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Monday, September 6, 2010

The Plot

Michelangelo Buonarroti
Today, we gaze in awe and amazement at even photos of the restored Sistine Chapel ceiling, the tour-de-force that cemented Michelangelo Buonarroti's reputation as an artist and 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.

Pope Julius II

Though the relationship between Pope Julius II 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.  It 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, centered under the massive dome of the new cathedral Bramante was designing and had in the early stages of construction at the time.

Pretending to acquiesce, inwardly, 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 architectural proportions of Julius's uncle's Sistine Chapel by painting a fresco on the ceiling above the only Vatican chapel in operation at the time.  The idea was to divert Michelangelo and the pope from the tomb project.

Being "merely" a sculptor, Bramante reasoned that Michelangelo would either flee the task or fail miserably. Both predictions proved true, initially. But the moody genius was nothing if not persistent. Inspired by the challenge, Michelangelo 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. Bramante's plan backfired, except that the pope's tomb ended up in an obscure, out-of-the-way church in Rome, far from Bramante's St. Peter's Cathedral.
The Creation of Adam, 1508-12, Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo
Incidentally, Charleton Heston, who played Michelangelo in the film The Agony and the Ecstasy, painted his ceiling in just under an hour and a half. Of course he was paid more for his high-speed rendering.

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