Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel:
The Personal and Political Difficulties in Creating a Masterpiece

I've grown a goiter by dwelling in this den-
as cats from stagnant streams in Lombardy,
or in what other land they hap to be-
which drives the belly close beneath the chin:

my beard turns up to heaven; my nape falls in,
fixed on my spine: my breastbone visibly
grows like a harp: a rich embroidery
bedews my face from brush-drops thick and thin.

My loins into my paunch like levers grind:
my buttock like a crupper bears my weight;
my feet unguided wander to and fro;

in front my skins grows loose and long; behind,
by bending it becomes more taut and strait;
crosswise I strain me like a Syrian bow:

whence false and quaint, I know,
must be the fruit of squinting brain and eye;
for ill can aim the gun that bends awry.

Come then, Giovanni, try
to succor my dead pictures and my fame;
since foul I fare and painting is my shame.

Michelangelo's Poem: On the Painting of the Sistine Chapel

In creating his celebrated masterpiece, the fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo Buonarroti faced physical, emotional and political adversities.(1) The maliciousness of Buonarroti's enemy Donato Bramante, Pope Julius' impatience, emotional strains of supporting his family and physical exertion overcame by Michelangelo helps show that artistic genius often grows from sacrifice. To fully appreciate the skills of the master and his gifted talents in creating such an incredible work, it is essential to examine the struggles he overcame to accomplish his masterpiece.

To understand the turmoil's that Michelangelo encounter in Rome before and during the completion of the chapel it is important to have a basic knowledge of his life leading up to its commission. Born into a noble but impoverished Florentines family on March 6, 1475, and baptized Michelangiolo di Lodovico di Lionardo di Buonarroto Simoni, he was the second son of Lodovico di Lionardo Buonarroti Simoni.(2) After his eldest brother entered the Dominican order, Buonarroti took care of his poor family as if he were the first born son. Letters from the master "increasingly reveal the seriousness with which he took this burden and the importance he gave his family's status and welfare."(3) As a youth his father intended Michelangelo to be a man of letters, but the artist had different plans for himself. The master would run away at spare moments between studies to draw or paint. This angered his father and uncle and Buonarroti often suffered beatings for such insolence.(4) Despite such treatment Michelangelo continued to pursue his dreams. In April 1488, at age thirteen, Michelangelo entered his first apprenticeship under the tutelage of the artist Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94).(5) Ghirlandaio was painting a fresco on the chapel of Santa Maria Novella and needed the additional help of many apprentices and painters. It is more than likely that Michelangelo gained the knowledge needed to paint the Sistine Chapel while in Ghirlandaio's school.(6)

Michelangelo's training under his first teacher lasted approximately one year before Lorenzo de' Medici took interest in the gifted young man. Medici, known as Lorenzo il Magnifico, wished for Buonarroti to study the sculptures in his gardens at San Marco and become a member of his household. Although Michelangelo's father was unhappy with his son becoming a 'stonemason,' Lodovico could or would not refuse Lorenzo's request.(7) From the moment Buonarroti entered Lorenzo's household he acquired his undying love for and devotion to sculpture, and excelled within this genre. He became a master of marble, never turning his thoughts to painting until contracted to work on the Sistine Chapel. There is little doubt that the association with Lorenzo helped Buonarroti, not only as an artist but also intellectually. While in the court of the Medici's Michelangelo kept company with the greatest intellectuals and artist of the time.

Michelangelo lived within the Medici residence for many years. Due to the death of Lorenzo, growing distrust of the Medici's, and possibly the preaching of Savonarola, Buonarroti felt the need to leave the beautiful city of Florence. This was a very difficult decision partly because of the heartache of leaving his family. Michelangelo desired to return to his beloved city when it was safe to do so. Only after the Florentine people forcibly removed the Medici family and the riots ended, when the artist was about twenty-two years old, did he again set foot in his native country.(8)

Michelangelo's career flourished during his self imposed exile and afterwards. From the time he left Florence until he began work on the Sistine Chapel, Buonarroti created many glorious works within his expertise; sculpture. Some of these earlier sculptures are: St. Proculus, St. Petronius, the little Madonna on the Steps, and Angel Bearing Candelabrum to name a few.(9) When the great sculptor was in Rome from 1496-1501 he created the Bacchus and arguably his most beautiful sculpture, the Pieta of St. Peter representing one of the 'Seven Sorrows of the Virgin.'(10) Upon returning to Florence in 1501, Michelangelo found his city changed. Its government had become more stable and it was entering a high renaissance.(11) It was at this time that Michaelangelo created his most renown sculpture, David the giant. Until the creation of the Sistine Chapel, David held the honor of being Buonarroti's greatest masterpiece.

