MICHELANGELO & THE POPE'S CEILING, Ross King, Walker & Company, $28, hardback, 384 pp.

"Michelangelo & the Pope's Ceiling," by Ross King, author of "Brunelleschi's Dome," is a myth-buster; an insightful, thought-provoking treatise on what may or may not have actually taken place between Pope Julius II and Michelangelo during the four years it took the artist to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It also shows just how difficult it was for the Florentine genius to complete the project.

Along the way, King gives readers a fascinating tour of Renaissance politics and religion, mostly Catholic, but also the beginning breaths of Protestantism (the short piece on Luther's first visit to Rome is delightful).

Readers are also treated to the lives of other artists of the period, some important and some now forgotten. The contest between Michelangelo and Raphael, the differences in their lifestyles and temperaments and how each dealt with the other's fame and success, is one of the book's highlights.

While Michelangelo was known for his poor personal hygiene and his irascible demeanor, Raphael was famous for his personal charm. Artists biographer Vasari attributed his sweet, civilized nature to being breast-fed by his mother instead of a wet nurse. Even animals were said to have loved him instinctively.

Where Michelangelo was a loner, loathing company and hangers-on, Raphael had a retinue of disciples thirsting for words from their master's lips.

King writes: "On one occasion, legend has it, Raphael was leaving the Vatican in the company of his vast entourage when he encountered Michelangelo — who, typically, was alone — in the middle of the Piazza San Pietro. 'You with your band, like a bravo,' sneered Michelangelo. 'And you alone, with your hangman,' retorted Raphael."

As different as they were, each was an artist of genius. When Raphael saw the completed first half of the Sistine fresco, it is reported that he was so impressed he soon inserted Michelangelo's image, as the philosopher Heraclitus, into his own fresco, "The School of Athens."

Here are some dispelled myths and interesting facts garnered from King's book:

Though Michelangelo, 33, had some training as a painter when commissioned to paint the Sistine ceiling, he had not worked in fresco for nearly 20 years.

Fresco, meaning "fresh," is the art of painting into wet plaster. A painter had no more than 12 to 24 hours to finish before the plaster no longer absorbed the pigments.

Contrary to legend, Michelangelo did not paint the ceiling lying on his back. He built a special scaffolding so he could do it standing up and bending backward.

Michelangelo complained that he was underpaid for the Sistine ceiling, but in fact he was paid 30 times as much as a qualified artisan could expect to earn in a single year.

In an excerpt from the book, readers get an interesting glimpse of the genius artist:

Worse than Michelangelo's frugality was his personal hygiene, or lack thereof. "His nature was so rough and uncouth," wrote Paolo Giovio in his biography of the artist, "that his domestic habits were incredibly squalid, and deprived posterity of any pupils who might have succeeded him." There is no reason to doubt that Michelangelo faithfully followed his father's advice. "Never wash yourself," Lodovico urged his son. "Allow yourself to be rubbed, but don't wash yourself." Even Condivi was forced to admit that Michelangelo had some disgusting habits after witnessing how he "often slept in his clothes and in the boots, which he has always worn . . . and he has sometimes gone so long without taking them off that then the skin came away like a snake's with the boots." This sight was disconcerting even in an age when people changed their clothes and went to the public baths, at most, only once a week.

Pope Julius II, l papa terrble, was more a warrior prince than Christ's representative on earth. He was irascible, mean-spirited, envious, vindictive and addicted to rich food and beautiful women. King rehearses Julius' faults as easily as he does those of Michelangelo. In fact, the author concludes that the reason the pope and artist argued so much was because they were exactly alike in temperament. But if Julius hadn't been the man he was, Michelangelo — an artist who considered himself a sculptor, not a painter — would never have painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and that would have been a tragedy.

"Michelangelo & the Pope's Ceiling" is a pleasure to read on many levels: world history, art history, military history, religion, economics and more.


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