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Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King


Rating: (Recommended)


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Before you open the pages of Ross King’s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, get rid of the images planted in your mind by the novel or movie, The Agony and the Ecstasy. On so many levels, King’s book is the superior tale. With great skill, King takes readers on the journey Michelangelo followed in taking on a job he didn’t want to do, using skills he needed to develop, while his Pope and his country was at war. The characters come alive, the artistry is revealed, and the genius of the artist becomes even more impressive when we learn about the obstacles Michelangelo faced.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 26, “The Monster of Ravenna,” (pp. 256-7):

One reason for Michelangelo's relative slowness of execution may have been the pose of God, whose foreshortened body marks a change of approach for Michelangelo. He was painted in di sotto in su, the virtuoso technique of illusion in which, as Bramante pointed out, Michelangelo had no experience when he was first commissioned to fresco the chapel. Later to become a staple of the frescoist's art, di sotto in su involved arranging the perspective of the figures or objects on a vault to give the viewer the impression of real-life figures rising overhead in a convincing three-dimensional space. Michelangelo had foreshortened several figures, such as Goliath and Holofernes, in the pendentives at the corners of the chapel's entrance wall. For the most part, however, the other figures on the Sistine's vault were, despite their adventurous poses, parallel to the picture plane, not at right angles to it. They were painted as if on a flat, upright wall, that is, and not soaring over the head of the viewer.

Michelangelo's decision to experiment with this technique of foreshortening was no doubt another repercussion from the uncovering of the first half of the fresco. Earlier he had created an illusion of space rising vertically overhead by showing a banner of blue sky at the east end of the chapel—a modest trompe l'oeil effect that serves to lend the architectural ensemble a weightless and almost dreamlike aspect. For his new scene, he realized, something more spectacular was required.

In this latest Creation scene, then, God seems to tumble toward the viewer at a forty-five-degree angle to the vault’s surface. The visual effect from the floor is of the Almighty turned almost completely upside down against the gray heavens, his head and hands thrust toward the viewer, his legs trailing away. Vasari, for one, applauded the technique, noting how God “turns constantly and faces in every direction” as one walks about the chapel.

Michelangelo’s breathtaking use of foreshortening in this scene raises an interesting question. He once claimed that an artist should have “compasses in his eyes,” by which he meant the painter must be able to arrange the perspective of his paintings by instinct alone, without resorting to mechanical aids. The best example of someone with compasses in his eyes was Domenixo Ghirlandaio, whose sketches of Rome’s ancient amphitheaters and aqueducts, done without measuring instruments of any kind, were found to be so accurate that artists who came afterward were astounded by them. Not everyone was blessed with this uncanny talent, and it is possible that, despite his idealism, even Michelangelo used an artificial device to help him foreshorten figures on the vault such as this particular God. Certainly other artists had either designed or used perspective devices. In the 1430s Leon Battista Alberti invented what he called a “veil” to assist painters in their work. It consisted of a net with intersecting threads that was stretched over a frame to create a grid of regular squares. The artist studied his subject through this grid, whose lines were reproduced, as a guide, on a piece of paper onto which he proceeded to copy the image seen through the web of squares.

Open the pages of Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, and learn things you never imaged about the great artist, and one of his masterpieces.

Steve Hopkins, April 19, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the May 2003 issue of Executive Times

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