Ross King’s historical work Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling
begins in 1508 around the time that Pope Julius II was head of the Catholic Church. Michelangelo had been newly commissioned by Julius to paint the ceiling of the recently renovated Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo, an experienced sculptor – having completed his famous statue of David some years before, had limited experience as a painter working with fresco techniques.
King’s book covers the four years it took Michelangelo to complete the project and all of the challenges that came with it. It does not dramatize the events the way some historians might. Instead, the book provides an account of Michelangelo’s quotidian work and the people who labored alongside him. From the assistants who directly supported Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling to the artist’s often-turbulent rivalry with Raphael, King spares no detail, not even the day-to-day details are missing from King’s account.
King focuses on a deeper level as well. Aside from the technical aspects of producing such a vast work of art, the author sheds light on the personalities at work. On the one hand, there is Pope Julius who, just prior to 1508, orders Paride de’Grassi to completely strip out the existing décor. A man of low birth, Julius seeks to add a bit of flair to his papacy, thinking a fresh redesign of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling is the ideal way to accomplish this. Julius intends to replace the old décor with biblical frescos; as master of ceremonies at the Vatican, de’Grassi is tasked with the job of hiring a painter.
De’Grassi’s choice ruffles the Pope’s feathers, for a number of justifiable reasons. First, Michelangelo’s inexperience as a painter makes him a less than qualified candidate for the job. Additionally, he and Julius had argued bitterly over plans for the Pope’s tomb. Julius is squeamish about the idea, but de’Grassi is adamant. There are quite a few run-ins between the two, some which King recounts, in the four years it takes to complete the project. In the fall of 1512, the Pope and his Cardinals get their first glance at the finished product. They are more than pleasantly surprised. One source describes the impression as “such as to make everyone astonished and dumb.”
A historical narrative this may be, but King’s book is not without a ticking clock. The mechanics behind painting frescos depend to a large degree on the materials used. The artist used an intonaco lime mixture that dried quickly. Certain portions of the ceiling had to be completed quickly before the mixture dried, rendering it useless. It is here that fact and fiction meet. It had been said that Michelangelo finished the some of the most intricate figures of the ceiling at “an almost mind-boggling velocity.” The depiction of Adam with his arm outstretched should have taken weeks to complete. Michelangelo finished it in four days.
King does an impressive job of juxtaposing the intricacies of art and history. The narrative is pregnant with just as much of the daily activities on and around the scaffolding erected beneath the Sistine ceiling as it is with life in Italy in the sixteenth century. One such historical point has to do with Michelangelo being selected to paint the ceiling in the first place. As one source puts it, “The iconology of all church paintings was the business of churchmen.” There was an entire retinue of theologians well suited for the task. However, the design itself was the key. So intricate and detailed were the renderings of the Old Testament stories that none other than an artistic genius could have completed them. But King’s narrative doesn’t stop there. The author intends to give the reader much more than a bird’s-eye view of the planning and attention to detail that went into every aspect of the project, not just the painting itself. A few of these details include “the manufacture of pigment, the business of designing the scaffolding for the Sistine Chapel, the challenge of putting together a band of assistants, and the problem of laying in enough wet plaster a day for the pigment to soak in before the plaster dried.”
The author also humanizes the famed Michelangelo who has been all but deified throughout the annals of history. King exposes an eye-opening truth to the reader that, although Michelangelo was ahead of his time to a large degree, he didn’t have all the answers. Again, King turns to the artist’s issues with the materials used to illustrate his point. At one stage, Michelangelo was having issues with the consistency of the plaster, leading to myriad complaints about his lack of sufficient skill as a painter. An architect under his employ with some experience in fresco identified the issue that Michelangelo had been adding too much water to the plaster mixture.
In the end, King’s narrative might not be what one would expect from the biography of such a renowned figure. However, there is something to be said about the extensive amount of research and how that research has given readers a chance to observe Michelangelo through a very different lens.