31: Michelangelo’s torture – The unknown truth about the Sistine Chapel

by | Dec 22, 2020 | Podcast | 0 comments

Everyone knows that the Sistine Chapel ceiling was painted by Michelangelo, but do you know it from his perspective? His take on what is now one of his most famous works, might not be what you would expect. 

First, it’s important to know, Michelangelo worked predominantly on the ceiling and altar wall. The rest of the walls are decorated by numerous famous Renaissance artists, but still today, the ceiling remains the most captivating part. Michelangelo worked on this masterpiece from 1508-1512, much to his anguish. Wondering why I said anguish? 

First, let’s debunk a common myth. You might have heard before that Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel while lying on his back, but Michelangelo and his assistants actually worked while standing on a scaffold that Michelangelo had built himself.

Therefore, Perhaps unsurprisingly, Michelangelo didn’t enjoy his work. He suffered from a  body aches while painting the Sistine Chapel, and even wrote a poem I want to share with you, where he laments his suffering.

I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,

hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy

(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).

My stomach’s squashed under my chin,my beard’s

pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,

my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,

above me all the time, dribbles paint

so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,

my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,

every gesture I make is blind and aimless.

My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s

all knotted from folding over itself.

I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.

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.

 That’s right, Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor, not a painter.

Lastly, in case there were any doubts about how he felt about this illustrious work, Michelangelo included a bit of himself in the chapel for all eternity. One of the many figures in the Last Judgement painting on the altar wall is St Bartholomew, who was flayed alive. The saint holds his own skin, which is commonly interpreted as the artist’s own melancholy self portrait. I hope this brings some new perspective to the Sistine Ceiling and the artist behind it. Ciao for now ragazzi!

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Ciao, I'm Rachel

I am obsessed with everything Italian! After years living in Italy, being married to an Italian, getting my Italian citezenship through my Pugliese lineage, a BA in Italian language and literature, then a MA in Italian Art History, I have lots of experience with this country! Hang out with me to learn more!