The story of Michelangelo's struggle to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling is one of legendary proportions. It even found its way onto the big screen in the 1965 film "The Agony and the Ecstasy," based on Irving Stone's popular biographical novel. The incredible difficulties of painting a huge vaulted ceiling in the demanding medium of fresco provide drama enough. Add to this the fiery personalities of the artist and his exalted client, Pope Julius II, and you have a story of grand proportions.
But, as Ross King hastens to point out in his new book, "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling," not everything you may have heard about this great achievement is true. The image of the solitary artist, lying flat on his back on a scaffold, paint dripping onto his face, is a misapprehension.
Although Michelangelo did paint many parts of the vast fresco himself, he also had assistants who worked on other parts. And, although he did indeed have to paint in a position that was very uncomfortable, the evidence indicates he stood on a platform with his head bent back, facing up at the vault. But with a story as inherently fascinating to recount as this one, such minor demythologizing hardly detracts.
Like Irving Stone, Ross King is a popularizer, writing for the general public rather than the specialist. Indeed, like Stone, he has even worked in the realm of fiction (Walker & Company are also bringing out his historical novel "Domino," which appeared in England in 1995). But "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling" is straight nonfiction, continuing in the mode of King's previous book, "Brunelleschi's Dome." In that book, King focused particularly on the challenges of designing, planning, and constructing what was then the world's largest dome.
In this new book, his focus widens. Not only does he describe the complicated process of fresco painting, but he also provides details of Michelangelo's family problems and Pope Julius's military campaigns. The result is a lively depiction of a tumultuous era, with cameo portraits of some of its key figures, including Luther, Erasmus, Machiavelli, the epic poet Ariosto, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael Santi, who was busy painting panels in the papal apartments while Michelangelo was working on the larger, more public area of the chapel ceiling.
Michelangelo and Raphael were a study in contrasts: the former surly, suspicious, fierce, and outspoken, the latter charming, generous, and sociable. The 16th-century art historian Vasari, uncannily anticipating Freudian theory, actually attributed Raphael's benign temperament to his having been breast-fed by his own mother rather than farmed out, as many children were, to a peasant wet nurse.
King also draws our attention to the contrasts in their artistic gifts: If Raphael excelled at the art of composition and the depiction of facial expressions and gestures, Michelangelo portrayed the human body with a power, passion, and realism that were unprecedented. "In fact," King points out, "his works accurately depict structures so recondite that medical anatomy, five hundred years later, has yet to name them."
Raphael so admired Michelangelo's ceiling, he added a portrait of Michelangelo to his own painting "The School of Athens," aptly depicting him as the somber Greek philosopher Heraclitus, whose famous comment, "You cannot step into the same river twice," bespoke his vision of the universe as existing in a state of constant flux. The dynamism of Michelangelo's work was as astonishing to his contemporaries as it is to us.
If Michelangelo was a difficult customer, passionate, intense, defiant, and outspoken, his rough edges were nothing compared with the megalomania of his patron Julius II, whom his contemporaries dubbed "il papa terribile." Also known as the warrior pope, Julius II spent much of his reign waging war against the French and against various insubordinate Italian cities. A powerful, robust man, he even led his troops into battle. Not for nothing was he called Julius, for his great ambition was to emulate Caesar and restore Rome to its former imperial splendor, which was, of course, a boon for artists and architects. But where Raphael responded with paintings that glorified the pope and his policies, Michelangelo disapproved.
Aware of Michelangelo's tendency to fulminate against injustices and complain bitterly of personal hardships, King develops a countervailing tendency to downplay the very real problems his subject faced. He sometimes falls into the trap of becoming unduly irritated by Michelangelo and overly critical of him. Another weakness of this book is that it is insufficiently illustrated: Often one finds oneself searching in vain for a picture that is being discussed at length in the text.
But apart from these minor drawbacks, King has produced a knowledgeable, lucidly written, highly enjoyable book that clarifies the nature and magnitude of Michelangelo's undertaking, while helping us freshly appreciate the originality and amplitude of his achievement.
• Merle Rubin reviews books for the Monitor and the Wall Street Journal.