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Sweet Sistine

by Steve McKee on August 25, 2010

Musei Vaticani

The three hour tour of the Vatican Museum in Rome was a doozy with much to see, like marble statues and elaborate tapestries and even wall sized maps of Europe and the New World that were state-of-the-art for the 1600’s. Near the end of this tour we received a special reward when we got to stand before the large wall fresco of Raphael’s “School of Athens,” in which the great men of ancient Greece are seen gathering to share ideas. It was much more colorful and vibrant compared to the nearby works completed by Raphael’s assistants. We learned that Raphael altered his masterpiece to include Michelangelo’s image among the assembly of great men, after he had seen the astounding artistry that his fellow artist was accomplishing next door on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Pretty cool of him to do that, I thought.

Rafael's homage to the Great Michelangelo

Fresco is harder than painting, because the artist is adding paint to wet plaster as it dries, not just brushing on paint, and there is urgency because the plaster will dry soon and the colors must blend perfectly. (All you readers of “The Agony and the Ecstasy” already know this, of course.)

Then, after the Rafael came the gold standard of fresco: the Sistine Chapel, the magnum opus of Michelangelo.

Right before entering the Sistine there is a small museum café where we could sit and renew our energies. So eight euros later the four McKees had split a couple panini sandwiches and a bottle of cold water each and, thus refreshed, began our walk up the famous Bernini steps to the Chapel.

The Sistine Chapel was long and tall and sort of dim and filled with people. Upon entering there was the obligatory quick glimpse up to the painted figures high overhead. (There they were! Lit softly by the numerous high windows.) Mostly though, it was head down to negotiate the thick crowd. We were urged along like cattle by impatient docents in blue uniforms to a slightly less crowded spot. The murmur of the crowd was broken by the sounds of one of the docents loudly shushing people. Apparently, talking was not allowed! Then we situated ourselves and fully turned our attention upwards to drink it in – the perfectly rendered figures of the Book of Genesis, brought to life by four and a half years of back breaking effort by the most supreme artistic talent humanity ever produced. The various bible scenes were done as a series of panels painted on the ceiling, complete with elaborate painted borders and numerous human figures captured at the most remarkable moment of their story. Each figure was rendered in exquisitely dynamic poses, some elegant, some tragic, as only a sculptor could do so well.

Capella Sistina

Michelangelo did not want this task, but it was the will of  Pope Julius II to demand it of him. It has been speculated that Michelangelo, a proclaimed non-painter, was suggested for this painterly job behind the scenes by papal architect Donato Bramante who wanted potential rival Michelangelo removed from competition as architect of St. Peters by being stuck high up on some very tall scaffolding for a very long time.

Pope Julius II was a man of enormous energy, equally at home sponsoring artists as he was donning polished steel armor and leading an attack on a city state that he felt needed to be brought under Church control. The previous century the city of Rome had suffered badly when the papacy fled to Avignon France, leaving Rome as a city of crumbling and overgrown ruins with small-time warlords stripping marble off of grand buildings to fortify other buildings being used as their hideouts. (Not exactly the sort of activity a historic preservationist would like to see. Truth is, ancient Rome was built to hold up very well. It was the looters and salvagers, not the passage of time, that did the most destruction. There was also the Catholic church making sure to destroy any building that smacked of paganism. Good grief.) The popes of the following century and especially firebrand Julius II labored to restore Rome to the grandeur they thought appropriate for a capital of their faith.

So when Julius was tipped off by a trusted friend that there was a Florentine artist worth promoting, history was made when Michelangelo was given a world stage. At first the call was for sculpted figures for Julius’ future tomb, but that project got called off partway by Julius. When Michelangelo was not paid for this work, he stormed back to Florence and the headstrong pope was reduced to threatening war on Florence if the artist didn’t return. Months of negotiation followed and the equally headstrong Michelangelo was finally persuaded to return, thus averting a war fought over the patronage of a talented artist, a dilemma surely only the Renaissance could have spawned.

That was when Michelangelo’s rival Bramante cleverly got the pope to require Michelangelo to commit to painting the Sistine ceiling, thus taking him out of the running as a potential papal architect. (Pope Julius was set on replacing the original basilica of St. Peters with a dazzling new renaissance era church to serve as the Catholic “flagship” cathedral, an amazing architectural commission worth getting jealous over. Michelangelo eventually got the last laugh after Bramante died and he got to revise the design of the half finished church, including the design of the beautiful dome which came to characterize the building.)

God gives life to Adam

Though Michelangelo hated having to paint the ceiling of the Sistine, his perfectionism got the better of him. He sent assistants away when he saw the inferior quality of their work and then spent almost half a decade standing atop the high scaffolding with head arched back and arms reaching overhead doing it all himself. He didn’t lie on his back, as is often thought. The strain on his arms and back must have been enormous. “My beard points to heaven,” he later wrote in a famous poem. “All the day my brush makes my face a rich mosaic floor. I am stretched like a Syrian bow. I am not well placed, nor indeed a painter.”

The area of the ceiling is a whopping 5800 square feet (more than double the floor area of the average Benicia home) and just about every square foot is exquisitely treated. This was a massive effort involving both quantity and quality that resulted in what is arguably the greatest artistic achievement of all time.

Fifteen minutes later the docents lead my group away, down a back hall out a rear door into the warm sunshine of Rome. It was time to catch a cab. There were yet more adventures ahead of us in this land of stunning art and architecture.

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