While Michelangelo gained acceptance and acknowledgment as a master, he also gained enemies. Extremely competitive, the art world of the Renaissance saw a constant flow of animosity amongst fellow artists. Even before beginning the chapel Donato Bramante, a favorite architect of Pope Julius II, attempted to set Michelangelo up for a fall to elevate his preferred artist, Raphael. In a letter sent to Michelangelo from Piero Rosselli written in 1506, Rosselli wrote:

[Bramante] said, 'Holy Father[Pope Julius II], for sure he will not come, for I am intimate with Michelangelo, and he told me that he would not undertake the chapel, although you insisted upon giving him this task, but that he would only attend to the tomb and not to painting.' And he further said, 'Holy Father, I believe he lacks the heart to do it, for he has not done all that many figures, especially where the figures are high up and foreshortened, which is quite another thing from painting on the ground.'(12)
Rosselli, further in his letter, defends Michelangelo and states that he knew Bramante lied about being on intimate terms with the great artist.(13)

It is important to point out that Michelangelo himself acknowledged that his skills lay in sculpture not painting. Painting held little interest for the master. Throughout his life he preferred the chisel to the brush. His preference is apparent by the way he signs his letters even while painting the ceiling:

I, Michelangelo, sculptor. In fact he begged Pope Julius, almost to the point of angering the pontificate, to give the commission to another.(14) The pope would have no one but Buonarroti paint the grand ceiling. Apparently the Holy Father had faith and a better insight into the genius of Michelangelo than the artist did.

By 1508, Bramante urged the pope to end Michelangelo's work on Julius' tomb in order for the artist to paint the chapel. It is Giovanni Papini's opinion that the architect had ulterior motives for this change of heart. Bramante's thoughts may have strayed in two directions. If Michelangelo did not accept the contract offered by the pope, then in anger Julius would eliminate him as a favored artist in the Vatican. Alternately, if Buonarroti accepted Bramante believed he would fail in his endeavor and turn the pope against him. In either case it would eliminated Michelangelo from the competition gaining favor for Raphael, who began to paint the Stanza of the Vatican Palace in 1509. Yet instead of doing him a disfavor, Bramante's attempt at destroying Michelangelo seems to give fuel to the artists' genius.(15) In May 1508 Buonarroti accepted the task of painting the high vault of the Sistine Chapel. On the 10 of May the artist wrote: Today, May 10, 1508, I, Michelangelo, sculptor, have received from his Holiness, Pope Julius II, 500 florins, paid to me by Messer Carlino, chamberlain, and Messer Carlo Albizzi as an advance for the painting which I shall today begin in the chapel of Pope Sixtus, according to the agreement drafted by the Monsignor of Pavia, which I have signed in my own hand.(16) The pope gave Buonarroti little choice but to continue their turbulent relationship. Michelangelo for four years (1508-1512) would more than once suffer poverty and frustration at the hands of the pope. It seems that at various times Julius failed to advance Buonarroti the funds necessary to work on the immense project.(17)

In numerous letters to his family, Michelangelo wrote of his lack of funds, yet he rarely blamed the pope for such deficiencies. Found in a letter to his father dated January 27, 1509, is a perfect example of Michelangelo accepting guilt:

I myself am quite concerned, for this Pope hasn't given me a single grosso for a whole year, and I am not asking for any, for my work is not progressing in such a way as to make me think that I deserve anything.(18)
Michelangelo is too kind about the neglect of the pope. Surely at certain times Julius is clearly avoiding payment. In late 1510 the pope went to Bologna and failed to give Buonarroti the money to move the scaffold to the next section. Twice Michelangelo, who was in Florence visiting his family, made trips to the Bologna to gain the money. For many months at the end of 1510 the project halted and did not resume again until early 1511.(19)

