Michelangelo never wanted to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He was daunted by the difficulty of the task and made it clear from the start that he resented the commission, which had been imposed upon him by the imperious and demanding “warrior pope”, Julius II. The artist persisted in the paranoid suspicion that the whole scheme had been cooked up by his enemies and rivals, to give him an opportunity to fail on the grandest scale, and in the most embarrassing way. As they well knew, he was a sculptor, not a painter, and would be bound to make a fool of himself.
Besides, he had better things to do. The decoration of the ceiling of the chapel of the papal conclaves – all twelve thousand square feet of it – clearly struck Julius II as a fittingly grand scheme on which to employ the most prodigiously gifted artist of Renaissance Italy. But Michelangelo did not see it like that. For him it was a distraction from the yet more ambitious project, of a great monument sculpted from marble, to which he had already devoted years of his life, and on which his heart was set.
He reluctantly noted down the details of the contract for work on the ceiling in a memorandum written to himself – the earliest document confirming his acceptance of the commission – phrased with apparently heavy irony. “Today, 10 May 1508, I, Michelangelo sculptor, have received from His Holiness our Lord Pope Julius II five hundred papal chamber ducats … on account of the painting of the vault of the chapel of Pope Sixtus for which I began work today under the conditions and agreements which appear in a document written by the Most Reverend Monsignor of Pavia and under my own hand.”[i] Michelangelo, sculptor, had reluctantly agreed to paint.
The “Monsignor of Pavia” with whom he had made the agreement was Cardinal Alidosi, a favourite of Julius II who was soon to meet with a bloody death. The pope appointed him as legate of Bologna but Alidosi governed the city so ineffectively that he provoked a successful uprising against papal rule. Called upon to explain his failure, he made the mistake of heaping the blame on Duke Francesco della Rovere, the pope’s nephew, and shortly afterwards the enraged duke stabbed Cardinal Alidosi to death in broad daylight on a street in Ravenna – a murder which went unpunished and largely unlamented.[ii] Michelangelo was a superstitious man and this may have strengthened his gloomy conviction that the contract he had signed with Alidosi was an ill-omened deal. The murder took place in the summer of 1511, when after three years of back-breaking toil the artist was still wrestling with the decoration of the ceiling.
A year later, with the end at last in sight, he addressed a stoical letter from Rome to his home town of Florence, telling one of his brothers that the work was almost finished. He was plainly exhausted. But what shines through, despite the wearily laconic tone of the letter, is Michelangelo’s belated, dawning sense of how much he had achieved, despite his own worst fears: “I shall be home in September… I work harder than anyone who ever lived. I am not well and worn out with this stupendous labour and yet I am patient in order to achieve the desired end.”[iii]
Posterity has rarely regretted Michelangelo’s grudging acquiescence in taking on the task, although there have been occasional dissenting voices. Barely ten years after the artist had finished his work, the newly elected, notoriously ascetic and – much to Rome’s relief – short-lived Pope Hadrian VI is said to have turned a baleful eye up to the ceiling, and to have curtly dismissed it as “a bathroom of nudes”.[iv] The most prolific and influential art critic of nineteenth-century England, John Ruskin, was similarly disconcerted by the ceiling’s many nude figures. He regarded it as a work of retrograde genius, which replaced the innocent piety of early Renaissance Christian art with the turbulent energies of a dangerous sensualism. Ruskin even went so far, in a lecture given in Oxford in 1871, to describe Michelangelo as “the chief captain of evil” of the Italian Renaissance.
Despite such outbreaks of misplaced prudishness, there has otherwise been broad consensus about the quality and importance of Michelangelo’s paintings for the Sistine Chapel. Collectively they represent one of the highest pinnacles of creative achievement – an equivalent, in the visual arts, to the poetry of Dante and Milton, or the music of Bach. The most fervent admirers of the fresco cycle go further, arguing that it is the single greatest work of painting in the entire history of Western civilisation.
