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Panorama of a Michelangelo marvel

New book sheds myths in painting of Sistine Chapel ceiling

By Todd Leopold

Author Ross King
Author Ross King

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• Wayne State Univ.: Exploring the Sistine Chapel ceiling external link

(CNN) -- The painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling is an achievement that is surrounded by myth.

It has been said that Michelangelo did it alone. Not true; he had several assistants. Or that he did his work prone on his back, inches from the ceiling. That's based on a mistranslation of a word in a Michelangelo biography -- though he sometimes worked at awkward angles, it's not like he was strapped on the scaffolding for days on end.

The artist also was well paid, highly respected and extremely meticulous. The grand ceiling, a series of illustrations based on the Bible, was neither the product of a starving artist nor a blazing feat of improvisation.

But, as Ross King points out in his book "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling" (Walker & Co.), it remains one of the great artistic feats of all time, easily identifiable, endlessly honored, gloried and parodied.

The story surrounding its creation may be even richer than the myth. Michelangelo often faced off against Pope Julius II, a figure just as bullheaded and aspiring as the artist himself, and the painting took place at a time when the papacy was roiled by political and military threats.

Moreover, Julius was attempting to turn Rome from a rough-and-tumble outpost to a world-class cultural capital. To do so, he hired the finest artists and architects of his time -- Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Bramante -- men with a keen sense of competition.

"It's interesting to give a broad panorama of what was going on in Rome and on the outskirts of Rome," says King in a phone interview from a book tour stop in San Diego, California. "What was happening outside the Sistine Chapel influenced Michelangelo as much as the squabbles going on inside."

Portrait of fascinating characters

Michelangelo cover
The cover of "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling": the painter is on the top, Julius II on the bottom.

King, the author of the award-winning "Brunelleschi's Dome," initially was drawn to his subject by the art of fresco itself, which he describes in detail in "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling."

Michelangelo's achievement is made all the more striking by his inexperience with the difficult technique, which involves painting in wet plaster. Make a mistake -- either in timing or execution -- and the work could be ruined.

Yet he went at the project with his typical brio -- and contentiousness. He hired several assistants and worked them hard. He wheedled money out of Julius and complained about the rate. He made detailed sketches for the work and experimented with bright pigments. At times he despaired he would never finish, but he also picked up confidence as the project continued.

King was taken with the painting of the chapel, but he was also fascinated by the many personalities of the time, particularly since they were in such close proximity.

Michelangelo had won papal contracts at the expense of Bramante; the two men had no love lost for one another. Meanwhile, just around the corner in the Vatican, the gregarious Raphael -- who became a friend of Bramante's -- was working on a set of frescoes in the pope's apartments.

"Fresco painting was a kind of competitive sport during the Renaissance," King notes.

Then there was the imperious Julius, the man to whom the three owed their jobs. However, Julius was a man of wider interests than art and culture. He was fending off invaders from France and dealing with challenges from Florence and Bologna, both independent at the time. And the city was a mess of construction and filth, "still many decades away from what we recognize as Rome," King says.

The book even includes a cameo appearance from Martin Luther, who arrived in Rome in late 1510 and was appalled by what he saw. Seven years later, he posted the 95 Theses, and the Reformation began.

With the historical backdrop and so many colorful personalities, "it had the makings of a great novel," King adds in wonder.

'A self-created genius'

Of course, Michelangelo already has been the subject of at least one best-selling novel -- Irving Stone's "The Agony and the Ecstasy" -- which cemented some of the myths surrounding the artist's work. Fortunately, King had plenty more to work with, including Michelangelo's own authorized biography, where those myths were set down for the first time.

start quoteWhat was happening outside the Sistine Chapel influenced Michelangelo as much as the squabbles going on inside.end quote
-- Ross King

"Michelangelo told [his biographer] Condivi what to write," King says. "Michelangelo was aware of posterity, so he wanted people to remember him as a self-created genius."

Which is not to say Michelangelo wasn't a genius. At the time he took on the Sistine Chapel, he was already a renowned (and highly paid) sculptor, but he was not known for painting.

Yet the chapel's ceiling bears witness to his creativity; his biblical figures are painted with bold colors and a rippling tension that nobody had seen before. And after he was done with the three-year job, he designed some of Rome's most notable buildings -- including St. Peter's, a project Bramante originally had been assigned.

Views of Michelangelo as an artist have waned and waxed in the previous 500 years. Yet there's something about the Sistine Chapel ceiling that has maintained its hold on people through the years.

Artists idolized it and flocked to it. "It really became almost an academy," King says, "Any artist worth his salt had to make a pilgrimage to make a study of the figures." Even after five centuries, the power shines through.

"What we admire about Michelangelo," King says, "is that he was so devoted to something."

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