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When Pope Julius II wasn’t riding off to subdue some unfortunate neighbor during the endless Papal Wars, he was hounding poor Michelangelo--"When will you have this chapel finished?"--to make good on his three-thousand-ducat commission and reveal to an expectant world the mysteries of the Creation. If you’ve put those impatient words in the mouth of Rex Harrison, who brought Julius to the screen in The Agony and the Ecstasy, you’ll know that poor Michelangelo worked alone, racked by the demons of poverty and artistic insecurity, to say nothing of the Inquisition. Not so, writes King (Domino, p. 1337, etc.). It’s not that the pope was a patient or gentle man--from time to time he gave Michelangelo a good clout, and he once threatened to throw the recalcitrant artist off his scaffolding. But Michelangelo was being paid very well for his work and had a squadron of skilled craftsmen at his disposal, and it was they, not he, who spent years on their backs staring up at the ceiling, paintbrush in hand, while Michelangelo was ducking off to check on other commissions in Florence and Bologna. King supplies a richly nuanced view of Michelangelo and company’s day-to-day life in the Sistine Chapel, placing it in the context of the overall Renaissance, a time of plenty of bloodshed and intrigue, but also of extraordinary artistic accomplishment thanks to the likes of Julius, Cesare Borgia, and other noteworthy hotheads. Disputing the now accepted view that Michelangelo was gay (there is no good evidence, King argues, that he had much of any kind of sex life), King examines Michelangelo’s considerablevirtues and quirks--one of which, his understandable desire not to show a work until it was done, was to get him into much trouble with his eminent patron.
Readers looking for the lite version of this tale may still want to fire up the VCR and watch Charlton Heston chew the scenery. Those seeking a richer understanding of Renaissance art-making will find this a pleasure.
"A legend-busting, richly detailed account of the four-year making of the Sistine Chapel frescos . . . Readers looking for the lite version of this tale may still want to fire up the VCR and watch Charlton Heston chew the scenery. Those seeking a richer understanding of Renaissance art-making will find this a pleasure." —Kirkus
“Scrupulously researched, written with panache, Ross King’s Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling is a sublime peek into a remarkable era.” —The Miami Herald
“Ross King expertly wipes away such smudges from the story of this great painting, only to uncover a truth even more exciting and improbable.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“[An] exciting account. . . King chronicles Michelangelo’s aesthetic decisions and clarion triumphs over myriad forms of adversity with expertise and contagious enthusiasm.” —Booklist, starred review
"Splendid, thorough and detailed." —Publishers Weekly
The Piazza Rusticucci was not one of Rome’s most prestigious addresses. Though only a short walk from the Vatican, the square was humble and nondescript, part of a maze of narrow streets and densely packed shops and houses that ran west from where the Ponte Sant’Angelo crossed the Tiber River. A trough for livestock stood at its center, next to a fountain, and on its east side was a modest church with a tiny belfry. Santa Caterina delle Cavallerotte was too new to be famous. It housed none of the sorts of relics—bones of saints, fragments from the True Cross—that each year brought thousands of pilgrims to Rome from all over Christendom. However, behind this church, in a small street overshadowed by the city wall, there could be found the workshop of the most sought-after artist in Italy: a squat, flat-nosed, shabbily dressed, ill-tempered sculptor from Florence.
Michelangelo Buonarroti was summoned back to this workshop behind Santa Caterina in April 1508. He obeyed the call with great reluctance, having vowed he would never return to Rome. Fleeing the city two years earlier, he had ordered his assistants to clear the workshop and sell its contents, his tools included, to the Jews. He returned that spring to find the premises bare and, nearby in the Piazza San Pietro, exposed to the elements, one hundred tons of marble still piled where he had abandoned it. These lunar-white blocks had been quarried in preparation for what was intended to be one of the largest assemblages of sculpture the world had ever seen: the tomb of the reigning pope, Julius II. Yet Michelangelo had not been brought back to Rome to resume work on this colossus.
