detail: creation of Adam: God


Mid Years
The Sistine Chapel Ceiling
In April 1508, Michelangelo was summoned back to Rome by Julius II, but he was still not able to start on the papal tomb. In fact Julius II had a new job for him: painting twelve figures of apostles and some decorations on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Buonarroti, who had always regarded himself as a sculptor, would now have to perfect the art of fresco. It seems that the pope had been advised to make this move by Bramante and other artists working at his court, who did not take kindly to Michelangelo's presence: "And this thing they did with malice, to distract the pope from matters of sculpture; and since they were sure that he, either by not accepting this undertaking, would turn the pope against him, or by accepting it would do much less creditable work than Raphael of Urbino, to whom, out of hatred for Michelangelo, they gave every support."

At first, Buonarroti tried to turn down the commission, but in vain. And then, during the realization of the work, that mysterious liking that the artist and the pope had, at bottom, for one another yielded its fruit. Julius II let himself be swayed by Michelangelo's creative frenzy, and both were carried away by their enthusiasm over more and more ambitious plans. So, Michelangelo was given carte blanche: by October 31st, 1512, he had painted over 300 figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

In May 1508, Michelangelo began to make the preparatory designs for the Sistine ceiling. It was not until the fall that he started the actual painting, calling on the assistance of Giuliano Bugiardini, Aristotele da Sangallo, and his old friend Francesco Granacci, along with a number of laborers.

The Flood - detailHowever the work did not proceed as the master wished, and he soon fired all of his assistants, removed what had already been painted and, between the end of 1508 and January 1509, recommenced the whole demanding enterprise on his own. Condivi recalls that "as a result of having painted for so long a time, keeping his eyes fixed on the ceiling, he saw little when he looked down; if he had to read a letter or some other small thing, he was obliged to hold it above his head."

Extremely jealous of his work, he refused to show it to anyone but the pope, though the latter was always insisting that he finish it quickly, and often climbed the scaffolding to see how the fresco was proceeding. The pressure on the artist was such that he uncovered it in August 1511, even before it was finished. The sight of these highly original paintings made a great impression on the artists of the time. Raphael, who was painting the nearby Stanze, was so influenced by them that his own style altered as a result, becoming more plastic and sculptural as the decoration proceeded.

The project was physically and emotionally torturous for Michelangelo.   Michelangelo recounts its effect on him with these words: "After four tortured years, more than 400 over life-sized figures, I felt as old and as weary as Jeremiah. I was only 37, yet friends did not recognize the old man I had become."

delphic sibyl (10485 bytes)Working high above the chapel floor, on scaffolding, Michelangelo painted, between 1508 and 1512, some of the finest pictorial images of all time. On the vault of the papal chapel, he devised an intricate system of decoration that included nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, beginning with God Separating Light from Darkness and including the Creation of Adam and Eve, the Temptation and Fall of Adam and Eve, and the Flood. These centrally located narratives are surrounded by alternating images of prophets and sibyls (Libyan, Erythraean) on marble thrones, by other Old Testament subjects, and by the ancestors of Christ. sketch.jpg (4854 bytes)In order to prepare for this enormous work, Michelangelo drew numerous figure studies and cartoons, devising scores of figure types and poses. These awesome, mighty images, demonstrating Michelangelo's masterly understanding of human anatomy and movement, changed the course of painting in the West.


Michelangelo's cartoon of himself painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling


This comes from dangling from the ceiling–
I'm goitered like a Lombard cat
(or wherever else their throats grow fat)–
it's my belly that's beyond concealing,
it hands beneath my chin like peeling.
My beard points skyward, I seem a bat
upon its back, I've breasts and splat!
On my face the paint's congealing.

Loins concertina'd in my gut,
I drop an arse as counterweight
and move without the help of eyes.

Like a skinned martyr I abut
on air, and, wrinkled, show my fat.
Bow-like, I strain toward the skies.

No wonder then I size
things crookedly; I'm on all fours.
Bent blowpipes send their darts off-course.

Defend my labor's cause,
good Giovanni, from all strictures:
I live in hell and paint its pictures.

Michelangelo Buonarroti


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Q: Why does Moses have horns on his head?

A: Michelangelo's "Moses" has horns because one of the biblical translations of "rays of light" became "horns" in Italian. Because of this mistranslation, depictions of Moses with horns became somewhat commonplace.


The Tomb of Julius II
Before the assignment of the Sistine Ceiling in 1505, Michelangelo had been commissioned by Julius II to produce his tomb, which was planned to be the most magnificent of Christian times. It was to be located in the new Basilica of St. Peter's, then under construction. Michelangelo enthusiastically went ahead with the challenging project, which was to include more than 40 figures, spending months in the quarries to obtain the necessary Carrara marble. Due to a mounting shortage of money, however, the pope ordered him to put aside the tomb project in favor of painting the Sistine ceiling.

