The Renaissance Popes, Gerard Noel
Pope Julius II has rightly gained fame as the patron of Michelangelo; but hereby hangs a tale. He persuaded the young sculptor to abandon his stonemason’s craft and mercilessly goaded him into painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Julius had a keen appreciation of artistic genius – or, as he put it, ‘the humours of such men of genius.’ This did not prevent him from working Michelangelo like a dog, and starving him of funds. When Michelangelo quit Rome in a rage, swearing he would leave his work uncompleted, a horrified Florentine official admonished him: “You have behaved towards the Pope in a way the King of France himself would not have ventured upon. There must be an end of this. We are not going to be dragged into a war and risk the whole state for you. Go back to Rome.”
When a surly Michelangelo finally reappeared in Rome, a prelate tried to save him from the Pope’s wrath by pleading “Your Holiness should not be so hard on this Michelangelo; he is a man who has never been taught good manners, these artists do not know how to behave, they understand nothing but their art.” Julius rounded on the prelate in fury, declaring that it was he who had no manners. From then on the arguments between Julius and Michelangelo were no less vehement, yet characterised by mutual respect. Julius would abandon all papal dignity to clamber up dusty ladders and crawl over grimy scaffolding so that he could confer with Michelangelo at the ‘coal face.’ The pair of them would stand together for hours, critically inspecting the frescoes that this ‘man of genius’ was creating. Five hundred years later, we owe a huge debt to both of them.
Five hundred years later, the Vatican has created a digital tour of the Sistine Chapel so you can see the magnitude of this debt for yourselves: