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    Did Michelangelo Really Paint The Sistine Chapel?

    Date: 25 Jan 2008 | | Views: 10530

    It is one of the wonders of the world. It covers 550 sq m, took three years of back-breaking work to create, and has been marvelled at by millions. Now, a controversial study is throwing new light on the 'inspiration' behind Michelangelo's greatest masterpiece.

    Source: The Independent (UK) (www.independent.co.uk), by Peter Popham

    It's anniversary time. The genesis of the Greatest Work of Art Ever, Anywhere – so popular that the curators of the Vatican Museums have made seeing it insanely complicated and expensive in an effort to reduce the crowds – began 500 years ago this spring, when Pope Julius II persuaded a reluctant Michelangelo Buonarroti to take on the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But even before the festivities can properly begin, they have been overshadowed by the return of an ancient controversy.

    In contrast to other great Renaissance figures such as Shakespeare, of whose lives we know practically nothing for certain, Michelangelo was intimately chronicled during his own lifetime – in dozens of letters he wrote to his beloved father and brothers, and in two biographies, one by Vasari. We know in vivid detail what the great artist was up to month by month, often day by day. His tortured relationship with the warrior pope who was his greatest patron emerges vividly from the chronicles of his age.

    We can even picture him at work, thanks to a sketch he drew illustrating a humorous poem on the torment of painting the ceiling – head thrown back, bottom thrust out to give him support, "belly hanging like an empty sack,/ beard pointing at the ceiling... my face, from drips and droplets/patterned like a marble pavement..."

    We can also readily imagine the speed at which he worked, slapping paint on to wet plaster, driving himself across the enormous surface to get it covered in time.

    The critic Waldemar Januszczak, who had the chance to scrutinise the ceiling from close quarters from the top of a television scaffold, wrote: "I could see the bristles from his brushes caught in the paint, and the mucky thumbprints he'd left along the margins. The first thing that impressed me was his speed. Michelangelo worked at Schumacher pace. Adam's famous little penis was captured with a single brushstroke: a flick of the wrist, and the first man had his manhood."

    But behind the rich, almost cinematic certainties that history has given us about the painting of the ceiling – concerning the people, the relationships, the materials, the time frame, the technology – lies an impenetrable area of shadow.

    Before he dipped the brush in the paint and set to work on his God and Christ, his Adam and Mary and all the rest, how did Michelangelo prepare himself? We know that, unlike his peers and predecessors, he did not use cartoons to transfer existing designs directly on to the wet plaster, because there are no the telltale peg marks left in the plaster's surface. We know that in some cases he worked from small drawings because a grid can be discerned over the finished work, indicating that he upscaled from a smaller sketch.

    But what the norm for his preparation was we simply don't know – because Michelangelo didn't want us to know. Throughout his life he hated showing drawings to outsiders. Vasari claimed that this was because they revealed the endless effort he expended in reaching the perfection at which he aimed. Though he was dependent, like all Renaissance artists, on the patronage of the powerful, even men like Cosimo I were unable to get him to part with a single drawing. Before moving from Rome to Florence in 1518, he burned all the drawings in his house in Rome. Another terrible bonfire took place, on his instructions, at his death. Even Michelangelo's closest friends possessed only a tiny number of drawings, all of them highly finished.

    Yet despite this well-documented niggardliness, the world's great museums are awash in Michelangelo drawings: the consensus among Anglo-American and Italian scholars is that there are around 800 in existence, including those of the Risen Christ and the Labours of Hercules in the Royal Collection, and the artist's preliminary sketch for the Sistine Chapel's fresco of the Creation of Man, in the British Museum.

    But if three eminent German scholars are to be believed, the methods by which Michelangelo prepared for the epic struggle of painting the 300 figures on the chapel ceiling remains a mystery, and the drawings that are said to explain it merely mystify it. In a beautiful and weighty new book, Michelangelo: Complete Works, they insist that only a small minority of the drawings currently attributed to the master are definitely by him.

    British critics have given the thesis a hostile if not derisory reception – Brian Sewell, commenting in the London Evening Standard, declared: "I fervently dispute the dismissal as copies of many of Michelangelo's drawings, concluding from the author's conclusions that they have no knowledge of the practice of drawing in the Renaissance."

