Was it the vicious attack on the 'obscenity' of his Sistine Chapelnudes (by a pornographer) that sent Michelangelo in a different directionin his last paintings? Andrew Graham-Dixon penetrates the Pauline Chapel at the heart of the Vatican to find a terrible vision of grace - and art - renounced

In November 1545, having unsuccessfully attempted to blackmail Michelangelo into giving him some drawings, the courtier, art dealer, poet and pornographer Pietro Aretino set out to take his revenge on the most celebrated artist in Italy. Aretino composed an ornate, venomous open letter to Michelangelo - "one of the nastiest letters ever written" was how the art historian Linda Murray once described it - in which he reproved him for the profusion of nude figures in his recently completed fresco on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, The Last Judgement. After paying several double-edged and thoroughly insincere compliments to "the divine Michelangelo", Aretino wrote:

"On seeing . . . the whole of your Day of Judgment, I was able to perceive the noble grace of Raphael in the lovely beauty of its invention. Nevertheless I, as one baptised, am ashamed of the licence, so harmful to the spirit, which you have adopted . . . Is it possible that you, who as a divine being do not condescend to the society of men, should have done such a thing in the foremost temple of God? In the most important chapel in the world, where the great cardinals of the Church, where the reverend priests, where the Vicar of Christ with Catholic devotions, with sacred rites, and with holy prayers, bear witness to, contemplate, and adore His body, His blood, and His flesh? . . .  What you have done would be appropriate in a voluptuous whorehouse, not in a supreme...

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