This is a review about Michelangelo. But it all started with a company sporting event that went terribly awry. Some company, let’s call it “the company that employs me”, thought to develop team esprit-de-corps by organizing an innocent spring frolic. They decided that the perfect avenue would be a spirited game of broomball at our local ice rink.
For those who, like me, have never heard of broomball, it consists of two teams of roughly equal size sliding around the ice in their tennis shoes while batting at a small rubber ball with sticks. These “brooms” have a plastic contraption attached to one end, rather like large flyswatters. The goal is to bat the ball into your opponents’ goal. But the real goal is to remain upright and uninjured.
You can guess who failed to achieve that goal.
I spent an entertaining few hours in the emergency room cradling my broken arm rather like a newborn baby. And I was as protective as a mother bobcat whenever anyone wanted to touch it, I can tell you. The only positive side to the whole thing was that I was introduced to some new and fascinating drugs. Morphine, percoset, I’d take anything to make the screaming stop.
So I was to be laid up for unending weeks with nothing to do but watch television. And one day the local public channel ran a wonderful two part, four hour history of the Medici family in Florence, Italy during the renaissance. It was wonderful. Interesting people wearing funny clothes. Wars and politics that had no relation to any of the world’s present troubles.
I was so fascinated by the show, I set out to read some books about the period. I just finished, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King. I’d enjoyed a previous book by him, Brunelleschi’s Dome, about the creation of the great dome of the Duomo in Florence. This one was also very good, although not quite as focused as the earlier work.
The Sistine Chapel ceiling is one of the greatest works of art in the world. Michelangelo painted it over the course of four years. It depicts a host scenes from the old testament, from the creation of the world to the birth of Adam to the flood of Noah. The book is good but you must see the paintings themselves to appreciate what all the hoo-ha is about. Check them out here.
What I loved about the book was its description of how Michelangelo went about his work. The problems he had to overcome and the techniques he used to paint the fresco. It was fascinating to learn how a fresco is made (by applying paint to fresh, wet plaster). How he built a scaffold to even be able to work on the 60 foot high ceiling. I also enjoyed the stories about his interactions (say troubles) with the pope. He never wanted to do the painting in the first place. He considered himself a sculptor, he wanted to work with stone. It was only by the pope’s order that he undertook this project. At this time in history, nobody in Italy disobeyed the pope.
Where the book went astray for me was in its lengthy descriptions of Pope Julius’ unending conflicts. I found a little of that went a long way. Yes, it was useful to learn what was going on in the country at that time, especially about how those political events affected Michelangelo’s work. But I didn’t need as much detail as King provided. Ditto the lengthy descriptions of the frescoes being painted at the Vatican by Raphael at the same time. I found myself wondering if the book was really, Pope Julius’ Wars and Some Painting by Michelangelo and Raphael Too.
In the end, I give Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling a reserved thumbs up. It has lots about Michelangelo and his wonderful painting on the world’s most famous ceiling. But it has too much extra stuff it could do without on externalities and side issues.