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Book review: “Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling” by Ross King

It’s a daunting task to write the story of the creation of a work of art and, even more, for one that comprises a multiplicity of art works.

After all, the work — Shakespeare’s King Lear or Emily Dickinson’s “I taste a liquor never brewed” or Joyce’s Ulysses or Piano Sonata No. 11 by Mozart — speaks for itself.

To know about Lear, you watch Lear.  Any prose written as a commentary runs the risk of sounding like so much wasted breath.

How much more intimidating is it, then, to write a book about how Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, came to be?

A masterpiece with 150-plus pictorial units, including more than 300 individual figures, many of which are considered masterpieces in their own right?

Masterpieces that are among the most popular and ubiquitous of art images in the Western culture?


Delightfully interesting

In Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, Ross King faces these many challenges, and he triumphs.  His 2003 book is delightfully interesting, informative, inspiring and thought-provoking.

King’s book explains without being boring.  It gets into nitty-gritty details without bogging down.  It gives the larger-than-life personalities of its three main characters, Michelangelo, Raphael and Pope Julius II, the room they need on his pages but keeps them within control.

A savvy storyteller, King knows the benefit of cameo appearances from such big names as Martin Luther, Niccolò Machiavelli and Rembrandt van Rijn.


“Slapdash fashion”

Luther, for instance, was still a monk in good standing when he and another member of his order made a trip to Rome during the four years (1508-1512) in which Michelangelo was creating the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

He was there for four weeks and energetically, devoutly, visited just about every church and shrine there was (except, it seems, the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo was still working). But he grew disillusioned as well:

He could not help but notice that the priests were woefully ignorant.  Many did not know the right way to hear a confession, while others performed Mass in “slapdash fashion,” he wrote, “as if they were doing a juggling act.”  Even worse, some of them were completely irreligious, professing not to believe in such basics as the immortality of the soul.

A century or so after the ceiling was completed, Rembrandt bought a set of engravings of its most striking images, becoming, King writes, just one of the generations of artists who have used the ceiling as “a storehouse of ideas.”


“Liars and deceivers”

Just as Michelangelo was finishing his work, Machiavelli found himself on the wrong side of one of Julius II’s wars, with the result that he was

imprisoned and tortured by the strappado (the ripper), a brutal technique that involved dropping the victim from a platform and suspending him in midair from a rope binding his arms together behind his back.  The punishment usually resulted in dislocated shoulders and agonized confessions.

King writes that Machiavelli made no confession but was still exiled from Florence.  Settled on a small farm at the age of 43, he began writing The Prince,

his cynical work on statecraft in which he bitterly declared all men to be “ungrateful, fickle, liars and deceivers.”


“Sensitive balance”

That’s just about all that King says about these three men.  For a few piquant lines, each is on stage, and then it’s off to the wings.

I mention these three because they’re examples of the sensitive balance that King brings to his writing in this book.  They serve as grace notes to the larger story.  They aren’t essential, but, because of the historical echoes that their names bring, they give added zest to Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling.

Balance is the reason King is able to tell essentially six stories in this book with an elegance that avoids the almost inherent confusion that such a project brings:

  • The story of Michelangelo creating the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
  • Michelangelo’s biography, including his other art projects.
  • The head-banging between the artist and his patron, the Pope.
  • Julius II’s biography, particularly his many wars.
  • The artistic competition between Michelangelo and Raphael.
  • Raphael’s biography

Actually, make that seven stories.

The seventh and most important is about the main character of the drama, the masterpiece that resulted from Michelangelo’s work.  When you get down to it, King wants to tell the story of the artwork.  All the rest — the biographies, the papal wars, the head-banging, even Michelangelo’s genius — are secondary to the work itself.

In a way, through King’s book, the artwork speaks for itself.


Biographies of inanimate objects

As I was reading King’s book, I was seeing similarities with David McCullough’s 1982 The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Like Michelangelo, McCullough is telling a lot about the people who built the bridge, and the era in which it was constructed, but his main character is the bridge.

Both McCullough and King have written biographies of inanimate objects — but objects that have had a striking resonance for humanity.

