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Michelangelo versus Pope Julius II: The Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo's masterpiece -the Sistine Chapel Photo, Rome, Italy

The story of the Sistine Chapel is one of obcession, genius and the clash of two powerful personalities. They have to be the most famous frescoes in the world and every visitor to Rome feels obliged to see them. To me, they were absolutely magnificent and all the better for the story behind them.

Michelangelo had not wanted to paint the frescoes for the pope's private chapel. He saw himself more as a sculptor as he was the creator of the masterpiece 'David' which is in the Accademmia in Florence. But he was set up to fail by a jealous rival - Bramante - and the Pope Julius II gave him the commission. Michelangelo took four years to do it and the warlike pope would frequently burst in and demand why he was taking so long? Michelangelo's solution? Lock God's representative out of his own chapel. You have to admire the cheek of the man.

The Sistine Chapel can only be viewed on a visit to the Musei Vaticani. It is not at the start which means you have to traverse over three miles of corridors to get to it. The entrance is surprisingly insignificant just a simple door in a wall and once through you are aware of a huge barnlike expanse and crowds of people. Over 20,000 people in peak season trudge through the Chapel each day, each one sparing only an average of one minute looking at the frescoes. As I entered most were standing in the centre with necks craned. My solution to the crowds was to find a bench around the edge and take a seat. No speaking is allowed in the chapel (although this is blatantly ignored) and no photos (the below pic is a postcard). I spent 3/4 of an hour there lapping up the stories and gossip of what went on to create this masterpiece.

The Chapel was painted in three stages. Originally there was just the walls and the ceiling was a vision of the night's sky. But Julius II wanted something to complement them, and finally there is the 'Last Judgment' above the altar which was the last to be completed. As your eyes follow the frescoes around the walls it becomes evident that the frescoes on the left depict the life of Moses and those on the right that of Christ. The scenes really stand out such as the fleeing of the Israelites from Egypt and the Sermon on the Mount. Michelangelo was only one of many to paint the wall screens others included Botticelli, Roselli, Perugio and Ghirlandaio.

But it is the ceiling that everyone risks neck-ache to see. Starting from the far wall there is 'The Creation of Light', 'The Creation of the Sun and Moon' (with god throwing huge globes around), 'The Creation of Man' (with that spark of life between God and Adam) and Temptation of the Garden of Eden. Everything has been recently restored and I marvelled at how sharp and bright the colours were. The audioguide was good at telling you how the frescoes were completed. Images must be completed each day before the plaster dries so Michelangelo only had eight hours a day to paint. Following this technique you can work out how long it took Michelangelo to complete each frescoe. Adam took four days to paint while God took only three. What does that tell you about the meaning of life?

I found the whole experience wonderful but only because I had a really good audioguide. The colours of the frescoes are just as sharp as they were on completion in 1514. You can imagine the 'word-of-mouth' that went around Europe at the time. Julius II must have forgiven the artist over the time he took on seeing it in all its glory. Maybe it was worth shutting out the Pope after all?

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