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Let`s figure it out: could it be that Michelangelo did the Sistine Chapel completely on his own? Were there any helpers?

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High ceiling uncomfortable to work, absence of paints, complex painting technique, 1115 square meters of space, four and a half years` period, impatient and capricious customer, and the sculptor, who had to retrain quickly as a painter… The story of Michelangelo`s painting the Sistine chapel ceiling alone, often seems to be a beautiful legend with some magic spray gun behind it, invented by some second Leonardo, or Doctor Who, who arrived in his blue box to help the artist with some 25th century technology.
"This work has been and truly is a beacon of our art, and it has brought such benefit and enlightenment to the art of painting that it was sufficient to illuminate a world which for so many hundreds of years had remained in the state of darkness. And, to tell the truth, anyone who is a painter no longer needs to concern himself about seeing innovations and inventions, new ways of painting poses, clothing on figures, and various awe-inspiring details, for Michelangelo gave to this work all the perfection that can be given to such details."

— Giorgio Vasari
on Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel
It seems that we can assume the father of the legend about Michelangelo`s sole painting of the ceiling to be his younger contemporary, Giorgio Vasari. He was an important, though not an outstanding painter, known to us as the author of "Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors, and architects", undoubtedly invaluable, though at times surprisingly inaccurate work.
Giorgio Vasari. Self-portrait

Giorgio Vasari, Self-Portrait (between 1550 and 1567). The Uffizi Gallery, Florence.


According to Vasari, Michelangelo got the commission to fresco the vault of the Sistine Chapel "thanks" to his constant rival, the architect Bramante, who "influenced the mind of the pontiff to employ Michelangelo. Bramante, who was the friend and kinsman of Raphael, hoped to thwart Michelangelo in his sculpture, in which he was perfect, and compel him to paint in fresco, in which they expected him to prove himself inferior to Raphael. Or, should he succeed in painting, it was almost certain that he would be so enraged as to secure the success of their main purpose, which was to get rid of Michelangelo". However, this idea could have possibly occured to Julius without Bramante`s help, as he was obviously pleased to give the uncomfortable task to an obstinate young master. Besides, he already had the experience in rivalling with Michelangelo, when he ordered his bronze equestrian statue (the sculptor had no experience in bronze casting for that moment).


The chapel needed renovation badly, as the former unimaginative depiction of a starry sky was spoiled by partially ruined ceiling; and the repairs carried out by Bramante could hardly conceal the gaping "patch".

Reconstruction of the Sistine chapel ceiling, approx. 1481. XIX century engraving.
Michelangelo Buonarroti. The Delphic sibyl. A fragment of the painting of the Sistine chapel ceiling

Michelangelo Buonarotti. Detail of 'Delphic Sibyl' from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.




Having suppressed the resistance of Michelangelo, claiming "I will not paint, because I am not a painter", the Pope relented by giving the compositional solution to the will of the artist. "In the first sketch
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
of this work there were only the twelve apostles in sails, and the rest was a kind of division, filled, as usual, with all sorts of decorations. Further on, when the work was already started, I thought that all this would turn out poor, and I told the Pope that if You put just the apostles there, the thing will become poor, I believe. Then he gave me a new assignment letting me make anything I wish, saying that he wouldn’t hurt me and so I could paint the whole piece, all the way down to the frescoes at the bottom of the murals
," Michelangelo wrote to his friend Fattucci.

