Most contemporary mainstream, popular books that seek to put the significant people and events of the past into some kind of narrative often fail because, for a variety of reasons, we have managed to collectively fail to appreciate or understand that the past was … fundamentally different.
Many of the social constructs we take for granted are, historically speaking, of recent creation. So too are our notions of hygiene and cleanliness, our sense of responsibility to society and to one another, our sense of where and when to recourse to violence. Changed, too, are our appreciation of fidelity to a particular faith or credo, the way we dress and our social expectations, and (sadly) our sense of honor.
In short, the people of the past could not be more different than we if they were Martians. The reasons for our lack of intellectual and emotional empathy with the past are many and far-ranging. The ubiquity of a distancing technology, the many and beneficial effects of social mobility (at least while it lasts in this country) and the impact of science to wipe away the superstitions of a millennia are but a few of the reasons. For a popular historian to truly become simpatico with the distant past requires a deep knowledge of then-prevailing opinions, politics, social norms and day-to-day living.
For those of interested in the Renaissance and many of the gigantic figures who loomed so large within it, I recommend Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King without reservation. It tells the story of the often stormy relations between the artist Michelangelo and his patron, Pope Julius II. Other historical figures who play a part in the history are Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Savonarola, Erasmus and Martin Luther.
For those of us who expect our popes to be gentle vicars of Christ, men who spearhead the message of peace (or intolerance) of the Church, Julius II will come as a great surprise. A warrior Pope, Julius spent nearly on battlefields of Italy trying to regain control of once-Papal lands now under French rule as he did in the Vatican. Along with his host of occasionally murderous cardinals and courtiers, and sometimes with the advice of his daughter (I did say popes were somewhat different then), Julius sought to use the Church as a means by which he could restore all of Italy to the grandeur and international influence it held in the age of Caesar.
Needless to say, such a titanic character had a titanic ego. To help refashion the world around him, and to leave a lasting artistic legacy forever attached to his name, Julius selected Michelangelo as one of his leading artists and visionaries.
This selection was not an easy one. Every bit as arrogant, egocentric and difficult as Pope Julius, Michelangelo had no use for the warrior Pope and hoped to continue building his career in Florence. However, refusal of a Papal commission could have fatal consequences, and with great misgivings the great artist went to Rome.
Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling masterfully tells the story of how Michelangelo painted the magnificent frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, and the four years of misery, fear, intimidation and frustration he suffered while doing so. A suspicious, nasty, ungenerous, physically dirty and fairly rancid individual, Michelangelo did not work happily under duress, threats or discomfort. The fact that Raphael – younger, better looking, popular, beloved – was creating rival masterpieces (e.g. The School of Athens) a few away at the same time did little to improve his mood.
Most amazingly to us – who now, after centuries of looking at the iconic images of the Sistine ceiling as one of the most magnificent artistic achievements of the western world – Michelangelo insisted that he was a painter of no ability at all, and that his effort was doomed to failure. Draw whatever parable of artistic self-blindness you want here.
Sometimes a name looms so large in history – like Michelangelo – that it is almost impossible to think of a flesh-and-blood human being in there as well. Ross King manages to bring these huge historical characters to life in a real and vibrant way, and makes us understand both the richness and strangeness of the Renaissance.
Here, for example, is the warrior pope about to leave for battle following negative omens: “Julius was undaunted by the omen, and for the next week Rome bustled with preparations. Finally, before dawn on the morning of the twenty-sixth of August, after an early Mass, he was borne in his litter to the Porta Maggiore, one of Rome’s eastern gates, where he gave a blessing to those who had risen to cheer him on his way. With him were five hundred knights on horseback and several thousand Swiss infantry armed with pikes. Twenty-six cardinals accompanied them, together with the choir from the Sistine Chapel and a small army of secretaries, notaries, chamberlains, auditors – a good part of the Vatican bureaucracy. Also among the company was [artist] Donato Bramante, who served among other duties, as the pope’s military architect.”
King (born 1962) is also the author of Brunelleschi’s Dome and the novel Ex-Libris. We will revisit his work soon.