Just as McCullough gives his readers a clear and pleasant lesson in engineering, King explains the sort of art techniques that are mentioned in art books but rarely spelled out in a way non-experts can understand.


“Sealing pigments in the masonry”

Such as fresco, the method used on the ceiling — a method that, I learned from King, involved putting the colors and lines of an artwork into the plaster.

In other words, the resulting painting can’t be wiped away.  The only way to get rid of it — heaven forbid! — would be to chip it away.  Here’s how King tells the method:

The technique of fresco was as simple in conception as it was difficult in execution.  The term fresco, meaning “fresh,” comes from the fact that the painter always worked on fresh — that is, wet — plaster.  This called for both good preparation and precise timing.

A layer of plaster, known as the intonaco, was troweled to a thickness of about a half inch over another coat of dried plaster.  Intonaco, a smooth paste made from lime and sand, provided a permeable surface for the pigments, first absorbing them and then sealing them in the masonry as it dried.


“A kind of god”

These technical details provide the context in which King tells the story of Michelangelo creating his many-masterpieces masterpiece.

Such as The Creation of Adam.

It’s got God flying out of the cosmos to touch a recumbent Adam, fingertip to fingertip, transmitting to the first human the electricity of life.

King writes that, during the Renaissance, the highest achievement of an artist was to create figures who seemed alive.  On the ceiling, Michelangelo did that, and, according to writer and fellow painter, Giorgio Vasari, he went even further.

[Vasari] drew a direct comparison between Michelangelo’s creative work with his brush and God’s divine fiat (“Let us make man in our own image”) by suggesting that the artist’s fresco appears to reenact, and not simply portray, the Creation of Man.  If Michelangelo’s Adam is indistinguishable from the version created by God, it follows that Michelangelo is himself a kind of god.

As for the God who appears in the scene, King writes:

Here,…he soars through the air surrounded by a billowing cape that enfolds ten tumbling cherubs and a wide-eyed young woman identified by a number of art historians as the as-yet-uncreated Eve.  And his simple summons to Eve [in another ceiling scene] is replaced, of course, by the fingertip touch that has become a shorthand for the entire fresco.



This image of God and Adam is instantly recognizable to modern eyes — and instantly resonate of Michelangelo’s art and of the Bible story itself.

Still, King points out, it wasn’t what Renaissance people expected to see.

Indeed, one contemporary viewer apparently didn’t get it at all, describing the figure on the right as “an old man…in the act of flying through the air.”  King adds:

Thus, while many of the images in the fresco were recycled from various statues and reliefs that Michelangelo had come across in his travels and studies, there was really no precedent for his conception of the finger-to-finger transmission of the spark of life from God to Adam.

To King’s point, some of those who looked at the scene and realized that the figure on the right was God still didn’t understand what was happening.  The painter Ascanio Condivi, for instance, thought Adam was getting a lecture from the scowling deity.


“Almost a cliché”

The simple touch [King writes] really only became a keynote in the second half of the twentieth century.  A turning point seems to have come in 1951, when the publisher Albert Skira, in its three-volume, color-plated “Painting-Color-History” series, introduced Michelangelo to its numerous readers in Europe and America by cropping the bodies of Adam and God and featuring only their outstretched hands.

The image, since then, has almost become a cliché.

That’s the danger, in today’s modern world, that any artwork faces if it becomes too popular.

Can you look at Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and really see it?  I mean, see it with the fresh eyes that viewing art requires?  Without preconceptions and distractions?

In contrast, the sheer simplicity of the fingertip-touch may save The Creation of Adam from this zombie-making experience.   After all, it’s, in its way, just a collection of lines and angles.  That doesn’t seem to profound. I suspect that profundity is what the modern viewer expects when looking at the Mona Lisa.

Also, those fingers are only part of the work.

Even more, The Creation of Adam is only part of the Sistine Ceiling.


A continent of art

The ceiling is a continent of art, and each of the works on its surface is its own region.

Each is separate, yet also part of the whole.

It is many artworks.  And it is one.

Many masterpieces.  And one.

And, in Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, Ross King does the one and the many justice.  That’s quite an accomplishment.


Patrick T. Reardon





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