Michelangelo and the second-worst project in the world

TL:DR: Michelangelo REALLY hated painting anything. Information packet about Michelangelo attached at the bottom.

Michelangelo was a sculptor–according to him. He signed every contract, not matter what he was being contracted for, as “Michelangelo the Sculptor.” He considered painting as an inferior art and left his first master’s studio within a year to study under the sculptors at the Medici’s school. (Some say his master “encouraged” the change in education…)

As far as Michelangelo was concerned, painters used colors to poorly depict the body in only two dimensions. Only through sculpture could the human body, the pinnacle of creation, be fully depicted and appreciated. The only work of his that he signed was a breathtaking sculpture.

Image result for pieta
Mind, he had to break into the church in the middle of the night to sign it–the phrase,
 (Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this) is carved into the sash on the Virgin Mary’s chest. He also apparently signed “M” in the lines of her outstretched palm–it was only discovered in the 1970s during restoration.

As a result, I think Michelangelo would be deeply annoyed and irritated that he is now known primarily for a PAINTING. and not just any painting, a CEILING painting.

In the early 1500’s the ceilings of chapels and churches, even cathedrals, were often painted as starry skies. It was a regular pattern, and often given to a cheaper artist, since it involved very little artistry at all. (“Paint sky blue, paint gold stars–here, use this stencil” –no I don’t know that there were stencils used in every ceiling, but look at the regularity of the patterns, it’s more than possible that there was. )

Sainte Chapelle - Upper level 1.jpg
While the interior of Saint Chappelle in France has been restored multiple times in the French Revolution, it was recreated according to its Medieval designs, including the sumptuous starry ceiling.
Photo by Didier B (Sam67fr) – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikimedia Commons

Because the ceilings were not highly rated by other artists, nor were they considered the plumb jobs at the church (those were the wall frescoes), a master artist would have considered a ceiling job, without the accompanying wall commission, an insult.

So when Julius II selected the master sculptor Michelangelo for the job of repairing and re-painting the cracked ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo…refused–by letter.

The truth is, Michelangelo had already fled Rome and this Pope once before, and knew that Julius II was more than a little annoyed about that. But he really, really, REALLY, was disgusted by the idea of painting a ceiling in a small private chapel (the pope’s chapel, but still, not in a big public place where people could see his work) rather than doing the sculpting work he’d already been contracted to do. After all, Julius had originally lured Michelangelo down there to build his colossal tomb.

Michelangelo claimed sanctuary in his hometown of Florence to avoid going back to the Papal States, Rome, or the Sistine Chapel. The Pope couldn’t force him to come back without sending an army–which, while expensive, was an actual option. Pope Julius II sent letters to Michelangelo–the answer was No.

He sent letters with friends of Michelangelo–No

He sent letter to the governors of Florence, hoping they would speak to Michelangelo.

They did.


He sent threats.


He sent offers.


He sent gratuitous complimentary letters.

Not even.

Eventually, he took his army and…invaded the city of Bologna, to the west of Florence.

Bologna was wise enough to see Julius coming from far enough away, and preemptively surrendered.

And Julius sent yet another letter to Florence’s government, just one province over.

And Florence told Michelangelo to go, before the Pope got really annoyed and invaded all of Tuscany and Florence as a result.

At least, Michelangelo thought, with the Pope in Bologna, he wouldn’t have to paint a ceiling.

And after apologizing profusely to the Pope, the Pope asked Michelangelo to do something that wasn’t painting.

Cast a Bronze state.

A Statue of Julius II on horseback.

And make it 17 feet tall.

You know, the type of art that hadn’t been done in over a thousand years…

Michelangelo protested that he was a sculptor, not a metal caster–which were two totally. different. skill. sets.

And the Pope merely replied that he had supreme faith in Michelangelo to complete the task.

What if I can’t cast it correctly? Michelangelo protested, knowing that if the cast didn’t happen correctly, it had to be completely started over from the beginning.

Then do it over again until you get it right, the Pope responded.

It took a year and two castings (the first time, the statue came out of the mold only up to Julius II’s hips…ooops). But Michelangelo once again accomplished the impossible. He was summoned to Rome, and hoped he could once again take up the tomb project he hoped would secure his reputation for centuries to come. He may have even hoped that while he’d been trapped amongst clay models and (literally) tons of bronze, someone else had been tasked with the Sistine Chapel.

No such luck.

The moment he arrived in Rome, he found the Pope had saved the ceiling project for him. And like it or not, Michelangelo was going to be a painter before the Pope would let him be a sculptor again.

And so, nearly two years after fleeing Rome and this wretched project, Michelangelo found himself painting a ceiling he hated.

He wrote letters to family and friends griping about the project

He wrote poems complaining about how much physical pain he was in from all the work he was doing.

Image result for Michelangelo poem, sistine chapel
This poem is accompanied by one of Michelangelo’s own sketches of himself painting the ceiling. The poem was sent to a friend of his, Giovanni da Pistoia. Part of the last stanza can be translated thus:

“Giovanni, come to  the rescue
Of my dead painting now, and of my honor
I’m not in a good place and I am no painter

And when he unveiled the first half of the ceiling to a rapt audience, Michelangelo could only see he mistakes and weaknesses, while the spellbound audience saw ground-breaking, swirling, writhing images.

The artist Raphael, who was painting the Pope’s personal apartments at the time, (an even smaller venue than the chapel) was so impressed with Michelangelo’s work, he tried to steal the other half of the ceiling project for himself. The Pope told Raphael to shut up and stick to his own assignment. Raphael skulked back the the Pope’s apartments and destroyed a small portion of his finished “School of Athens” fresco so he could insert Michelangelo in it, as one of the great minds of the school.

"The School of Athens" by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino.jpg
Raphael’s “School of Athens”. Michelangelo is the figure sitting alone on the first stair close to the center (slightly left) with the box, wearing the lavender tunic and brown leggings.

When Michelangelo was finished, and the fresco revealed in all its glory, Michelangelo was known as the greatest fresco painter yet. People entered the chapel, their eyes fixed on the painted heavens, agape at the wonders Michelangelo and his small team and wrought.

And finally…FINALLY….Michelangelo could return to the project that the Pope had first commissioned for him: the grand tomb of Pope Julius II.

Thirty-three years later, after a few more popes (with projects of their own), several lawsuits from the Pope’s family (“You took the money for our uncle’s tomb, where IS it?”), one sack of Rome by the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor (they used the Sistine Chapel as a stables….thankfully, Michelangelo was back in Florence at this time.) the worst-project ever (Michelangelo called it, “The Tragedy of the Tomb”) was finally completed, and Michelangelo could sigh with relief, having finally gotten the worst, longest, most annoying project in the world off his back. It was one-tenth the original size with very few statues, but Julius II’s family was ordered by the current pope to be content with the final result, and Michelangelo was free to take up new commissions.

Michelangelo - Tomb of Pope Julius II
Instead of a three-tier, free-standing tomb covered in over 40 life-sized figures, the tomb now looks like this, set against a wall with only a few figures.. The Moses, the central figure on the first level, was one Michelangelo felt was the best he’d ever done.

Like being forced to paint the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel by the current pope, Paul III.


And, as usual, Michelangelo, hated every moment of this project too and he seriously injured himself by falling off of the scaffolding.