That Ceiling in Rome

Brad Miner | June 22, 2021

That one in the Sistine Chapel, obviously – the Volta della Cappella Sistina.

The Sistine Chapel was completed in 1480 during the papacy of Sixtus IV (Francesco della Rovere), after a three-year construction. The chapel is named after Sixtus, whose papal name is Sisto in Italian.

But the thing that makes the Chapel famous (artistically, culturally, historically) is principally its decoration by Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. Michelangelo (1475-1564) was not the only artist who painted in the Chapel, but his work – the ceiling and his “The Last Judgment” painted behind the altar – dominates the space.

Seeing is believing, but when you see it, when you stand in that great space and look up at the ceiling, you almost can’t believe it. When Goethe visited Rome in the 1780s, he wrote, “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”

Michelangelo was primarily a sculptor (“David,” “Pietà,” “Moses”) – maybe the best who ever worked in marble – and he was reluctant to take on the commission from Pope Julius II (Giuliano della Rovere). In fact, he thought – and it may have been true – that some of his rivals had promoted him for the Sistine Chapel work in hopes he would fail, because working on so vast and difficult a project in a medium that was not his forte might well become a fool’s errand.

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