Michelangelo’s Agony in the Sistine

They told the greatest sculptor to go paint

He suffered unspeakably  in that chapel. There were about eleven thousand square feet to paint and he was not a painter but had to obey an order given by the Pope.
He sat on the wooden plank of the scaffolding up in the air with his legs dangling and worked looking up. All the time he rubbed his neck, it ached so. For fun he drew a little caricature of himself painting a saint on the ceiling, his head bent back as far as it would go.


Vasari, who had done some fresco painting himself, marvelled at the way Michelangelo held up through the long ordeal:
“He executed the frescoes in great discomfort, having to work with his face looking upwards, which impared his sight so badly that he could not read or look at drawings save with his head turned backwards; and this lasted for several months afterwards.  I can talk from personal experience about this, since when I painted five rooms in the great apartments of Duke Cosimo’s palace if I had not made a chair where I could rest my head and relax from time to time I would never have finished; and even so this work so ruined my sight and injured my head that I still feel the effects, and I am astonished that Michelangelo bore all that discomfort so well.”  (Life of Michelangelo, Vasari)

Working on wobbly boards sixty feet in the air is a tricky business. You have to organize what little space there is to make room for everything: your baskets of sand and lime, your bucket of clean water, your colors and your brushes. Somewhere at hand, maybe hanging over the wooden railing, is your cloth cartoon. When you finish with each instrument, mind where you put it down. Did you leave the darn trowel in the bucket with the lime or is it somewhere under your foot or behind you?  If it falls down through the planks, that means interrupting the work for ten minutes or more while you climb down after it.  Or is it in one of your pockets?

At least it was his scaffolding.  The Pope had ordered his chief architect and Michelangelo’s arch-enemy Bramante to set one up for him, and Bramante had gone and drilled holes in the ceiling and driven in hooks. The idea was to hang the scaffolding from those hooks with ropes. “But once the painting is finished what am I going to do about the holes in the plaster where the hooks were?” Michelangelo asked him.
“We’ll think about that when it’s time.”
That arrogant and stupid answer made Michelangelo so angry he went to complain to the Pope. “Do it your way then,” said Julius.
So Michelangelo got rid of the hooks and the ropes and built a scaffolding that stood on the ground.

A Little Help

He worked alone. He wanted it that way.  At first, since he had never painted in fresco, he had asked some of his friends in Florence who were fresco painters to come to Rome and show him their technique. “Here’s my cartoon,” he told them. “Now show me how you would paint it on the ceiling.” They mixed up the lime and sand, giving him precise instructions and warnings. Michelangelo watched them without saying anything. From the first he had his misgivings.

Next the whole troop climbed up his scaffolding like monkeys with the buckets of sand and lime and water, and the colors and brushes.  They joked about who would start but finally gave the trowel to Granacci, who spread the first quarter-inch layer of mortar on the ceiling and began tracing Michelangelo’s cartoon.  Michelangelo watched with his mouth closed tight and a bit of a scowl.
For a week Michelangelo let them copy his cartoon. Now and then he couldn’t restrain himself and  took the brush away from one of them and corrected a line or a color. He even painted a few of the figures himself. The first fresco was this picture of the Great Flood.


Here is a diagram showing the supposed interventions of Michelangelo’s friends Granacci and Bugiardini.  The continuous lines show a day’s work, the broken lines, supposed workdays.  The letters refer to each of Michelangelo’s collaborators and the numbers, the order of their interventions.


His friends worked more like employees than like artists who were their own masters.  They gave themselves frequent breaks and goofed around.  Michelangelo thought their serious talk was not much better than their jokes.
One day he had taken the brush himself and was at work, in deep concentration.“Oops!” one of them said,  “breaktime!” And they all scampered down the scaffolding to find their bread and onions. “Aren’t you coming?” they called up to Michelangelo.  He didn’t answer.

When they returned he made his announcement: “Boys, I’m sorry but I don’t like what you are doing.” He had seen them horse around too long and he couldn’t take it anymore. He was sorry he had asked them to come.  He should have trusted in himself and not expected to learn anything from others. Whatever they might teach him was vitiated by their own shortcomings. “I’ll have to invent my own method.”   And he sent them back to Florence.

The Mold

The last great trial came after he had finished about a third of the ceiling.  A mold appeared on his frescoes!
“Now…during the winter when the north wind was blowing several spots of mold started to appear on the surface.The reason for this was that the Roman lime, which is white in color and made of travertine, does not dry very quickly, and when mixed with pozzolana, which is a brownish colour, forms a dark mixture which is very watery before it sets; then after the wall has been thoroughly soaked, it often effervesces when it is drying.  Thus the salt effervescence appeared in many places.” (Vasari)

That was the last straw. He ran to the Pope.   “I told you I was no fresco painter,” he whined.  “And now look what has happened. All my work is ruined.”  The Pope sent an expert, Sangallo, to see what was wrong and the man explained to Michelangelo how to remove the molds and encouraged him to continue.

Note:  The little skit with the happy troupe of fresco painters is not in Giorgio Vasari’s Life.


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21 Responses to Michelangelo’s Agony in the Sistine

  1. Rich says:

    What a “Tour de Force”! Your description went right under my skin.
    As far as I understood from your text, Michelangelo must have been deliberately working under utter seclusion. You write he had to interrupt his work to pick up a bucket which happened to fall from the scaffold. Was there no assistant around even for such a job?
    Were there people who would have been happy for the privilege to shine his shoes?
    (Perhaps not very apt, the comparison. You must be having the historical knowledge: did shoe-shining already exist in those times?)