Along with the financial burden Michelangelo met with, the artist coped with the impatience's of the pope. It became a habit Julius' to climb the scaffold, with Buonarroti's help, to view the painting closer. This frustrated the artist especially when the delayed completion of the fresco angered the pope. Condivi wrote that on one occasion the pope asked Michelangelo when he would finish the chapel to which he answered:

'When I can,' the pope enraged, retorted, 'You want me to have you thrown off the scaffolding.' Hearing this, Michelangelo said to himself, 'You shall not have me thrown off,' and he removed himself and had the scaffolding taken down, and on All Saints' Day he revealed the work.(20)

On All Saints' Day, Michelangelo displayed the first half of his masterpiece to the waiting eyes of the pope and the public. The pope appeared please and yet shortly afterwards he left on the formerly mentioned trip to Bologna that held up the second half of the project.

Throughout the time Michelangelo painted the fresco, he received constant entreaties from his family, mainly his father, for money. As stated previously, Buonarroti dedicated himself to advancing and protecting his family. If capable, the artist sent his father almost all of his funds leaving barely enough to sustain himself.(21)

The strains of supporting his family financially did not compare to the mental ones they placed on him. Still extant are many letters from Michelangelo to different member of his family in reply to the constant request for advice or information given to him about some misfortune the family encountered. Agonizing to Buonarroti, he attempted to alleviate their difficulties as best he could. A characteristic letter to his father on September 5, 1510, reveals the pain the artist withstood at not being with his sick brother. He wrote that if his brother continued his illness he would endure the wrath of the pope and journey home immediately.(22) In another letter to his father on September 15, 1510, Michelangelo states:

I understand from your last letter how the matter is going. I cannot help you in another way. Do not let that upset you, and do not mope over it, for even if a person loses his property it is not the end of the world...Take good care of yourself and, rather than experience discomforts, let your possession disintegrate, for I prefer to have you alive and poor. If you were to die, I wouldn't know what to do with all the gold in the world.(23)

This letter illustrates how this great artist, while working on a vast theological work of art, had little choice but to concern himself with worldly affairs. It also shows that working on such a project only enhanced his sense of values, belief in love, and, in other various letters, the Almighty.

The physical tortures Michelangelo withstood often destroyed lesser men. First, understand that the majority of the work Michelangelo performed he did while lying on his back upon a scaffold fifty feet in the air. The close proximity of the ceiling, the transferring of images onto the vault walls, and the painting itself collaborated to weakening Buonarroti's body. His eyes received great strain. For at least a year after the completion of the fresco the artist still required others to read to him because his sight continued to be impaired. Beyond the difficulties of sight, the master had to contend with backaches and cramps within his limbs. Being withdrawn from the sunlight gave Buonarroti a sickly completion and his inconsistency in eating gave him a gaunt look.(24) When viewing a portrait or sculpture of the artist in his latter years, it is easy to imagine him as a stereotypical artist. The idea of a thin, melancholy man is an excellent vision of the artist at this period.

Continuously he complained how his hunger ached him, how his health failed him, and the fatigue within his limbs pained him. He even took up the pen and wrote a poem about his difficulties.(25) To his brother he once wrote:

It is understood that I should love myself more than others, yet I can hardly provide myself with what I need. I endure many hardships and bodily fatigue here; I have no friends at all, and I do not want any. I hardly have time to eat what I need to keep going; so I do not want anybody to bother me, for I just couldn't take it all.(26)

Michelangelo stated so eloquently the never ending troubles he faced to complete the chapel. His strong will and sense of being help him bring his thoughts to the world during such hardness. As Buonarroti battled to prove to Bramante and his enemies that he could paint a beautiful fresco, he proved to himself that his visions can become a reality. Not only did Michelangelo suffer through Bramante's insult, he withstood the demands of the pope. This was more difficult than it seems because to anger the pope could mean the end of his career, a chance Michaelangelo was not willing to take. Yet it was this impatient, demanding pope that helped Buonarroti realize his potential as a painter. It was Julius who force Michelangelo to take up the brush.