Michelangelo was thirty-three years old. He had been born on the sixth of March 1475, at an hour, he informed one of his assistants, when Mercury and Venus were in the house of Jupiter. Such a fortunate arrangement of the planets had foretold “success in the arts which delight the senses, such as painting, sculpture and architecture.” This success was not long in coming. By the age of fifteen the precociously gifted Michelangelo was studying the art of sculpture in the Garden of San Marco, a school for artists fostered by Lorenzo de’ Medici, the ruler of Florence. At nineteen he was carving statues in Bologna, and two years later, in 1496, he made his first trip to Rome, where he soon received a commission to sculpt the Pietà. His contract for this statue boldly claimed it would be "the most beautiful work in marble that Rome has ever seen”—a condition he was said to have fulfilled when the work was unveiled to an astonished public a few years later. Carved to adorn the tomb of a French cardinal, the Pietà won praise for surpassing not only the sculptures of all of Michelangelo’s contemporaries but even those of the ancient Greeks and Romans themselves—the standards by which all art was judged. The Piazza Rusticucci, with the Castel Sant Angelo in the background.
Michelangelo’s next triumph was another marble statue, the David, which was installed in front of the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence in September 1504, following three years of work. If the Pietà showed delicate grace and feminine beauty, the David revealed Michelangelo’s talent for expressing monumental power through the male nude. Almost seventeen feet in height, the work came to be known by the awestruck citizens of Florence as Il Gigante, or "The Giant." It took four days and considerable ingenuity on the part of Michelangelo’s friend, the architect Giuliano da Sangallo, to transport the mighty statue the quarter mile from his workshop behind the cathedral to its pedestal in the Piazza della Signoria.
A few months after the David was finished, early in 1505, Michelangelo received from Pope Julius II an abrupt that interrupted his work in Florence. So impressed was the pope with the Pietà, which he had seen in a chapel of St. Peter’s, that he wanted the young sculptor to carve his tomb as well. At the end of February the papal treasurer, Cardinal Francesco Alidosi, paid Michelangelo an advance of one hundred gold florins, the equivalent of a full year’s salary for a craftsman. The sculptor then returned to Rome and entered the service of the pope. So began what he would later call "the tragedy of the tomb."
Papal tombs were usually grand affairs. That of Sixtus IV, who died in 1484, was a beautiful bronze sarcophagus that had been nine years in the making. But Julius, a stranger to all modesty, had envisioned for himself something on an entirely new scale. He had begun making plans for his sepulchre soon after his election to the papacy in 1503, ultimately conceiving of a memorial that was to be the largest since the mausoleums built for Roman emperors such as Hadrian and Augustus.
Michelangelo’s design was in keeping with these tremendous ambitions, calling for a freestanding structure some thirty-four feet wide and fifty feet high. There were to be over forty life-size marble statues, all set in a massive and highly detailed architectural setting of pillars, arches, and niches. On the bottom tier a series of nude statues would represent the liberal arts, while the top would be crowned by a ten-foot-high statue of Julius wearing the papal tiara. Besides an annual salary of 1,200 ducats—roughly ten times what the average sculptor or goldsmith could expect to earn in a single year—Michelangelo was to receive a final payment of 10,000 more.
Michelangelo began this daunting project with energy and enthusiasm, spending eight months in Carrara, sixty-five miles northwest of Florence, supervising the quarrying and transport of the white marble for which the town was famous, not least because both the Pietà and the David had been carved from it. In spite of several Michelangelo mishaps in transit—one of his cargo boats ran aground in the Tiber, and several others were swamped when the river flooded—by the start of 1506 he had transported more than ninety wagonloads of marble to the square before St. Peter’s and moved into the workshop behind Santa Caterina. The people of Rome rejoiced at the sight of this mountain of white stone rising in front of the old basilica. No one was more excited than the pope, who had a special walkway built to connect Michelangelo’s workshop with the Vatican and thereby facilitate his visits to the Piazza Rusticucci, where he would discuss his magnificent project with the artist.
1) The ducat, a 24-karat gold coin, was the standard currency throughout most of Italy. To give a sense of its value: The average annual salary of a craftsman or a tradesman amounted to roughly 100 to 120 ducats per year, while a year’s rent on a good-size painter’s workshop in Rome or Florence would have cost ten to twelve ducats. The ducat was of the same value as the florin, the standard currency in Florence, which it replaced later in the sixteenth century.
Even before the marble had arrived in Rome, however, the pope’s attentions were being distracted by a much larger enterprise. Originally he had planned for his sepulchre to stand in a church near the Colosseum, San Pietro in Vincoli, only to change his mind and decide it should be installed instead in the grander setting of St. Peter’s. But soon he realized that the old basilica was in no fit state to accommodate such an impressive monument. Two and a half centuries after his death in 67 c.e., the bones of St. Peter A copy of one of Michelangelo’s sketches for Pope Julius’s tomb had been brought from the catacombs to this location beside the Tiber—the spot where he was believed to have been crucified— and the basilica that bears his name constructed over them. By a sad irony, this great edifice housing the tomb of St. Peter, the rock on which the Christian Church was founded, therefore came to occupy a low-lying patch of marshy ground in which, it was said, there lived snakes large enough to eat babies whole.
