MichelangeloMichelangelo (baptized Michelagnolo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni) was born on 6 March 1475 in the remote hamlet of Caprese in the Apennines, where his father was podestà (governor). He was brought up in Florence and the nearby village of Settignano. Although later in life he claimed to be self-taught, he had some artistic training in the workshop of Domenico and Davide Ghirlandaio. (Vasari says that he did not begin his apprenticeship until April 1488 when, already thirteen, he would have been three years older than average; but there is documentary evidence that his association with the Ghirlandaio workshop had begun by June 1487.) He may well have worked in some capacity on Ghirlandaio’s great cycle of frescoes in the choir of Santa Maria Novella (1485-90), but attempts to identify his possible contributions now seem to have been abandoned. He left the Ghirlandaio workshop before the end of his contract to study sculpture under the tutelage of the ageing Bertolo di Giovanni, a former assistant of Donatello, in an informal art school set up by Lorenzo de’ Medici in the Medici gardens near San Marco. Lorenzo is said to have taken the teenager into his own household, and given him an allowance of five ducats a month and a violet robe to wear.
In the political troubles that were soon to lead to the fall of the Medici, Michelangelo left Florence in October 1494, visiting Venice briefly and then settling for a year in Bologna, where he worked on the Arca di San Domenico. After returning home for about six months, he visited Rome for the first time in 1496, carving the famous Pietà in St Peter’s in 1498-99. He then returned to Florence, where he carved the David (1501-4) and prepared a cartoon for a huge fresco for the Palazzo Vecchio of the Battle of Cascina (1504-5) which was never painted. He was called to Rome in 1505 to build a tomb for Julius II, a massive project that occupied him off and on for almost forty years but was never satisfactorily completed. In 1508-12 he frescoed the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In 1516 he returned again to Florence to work for the Medici on a series of projects for their family church of San Lorenzo: a design for the façade that was never executed; the construction of the New Sacristy and the sculpture for the Medici tombs within; and the building of the Laurentian Library above the cloister. Work on these commissions was suspended after the flight of the Medici from Florence in 1527, and Michelangelo, who was sympathetic to the republican cause, was involved in planning the city’s defences against the troops of Charles V. When the city capitulated in 1530, he lay low for a time (he is said to have hidden in the tower of San Niccolò sopr’Arno), but he resumed work for the Medici after a pardon from Clement VII.
In 1534 he returned to Rome, and spent the rest of his career there under the patronage of successive Popes. He painted the Last Judgement on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in 1536-41 and two frescoes for the Cappella Paolina, Paul III’s new private chapel, in 1542-50. For the last twenty-odd years of his life he was active chiefly as an architect, working on the remodelling of the Capitoline Hill, the completion of the Palazzo Farnese and the rebuilding of St Peter’s. He died on 18 February 1564. His body was smuggled out of Rome by his nephew Lionardo and, after a sumptuous public funeral in the Medici church of San Lorenzo, was buried in Santa Croce. His tomb was designed by Vasari. Michelangelo’s reputation and influence were enormous in his lifetime. Contemporaries called him ‘divine’, and Vasari planned his great history to culminate in the Life of Michelangelo as the greatest artist of all time.
His principal paintings are the three great works in fresco in the Vatican. During the whole of his long career, he painted only a handful of panel pictures. A youthful Temptation of St Anthony, copied from an engraving by the German artist Martin Schöngauer, has been controversially identified by some art historians with a panel acquired in 2009 by the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth. A Leda and the Swan, painted in 1530 for the Duke of Ferrara, is lost, but several copies exist (including one sometimes ascribed to Rosso in the London National Gallery and a marble copy by Ammanati in the Bargello). An unfinished Entombment in London has been identified with an altarpiece commissioned in 1500 for the Roman church of Sant’Agostino, but the attribution is disputed. The only securely documented surviving panel picture by Michelangelo is the Tondo Doni in the Uffizi.
