Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling – Ross King


There are many who have either viewed in person, watched a program on, or read something about the Sistine Chapel, and in particular about Michelangelo’s ceiling. To stand beneath this recently restored masterpiece is an experience like no other but to delve into the history around, the personalities involved in and the techniques around this masterpiece takes one to a new and important level of appreciation.

I am an unashamed history buff and should I have had the opportunity to choose my career all over again, albeit I have thoroughly enjoyed the one I have had, it would be in one which delved into Renaissance history, so it is no wonder now that with the time I have to indulge this particular love I am immersing myself in reading all that I can.

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King (Penguin Books, 2003) is my latest re-read. King focuses here on the four years Michelangelo spent labouring over the ceiling, but he places this immense work within the context of the politics and rivalries which abounded in Italy during those years. With a particular characteristic style (his other works include Brunelleschi’s Dome) King walks us, sometimes with painful reality, through the trials and tribulations of Michelangelo, much of which can be attributed to his own personality, in first of all, accepting (reluctantly) the commission for the ceiling, his overwhelming frustration of dealing with Pope Julius II, and his rivalry with the brilliant and personable Raphael.

Whilst these issues are highly intriguing in themselves, King takes the reader on a journey through Michelangelo’s preparation and techniques, changing as he developed the skills necessary to complete this monumental work, so that the reader  can glimpse into the genius yet tormented mind of a man whose only real objective was to create in marble the final resting place of Julius II, something he never was able to achieve to the extent he had envisioned.

The characters which King weaves through his book are extensive – Julius II, Erasmus, Martin Luther, Louis XII, the Buonarroti family, Cardinal Alidosi, and of course, Raphael (just to name a few) – so one gains something of a contextualized image of the world of this four years for Michelangelo and those around him.

The enjoyment of the reading of this book comes not only from it’s content, but the style of King makes this a rewarding read, even for those who may not have a love of Renaissance history as I. It moves with a pleasing pace, can be put down (if you can) and picked up again and the continuity does not suffer.

If you have ever had an interest in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and you want to read a book that puts this masterpiece at the centre of the dialogue, then this is a must read. Highly recommended indeed.


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