One of the key visuals of the Sistine Chapel (click here for a virtual tour of the Chapel) in Rome is the hand of God, and nobody would argue if we call Michelangelo, maybe the greatest artist of all times, the “hand of god” in the field of the fine arts. More recently the Argentinian football player Diego Armando Maradona, maybe the greatest footballer of all times, called himself the hand of god for other reasons (click here to see why). But as we don’t want to be blasphemous we will not call Michelangelo “the hand of god” and we will not call Diego Armando Maradona “the foot of God”, which would be more appropriate. As we don’t think we’re entitled to give a last judgment about the issue represented by the behavior of Maradona on the playground, we’d rather recount the chronicle of the making of the Sistine chapel, an absolute masterpiece of Arts which was made possible by the encounter of two hypertrophic egos such as Michelangelo Buonarroti and Pope Julius II.
The erection of a fine marble tomb for himself had long been one of the Julius’ II most cherished ambitions. As a first step in its realization he sent for a young sculptor from Florence, Michelangelo Buonarroti. The son of a poor Tuscan magistrate of aristocratic stock, Michelangelo was a gloomy, laconic young man of twenty nine, self-absorbed, quarrelsome and quickly offended. The Pope found him an infinitely more difficult artist to deal with than the amenable Bramante and the sweet-natured, charmingly polite and unobtrusive Raffaello Sanzio who was also working for him in the Vatican on the rooms to be known as the Raphael Stanze. But Michelangelo was already recognized as a genius of astounding power and versatility and it was inconceivable that the Pope, one of the most enlightened and discriminating patrons that Rome had ever known, should not wish to employ him.
At first all went well, Michelangelo was paid a hundred crowns for the expenses of his journey to Rome where the pope was delighted with the designs that were shown to him. He asked the sculptor to go to the quarries in the mountains of Carrara; and here Michelangelo spent eight months choosing and helping to excavate the blocks of marble, weighing in all over a hundred tons, for a monument which promised to surpass “every ancient or imperial tomb ever made”.
After he had chosen all the marble that was wanted (so his fellow-Tuscan and contemporary, Giorgio Vasari, recorded), he had it loaded on board ship and taken to Rome, where the blocks filled half the square of St Peter’s… In the castle (Castel Sant’Angelo) Michelangelo had prepared his room for executing the figures and the rest of the tomb; and so that he could come and see him at work without any bother the Pope had ordered a drawbridge to be built from the corridor to the room. This led to great intimacy between them, although in time the favors Michelangelo was shown … stirred up much envy among his fellow craftsmen.
The easy intimacy between the Pope and Michelangelo did not last long, however. The sculptor did not like being watched at work, normally choosing to have his studio locked. Nor did he like being asked questions about his probable rate of progress. Touchy and irritable. He began to resent what he took to be his patron’s bossy interference, and he was offended by the casually offhand manner in which his request for interviews and monies were refused by the papal officials. After one such rebuff, Michelangelo lost his temper, told his servants to sell all the contents of his studio and rode out of the city to Florence. He was eventually persuaded to return to the Pope’s service, but not to work on the tomb as he had hoped. First of all, though he protested it was not his kind of art, he was required to make a monumental bronze statue of Julius fourteen feet high, which was to be erected on the façade of the church of San Petronio in Bologna and, after a revolution some years later, was melted down for a cannon by the Pope’s enemy, the Duke of Ferrara. He was then asked to undertake a task for which he felt even more ill qualified, the painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. “He tried in every possible way to shake the burden off his shoulders” Vasari said. “But the more he refused, the more determined he made the pope, who was a willful man by nature. Finally, being the hot-tempered man he was, he was all ready to fly into a rage. However, seeing His Holiness was so persevering Michelangelo resigned himself to doing what he was asked. He was given an advance payment of 500 ducats and began work on 10 May 1508.
Immediately he regretted that he had given way. There was trouble over the scaffolding which Bramante constructed for him: initially it hung down from the ceiling on ropes but Michelangelo wanted it supported by props from the floor. There was trouble with his assistants whom he had sent for from Florence and whom he considered so incompetent that he scraped off everything they had done and decided to paint the whole area, all ten thousand square feet of it, himself. He locked the chapel door, refusing admittance to his fellow artists and to everyone else, thus provoking another quarrel with the Pope who was himself told to go away. And then there was trouble with a salty mould which, when the north wind blew, appeared on may areas of the ceiling and so discouraged Michelangelo that he despaired of the whole undertaking and was reluctant to go on until Giuliano da Sangallo showed him how to deal with.
The labour was physically as well as emotionally exhausting. He had to paint standing, looking upwards for such long periods that his neck became stiff and swollen.; he could not straighten it when he climbed down from the scaffold and had to read letters holding them up with his head bent backwards. In hot weather it was stiflingly hot and the plaster dust irritated his skin; in all weathers the paint dripped down upon his face, his hair and his beard. “The place is wrong, and no painter I” he lamented in a sonnet he was describing his exhausting work. “My painting all the day doth drop a rich Mosaic on my face. I live in great toil and weariness of body” he wrote to his brother. “I have no friends … and don’t want any, and haven’t the time to eat what I need.”
He was plagued by his patron who insisted upon being let into the chapel to see what he was paying for. The Pope kept asking when it would be finished, as he clambered up the scaffold with his stick, impatient to have the Sistine Chapel opened before he died. “How much longer will it take?” ”When it satisfies me as an artist” Michelangelo replied on one occasion, eliciting from Julius the angry reply. “And we want you to satisfy us and to finish soon”. Later Michelangelo refused to commit himself further than to say he would finish it when he could. “When I can! when I can!” the Pope infuriated shouted back at him. “What do you mean when I can? I’ll soon make you finish it!”. He hit him with his stick, the threatened to hurl him off the scaffold if he did not get on quickly. After these outbursts came apologies. The pope chamberlain would call at Michelangelo’s house with presents of monies, with excuses and apologies, explaining that such treatment was meant as a favour and a mark of affection.
At last, after nearly four years’ work, the scaffolding was removed. But the artist was still not satisfied; there were touches that he wanted to add, backgrounds and draperies he wanted enliven with ultramarine, details to enrich with gold. But the pope would wait no longer. Even before the dust had settled after the dismantling of the scaffolding, he rushed into the Sistine Chapel to look at the astonishing achievement of more than three hundred figures, many of them painted three and even four times life size. On the morning of 31 October 1512 the pope celebrated Mass inside the Chapel and afterwards, in Vasari’s words, the whole of Rome came running to see what Michelangelo had done.; and certainly it was such as to make everyone speechless with astonishment.
Now, over seventy and in the last year of his life, he felt that the time for the Last Judgment was coming also for him, so the Pope thought once more of his uncompleted tomb to which Michelangelo returned most eagerly. And although the Tomb was never finished as originally intended, out of its grand conception came one masterpiece that can still be seen in Rome, the vibrant statue of Moses in S. Pietro in Vincoli. News of the death of the Pope Julius II on 20 February 1513 was received in Rome with utmost sorrow. Women were seen weeping in the streets as they waited their turn to kiss the pontifical feet which were left protruding from the grille of the mortuary chapel.; men were told each other that they would not live to see another pope who was at once so staunch a patriot and so munificent a patron. The city of Rome was thronged with mourning crowds so numerous that the dead man’s Master of Ceremonies had never known the like in forty years’ residence in the city.
You might be interested to read also: The Fury of the Last Judgement