Many pictures were painted from his designs by other artists. Sometimes Michelangelo was personally involved in this practice, supplying other artists with drawings for specific commissions. (For example, he provided Sebastiano del Piombo with a cartoon for the Lamentation in Viterbo and Pontormo with the cartoons for the paintings of Noli Me Tangere and Venus and Cupid.) But in many cases (eg. Marcello Venusti’s numerous small-scale painted copies of Michelangelo’s drawings and frescoes), there is no evidence of any collaboration.
‘Tondo Doni’. Wood, 120 in dia.
The only certain panel painting by Michelangelo. It was painted for Agnolo di Francesco Doni, perhaps on the occasion of his marriage to Maddalena Strozzi in late 1503/early 1504 or the birth of their first child in September 1507. Doni was the same rich Florentine merchant who commissioned Raphael to paint portraits of himself and his wife (Pitti Palace). He lived near the Buonarroti in the Santa Croce quarter of the city. The large tondo was presumably intended for the chapel of his new town house on Via San Niccolò. Vasari recounts how Doni haggled in miserly fashion over the price and was ultimately forced to pay 140 ducats rather than the 70 originally agreed. The picture has been given widely differing interpretations. Some have seen the Christ Child, lifted up by his parents, as being represented as conqueror and king. Others have seen an allusion to the Doni name, with Mary asking Joseph to ‘give’ her her son. The five naked youths in the rocky landscape, leaning or sitting on the edge of a curious stone (?) tank, have been variously interpreted as men preparing for baptism, as angels (possibly an allusion to Doni’s Christian name), as prophets who foretold the coming of Christ, as vices and virtues, and as athletes in a stadium representing the pagan world. Attempts have been made to relate their poses to antique sculptures, including the famous Laocoön (discovered in 1506 in Nero’s Domus Aurea). The meticulously painted panel was executed in the traditional medium of egg tempera rather than in oil; the metallic colour appears even brighter since cleaning. The picture was still in the Casa Doni in 1595, but by 1635 it was in the Tribuna of the Uffizi. The magnificent original frame – with the Doni device, the three crescents of the Strozzi arms and five busts worked into the carving – was transferred early on to a tondo by Lorenzo di Credi and reunited with Michelangelo’s panel only in 1905.
Fort Worth. Kimbell Art Museum.
Temptation of St Anthony. Wood, 47 x 35.
According to both Condivi and Vasari, the adolescent Michelangelo painted a copy on panel of a print of the Temptation of St Anthony by the German engraver Martin Schöngauer. The demons’ scales, fins and eyes were said to have been copied from fish that Michelangelo had studied in the local market. Neither Condivi nor Vasari says what happened to the painting. Though sometimes presented as a new discovery, the panel now owned by the Kimbell Art Museum attracted a good deal of attention in the nineteenth century. It was acquired in 1837 by the French sculptor Baron Henri de Triqueti from the Galleria Scorzi in Pisa, and was accepted as Michelangelo’s original by some connoisseurs (including Sir Charles Eastlake, who saw it in 1859), but by no means all. It was exhibited as a work of Michelangelo in Paris in 1874. After Triqueti’s death, it was inherited by his daughter and then given, early in the twentieth century, to Sir Paul Harvey of London. It was kept privately by Harvey’s family and largely forgotten. Offered as a work of Michelangelo at Sotheby’s in 1960, it failed to sell. Reattributed to the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio, it fetched nearly £1 million when auctioned at Sotheby’s in July 2008. The purchaser, an American dealer, lent it to the Metropolitan Museum for cleaning and technical analysis, and then sold it in May 2009 to the Kimbell Museum for an undisclosed sum (reputed to be in excess of $6 million). The museum’s sensational claim that it had acquired ‘Michelangelo’s first painting’ was supported by some prominent American art historians (including Keith Christiansen and Everett Fahy). Other experts were sceptical. Published opinions on the attribution are few so far. But, since there is no way of knowing how Michelangelo handled paint as a twelve or thirteen year old, it is difficult to see how the issue can be settled. Another painted copy of Schöngauer’s print was in the Bianconi collection at Bologna. While the Bianconi version was painted in oil, the Kimbell one used mixed media (tempera for the landscape and flesh tones and oil for the demons).