These undesirable foundations meant that, by 1505, the walls of the basilica were leaning six feet out of true. While various piecemeal efforts had been made to rectify the perilous situation, Julius, typically, decided to take the most drastic measures: He planned to have St. Peter’s demolished and a new basilica built in its place. The destruction of the oldest and holiest church in Christendom had therefore started by the time Michelangelo returned from Carrara. Dozens of ancient tombs of saints and previous popes— the inspiration for visions, healings, and other miracles—were smashed to rubble and enormous pits twenty-five feet deep excavated for the foundations. Tons of building materials cluttered the surrounding streets and piazzas as an army of 2,000 carpenters and stonemasons prepared themselves for the largest construction project seen anywhere in Italy since the days of ancient Rome.
A design for this grand new basilica had been put forward by the pope’s official architect, Giuliano da Sangallo, Michelangelo’s friend and mentor. The sixty-three-year-old Sangallo, a Florentine, boasted an impressive list of commissions, having designed churches and palaces across much of Italy, among them the Palazzo Rovere, a splendid residence built in Savona, near Genoa, for Julius II. Sangallo also had been the favorite architect of Lorenzo de’ Medici, for whom he had designed a villa near Florence at Poggio a Caiano. In Rome he had been responsible for making repairs to the Castel Sant’Angelo, the city’s fortress. He had also repaired Santa Maria Maggiore, one of Rome’s most ancient churches, and gilded its ceiling with what was said to be the first gold ever brought back from the New World.
So confident was Sangallo of gaining the commission to rebuild St. Peter’s that he uprooted his family from Florence and moved it to Rome. He faced competition for the design, however. Donato d’Angelo Lazzari, better known as Bramante, had a collection of equally prestigious works to his credit. Hailed by his admirers as the greatest architect since Filippo Brunelleschi, he had built churches and domes in Milan and, after moving to Rome in 1500, various convents, cloisters, and palaces. To date, his most celebrated building was the Tempietto of San Pietro in Montorio, a small classicalstyle temple on the Janiculum, a hill south of the Vatican. The word bramante means "ravenous," making it an apt nickname for someone with the sixty-two-year-old architect’s overweening aspirations and vast sensual appetites. And the voracious Bramante saw, in St. Peter’s, the chance to exercise his considerable abilities on a larger scale than ever before.
The competition between Sangallo and Bramante had repercussions for virtually every painter and sculptor in Rome. A Florentine who had lived and worked for many years in Rome, Sangallo was the leader of a group of artists—among them his brother and nephews— who had migrated south from Florence to vie for commissions from the pope and his wealthy cardinals. Bramante, a native of Urbino, had Donato Bramante come to Rome more recently, though since his arrival he had been cultivating friendships with artists who hailed from various other Italian towns and cities, promoting them as a counterpoise to the Florentines whose careers Sangallo was attempting to advance.4 Much was at stake in the competition to design St. Peter’s,since to the victor would accrue wide-ranging powers of patronage as well as an enviable influence at the papal court. Late in 1505, Bramante’s faction dramatically seized the upper hand when the pope accepted his design for a huge, domed structure in the shape of a Greek cross, rather than the one submitted by Sangallo.
If Michelangelo was disappointed by his friend’s failure to secure the commission, the rebuilding of St. Peter’s had an almost immediate effect on his own work. The tremendous expense involved meant that the pope abruptly put the tomb project on hold—a change of heart that Michelangelo learned about the hard way. After shipping his one hundred tons of marble to Rome, he was left with freight charges of 140 ducats, a substantial sum which he needed a bank loan to pay. Having received no money since the one hundred florins more than a year earlier, he decided to seek reimbursement from the pope, with whom he happened to dine in the Vatican one week before Easter. To his alarm, during this meal he overheard the pope informing two of his other guests that he had no intention of spending another ducat on marble for the tomb—a shocking turnabout given his earlier zeal for the project. Still, before taking his leave of the table Michelangelo was bold enough to broach the subject of the 140 ducats, only to be fobbed off by Julius, who instructed him to return to the Vatican on Monday. Then, however, he was spurned a second time when the pope declined to grant him an audience.
