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The Sistine Chapel: History of a masterpiece by Antonio Forcellino, translated by Lucinda Byatt

24 March 2023

Nicholas Cranfield tells of a regrettable choice at the Sistine Chapel

ANTONIO FORCELLINO has some claim to be Italy’s leading authority on Michelangelo Buonarroti. As both an art historian and an art restorer, with his invaluable insights and careful use of newly discovered documents, he scrupulously corrects the Florentine’s self-inflated claims.

In Michelangelo: A tormented life (Polity Press, 2009 (Books, 24 November 2009)), he matched the sculptor’s hubris with his inventiveness and produced a somewhat breathless biography, often let down by the leaden prose of his translator, Allan Cameron.

Here, the same English publisher has turned to the veteran translator Lucinda Byatt, who is herself a notable Italian historian of the period: Cardinal Niccolò Ridolfi and the Cardinal’s Court (2022). Her translation sits lightly and reads swiftly.

This tells of Pope Sixtus IV’s rebuilding of the original Cappella Magna in the Vatican Palace, on the site of Pope Leo III’s first chapel (795-816).

After the years of papal exile to Avignon, the chapel had fallen into disuse. In 1477, Sixtus began an ambitious refurbishment programme, bringing in an Umbrian pupil of Filippo Lippi, Pier Matteo de Manfredi d’Amelia (1445-1508) to paint the starry vault of the vast space that measures 40.93 × 13.41 metres and is at a height of 20.70 metres.

The Sultans reigning in Constantinople, the new Rome, since its fall in 1453, claimed to be the heirs of the Caesars. A generation later, Mehmed II had set out to seize Italy and Rome itself. The capture of Otranto, on the Italian mainland (August 1480), sharpened the pope’s mind both diplomatically and artistically to outrank his rival.

Forcellino shows how, to decorate the walls of the chapel, he first engaged three leading Quattrocento artists from Tuscany, in 1481, to work alongside Pietro Perugino (1448-1523). They were Cosimo Roselli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Sandro Botticelli. A dozen large frescos were planned, showing in parallel the lives of Christ and of Moses, the latter occasioning much new iconography.

Perugino was entrusted with the all-important scenes behind the high altar (Moses in the bulrushes and the nativity of Christ), on which stood his great altarpiece of the Assumption. Forcellino shows how, although each artist used different fresco techniques, none the less the narrative cycle reads as a unity within landscape backgrounds.

Disaster struck in the spring of 1504: subsidence caused the ceiling vault to crack irreparably. Despite the objections of Donato Bramante, the architect who was in charge of the palace fabric, the new pope, Julius II, summoned the sculptor Michelangelo, who had limited experience of painting, and none of fresco, to repaint the repaired ceiling vault.

Later (under the same pope), tapestries were designed by Raphael to celebrate, along the walls, the mission of the Apostles; but it was not until 1534-45 that the iconoclastic decision was taken to destroy Perugino’s original east-wall frescos, which had traced the foundation of Christian revelation in Moses the Lawgiver and in the Word-made-flesh. His altarpiece that had been damaged in the 1527 Sack of Rome was removed at the same time.

The Venetian ambassador in Rome, in January 1534, reported that scaffolding had gone up against the east wall to allow the painting of a Resurrection.

Whether the decision was that of Pope Clement VII, it was enacted by his successor Paul III in a papal decree of September 1535. But the final painting was not a Resurrection, as befits the east wall before which the mass is offered. The Last Judgement is so famous that its iconographic intrusiveness remains unquestioned.

Michelangelo is unlikely to have known the great Doom painting in the cathedral at Torcello, but Giotto’s Last Judgement in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua was widely known.

Such depictions were always on the west wall of churches and never at the east end, where, inevitably, the sacrifice of the altar is diminished. It was this reckless theological decision that, to this day, makes a nonsense of the Sistine Chapel as a liturgical space.

Michelangelo completed the monumental painting in 1541 and continued to be paid handsomely from the river tolls on the Po. The river still flows, while scores of tourists come to gawp at the ceiling and The Last Judgement and pay scant regard to the sublime wall-paintings.

Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.


The Sistine Chapel: History of a masterpiece
Antonio Forcellino, author
Lucinda Byatt, translator
Polity £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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