Michelangelo's fresco paintings on the Sistine Chapel ceiling are brilliant depictions of Old Testament scenes, interpreted through the spectrum of human emotions: passion and violence, vainglory and sacrifice, drunkenness and ecstasy, madness and genius. They represent a world mired in turmoil and beauty, nearing heaven but never far from hell.
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But that's nothing compared to Rome in 1508, when Michelangelo, the surly, slightly paranoid sculptor of the famous Pietà, was called to the city by the "Warrior Pope" Julius II to adorn the vaulted ceiling of the Vatican's Sistine Chapel. A more tempestuous artist-patron relationship could hardly be imagined, yet it resulted in one of the greatest works of art of the Western world.
No one tells this terrible tale better than Ross King, the novelist/historian who authored the bestseller Brunelleschi's Dome in 2000. His new book, Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, is the result of solid, scholarly research (King has a Ph.D., though he doesn't advertise it), written in an accessible style that makes high drama of high art.
The book shatters several misconceptions: Michelangelo did not paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling lying on his back, nor did he complete the herculean task without the aid of assistants. But beyond this, King delivers an unforgettable glimpse of Rome in 1508-12 by deftly intertwining stories of papal politics, Michelangelo's brutal personality and the stiff competition among Renaissance artists.
It took Michelangelo those four excruciating years to finish the ceiling while Julius regularly stiffed him on payments. Julius, who was widely disliked, a victim of syphilis and reputedly a pederast, was beastly -- when Michelangelo mouthed off to him, Julius hit him with a stick. On top of that, Michelangelo felt threatened by the young, handsome, talented artist Raphael, who was busy painting in the papal apartments nearby and scheming to steal a glimpse of Michelangelo's masterpiece in progress.