Culture, like agriculture, is often nourished in soil enriched by rot. The combination of order and barbarism in the Roman Empire offered a cultural opening for early Christianity. The collapse of the classical world brought with it medieval darkness and crudity, but the various forces that came together to fill the cultural gap contained energies for renewal that led to the flowering of the High Middle Ages. And it was in the very midst of no little corruption in Church and state that the expansive recovery of the West famously took place, which we call the Renaissance.
Yet culture depends primarily on individual talent. And on that score, the Renaissance is perhaps without equal in any place or time. Between roughly 1450 and 1550, we can easily tick off names like Leonardo da Vinci, Perugino, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, and Raphael. Da Vinci may have been the most multitalented, but in terms of sheer aesthetic power, probably no one at the time surpassed Michelangelo Buonarroti. Renaissance art is largely taken for granted, or even slightly depreciated as old hat, in contemporary culture. For those with the eyes to see, though, there’s still a lot to be gleaned from the old masters.
Michelangelo benefited from two features of artistic life in his time: apprenticeship and competition. At 13, he was studying with Ghirlandaio and within a year was selected to study sculpture in the gardens of Lorenzo de’Medici. At 21, Michelangelo was commissioned by Cardinal Groslaye. The result (only two years later): the Pieta. That and other stunning early achievements convinced the shrewd Florentine government to ask him and Leonardo da Vinci to do paintings on opposite walls of a central chamber in the Signoria, the city’s seat of government. The project was never executed, but the competition between the two drove them to sketches so ambitious that even these so-called cartoons achieved a fame of their own.
Before he turned 30, Michelangelo had also finished his David. Yet perhaps nothing made Michelangelo so famous as his work in a medium that he told Pope Julius II was “not my profession,” the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. The tumultuous relations between these two men have often been recounted, including the colorful, but not always accurate, 1965 Carrol Reed film The Agony and the Ecstasy, with Rex Harrison as Julius and Charlton Heston as Michelangelo. But for both reliability and liveliness, perhaps nothing surpasses Ross King’s recently published Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (Walker & Company, 2003). There we learn that—probably—no pope or rival ever tried to poison Michelangelo, but he and Julius did have several violent episodes, not least when the artist threw boards down on the pope’s head as he tried to sneak a preview.
King, a British writer, rose to international prominence a few years ago with another little gem of a book, Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture. In the earlier volume, he showed a remarkable capacity to combine history, art, Renaissance engineering, and politics in a gripping story (King is also a novelist, and anyone who likes historical novels will enjoy his 17th-century detective tale Ex Libris). Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, if anything, integrates even more complex material. Here we read not only about the political and social background of the Sistine Chapel (a tale of moral corruption, incessant warfare, intrigues among rival artists, and the religious influence of great figures such as Savonarola and Erasmus) but about the day-to-day travails of hardy artists who “painted in the wet” high above the chapel’s marble floors, and had to understand everything from erecting scaffolding to pigments to the complex perspective required for painting to be viewed from far below. The sheer physical stamina required to complete such a ceiling was enormous, and it is no wonder that one of Michelangelo’s contemporaries exalted the masculine energy of such work; by comparison, he said, tempera painting was for “effeminate young men.”
The Sistine Chapel, like St. Peter’s, was part of Pope Julius II’s attempt to restore prestige to Rome—which badly needed it at the beginning of the 16th century. When Julius was elected, goats grazed freely on the once-august Capitoline Hill, and the fabled Roman Forum was a cow pasture. The new St. Peter’s was meant to assert Rome’s status as the capital of a Christian world reborn from the decay of centuries following the fall of Rome. It would take several popes and architects (including Michelangelo) before that aim was achieved. The Sistine Chapel, whose dimensions are exactly those of the Temple at Jerusalem as described in the Old Testament, was in the meantime the place of many liturgical celebrations and of papal conclaves. It needed to make a strong statement, hence the need for elaborate frescoes.
King explains several features of Michelangelo’s genius by comparing him with other great artists. The great Raphael, for instance, was busy at the same time with wall frescoes a short distance away in the papal apartments. But Raphael’s genius was of a different kind than Michelangelo’s, and King deftly portrays these two great figures as both artists and men. Raphael was a basically easygoing sort who developed extensive social connections; Michelangelo was touchy and suspicious, usually trusting only his fellow Florentines for his work crews. The balanced composition of a work such as Raphael’s School of Athens implicitly reminds us of how hard it is to take in the Sistine ceiling’s dynamic sprawl, even after multiple viewings. But the sheer energy of Michelangelo’s creations impressed even Raphael. After he saw them, Raphael had a central section of the School of Athens chipped out, and he inserted, in homage, a portrait of Michelangelo as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus.
Despite the enormous impression the ceiling frescoes made, they were not always readily understood. The Creation of Adam, for example, which is today almost a pictorial cliché, puzzled early observers. Some wrote about the figure of a “flying old man” without realizing that he was meant to be God. King believes that the main reason for this was that the image of God as a bearded patriarch owed a great deal to the Renaissance rediscovery of classical figures of Zeus. He errs, however, in thinking that earlier allusions to the Creator in painting merely showed a hand emerging from some transcendent realm rather than a full representation; in the Middle Ages, there were lots of images of God the Father as a universal king or a kind of divine geometer in the creation. Any confusion at the time must have stemmed from Michelangelo’s images themselves.
Despite Michelangelo’s great genius and eventual public understanding, tastes changed rapidly. By the middle of the 16th century, one of Pope Paul III’s advisers remarked that Michelangelo’s frescoes were more appropriate to a brothel than a chapel. More recently, the Israeli government hesitated when Florence tried to give Jerusalem a copy of the David on the 3,000th anniversary of the city’s founding. Orthodox rabbis resisted until a compromise was reached: the reproduction arrived modestly clad in boxer shorts. In some ways, the caution was appropriate. Michelangelo himself was divided between his art and religious fervor, an admirer of Savonarola—the fiery Dominican who urged the Florentines to a “bonfire of the vanities”—who earned a living as a daring artist. It was as if a modern Hollywood director was also an admirer of Jerry Falwell. But such were the sympathies and contradictions of the man who painted the pope’s ceiling.