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Rich. Both Vasari and Condivi say he worked alone,”without even a helper to grind his colors”. He locked those painters from Florence out of the chapel and he even resented visits from the Pope. But no one really believes he worked absolutely alone–that is simply impossible. It is part of the legend which he himself fostered to magnify the achievement. Those biographers also say he had never painted in fresco before. Yet as a kid he had helped Ghirlandaio paint frescoes; and of course he had gotten as far as the cartoon of the Consiglio Room of Florence, so he must have made some experiments then.
      In letters to his father he also speaks of working alone: “I have no friends and don’t want any either,” he wrote. So though he might have sometimes had someone help him move the scaffolding or hand him a cartoon (or hold it while he scribed its outline in the plaster), there were no shoeshine boys there. They would have starved, same as the mice.

  2. A similar story to “The little skit” you mention was dramatised by Radio 4 (BBC) the other day- quite fun- as much about the earthiness of real life as about the painting. made me think of you 100swallows and how I must find more time from somewhere!

    • 100swallows says:

      Robert, thanks. When I saw you say the BBC did a similar little skit I was afraid that it was TOO similar. See, I still haven’t read that famous novel by Irving Stone and already once someone told me one of my invented scenes was “exactly like” one in that book. Of course both Irving and I use the same source material; but I wouldn’t take my dramatized scenes from him.

  3. wrjones says:

    Absolutely facinating – 60 feet up day after day looking up. It must have been hell doing that work.

  4. kimiam says:

    I’ve already shared with you how much it hurt my neck to paint that ceiling mural last year. I can’t believe Michelangelo dealt with this for so long and did such wonderful work in that position.

  5. artmodel says:

    Great post! Even though we know how much physical pain and discomfort Michelangelo endured painting the Sistine, your vivid narration really brought it to life. And I can’t imagine him tolerating any kind of clowning around on the part of assistants, or laziness, or taking of breaks. He was a taskmaster for sure, but he had to be.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Artmodel.
      He was certainly no cheerful, easy-going whistler, but a sour man, especially in old age, who talked little, especially when subordinates were around. With his employees he was ornery but understanding. He had a forgiving side, which made him keep them around in spite of some offence; and which made them stay with him. They must have spotted him for a softie deep-down, a grouchy old grandpa who nevertheless has a good heart. He must in fact have been a competent leader of men, able to manage workmen of all kinds, and in many very difficult circumstances, such as the quarries of Carrara.

  6. Robert Mileham says:

    My vision was that he lay on his back on cushions; that he was able to lift and lower the bench he was lying on so he could “stand back” so to speak and see what he had done. I find it difficult to believe that he would have had an uncomfortable painting position for too long. As they used to say in the Army “Any fool can be uncomfortable”. This “vision” may have come from a film I saw in my teens years ago so I claim no “source”! They certainly had the technology so I can’t imagine he wouldn’t have used it, indeed I expect he arranged it so he could sit or stand on it as well. Health and safety rules in the Vatican may have been wanting in those days but if it had been me I think I might have had attached myself to a safety rope of sorts though they say few sky scraper workers pre 1930 bothered. Michelangelo’s reported personality suggests to me that he looked after himself rather well.

    • 100swallows says:

      Robert: I don’t quite understand your picture of Michelangelo up there on the scaffold. You think he had a “bench” on top of the wobbly plank? Even if he did and he stepped down from it occasionally, how much distance from his fresco would that give him when he “stood back”? He was sixty feet off the ground. And have you ever tried to paint lying down? I don’t think that would work. Remember, he had to constantly dip his brush into the runny colors which are in little glasses beside him. Maybe at some stage of the job he could lie but not during most of the work. In the caricature he drew himself standing but he must have sat a lot too and changed postures constantly. I’m sure you are right that he made himself as comfortable as possible but, do whatever he did, he couldn’t make the scaffolding a lounge.

  7. erikatakacs says:

    Now that I know how he did it, makes me appreciate the frescoes even more. I understand him wanting to work in solitude. For his disruptive friends was just another job. But the Sistine Chapel ceiling couldn’t be just a job.

    Swallows, if you don’t mind I attach this sonnet that accompanied the caricature about his misery:

    “Here like a cat in a Lombardy sewer! Swelter and toil!
    With my neck puffed out like a pigeon,
    belly hanging like an empty sack,
    beard pointing at the ceiling, and my brain
    fallen backwards in my head!
    Breastbone bulging like a harpy’s
    and my face, from drips and droplets,
    patterned like a marble pavement.
    Ribs are poking in my guts; the only way
    to counterweight my shoulders is to stick
    my butt out. Don’t know where my feet are-
    they’re just dancing by themselves!
    In front I’ve sagged and stretched; behind,
    my back is tauter than an archer’s bow!”

    • 100swallows says:

      Erika: I had another translation of that same poem here but just yesterday deleted it because I thought the post was too long. Your translation is much better. Thanks.

  8. Pingback: Yesterday’s Artists, Today’s Inspirations: Homeschool Art History Class 3, Michelangelo | Life on the Moon

    • 100swallows says:

      Mandy: Your ingenious lesson has taught your students more about Michelangelo and the pain of making great art than most people will ever learn. And they will remember it the rest of their lives. Congratulations!

  9. Gelica says:

    This is a gr8

  10. Pam Crane says:

    I agree that the above translation of the sonnet is a much better one – but the last lines are missing. It’s not a conventional 14-line sonnet. In the other translation the missing six lines go:
    “Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
    are crazy, perfidious tripe:
    anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.
    My painting is dead.
    Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
    I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.”

  11. 100swallows says:

    Pam Crane: Thanks for completing the (translation of the) poem for us. I wrote this post years ago and hadn’t realized such an important part was missing.

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