A Mere SculptorToday we gaze in awe and amazement at even photos of the restored Sistine Chapel Ceiling, the tour-de-force that made Michelangelo Buonarroti's career as an artist and made him the star performer of the High Renaissance. Yet few are aware that this apex of Renaissance art was the result of a purported plot by the architect Donato Bramante and his protege Raphael De Urbino, to precipitate the downfall of Pope Julius II's pet sculptor.
Though the relationship between Julius and Michelangelo was a stormy one at best, with Julius at times withholding payment for work done and tossing the Florentine sculptor out on his ear when he came to His Holiness in protest, there was, nonetheless, a rapport between the two fiery personalities that resulted in the on-again-off-again planning and sculpting of a gigantic, 40-sculpture, free-standing tomb for the middle-aged pontiff which the pope, in all due modesty, planned to install directly over the tomb of St. Peter, centred under the massive dome of the cathedral Bramante was designing and had in the early stages of construction at the time.
Though outwardly acquiescent, Bramante seethed at the idea that his greatest edifice in all Christendom should be merely a shelter for this grandiloquent, wedding cake of a tomb. So, as a trusted papal advisor, he planted in the fruitful mind of the Pope the idea of correcting the clumsy proportions of Julius's uncle's Sistine architects by painting a ceiling fresco in the only Vatican chapel in operation at the time. Being "merely" a sculpture, he reasoned that Michelangelo would either flee the task of fail miserably. And both predictions proved true, initially. But the moody genius was nothing if not persistent. Inspired by the challenge, he rose to the occasion magnificently. During nearly four years of brutal effort, this "mere" sculptor lifted the art of fresco painting to a realm unmatched before or since.
Incidentally, Charleton Heston, who played Michelangelo in the film The Agony and the Ecstasy, painted the ceiling in just under an hour and a half. Of course he was paid more for his high-speed rendering.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
4 December 1997