(Earlier today, we were at Musei Vaticani)
May 26th, 2009
The first reaction on entering the chapel was that it is smaller than I had expected. Then I looked at the ceiling and I froze.
I realized, it is impossible to prepare for an event like this. You can read all the books you want, you can see every image of every paining a thousand times beforehand, yet, you are unprepared to experience it in situ. The hand that painted it cannot not belong to the God – which incidentally is the leitmotif of the ceiling in its entirety – God and man working together.
I found a spot on a bench nearby. It does not matter where you sit. Every square inch in the room has the best view.
The only painting on Michelangelo’s resume, all those years ago, was the Doni Tondo (now available in the Uffizi). It must have taken Julius II tremendous foresight to ignore Bramante’s advice, who surreptitiously was plugging for his nephew who went by the name Raphael, and drag Michelangelo back from his comfortable life in Florence to take this work on. Bramante was not wrong though. Michelangelo had never been tried on figures this large, that would demand the highest level of detail for foreshortening.
One would assume a project so dear to the pope and of such obvious importance would enjoy a carte blanche. It did not. The budget would allow only half the Chapel to be scaffolded – so costly was the rope and the wood - at a time and the Chapel services continued unabated while the work was in progress creating severe constraints and heartburn to the artist.
Michelangelo rejected Bramante’s advice of a suspended scaffolding – by itself no mean feat given the reputation Bramante commanded at the time – as he gingerly pointed out the tiny detail of filling in the holes that such a scaffolding would leave when removed. He then went on to design his own, a scheme Bramante would later reuse for St. Peters. He started off with the half closest to the entrance and took him two years to complete. Unlike the myth that he painted lying on his back, an image romanticized by Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, he painted standing up with his head thrown back. He worked meticulously and methodically. In August 1511, half the completed ceiling was thrown open to the public. It was also the first time Michelangelo got a chance to inspect his work from the floor, more than 60 feet away from where he was used to seeing it. (Do you get it?). His corrections are evident as he threw himself into completing the second half of the Chapel. He uncluttered his panels. He focused on gigantic figures in fluid motion, twisted in extreme emotion, using his mastery in depicting anatomy.
By October 1512, he was done and back in Florence where he felt the most belonged. He thought he was done with Rome, not knowing that he would be called back 23 years later to take the Chapel to a new height for a pope as different as one could be from Julius II.
Pope Paul III dragged Michelangelo back to Rome, this time to decorate the wall behind the altar. Michelangelo, 65 years old by now, built a new wall to get the right ventilation for his fresco, unwilling to paint in oil, which he maintained was a medium for lazy people and women. (Stay on, we are not here for what Michelangelo thought or believed in). He then uncorked another masterpiece.
Freely using nudes, his belief that physical beauty reflected spiritual and moral beauty, would haunt him to his deathbed. In the Last Judgment, he depicted salvation the way Catholicism would. No one deserves to be saved because all are sinners. The ones saved looks scared and confused. The ones damned look surprised and sad.
As if he was not in trouble enough, he left a lot of nuanced Easter eggs in his work. He used his painting to openly castigate people who criticized him. Biagio de Cesna is painted as Minos in Hell. He has donkey ears, and his testicles are being chewed by a snake. Biagio disapproved of all the nudity, he got nailed for life. Pietro Arentino was made into St. Bartholomew. The acid that Arentino threw at Michelangelo singed his own skin. His letter never being read by the public, Michelangelo’s art never ignored. He is shown skinned alive, carrying his own skin. his penis flopping around.
Michelangelo was kind to people he liked. Cavalieri gets to be St. Sebastian. Urbino got casted as St. James. Pope Paul III, himself, got the role of St. Peters. Renaissance casting couch, lets say. Only after Michelangelo died, did Pius IV dare to revisit the nudes, getting Daniela de Volterra, Michelangelo’s trusted student to paint cloth over the genitals. Volterra was gentle. Minimalistic. He did his bit, without taking away what his master intended.
I had finally seen it. Taken what I could. What I deserved. There are places I do not bid goodbye. This was another. I left a piece of me here. I took with me a piece of the place.
Symbolically, it takes a beautiful spiral staircase build by Bramante to bring people down to terra firma - gently.
(Read on. We are headed to Piazza de San Pietro)