- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2003

In 1508 Pope Julius II summoned an "ill-tempered sculptor from Florence" back to his workshop in Rome. In "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling," Ross King describes the immortal artist's response this way:
"He obeyed the call with great reluctance, having vowed he would never return to Rome. Fleeing the city two years earlier, he had ordered his assistants to clear the workshop and sell its contents, his tools included, to the Jews. He returned that spring to find the premises bare and, nearby in the Piazza San Pietro, exposed to the elements, one hundred tons of marble still piled where he abandoned it. These lunar-white blocks had been quarried in preparation for what was intended to be one of the largest assemblages of sculpture the world had ever seen: the tomb of the reigning Pope, Julius II. Yet Michelangelo had not been brought back to Rome to resume work on this colossus."
What the 33-year-old Michelangelo Buonarotti, creator of "David" and the "Pieta," had been summoned to do was paint a fresco that would adorn the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The project would take the next four years during which the artist would surmount the logistical nightmare of the chapel's height and contour; the challenge of painting on fresco, a medium not well known to a man who defined himself as a sculptor; competition from other artists, notably the handsome, talented and better-natured Raphael; the demands of Julius II, the warrior Pope; and wars between nations during an extraordinarily tumultuous era.
Mr. King, who was born in Canada and lives in England, is best known here for his book "Brunelleschi's Dome," an account of how the architect, goldsmith and sculptor Fillipo Brunelleschi came to create the dome of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, an architectural wonder.
And just as Mr. King balanced his portrait of the artist with extraordinary descriptions of Florentine life in that book, in this one he takes care to portray Rome in all its majesty and squalor during the years 1508 to 1512. Nevertheless, in recounting these four extraordinary years the author keeps the spotlight on the powerfully gifted and temperamental Michelangelo and his awe-inspiring work.
After Michelangelo's initial reluctance to take on the project, he got down to business. His first task involved recruiting assistants, all talented to different degrees, some compatible with the already-famous artist, more not.
It was then that the entire crew tackled the intimidating task of fresco painting, something with which Michelangelo to that point had little experience. The term fresco means "fresh", and "it comes from the fact that the painter always worked on fresh that is wet plaster." Before the first brushstroke could be applied, the plaster had to be prepared, and Mr. King takes great pains to detail the science behind fresco, explaining how the limestone, marble and sand, as well as the clays and minerals needed to make pigments, available in abundance around the hills of Florence and Siena, worked their magic. The drying of the plaster to just the right point was crucial, a fact that Michelangelo learned the hard way when fungus appeared on the already completed scenes of "Noah's Flood."
Painters were obliged to think of their entire work in scenes that would correspond to small sections of wet plaster known as "giornate" or "days work." It is in the description of the scenes, particularly of "The Flood" that Mr. King gives the book its greatest immediacy and power. He explains that "Although 'The Flood' gave Michelangelo the chance to indulge to the full his passion for throngs of doomed figures in dramatic muscle-straining poses, he also added more homely touches in the shape of people rescuing humble possessions." People rescuing humble possessions aside, Mr. King points out that "Michelangelo was fascinated … by tragic, violent narratives of crime and punishment such as those complete with hangings, plagues, propitiations, and beheadings … It was an "apocalyptic" vision shaped in adolescence by a fire-and-brimstone friar named Girolamo Savonarola.
There are generous insights and facts in this book about Michelangelo's family, friends, colleagues and patrons. There is also ample detail about how he looked ("dark and flat-nosed") and how he took care of himself. It seems that the creator of magnificent art was not particularly attentive to personal hygiene, often leaving his clothes and boots on when he slept for weeks at a time. At that point when the boots were removed, skin would come off with them.
Mr. King, a natural storyteller, peppers his narrative with anecdotes such as these to humorous effect. The narrative is otherwise a straightforward one that follows the ways in which the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel evolved from conception to unveiling (The locals loved it, Pope Julius wanted more gold decoration). And there are other startling and delightful bits of trivia that make the tale lively and memorable. Consider these:
Of the artist's remarkable achievement Mr. King notes that Michelangelo did not paint the fresco lying down, despite the fact that most people believe he did just that. Instead, based on his designs, scaffolding was built that made it possible for Michelangelo and his assistants to work standing, leaning slightly backward.
Of Rome he writes that when Michelangelo was frescoing the Sistine Ceiling, the city was home to about 7,000 prostitutes and 3,000 priests. Syphilis was rife among the clergy and even Pope Julius II had it.
Far from being the solitary endeavor that most people believe it was, Michelangelo had to fresco 12,000 square feet of the Sistine Ceiling and he did not do it alone. In the end he had recruited as many as a dozen men to help him during the four years he worked in the Sistine Chapel.
This is a richly detailed, beautifully illustrated book that brings history and art together in a remarkable way. One anxiously awaits Mr. King's next project.

By Ross King
Walker & Company, $28, 373 pages, illus.

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