An artist, a ceiling and feuds for the agesNearly everyone has seen the painting, and it’s on the cover of Ross King’s book as well: God’s finger reaching out to touch the finger of a reclining Adam to breathe life into him.
Michelangelo Buonarroti was the artist, and the fresco is perhaps the best known of those he created in a four-year effort to cover the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Mr. King has done an excellent job of capturing the politics of Rome at the time, the corruption and the glory of the Roman Catholic Church of the early 1500s and the personal politics that drew Michelangelo, known at the time for his sculptures “The Pieta” and “David,” to take on the papal commission as a painter in a medium he was apparently little acquainted with.
The book is detailed; it includes passages that explain just how a fresco is created. Two layers of plaster are involved, a base and a second coat that is painted while still wet. Mr. King explains foreshortening ― the artistic technique that is necessary to make a high, arching fresco or other work of art appear natural in dimension when viewed from the floor far below.
The book is fascinating in other respects. Mr. King does not spare his protagonist from comments about his ego and irascibility and how that temperament brought on some of his difficulties on himself.
He debunks a myth or two ― Michelangelo did not paint the fresco lying on his back suspended below the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling ― and he explains why that common misconception is just that.
And there are some art lessons for the non-artistically inclined as well. Michelangelo developed a new style of art, robust, anatomically correct scenes of heroes striving against adversity with muscles bunched and heaving. It was, as King documents, a style that brought other painters to his side in recognition of the power that such imagery evoked.
But Michelangelo’s struggles with Pope Julius II, a warmongering gourmand only slightly less corrupt and carnal than his predecessor once removed, Alexander VI, are the major theme of the book.
The period comes alive. Mr. King has obviously invested a great deal of effort and time in his research for the book, and the results are written clearly and lucidly. The Sistine Chapel ceiling is one of mankind’s artistic treasures, and this book will help you appreciate it more.
by John Hoog
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