Thursday, November 1, 2012

Quote of the Day (Giorgio Vasari, on Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel)

“When the work was uncovered everyone rushed to see it from every part and remained dumbfounded. The Pope, being thus encouraged to greater designs, richly rewarded Michelangelo, who sometimes said in speaking of the great favours showered upon him by the Pope that he fully recognised his powers, and if he sometimes used hard words, he healed them by signal gifts and favours. Thus, when Michelangelo once asked leave to go and spend the feast of St. John in Florence, and requested money for this, the Pope said, ‘When will this chapel be ready?’ ‘When I can get it done, Holy Father.’ The Pope struck him with his mace, repeating, ‘When I can, when I can, I will make you finish it!’ Michelangelo, however, returned to his house to prepare for his journey to Florence, when the Pope sent Cursio, his chamberlain, with five hundred crowns to appease him and excuse the Pope, who feared what Michelangelo might do. As Michelangelo knew the Pope, and was really devoted to him, he laughed, especially as such things always turned to this advantage, and the Pope did everything to retain his good-will.”—Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists (1550)

Say what you want about Pope Julius II (and in a prior post, I said quite a lot about this “warrior pope,” little if any of it complimentary). But one look at this image also says this: you have to give him credit for knowing genius when he saw it.

On All Saints Day in 1512, Michelangelo Buonarroti staggered the world of the Renaissance when his work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was exhibited to the public for the first time.

When the artist completed it, his immediate sensation might have been sheer physical relief. As Vasari, the fine artist who gave us even finer biographical sketches of the great paints and sculptors of the time, put it: “Michelangelo had to stand with his head thrown back, and he so injured his eyesight that for several months he could only read and look at designs in that posture.” (For someone like myself with a severe fear of heights, it’s equally daunting that he did all of this work atop a 60-ft. scaffold.)

The artist’s second feeling might have been sweet vindication in the game of artistic and Vatican politics. In his section on this great work of art, Vasari notes that the commission resulted from a booby trap laid by an enemy, the architect Donato Bramante. At least some modern scholars have disputed Vasari’s contentions (evidently held by Michelangelo himself) that a) Bramante was a kinsman of Raphael, and b) that the two, in an effort to undermine a rival for patronage, convinced Julius to hire the sculptor in an area where he felt less sure of himself: painting. (Michelangelo really wanted to do the tomb of the pontiff.) Nevertheless, Michelangelo felt angry enough about these two that he was still complaining three decades later that they caused the only troubles he ever had with the pope.

Reams of art criticism have been created about the Sistine Chapel over the past 500 years, but I think Michelangelo might have best enjoyed reading about himself in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s travelogue Italian Journey (1816), in which the titan of German letters admits that he had grown “so enthusiastic about Michelangelo that I have lost all my taste for Nature, since I cannot see her with the same eye of genius as he did.”

Here’s the part that would have brought a smile to the competitive artist’s lips: “From the chapel we went to the loggias of Raphael, and, though I hardly dare admit it, I could not look at them any longer. After being dilated and spoiled by Michelangelo’s great forms, my eye took no pleasure in the ingenious frivolities of Raphael’s arabesques, and his Biblical stories, beautiful as they are, do not stand up against Michelangelo’s.”

One of my memories as a kid was watching the 1965 film adaptation of Irving Stone’s biographical novel of the creation of the Sistine Chapel, The Agony and the Ecstasy, with Charlton Heston as Michelangelo and Rex Harrison as Julius. What sticks in my mind (indelibly, because it was repeated ad nauseum) was the pontiff’s importunate question—When will you make an end?”—and the artist’s equally disgusted response—“When I am finished!”

Through five centuries, millions of visitors to the site—and even more who have beheld it through lavishly illustrated books or some visual medium—are likely to agree that the wait was worth it.

(The image here is, of course, a detail of the great fresco from the ceiling on The Creation of Adam.)

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