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Chapter

Defying a Pope (1)

Man with a Halyard by Donato Bramante

Man with a Halyard by Donato Bramante

Michelangelo tried to forget about Pope Julius, the chapel, Leonardo, and everything else. The only thing he wanted to do was work on his sculptures.

His first statue, the awakening slave, was quickly taking shape. He was also working on a second statue—a young slave, a boy who was about to become a man.

The Young Slave by Michelangelo

The Young Slave by Michelangelo

When Michelangelo was working well, time receded and all of life’s problems disappeared. He could feel his way through the stone and he knew the exact lines of the figure he needed to carve. The barrier between the stone and his hands disappeared.

Whenever anyone asked about how he worked, he put it this way: “Sculpting is easy. All you have to do is carve down to the skin and stop.” When he was working well, it was true.

Michelangelo carved from sunrise to sunset. He didn’t stop to eat, just ate roasted chestnuts as he stood, crunching them down, shells and all. He worked on one slave until his hands ached and his eyes watered. Then he switched to the other one. Back and forth he went, all day. When it grew dark outside he quickly went to sleep so he could rise at first light to begin again.

From time to time he found himself standing in front of one of the slaves, clenching his hammer and chisel, realizing that his mind had wandered. At those moments he wasn’t thinking about the statues but instead was wondering how to paint those 12 apostles on the ceiling in a way that would not look terrible.

The problem was that the pendentives were curved and awkward, and the concept the pope had suggested for them was sure to be a failure. 

Michelangelo thought he knew how the pope had come up with the idea. Bramante must have suggested it, he reasoned. Bramante had painted frescoes before, so he would know how poor the apostles would look up there. But what was he after? Did Bramante really expect Michelangelo to paint the ceiling, or did he have something far more sinister in mind if Michelangelo refused?

Man with a Halbard by Donato Bramante

Man with a Halbard by Donato Bramante

Despite himself, Michelangelo was intrigued by the challenge of fitting the apostles into the space. His mind worked over the problem as an exercise. Though he couldn’t conceive of a solution, he felt sure he wasn’t going to let himself fall into Bramante’s trap, whatever it turned out to be.

Besides, he had a tomb to carve. So he did his best to push the ceiling out of his mind. He tried to focus on the figures inside the stone, waiting to be freed.

sculpting tools

As it turned out, that wasn’t so easy.

Next: Defying a Pope (2)

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