In 2012, the Sistine Chapel turned 500. I finally saw the stunning ceiling a few years ago and I confess that, in its sublimity, the ceiling has always seemed to me a bit, well, out of reach. (Perfection offers such a little foothold.)
So, I was happy to learn the comedic side recently: Michelangelo was, in addition to being a supremely talented artist, a great kvetch. In fact, historians apply an assortment of unflattering adjectives to his personality. And yet, Michelangelo’s vigorous, perpetual complaints—in his journal and later poems—endear him to me. What writer cannot appreciate such honesty concerning the daunting creative struggle?
Michelangelo, as you may know, considered his assignment to paint the Sistine Chapel as a sinister punishment inflicted on him by Pope Julius II, with conspiratorial inspiration from his rivals. He considered himself a sculptor, not a painter. In Michelangelo’s widely quoted poem of complaint, he whined of the terrible toll that working on the scaffolding took on his health. In the poem, he comforts himself with outlandish depictions of his tortured posture as he toils to finish painting the daily patch of wet plaster over his head before it dries. “My brush,” he laments, “makes a rich pavement of my face.” *
Now we know: Michelangelo was not only an artist but a writer. What, after all, are most stories we write and read except an homage to our continual struggle to achieve, to love, or to connect (to each other, to the natural world, or the Divine) in the face of our own shortcomings? The Sistine Chapel looks more breathtaking to me in the light of Michelangelo’s miseries. His reach for a glorious vision, from the depths of his orphaned unhappiness, makes him, for me, kin to all struggling artists and writers.
*[The translation of this phrase appeared, approximately, in the Wall Street Journal, but Ross King’s 2003 book popularized Michelangelo’s complaints and a slightly different translation of the same passage. A PBS special on the Medici family also informs this post.]