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Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling Paperback – October 14, 2014
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"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
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“This amazing book transports the listener back to Italy in the early 16th century. King is able to describe the intricacies of fresco painting while also portraying the day-to-day life of that era . . . Highly recommended.” ―Library Journal
“A legend-busting, richly detailed account of the four-year making of the Sistine Chapel frescos . . . Readers looking for the lite version of this tale may still want to fire up the VCR and watch Charlton Heston chew the scenery. Those seeking a richer understanding of Renaissance art-making will find this a pleasure.” ―Kirkus
“Scrupulously researched, written with panache, Ross King's Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling is a sublime peek into a remarkable era.” ―The Miami Herald
“Ross King expertly wipes away such smudges from the story of this great painting, only to uncover a truth even more exciting and improbable.” ―San Francisco Chronicle
“[An] exciting account. . . King chronicles Michelangelo's aesthetic decisions and clarion triumphs over myriad forms of adversity with expertise and contagious enthusiasm.” ―Booklist, starred review
“Splendid, thorough and detailed.” ―Publishers Weekly
About the Author
Ross King is the highly praised author of Brunelleschi's Dome (the Book Sense Nonfiction Book of the Year in 2000), Leonardo and The Last Supper, The Judgment of Paris, Machiavelli: Philosopher of Power, and two novels, Ex Libris and Domino. He lives outside Oxford in England.
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Arguably, the person who has the most developed and interesting character is not the artist but the man who commissioned him: Pope Julius II -- a domineering and vain and aggressive person, who was perhaps more interested in the power struggles among the Vatican and the Italian city-states (and against France) in the 16th century than in the finer points of the Catholic faith. We never get a definitive idea of how Michelangelo himself felt about Julius -- though it seems negative in balance. We also don't get much info on Michelangelo's attitude toward religion, though it is suggested that he was a believer (with little supporting evidence).
Although the book is about Michelangelo as a painter, he considered himself primarily a sculptor (and is perhaps remembered that way). Yet there is not much about his work with stone and its relation to his painting.
One of the book's major shortcomings is the lack of good illustrations. There are just a few color plates and not that many black and white ones. I had to go to the Wikipedia entry on the Sistine Chapel to get decent close-ups so I could follow the descriptions in the text. The author should have included at least this link (and probably others that might be even better). The author's analysis of the frescoes artistic features does not seem authoritative and at times seems sketchy. Of course, to be fair, there are plenty of expert analyses to be had.
I had previously read the author's "Bruneleschi's Dome" which is more streamlined and easier to digest. "Pope's ceiling" was, though interesting, rather ponderous. Sometimes less is more as they say.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Renaissance art who is not looking for a scholarly volume but is interested in coming closer to understanding these people's geniuses. I would also recommend reading it BEFORE going to the Vatican in order to be able to know where to look and to appreciate the work to the full without having to listen to parrot like guides. I have bee to the Sistine Chapel twice but I can't wait to go again and check the facts for myself.
Michelangelo’s work on the frescoes resulted from part Divine Providence of endowing the humanity with an awe-inspiring masterpiece of art to delight the senses of mankind through the ages and part secular ambitions to mark the names of both the commissioner and the artist themselves. Pope Julius II also wanted to renovate the Sistine Chapel that had been used as a living quarter for the guards, a fortress against papal enemies, and a jail. As no one pours new wine into old wineskins as said in the bible, the pope’s plan to revert the chapel to its original place of worship, which made him drop his tomb project, was met by his idea of frescoing the vault in its entirety. Michelangelo, who was a breadwinner of his family, accepted the commission with sumptuous amount of salary and commenced four-year of labor of woes and dramas on the vault of the chapel.
There are revealing truths that should be known concerning the process of frescoing the Sistine Chapel as follows: Contrary to popular belief that Michelangelo did the work while lying prone on his back, he worked with his upper body bent backward like a bow. Also, it wasn’t done by solely by Michelangelo but a work of concerted efforts made by a contingent of his assistants chosen by Francesco Granacci, a close friend of Michelangelo. Michelangelo was innately a solitary worker who had a strong distrust of others who worked with him. As a matter of fact, Michelangelo was never a jolly fellow whose sociability would have endeared him to all, as in the case of his contemporary Raphael Sancti.
It is also interesting to pay special notes on the figures Michelangelo used for the frescoes, which shows his ingenuity of selecting unique subject matters distinguished from his contemporaries. To illustrate, he used 7 prophets from the Old Testament and 5 sibyls from pagan myth to decorate the Sistine vaults. He was fascinated with prophetic knowledge of the sibyls who dwelled in sacred shrines and predicted the future in fits of inspired madness. This offered a compelling link between the sacred and the profane, the church and the esoteric pagan culture by reconciling pagan mythology with orthodox Christian teachings.
From this book, readers will find that the position of a painter/sculptor was not esteemed highly; he was more of a skilled laborer, a craftsman, given exact orders how to produce his work by his commissioner or patron. As a matter of fact, the image of a solitary genius who would wield his brush and pallets to portray his world of imagination from the fathoms of his soul was a romantic fable. In Michelangelo’s time, an artist’s creativity was fettered by the demands of marketplace or his patron. Nevertheless, Michelangelo often disagreed to the pope’s own artistic direction and even had a temerity of broaching the shipping charges incurred in transporting the marbles from Carrara for the aborted tomb project at a dinner table with the pope .
Michelangelo was said to be a man of aesthetically unpleasing appearance without sociability; his direct altercation with Leonardo da Vinci as described in this book was amusing to discover. Both of the masters of the arts did not like each other publicly, but it was on the part of da Vinci who instigated such heated feud. He disregarded sculptors, including Michelangelo, as mechanics in the appearance of unkempt bakers.
King’s research into this daunting subject matter is indeed impressive and highly laudable. Reading his account of how Michelangelo worked on his frescoes enabled me to envision the scene very vividly. The descriptions of the streets, alleys, and the Sistine Chapel are realistically rendered as if they were pictures. However, I could not help but feel a subtle tone of anti-papacy or even a remote sense of anti-Catholicism in this book. Evidently, there were corruptions among the church officials, clerics, not to mention the laypersons. But I wonder if King should have spent several chapters about Pope Julius II to discern just what kind of person he was in a negative shadow, the fallacy of his character, of the papacy in general. I ascribe such tendency to culturally transmitted anti-Catholicism in England, a home of the Episcopal Church, from the time of Henry VIII because this is not the first time I recognize such sentiment in English writers.
Notwithstanding the above sentiment, the book has its magical way of transporting readers to Italy in the early 16th century and invites readers to meet with Michelangelo as he was in his disheveled hair and untidy outfit dripped with colors from the unfinished fresco. Despite all his personal foibles, he is indeed a person bizarre fantastico whose muscular nudes in frantic but graceful gyrates have both the beauty and the sublime that produce in the spectator a kind of astonished wonder so formidable and so fantastic throughout the ages.