Chapter 2

Question one. Why did no one eyewitness see the masterpiece creation?

In 1505, Pope Julius II conceived his grand papal tomb in Rome. He commissioned Michelangelo with the project. The sculptor, already with such masterpieces as “Pieta” (1498–1499) and “David” (1501–1504) on his record, was captured by that idea. He spent over eight months in Carrara busy with preparing marble blocks needed for the tomb erection. However, when the material had already been delivered to Rome, the architect Donato Bramante (1444–1514), Michelangelo’s adversary, talked the Pope into stopping the project by stressing the point that building a tomb in one’s own life time would be a very bad omen. The Pope was a superstitious person, and Bramante made use of that. Why did the architect hate Michelangelo so much? Bramante had his reasons. Michelangelo accused him of stealing at construction works in Rome. Most probably the accusation was correct, and commonly such true charges are not left unrequited.


Pope Julius II


Michelangelo. The Pietà (1499)


Michelangelo. “David” (1501–1504). Florence

The order to stop working on the tomb was a humiliation to Michelangelo. When he, with an excessive persistence, asked for a meeting with the Pope, Julius II simply refused to see him and told the equerry to send the sculptor away. That additional instance of humiliation was too much for Michelangelo. He packed his things and, without asking for imperial permission, left for Florence. He had one more serious reason to leave. He feared that Bramante could kill him.

Now it was the Pope’s turn to get furious, he sent on a letter for Michelangelo to go back to Rome, but the sculptor did not obey. Meanwhile, by Bramante’s incitation, the marble stored for Julius’ tomb was stolen.

Only in 1506 Julius II and Michelangelo reconciled with each other at their meeting in Bologna.

In 1508, the Pope again called the renowned sculptor to Rome. It would be logical to presume that Julius II was going to order a new statue. However, it was not the case. Incited by Bramante who patronized his fellow-townsman Raphael Santi (1483–1520) and wished to remove Raphael’s competitor, the Pope offered Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The adversaries’ intention was simple. First, to distract the master from his major occupation – sculpture. Second, to incur the Pope’s anger upon Michelangelo if the latter refuses to do the job. They reckoned that if Michelangelo agreed, then, most probably, he would fail to create anything valuable and Raphael’s advantage would become undisputable. In view of the fact that Buonarroti barely had been engaged in fresco painting before (it was just his apprenticeship in Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio’s studio in 1488–1489), his asking to commit not him but Raphael with the order is understandable indeed. However, faced by Julius II insistence, Michelangelo had to agree.

However, the task set by the Pope was not too much challenging. He wanted Michelangelo to paint the images of the twelve apostles and ornament the spare area. The Pope was ready to give Michelangelo a proper reward and, additionally, to pay the work of five assistants selected by Michelangelo. The master started working and, together with his friends, prepared cartoons. He even painted a portion of the ceiling. Then a strange thing happened. He suddenly refused from assistance, released the artists and decided to do the whole work himself. Moreover, he destroyed what had already been done! Michelangelo made the task incredibly hard. Now he was completely alone, and was going not to ornament the plafond but to cover its whole area (nearly six hundred square meters) with pictures illustrating the Old Testament (see below).

Probably, we cannot present the events that followed better than Stendhal did:

“A unique case in the history of human spirit: an artist in the prime of life is made to quit the kind of art he has always been devoting all his forces to and set for working in an another field; they demand that his first experience should be a most difficult and large-scale work ever imagined in this sphere of art, and he fulfills the task in such a short period, not imitating anybody, creating something that is inimitable and taking the first place in the field of art he was not at all going to choose!

Since then, through all the three centuries (now, five centuries – K. E.) nothing comparable, even partially, to Michelangelo’s exploit has been observed. Just imagine what could be going on in the soul of a man who was so scrupulous about his repute and so strict about himself when he set for that huge creation, without even knowing the techniques of fresco painting, and you will acknowledge his vigor which matches, if only this is feasible, grandiosity of his genius”.

The artist committed his feat merely through 26 months (working with intervals since May 10, 1508 until October 31, 1512). He painted the ceiling, lying on his back or sitting, with his head thrown back. The paint was dropping onto his eyes; the body was lacerated with unbearable pains caused by his strained position. According to Condivi, long looking upward during the work made Michelangelo unable to see anything with his head held straight. He had to read letters and examine objects having them raised above his head. Here are the lines the artist composed to depict his state at that time:

“My beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in,
fixed on my spine: my breastbone 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 skins 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.”

However, in spite of all hardships, Michelangelo created a masterpiece that, due to its grandiosity, content and perfection took the central place in the art of the High Renaissance. Goethe wrote: “Having not seen Capella Sistina, hardly can you obtain a visual idea about what a single man is capable of.”

On visiting the Sistine Chapel and seeing Michelangelo’s frescos with my own eyes, I understood what Goethe had meant. Perhaps, there are no words in the human language to be used for characterizing the phenomenon of Michelangelo.

But why was the artist painting in solitude? Apparently, he had a secret not to be opened even to his best friends. And there is another evidence. When Michelangelo learnt that Bramante and Raphael had stolen into Capella to look at his work, he flied into a temper and asked the Pope to take the keys from them. And that was done.

Michelangelo was doing his best to hide the initial stages of his work even from the Pope. There are evidences that every time Julius II privately appeared in Capella, Michelangelo, busy with his job on the scaffolds, started, as if by accident, dropping wood boards down, which made the aged pontiff hastily leave the place (Ionina, 2000). To prevent any trespassing, Michelangelo stayed in Capella as long as he could; he used to go to it early in the morning and leave it deep in the night.

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