The Kimbell panel was included, with a full attribution to Michelangelo, in the exhibition Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer held at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, in 2017-18.
Holkham Hall (Norfolk).
Battle of Cascina (‘The Bathers’). Wood, 56 x 130.
A much-reproduced copy of all or part of one of Michelangelo’s most famous compositions – his cartoon for the fresco commissioned for the newly built Sala del Gran Consiglio of the Palazzo Vecchio. The fresco, which was to occupy one half of one of the long walls and to have Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari as its pendant, was abandoned in March 1505, when Julius II summoned Michelangelo to Rome. The original cartoon was probably cut up by 1519, and none of the fragments is known to have survived. Its subject, the Battle of Cascina, was fought in 1364 between Florence and Pisa. An episode is depicted at the beginning of the battle, when the Florentine troops, bathing in the Arno, were warned by one of their commanders, Manno Danati, that the enemy Pisans were approaching. The grisaille panel at Holkham Hall is usually attributed to Aristotile da Sangallo (nephew of the architects Giuliano and Antonio da Sangallo). Vasari says that Aristotile in his youth made a small drawing of Michelangelo’s whole cartoon, from which, many years later in 1542, he made a painted copy in oils, which was sent to Francis I of France.
Liverpool. Walker Art Gallery.
Christ and the Woman of Samaria. Wood, 78 x 69.
A highly finished drawing in bistre ink on a greenish-brown ground. Very damaged. The poplar panel has warped and split. The subject is from John's Gospel (iv: 5-25). Stopping to rest at Jacob's well in Samaria, Christ talked to a sinful woman, using the well water as a metaphor for salvation. He is shown seated on the edge of the well, gesturing towards the woman, who holds a bucket and rope. Michelangelo drew 'a woman of Samaria' for Vittoria Colonna, who mentions it in a letter dated July 1542 (or 1543). The Liverpool drawing has been sometimes supposed to be the original, and is described as 'attributed to Michelangelo' in the museum catalogue. It is, however, more usually regarded as an old copy. According to an 1801 sale catalogue, it came from the collection of the King of Naples at Capodimonte. It was acquired around 1811 by William Roscoe – the Liverpudlian banker, politician, abolitionist, historian, botonist, gardener, children's writer and collector, who owned some twenty-seven drawings attributed to Michelangelo – and was presented to the new Liverpool Royal Institution in 1819. There is an early engraving of MIchelangelo's composition by the French printmaker Nicolas Beatrizet. Other early copies include a small painted panel attributed to Marcello Venusti at Siena and a fresco by Daniele da Volterra on the ceiling of the Stanza di Cleopatra at the Vatican.
London. National Gallery.
The Entombment. Wood, 161 x 149.
The figures have not been identified with certainty. The three supporting Christ’s body are probably St John the Evangelist (in red on the left), Joseph of Arimathea (behind) and one of the three Maries (Magdalene, Cleophas or Salome). The figure in outline, bottom right, was probably intended to be the Virgin Mary. The women kneeling on the left and standing on the right are probably the other two of the three Maries. The head and body of Christ are related to those of the famous marble Pietà of 1498-99 in St Peter’s, while the head of Joseph of Arimathea resembles that of Joseph in the Tondo Doni of around 1504-7. A chalk drawing in the Louvre of a woman on her knees, nude and holding nails and a crown of thorns, has been claimed as a study for the figure kneeling on the left.