That was certainly the opinion of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founding President of the Royal Academy, who dedicated the last and most emotional of his Discourses on Art to the subject of Michelangelo, the only artist whom he considered to have been “truly divine”. Speaking to his students for the final time, on 10 December, 1788, Reynolds regretted that he had spent his life painting portraits and imagined what he might do if he were a student once more: “were I now to begin the world again, I would tread in the steps of that great master: to kiss the hem of his garment, to catch the slightest of his perfections, would be glory enough for an ambitious man.”[v]
Michelangelo occasionally seems in danger of disappearing behind the myths that have circulated about him, the many stories about his superhuman abilities, his “divine” nature and talents. What is sometimes forgotten is that most of the elements of Michelangelo’s legend were in place while he was still alive. For example, Reynolds’s reference to the artist’s supposed divinity has its origins in a flattering pun on the two parts of the artist’s name, composed by Michelangelo’s contemporary, the poet Ludovico Ariosto – “Michael, more than human, Angel divine”[vi]. This was then turned into a commonplace by the artist’s friend and biographer, Giorgio Vasari. Vasari used the phrase “the divine Michelangelo” so frequently as to turn it into a kind of Homeric epithet.
Novels have been written about Michelangelo. Films have sought to dramatise his turbulent personality and to tell the story of a life that was, for sure, anything but ordinary.[vii] Such attempts to reanimate the artist have for the most part whittled him down to the wooden caricature of a tortured genius. But however they may have distorted the man, the very existence of such productions says something important about the nature of his achievement, and the nature of his orignality. Michelangelo was one of the first artists to call forth intense speculation about his own identity and motives. It is no accident that people have wanted to write novels about him. His art made them want to do that. It might be argued that the single most radical and revolutionary aspect of his work – and this is particularly true of the paintings he created for the Sistine Chapel ceiling – was the fact that it so strongly insisted on, and inflamed, precisely that kind of curiosity.
It cannot be too strongly emphasised that almost every form and figure, almost every image among the myriad images with which Michelangelo spanned the vault of the chapel, is starkly unconventional. He was well aware of the solutions that had been found by earlier generations of artists, who had illustrated the same Old Testament stories that were prescribed as his subject matter. But he did his utmost to avoid repeating them. The paintings that he produced, ranging from God’s Separation of Light and Darkness to The Creation of Adam, from The Deluge and the other stories of Noah to the depictions of the prophets, are exhilaratingly varied and inventive. But they bear little resemblance to any pictures made before their time. Even at the half-way stage of their completion, when the artist’s scaffolding was moved across the vault to reveal the work he had done so far, what most immediately struck those who thronged to see the pictures was their utter originality. They were instantly recognised as a “new and wonderful manner of painting”[viii].
There was, in fact, a well-established Renaissance convention of eschewing convention – of creating works of art with the explicit intention of leaving previous works of art in the shade. That tradition was particularly strong in Florence, the town where Michelangelo spent his formative years and began his career as an artist. It was embodied in the works of the quadrumvirate of Florentine masters who had reinvented the languages of painting, architecture and sculpture during the first half of the fifteenth century: Brunelleschi, who had erected the great dome of the city’s cathedral; Ghiberti, creator of the bronze-reliefs that decorated the doors to the city’s Baptistry, famously dubbed by Michelangelo himself “the doors of paradise”; Masaccio, painter of the frescoes for the Brancacci Chapel in the church of the Carmine, where Michelangelo drew and studied in his youth; and Donatello, the sculptor of the marble St George that stood guard over the city’s grainstore at Orsanmichele, and the creator of the figures of prophets and saints, whether of St John the Baptist or Mary Magdalene, carved with such subtle realism they seem instinct with thought and on the point of speech.
