Sistine Chapel has been one of Rome’s chief tourist attractions ever since the day in 1512 when the weary, paint spattered Michelangelo finally unlocked the door.
(Of course the one time not to come is during a conclave, when the cardinals are sealed inside until they elect a new pope.)
What some people would claim as the greatest achievement in art, ever, by a single artist, a work of consummate vision and genius, may have been the result of petty jealousy and intrigue.
According to Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, Bramante talked Pope Julius into sending his rival Michelangelo up to the ceiling of the ungainly barn of achapel built by his della Rovere kinsman, Sixtus IV.
Some of the finest painters of the Renaissance had already decorated the walls with a beautiful series on the Old Testament, but the vast ceiling had only a simple pattern of Stars.
Bramante hoped Michelangelo would refuse the commission and anger the pig- headed Pope, or else fritter away the time he needed to work on the tomb.
Michelangelo hated the idea, but Julius was adamant, and in 1508, he reluctantly agreed to get out his brushes.
The Pope, like most Renaissance patrons, required only some virtuoso interior decoration: until then, ceiling frescoes had been simple small- scale decorations.
No one can say what drove Michelangelo to create a masterpiece instead: the fear of wasting his time, the challenge of an impossible task, or maybe just to spite Bramante and Julius-he exasperated the Pope by making him wait four long years, and refused all demands that he hire some assistants. ‘When will You finish? railed Julius. ‘When I can, the equally stubborn Michelangelo invariably replied.
The Pope was ready to hurl him off the scaffolding when Michelangelofinally agreed to forego the highlights in gold and blue and let Julius showRome and the world what he had got for his 3000 ducats: no mere illustration from the Scriptures, but the way the Old Testament looks in the deepest recesses of the imagination.
Centuries of candle smoke slowly darkened Michelangelo’s masterpiece, as well as incidents like that which occurred at the conclave that elected John Paul I, when clouds of black smoke meant to issue from the chimney backed up into the chapel, nearly suffocating the 111 cardinals.
Now that the restorers (financed by a Japanese television network) have finished their controversial cleaning of the ceiling, it is more startling than ever. Michelangelo’s true colors have been revealed-bright yellows, sea· green, and purple, with dramatic shadowscolours no interior decorator would ever dream of using.
He totally eschewed stage props; one of the tenets of his art was that complex ideas could be expressed by the portrayal of the human body alone.
Perhaps the inspiration that kept Michelangelo suffering on the ceiling (and the physical hardship, in the heat and cold, was extreme; it is said that after painting he could only read letters by holding them over his head) was the chance of distilling from the book of Genesis and his own genius an entirely new vocabulary of images, Christian and intellectual.
His most original innovation, the famous nude youths, or Ignudi, may well represent forms he despaired of ever having the time to sculpt; they also serve as a unique perspective device, and like the rest of the ceiling’s programme, probably have a deeper, secret meaning that would take years of inspired wondering to decipher.
Michelangelo‘s style became more daring and confident as he painted; compare The Intoxication of Noah, where he began, with the impressionistic Separation of Light and Darkness by the altar.
Most rubberneckers (and after looking up for a while, you’ll wish your neck really was made of rubber) direct their attention to the all too famous scene of the Creation of Man, perhaps the only representation of God the Fatherever painted that escapes being merely ridiculous.
Here, one might suspect that the figure is really some ageing Florentine artist, and that Michelangelo only forgot to paint the brush in his hand. Along the sides are six-toed prophets and powerful Russian masseuse Sibyls (Michelangelo never had much use for women, even as models); in the lunettes over the windows are figures of the forerunners of Christ.
The magnificent, supremely confident spirit of the High Renaissance in first bloom, when man was the measure of all things and man was a giant, never recovered from the shock of the Sack of Rome.
Seven years after that brutal event, in 1534 (22 years after the ceiling),Paul III commissioned Michelangelo to paint the harrowing LastJudgement on the altar wall; its utter disenchantment with the world is inviolent contrast with the ceiling.
The saints swarming around the beardless, implacable Christ demand vengeance on humanity for their martyrdoms, while angels come hurtling over, bearing the Cross, the crown of thorns, the pillar from Pilate’s palaceas if to remind Christ of his own passion.
Only the Virgin shows any sign of pity, but she shrinks back against her son, unable to intervene (though curiously, Michelangelo’s preliminary sketches show her actively imploring mercy).
Just below and to the right of Christ gestures a furious St Bartholomew.
To the right below him, isolated from the angels sounding the trumpets of doom, and from another group beating the condemned down to hell, is perhaps the most famous vision of despair in art, the damned soul, hugging himself, one eye uncovered and open wide in a horror beyond words; he is made doubly effective by being the only figure in the whole composition to gaze out at the viewer.
At the time of writing, restoration, also financed by Nippon, is in progress on its turgid candle-darkened surface and the fresco will remain covered until 1994.
It appears, however, that the delicate question of whether or not to remove the ‘breeches’ from the nude figures added by Daniele da Volterra (on orders from Pius IV, in 1564, the year of Michelangelo’s death) has been decided.
It is rumored that the restorers discovered there was nothing but bare plaster beneath the breeches! Presumably da Volterra scraped off the painted genitalia.
Just as well for him that the master was dead-the prudish Biagio da Cesena, Paul Ill’s secretary, dared to criticize the nudity while the artist was alive and ended up being painted in hell as Midas (entwined in a serpent’s coils, with asses’ ears). When he complained to the Pope, he received the famous reply, that had Michelangelo placed him in Purgatory he could have helped, but over Hell he had no influence.
Tour pull your eyes away from Michelangelo to take in the lovely Cosmatesque like floor, the marble screen by Mino da Fiesole, Gjovanni Da1mata, and Andrea Bregno, and the frescoes of the lives of Moses and Christ along the walls.
Among the finest are Botticelli’s The Burning Bush, Moses driving the Midianites from the well, and the Daughters of Jethro, the maidens full of Botticellian grace, and the Punishment of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, set in Rome, before the Arch of Constantine and the then-standing ruins of the Septizonium. On the other side is Ghirlandaio’s Calling of Peter and Andrew and Perugino’s Christ donating the keys to St Peter, set before an idealRenaissance temple.
There are two famous rooms off the Sistine Chapel, Bernini’s and Paul Brill’s Sala Ducaleand the Sala Paolina, with two of Michelangelo’s last frescoes, though to see them you need special permission from the governor of Vatican City.
From the Sistine you enter the lower floor of Bramante’s long corridor, the Library Gallery, lined with the cupboards holding some of the Vatican Library’s million books, and tens of thousands of manuscripts and incunabula.
The core of the collection dates back to the humanist Pope Nicholas V.
The most precious and secret were removed in 1983 to a bunker some 40 feet underground, but many unique possessions are on display, such as the 16th-century maps in the Gallery of Urban VIII, and Bramante’s wooden machine for stamping the papal seal, or bollo, on documents and a fresco showing the erection of the obelisk in Piazza S. Pietro in 1585, an operation masterminded by Sixtus V’s favorite architect, Domenico Fontana. Fontana was also responsible for the enormous, lavishly decorated Salone Sistina, cutting across the old Courtyard of the Belvedere.