The unfinished and damaged panel painting was identified by Michael Hirst (October 1981 Burlington Magazine) with an altarpiece known (from Michelangelo’s statements of account with the Balducci bank) to have been commissioned in September 1500 for a chapel in the church of Sant’Agostino at Rome, and abandoned when Michelangelo returned to Florence the following year. The chapel (first on the left, where Caravaggio’s Madonna del Popolo now hangs) was dedicated to the Pietà. The implied dating of 1500-1 is several years earlier than had been suggested by most critics on stylistic grounds.
Unlike the Tondo Doni, Michelangelo’s only certain panel picture, the Entombment is painted in oil. It is first securely recorded (with an attribution to Michelangelo) in 1649 in the Farnese collection at Rome. It passed into the collection of Cardinal Joseph Fesch in Napoleonic times, and was acquired by Robert Macpherson, a British painter working in Rome, when Fesch’s vast collection was dispersed in the mid-1840s. (According to conflicting accounts, Macpherson picked it up ‘dirt cheap’ from a dealer, he discovered it in the workshop of a carpenter who was about to make a table from it, or he found it in a market being used as a street barrow or fish stall.) Macpherson smuggled it out of Rome after a lawsuit, and sold it to the National Gallery in 1868 for £2,000.
The attribution has long been controversial; today it is quite widely accepted, but by no means universally so. An argument against the attribution is that one would not have expected a work by an artist of MIchelangelo's fame to have escaped notice. None of MIchelangelo's biographers or contemporaries mentions an unfinished Entombment by him, and there are no early copies or engravings (apart from an anonymous pen sketch in the Biblioteca Comunale at Siena). Over the years, specific alternative attributions have been made to Baccio Bandinelli (Michelangelo’s rival who, according to Vasari, painted an unfinished Entombment in about 1527 for the Florentine church of Cestello), Antonio Mini (Michelangelo’s servant and pupil from 1523 to 1531), Battista Franco (a Venetian, whose Mannerist paintings in Rome and Florence were heavily indebted to Michelangelo), and the ‘Master of the Manchester Madonna’ (a hypothetical artist in Michelangelo’s circle, named after another National Gallery painting). None of these suggestions has attracted significant support.
The ‘Manchester Madonna’. Wood, 105 x 76.
The Madonna keeps from the Child the scripture that prophecies his death. Two angels on the right examine a scroll, perhaps given to them by the infant Baptist dressed in an animal skin. Two other angels on the left are barely sketched in with green underpaint. In the finished picture, the Baptist would probably have held a reed cross in his right hand and the scroll might have borne the traditional inscription Ecce Agnus Dei. Opinion is divided on whether this unfinished picture is by Michelangelo himself, by an assistant working from his design, or by an unidentified follower or imitator. If authentic, it would have to be very early. It has been tentatively linked with a payment made to Michelangelo in June 1497 at the beginning of his first trip to Rome, but it has sometimes been dated even earlier, around 1495-96, when Michelangelo returned to Florence from Bologna. Like the Tondo Doni, it is painted mainly in tempera; the technique is similar to that practised by Ghirlandaio’s workshop, where Michelangelo trained. The picture is first mentioned (with an attribution to Michelangelo) at the end of the seventeenth century in the Villa Borghese at Rome. It was picked up during the Napoleonic upheavals by Alexander Day, an English painter and dealer active in Italy, who sold it in London in 1833. It caused a sensation when it was exhibited by Lord Taunton at the great Art Treasures Exhibition at Manchester in 1857; hence its popular title. It was bought by the National Gallery from Lord Taunton’s executors in 1870 for £2,000. Around the turn of the twentieth century, it was sometimes attributed to Giuliano Bugiardini (a contemporary of Michelangelo in Ghirlandaio’s workshop and briefly his assistant on the Sistine Ceiling). It was later grouped with four or five other Michelangelesque paintings as works of the so-called ‘Master of the Manchester Madonna’. (This hypothetical master, created by Roberto Longhi in 1941, was later tentatively identified as Piero or Pietro d’Argenti, a close assistant of Michelangelo from about 1497 to 1509.) The other paintings in the group (which includes a circular Madonna in the Vienna Academy and a Pietà in the Galleria Nazionale at Rome) are similar in style to the Manchester Madonna but markedly inferior to it.