When Michelangelo went back to work on the tomb, he redesigned it on a much more modest scale. Nevertheless, Michelangelo made some of his finest sculpture for the Julius Tomb, including the Moses (c. 1515), the central figure in the much-reduced monument now located in Rome's church of San Pietro in Vincoli. The muscular patriarch sits alertly in a shallow niche, holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments, his long beard entwined in his powerful hands. He looks off into the distance as if communicating with God.

Two other superb statues, the Bound Slave and the Dying Slave (both c. 1510-13), Louvre, Paris), demonstrate Michelangelo's approach to carving. He conceived of the figure as being imprisoned in the block (Third Captive). By removing the excess stone, the form was released. Here, as is frequently the case with his sculpture, Michelangelo left the statues unfinished (non-finito), either because he was satisfied with them as is, or because he no longer planned to use them.




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The Laurentian Library
The project for the Julius Tomb required architectural planning, but Michelangelo's activity as an architect only began in earnest in 1519, with the plan for the facade (never executed) of the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence, where he had once again taken up residence. In the 1520s he also designed the Laurentian Library and its elegant entrance hall adjoining San Lorenzo, although these structures were finished only decades later. Michelangelo took as a starting point the wall articulation of his Florentine predecessors, but he infused it with the same surging energy that characterizes his sculpture and painting. Instead of being obedient to classical Greek and Roman practices, Michelangelo used motifs-columns, pediments, and brackets-for a personal and expressive purpose.

In the Service of the New Republic
With the Medici driven out in 1526, Florence proclaimed itself a republic for the last time. However, Clement VII ordered the city to be surrounded by the same terrible German mercenary soldiers who had put the city of Rome to fire and sword in 1527.

Michelangelo was forced to stop working on all the projects he had under way. Then, in 1528, the new government asked him to prepare plans for defense against the assault and on January 10th, 1529, he became a member of the Nove della Milizia, the nine-man body in charge of the city's forces, in the capacity of an expert on fortifications. He prepared the plans for the defense of the hill of San Miniato and succeeded in protecting the campanile of the Romanesque church by the ingenious device of covering it completely with mattresses.

Believing that invasion by the troops that had surrounded Florence was imminent, Michelangelo decided to flee to Venice. Exiled at first by the republic as a traitor, he was later allowed to reenter to the city. With the return of the Medici, he was granted a pardon by Clement VII and was able to resume work on the Medici Chapel and Laurentian Library.


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"What shall I say of Dawn, a nude woman who is such as to arouse melancholy in one's soul and throw sculpture into confusion? In her attitude may be seen the anxiety with which, drowsy with sleep, she rises up from her downy bed; for on awakening she has found the eyes of the great duke closed in death, and her eternal beauty is contorted with bitter sorrow as she weeps in token of her desperate grief."

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists, first published 1550, 2nd edition 1558.


The Medici Tombs
While residing in Florence for this extended period, Michelangelo also undertook-between 1519 and 1534-the commission of the Medici Tombs for the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo. His design called for two large wall tombs facing each other across the high, domed room. One was intended for Lorenzo de' Medici (d. 1519) , duke of Urbino; the other for Giuliano de' Medici (1479-1516), duke of Nemours.

The tombs of the Medici were of a completely new form. Michelangelo abandoned the use of architecture and arabesques that decorated all Florentine tombs, and that he himself had widely used in his designs for the tomb of Pope Julius II. Here, he wanted no accessory forms, and only the statues were to express the thoughts of his soul. Before Michelangelo, artists had always designed Christian symbols on tombs: angels, the Virgin Mary, Christ, the Apostles and the Virtues. But he renounced Christian traditions in order to portray Humanity to our eyes. He gave names to the statues of the sarcophagi: Dawn, Dusk, Day and Night. In reality, these were just words, for these statues represented nothing but human beings. They are the symbol of suffering mankind. It is because they are crying that they are alive; their suffering gives them all their beauty. Only Michelangelo could find words worthy of being pronounced regarding his work, and in a famous verse, he himself tells us of the dark despair of his soul:

"It is my pleasure to sleep and even more to be stone:
As long as shame and dishonor may last,
My sole desire is to see and to feel no more.
Speak softly, I beg you, do not awaken me."

Work on the Medici Tombs continued long after Michelangelo went back to Rome in 1534, although he never returned to his beloved native city.

Farewell to Florence
In 1534, Michelangelo left Florence forever. His decision never to return was certainly influenced by the open hostility of Duke Alessandro de Medici and the misunderstandings with his fellow citizens that had arisen during the siege, which led him to say: "I never knew a people more ungrateful and arrogant than the Florentines."

In Rome, Michelangelo was able to count on the esteem, protection, and affection of Pope Clement VII who, shortly before his death, commissioned him to paint the fresco of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.

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