Friday, January 06, 2006

Best Books of 2005 - History II

Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling by Ross King

I was leery when we began reading this book at table, but early on, it completely won the community over. Art historian King is surprisingly sympathetic toward Michelangelo and Pope Julian, both notoriously difficult characters (oddly, Raphael, who lurks about as M's rival throughout, fares poorly in King story). The astonishing feat of painting the oddly shaped ceiling is not only oft-recounted, it is almost proverbial. Here, the actual story is more amazing than that: Michelangelo, the sculptor who knew little of fresco technique and had little experience in perspective drawing, is chosen over a host of other worthies for this task.

The reader learns how he and his assistants improved their work as they went along; why the images get bolder and simpler as they move from Noah to the Creation; how daring and revolutionary the image of God touching Adam's finger is (e.g. the image is not Biblical); how quickly they had to work to finish each part of an image before the plaster dried, and so on. The scaffolding alone was a marvel of the time.

As I mentioned above, I was especially appreciative towards King in that he takes both men seriously as being from a very different time. Pope Julian (one of the very worst Renaissance popes) is actually somewhat lovable as he is portrayed in the very different religious setting. King takes Michelangelo at his word that he was celibate for the sake of his art. And so on.

Very highly recommended!

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