London. British Museum.
'Epifania'. Paper, 233 x 166.
The only large cartoon by Michelangelo to survive complete. It was drawn in Rome in the early 1550s, when Michelangelo was in his mid-seventies, and was used for a painting by Ascanio Condivi, his servant and biographer. Condivi's picture (feeble and unfinished) is preserved in the Casa Buonarroti at Florence. The cartoon, done in black chalk on twenty-six sheets of paper joined together, appears to have been executed in some haste: there are many pentimenti and the outlines have been much reworked. The surface is now somewhat abraded, the chalk is badly rubbed in places, and a strip of some 20-25 cm. is missing from the left edge. The subject is mysterious. The title 'Epifania' ('Epiphany') was used in an inventory of Michelangelo's possessions drawn up after his death; it is the name by which the cartoon is still known, although the Three Magi are clearly not represented. The central figure is obviously the Virgin and the aged bearded man, with arms crossed, on her left has always been called Joseph. She appears to be pushing him away (a gesture that has often been interpreted as signifying the protection of her virginity). The infant Baptist, wearing a lion pelt, peers round the Virgin's left leg at the Christ Child, who is asleep on a cushion between the Virgin's legs. The young man speaking to the Virgin and gesturing with his left hand has not been conclusively identified. (He was called St Julian in an old inventory and has been called the prophet Isaiah and St John the Evangelist by modern writers.) Several other heads are summarily sketched in the background. The identification (proposed by Ernst Gombrich) of these background bystanders with Joseph's children by his first marriage has not gained general acceptance. After Michelangelo's death, the cartoon passed into the hands of the Roman humanist Fulvio Orsini. Later owners included Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga, Lucien Bonaparte and the painter Sir Thomas Lawrence. In 1860 the cartoon was bought at Christie's by the Scottish collector John Malcolm for the absurdly low price of £11 0s 6d. Donated by Malcolm's son to the British Museum in 1895.
Portrait of Andrea Quaratesi. Paper, 42 x 29.
This highly finished chalk drawing (now somewhat rubbed and retouched) is Michelangelo's only known portrait from life. The youthful sitter, Andrea Quaratesi (1512-85), was the scion of a wealthy Florentine banking family. It has been deduced from an inscription ('Andrea, have patience') on a drawing now in Oxford that Michelangelo had given him drawing lessons. Vasari does not mention the portrait, which must date from the late 1520s or early 1530s. There are other versions in the Uffizi, Louvre and Boymans Museum (Rotterdam). The Uffizi version, which is drawn in red rather than black chalk, bears a label written by one of Quaratesi's grandsons stating that it is a copy by Carlo Dolce of Michelangelo's original drawing, which the family still owned. The British Museum version was attributed to Michelangelo before its acquisition in 1895 (J. C. Robinson's 1876 catalogue of John Malcolm's collection). It was later given to Bronzino, but was returned to Michelangelo in Johannes Wilde's 1953 catalogue of Michelangelo's drawings in the British Museum. Most (though not quite all) subsequent opinion has accepted the drawing as Michelangelo's original.
Oxford. Ashmolean Museum.
Holy Family with St John. Wood, 62 x 50.
A brush drawing, executed in brown ink on a green ground. While the figures are clearly the Virgin Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child (restrained by a band of cloth) and the infant John the Baptist, the precise subject is obscure. It has been sometimes called the Return of the Holy Family from Egypt. The panel, presently exhibited as 'attributed to Michelangelo', might be either an unfinished design executed by Michelangelo himself or a copy or variant by another hand of a lost design by the great artist. Once in the collection of the KIng of Naples, it was acquired during the Napoleonic upheavals by the English writer and collector William Young Ottley, and subsequently passed into the great collection of the painter Sir Thomas Lawrence. It was among a large number of drawings from Lawrence's collection – mainly attributed to or associated with MIchelangelo and Raphael – gifted to the Universities of Oxford by public subscription in 1846.
