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Ancestors (1)

Bramante and Raphael had asked about the lunettes and spandrels because any artist could see they were going to be a challenge. Michelangelo hadn’t figured out how to paint them.

They were awkward curving spaces above the windows that were too small for large scenes, yet combined they accounted for as much space as the pendentives. What’s more, whatever was painted there needed to tie together the stories of the lives of Moses and Jesus, already on the lower walls, to the Genesis scenes and prophets, which would be above.

Sistine lunettes and spandrels

Michelangelo thought if he painted roundels on the triangular spandrels he could make them into scenes, and then tell important stories that fell somewhere between the life of Moses and the coming of the prophets.

Joshua leading the Hebrews into the Promised Land, for example; and the period of the Judges when God sent leader after leader to save the people only to see them return to their sinful ways in times of peace; and the reign of the great kings — Saul, David, and Solomon — who brought Israel into one nation before the great fall that led to the Babylonian Exile foretold by the prophets.

Something unsettled Michelangelo about this approach. He could not just paint a haphazard collection of Old Testament stories. His ceiling had to be more.

While he was working on the lunettes a fever came upon him so quickly he feared he might have the plague. He ripped off his shirt looking for buboes on his arms, but found none. Still, he got worse by the day, and lost a week of work.

Just as he was recovering he received a letter from his brother Buonarroto.

There were never any good letters from home, and this one was no different. His father was suffering from a bad back and needed money to buy another property. Buonarroto begged to come to Rome so Michelangelo could help him find a new profession.

At any other time Michelangelo would have welcomed his brother, who was always smiling, joking, carefree — so different from himself. But now was a bad time. Michelangelo was too busy.

Nor did he have any money to spare. Everything that wasn’t tied up in the marble for the pope’s tomb was needed to pay expenses for the ceiling. He wouldn’t receive any more payments until he began to paint, and before he could do that he had to finish his plan, which meant he had to figure out what to do with the lunettes and spandrels.

He replied:

Buonarroto – I have learned from your letter how things are in Florence. I am very sorry to hear about them, and the more since I see that the family is in need, especially Lodovico. I wrote Lodovico telling him that I had here marbles worth 1,400 ducats, that I have a debt of 140 ducats on them, and that I am without money. I have to pay that debt, and I must live myself …I have a lot of troubles, but I hope to get out of them soon and be able to help you. You write me to find some profession for you. I wouldn’t know what to find, nor what to look for. I will send for you as soon as I can. That’s all. Michelangelo

He sent the letter hoping it was enough to dissuade Buonarroto from coming.

But Buonarroto came anyway.

Next: Ancestors (2)


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