In part III of this series on Michelangelo, we will discuss the technical matters of completing the work in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo was not a painter, so how did he complete the task of painting the ceiling and the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel? How did he design such a massive project and what was his process?
Michelangelo was an exemplary example of mastery because he studied techniques extensively. His spirit was able to persevere through the many mistakes he would inevitably make.
The art of representing the human body required a lot of study in Renaissance Italy. Many artists were required to produce suprasensible imagery instead of merely copying what was in front of them. This did not mean that artists were to ignore nature. Au contraire: artists had to study nature so closely that they were able to reproduce the appearance of nature without referencing it.
Michelangelo was a student at the Medici Academy where he studied philosophy and art, including anatomy. According to Vasari, “On many occasions, Michelangelo dissected dead bodies in order to study the details of anatomy and began to perfect the great skill in design that he subsequently possessed” (421). This knowledge of human anatomy and design would be crucial in allowing him to produce multi-figural compositions for the large frescos in the Sistine Chapel.
How did Michelangelo employ his knowledge of anatomy into the design of the Sistine ceiling? According to Ross King, author of Michelangelo and The Pope’s Ceiling: “Before a single stroke of paint could be applied to the vault of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo needed to produce hundreds of sketches to establish both the intricate body language of the characters and the overall composition of the various scenes. The poses for many of his figures, including the dispositions of their hands and expressions on their faces, were composed through six or seven separate studies, which means he may have executed over 1,000 drawings in the course of his work on the fresco. These ranged from tiny scribbles — thumbnail sketches called primo pensieri, or ‘first thoughts’ — to dozens of highly detailed, larger-than-life cartoons” (King 81).
Michelangelo’s sketches from what is now called The Sistine Sketchbook show very loose, quick, pensieri. For a project as large as the Sistine ceiling, Michelangelo needed and wanted a plan. Creating pensieri was a way of quickly planning the whole composition without getting too attached to any one idea too soon. Michelangelo’s technique involved developing his design from general to specific: he started with general sketches, and he only did more detailed drawings after he had designed poses he found pleasing.
Michelangelo completed many of the pensieri in charcoal and bistre — a brown pigment made from soot. He did many of the more detailed drawings in hematite, or red chalk, a medium made popular by Leonardo da Vinci. (King 81).
Michelangelo’s more detailed drawings not only focused on accurate full-body poses but also included very detailed anatomy studies for the poses he planned to paint. He focused intently on the details of faces and the anatomical structure of hands, feet, and torsos so he would have less guesswork when he was ready to paint.
In “Studies for the Libyan Sibyl,” we can see how a pensieri is more fully developed. We are shown close-up studies of toes, a foot, a hand, and a face. We also can see an anatomical study for the trapezius, deltoid, and scapular muscles. All of these elements are combined into the beautifully rendered red chalk drawing of the Libyan Sibyl. At this point, if Michelangelo was pleased, his drawing would be turned into an illustration for the ceiling.
After initial designs were settled upon, cartoons were made repeatedly. According to King, “[Michelangelo’s] habit for the Sistine Chapel would be to produce sketches and cartoons only as he needed them — that is, only at the last possible minute. After making designs for and then frescoing one part of the ceiling, he would go back to the drawing board — quite literally — and begin making sketches and cartoons for the next.” (82-83).
But Michelangelo had to find a way to get up to the ceiling before he could apply his designs. Pope Julius initially wanted Bramante to design a scaffold. Bramante wanted to hang a scaffold from the ceiling, but Michelangelo, with complaints about the holes that would be left in the ceiling if the scaffold were made that way, decided to make the scaffold himself. Michelangelo had to consider the best way to access the ceiling without disrupting the services below.
According to Dr. Wallace:
“He had a scaffold. The scaffold was enough to block whatever was going on… the Sistine was being used the entire time he was painting so services were taking place there, which is the whole reason why he invented this amazing technical scaffold that did not interrupt the services below.”
Michelangelo was ready to paint the ceiling after his scaffold was designed and his initial drawings were completed. Michelangelo, however, was not versed in the technical aspects of fresco. His lack of knowledge did not slow him down, however, and he hired a team of experts to help him get started. According to King: “In these early days, Michelangelo must have acted something like a foreman, delegating tasks to his various assistants.” (King 84).
