Thursday, August 9, 2012


“It was an ascension that felled me, I assure you.”

So said Michelangelo in The King’s Agent, a paraphrasing of the artist’s own words taken from his letters and his verse. The Sistine Chapel was, perhaps, Michelangelo greatest creation and yet he himself would deny it, not only because he was, in his heart and soul, a sculptor first and foremost, but because of the trauma he suffered in the completion of the work on the chapel, trauma both physical and mental.

In March of 1505, Michelangelo was called to Rome by Pope Julius II. Their first meeting came just after Michelangelo’s completion of the monumental work, The Madonna of Bruges (1501-1504, pictured from my own moment standing before it). These two dynamic men shared many characteristics. Both could-rightly and justly—be accused of, to use a modern phraseology, too much multi-tasking. Both men were such innovators they were relentless in their ideas and projects, much to the detriment of each idea, for the men often scattered their attention among the ideas as opposed to focusing on one at a time. “The first years of their friendship were a feverish delirium of plans.” (The Extraordinary Life of Michelangelo, Romain Rolland).

When Pope Julius II (pictured, National Gallery, UK), renown for his patronage of the arts and his ambitions building projects, called Michelangelo to the Vatican he initially commissioned the artist to sculpt statues for Julius’ own tomb, preparing a magnificent monument for himself before the possibility of his demise. It was a project which thrilled Michelangelo, incensed him so much he went into the mountains of Tuscany to personally select the marble for the work.

But the pope became impatient with the slow work that is inherently sculpture and his mind moved on to something else, something that some theorists say was implanted in his mind with the specific purpose of taking Michelangelo away from the medium at which he so excelled. Pope Julius was advised that to assure his immortality, he should revitalize the deteriorating St. Peter’s Basilica. Without thought for the artist’s own sensibilities, the pope pulled Michelangelo from work on the tomb .

Michelangelo himself wrote, “all the difficulties which arose with the pope and myself were the work of Bramante and of Raphael. It was their jealousy which kept him from having his tomb made while he was still alive. They tried to ruin me. Raphael had good reason for doing this, since all that he learnt of art he learnt from me.”

So heartbroken was Michelangelo, so devastated was he, that he fled Rome in the middle of the night on horseback, fled to his homeland of Florence. It took months of beseeching letters and messages before Michelangelo would return to the good graces of the Holy See; there was much capitulation, an apology, and another project begun—a bronze casting for which Michelangelo had no expertise--before he would take up the monumental task laid before him. A painting commission he would accept despite his best efforts to convince the pope that Raphael was the man for the job, to no avail. But even then, he truly had no concept, nor did the pope, of what was to come, both in terms of work and results.

Work on the Sistine Chapel began on May 10, 1508. The original design called for the representation of the 12 figures of the apostles to be created in the lunettes (a crescent shaped opening in a vaulted ceiling) and to fill the rest of the space with decoration. Bramante, the basilica’s architect, raised scaffolding and hired several fresco painters. But Michelangelo could only work alone. He replaced Bramante’s scaffolding—such as would cause holes in the ceiling—with one of his own design, and sent the painters away. For the next four years, he remained shut up with but a handful of workmen, such Giovanni Michi from Florence, and enlarged the scope of the project to including painting the walls down to the old frescoes.

As many have said, to analyze the work is to kill it, but perhaps none have said it as lyrically as Romain: “We must face the vision squarely and lose ourselves in the abyss of that spirit. It is terrifying and, if regarded calmly, incomprehensible—it must be hated or adored. It stifles and excites; there is no nature, no landscape, no atmosphere, no tenderness, almost nothing human; the symbolism of a primitive and the science of a decadent; an architecture of naked convulsed bodies; a barren, savage and devouring thought, like a south wind over a sandy desert. There is no corner of shade, no spring to slake the thirst; it is a whirling spout of fire, the vertigo of a delirious emotion, with no goal except the God in which it loses itself. The whole calls on God, fears Him and proclaims Him.”

Through the long days, months, years, Michelangelo barely ate, he lost all thought save for the ceiling, sacrificed his very essence to the work. As is the way of all artists, he questioned the very value of the work, suffered the war of art perhaps far more than anyone has ever done before or since. He battled those who would see him fail, illness, and his own self-doubt, one so consuming, he almost fled again. And, as myth portrays it, Pope Julius became impatient with the artist and the time the masterpiece was taking to be completed. The pope would ask him when he would finish and Michelangelo would answer, “when I can.”

That day finally came in October of 1512. Michelangelo would not paint again until 1529.

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