Nov 012018

On this date in 1512, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as painted by Michelangelo was exhibited to the public for the first time. We can get a small sense of the impact it had at the time from contemporary sources, but only a small sense. Now, of course, the ceiling is colossally famous, and there are hundreds of years of commentary (as well as soot and dirt) to delve through. Church officials can enter the chapel directly but plebs like me have to start at the ticket office and trek through what seems like miles and miles of hallways and apartments to get there, with galleries everywhere, stuffed with Raphaels, da Vincis, Giottos, Titians, Caravaggios, and on and on and on . . . The Sistine Chapel is at the very end, so that, first time through, you are in complete overload mode by the time you get there. I know the details of the painting very well from photographs I have studied, so when I go in person I am not really interested in examining minutiae. I go for the simple feeling of being in the presence of the actual work. Hard to explain. There are a few places in the world where when I stand there I have a feeling of being in the presence of something powerful. Standing where Darwin stood on Tierra del Fuego, standing outside the Cabildo in Buenos Aires, has the same effect on me.

I can’t give you a big lecture on the ceiling. You can read about that in any number of places. I’ll talk simply about architecture – real and illusory. The Sistine Chapel is 40.9 meters long and 14 meters wide. The ceiling rises to 13.4 meters above the main floor of the chapel. The vault is of quite a complex design and was not originally intended to have such elaborate decoration. Pier Matteo d’Amelia provided a plan for its decoration with the architectural elements picked out and the ceiling painted blue and dotted with gold stars, similar to that of the Arena Chapel decorated by Giotto at Padua.

(click to enlarge)

(click to enlarge)

The chapel walls have three horizontal tiers with six windows in the upper tier down each side. There were also two windows at each end, but these were closed up above the altar when Michelangelo’s Last Judgement was painted, obliterating two lunettes. Between the windows are large pendentives which support the vault. Between the pendentives are triangularly shaped arches or spandrels cut into the vault above each window. Above the height of the pendentives, the ceiling slopes gently without much deviation from the horizontal. This is the real architecture. Michelangelo elaborated it with illusionary architecture.

The first element in the scheme of painted architecture is a definition of the real architectural elements by accentuating the lines where spandrels and pendentives intersect with the curving vault. Michelangelo painted these as decorative courses that look like sculpted stone moldings. These have two repeating motifs, a formula common in Classical architecture. Here, one motif is the acorn, the symbol of the family of both Pope Sixtus IV, who built the chapel, and Pope Julius II, who commissioned Michelangelo’s work. The other motif is the scallop shell, one of the symbols of the Madonna, to whose assumption the chapel was dedicated in 1483. The crown of the wall then rises above the spandrels, to a strongly projecting painted cornice that runs right around the ceiling, separating the pictorial areas of the biblical scenes from the figures of Prophets, Sibyls, and Ancestors, who literally and figuratively support the narratives. Ten broad painted crossribs of travertine cross the ceiling and divide it into alternately wide and narrow pictorial spaces, a grid that gives all the figures their own defined places.

A great number of small figures are integrated with the painted architecture, their purpose apparently purely decorative. These include two faux marble putti below the cornice on each rib, each one a male and female pair; stone rams-heads are placed at the apex of each spandrel; copper-skinned nude figures in varying poses, hiding in the shadows, propped between the spandrels and the ribs like animated bookends; and more putti, both clothed and unclothed strike a variety of poses as they support the nameplates of the Prophets and Sibyls. Above the cornice and to either side of the smaller scenes are an array of round shields, or medaillons. They are framed by a total of twenty more figures, the so-called Ignudi, which are not part of the architecture but sit on inlaid plinths, their feet planted convincingly on the fictive cornice. Pictorially, the Ignudi appear to occupy a space between the narrative spaces and the space of the chapel itself.

It is well known that Michelangelo had virtually no interest in food except as fuel. In fact he was often so absorbed in his art that he skipped meals.

Fred Plotkin writes:

Michelangelo lived almost 89 years, so he must have done something right in terms of his nutrition. I think that he probably would not be called a gastronome. He liked pears…a lot. His standard gift was to send 33 pears to someone – 33 for the 33 years of the life of Christ. He also had a cheese cellar, and in that cellar he kept several types of sheep’s milk cheese, one of them called marzolino. Marzolino for the month of March. It was only made in March, and he particularly loved that cheese. He had a vineyard and he produced some wine—1503, I discovered, was a good vintage. He produced some olive oil, and he ate bread. And that really was about it. There was not much more. He lived on pears, cheese, oil, wine, and bread.

These are your marching orders: marzolino cheese with bread and olive oil, plus some pears. Would make a nice sandwich. Very effective if grilled. Use whole grain bread and fine olive oil.