That is, the Pope would be quite satisfied with the ceiling decorated with a dozen of picturesque figures in the lower part, and the rest of the space divided, for example, in caissons, then painted in the "trompe l’oeil" technique or filled with the "grotesques" figures. If the master sticked to this plan, then his execution of the plan with no assistants and within the set period of time would make no one particularly surprised. But Michelangelo was not looking for easy ways (or just kept stalling in hope that the customer could change his mind).
We can not say with certainty what theologians Michelangelo sought help when creating the draft of the decoration, but the biographers are cautious to name cardinal Marco Vigero, the relative of Sixtus V, the author of many theological works, along with cardinal Egidio Antonini (da Vitebro), former chief adviser of Pope Julius in theological matters, as Michelangelo`s consultants for the Sistine.
By the way, in the process of preparing the chapel for the decoration, Michelangelo managed to annoy Bramante in response, as he rejected the scaffolding with the ropes suspending through perforations in the ceiling constructed by the latter, replacing it with the scaffolding designed by Michelangelo himself. Michelangelo also spoiled the mood of several other artists, whose paintings had to be removed to make room for his plan.
Sooner or later, there came the moment for Michelangelo to pick up the brush, and the artist was not too brilliant in this. Of course, he could work with paints, after all his first teachers were the Ghirlandaio painters, and they might have time to acquaint him with the classical technique of fresco painting. In any case, he felt quite capable of it, enough to compete with Leonardo da Vinci for the right to paint the wall of the Palazzo della Signoria. Though, to paint the Sistine chapel such a brief acquaintance was not enough, so he decided to invite consultants. Reverent towards the teacher, Vasari recounts this story:

"The extent of the work compelled Michelagnolo to seek assistance. Hoping that his work would defeat the masters who had earlier painted the chapel, and to show modern artists how to draw and paint, he sent for his friends to Florence. When he had finished the cartoons, and it was time to start fresco painting, several painters, his friends, arrived in Rome from Florence to aid him in his work and to show him the techniques of fresco painting, in which some of them were rather experienced, among them were Francesco Granacci, Giuliano Bugiardini, Bastiano da San Gallo surnamed Aristotele, Angelo di Donnino, Jacopo di Sandro, and Jacopo surnamed l’Indaco. Getting started, he asked them to do something for experience. But seeing that all their efforts did not meet his desires, and cannot satisfy his plan, one morning he decided to erase what they have done; shutting in the chapel, he did not let them in, and even at home, he did not allow them to see him. Then they realized that if everything was a joke, then it lasted too long, so they returned to Florence shamefully. Michelagnolo decided to do all the work himself, with his great diligence and hard work bringing it it to a prosperous end, he did not show his work to anyone, so the desire to see it grew immensely".

If we remove all the reverence from the text, there will remain the naked and rather nasty essence: having acquired the peculiarities of the fresco painting technique, Michelangelo forced the assistants to leave the work without any explanation. The situation is really ugly, but all the biographers of the genius know that when the angels were handing out good character and communication skills, Michelangelo preferred to stand for talent once again.
Having dispersed (according to Vasari) all the extra people, the master finally took up the ceiling, where he decided to depict the major scenes from the Old Testament.
Giuliano Bougirdini. Portrait of Michelangelo wearing a turban
Giuliano Bugiardini (Giuliano di Piero di Simone), "Portrait of Michelangelo Wearing a Turban" (1522)


He planned to stick to the old reliable technique of painting onto the damp plaster, when the plaster was laid thinly in a new section every day, called a giornata. At the beginning of each session, the edges would be scraped away and a new area laid down. The edges between giornate remain slightly visible; thus, they give a good idea of how the work progressed, allowing the researchers to roughly calculate the number of days spent on painting.

It should be noted that the skills gained from the expelled artists were not enough: Roman lime used as the top layer of the plaster differed from the Florentine one, so the fresco got moldy rapidly. At this point, the traditional legend about the ceiling created by some master, features one of the previously expelled — the painter Jacopo l`Indako (or, according to Vasari, the architect Giuliano da Sangallo), who advised to add more sand to the base mortar.
However, according to many art historians, it was not immediately that Bugiardini Giuliano and Francesco Granacci, mentioned by Vasari, "shamefully returned to Florence", but only after their substantial assistance to Michelangelo.

All three of the painters knew each other since their apprenticeship at the workshop of Ghirlandaio. It is known that in 1530-s Michelangelo helped Bugiardini to execute the "Martyrdom of St Catherine" painting. We do not know the names of his other assistants, but they were undoubtedly present. The involvement of other painters was identified by the researchers in some of the decorative details, at least in the architectural trompe-l`oils. Unfortunately, a significant part of their work was lost during the last restoration; Michelangelo allowed to bring to perfection some fragments in 'dry' technique, which did not tolerate cleaning with chemicals, in contrast to classical frescoes, firmly bonding with plaster.

