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The Call to Rome (3)

When Michelangelo received the pope’s letter, he went to see his old friend Francesco Granacci.

“I thought I was ready to paint it. But now that the moment’s finally arrived I don’t know,” he confessed. “I’m confused again.”

“Come, my friend,” said Granacci. “Let me show you the dream of someone I once knew a long, long time ago.”

The two friends strolled across Florence to Santa Maria Novella, stopping on the way, just as they had done when they were teenagers, to peek at Ghiberti’s bronze doors on the baptistery. Michelangelo had thought those doors so magnificent he named them the Gates of Paradise.

Once inside the church, Granacci walked down the left side of the nave until they were standing in front of Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, the very place they had first met 20 years before.

The Holy Trinity by Masaacio

The Holy Trinity by Masaacio

“I knew the first time I saw your drawings that you could be as great a painter as Masaccio someday,” said Granacci. “I still believe that.”

Michelangelo bowed his head and shrugged his shoulders the way he had as a boy long ago.

Granacci continued up the nave until they reached the Tornabuoni Chapel, where he pointed up at a scene where two men stood under a tree.

Tournabuoni Michelangelo

“Do you remember how angry Ghirlandaio was when he caught you painting that man?”

Michelangelo smiled. “Of course. I thought he was going to fire us both. But he was right, I had a lot to learn before I could paint a fresco as well as he could. I still do.”

Granacci reached out and squeezed Michelangelo’s shoulder. “Listen. I probably know you better than anyone, so let me tell you something about yourself. You don’t need years to master technique like Ghirlandaio did. You don’t need to paint something a hundred times to make it perfect like Leonardo does. You learn by diving into the depths, and working your way out. No one does that better than you.”

Michelangelo sighed. “I wish I shared your enthusiasm. The truth is, I don’t know what to paint. I told the pope I’d cover the ceiling with glory. Still, I can’t figure it out. The apostles, and your idea with the marble backgrounds…I don’t know how to unify everything in that space. Geometric designs are not going to be enough.”

Granacci smiled. “There is one more thing we need to see.” He led Michelangelo to the Green Cloisters, where the two of them sat under the same tall cypress they used to sit under when they were younger. Granacci pointed at the wall in front of them.

“Uccello. Genesis. The Flood,” said Michelangelo. “You remembered.”

The Flood by Paolo Uccello

The Flood by Paolo Uccello

“You said once that you dreamed of painting a fresco cycle like this someday. Well, perhaps your time has come.”

Michelangelo looked at the scenes: God creating Adam and Eve, the story of temptation and expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and the images of Noah and the flood.

“A cycle might work. But the ceiling is much larger than this. There might be room to show the entire book of Genesis.” Michelangelo sighed.

“Don’t worry about which scenes to use. Why don’t you think about what the story of Genesis means to you? I have the feeling that the scenes you need will become obvious.”

Michelangelo nodded. “Perhaps that will help.” He looked back at his friend. “I can always trust you for help, Francesco. Thank you.”

That night he began to make sketches to see how scenes from Genesis might look running down the middle of the ceiling, surrounded by the apostles.

He liked what he saw. If the ideas took root they could grow into something glorious. His excitement began to build once again, and as he made preparations to leave for Rome he imagined telling the pope of his plan and showing the drawings. Julius would be pleased — and if he wasn’t, Michelangelo felt ready to convince him otherwise.

And so Michelangelo made his way to Rome to see the pope one more time.

Next: Trouble in the Sistine Chapel (1)


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