It's a familiar story: how the finest sculptor of the Italian Renaissance was coerced by the pope into a project to which he felt himself unsuited; and how after four torturous years of intense physical labor and emotional strain, he produced a masterpiece that is often regarded as the pinnacle of Renaissance art. Familiar it may be, but fascinating it is as well, especially when approached afresh by Ross King in Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling.
Not content to limit his focus to the morose artist and his infamous patron, King provides a wealth of information about 16th-century Italy, the demanding art of fresco, the pope's military campaigns, the history of the Sistine Chapel, other personalities of the day, and much more. It's a lot to cover, but he manages quite well, and he does so with a great deal of attention to detail. King also supports his assertions with credible sources and provides reasonable assessments when facts are uncertain. In the process, he punctures a few myths, tells a compelling story, and offers insight into the minds of the men that made it all happen.
Some of us may like to think that artists who can produce works of extraordinary beauty and power are somehow beyond the petty emotions of ordinary men. King reminds us that this is not so. Personally and professionally, the great masters of the Renaissance could be (and often were) arrogant, ambitious, manipulative, paranoid, self-pitying, lecherous, judgmental, stubborn, sly and obssessive. Michelangelo was no exception, and he is particularly vulnerable to the author's probing gaze.
Through letters from the artist to his family as well as period chronicles, King makes us privy to some of Michelangelo's private thoughts and opinions. These include his paranoia regarding his rival Donato Bramante, his difficulty working with craftsmen and other artists, his puritanical views of some of his fellows (including the charming and randy young Raphael) and, of course, his rocky relationship with il papa terribile, Pope Julius II.
No less significant in bringing Michelangelo's masterpiece to fruition than the artist himself, Julius was a towering figure of the Renaissance. Once again King uses credible sources to illuminate his personality. Known as "the warrior pope," Julius threw himself into a rigorous defense of the Papal States against the French and put upstart Italian cities in their place. But for all his warlike ways, he is still best known as a staunch patron of the arts, fostering not only Michelangelo but hiring Raphael to paint his rooms at the Vatican and collaborating intensively with Bramante in plans to reconstruct the city of Rome.
These men of awesome ability, unfathomable genius and superhuman stature are made human and knowable in King's book. I found it an enjoyable read, and can recommend it unreservedly. My only complaints concern the artwork; black and white photos on nicely textured paper simply cannot do the original works justice, and the prints, while vivid, are all too few. But while there are many other books (and websites) where you can view these masterpieces more clearly, nowhere else can you find the story of the Ceiling told with such depth and accessibility.