Book Review: Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King (1/5). A good book, but not for book clubs.

11 Nov

Books can be good for different things. A book can be entertaining, thought-provoking, informative, or inspiring, just to name a few. And certain books are good in certain settings; beech reads, book club books, how-to books, research books, children’s books. And not all books work in every category. What I’m trying to say is, this book was not right for the book club. It would have been great had I been writing a thesis or about to go explore Italy and was really interested in art history but it was not good for a group discussion. Not at all.

Book Cover image via

Book Cover image via

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King

Summary from Goodreads:

In 1508, despite strong advice to the contrary, the powerful Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the newly restored Sistine Chapel. With little experience as a painter (though famed for his sculpture David), Michelangelo was reluctant to begin the massive project.

Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling recounts the four extraordinary years Michelangelo spent laboring over the vast ceiling while the power politics and personal rivalries that abounded in Rome swirled around him. Battling against ill-health, financial difficulties, domestic problems, the pope’s impatience, and a bitter rivalry with the brilliant young painter Raphael, Michelangelo created scenes so beautiful that they are considered one of the greatest masterpieces of all time. A panorama of illustrious figures converged around the creation of this great work-from the great Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus to the young Martin Luther-and Ross King skillfully weaves them through his compelling historical narrative, offering uncommon insight into the intersection of art and history.

Sloooooooooooow. Details, facts, side stories, speculations and quotes. All of that together does not make for a very exciting read. Books usually take me about two weeks to get through when I have a paper copy. This one took me a full month. It wasn’t that long, I just stopped reading as much as I normally do. It’s obvious the author did his homework and this book is really complete with details, but it’s not what I wanted to discuss in a book club.

The characters were very much brought to life int he book. From reading the letters they’d written, King was able to give each a distinct personality. Michelangelo is self-defeating, Raphael is a smooth-talking lady-killer and the Pope is a glutton. Many historical figures seem so flat that it was great to see them brought to life through their own words.

The Pope was my favorite character. It was a ‘love to hate him’ kind of a relationship that I had with the Pope. He was so opposite from what I’ve always though a Pope should be like and how one should behave. I know that the restrictions on chastity and poverty were a little less strict at certain points in history than they are today, but it was interesting to get into his character as much as King was able to.

Ross King Image via the New York Times website

Ross King
Image via the New York Times website

I liked the descriptions of the techniques Michelangelo used to paint the ceiling. I’m glad that King was able to clear up the image of Michelangelo laying on his back to paint the ceiling. I never understood how that would work logistically. It was cool to find out how the paintings were broken down into a days work and to hear bout how big an area Michelangelo would pursue in a day. I thought this was the most interesting part and was a bit where I didn’t mind the crazy amount of detail.

I wasn’t interested in the parts that talked about Rafael. I was reading a book about Michelangelo and I didn’t like how much detail there was about the people Rafael was entertaining or sleeping with. I didn’t think it added to the story. It felt like an unrelated fact King ran into that he found interesting enough to include but I didn’t think it was necessary.

The biggest lesson I learned from Michelangelo was about dedication. Michelangelo was more or less tricked into painting the ceiling and it wasn’t what he felt strongest doing. He did it anyway and was dedicated to the act throughout. He was also the provider for his family and had to discipline himself a lot to continue to provide for them and help them become self-sufficient. Even when he finished the ceiling, he wanted to start right away on the tomb for the pope he had been so excited about. I wish better things had happened to Michelangelo because he seemed to suffer so much for his art.

Writer’s Takeaway: I’m not sure I have any criticisms of this book from a writing perspective. It was well written and full of detail, which for a historical biography, is perfect. It’s just not  perfect for a book club selection. I’m not sure who in our group picked this one, but it’s not something I would recommend for other groups. If you’re looking to do some research or you’re going to Rome soon and want some background, this is a really great pick. But don’t pick it up expecting a fast read. It’s not good for that.

Overall, 1 out of 5 stars because it wasn’t what I wanted. At all.

This book fulfilled Italy for my Where Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling | anne frandi-coory
Vatican City goes Hollywood | PagesPages


2 Responses to “Book Review: Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King (1/5). A good book, but not for book clubs.”

  1. Alan Wright June 2, 2018 at 12:25 PM #

    The only legit. criticism that you offer is too much detail on Rafael. I disagree. Pope Julius had the two employed at the same time doing different jobs. To ignore the rivalry and the disdain leveled by Michelangelo at a younger genius would have been derelict. I think it is some of the most interesting reading in the book.

    So, it seems you think it is a great book but darn it, it just takes too long to read and for that reason you give it only one star out of five?

    Maybe you should stick with comic books.


    • Sam June 2, 2018 at 12:50 PM #

      As I read this book almost four years ago, I can’t respond well to your critique of my review. It seems we had different opinions on the book.

      I don’t appreciate you attacking me personally for having different opinions on what makes a book ‘good,’ which can be a rather subjective connotation. I could read a book twice and have vastly different opinions of it depending on where I am in my life when I read it. As it would seem, you and I are at different places in our lives and the book appealed to you in a way it didn’t appeal to me.

      I respect you for reading and blogging but if you can’t comment on my blog in a respectful way I will block you from commenting on the future.


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