Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling

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  • Edition: Revised
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2003-12-01
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)

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In 1508, despite strong advice to the contrary, the powerful Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the newly restored Sistine Chapel. With little experience as a painter (though famed for his sculpture David), Michelangelo was reluctant to begin the massive project. Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceilingrecounts the four extraordinary years Michelangelo spent laboring over the vast ceiling while the power politics and personal rivalries that abounded in Rome swirled around him. Battling against ill health, financial difficulties, domestic problems, the pope's impatience, and a bitter rivalry with the brilliant young painter Raphael, Michelangelo created scenes so beautiful that they are considered one of the greatest masterpieces of all time. A panorama of illustrious figures converged around the creation of this great work-from the great Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus to the young Martin Luther-and Ross King skillfully weaves them through his compelling historical narrative, offering uncommon insight into the intersection of art and history.

Author Biography

Ross King is the bestselling author of Brunelleschi's Dome and the novels Ex-Libris and Domino.



The Summons

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.

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