Michelangelo in Rome

Rome wasn’t built in a day, so the saying goes. And the saying is certainly right – Rome was created over millennia, and this is what makes it one of the most magical and beautiful cities you can visit. The classical sits beside the modern, the Renaissance holds hands with the ancients. It truly is like walking through a timeline – and that’s just amongst the architecture and traversing the enchanting winding streets. Wait until you discover the treasures inside this living museum. Having studied Italian art for two years during my degree, I couldn’t wait to get there and actually see things for myself.

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Stunning, imposing Castel Sant’Angelo, taken from Ponte Sant’Angelo, just a stone’s throw from the Vatican

We visited Rome in January, and this meant that the Vatican still had its nativity and Christmas tree display in St. Peter’s Square. St. Peter’s is honestly one of the most mesmerising places I’ve ever seen – not that I’ve travelled much, but I’ve never felt so overwhelmed as I did when I entered it. I’ve always found churches really interesting (hence me going on and on about Notre Dame previously, and absolutely relishing staying nearby), but seeing a Renaissance, classical-inspired church was really exciting, as most English churches seem to be gothic or built in a Victorian gothic style. The original St Peter’s grew for a millennium, but upon falling into disrepair, Pope Julius II decided in 1506 to build a new church that would surpass all previous Roman architecture. The construction of the new Renaissance St Peter’s covered no less than thirty papacies and included some of the most recognisable names from the High Renaissance involved in the design and construction, such as Bramante and Michelangelo. Work continued well into the Baroque period. Edward Gibbon labelled it “the most glorious structure that has been applied to the use of religion”.

Inside, the first thing I was confronted with was Michelangelo’s 1498 Pietà statue. This is honestly one of the most moving pieces of sculpture I’ve ever studied – and I wrote an exam answer once comparing it to a painting by Raphael, so I felt like I knew it well, but it was nothing in comparison to seeing it as soon as we entered the church. This pose, of the Virgin cradling the deceased Christ in her arms, was quite difficult to achieve harmoniously, stemming from the simple problem of the fact it is a dainty woman trying to hold a fully-grown man. Michelangelo achieves harmony, however, through the weighty appearance of the drapery in the Virgin’s robes. Her youthful, calm appearance suggests that her body is an image of her pure soul. Vasari eulogised this statue greatly, writing of it that the

“body of the dead Christ exhibits the very perfection of research in every muscle, vein and nerve. No corpse could more completely resemble the dead than does this. There is a most exquisite expression in her countenance. The vein and pulses, moreover, are indicated with so much exactitude, that one cannot but marvel how the hand of the artist should in a short time have produced such a divine work.”

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Michelangelo’s beautiful 1498 Pietà

You could argue that Michelangelo is the star of the Vatican City. He began work on St Peter’s dome at the age of seventy-two, experimenting with Brunelleschi’s dome on Florence Cathedral in mind. His Pietà sculpture greets the Vatican visitor as soon as they wander inside the main church. And that is without even mentioning his true triumph – the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and his other fresco in the Sistine Chapel, the Last Judgement behind the altar, completed almost thirty years after he completed the ceiling. I love the ceiling – I sat there for fifteen minutes straight when we visited just looking upwards – but I absolutely adore the Last Judgement, and it gets a lot less attention than the ceiling (though every bit of the attention paid to the ceiling is deserved hundreds of times over). Originally commissioned around 1533/4 by Pope Clement VII following the devastating Sack of Rome in 1527, it was taken over by Pope Paul III following Clement’s death in 1534, with painting beginning on May 18th 1536. He was fifty-six years old, but his advancing age didn’t hinder his creativity, with the fresco containing just over four hundred figures (more than the ceiling), surrounding the central figure of Christ. Several saints and martyrs are depicted, as well as a representation of the seven deadly sins in battle with angels; this is often construed as damning the prevailing sins in Rome at the time, sending out the message that they would not be tolerated in the Counter-Reformation. Despite supporting the message of the Church, the dramatic representation didn’t necessarily please everybody – in fact, the 1564 Council of Trent commissioned Daniele da Volterra to paint drapery on some of their figures to protect their modesty. Michelangelo’s art seems to develop in one room – one beautiful, colourful (particularly evident after the relatively recent cleaning), frescoed chapel that became a manifestation of the glory of High Renaissance art.

TRY THIS…

  • Ross King’s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling – I know I said how much I love the Last Judgement but this book is really interesting, a really passionate tale about the Sistine ceiling and reveals many details and stories behind it. He has also written about Brunelleschi and Florence, and Paris and the Impressionists, to name but a few – I really want to read those too!
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