In my latest Snapshot of History video we’ll be exploring Michelangelo & the Sistine Chapel!
Check it out now below:
If videos aren’t accessible to you, or they’re just not your thing, you can read the full script below.
Hello and welcome to today’s Snapshot of History!
Today we’re exploring legendary renaissance painter Michelangelo and his work on the Sistine Chapel.
The chapel is top of any tourists ‘to see’ list in Rome. Or at least I certainly know it will be top of mine, whenever I get the chance to visit this wonderful place!
So what frescoes did Michelangelo create? What were his views on this project? For the next 5 minutes we’ll be going into a deep dive on Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel.
So first a little bit of context…
The Sistine Chapel is located within the Vatican Palace in the Vatican City, Rome. It was built for Pope Sixtus IV in the 1470s, but it took decades for it to be decorated and completed.
Many artists worked on this chapel, including Sandro Bottecelli and Pietro Perugino.
This was during the period we refer to as the Renaissance
“The Renaissance – literally meaning “rebirth” – emerged through a series of gradual and sometimes subtle, changes which began around the 1300’s. It pulled Europe out of the Middle Ages and into the start of a cultural revolution, gathering momentum by the 17th century“
Italy was at the centre of this rebirth. It’s important to note here Italy was not one unified country during this period. It was a collection of city states like Florence, Milan and Venice. There were different leading families who dominated Italy’s political sphere, like the House of Medici and House of Sforza. The successive popes of this period usually came from a leading family, and through nepotism sought to benefit their House.
These leading families were incredibly wealthy, and often funded artistic commissions, with Michelangelo and his famous contemporary Leonardo da Vinci benefiting from these noble commission. The artistic works creating during the High Renaissance have had a lasting impact until this day.
Michelangelo’s frescoes are on the ceiling of the chapel and show scenes from the Old Testament. He was given the commission by Pope Julius II in 1508. It was considered an odd choice by some perhaps, as Michelangelo was more of a sculptor than a painter. His sculptures David and Pieta are particularly well known and revered.
Apparently the Sistine Chapel ceiling commission was the result of the deviousness of his artistic rivals Raphael and Bramante. They encouraged the commission to go to Michelangelo, hoping he’d fail.
Michelangelo ultimately proved them wrong, but that’s not to say he didn’t face challenges creating this gigantic piece of work.
A letter survives from 1509, a year into the commission, from Michelangelo to his friend Giovanni da Pistoia detailing how much he hated the process.
It’s written in the form of poetry and goes like this:
“I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
swollen up here like a cat from Lombardy
(or anywhere where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beards
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles the paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!
My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself,
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.
And because I’m like this, my thoughts
are crazy perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.
My painting is dead.
Defend it for me Giovanni, protect my honour.
I am not in the right place – I am not a painter“
As this letter shows, the painting of the frescoes took a huge toll on his physical and mental well-being.
He had to build his own scaffolding in order to get to the ceiling and once there had to hang upside down to complete this work. He did this for a staggering four years, completing the project in 1512. He must have been incredibly relieved when it was over!
Throughout these years Pope Julius was impatient for the work to be completed quickly. Considering the scale of the project, this can be seen as a pretty unfair ask. The animosity between painter and patron become well known, although their friendship endured despite their differences.
So for those who’ve never seen it, this was the final design…
- On the central Ceiling there is the nine stories of genesis including the creation of Adam and banishment from the Garden of Eden,
- On the long Sides there are alternate panels of Sibyls and Prophets seated on thrones.
- The short sides feature Zechariah and Jonah
- The four pendentives: showing the salvation of the people of Israel
- And lastly the Eight spandrels show groups of figures, thought maybe to be the ancestors of Christ
- To frame these images Michelangelo painted architectural molding.
In short, it is a complete and utter masterpiece.
I can’t wait to see this Renaissance marvel for myself one day.
What are your thoughts on Michelangelo’s work? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.
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The Black Prince of Florence by Catherine Fletcher
DK History of the World in 1,000 Objects
Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789 by Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks
Written in History: Letters that Changed the World by Simon Sebga-Montefiore
Encyclopedia Britannica: Julius II https://www.britannica.com/biography/Julius-II
Encyclopedia Britannica: Sistine Chapel https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sistine-Chapel
ItalianRenaissance.org, “Michelangelo’s Painting of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling,” in ItalianRenaissance.org, May 9, 2013, http://www.italianrenaissance.org/a-closer-look-michelangelos-painting-of-the-sistine-chapel-ceiling/
Featured Image: Image courtesy of власне фото published under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.