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Excerpt from: Michelangelo


In a note dated February 2, 1477, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere (who would later become Pope Julius II) observed that, after celebrating the Mass in the Capella Magna, Sixtus IV appointed him Archbishop of Avignon. This is the last known mention of a liturgical service in the ancient palatine chapel before work began on the construction of what was to become known as the Sistine Chapel. Mentioned for the first time in a document dating from 1368, and adorned with the work of Giottino and Giovanni da Milano the following year, the preexisting building was not demolished entirely. The irregularity of the floor plan--the side walls converge slightly toward the far end, which, in turn, is not quite parallel with the entrance wall--is difficult to account for in a building erected in the late quattrocento, and recent investigations have revealed that the medieval walls were preserved at least as high as the first cornice of the present chapel. While the bulk of the perimeter walling was retained, the building itself--deemed unsafe--was provided with an inner wall of brick and bolstered with a scarp base; vaults were added both above and below the chapel, where the private rooms for the officiators were completely refurbished.

The vast chamber of the chapel, measuring about 131 by 46 feet (40 by 14 meters) is surmounted by a shallow barrel vault with six tall windows cut into the long sides, forming a series of pendentives between them. Two further apertures, set into the wall behind the altar, were closed up when Michelangelo Buonarroti began work on the Last Judgment. A marble mosaic floor of exquisite workmanship, inspired by medieval examples, describes the processional itinerary up to and beyond the cancellata or marble screen, to the innermost space, where it offers a surround for the papal throne and the quadratura of the cardinals seats. The walls are divided into three orders by horizontal cornices; according to the decorative program, the lower of the three orders was to be painted with fictive "tapestries," the central one with two facing cycles--one relating the Life of Moses (left wall) and the other the Life of Christ (right), starting from the end wall, where the altar fresco depicted the Virgin of the Assumption, to whom the chapel was dedicated. The cornice dividing the lower and middle orders projects considerably less than the one above, where the wall is set back to accommodate a narrow passageway. The upper order is endowed with pilasters that support the pendentives of the vault. Between each window below the lunettes, in fictive niches, run images of the first popes--from Peter to Marcellus-who practiced their ministry in times of great persecution and were martyred.

The ceiling was frescoed by Piero Matteo dAmelia with a star-spangled sky, whereas the wall frescoes, when Perugino had already completed the altar with the Virgin of the Assumption and the first two episodes of the Life of Moses and the Life of Christ on the end wall, he was flanked by other master fresco artists from Florence--Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, and Cosimo Rosselli--who were summoned after the pontiff withdrew the interdiction against their native city, and military action was halted. A contract dated October 27, 1481, between Giovanni de Dolci (the supervisor of the Vatican palaces and probably the architect of the Chapel itself) and the four artists stipulated that the frescoing of the remaining ten vertical sections with their stories, fictive tapestries, and portraits of pontiffs, should be completed by March 15, 1482. The deadline was not honored, and Signorelli was replaced by Perugino for the fresco depicting the Testament of Moses, which then included the Death of Moses on the entrance wall. Other artists, such as Piero di Cosimo, Bartolomeo della Gatta, and Fra Diamante, worked alongside Michelangelo on minor commissions.

The layout of the pictorial program is very closely linked with the architecture of the chapel. The ratio of approximately three to one between the side and end walls, together with the presence of windows, dictated the system of partitions, with six vertical sections on the main walls, and two on the others. In the facing episodes from the Old and New Testaments--whose "typological" correspondents were made explicitly to be means of tituli, or inscriptions, on the frieze above--numerous contemporaries of the pope and artists were portrayed as witnesses to the events represented, thereby underlining the scenes symbolic significance and their reference to the present. Moses, in his role as the guide and law-giver of the chosen people, and the priest Aaron prefigure Christ, who is portrayed as guide, law-giver, and priest. The written law of Moses is made concrete in the evangelic law, and the supernal powers, united in Christ, are transmitted to Peter and thus to his successors, the popes. Seen as a whole, the cycle is therefore an earnest doctrinal and political assertion of the sacred nature and fullness of the powers conferred on the Roman papacy.

Irrespective of the complexity of the iconographic program, and of the problems the artists had to overcome to meet the expectations of the papal commission, the frescoes completed under the pontificate of Sixtus IV demonstrate astonishing stylistic consistency, as noted by John Shearman; the feat was possible because the various artists accepted the discipline imposed by a common scale of the figures, lines, and horizons, chromatic range, conventions of landscape representation, and in particular the visual rhythm, parameters which were probably laid down by Perugino during the first phase of work. The impression of uniformity is strengthened by the extensive use of gilded detailing, which adorns not only the drapery and decorative features, but also the painted architecture and landscape features, making certain details more luminous and prominent. The quantity of gilded areas must also be seen in relation to the specific functions performed in this chapel, and to the beautiful radiance created by the reflections of the candles and torches during the numerous evening functions.