During our discussion, Dr. Wallace told me: “Fresco is an extremely complicated process. You just can’t do it alone. You need water, you need people to hold the cartoons against the plaster, you need to prick the cartoons. The cartoons are big. It takes two to three people to hold it against the wall and you have to pounce the cartoons. All of it’s a very technical process that requires several hands.”
There was a limited amount of time with which Michelangelo could paint after the plaster was put on the ceiling. It was necessary for Michelangelo to paint into the plaster before it completely dried, a technique called buon fresco. Michelangelo’s helpers would’ve pricked holes along the outline of the cartoons, held the cartoons up to the wet plaster, and pounced pigment through the holes in the cartoon. This would leave an outline of the image Michelangelo was to paint on the wet plaster. It is in this way that Michelangelo would’ve transferred his preliminary sketches for the Libyan Sibyl onto the ceiling in preparation for what would become the painting of the Libyan Sibyl.
Contrary to popular belief, Michelangelo did not paint the ceiling lying on his back but standing. According to King, “Applying the intonaco or spreading the paint simply required them to lean backward slightly and extend their arms upward. Contrary to myth, then, Michelangelo did not fresco the ceiling while lying prone on his back.” (King 85). Michelangelo even sketched himself in the position he took as he painted the ceiling.
As he progressed, Michelangelo was learning a lot from the artists he hired. Hiring experts, however, did not prevent technical mishaps from occurring. According to Dr. Wallace: “Michelangelo struggled with the manifold difficulties of painting the highly irregular, leaky vault” (90).
Vasari tells of the point in the process in which Michelangelo had an issue with mold developing on the ceiling: “When a third of the chapel had been completed, certain spots of mold started to appear one winter as the north wind was blowing” (441).
Dr. Wallace expounded upon this technical mishap: “He did run into technical problems: he was mixing the plaster a little too wet. Plaster… depends on [the] right temperature for fresco, and it was different in Rome from Florence. The pozzolana, which is the dry dust that you mix in water, was a very different texture in Rome than in Florence, so… mold crept in at an early stage.”
Michelangelo was discouraged when the mold seemed set to destroy his creation. According to Vasari, “Michelangelo was in despair over this and did not want to continue, and when he apologized to the pope for the work that did not turn out well, His Holiness sent Giuliano da San Gallo there, who explained to Michelangelo the origin of the defect, encouraged him to continue, and showed him how to remove the mold” (441).
After being shown how to deal with the issue, Michelangelo removed the mold and continued with confidence. He finished the other two-thirds of the ceiling and unveiled the technical marvel on November 1, 1512.
Twenty-five years later, Michelangelo tackled the Last Judgment fresco on the altar wall. He had more experience this time and avoided many of the difficulties he had in painting the ceiling. His process was the same: he created pensieri, more detailed drawings, cartoons, etc. This time, however, he tried to create a structure that would prevent dust from falling on the fresco while he worked.
According to Vasari: “[Michelangelo]… caused a projection of well-baked and chosen bricks to be carefully built on the wall of the above-named chapel (a thing which was not there before), and contrived that it should overhang half a braccio from above, so that neither dust nor dirt might be able to settle on it” (270).
Michelangelo was asked to complete a project that was foreign to him. He not only stepped up to the occasion but also exceeded expectations. His desire to express the divine through the human form helped him create a modern marvel that we continue to appreciate 500 years later. He experienced setbacks and hardship, but he did not give up. Sometimes, it only took a little encouragement for him to continue through the difficulty.
I asked Dr. Wallace how Michelangelo’s life could serve as encouragement for us artists in pursuit of mastery and he left me with this statement:
“Tend to your craft. Keep at it, keep at it, keep at it. Never give up. Tend to your craft. Craftsmanship is the thing that died away. It’s what the Renaissance was so very, very good with… Somehow we separated craftsmanship from art with a capital A, but it shouldn’t be. I don’t think they should separate. Craftsmanship is not something different from art. Art and craft are not two different categories.”
- King, Ross. Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling. Penguin Books, 2003.
- Vasari, Giorgio. “Michelangelo.” The Lives of the Artists. Trans by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella, Oxford University Press, 1991.
- Wallace, William. “Completing the Ceiling.” “The Last Judgment.” Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man, and His Times. Cambridge University Press, 2010.