A legend-busting, richly detailed account of the four-year making of the Sistine Chapel frescos.
When Pope Julius II wasn’t riding off to subdue some unfortunate neighbor during the endless Papal Wars, he was hounding poor Michelangelo—“When will you have this chapel finished?”—to make good on his three-thousand-ducat commission and reveal to an expectant world the mysteries of the Creation. If you’ve put those impatient words in the mouth of Rex Harrison, who brought Julius to the screen in The Agony and the Ecstasy, you’ll know that poor Michelangelo worked alone, racked by the demons of poverty and artistic insecurity, to say nothing of the Inquisition. Not so, writes King (Domino, p. 1337, etc.). It’s not that the pope was a patient or gentle man—from time to time he gave Michelangelo a good clout, and he once threatened to throw the recalcitrant artist off his scaffolding. But Michelangelo was being paid very well for his work and had a squadron of skilled craftsmen at his disposal, and it was they, not he, who spent years on their backs staring up at the ceiling, paintbrush in hand, while Michelangelo was ducking off to check on other commissions in Florence and Bologna. King supplies a richly nuanced view of Michelangelo and company’s day-to-day life in the Sistine Chapel, placing it in the context of the overall Renaissance, a time of plenty of bloodshed and intrigue, but also of extraordinary artistic accomplishment thanks to the likes of Julius, Cesare Borgia, and other noteworthy hotheads. Disputing the now accepted view that Michelangelo was gay (there is no good evidence, King argues, that he had much of any kind of sex life), King examines Michelangelo’s considerable virtues and quirks—one of which, his understandable desire not to show a work until it was done, was to get him into much trouble with his eminent patron.
Readers looking for the lite version of this tale may still want to fire up the VCR and watch Charlton Heston chew the scenery. Those seeking a richer understanding of Renaissance art-making will find this a pleasure.