The great thing about a Ross King book is that you learn history and history of art and at the same time you find out about the details of an artist's life. For example, originally the Sistine chapel ceiling was covered with stars, typical for vaults of that period, but subsidence led to cracking and an ugly white line of Polyfilla (or its Roman contemporary) across it so they had to repaint it. When Michelangelo started (on the flood scene) he had great problems with discolouration and mildew until someone reviewed the formula for the plaster he was using (which included Volcanic ash rather than sand) and realised he was using too much water. Michelangelo made sketches all the time of everything he saw and regularly reused things from other works of art: he seems to have stolen David's pose from a statue in Rome. Raphael also 'borrowed' often from Leonardo: the contrapposto pose of Eve in his Temptation seems to be a version of a sketch he made of Leonardo's Leda which is perhaps just as well since the original was destroyed Madam de Maintenon, the second wife of Louis XIV. Even just discovering what contrapposto means and why artists use it made the book worth reading! Another example is Botticelli's Venus.
This book is actually three stories woven into one. Michelangelo and his team of assistants are toiling away on their scaffold frescoing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (standing, bending backwards, not lying on their backs which myth arose from a mistranslation of the Italian). Meanwhile Raphael is frescoing the Pope's private apartments with scenes such as The School of Athens. And il papa terribile, the warmongering Julius II, is fighting the Venetians and the French for mastery of the Papal States.
Three immensely contrasting personalities. Julius is larger than life, growing a white beard in defiance of canon law, hunting pheasant with guns in defiance of canon law, and eating, drinking and making love to excess (in defiance of canon law). Meanwhile, Raphael is a sweet young man with an incredibly sunny disposition, beloved by everyone, especially women, from baker's daughters to high class courtesans. And Michelangelo is slovenly, depressive, ugly, and probably chaste, moping about on his own. There is a story that an isolated Michelangelo met Raphael and his crowd of admirers one day and sneered at him for being a 'bravo'; Raphael returned by pointing out the Michelangelo was friendless like a 'hangman'.
There is so much of interest in this story told as usual with Ross King's easy-to-read narrative style. It's wonderful.
March 2016; 296 pages
Other great Ross King books I have read include:
- Leonardo and the Last Supper: a wonderful description of how a great but wayward artist produced a masterpiece
- Brunelleschi's Dome: about how the dome of the Duomo in Florence was built
- The Judgement of Paris: the rivalry between Meissonier (I'd never heard of this great artist before!) and Monet which led to the triumph of Impressionism