Michelangelo & the Pope's ceiling

by Ross King

Paper Book, 2003

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Walker & Company, 2003.

Description

In 1508, despite strong advice to the contrary, the powerful Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the newly restored Sistine Chapel. With little experience as a painter (though famed for his sculpture David), Michelangelo was reluctant to begin the massive project. Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling recounts the four extraordinary years Michelangelo spent laboring over the vast ceiling while the power politics and personal rivalries that abounded in Rome swirled around him. Battling against ill health, financial difficulties, domestic problems, the pope's impatience, and a bitter rivalry with the brilliant young painter Raphael, Michelangelo created scenes so beautiful that they are considered to be among the greatest masterpieces of all time. A panorama of illustrious figures converged around the creation of this magnificent work-from the great Dutch scholar Erasmus to the young Martin Luther-and Ross King skillfully weaves them through his compelling historical narrative, offering uncommon insight into the intersection of art and history. Four years earlier, at the age of twenty-nine, Michelangelo had unveiled his masterful statue of David in Florence; however, he had little experience as a painter, even less working in the delicate medium of fresco, and none with the curved surface of vaults, which dominated the chapel's ceiling. The temperamental Michelangelo was himself reluctant, and he stormed away from Rome, risking Julius's wrath, only to be persuaded to eventually begin. Michelangelo would spend the next four years laboring over the vast ceiling. He executed hundreds of drawings, many of which are masterpieces in their own right. Contrary to legend, he and his assistants worked standing rather than on their backs, and after his years on the scaffold, Michelangelo suffered a bizarre form of eyestrain that made it impossible for him to read letters unless he held them at arm's length. Nonetheless, he produced one of the greatest masterpieces of all time, about which Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists, wrote, 'There is no other work to compare with this for excellence, nor could there be.' Ross King's fascinating new book tells the story of those four extraordinary years. Battling against ill health, financial difficulties, domestic problems, inadequate knowledge of the art of fresco, and the pope's impatience, Michelangelo created figures-depicting the Creation, the Fall, and the Flood-so beautiful that, when they were unveiled in 1512, they stunned his onlookers. Modern anatomy has yet to find names for some of the muscles on his nudes, they are painted in such detail. While he worked, Rome teemed around him, its politics and rivalries with other city-states and with France at fever pitch, often intruding on his work. From Michelangelo's experiments with the composition of pigment and plaster to his bitter competition with the famed painter Raphael, who was working on the neighboring Papal Apartments, Ross King presents a magnificent tapestry of day-to-day life on the ingenious Sistine scaffolding and outside in the upheaval of early-sixteenth-century Rome.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member baswood
I think Ross King has got it just about right. He tells the story of how and why Michelangelo painted the frescoes on the Sistine chapel in the Vatican city and he also tells us why they are a masterpiece of Renaissance art. The book would appeal to the more casual reader, but still holds plenty of interest for readers more widely read on the Italian Renaissance.

The story is told in linear fashion and so we witness the struggles of Michelangelo as he spends four years of his life working and figuring on a scaffold just below the Sistine chapel ceiling. His story is placed in context of a master craftsman working to earn his living in the city states of the IIalian renaissance. For a proven artist as Michelangelo was when Pope Julius II awarded him the contract it was still a risk to undertake such a venture. A work of such magnitude presented it’s own problems and Michelangelo had to solve them as he went along, always aware that competition among the elite artists was fierce and there was no room for failure. Ross KIng manages to bring his characters to life and at the same time sketch in the historical events around them. His view of life in Renaissance Italy has enough substance to make this reader feel like he has created the right atmosphere and explains why the characters acted in ways that might be puzzling to modern readers. For example even an artist as well known as Michelangelo was forced to work and live in cramped and dirty conditions being forced to share his bed with two of his fellow artists.

Ross King is an art historian and so he understands the techniques involved in frescoing a renaissance ceiling, and in this book he is able to make this subject an integral part of the story without sounding dry and over scholarly. As a reader I could appreciate the problems and marvel at the way an artist of the calibre of Michelangelo was able to solve them. Life gets in the way of art and Pope Julius’ war mongering with the French and the Venetians was always likely to derail Michelangelo’s work as were problems within his own family, but Michelangelo was something of a workaholic as well as being proud and stubborn and so although at times tested to his limits we could understand how he succeeded.

While Michelangelo was employed in the Sistine chapel, Raphael another great artist of the period was frescoing the walls of Pope Julius’ Library and Ross King uses these two very different character to point up the differences between them, so much so that the book becomes a story of both of these artists with King able to compare and contrast their different painting style as well as their life styles. Raphael was young, good looking, charming to all those around him. Michelangelo was not. King sums up the differences in their painting styles like this:

” One way to understand the differing styles of the two artists is through a pair of aesthetic categories developed two and a half centuries later by the Irish statesman and writer Edmund Burke……… For Burke those things we call beautiful have the properties of smoothness, delicacy, softness of colour and elegance of movement. The sublime, on the other hand comprehends the vast, the obscure, the powerful, the rugged, the difficult attributes which produce in the spectator a kind of astonished wonder and even terror. For the people of Rome in 1511, Raphael was beautiful but Michelangelo was sublime.

