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Chapter

The Great Flood (3)

While Granacci continued painting the group of men, women, and children climbing out of the rising water on the left side of the Great Flood scene, Michelangelo began painting a group huddled under a tarp on a rock island on the right side.

His first giornata was a 3-foot x 2-foot section of a woman in a green gown helping an exhausted man who had just climbed out of the water. Michelangelo started slowly and painted slowly, taking far too long.

“Keep running a wet brush over the unpainted plaster to keep it from becoming too dry,” Granacci reminded him regularly.

The five garzoni laid the intonaco for the cornices and corbels that would frame the Genesis scenes. They kept up a busy patter, talking and joking, but they also kept an eye on Michelangelo’s work, and noticed how meager his painting was.

“Hey, Michelangelo,” said Bugiardini, trying to lighten the mood. “Why are you so slow? Maybe you should let us paint these two.”

“Quiet, all of you. I can’t think with all your childish banter,” Michelangelo snapped.

After five hours of work, and an hour after Granacci finished his section for the day, Michelangelo finally completed his first giornata. He climbed down from the platform and took a look, comparing his figures to Granacci’s. His were poor-looking. As he studied the work the full weight of his arms, aching from the sudden rush of blood as they hung by his sides, was heavy and cumbersome.

He went to bed brooding, and hardly slept. Aside from his concerns about his work, his arms, shoulders, neck, and back ached. This is only the beginning, he kept thinking.

The next morning the garzoni laid another small patch of intonaco to the left of the previous day’s work. Michelangelo slowly climbed up to begin. His arms felt like heavy stones, and holding them overhead was painful. Even holding the brushes cramped his fingers.

The day’s giornata was a man leaning against a water barrel. The man gazed sadly at the shore, as if he knew of the horror about to befall him.

Michelangelo put everything he could into his work — as he always had. But he was dismayed at what he was producing. He knew Granacci was doing everything he could to help. The garzoni whispered behind his back; it was obvious they weren’t impressed. At this rate it will take him fifty years, he imagined one of them saying. And even then, it will be nothing but shit in the end, another was likely to respond.

When he finished for the day he thought the work might have been a little better than the day before. The colors looked better, the expressions a little more genuine. Or was he just imagining it?

By the sixth day, Michelangelo’s arms and back were so sore he felt less and less certain that he could paint anything, much less do it with any skill. Yet he had to continue. Everyone else was, without complaint. It was grueling work.

He lay flat on the scaffold, looking up at the ceiling and thinking through the day’s work before he started. Today he would paint a pair of men, a father carrying his son. This would be a benchmark, he decided, so that he could see how well his two men stacked up to the figures Granacci had painted on the first day. 

For four and a half hours he worked, hardly stopping to rest his arms. At the end of the day’s work he slowly climbed down from the platform and sat next to Granacci. 

“They are not as good as I hoped they would be,” he said with a deep sigh. “These are supposed to be the small, easy figures.”

“Give yourself time,” Granacci answered. “Trust me. It will get easier.”

It did, for a while. Until disaster struck.

One morning when they were about a third of the way through The Great Flood, Michelangelo arrived at the chapel early, wanting to take extra time to assess his work from the previous day.

When he climbed the scaffold and looked up, at first he thought there was something wrong with his eyesight. The scene looked blurry from the scaffold floor. He rubbed his eyes, and squinted, and splashed his face with water. Finally he climbed up to the platform for a closer look. The painting, not his eyesight, was blurred. The figures on the plaster were covered in an opaque, effervescent sheen.

Michelangelo had scurried all the way back down to the floor by the time Granacci entered the chapel.

“It’s ruined, I tell you!” Michelangelo cried. “I’ll be laughed out of Rome. I should have never come back.”

Granacci had never seen his friend so distraught. As soon as he got to the scaffold floor he could see why. Something was wrong. Very, very wrong.

Next: Decisions (1)

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