Visions of Paradise

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling

Ross King’s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling is a fascinating nonfiction story about how autocratic pope Julius II summoned the most famous artist of early 16th century Italy to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It covers the entire four-year period which Michelangelo spent in Rome, and spreads its concerns across all aspects of 16th century European life affecting the historic events taking place in the chapel.

A large part of the drama in the book comes from the conflicting personalities of temperamental artist Michelangelo and autocratic pope Julius. Michelangelo was sullen, self-indulgent, having little concern for the people he dealt with on a daily basis. This is shown best in his dealings with the artist Raphael, one of Michelangelo’s rivals who was painting the walls of a Vatican bedchamber simultaneously while Michelangelo was working on the Sistine Chapel. Raphael is portrayed as sociable and popular, the yin to Michelangelo’s yan. According to the author:

On one occasion, legend has it, Raphael was leaving the Vatican in the company of his vast entourage when he encountered Michelangelo–who, typically, was alone–in the middle of the Piazza San Pietro. “You with your band, like a bravo,” sneered Michelangelo. “And you alone, like the hangman,” retorted Raphael.

Julius was as much feared for his temper and domineering personality as he was respected as pope. Perhaps the best scene in the book was in the chapter “The Warrior Pope” when Julius summoned the College of Cardinals and announced to them they he and they were going to lead an army against the city of Bologna to win it back from its rulers. And they did precisely that, with Julius at the head of the army. Imagine what a wondrous scene that would make in an epic movie.

The book offers fascinating lessons in art history, especially religious and Renaissance art. The author spends time explaining precisely how fresco painting is done, including how various pigments are produced, and how teams of artists work together on such a massive project as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He shows Michelangelo’s growth during the period he worked on the ceiling, developing from primarily a sculptor to the most influential artist of the era, perhaps in history.

We also learn a lot of European history of that period, and the intricate relationship between Italian city-states, European powers all of whom were anxious to control portions of Italy themselves, and the Catholic Church which not only strived to dominate them but, in several instances, actually control them. Although this was the time of the Italian Renaissance, perhaps the height of European culture, it was also an era of bickering powers, conflicts between religion and governments, and seemingly a constant state of warfare.

Several famous historical personages have walk-on roles in the book, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, another rival of Michelangelo. At one point those two artists are placed into conflict painting frescoes on different walls in the same building, but through circumstances neither artist ever finishes his work. And a young Augustinian monk named Martin Luthor travels to Rome to speak with one of Pope Julius’ closest advisors concerning proposed reforms within the Augustinian order. Luthor has considerable time to explore Rome and

grew steadily more disillusioned with the city...It allowed him to see for himself, he claimed, how Rome was the seat of the devil and the pope worse than the Ottoman sultan.

All of this was told in story form rather than as dry historical facts. The 300 pages flew by, always interesting, and always intriguing. By the time the book was finished, I had a much better understanding of the importance of Michelangelo in the history of art than I did previously, as well as understanding how life during the Italian Renaissance was certainly no luxury compared to the Middle Ages which preceded it, but I also enjoyed a fascinating story set in a wondrous era. This book should appeal to many readers, and is highly recommended for all of them.


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