"I returned on Monday," Michelangelo later recalled in a letter to a friend, "and on Tuesday and on Wednesday and on Thursday.... Finally, on Friday morning I was turned out, in other words, I was sent packing." A bishop, witnessing these proceedings with some surprise, asked the groom who repulsed Michelangelo if he realized to whom he was speaking. "I do know him," answered the groom, "but I am obliged to follow the orders of my superiors, without inquiring further."
Such treatment was too much for a man unaccustomed to the sight of doors closing in his face. Almost as renowned for his moody temper and aloof, suspicious nature as he was for his amazing skill with the hammer and chisel, Michelangelo could be arrogant, insolent, and impulsive. "You may tell the pope," he haughtily informed the groom, "that from now on, if he wants me, he can look for me elsewhere." He then returned to his workshop—"overwhelmed with despair," he later claimed—and instructed his servants to sell all of its contents to the Jews. Later that day, the seventeenth of April 1506—the eve of the laying of the foundation stone of the new basilica—he fled from Rome, vowing never to return.
Pope Julius II was not a man one wished to offend. No pope before or since has enjoyed such a fearsome reputation. A sturdily built sixty-three-year-old with snow-white hair and a ruddy face, he was known as il papa terribile, the "dreadful" or "terrifying" pope. People had good reason to dread Julius. His violent rages, in which he punched underlings or thrashed them with his stick, were legendary. To stunned onlookers he possessed an almost superhuman power to bend the world to his purpose. "It is virtually impossible," wrote an awestruck Venetian ambassador, "to describe how strong and violent and difficult to manage he is. In body and soul he has the nature of a giant. Everything about him is on a magnified scale, both his undertakings and passions." On his deathbed, the beleaguered ambassador claimed the prospect of extinction was sweet because it meant he would no longer have to cope with Julius. A Spanish ambassador was even less charitable. "In the hospital in Valencia," he claimed, "there are a hundred people chained up who are less mad than His Holiness."
The pope would have learned of Michelangelo’s flight almost immediately, since he had spies not only at the city’s gates but in the countryside as well. Thus, barely had Michelangelo bolted from his workshop on a hired horse than five horsemen set off in pursuit of him. They tracked the runaway sculptor as his horse took him north along the Via Cassia, past tiny villages with posting inns where, every few hours, he changed his mount. After a long ride through the darkness, he finally crossed into Florentine territory, where the pope had no jurisdiction, at two o’clock in the morning. Tired, but believing himself beyond the pope’s reach, he alighted at a hostel in Poggibonsi, a fortified town still twenty miles from the gates of Florence. No sooner had he arrived at the hostel, however, than the horsemen appeared. Michelangelo stoutly refused to return with them, pointing out that he was now in Florentine territory and threatening to have the five of them murdered—a daring bluff— should they attempt to seize him by force.
But the couriers were insistent, showing him a letter, bearing the papal seal, that ordered him to return immediately to Rome "under pain of disfavour." Michelangelo still refused to obey, but at their request he wrote a response to the pope, a defiant letter informing Julius that he did not intend ever to return to Rome; that in exchange for his faithful service he had not deserved such maltreatment; and that since the pope did not wish to proceed with the tomb, he considered his obligations to His Holiness at an end. The letter was signed, dated, and passed to the couriers, who found themselves with little choice but to turn their horses around and ride back to face the wrath of their master.
The pope would have received this letter as he prepared to lay the basilica’s foundation stone, which was made, ironically, from Carrara marble. Among those assembled for the ceremony on the edge of the vast crater was the man whom Michelangelo believed had been responsible for bringing about his sudden fall from grace: Donato Bramante. Michelangelo did not think that financial considerations alone explained why the pope had lost interest in having his tomb carved; he was convinced that a dark plot was afoot, a conspiracy in which Bramante was seeking to thwart his ambitions and destroy his reputation. In Michelangelo’s eyes, Bramante had persuaded the pope to abandon the project by warning him that it was bad luck to have one’s tomb carved during one’s lifetime, and had then proposed an altogether different commission for the sculptor, a task at which he knew Michelangelo could not possibly succeed: frescoing the vault of the Sistine Chapel.
Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling Acknowledgments
Chapter 1. The Summons
Chapter 2. The Conspiracy
Chapter 3. The Warrior Pope
Chapter 4. Penance
Chapter 5. Painting in the Wet
Chapter 6. The Design
Chapter 7. The Assistants
Chapter 8. The House of Buonarroti
Chapter 9. The Fountains of the Great Deep
Chapter 10. Competition
Chapter 11. A Great Quandry
Chapter 12. The Flaying of Marsyas
Chapter 13. True Colors
Chapter 14. He Shall Build the Temple of the Lord
Chapter 15. Family Business
Chapter 16. Laocoö
Chapter 17. The Golden Age
Chapter 18. The School of Athens
Chapter 19. Forbidden Fruit
Chapter 20. The Barbarous Multitudes
Chapter 21. Bologna Redux
Chapter 22. The World's Game
Chapter 23. A New and Wonderful Manner of Painting
Chapter 24. The First and Supreme Creator
Chapter 25. The Expulsion of Heliodorus
Chapter 26. The Monster of Ravenna
Chapter 27. Many Strange Forms
Chapter 28. The Armour of Faith and the Sword of Light
Chapter 29. Il Pensieroso
Chapter 30. In Evil Plight
Epilogue: The Language of the Gods
Posted May 31, 2012
I found this book to be quite compelling and thought it was intriguing that the author went to great lengths to formulate the relationship between the two figures. It is a very in-depth book that will challenge one's primary angle on the situation with the Sistine Chapel.
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Posted March 12, 2010
I love this book because it tells the story of such a famous piece of art, that after reading it you feel intimate with it. This book is really good for history buffs though, it is not as much of a story but teaches you a lot about his life and all his struggles with the ceiling and the many things that contributed to it. Also it has been researched very well, but still maintains the flow of a novel. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes history and art, or someone who just likes to know more than the average person on such well known things.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 16, 2008
Not only a book about Michaelangelo, but a history of Pope Julius and the Catholic Church. This book is a great primer on Renaissance Italy and how Europe awoke after a long hibernation of the Dark Ages. All the cast and characters are here; the popes, the Medici's, the Borgia's, the patrons, and the artists. If you think Michaelangelo only created David or the Sistine Chapel, then this book will certainly enlighten. Highly recommended.<BR/><BR/>PWWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 21, 2006
Posted November 20, 2005
King's research is evident in this book and it is so thorough, leaving out no detail in the process of painting The Sistine Chapel. I would reccomend this to anyone, interested in art or not, because after reading it, you just gain a whole new perspective and its worth your time!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 9, 2005
A fascinating book, examines not only art history, but world history, design, petty family squables, political and religous upheaval, paint technique, paint chemistry, greek history etc etc, and how each impacted the work as it was done. I could not put this book down. It is a shame it is only a few hundred pages. Unfortunataly, the color plates are not precise or complete. You'll want to invest some time on the internet research larger samles of the work. Or better yet, visit the Vatican.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 29, 2005
This book is a great read and an amazing view inside the world of papal politics. I took it with me to Italy and finished on the flight, then toured the Vatican. Unbelievable!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 14, 2005
Posted June 22, 2004
I greatly enjoyed this book, as well as Brunelleschi's Dome. Ross King has successfully made art history and the history of engineering accessible to the person who reads a lot, but may not be an historian or an academic. Makes me want to catch the next flight to Rome to see it in person. This book was an easy and enjoyable read, and opened my eyes to more about Raphael and Pope Innocent II (!!!!) that makes me want to know more. My copy is now travelling with friends, hopefully being enjoyed.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 15, 2004
I loved this book. I read it before I visited the Sistine Chapel and enjoyed seeing things in a different light. A great book for everyone; even those who dislike non-fictionWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 15, 2004
I was in high school the last time I learned anything substantive about Renaissance art and history. This book is very well written, fun, an excellent leisure read with plenty of facts and figures to please the more technically-minded.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 16, 2003
This history and art appreciation volume may well appeal to everyone of us who has visited or will visit the Sistine Chapel. To take full advantage of Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling one may want to have a good book of the frescos and a map of sixteenth century Italy very close at hand. No, they are not absolutely necessary but with them the journey will really begin. At the end of the journey I felt that I almost met the men who are the principals of this history. In Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling Mr.King has done another (Brunelleschi's Dome) very engaging and engrossing history. He motivates one to want to return to Rome and Florence yet again. Ah, how much more we now know thanks to Mr. King. Definitely at least four stars. Thank you Mr.King. I, for one, am sure that you have a book on Raphael in the works and I am very much looking forward to it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 17, 2003
Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling kept my attention throughout the whole book. Not only did I learn the facts about the painting of the Sistine Chapel, but King brought to life characters like Pope Julius II and Raphael. I highly recommend this to you if you are an art history fan, or just want an interesting read. I also feel as though I 'know' Michelangelo and was present during his amazing undertaking.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 30, 2009
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Posted December 10, 2008
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