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The Renaissance Rat Race
Artists have times, seemingly, when they can't give their work away and others when they have so many patrons clamouring for their time and efforts that it would seem to come close to driving them mad. Of course those artists with time on their hands envy those without it, and probably the reverse is true at least in part. Imagine if you will the situation Michelangelo found himself in 1508, with the death of Julius II, just four months after the completion of the greatest painting ever executed on a ceiling (or anywhere else for that matter). There was need for the dead pope's oft-postponed tomb, yet there was the pontiff's money-grubbing heirs harping at its exorbitant cost and grandiose dimensions, demanding it be downsized and correspondingly reduced in price while the new, (de Medici) pope in Florence appealed to him to return to his hometown to design and build a fašade for his family's church (San Lorenzo).

His popularity was such that in returning to Florence, Michelangelo had to turn down highly attractive offers from the King of France to work in Paris and from the magistrates of Bologna for a statue. However, when he went to Carrara to select stones for the Medici Chapel fašade, he was angered to learn that bribes had been paid to the Florentine city fathers to award the contract for the stone to the quarries of Pietrasanta instead. And as that scheme came to nothing Michelangelo was ordered back to Rome to complete the unfinished frescos resulting from the death of Raphael. But before he could become involved in that project, Italy became involved in a civil war, and while Rome was being plundered, Michelangelo found himself back in Florence supervising the defences of that city. It was little wonder he suffered a panic attack and fled the whole mess. Eventually, Michelangelo managed to pull himself together and return to Florence where he completed one of his greatest sculptural efforts, the figures of the de Medici mortuary chapel in the still-fašadeless church of San Lorenzo.

Then he had to return to Rome to fulfil his contract with the heirs of Julius II for an appropriate tomb. However, he no more than got there than the Pope ordered him to destroy the Perugino frescos over the altar of the Sistine Chapel, remove two windows, and paint yet another hated fresco, this time of the Last Judgement. And for his efforts, he was much maligned by the more pious inhabitants of the papal court (especially the Master of Ceremonies), for his proclivities toward nude figures in decorating his holiness' private chapel. Michelangelo fought back by painting the man's portrait as Minos in Hades. The work was hardly completed before the controversy reached such a pitched battle that Pope Paul III ordered the offending fresco pulled down. It was saved only at the last moment when the pope was persuaded that a few strategically placed robes might make the whole thing less offensive. A quite mediocre artist, Daniele da Volterra, was chosen to perform this sacrilege, which he did so ineptly that two hundred years later, a second coat of paint had to be applied to keep the offending genitals in Michelangelo's masterpiece concealed. And you think you got problems.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
27 September 1998

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