Book Club Reflection: Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King

13 Nov

In a quick follow-up to my Tuesday review of Ross King’s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, here’s our book club discussion! And yes, this does mean I’m behind on reviews again. Darn.

I walked into the meeting room and saw the woman across from me holding the movie I was picturing the entire book, The Agony and the Ecstasy starring Charlton Heston. I watched this at a church movie night when I was in high school and I remembered vividly seeing Heston painting while on his back, paint dripping on his face. Of course, that’s not the image King paints. Instead of a lone Heston lying supine, King gives us a Michelangelo with assistants galore who’s standing tall, leaning back.

I believe I was the only attendant who had read the book in its entirety. Many had skipped around and glossed over parts they didn’t care for, but I suffered my self-inflicted curse and finished the whole thing. (I hope this is setting the mood well.) So the basic question: Did you like the book. We tried to put a positive spin on everything. There was a lot of detail and it was well researched, there’s no denying that. King didn’t leave out a single name, even when one can argue he should have. He had a lot of terms used in painting and was able to detail the processes very well. We thought it was interesting that we knew so much about these people because of their letters. A lot of the quotes King used were from letters and there’s a fear that my generation won’t have that because of the digital age. Maybe we’ll be another dark ages.

We talked about who might enjoy this book more than us. Perhaps art history students or friends very interested in either Roman or Catholic history. I think if I were about to go to Rome, this would be more interesting. We saw on the cover that it’s a New York Times best seller. My quick research finds that it reached a high of 22 on the Hardcover Nonfiction list in March 2003. (In the same week, The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson was #3 if that puts it in perspective.) While this is impressive, I understand why I missed it.

One of our members pointed out a passage she found horrific. It comes from the beginning of chapter 19, page 188 in our copies:

The Roman carnival that took place in February of 1510 was even more jubilant and unruly than usual. All of the familiar entertainments were on show. Bulls were released into the streets and slain by men on horseback armed with lances. Convicted criminals were executed in the Piazza del Popolo by a hangman dressed as a harlequin. South of the piazza, races along Via de Corso included a competition between prostitutes. An even more popular attraction was the “racing of the Jews,” a contest in which Jews of all ages were forced to don bizarre costumes and then sprint down the street to insults from the crowd and sharp prods from the spears of the soldiers galloping behind. Cruelty and bad taste knew no bounds. There were even races between hunchbacks and cripples.

This is not exactly the typical church festival. We were shocked at a few of the things King describes as being associated with the church and the Pope. He had illegitimate children and the church went to war. This doesn’t exactly jive with my image of the current Pope, Francis. It’s no wonder that Martin Luther, after visiting Rome, found it unpleasant and was disgusted. In truth, I might be, too. Erasmus, upon returning to London after a Roman visit in 1509, wrote The Praise of Folly in which he mocked Rome under Julius II’s command. It seems very few were as impressed with Julius as he was with himself.

The relationship between Michelangelo and the Pope was really weird to us. The Pope would summon him, and then ignore him for months so that Michelangelo would leave and go back to his family, at which point the Pope would demand he come back. At one point, Michelangelo was throwing boards at the pope to get him out of the chapel. At some point, Michelangelo knew he wouldn’t be fired because he had to finish his work and knew the Pope wanted to see it finished. He took advantage of that relationship more than once.

A lot of emphasis was placed on Michelangelo’s use of the figure. He drew a lot of large and muscular nudes in each of his paintings, making them the central focus of his art more than other artists at the time. It’s interesting to us that he used only male models (and maybe some prostitutes) to do the models, even for women because of the ideas around sexuality at that time. We thought it was really cool that he would study cadavers to learn the structure of bone and muscle. It makes sense that he was very drawn to the figure because of this.

Many of us hadn’t realized that Leonardo da Vinci, Rafael, and Michelangelo were contemporaries let alone rivals. We thought it was interesting how King was able to draw so many distinctions between Rafael and Michelangelo. Michelangelo had a terrible self-image and didn’t bathe much while Rafael spent his time with the most beautiful courtesan in Rome It’s a good thing they only competed in fresco and not on a runway.

We continued to be unimpressed with Michelangelo’s family. His father stole money from him twice yet they continued to treat his disrespectfully because he was a craftsman. His brothers, who depended on him to start a business, thought less of him because his painting was considered manual labor. We felt bad for him in light of how his family treated him.

We argued if Michelangelo was more famous for the Sistine Chapel or the David. It’s really a toss-up between these and some of his other great accomplishments. Michelangelo was not confident when he started the ceiling because he didn’t consider himself a painter. He thought of himself more as a sculptor and he would probably consider the David his greatest accomplishment. As he continued to paint, however, he grew more confident. He used cartoons less and painted by freehand more and more. Something he started almost hesitantly is now arguably one of the greatest art works of all time. He didn’t seem to care much for the details at first and things were almost haphazard but as he went, he tied in his own little jokes and flourishes. The only way to learn is practice.

I’ll refer you to my book review for my real feelings on this book. A lot of my fellow readers felt the same way: Good book, not good for book clubs.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

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