Michelangelo, "The Fall and Expulsion from Paradise".
The image is composed of the photographs before and after the restoration of 1980−94.
It is because of the fear to lose the pentimenti, highlights and shadows, and other detailing painted a secco, that many experts opposed to a large-scale restoration of the frescoes, despite the fact that they were so discoloured by the centuries of candle smoke as to make the pictures seem almost monochrome.

Michelangelo Buonarroti. The Sistine chapel. The Eritrean sibyl
Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Erythraean Sibyl, detail of the mural in the Sistine chapel

Why was Vasari, who wrote his story at much later period after the actual painting of the vault, though, undoubtedly, when Michelangelo was alive, so convinced in the absence of assistants? Perhaps because working specifically on this part of his work, Vasari was very biased, as he was describing not some of the old masters, but his contemporary, teacher and older friend. Most likely, it didn’t even occur to Vasari to doubt what was told by his teacher Michelangelo about the events of almost forty years before that.

We don’t know whether Michelangelo just forgot the details of the work in the Sistine chapel, or deliberately edited his memories. Though, most likely, the real parting of the master with his Florentine assistants happened right after their completion of the part describing the story of Noah. As for the story about the master who, " one morning, decided to remove all made by them," may refer to the part of the fresco, which had to be significantly remodelled because of mold.
However, after his getting rid of the Florentines, Michelangelo, surely, had his apprentices staying by his side, as the peculiarities of fresco painting technique on such vast areas did not imply that one man (albeit thrice a genius) could himself prepare the surface, draw the contour from the cartoon to the plaster, to grind the paints — all without a contact with ground, on the high scaffolding. Even Vasari, in his description of the master`s feat, mentions one person who grinded the paints for him.
On the other hand, even if another three or four people were on the scaffolding together with the artist, Michelangelo did the incredible work. The artist described its hardships (commensurate with the low pay) in his letter to Giovanni da Pistoia:


"When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel"
1509

I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).

My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.

My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.

Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.

My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.


Michelangelo
Sketch
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
illustrating a sonnet describing the painting of the Sistine Chapel

(drawn on the margins of Michelangelo`s letter to Giovanni da Pistoia).



There is a common misconception that Michelangelo executed the frescoes lying on scaffolding. In fact, he had to work standing, with his face looking upwards; it is confirmed by Michelangelo`s humorous sketch
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
shown above and the location of the perforations made for the support of the scaffolding.

It impaired his sight so badly that he could not read or look at drawings save with his head turned backwards, and this lasted for several months afterwards.
A quarter of a century later, when Michelangelo painted Last Judgement in the Sistine chapel, Sebastiano del Piombo, a former friend of the sculptor, made an attempt to intervene into the workflow.
Michelangelo Buonarroti. Last judgment, fresco the altar wall of the Sistine chapel, detail: Christ with Mary
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Last Judgment Fresco (1536−41),
altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, The Vatican, Rome, a detail with Christ and the Virgin Mary


Wishing to save the eldery master from the hardships of the "real fresco", he persuaded Pope Paul III to make the fresco in secco (dry), he even ordered to prepare the surface that way. According to Vasari, Michelangelo immediately responded that working in secco is for women and lazy wealthy people like del Piombo, then ordered to clean it off to have it primed anew.
Despite his age, the master let to serious help in this work only Urbino, his former servant, assistant, and friend, allowing him to paint the backround in places. The rest of the "support team" was entrusted to prepare the paints and make the surface ready for painting.



To be exact, large-scale assistance of another person was involved later. In 1564, it was decided to paint over all the offending nudities of the mural with clothes. The dubious honor was granted to Michelangelo`s apprentice, Daniele da Volterra (for this work he got the contemptuous nickname "Danny the Panty-Painter"). To honor da Volterra`s honor, he executed his task very carefully, so they were rather easily removed afterwards, except for the detail of St. Catherine, that was cut out and completely replaced by Volterra`s painting.

Author: Oksana Sanzharova
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