Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel
In this last entry of the year, I wanted to share a piece of my own creative writing to say ciao to 2015. I’ve chosen “Art:History” from Anywhere But Here, my first book of poetry published this year by Sharktooth Press. I was inspired to write the poem after studying the Sistine Chapel vault and the The Last Judgment, both envisioned and produced by Michelangelo. The idea for the poem came to me when I saw how differently Adam and Eve are perceived in the ceiling frescoes—God’s articulate finger pointing to Adam as the chosen one a sign.
God’s Articulate Finger
I wrote the poem 20 years ago and it has only been during the past year when I felt the pull to learn more about the artist, who actually considered himself a sculptor rather than a painter. I have owned a book of his sonnets for over a decade but I didn’t realize until recently that quite a few of his letters have survived. I was excited to find a selection of them bound into two slipcovered leather volumes at the Strand Book Store, which gave me great insight into his temperament.
The Letters of Michelangelo
Not only are the books beautiful, they are comprehensive. Published by Stanford University Press in 1963, the epistles were edited, annotated and translated “from the original Tuscan” by E. H. Ramsden. Volume One covers from 1496 to 1534, which includes the four years he worked on the vaulted ceiling (1508 to 1512); and Volume Two highlights the six years he was struggling to realize the altar wall—from December 1535 to December 1541. Ramsden assembled a timeline that highlights where the artist was living and what was happening in his life, details he juxtaposed against the projects he was undertaking at the time.
Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Vault
Proving that he didn’t believe himself worthy of painting the elaborate project, Michelangelo told his father that the Pope had not paid him for the work on the Sistine Chapel in a timely manner but perhaps it was apropos: “I am still in a great quandary, because it is now a year since I had a grosso from this Pope and I do not ask for anything because my work does not seem to me to go ahead in a way to merit it. This is due to the difficulty of the work and also because it is not my profession. In consequence, I lose my time fruitlessly. May God help me.”
The suffering evident in these letters, written by such a renowned man, prove that even the most lauded creatives seem to have doubt built into their DNA. You can actually see the angst in each of the portraits of him I’m including in this entry. But Michelangelo’s pain was not solely existential. A large measure of his frustration stemmed from his father, who received the lion’s share of his missives during this period, the elder Buonarrota continuously lobbing requests for financial advice and support at his son.
On July 24, 1512—three months before he finishes the ceiling at 37 years of age—Michelangelo responds to yet another plea from his father: “I work harder than anyone who has ever lived. I’m not well and worn out with this stupendous labour and yet I’m patient in order to achieve the desired end. So you, too, can very well be patient for two months, being ten thousand times better off than I am.”
His forlorn tone deepens as he is rebuked for not coming home in a while. “The truth is it’s so great a labour that I cannot estimate the time within a fortnight,” he wrote. “Let it suffice that I shall be home before All Saints in any case, if I do not die in the meantime. I’m being as quick as I can, because I long to be home.” His labor at the time was indeed gargantuan: one look at all that he accomplished in the chapel in the video below and it’s easy to imagine the pressure he felt.
“I live wearied by stupendous labours and beset by a thousand anxieties,” he told his father in 1512 as the ceiling was winding down. “And thus have I lived for some fifteen years now and never an hour’s happiness have I had, and all this have I done in order to help you, though you have never either recognized or believed it—God forgive us all.”
Michelangelo finally completes the glorious ceiling, telling his father in the letter photographed above, “I have finished the chapel I have been painting; the Pope is very well satisfied. But other things have not turned out for me as I’d hoped. For this I blame the times, which are very unfavourable to our art. I shall not be home for All Saints, because I have not the means to do what I want to do, but again this is not the time for it. Make the most of life and don’t bother yourself about anything else. That’s all.” He signed each letter to his father “Your Michelangelo Sculptor in Rome.”
I’m actually glad I didn’t know as much about this brilliant but tortured artist before writing the poem because it would have been impossible to achieve the point of view I wanted to communicate, which was petulance toward religion, the clergy and a painter, all of whom perpetuated the idea that woman was to blame for a purported act perceived as one of the most negative events in religious history.
Michelangelo in Art History
Who would find me in this life I have created
assuming someone else’s falsities:
the jackal-headed god who plucks at the chain
as they weigh my heart against the feather of truth; you —
wishing to place the unhasped necklace around my throat, believing
that the pavé diamonds will disguise your cross’s proclivity?
In the Sistine Chapel, God commands Eve to stand upright,
while above her head she participates in The Fall of Man.
And below, Adam reclines — one hand extended
toward the reach of God’s articulate finger.
Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment”
My most recent reading of Michelangelo’s letters made me wonder how it must have felt to be so involved with such an epic story depicting one of the most pivotal biblical myths while experiencing his own humanly feelings of debasement. He seemed even more beaten down by the time he painted The Last Judgment on the altar wall, even though he’d been appointed the supreme sculptor, painter and architect to the Vatican. This gave him more power and wealth as he took on the second project but the responsibility of the complex assignment combined with managing his family business from afar further wore him down.
A few months before he completed this fresco, he fell from the scaffolding and severely injured his leg. He played it down in a letter to his nephew Lionardo di Buonarroti but his cynicism was growing: “And although Francesca isn’t very well, as she writes me, tell her from me that in this world one can’t be wholly fortunate, and that she must be patient.” He repeatedly asks his nephew to delay a visit to see him in Rome due to the pressure he is under in finishing The Last Judgment, a gurgling panic entering his tone.
Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna
But something positive was blossoming in his life during this time—a relationship with Vittoria Colonna, a poet and the Marchesa di Pescara, which I will write about here on The Diary of an Improvateur in early 2016. In the spring of 1539, as he struggles to complete the complex fresco—still two and a half years from completion—he writes to her, “…I had desired to perform more for you than for anyone on earth I ever knew.” His passion spills forth in nearly every sentence he writes to her. I’ll share more of their story later so stay tuned!
Though this post is weightier than I had intended, I am happy to end 2015 on a note of visual beauty as I close a year of aesthetically remarkable explorations. I will see you all back here in the New Year: let’s make it a mythic one, shall we? After all, each of us has a legacy to leave, just as Michelangelo did; hopefully, we won’t suffer as terribly as he did as we breathe life into ours!
A statue like the one above and an homage like the one below gracing the façade of the National Arts Club in New York City where I will be staying next month, may be a bit too much to expect but that’s no reasons we shouldn’t take our efforts just as seriously.
The Diary of an Improvateur and this entry, God’s Articulate Finger, © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and journalist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns. She is also a contributor to Architizer.by