temporal princes with the powers and privileges of any other monarch." Defending and gaining territory was part of the position, but Julius's martial spirit often led him to the quick of the battles; when a cannonball smashed through his shelter, just missing him for two servants, he had the ball salvaged as gory proof of God's mercy and favor.

He was also Michelangelo's boss and bete noir, forcing him to paint under duress. The two had an almost comically tumultuous relationship, with the Pope reliant on Michelangelo's genius but hating his insolence. (He once struck the artist with a staff for taking to long to finish.) Likewise, Michelangelo excoriated Julius in private, but was dependant on his patronage. King explains that "the adjective most often used to describe Julius was terrible. Julius himself used the term to refer to Michelangelo--one of the few people in Rome who refused to cringe before him."

The second rivalry brought to a head pitted a man diametrically opposite the humbug character of Michelangelo. In a nearby Vatican palace Julius had commissioned an ascendant young painter named Raphael. While Michelangelo was churlish, solitary and self-absorbed (and probably celibate), Raphael was a social gadabout, known for his friendly, unpretentious demeanor and some notably imperial trysts. The contrast was manifest in art as well: Raphael depicted gorgeous and serene frescos that evinced a perfectly controlled natural order. Michelangelo's ceiling, on the other hand, was full of striving, writhing, contrapposto poses and frowning, horrified prophets.

All the competition and combat that backdrops the work in the Sistine Chapel serve as an intercalated double story, the kind of narrative structure effective in novels. King, in fact, began as a fiction writer before turning to straight history, and tries to heighten to tension of the painting by partnering it with the potential fall of Rome to the marauding French, or the chaos of some of the bloodier battles that ensued. Yet these political and military histories come off somewhat slight and underdeveloped. The real drama remains between Michelangelo and the chapel ceiling. Perpetually contending with family problems and civic turmoil, as well as his own inexperience and dissatisfaction with the milieu, the artist slowly improved the quality of his fresco, gradually becoming more assured, imaginative and effective. By the end of the book, despite all the obstacles, his genius has reached such a sustained pitch that every brushstroke seems more important than the last, and every figure is more daring and original. It's completion, though never in doubt, feels as cathartic as the end of a good novel. If the alchemical process that converts brilliance to masterwork is still a mystery, being in this kind of proximity to that process is no less of a thrill.

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