A Book Review by Anne Frandi-Coory
‘Michelangelo & The Pope’s Ceiling’ by Ross King…
…is a wonderful book all artists should read if they haven’t already. But then, anyone interested in the genius of Michelangelo would love it also.
The author, Ross King, intertwines Michelangelo’s private life and his many anxieties into the long and arduous travail that was the painting of the Sistine Chapel. And amidst all of this the disputes between the painter and Pope Julius II over money and design give an insight into how closely the Vatican kept tabs on artists and the subjects of their works.
Compared to Raphael, Michelangelo was practically a saint. He worked long hours in Rome on the Pope’s most ambitious ‘project’ while at the same time handling all his family’s many problems, financial and otherwise, back at his home in Florence.
Michelangelo believed any sort of sexual liaison was dangerous to one’s wellbeing; ‘sapping’ a person’s vitality. It is believed Michelangelo was celibate while his competitor Raphael, and Pope Julius, both had appetites for food, wine, and sex that were legendary. In fact, Raphael died in his late 30s from ‘a night of debauchery’. The pope suffered from syphilis and malaria. Many popes from that era suffered from syphilis and many had children. During this era, Rome, with a population of around 50,000, was infamous for the thousands of prostitutes working in that city. It goes without saying that among their clients were numerous Catholic clergy.
Often a pope’s son and heir, nephew, or other relative, followed in his footsteps as head of the Roman Catholic Church. In those days, Popes and Bishops even went to war to win back papal states in Italy seized during invasions by other powerful countries. The fact that the Church used soldiers from ‘friendly’ countries to boost their own fighting power wasn’t a problem, neither were their looting and rampaging!
Being a history buff, I also enjoyed reading about the politics and life in Italy during the 15th and 16th Centuries. This book is well researched and equally well written.
In particular, I was fascinated by the techniques Michelangelo and Raphael used to paint their frescos. This method was used to paint walls of palaces and churches, as well as the Sistine ceiling or ‘vault’. I always believed that the artists just painted the walls as though they were canvases. Not so. The method is painstaking, and requires much skill and patience. Several ‘plasterers’ are needed to assist the painter in mixing the correct ingredients and the painter applied pigments and sketches either to wet or dry plaster, depending on the effect required.
While I was in Rome in 1992, I bought a large book full of coloured glossy reproductions of Michelangelo’s and Raphael’s works during the reign of Pope Julius. I am so glad I did because there are no coloured plates in Ross King’s book, therefore it would have been difficult for me to follow some of his more detailed discussions. For instance, as King explains in detail the various characters Michelangelo painted onto the Sistine ceiling, I was able to study them in this amazing book. It made King’s book even more interesting from an artist’s perspective.
The author also discusses at length, one of my favourite paintings by Raphael, ‘The School Of Athens’. This was commissioned by Pope Julius for a stanza in his new apartments. Donato Bramante, Pope Julius’ favourite architect helped Raphael paint the monumental and palatial scenes in ‘The School’. My glossy book of reproductions also has wonderful individual full coloured reproductions of the various students and ‘professors’ in ‘The School’, such as Plato and Aristotle.
-Anne Frandi-Coory 25 November 2013