Michelangelo was working on one of the last giornate of The Great Flood. The section depicts Noah leaning out of the top of the ark with his hand lifted to the horizon as a man below him swings an axe, about to kill another man trying to climb on.
The plaster was drying quickly and Michelangelo tried to hurry. He was so deep in concentration he didn’t hear the footsteps across the scaffold.
He started, nearly dropping his brush, when he heard the pope’s voice behind him.
“Is Noah waving or shaking his fist?” Julius asked.
Michelangelo didn’t turn around. “I can’t stop right now, Holy Father. The plaster only waits so long. Please come back later.”
Whack! The cane struck Michelangelo’s shin with all of Julius’s weight behind it. Michelangelo turned, irritated enough that he was ready to douse Julius in red paint. How was he expected to work when he was always being interrupted?
His mood changed when he noticed the beautiful woman standing next to the pope. Michelangelo set down his brushes and climbed off the platform for a closer look at her.
“That’s better,” Julius said. “Now, what about Noah?”
“He’s pleading with God to end the terror,” said Michelangelo. The woman was smiling at him as if she knew him, but he didn’t recognize her.
“You’re a magnificent artist,” she told him.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
“This is the wife of Gian Giordano Orsini,” said Julius. “Felice della Rovere Orsini. She is also my daughter.”
“No, Michelangelo, you don’t know me,” said Felice. “But you and I share a great friend. Surely you remember that Lorenzo de’ Medici was married to Clarice Orsini? Lorenzo’s children are relatives of mine.”
“Of course,” said Michelangelo. “You’re talking about Giovanni de’ Medici, the cardinal.”
Felice smiled and nodded. “He speaks very fondly of you.”
“We were born only a few months apart,” Michelangelo said. “Giovanni was always kind to me, unlike his older brother Piero, who once forced me to make ice sculptures of his father so he could watch them melt. Giovanni is a good man.”
“You’re actually smiling, Buonarroti,” said Julius. “What a rare treat. But you’ve said you’re busy, so we won’t keep you. Come, daughter, let us leave this man to his work.”
Michelangelo, still smiling, hurried to finish the scene with Noah. The next day he set out to complete the entire scene. All he had left to paint was the sky, but he needed to make an important decision.
The Bible that Michelangelo had studied read: After the Great Flood, God was so horrified by what he had done that he made a covenant with Noah saying he would never kill off man again with a flood. God said that whenever the rains come and the water rises he would send a rainbow to remind him to never again let a flood destroy all life on earth.
Uccello had painted a rainbow in his Sacrifice of Noah. Michelangelo planned a similar scene, but it would be one of five smaller ones. The best place for a rainbow on the Sistine Chapel ceiling was in a corner of The Great Flood.
As he painted the sky, Michelangelo played with light and dark paint and pondered his decision. A rainbow would make the story of original sin whole. If he didn’t paint one, people would wonder why it was not there.
He liked the idea of making people wonder at his choices. After all, the ceiling was more than a collection of Old Testament stories. It was the culmination of his life’s work.
A missing rainbow would be one clue to indicate that the Genesis scenes on this ceiling were more than just one creation story. Michelangelo decided not to paint the rainbow. He decided to make people wonder.
When he finished the sky, he walked to the edge of the scaffold for a better view of his work. Painting The Great Flood had taken a month and a half, and 27 giornate. And yet the work looked small against the largely empty ceiling. Michelangelo felt small, sore, and tired. He rubbed his eyes and cleaned up his work area before he descended the scaffold.
He planned to rest his aching body. But it was difficult to do so after he received a frantic letter from his father. Lodovico said there was a rumor sweeping through Florence that Michelangelo was dead.
Next: Drunkenness of Noah (1)