Rome. Vatican. Sistine Chapel.
Old Testament Subjects. Ceiling fresco, 3400 x 1300.
In the centre of the vault are nine rectangular panels illustrating from Genesis the Creation, Fall and Deluge. Beginning at the altar end (though the scenes were painted in the reverse order), these are: Separation of Light from Darkness; Creation of the Sun, Moon and Planets; Separation of Land and Sea and Creation of the Fishes and Birds; Creation of Adam (one of the most famous images in the world); Creation of Eve (one of several scenes possibly influenced by Jacopo della Quercia’s bas-reliefs on the doorway of San Petronio in Bologna); Temptation and Expulsion from Paradise (the serpent with a human head and body); Sacrifice of Noah (called the Sacrifice of Cain and Abel by both Condivi and Vasari); the Flood (damaged in 1797 by an explosion in the Castel Sant’Angelo); and the Drunkenness of Noah (the figure of the reclining patriarch inspired by Roman river gods).
In the corners of the illusionistic architecture framing these central scenes, ten pairs of male nude youths (ignudi) are seated on plinths. They hold or are draped with ribbons and garlands (the bundles of oak leaves and clusters of acorns alluding to the Della Rovere coat-of-arms) and flank large medallions painted like bronze (mainly representing subjects taken from the Old Testament books of the Maccabees). It is uncertain whether they are mere decorative or heraldic figures (Vasari says they symbolise the ‘golden age’ of Julius II), whether their purpose is primarily artistic (providing an opportunity for Michelangelo to demonstrate his extraordinary virtuosity in depicting the male nude in complicated poses), or whether they have some deeper meaning (eg. as angels acting as intermediaries between the divine and human realms).
On the lower curved part of the ceiling, colossal figures of Hebrew prophets and pagan sibyls are enthroned in square architectural niches and attended by ‘genii’ (spirits of inspiration or prophecy). Jonah (shown with his fish in a pose of virtuoso foreshortening) is represented above the altar and Zechariah (leafing through a book) above the entrance at the other end of the chapel. Above the sidewalls, prophets and sibyls alternate. On the left (beginning at the altar end) are: Jeremiah in deep contemplation; the elderly, hunched Persian Sibyl reading myopically from a book; Ezekiel with a scroll of prophecies; the Erythraean Sibyl with a ‘genius’ lighting her lamp; and Joel reading from a scroll. On the right wall (again beginning at the altar end) are: the majestic Libyan Sibyl taking down an enormous book from the ledge behind her; Daniel writing; the immensely old and muscular Cumaean Sibyl; Isaiah interrupted from profound thought by a ‘genius’; and the youthful Delphic Sibyl caught wide-eyed in a moment of prophetic revelation.
In the concave triangular corner pendentives are four more Old Testament scenes. The violent subjects are all examples of the deliverance through faith and divine intervention of the chosen people from mortal danger. The Brazen Serpent and the Punishment of Haman at the altar end were probably paired as prefiguring the Crucifixion and the Redemption of Mankind. (Haman is crucified, as described in the Divine Comedy, rather than hanged as in the Book of Esther.) David and Goliath and Judith and Holofernes (the head of Holofernes on a platter probably a self-portrait) at the other end of the chapel are commonly paired as decapitation scenes representing the triumph of virtue in the face of overwhelming odds. .
In the fourteen semi-circular lunettes over the windows and eight triangular spandrels are figures representing the Ancestors of Christ (from the genealogy at the beginning of St Matthew’s Gospel). The first seven of the forty Ancestors (beginning with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) were represented in two lunettes on the altar wall, which were destroyed when Michelangelo painted his Last Judgement.