Of those figures, it seems likely that Donatello meant the most to Michelangelo. This was not only because Michelangelo, himself, wanted to be a sculptor. A pupil of Donatello’s, Bertoldo di Giovanni, almost certainly gave Michelangelo his own first lessons in sculpting; and the young artist’s earliest surviving work, The Madonna of the Stairs, is a bas-relief evidently inspired by the bas-reliefs of Donatello. It may well be that Michelangelo felt that there was a direct line of inheritance between them, although in temperament and approach the two artists could not have been more different.
The source of Donatello’s power as an artist is the strength of his faculty of imaginative projection. He asks himself what a desert prophet such as St John in the wilderness might actually have looked like, emaciated and wild, and he carves what he sees in his mind’s eye. He asks himself what it might look like when a woman, such as the vengeful biblical heroine Judith, cuts a man’s head off, and he casts the image in bronze. His works are compelling but they compel no meaningful interest in him because in creating them – in giving them such a strong sense of life that they present the illusion of being not works of art but actual human beings – he has absented himself.
Michelangelo is not like that. His originality is of a different order, his creativity of a different nature. The images presented by his paintings for the Sistine Chapel ceiling are not the product of any great sense of human empathy. If anything, they suggest that Michelangelo had little interest in entering into and genuinely sympathising with the lives of other people – in the field of his art, at least. It is impossible to believe in Michelangelo’s Adam, in Michelangelo’s Noah, in Michelangelo’s people fleeing from the deluge, in anything like the same way that it is possible to believe in Donatello’s bald-headed prophet known as Zuccone (literally, “pumpkin face”). Michelangelo’s figures are removed from reality in such a way that they appear as phantasms or ideas.
The whole Sistine Chapel ceiling easily assumes the appearance of a phantasmagoria, in which all the images are united by their nature as emanations of Michelangelo’s own thought and sensibility – his own contemplation of the truths that might lie embedded in the mysterious and often inscrutable Old Testament stories which he had been called upon to illuminate. The fresco cycle as a whole radiates a powerful and sometimes oppressively strong sense of introspection. Looking at it feels almost nothing like looking at the real world. It feels, instead, like looking inside the mind of the man who created it.
Michelangelo was an accomplished poet as well as a visual artist. That fact contains within it a clue to the particular, unique qualities of his painting. To draw a literary analogy, Michelangelo does not tell a story in the prosaic, direct manner of Boccaccio but in the poetically allusive style of Dante. Dante was the one Italian writer, according to Michelangelo’s biographer Ascanio Condivi, whom the artist “has always studied”. Every pose, every gesture, in the Sistine Chapel ceiling, is charged with the sense of deliberation, intensity and polyvalence that words and phrases acquire in great poetry. No element of Michelangelo’s work is without significance, depth, implication, sometimes to the point where his language becomes so fraught with possibility, so compressed and allusive, that it cannot be pinned down to the expression of any single doctrine or idea.
In this sense his spirit of innovation as a painter might be compared to that of Shakespeare as a writer – who, in Hamlet, invented what Frank Kermode describes as “a new rhetoric”, so inward-looking and so rich in complexity, that “sometimes it takes the poet beyond the limits of reason and intelligibility”. Nothing means only one thing and everything has been subjected to the immense pressure of the artist’s thought. This holds for the larger patterns of meaning that play across the surface of the Sistine Chapel ceiling’s surface, connecting one picture with another, and is true too at the minute level of the smallest detail, epitomised by the most famous detail of the ceiling’s most famous image of all – that small area of painted plaster where the whirling energies of a multitude are suddenly stilled, crystallised, to the particulate density of two fingers pointing across a few inches of air.
In short, Michelangelo did not just invent a new kind of art, but a new idea of what art could be. He put his own sensibility, his own intellect, his own need and desire to fathom the mysteries of the Christian faith, centre stage. Before considering the ceiling’s many layers of meaning – the principal concern of this book – it will be helpful to consider Michelangelo’s personality, insofar as it can be understood, and to give some account of his life in the years leading up to the creation of his masterpiece.