Written by – Leandro Bonan

Translated by – Giulia Cucari

Some months ago, on the bilateral meeting between Italy and Germany, the name of Michelangelo was luckily brought to attention when Matteo Renzi decided to organize the concluding press conference at the Gallerie dell’Accademia of Florence. Watching the two leaders talking while having the perfection of the 17-feet-high David by Michelangelo as a background was of great impact, and the statue has been talked about for days. Symbolizing Italian Art, the artwork was finished in 1504 during the author’s Florentine period: Michelangelo spent great part of his life in the Tuscan city, and the David – which has a smaller copy located in front of Palazzo Vecchio -proves his presence along with several other works, including the Doni Tondo currently kept at the Uffizi Gallery.


Another city where Michelangelo left his mark was Rome, precisely Vatican City, where he lived for half his life. His bond with the city is said to have began because of an attempted fraud: one of his work, a statue of Cupid unfortunately lost, had been sold at exorbitant price as an ancient artifact to cardinal Riario, nephew of Pope Sixtus VI, without Michelangelo knowing. Once the cardinal bought the Cupid, he was informed about the trick and immediately decided to speak to the artist who had been so smart to fool him (even if it happened involuntarily). Their meeting turned out to be profitable for both, therefore Riario talked about Michelangelo to his uncle, in order to find him a job; the bond between the two lead to strong jealousy and envy among the Papal Court. Despite the long breaks (some of which even lasted years) due to Buonarroti’s turbulent nature and the Court’s attempts to put him in a bad light, the artist worked consistently for the Vatican during his life.


The most famous fruit of this bond is certainly the fresco of the Sistine Chapel, which required Michelangelo eleven years of work and the loss of some diopter. Its realization was made in two different steps: he first created the Vault (1508-1515) followed by the renowned Last Judgment (1534-1541). The original scaffolding was designed by Bramante, another artist financed by the Pope who tried his best to obtain the job destined to Michelangelo, who was known only as a sculptor. Despite the former’s complaints, the latter obtained to be assigned with the task, which represented a remarkable turning point in his career. However, Michelangelo was a proud, paranoid personality, who feared that Bramante’s moving scaffolding was actually a sabotage: this is why he refused to collaborate with the most acclaimed architect of Saint Satyrus in Milan (a marvelous example of trompe l’oeil located in Via Torino), creating his own scaffolding. Originally, the Chapel’s dimensions had to resemble those of Jerusalem’s Temple, but due to Vatican City’s size (44 hectares, 23 of them occupied by the Gardens) it was later established to maintain only its proportions.


The Vault is 65.6 ft high, and since Buonarroti used to paint almost lying down facing the ceiling, he had no idea of how those gigantic figures would have looked from below. After the first three scenes –picturing fragments of Noah’s story – Michelangelo dismantled the scaffolding in order to see the finished work: sadly disappointed, he noticed that the frescoes looked monumental from his point of view on the scaffolding, while being actually too “crowded” with characters if seen as a viewer. Thus, the artist decided to paint bigger figures and simplify the composition of the following scenes: as a result, the contrast is so clear that one could say the artist was replaced in the middle of the work. In “The Creation of Adam”, for instance, God’s hand is 15 inches long and the entire figure is over 118 inches.

san bartolomeo

As Raffaello did in his “School of Athens”, the eclectic artist wanted to include himself in the painting, but its nature made it quite difficult: he surely couldn’t portray himself as a biblical character, but neither as one of the damned. Therefore, he decided to give his features to Saint Bartholomew’s skin – the martyr who was grazed –, so that even if he was among the blessed he couldn’t be labeled as hubristic.

Due to the grease of the candles and the regular turnout of worshippers, the Chapel gradually blackened; the whole location and its original colors were restored thanks to an overwhelming restoration project started in 1980 and finished after nearly twenty years in 1999. Only some little squares have been left untouched: being almost totally black, their purpose was to show how decayed the Capel was. One scene in particular in which Charon is carrying the damned on his boat in the bottom right of the Judgment, was only discovered after the restoration: until then, it was just a black blob.

san pietro

Less known, since closed to the public, is the Pauline Chapel, where opening and closing Masses for the Conclave take part and the Pope himself pray on his own. The two frescoes made by Buonarroti –his last paintings – portrayed Rome’s patron saints, Saint Peter and Saint Paul: the former is depicted during his martyrdom giving one last, agonizing look at the viewer, and the latter during his conversion, blinded by a beam of light that divides the painting. Both are portrayed old, even if this was not consistent with biblical events. Indeed, Saint Paul converted while being relatively young, given the fact that he had the time to write the several letters featured in the New Testament. Some scholars suggested that it was another autobiographical element introduced by Michelangelo, since the two frescoes were his last works and he completed them when he was seventy-five.

Despite the life expectancy of that time, Michelangelo survived 14 more years dying in his 90’s. Legend has it he was worn out by the Council of Trent’s decision to cover with drapes all the “obscenities” of his immortal frescoes’ nudes in the Last Judgment, to which he had dedicated time and passion.

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