Of course King dispels the popular myths about Michelangelo and the Sistine chapel: he did not paint it single handedly (he had a whole team of painters working with him) and he didn’t paint it lying on his back on the scaffold.

King for the most part uses secondary sources; of which there are many, but he uses the material to bring the story into the reach of many more people. Not an original history or an imaginative historical novel, but a solid piece of writing that will inform and entertain many readers who give it their attention and so for me A four star read.
… (more)
LibraryThing member giovannigf
Now THIS is how it's done! In addition to a close view of Michelangelo at work, we get fascinating profiles of a cast of characters including ferocious Pope Julius II and man-about-town Raphael, as well as accounts of the violent events that were occurring while the Sistine Chapel was being painted. I can't wait for the release of Ross King's upcoming "Leonardo and the Last Supper."… (more)
LibraryThing member cameling
What a brilliant traipse through history. King's depiction of Michelangelo brought the man alive to me. The frustrations he felt having to put aside his first love of sculpting to paint commissions by the Pope and his struggles in getting them to pay him his dues were painful.

It was really interesting to read about how he would paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in a medium in which he was originally unfamiliar and clearly not his forte but the strength of his belief in himself and of course his genius enabled him to create one of the most amazing masterpieces of art.… (more)
LibraryThing member charlie68
Manages to bring alive a tedious subject the painting of a fresco. Far from being dull, this book captures the process. Also tells of the other happenings in the Italian peninsula during this time.
LibraryThing member cyderry
This was an interesting book that at times got weighed down by the descriptions in vast detail of the processes that were used for different types of painting including but not restricted to the frescoes that were painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This was really more a combined biography of Michelangelo, Pope Julius II, and Raphael.

The pictures of the Sistine Chapel frescoes were beautiful but it would have been much nicer if they had not been all lumped together in one pictures but the panels shown individually. I often had to search the Internet for an individual image so that I could understand what the writer was talking about.
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LibraryThing member Docbliss
Most everything I was told or thought I found out I was wrong. Many artists are treated as mythological superheroes and Ross King does a fine job of discussing the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo, and 16th century Italy. A must read for art lovers!
LibraryThing member bjeans
I love this s***. Simple as that. and Ross has that flair of a good writer. Well documented, very organized, he can get you through a boring intensive recap of warring nations with the placement of a well-timed joke. An interesting perspective on Michelangelo (many sources are letters to and from the great artist). A reminder of how religion have their paws in everything (in this case, the roman catholic juggernaut) and how artists can make it or break it.… (more)
LibraryThing member ValerieAndBooks
As an art history buff, I gravitate towards topics like this one -- the story of how Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Sometimes, though, art historians can be dull in their presentation -- in full or in part. Not so with Ross King, author of "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling". I found this fascinating from beginning to end and learned a lot in the process of reading this book.

Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor, first and foremost, and it was with great reluctance that he obeyed Pope Julius II's order to come to Rome and spend several years working on, and supervising, the now-iconic Sistine Chapel ceiling. Not only did I learn in detail more about the process of fresco and more about the art world at the time (Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael were contemporaries), I also learned more about the intricacies of papal rule and its importance to artists for their survival. Nothing that I was completely clueless about, due to my interest in art history, but definitely did fill in my knowledge.

I also learned interesting tidbits such as:

--The Sistine Chapel got its name from Pope Sixtus IV, who had it built in the 15th century. (p. 23)

-- "Any one lucky enough to be the nephew of a pope could usually count on rapid promotion. The word nepotism comes in fact, from nipote, Italian for nephew" (p. 28).

-- Michelangelo's first attempts at large-scale compositions during his work on the chapel were due to his thinking more as a sculptor. (p. 151).

I am delighted to learn that Ross King has written several more books that reflect on art history. It's hard for me to decide what I'd want to read next -- perhaps "The Judgment of Paris" (about the birth of impressionism) or "Defiant Spirits" (about the Modernist Revolution). Or should I start more at the beginning with his first, "Brunelleschi's Dome?" Most likely it'll be whichever one I come across first in a bookstore.
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LibraryThing member waldhaus1
A great telling of the story of the Sistine chapel. I wish I had read it before seeing the ceiling. At least I have pictures. I have a much better and hopefully more accurate understanding of Michelangelo the man. It also depends my understanding of his artistic influence.
LibraryThing member Schmerguls
5446. Michelangelo & the Pope's Ceiling, by Ross King (read 26 Feb 2017) Because I so enjoyed reading Ross King's Brunelleschi's Dome on 12 Jan 2007, when I saw this book I decided to read it. It tells the story which begins in 1508 when Pope Julius II induced Michelangelo (born 6 Mar 1475., died 18 Feb 1564) to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The book tells in detail, much of it being technical, of the fresco work that Michelangelo did, and difficulties he overcame to create the most famous ceiling in the world. One is amazed anew by the life style of Julius II and his temperament--though the life style of too many Popes of that time we know to be scandalous--but one is glad that such behavior by the Pope did not overly phase Michelangelo,. I certainly would be glad to see the ceiling again after reading he book, but the Internet does enable one to see some of it, probably better than a tourist could.… (more)
LibraryThing member JBD1
I usually enjoy Ross King's art-historical works, and this one, treating Michelangelo's career and his commission to paint the Sistine Chapel, was no exception. Great detail and a fast-paced read.
LibraryThing member msaucier818
I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would when I began. This covers the story of the years in the early 16th century when Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The story obviously covers the ceiling in great detail, and gives the reader great detail into not only the Biblical stories, but also the process used to complete the actual painting. In addition, the author spends a great deal of time going through the politics and wars of the time, and Pope Julius II is covered almost as much as Michelangelo.