    But even those to whom the idea of the world being awash in phoney Michelangelo drawings is anathema concede the objective reality of the uncertainty. "From his own day to the present there has been a remarkable degree of consensus concerning the corpus of Michelangelo's painting, sculpture and architecture," David Ekserdjian writes in The Sunday Times. "By contrast, his figural drawings remain the victims of extraordinary connoisseurial mood swings... Around 1900, Bernard Berenson and others took a minimalist view, numbering the total of autograph sheets around 200... this figure has been slowly but surely climbing since the 1950s, especially in what might be described as the Anglo-American and Italian axis, towards a figure of around 800."

    The German scholars take the figure back down to around 200 again, so that, for Ekserdjian, "turning the pages of reproductions is a surreal experience, as some of the most beautiful drawings ever made are summarily dismissed." The iconoclasm of Frank Zöllner, Thomas Pöpper and Christof Thoenes knows no bounds: not only are vastly valuable treasures in the collection of the Queen brought into question, but also the "preliminary sketches" of the Creation for the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Famous drawings of Adam, one of the British Museum's greatest treasures, are cruelly and casually dismissed as fakes.

    "They prove upon closer inspection chiefly to be early copies after the finished fresco... occasionally deliberately trying to pass themselves off as original sketches." A second Blitzkrieg is under way.

    The scorn of Sewell and Ekserdjian is less persuasive, however, than the gentle scepticism of the Germans, who caution that their views – "each attribution", they emphasise, "has been weighed up again and again in a lengthy process of review" – should only be taken "as a starting point for future discussion".

    The vested interests of the great museums in favour of granting authenticity to works of such vast popularity and financial worth should not be underestimated – nor their influence, however subliminal, on the art critics. When the British Museum unveiled its gorgeous show of Michelangelo drawings in March 2006, only one critic, Richard Dorment, insisted that the Emperor was wearing very few clothes.

    There is, he insisted on pointing out in the Telegraph, "remarkably little consensus... as to what a Michelangelo drawing looks like and how many of them there are" – and the museum's failure to take account of that fact he deemed "a crushing disappointment". The curator, he said, had simply accepted attributions published 50 years before. "The ordinary visitor would never guess that only three of the 80 or so drawings attributed to Michelangelo on display are universally accepted by all scholars as being by the hand of the master."

    This is one of those scholarly rows, like the unending debates over the real authorship of Shakespeare's plays, that is an entirely harmless spectator sport. Somebody, somehow did write King Lear, and the endless theories about who exactly the author might have been throw weird, oblique beams of light on that and all his other masterpieces.

    Michelangelo certainly painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling, spattered with drips, belly sagging, beard sticking straight up – and if the question of how he prepared for that Schumacher-like feat remains a mystery, then so much the more interesting.

    It was in any event an impossible commission, from the artist's most demanding, impossible patron. Raphael's painting of Pope Julius II as a hollow-eyed, white-bearded figure clutching a money bag in one hand and the arm of his throne in the other, fails to do justice to one of the most bellicose megalomaniacs ever to occupy St Peter's chair, which is saying a bit.

    Julius was, writes the papal historian Eamon Duffy, "a very dubious Father of all the Faithful, for he had fathered three daughters... while a cardinal, and he was a ferocious and enthusiastic warrior, dressing in silver papal armour and leading his own troops through the breaches blown in the city walls of towns who resisted his authority."

    He was, however, the greatest papal patron of the Renaissance, giving inspired commissions to Raphael, Bramante and Leonardo as well as to Michelangelo.

    Michelangelo's relationship with the pope was tormented. The artist from Arezzo, who turned 33 in 1508, was already famous as the sculptor of David, completed in 1504, and recognised as the genius of the age. Julius summoned him to Rome and commanded him to create a preposterous thing – a vast sepulchre worthy of a Pharaoh more than a pope, which was to contain 40 life-size figures and would become the eighth wonder of the world.

    Perhaps fortunately, this monstrous monument was never finished, but what the artist called "the tragedy of the Tomb" pursued him long after Julius's death and interment in 1513, with rows over lousy assistants, inadequate budgets and revisions of the contract. In 1506, after one nasty spat, Michelangelo bolted from Rome on horseback.

    But Julius, for all his megalomania, had a clear view of Michelangelo's worth, and after the artist had been prevailed on to apologise, got him to execute a bronze statue of him – subsequently melted down into a cannon.

