Some background

Small (as in Vatican City) can be beautiful and that the Vaticano is.  The Vatican Museums house some $15 billion in art, although some of it is way beyond a monetary evaluation.  The popes who built the art collection, as well as the Basilica and the rest, were scoundrels who engaged in deception, fornication, thievery, hypocrisy and much more including the sale of what I call ‘get out of purgatory free’ cards:  you contributed in some fashion and in exchange the Church guaranteed you would be more leniently treated by the celestial powers that be.  But no one can deny that the legacy they left us is a storehouse of treasure that has enriched the world.   As much as I detest those people and hate to admit it, but we are indebted to them, yet own allegiance to their means. 

Vatican City is a country officially recognized by treaty between the Vatican and the Italian government since 1929 when Mussolini and the Pope came to an agreement.  Before the reunification of Italy in 1861, the Pope ruled much of Italy from the Vatican,  but the Risorgimento, as it is called in Italian, reduced the papal state to a mere 44 hectares, and it remains the smallest country in the world both in size and population.  

You may have heard the term “The Holy See” and wondered about the meaning.   The Holy See governs the religious life of the world’s 1 billion Catholics.  It is the arm of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) that has diplomatic relations with other countries, not the Vatican City.  It’s an odd arrangement, indeed,  but there you have it.  Another tidbit-  the word ‘see’ in “Holy See”comes from the Latin ‘Sede,’ meaning ‘Seat,’ so has nothing to do with seeing and thus not as presumptuous as it seems. 

Many people confuse the Museums (there is just one entrance to all of them) with St Peter’s Basilica.  Each has its own entrance-  if you standing on line in front of St Peter’s you are not going into the Museums.  The Museum is not free except for the first Sunday, while the Basilica is always free, though given the costs involved I would not blame the church if it decided to charge.  It’s houses amazing art, including Michelangelo’s Pieta, completed when he was just 23 years old. 

There is additional background information following the next section.

About the art of the Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel was completed in 1477 by Sixtus IV, for whom the chapel is named.  It remains the setting for formal deliberations naming the next pope.  Michelangelo, primarily a sculptor, was hired by Julius II to paint the ceiling, which he did from 1508-1512.  He started with the center piece, The Creation of Adam shows Yahweh, surrounded by his buddies, injecting life into Adam. Once Michelangelo completed this section he realized the scale was too small, and it would take him too long to finish the immense project.  Therefore the remainder of the work is in larger scale.  He painted nine scenes in all from Genesis, and also painted the Last Judgment on the sanctuary wall.  

Here’s a view of the hall.  Photos are not permitted but people manage to take ones anyway.  I found this one on the internet, one of the better and more interesting ones.  The chapel is hard to photograph well due to its size and the side lighting.

Sistine Chapel

Sistine Chapel

 

The Creation of Adam, one of the most famous paintings of all time, and the first to be painted in the ceiling project:

The Creation of Adam

The Creation of Adam, one of the most famous paintings of all time

This next is one of my favorite paintings in the Chapel.  From the far side of the hall his legs appear to be dangling in space.

 

A little more background

Pope Julius II, aka Giulian della Rovere (1443-1513), aggressively sought to unite Italy, to the point where he led troops in battle on at least two occasions.  He engaged in an active building program, most remarkably the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica, and invested heavily in the arts, such as the decoration of the ceiling of the Chapel.  His uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, had first made him a cardinal, assuming the position his uncle had vacated to become Pope.  Although unmarried Giulian fathered Felice della Rovere in 1483.  

He began the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in 1506, the same year he conceived of the ceiling for which he would hire Michelangelo.  Michelangelo was not interested in the project, saying he was a sculptor not a painter, and besides he was already at work on the Pope’s own tomb.  The latter project was set aside and remains uncompleted, housed in St Peter in Chains near the Coliseo and Domus Aurea; more about this in a coming article.   The Pope prevailed but went to war for the next two years, delaying the ceiling, during which time Michelangelo continued to work on the tomb, giving us what we have today, the Moses in St Peter in Chains, the center piece of the installation in that church. 

Michelangelo wanted no restrictions imposed on the project and he was granted complete control.  He eventually painted some 300 figures over the course of the four years it took to complete the ceiling.   He worked standing, not laying down as most people believe, using wooden scaffolding.  The scaffolding was held by brackets extending from openings at the top of the windows, and allowed for work on half of the ceiling at a time.  A lightweight screen below to prevent damage to the artwork and flooring below.  The openings were employed for the scaffolding used in the recent restoration, which turned a much darkened ceiling into a brightly colored one we see today.

At first he encountered mold problems in the plaster, into which paint was mixed to produce what we call ‘frescoes,’ coming from the Italian for ‘fresh.’  (I often hear Italians using the word ‘fresh’ for ‘cool’ as in ‘temperature.’)  An assistant developed a formula that is mold resistant, after the first applications had to be removed.  This formula is still in use.

Fresco painters employ a detailed drawing into which small holes are punched to transfer the design to the plaster. Michelangelo, however, drew directly on the plaster.  Each day a new section of plaster was laid, the edges of the previous day scraped off, being too dry.  As a result you can still see the daily progress of the work.

The final result is greeted by some five million visitors a year, paying about 15 euros each.  The Pope’s grandiose plan appears to have paid off, but I yield nothing to his immorality nor the Church of his time.