The Sistine Chapel had been built and decorated a quarter of a century earlier. It is often assumed that in the early 1480s, when Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Rosselli and others frescoed the walls, the ceiling was painted in a traditional manner with gold stars on a blue background. (A design by Piermatteo d’Amelia for such a decoration is preserved in the Uffizi, but it is not known whether it was ever carried out.) A serious crack running from the northwest corner of the ceiling had to be repaired in 1504, and by May 1506 Julius II was considering plans for the ceiling. It is known from one of Michelangelo’s letters that the original projects were for something rather simple: an illusionistic architectural structure with figures of the twelve apostles. It is not known whether the final, extraordinarily elaborate, programme was drawn up by Michelangelo himself or supplied by a theological advisor at the Papal Court.
Michelangelo started work on 10 May 1508. The first half of the ceiling (that nearest the entrance) was completed in September 1510. After a lengthy interruption while fresh scaffolding was put up, work was resumed in summer 1511, and on 31 March 1512 the whole ceiling was officially unveiled. As the work progressed, the frescoes became simpler and grander – the figures larger, the execution freer and bolder, and the colour less variegated. Michelangelo seems to have painted the 500 square metres of ceiling virtually single-handedly. At least six other painters (including Francesco Granacci, Giuliano Bugiardini and Aristotile da Sangallo) were involved in the early stages; but Vasari claims that Michelangelo dismissed them all after just a few months. An analysis of Michelangelo’s bank accounts confirms that he employed assistants only for more menial tasks – preparing the ground and mixing the pigments – and not for the actual painting. Michelangelo’s total fee seems to have been a little over 3,000 ducats.
Later in the sixteenth century, there were already references to the blackening of the ceiling by candle smoke and damage from cracking. As early as 1566-71, the Modenese painter Domenico Carnevali restored several of the scenes (including the Sacrifice of Noah, which had been damaged by the loosening of plaster). Early attempts at cleaning the ceiling used linen cloths and coarse bread (1625) and sponges dipped in Greek wine (1710-13). A limited restoration in 1935-38 removed only some of the centuries-long accumulation of soot and dirt. The much-publicised restoration of 1980-90 sensationally revealed the brilliant colour and vivid contrasts of tone, but also stirred up bitter controversy. Convinced that the ceiling was painted almost exclusively in traditional buon fresco, and not ‘half fresco’ or in resinous glazes as had sometimes been claimed, the restorers applied solvents that took the ceiling largely back to the pigment-impregnated plaster. Critics of the restoration claimed that, as well as dirt and the additions of earlier restorations, cleaning removed retouchings, alterations and tonal glazes that Michelangelo had applied a secco (ie. after the plaster had dried), leaving the frescoes looking brighter and flatter than Michelangelo had intended. Those holding this view seemed at first to be only a small minority, prevailing opinion being that the restoration had brought the ceiling much closer to its original appearance. However, criticism of the restoration has continued, led by the pressure group ArtWatch.
Last Judgement. Fresco on altar wall, 1375 x 1225.
In the two lunettes at the top, swirling angels bear instruments of the Passion (the cross, crown of thorns and nails on the left; the column, ladder and stick with the sponge on the right). In the upper centre, the beardless Christ appears as judge, raising his right hand in an omnipotent gesture. The Virgin sits on his right, averting her eyes from the terrible scene. Relatively few of the saints, prophets and patriarchs that throng all around them can be positively identified. Several hold the instruments of their martyrdom, including Lawrence (gridiron), Bartholomew (knife), Blaise (carding combs), Catherine (broken wheel), Simon (saw), Sebastian (arrows) and possibly Andrew and Dismas (crosses). Michelangelo is thought to have caricatured his own features on the flayed skin held by St Bartholomew (who is said to be a portrait of Pietro Aretino). St Peter, holding the keys, may be a portrait of Pope Paul III. Below Christ, angels sound the last trump and hold up the Book of Life and the (much larger) Book of Death. On the left, angels help the chosen upwards towards heaven. On the right, demons drag the damned downwards towards hell. At the mouth of hell are the boat of Charon (as in Dante’s description) and Minos, the guide to the infernal regions, with asses’ ears and a serpent wound around his body. According to Vasari, Minos has the features of Biagio da Cesena, who objected to the nudity of the figures.