    Then, even while the agonies of the tragic tomb continued to pile up, Julius threw another amazing job at Michelangelo. The walls of the Sistine Chapel, the private chapel of the papal household, were already adorned with works by 15th-century masters including Botticelli and Perugino. The ceiling was painted blue, dotted with gold stars. The chapel had long been in disuse because of a large crack in the ceiling. Now Julius wanted it to be drastically renovated, and commanded him to paint 12 large figures of the Apostles on the ceiling.

    At first, Michelangelo was reluctant because, as he told the pope, painting "is not my profession". The discussions continued through March and April. Finally, in May the artist grudgingly agreed, writing stiffly on the receipt for the initial payment of 500 ducats, that he, a sculptor, had received 500 ducats for the painting in the Sistine Chapel.

    In the event, the commission multiplied, from a mere 12 figures, albeit giants, to more than 300, and the first phase of work continued to 1512. Twenty-four years later Michelangelo returned to complete the work and in May 1536 he was at work on The Last Judgement, the "Day of Wrath" which occupies the whole of the wall behind the altar, with its awesome vision of the dreadful fate of sinners, among whom Michelangelo was bitterly fearful that he himself would be counted – even though he included a portrait of himself as St Bartholomew, displaying his flayed skin.

    This, his final work in the chapel, was revealed to universal praise in 1541. Thousands of people still gaze up at it in wonder every day.

    The source of Michelangelo's inspiration was the belief, as he put it in a poem, that, "Whatever beauty here on earth is seen,/ To meet the longing and perceptive eye,/ Is semblance of that source divine, / From whence we all come./ In this alone we catch a glimpse of Heaven." Art had religious value because it was the only way to glimpse the divine intention.

    To come close to that high ideal, the work must be as finely realised as possible – hence, it seems, his refusal to let out of his studio anything that was not perfect; and hence the impossibility of understanding exactly how he pulled off his great achievements: a mystery that somehow makes them all the greater.

    Six great artists – and their helpers

    By Rob Sharp

    Damien Hirst

    Damien Hirst's famous spot paintings were first bought by Charles Saatchi at the artist's degree show in the early 1990s, but they nowadays fetch hundreds of thousands of pounds, as is befitting of the world's most commercially marketable artists (one "spot" sold recently for almost £500,000). However, few people realise that Hirst officially "authors" very few of these works; most are thrown together by a gamut of his assistants. If you are lucky enough to get your hands on one authored specifically by him you pay for the privilege.


    Rembrandt had a slew of assistants – including Samuel van Hoogstraten, Govert Flinck and Gerard Dou – many of whom would pay top guilders to work with the artist in 17th-century Amsterdam. Many of them were almost as talented as the great man himself; he was not in the habit of taking on sub-standard talents. Indeed, if one of them did a painting which he thought was particularly good, he was often in the habit of signing it as one of his own.

    Leonardo da Vinci

    There are varying "degrees of Leonardo authorship", varying from those solely produced by the "Renaissance Man" to those in which his involvement is unknown. It is generally accepted that he depicted The Last Supper, but Bacchus, which currently resides in the Louvre, is thought to be a workshop copy of a drawing. Da Vinci was known to assign sections of his paintings for his raft of assistants to fill in with paint.

    Andy Warhol

    At The Factory, his 1960s Manhattan studio, Andy Warhol produced thousands of screen-prints – most famously the Campbell's soup can. He described them as his take on the public's obsession with consumerism. Surrounded by helpers, Warhol even described his working methods as being like a "machine", a full acknowledgement that he was never the only pair of hands involved in the artistic process.


    The authorship of Caravaggio's paintings have long been the source of some dispute; many are said to have been painted by his "followers" – contemporaries who worked closely with the Baroque artist or lived in his wake. Art historians and experts have conducted much research into his oeuvre and some attest that with each publication of significant research, the resulting number of paintings attributed to the artist decreases.

    Jeff Koons

    New-York-based sculptor Jeff Koons' work is often finished by his assistants; indeed, his "hands-off" approach has sometimes landed him in trouble. In 1992 Koons landed in hot water after he found a picture of a man and woman with their arms full of puppies and instructed his assistants to model it in sculpture form. He made three and each sold for nearly half a million dollars. A court later ruled that the sculpture was a "copy" and ruled against the artist.

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