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If you've seen the Sistine Chapel, you know how sublime it is. I'm not surprised that they failed fifteen times before they got it right.

Some stories bring epiphanies, they strike you like light pouring through a stained-glass window, making your dim surroundings both clearer and more colorful. Here is a story which does that for me, giving me hope against adversity.

But hope is a fragile seed. It's up to you to dig, then plant, then water it, and clear away all the weeds that conspire against it. As Aristotle said, "Excellence is not one act - it's a habit". It was a habit Michelangelo lived by.

Michelangelo Buonarroti's wet-nurse was the daughter of one stone-carver and the wife of another. Michelangelo claimed that "with my mother's milk I sucked in the hammer and chisels I use for my statues." He must have sucked in some iron and marble too, to give him such willpower and inspiration.

Dear Reader, I believe you're enterprising and artistic, so I have a small favor to ask of you. I'm here, painting a picture for you with - well, with a lot of words. But I've never yet embedded an image. So, if the spirit moves you, please find a picture of Michelangelo's David; or, for the Sistine Chapel, a few pictures might be nice, of the whole, and of any details that catch your eye. Then, please post these images in your comments. Thank You.

In 1463, the City of Florence got a sixteen-foot chunk of marble, to be carved into a figure for their Duomo. Two famous sculptors tried, but gave up, leaving a mangled block. In 1501, the overseers of the cathedral were about to discard it. But first they asked the 26 year old Michelangelo if he could salvage anything from it.

For a year and a half, Michelangelo measured, examined, made drawings and wax models, and applied himself 24-7, sleeping in his clothes to save time for work. In the end, he released the form he had found in the mangled block, and it was his David, one of the most famous and beautiful sculptures in the world. You might quibble, and say that the head and the hands appear just a bit too large. That's because it was first intended to go half-way up the wall of the Duomo, so Michelangelo designed it to be seen from below, at a distance.

I like this idea that Michelangelo "released" David from the block. Michelangelo had such a penetrating artistic vision. Several of his major works caused minor revolutions in the arts. Michelangelo would create something brand new: simple, but bold and brilliant. Then all the other artists in Italy would go study it, and either imitate or react against it.

Here are some ways Michelangelo described his vision:

“Carving is easy, you just go down to the skin and stop.”

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it."

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

“Every beauty which is seen here by persons of perception resembles more than anything else that celestial source from which we all are come.”

“I live and love in God's peculiar light.”

in 1505, Pope Julius II gave Michelangelo four years to design and build a spectacular tomb for him. So off Michelangelo went, to the mountains of Carrara, for the best marble. With two workers and a horse, he found and quarried out forty unblemished blocks for his design. It required sharp eyes, steady hands, and eight months hard labor. He also spent a large sum, expecting reimbursement from the Pope.

When Michelangelo returned to Rome, the Pope refused to see him. Now, Michelangelo was an easy man not to get along with. Julius, who admired and sometimes adored him, called him La Terribilita; which the dictionary now defines as "an effect or expression of powerful will and immense angry force (as in the work of Michelangelo)".

Renaissance Italy was about as blessed with great artists as any time and place in history. Michelangelo was competing with Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, Cellini, and dozens of others. Michelangelo had sharp eyes and tongue. He spotted flaws in others' work, and pointed them out. So, while he earned universal admiration, he also excited plenty of envy, resentment and calumny.

While Michelangelo was questing for flawless blocks of marble in Carrara, Bramante and his kinsman Raphael were bending the Pope's ears. They reminded Julius II that it was unlucky to build your tomb while you still lived - it might even hasten your death. Wouldn't Michelangelo be better employed painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?

Michelangelo had spent most of a year finding unflawed blocks, getting them carefully out of the mountain, and transporting them to Rome. He had nowhere to store them, and some of his marble ended up getting stolen before he ever got to it. Julius' tomb was to become a dark cloud over his life, with Julius' heirs threatening lawsuits and renegotiating the contract for decades afterwards.

Michelangelo told Julius that painting wasn't his art; at that time, he was far more accomplished at sculpting, and more interested in it. He was always learning, and he kept developing as an artist. He later adopted an emblem of three interlocking circles, symbolizing his mastery of painting, sculpture and architecture. He was also quite a poet; he was a true Renaissance man, and became a prototype of the artistic genius.

In 1508, though, Michelangelo was already absorbed in a titanic project, and the last thing he needed was a ceiling to paint. It's easy to speculate on Bramante and Raphael's thoughts at the time, though we can't see them clearly. Julius' tomb looked like it would be a tour-de-force: an immense block, with 40 individual statues carved around it, and in niches, and on top of it. The Sistine chapel, on the other hand, looked like an almost impossible job, with no glory at the end of it. As paintable ceilings go, it belonged somewhere pretty far down in Dante's Inferno.

The Sistine Chapel has eight windows, and all sorts of slants and corners (triangles and lunettes). So Michelangelo would have to solve complicated puzzles to use the various surfaces, and then to arrange their perspectives so that his figures would appear normally shaped when viewed from a distance below. And the artist solving these advanced problems had never painted in fresco before, had never yet even used color - he had to get friends of his to teach him basic techniques before he could even begin.

On top of all this, it would be very difficult to set up scaffolding just to approach the ceiling, without making holes in the walls - which he wouldn't be able to fill in, once the scaffolding was removed. So he had to devise a system with boards, ropes and pulleys.

I get the sense that any sane person, who recognized the limits of human ability, would have applied Michelangelo's shrewdness to finding a water-tight excuse for just not doing it. But Michelangelo had an unstoppable work ethic and self-confidence bordering on delusion. Also, I think, terribilita loves a good challenge.

So Michelangelo learned new ways to paint, and planned out the many pictures within his grand design. He invented and built his contraptions to get up to the work-face. He had to contend with constant dust, and heat from all the candles (to supplement the natural light, partly blocked by the scaffolding). Hardest of all was keeping Julius, who was dying to see his progress, out of the way. The Pope kept demanding "When can I see it?"; Michelangelo replied "When it satisfies me as an artist!"

Finally Julius threatened to have him thrown down from the scaffolding, and Michelangelo finished up. After four years of cruel and unusual labor, the work was done. Michelangelo's health suffered from the ordeal; the dust attacked his lungs, and the contortion required to paint upside-down so twisted him that, for some time after he finished, he could only read a letter by tilting his head back and holding it up at arm's length.

But now we have the Sistine Chapel, and Michelangelo has all the glory. It's like he was handed a bunch of sour limes, with salt for his wounds - and he poured in his own spirit, and went off and invented the margarita. I'm not sure what Bramante and Raphael were thinking, when they got Julius to pull their rival off the tomb and stick him up against a dusty, bumpy ceiling. But I know that Michelangelo got the last laugh, for we can still hear that gargantuan guffaw, rolling down through eternity.

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Fri Mar 01, 2013 at 03:41 PM PST.

Also republished by History for Kossacks, Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter, and Community Spotlight.

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