The politics of the pope's court along with the physical and emotional pressures surrounding Michelangelo steeled the will of the master. As the dilemmas of this world mounted Buonarroti was able to leave the physical world and enter the spiritual one of his dreams. By withstanding the difficulties in his life Michelangelo climbed to the top of the art world just as he climbed the scaffolding in the Sistine Chapel. Each step brought him closer to heaven.

Throughout his life, and notably the interval from 1508 through 1512, Michelangelo epitomized the ideal image of an artist sacrificing for his art. It is the culmination of the physical, emotion and political turmoil's surrounding Buonarroti that gives life and breath to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Only artistic masters can produce magnificent artwork while engulfed in chaos. Only Michelangelo could have created the Sistine Chapel, his transcendental masterpiece.


1. Howard Hibbard, Michelangelo: Painter, Sculptor, Architect (New York: The Vendom Press, 1974) Hibbard defines fresco as "watercolor painted into newly applied, damp plaster." 75.
2. George Bull trans., Michelangelo: Life, Letter and Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), XXX: 8. 3. Howard Hibbard, Michelangelo: Painter, Sculptor, Architect (New York: The Vendom Press, 1974), 18.
4. Ascanio Condivi, The Life of Michelangelo, ed. Hellmut Wohl, trans. Alice Sedgwick (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976), 9.
5. Howard Hibbard, Michelangelo: Painter, Sculptor, Architect (New York: The Vendom Press, 1974), 12.
6. Ibid.
7. Ascanio Condivi, The Life of Michelangelo, ed. Hellmut Wohl, trans. Alice Sedgwick (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976), 12-13.
8. George Bull, trans., Michelangelo: Life, Letter and Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 18-19.
9. Howard Hibbard, Michelangelo: Painter, Sculptor, Architect (New York: The Vendom Press, 1974), 18-21.
10. Ibid., 23-30.
11. Ibid., 31
12. George Bull, Michelangelo: a biography (New York: St. Martins Press, 1995), 71-72.
13. Ibid.
14. Ascanio Condivi, The Life of Michelangelo, ed. Hellmut Wohl, trans. Alice Sedgwick (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976), 39.
15. Giovanni Papini, Michelangelo: His Life and His Era, trans. Loretta Murnane (E. P. Dutton and Company, Inc., 1952), 153.
16. George Brandes, Michelangelo: His Life, His Time, His Era, trans. Heinz Norden (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1963), 252-253.
17. I, Michelangelo, Sculptor: an Autobiography Through Letters, ed. Irving Stone (New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1962), 44-63.
18. Ibid., 46.
19. Howard Hibbard, Michelangelo: Painter, Sculptor, Architect (New York: The Vendom Press, 1974), 78.
20. Ascanio Condivi, The Life of Michelangelo, ed. Hellmut Wohl, trans. Alice Sedgwick (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976), 58.
21. I, Michelangelo, Sculptor: an Autobiography Through Letters, ed. Irving Stone (New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1962), 44-63.
22. Ibid., 53.
23. Ibid., 54.
24. Ibid., 51.
25. This poem is the epigraph
26. I, Michelangelo, Sculptor: an Autobiography Through Letters, ed. Irving Stone (New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1962), 53.


Brandes, Georg. Michelangelo: His Life, His Times, His Era. Trans. Heinz Norden. New York: Frederick Ungan Publishing company, 1963.

Bull, George. Michelangelo: a Biography. New York: St. Martins Press, 1995.

Condivi, Ascanio. The Life of Michelangelo. Edited by Hellmut Wohl and Translated by Alice Sedgwick. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.

Hibbard, Howard. Michelangelo: Painter, Sculptor, Architect. New York: The Vendom Press, 1974.

I, Michelangelo, Sculptor. Edited by Irving Stone. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1962.

Michelangelo: Life, Letters and Poetry. Selected and Translated by George Bull. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Papini, Giovanni. Michelangelo: His Life and His Era. Translated by Loretta Murnane. E. P. Dutton and Company, Inc. 1952.

Shaw, Christine. Julius II: The Warrior Pope. Oxford UK: Blackwell, 1993.

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