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Sistine Chapel
Sistine Chapel - click to enlarge

The Sistine Chapel takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere, who in 1481 began the decoration, commissioning the best Florentine artists of the time, thanks to the intercession of Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Rosselli, Luca Signorelli, went to Rome with their assistants joining Pietro Perugino who was waiting for them with Pinturicchio.
Completed the frescoes around 1483, the great artists returned to their homes, except Pinturicchio, who therefore remained the master of Rome.

The decoration of the Sistine began from the mid-range of the walls, where Pietro Perugino painted: the "Departure of Moses for Egypt", the "Baptism of Christ" and the famous “Delivery of the Keys”.

To Sandro Botticelli we owe the “Trials of Moses”, the “Punishment of the rebels”, the “Temptation of Christ”. The Roman setting is underlined by an archreminiscent the Constantine one and the ancient façade of the church Holy Spirit in Sassia (close to the Vatican).

Wonderful are the typical faces.

Cosimo Rosselli painted the “Passage of the Red Sea”, the “Descent from Mount Sinai”, the “Sermon on the Mount” and the memorable “Last Supper”.

Last Supper
Last Supper - click to enlarge

By Luca Signorelli is the spectacular fresco representing the “Testament and Death of Moses” and Domenico Ghirlandaio left us the impressive “Calling of the First Apostles”.

The Sistine Chapel owes to Michelangelo its fame, perhaps for that reason, unfortunately, most visitors dedicated to the masterpieces mentioned above a little attention.

If the fame of the Sistine is due to Michelangelo (1475 - 1564), one can say that it is mutual. Michelangelo worked on the Sistine from 1508 to 1512 commissioned by Pope Julius II della Rovere, nephew of Sixtus IV, and from 1536 to 1541 for Paul III Farnese.

For the first painted the ceiling, for the second, in the back wall, the Last Judgement. They are two very different works, the first follows a harmonious orderly pattern, representing one of the greatest testimonies of the Renaissance. The second, conceived after the Lutheran schism and the Sack of Rome in 1527, when it seemed that the conflicts within Christianity were to overwhelm the Roman Church itself, communicates the anguish of the new times. The Volta harmony contrasts with the chaos of the Judgment.

The Vault of the Sistine Chapel was designed by Michelangelo after a traditional pattern.
In the middle of the vault, separated by sham pillars, he painted nine stories of Genesis, alternately greater and smaller size. In the smaller panels there are the famous “Nudes”.

Ignudi Ignudi
Nudes - click to enlarge

Different interpretations have been given to justify their presence, but frankly most of them seem objectionable.

The Genesis stories include the Drunkenness of Noah, the Flood, The Sacrifice of Noah, the Expulsion from Paradise, God creates Eve, God creates Adam, God separates the water from the earth, God created the sun and the planets, God separated light from darkness.

Around the middle of the vault alternate Sybils and Prophets. Among Sybils to note the contrast between the Delphic Sibyl and the Cumana Sibyl.

Among the prophets to observe Ezekiel and Isaiah, who shortly after will be portrayed by Raphael in St Agostino church.

click to enlarge
Michelangelo, Isaiah Raphael, Isaiah
Michelangelo: Isaiah Raphael: Isaiah

Among Sibyls and Prophets are wedged eight sails, which along with the underlying lunettes depict the ancestors of Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew. Famous is the lunette with Jacob and Joseph. In the four corners of the vault the spandrels represent Judith and Holofernes, Moses and the bronze serpent, the conviction of Haman and David slaying Goliath.

The Vault of the Sistine, a work at the same time spectacular and complex, engaged Michelangelo for about four years, a very short time if we think that, thanks to his bad temper, he ended up working solo, leaving his assistants the only tasks to prepare the plaster and colors.

The Last Judgement was frescoed by Michelangelo commissioned by Pope Paul III Farnese.
The work started in 1536, twenty-four years after the finishing of the ceiling of the Sistine. It was completed in 1541.
In these twenty-four years the Roman Church risked being swept away, starting from the Lutheran schism in 1520, which was followed by the sack of Rome in 1527, caused by the conflict between the papacy and the Emperor Charles V, when Pope Clement VII de' Medici for not being taken prisoner repaired into Castel Sant'Angelo, then escaped from Rome. And in 1534 Henry VIII had it approved by the British Parliament the law according to which the only head of the Church of England was the king.

Moreover, in those years the whole Christian world was under the Islamic expansion led by Suleiman the Magnificent, who after occupying Jerusalem in 1517, in a short span of time, in 1521, conquered Belgrade and Serbia, then Rhodes  and in 1526 Hungary.

The world in which had seen the light the Vault of the Sistine Chapel was finished forever!

And in fact you could not imagine two works as diverse as the Volta and the Last Judgement. The symmetry of the one is opposed to the chaotic crowds of the second, in which the various groups are not enclosed within precise geometries (panels, sails, lunettes), but they move in an undifferentiated space.

The focal point of Judgment is represented by Jesus whose face does not express forgiveness and mercy, but neither the severity of the Last Judge, rather expresses distance, a distance emphasized by the Virgin, who seems to evade the contact with every other being. 
The Judgement has stimulated the most diverse and contradictory interpretations, according to some it is rigorously orthodox, according to others the exact opposite, namely Michelangelo would be close to heresy boundaries.

But perhaps the key to interpreting can be found in his distorted self-portrait, hold by St Bartholomew.

The Last Judgement The Last Judgement
The Last Judgement - click to enlarge

In those traits we read the torment of a soul anguished for a deformed world.
In such an anguished atmosphere, terrible is the image of the damned, who more than any other figure testifies to the end of the times.

The end of everything.

Cruel is Charon with his boat dragging the damned in hell. But even in the group of the blessed, brought to heaven, we find no traces of joy.

The Judgment had strict censors both for stylish and moral reasons. On one hand Michelangelo was accused of having played with the anatomy of the human body, on the other side to have provocatively painted unacceptable obscenities. These criticisms, however little nowadays shared, are not entirely incomprehensible.
The fact is that in 1564 was arranged the cover of every obscenity in the Judgment.

The task was entrusted to Daniele da Volterra, who, great admirer of Michelangelo, intervened with the utmost discretion, drawing minimum drapes, with the exception of the group depicting St Biagio with Saint Catherine of Alexandria in such a way as to suggest that they predisposed to perform a sexual act. Here the intervention of Daniel was radical.
In conclusion as the Judgment has ultra-enthusiast critics and fiercely detractors, however, only a total insensitivity can be indifferent observing what, with all reserves, expresses at the top of drama the anguish and fragility of the human soul.



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