There were many parts that dragged for me as I do not have a truly great interest in the art world, but the book certainly helped created an appreciation for the process of creating such beautiful art. I certainly hope to visit Rome some day to view Chapel and other works of art referenced in this book.
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LibraryThing member HeatherLINC
I found this an interesting read about an incredible Renaissance artist and a demanding Pope. However, I do have to be honest and say that the book was rather dry as it became bogged down with unnecessary detail. It certainly wasn't a page-turner, but I found the process of doing frescos, the sketches and cartoons, the paint mixing the finding the right pigments extremely interesting.

Also, what amazed me was, that at the time of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo had never really worked with paint making his achievements even more remarkable.
… (more)
LibraryThing member baswood
I think Ross King has got it just about right. He tells the story of how and why Michelangelo painted the frescoes on the Sistine chapel in the Vatican city and he also tells us why they are a masterpiece of Renaissance art. The book would appeal to the more casual reader, but still holds plenty of interest for readers more widely read on the Italian Renaissance.

The story is told in linear fashion and so we witness the struggles of Michelangelo as he spends four years of his life working and figuring on a scaffold just below the Sistine chapel ceiling. His story is placed in context of a master craftsman working to earn his living in the city states of the IIalian renaissance. For a proven artist as Michelangelo was when Pope Julius II awarded him the contract it was still a risk to undertake such a venture. A work of such magnitude presented it’s own problems and Michelangelo had to solve them as he went along, always aware that competition among the elite artists was fierce and there was no room for failure. Ross KIng manages to bring his characters to life and at the same time sketch in the historical events around them. His view of life in Renaissance Italy has enough substance to make this reader feel like he has created the right atmosphere and explains why the characters acted in ways that might be puzzling to modern readers. For example even an artist as well known as Michelangelo was forced to work and live in cramped and dirty conditions being forced to share his bed with two of his fellow artists.

Ross King is an art historian and so he understands the techniques involved in frescoing a renaissance ceiling, and in this book he is able to make this subject an integral part of the story without sounding dry and over scholarly. As a reader I could appreciate the problems and marvel at the way an artist of the calibre of Michelangelo was able to solve them. Life gets in the way of art and Pope Julius’ war mongering with the French and the Venetians was always likely to derail Michelangelo’s work as were problems within his own family, but Michelangelo was something of a workaholic as well as being proud and stubborn and so although at times tested to his limits we could understand how he succeeded.

While Michelangelo was employed in the Sistine chapel, Raphael another great artist of the period was frescoing the walls of Pope Julius’ Library and Ross King uses these two very different character to point up the differences between them, so much so that the book becomes a story of both of these artists with King able to compare and contrast their different painting style as well as their life styles. Raphael was young, good looking, charming to all those around him. Michelangelo was not. King sums up the differences in their painting styles like this:

” One way to understand the differing styles of the two artists is through a pair of aesthetic categories developed two and a half centuries later by the Irish statesman and writer Edmund Burke……… For Burke those things we call beautiful have the properties of smoothness, delicacy, softness of colour and elegance of movement. The sublime, on the other hand comprehends the vast, the obscure, the powerful, the rugged, the difficult attributes which produce in the spectator a kind of astonished wonder and even terror. For the people of Rome in 1511, Raphael was beautiful but Michelangelo was sublime.

Of course King dispels the popular myths about Michelangelo and the Sistine chapel: he did not paint it single handedly (he had a whole team of painters working with him) and he didn’t paint it lying on his back on the scaffold.

King for the most part uses secondary sources; of which there are many, but he uses the material to bring the story into the reach of many more people. Not an original history or an imaginative historical novel, but a solid piece of writing that will inform and entertain many readers who give it their attention and so for me A four star read.
… (more)
LibraryThing member ChristineEllei
I enjoy Ross King's writing on topics of art history. He presents the facts in an entertaining way that does not read like a text book and, he is a welcome addition to my library of Canadian born authors. This book told the story of the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. I read this book in anticipation of going to a lecture presented by the authors of THE SISTINE SECRETS. Having read Mr. King's book, I think I will be saving my money and not purchasing THE SISTINE SECRETS. I would like to read one of Ross King's fictional books, so maybe I'll invest the savings there.
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