The fresco was commissioned in 1534 by Pope Clement VII, but was executed during the reign of Paul III. It was originally planned around Perugino’s existing frescoed altarpiece of the Assumption of the Virgin; but it was later decided to destroy Perugino’s fresco and obliterate two lunettes frescoed earlier by Michelangelo himself. The scaffolding was put up in April 1535. The wall was initially prepared, under the direction of Sebastiano del Piombo, for painting in oil, but was replastered for buon fresco. The final painting was unveiled on 31 October (All Saints’ Day) 1541.
There were calls for censorship even before it was finished, and in January 1564 the Council of Trent ordered the covering of figures considered indecent. Two figures (St Catherine and St Blaise) were reworked a fresco by Daniele da Volterra and others were covered a secco by loincloths. The prudish additions continued, and by the nineteenth century about forty figures had been given loincloths or animal skins. Cleaning in 1990-94 removed the layers of incense and dust and the glues and retouchings from earlier restorations that had made the fresco very dark. The sixteenth-century additions were left, but later draperies were generally removed. Early prints (notably those made on ten plates by the Mantuan engraver Giorgio Ghisi around 1545-50) and a small painted copy by Marcello Venusti (commissioned by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in 1549 and now in the Capodimonte at Naples) show the fresco in its original state with male genitalia exposed.
Rome. Vatican. Cappella Paolina.
The Cappella Paolina, the Pope’s private chapel, was built by Antonio da Sangallo for Paul III and consecrated in January 1540. It was intended to hold the conclaves of the College of Cardinals at which new Popes were elected. Michelangelo’s frescoes – representing St Paul, the Pope’s namesake, and St Peter, his earliest predecessor – are on the two sidewalls. Previously dark, and retouched in parts (particularly the landscapes), they were restored in 2004-9. They are rather little known, as the chapel is not easy to visit (a special permit must be obtained from the governor of the Vatican City).
Conversion of St Paul. Fresco, 627 x 663.
Christ, emanating divine light, plunges down through a host of naked angels, his right hand extended towards Saul and his left pointing towards Damascus (just visible on the extreme right; the walls, turrets and basilicas have been revealed by restoration). The representation of the blinded Saul as an old man with a forked white beard, rather than a young man as in the Bible story, is sometimes taken to be a reference to the bearded Paul III. His tormented face appears to have Michelangelo’s own features. Because of difficulties over the contract for Julius II’s tomb, work on the frescoes seems to have been delayed until late 1542. The Pope viewed the finished fresco of the Conversion of St Paul on 12 July 1545. Technical examination suggests that it was executed in 85 giornate (days of work). The upper part has been damaged by sunlight from the lunette window opposite.
Crucifixion of St Peter. Fresco, 627 x 665.
The saint glares at the spectator as the cross is raised. The hunched giant (so-called ‘blind pilgrim’) on the right with crossed arms is possibly a self-portrait, as is the figure on horseback in a blue turban towards the top left corner. The subject is an unusual companion to the Conversion of St Paul. There may have been a change of plan, since in the first (1550) edition of his Lives Vasari says that Michelangelo would follow the Conversion with the Giving of the Keys. Work on the fresco was underway by March 1546. It was finished ‘with great effort and fatigue’ (Vasari) in March 1550, when Michelangelo was seventy-five years old. It was executed in 87 giornate. St Peter’s loincloth and the nails are later additions. A large fragment of a cartoon for the fresco, showing the rear view of the three soldiers in the bottom left corner, is preserved in the Capodimonte at Naples.