365 Days of Art: May 10 – Michelangelo Begins Work on Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Michelangelo, The Downfall of Adam and Eve, from the Sistine ceiling

May 10, 1508

Michelangelo writes this note to himself about the Sistine Chapel:

On this day, May 10, I, Michelangelo, sculptor, have received on account from our Holy Lord Pope Julius II five-hundred papal ducats toward the painting of the ceiling of the papal Sistine Chapel, on which I am beginning work today.

Today, we know it to be one of the world’s masterpieces and can’t imagine that Michelangelo wouldn’t have been thrilled to undertake this project…but in reality, Michelangelo sees it as a distraction from the work he really wanted to create–Julius’ tomb. Julius had earlier hired Michelangelo and then suspended work on that project. At this point, Michelangelo sees the ceiling as an obstacle more than anything else–the only thing standing in the way of being rehired for sculpting the tomb.

Interestingly, there may have been some intrigue going on, with Bramante encouraging Julius to hire Michelangelo (a sculptor) for the painting job, perhaps hoping he’d fail.

Michelangelo has this to say:

Bramante wants to prevent me from sculpting, an art at which I am perfect. He wants to force me to paint in fresco, so that everyone will see that I paint worse than his friend Raphael.

In fact, Michelangelo tries to refuse the ceiling commission altogether, and tries to recommend Raphael for it, but Julius isn’t buying it. His Holiness orders Bramante to prepare the scaffolding on which Michelangelo will work. Bramante, an architect, cuts holes in the ceiling for the scaffolding ropes, and doesn’t have an answer when Michelangelo inquires about the plan for finishing the holes after the painting is done. (Bramante’s solution is to play it by ear).

Michelangelo complains to the Pope that Bramante is incompetent, receives authorization to design his own scaffolding (without ceiling holes) and the project is on.

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