As I mentioned a few days ago, I’m in the midst of reading Ross King‘s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling in preparation for a trip to Rome in April. I’ve been keeping a list of fascinating facts as I read, and I was planning to write a Top 5 list when I finished, but I’m halfway through and already the list is long. So I started to write the Top 5 for the first half, but I hit 1100 words after the first three and decided I’ll just do a separate post for each one to keep it brief(er).
1. Relationship with the Pope. Based on the title of the book, it should be no surprise that there was tension between the artist and the pontiff. What is surprising is the degree to which the Pope gave in to Michelangelo’s demands. I mean, Pope Julius II was not the peaceful shepherd that is Pope Francis I. When Julius wanted to bring the Papal States that had either gone rogue or been taken over by foreign rulers back into his pontifical fold, he sent out an army and rode at the head of it — armed — himself. They called him the Warrior Pope. He had a nasty temper and beat messengers who brought him bad news…and sometimes hurt those who brought good news by clapping them on the back with pleasure. He first brought Michelangelo to Rome to work on his ostentatious tomb, but then he had a change of heart and sent him packing. And then he wanted him back, but Michelangelo said no. After several pleas, the Pope finally resorted to an ultimatum, and, reluctantly, Michelangelo returned, but not to resume work on the tomb: he was brought back to to fresco the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which had been damaged due to a shoddy foundation — despite the fact that he was a sculptor and not a frescoist. Even so, he agreed. Not long after he started work, he was forced to get a little testy with the Pope: he told Julius to butt out and stop being such a micromanager. Said he knew what to paint, and that the Pope was going to have to trust him. His reputation must have been astounding, because the Warrior Pope did back off. Later, as the months went by and he couldn’t see the ceiling due to the canvas that stretched across the chapel sixty feet below the workspace (meant to keep any drippings from interrupting a Mass or making a mess), Julius attempted on several occasions to sneak up the scaffolding to get a look at what was going on. He even donned disguises. How could such a powerful pope be kept at bay for so long? Answer: Michelangelo was, oddly, just as powerful.