The particular nature of the terrain on which the chapel was built may have been the main cause of the structural faults that soon began to threaten the building. In 1504 a large, ominous crack appeared in the ceiling after subsidence in the foundations caused the south wall to tilt; for several months the chapel was declared off-limits. Modifications ordered by Julius II primarily concerned the insertion of tie-bars above the main vault and in the lower vaults; in August that year the chapel was described with the wording "under construction," but services were resumed by mid-October. The recent restoration of the ceiling frescoes brought to light a long flaw running from the northeast corner, plugged with brick before Michelangelo started work, perhaps in the summer of 1504, when other repairs were effected on the central part of the vault. There is every reason to believe, therefore, that the original frescoes by Pier Matteo dAmelia were seriously compromised, which is why Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to repaint the ceiling.

The commission most likely dates from April 1506, before the artist stormed off to Florence, outraged at the popes decision to forsake the project for his tomb, on the eve of the laying the foundation stone for the New St. Peters Basilica.

In a letter sent to Michelangelo on May 10 that year, the chief joiner and capomaestro Piero Rosselli notes that the previous evening, the pope ordered Giuliano da Sangallo to proceed to Florence and bring Buonarroti back to Rome, whereupon Bramante, the latters rival, remarked to the pontiff: "Holy Father, nothing will come of it: I know Michelangelo well, and he has told me over and over again that he does not wish to be involved with the chapel, nor to receive your commission for it. . . . Holy Father, I think, he is not suited for the job, as he has not enough experience with painting, and here the figures are all high up and foreshortened, which is quite different from painting figures at ground level." From this one can infer that the pope had already offered Buonarroti the job of frescoing the Sistine Chapel--perhaps as an attempt to appease the artist for having canceled the tomb project. To his dismay he had met with a staunch refusal. The mention also reveals that Bramante envisioned a fictive architectural scheme for the ceiling, with a host of foreshortened figures seen from below, and felt that Michelangelo lacked the necessary experience to undertake a task of this magnitude--an estimation that cannot be attributed to spite or hostility, as not even Buonarroti considered himself a pittore as such, but rather a scultore; furthermore, the reputation he had acquired up until this point in his career rested principally on his sculptural works.

A somewhat forced reconciliation with Julius II took place in Bologna, regarding which the artist later wrote: "I was obliged to present myself, a yoke about my neck, and beseech his pardon." After spending a year and three months modeling and casting the bronze colossus of the pope for the facade of the church of San Petronio, Bologna, Michelangelo returned to Florence hoping that his obligations to Julius were over, but soon received a breve ordering him to reach Rome to begin work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a commission he effectively embarked upon on May 10, 1508.

Profound modifications were made to the original scheme, which had consisted of figures in the apostles in the pendentives and geometrical compartments across the central part of the vault. Instead, Michelangelo began producing drawings and cartoons, while designing and overseeing the construction of the scaffolding that would enable him to execute the work. A document dated July 27, 1508, refers to the completion of the scaffolding and the first preparations of the surfaces to be frescoed. After a spate of initial setbacks, Michelangelo proceeded to paint the first half of the ceiling, through August 1510; work was resumed when the finished half had been revealed and the scaffolding dismantled and moved, ready to complete the rest, a phase that lasted from autumn 1511 to October 1512. An idea of the reaction of Michelangelos contemporaries can be gleaned from his biographer, Giorgio Vasari: "This work has been and truly is a beacon of our art, and it has brought such benefit and enlightenment to the art of painting that it was sufficient to illuminate a world which for so many hundreds of years had remained in the state of darkness. And, to tell the truth, anyone who is a painter no longer needs to concern himself about seeing innovations and inventions, new ways of painting poses, clothing on figures, and various awe-inspiring details, for Michelangelo gave to this work all the perfection that can be given to such details."

Michelangelos frescoes on the ceiling and lunettes brought a new splendor to the Sistine Chapel. It remained, then, for Juliuss successor Leo X (formerly Cardinal Giovanni de Medici)--most eager to link his family name to this complex of such universal prestige, whose construction and decoration had thus far been the glory of the della Rovere dynasty--to adorn the chapel with a set of magnificent tapestries. To this end, probably in the last months of 1514, Leo engaged Raphael to execute the cartoons. The tapestries, which were woven in Brussels in the workshop of Pieter van Aelst, feature the lives of Saints Peter and Paul, with episodes drawn from the Acts of the Apostles. These were designed to be hung on special occasions in such a way as to cover the simulated tapestries commissioned by Sixtus IV gracing the lower register of the walls, near the altar, beyond the cancellata in the enclosure that was reserved for the pontiff, the cardinals, the prior-generals of the various monastic orders, the officiants of the Mass, and the upper echelons of the papal court. The only painted section left exposed was Saint Paul Preaching at Athens, the last scene of the cycle, on the left wall in the compartment preceding the cancellata, in which the saint appears to be addressing the public gathered in the chapel. On the end wall, on either side of the altar, The Miraculous Draft of the Fishes marked the start of the scenes of the Life of Saint Peter, with scenes unfolding on three other tapestries on the right wall, under the Sistine frescoes depicting the Life of Christ; whereas the Martyrdom of Saint Steven initiated the scenes on the Life of Saint Paul. These comprised a further five works beneath the frescoes illustrating the Life of Moses on the opposite wall. Linked iconographically with the cycle painted for Sixtus IV, the new tapestries celebrated the figure of the reigning pontiff as the heir to Peter and Paul, the architects of the Church, representing respectively the Jews and the Gentiles. Aware of their direct correlation with Michelangelos ceiling frescoes, Raphael favored a tragic style for the cartoons, starting with the scene of the Fire in the Borgo, simplifying the compositional schemes and endowing the gestures and movements of the characters with a more marked eloquence of expression of sentiment and passion, with the purpose of rendering them more universal and exemplary. On December 26, 1519, the first seven tapestries woven in Flanders were installed in the Sistine Chapel, and, as observed by the master of ceremonies, Paris de Grassis, "The entire chapel is marvelous in every aspect."

