The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, Italy is a masterpiece of biblical symbolism and humanistic style. Michelangelo was able to present both Catholic and Humanistic element in such a way that they do not visually conflict and blend into one of the most often visited pieces of artwork in the world. This work of art can tell us a lot about the values of society at that time and our progression through that period. Michelangelo’s fresco ceiling has since inspired many artists and elements in the ceiling have been imitated often in the years since then.
Michelangelo de Buonarotti, a painter, sculptor, architect and poet was born in 1475 in Tuscany, Italy. At the age of twelve, he began studying under Domenico Ghirlandajo, who was the most fashionable painter in Florence at that time. After that he went to work with Bertoldo di Givoanni, the sculptor and it was then that Michelangelo discovered the style that would become his life’s work. His most famous statues include the eighteen foot David and the Pieta, but he did many other sculptures and tombs. Michelangelo has been described as an uneven tempered, mistrusting and lonely man.
It has been said that he lacked confidence in his physical appearance and had poor interpersonal skills. Michelangelo who regarded himself as a sculptor first and foremost, almost refused to paint the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. Pope Julius II had decided that only Michelangelo could complete this work of art which would help restore Rome to its former glory and persuaded him to do so by bribing him with the promise of his sculpting 40 massive figures for his future tomb. Once Michelangelo agreed to do the chapel ceiling he threw himself into it with vigor.
Michelangelo was off to a slow start, never having painted frescos before, he had to learn the art of buon fresco (Italian for true fresco) which is considered to be the most difficult method, and one only true masters undertook. Buon fresco is a method in which ground pigments are applied to plaster while it is still wet. The advantage of buon fresco is its durability. In the alternate method fresco secco, the pigment does not become part of the wall and tends to flake off over time. We are fortunate Michelangelo decided on buon fresco or we may not have much left of this masterpiece today.
The disadvantage of buon fresco is that it must be done quickly without mistakes. The painter plasters and paints only as much as he can complete in one day which makes this a time consuming process. For four years from 1508 to 1512, Michelangelo struggled with the difficulties of painting nearly ten thousand square feet. One of the difficulties included the fact that the plaster he painted his frescos on would not cure properly in the miserable, damp weather and became moldy. He overcame this obstacle with the help of one of his assistants who created a new type of plaster that resisted mold.
The assistants themselves were another thorn in the side of Michelangelo. He employed many assistants during this time and although he would occasionally allow them to paint small patches of sky or landscape, none lasted long enough to claim even a tiny piece of credit for his work as their own. The sculptor turned painter had to work high up on scaffolding that was built into the walls of the chapel itself so as not to disturb any of the services that went on there. While some might think that Michelangelo would have lied down on his back to paint he did not.
He would stand or kneel on the scaffolding with his head upturned toward the ceiling. One can only imagine the pain he must have suffered from working in this position for so long. Perhaps this is one of the reasons he has been described as uneven tempered and was unable to keep his assistants for very long. Another reason it took so long to complete this masterpiece was that the Pope was off to war during this time and was once so ill that last rites were administered. Michelangelo was never sure if he would eventually be paid for his services or not.
This caused many stops and starts which interrupted the work in progress. Michelangelo wrote a letter which describes his working conditions: I’ve grown a goiter by dwelling in this den- As cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy, Or in what other land they hap to be- Which drives the belly close beneath the chin: My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in, Fixed on my spine: my breast-bone visibly Grows like a harp: a rich embroidery Bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin. My loins into my paunch like levers grind: My buttock like a crupper bears my weight; My feet unguided wander to and fro;
In front my skin grows loose and long: behind, By bending it becomes more taut and strait: Crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bow; Whence false and quaint, I know, Must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye; For ill can aim the gun that bends awry. Come then, Giovianni, try To succor my dead pictures and my fame; Since foul I fare and painting is my shame. The illustrations in the ceiling narrate the story of how God made the world as a perfect creation and put humankind into it. They further illustrate how we fell into disgrace and were punished by death and separation from God through flooding.
They also depict how God sent the savior Jesus Christ to save the world. While much of the symbolism of the ceiling is from the church not all of it is. The Ingudi are 20 athletic, nude males that Michelangelo painted at each corner of the five smaller narrative scenes that run along the center of the ceiling. Although it has been argued that these were intended by Michelangelo to be angels, many critics have been angered by their presence and nudity. Pope Adrian VI described the ceiling as “a stew of naked bodies” and wanted it stripped. The true meaning of these figures has never been clear.
As a young man, Michelangelo spent time at the Humanist academy established by the Medici family in Florence. The Humanist vision of humanity was one in which people responded to other people, to social responsibility and to God in a direct way. They did not go through intermediaries such as the Church. He was familiar with such humanistic inspired sculptural works as Donatello’s bronze David. The ingudi are in keeping with the Humanist idea that “the man is the measure of all things”. The ceiling of the Sistine chapel has inspired many other artists.
Before it was even finished someone let Raphael in to examine the paintings in Michelangelo’s absence. After this he went back to a picture of the prophet Isaiah which he was painting and stripped and repainted it in a much more powerful manner in imitation of Michelangelo. All of the design elements have been subsequently imitated. Among the artists directly influenced by Michelangelo are Pontoromo, Andrea del Sarto, Correggio, Tintoretto and Annibale Carracci. Michelangelo lived centuries ago, but if you walk through Rome today you will see artwork and architecture inspired by him everywhere.