In the years that immediately followed the death of Raphael and Leo X, further subsidence of the foundations of the Sistine Chapel made its stability once more a primary issue. On Christmas Day, 1522, the lintel over the entrance broke off, taking the life of a Swiss guardsman walking alongside Adrian VI as they were entering the chapel. Other deep cracks formed during the conclave held in 1523, causing alarm among the cardinals; Antonio da Sangallo was directly called in to assess the safety of the building. Engineering work was carried out to stabilize the foundations of the east end of the chapel, causing damage to the two frescoes terminating the cycles on the Life of Christ and Life of Moses, which had to be redone by Hendrick van den Broeck and Matteo da Lecce.

The first act of destruction not imputable to the precariousness of the buildings structure, but prompted knowingly by the chapels patrons, was the consequence of a decision of Clement VII, the pope who commissioned the Last Judgment fresco to adorn the end wall. The first hints of the pontiffs intentions are found in a letter to Michelangelo from Sebastiano del Piombo, dated July 17, 1533: "His Holiness has instructed me to write to you on his behalf . . . that he has ordained that, before you return to Rome [you may] willingly work as much for yourself as you have already done and will continue to do for his Holiness, and [that he will] commission from you such things as you have never dreamed." Clement met with the artist about two months later at San Miniato al Tedesco, and on this occasion he probably communicated his intentions, though the reaction they elicited was most likely far from the enthusiasm he expected. Be that as it may, in time the stubbornness of the artist, who stayed in Rome from October 1533 to May 1534, was gradually eroded, thanks also to his suspicions regarding the newly instated Duke of Florence, Alessandro de Medici, and to his growing disaffection for the tasks on hand in Florence, which were dragging on with effort and an increasing need for the help of assistants.

It happened, however, that Clement VII died on September 25, 1534, a mere two days after Buonarrotis transfer to Rome, and the latter therefore found himself released of his commitments, albeit, as Vasari notes:

"After the election of the new pope, Paul III, not much time passed before he, too, summoned Michelangelo, and after offering him special signs of affection and proposals, he tried to convince Michelangelo that he ought to serve him and that he wanted him nearby. Michelangelo refused this request, declaring that he was unable to do so, since he was contractually obligated to the Duke of Urbino until the tomb of Julius was completed. At this, the pope became angry and said: I have had this desire for thirty years, and now that I am Pope am I not to satisfy it? I will tear up this contract, and, in any case, I intend to have you serve me! When Michelangelo saw his determination, he was tempted to leave Rome and find some means of completing the tomb. Nevertheless, being a prudent man who feared the popes power, he decided to keep him waiting and to satisfy him with words, given that he was a very old man, until something came up."

But words were not enough, and Michelangelo resumed his studies of the composition and cartoons, after considerable preparatory work on the wall. At the beginning of the summer of 1536 the artist finally mounted the scaffolding ready to start. The fresco took five years to complete, and was finally exposed to view on the eve of All Saints Day, 1541.

Clement VIIs commission and the rapid development of Michelangelos ideas for a representation of the Last Judgment to cover the entire end wall of the Sistine Chapel led to the obliteration of the frescoes painted at the time of Sixtus IV: the first figures of the popes, the first two scenes of the life of Christ and life of Moses, the image of the Virgin of the Assumption (to whom the chapel was dedicated), together with the first two lunettes, representing the Ancestors of Christ, frescoed earlier by Michelangelo himself. Furthermore, the artist decided to radically alter the spatial configuration of the chapel, which had until then presented a harmonious and contained chamber. His new scheme started with the lighting conditions: the two large windows set into the altar wall were closed up.

In this way, the entire formal and iconographical system that had gradually been pieced together in the space of over four decades, with uncanny overall coherence and consistency was completely modified to suit the aspirations of the pope and Michelangelo, who were personally living through the exaltation of those very ideals and myths and would see their subsequent collapse. Both men were firsthand witnesses to the spirit of renovatio that swept through the Eternal City under the guide of Peters successors; both testified to the tragic events that led to the exacerbation of the religious wars and the radical self-questioning, and, not least, the appalling Sack of Rome itself, the seat of the Vicar of Christ, the city which for a vast portion of Christians had come to be identified with a new Babylon.

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