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on December 23, 2013
This lively, well written book details the history of the world's most famous fresco.

Clearly, incredible research has been carried out by the author on a variety of specific topics, including the background and personality of Michelangelo's assistants, the location and lay-out of his workshop and how frescoes are actually made (from pre-drawn cartoons, largely by assistants, and, in this case as in general, standing up, not lying on your back!).

The author intertwines the story of the fresco with the contemporary history of Rome and even includes cameos about Erasmus and Martin Luther. Though the chapters are short and the book easy to read, some readers may indeed find that the flow of thought is in fact too frequently interrupted by these sidebars.

The major shortcoming for this book is the lay-out. It is hopelessly traditional with rough grained black and white images inserted in the main text and all colour photos grouped together in a few pages in the middle of the book. The reader must resort to an outside source to obtain visuals that allow full understanding of the text!

Nevertheless, this book will prove worthwhile to all interested in Rome, art or the Renaissance.
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on March 6, 2003
I enjoy reading biographies and Mr. King is one of the better writers when documenting those periods of European History he chooses. He wrote a wonderful book about Brunelleschi, and now offers readers and even more ambitious work on Michelangelo and Pope Julius II. Many writers seem to often stray, and are too sweeping and inclusive of other persons and events that also took place during the time they are documenting. Mr. King gives enough information to keep his subjects and their pursuits in context without diluting the premise of his books.
The painting of the Sistine Chapel may seem like too well worn a subject for another book but the author dispels so many misconceptions about the events that were involved in this creation that his clarifications are worth the read on their own. The book also includes magnificent color plates and numerous black and white drawings that make the book all the more interesting. But the images add to the book, they do not act as a crutch for an author lacking information.
Did Michelangelo paint while lying on his back, the book answers that question by sharing a letter and diagram of Michelangelo that he penned himself sharing the manner by which he worked? Were the frescoed ceiling and vaults designed and painted by Michelangelo on his own, how long did the work really take, and how close did the work come to be handed over to another artist before its completion?
The author also demonstrates the influence and politics that were a daily part of working for The Vatican and this particular Pope. Mr. King will share the discovery and rapid rise of the artist Raphael who was painting at The Vatican simultaneously with Michelangelo. Bramante who was to initiate the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Cathedral was also always present, in the shadows or in front, scheming or openly attempting to influence who would gain specific commissions for the Pope. And there is also the famous/infamous Savonarola who held great influence with the artist who painted the 12,000sf ceiling at a time when approving of the doomed holy man could mean death to those who shared his thoughts.
I have no way of knowing which person or architectural marvel Mr. King will turn to next. He explores several fascinating people in this work that would fill several additional books. I only hope that he continues to produce these eminently readable and enjoyable studies of History and her participants.
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on July 7, 2004
Appreciators of art, particularly the classics, will have a field day with Ross King's Michelangelo & The Pope's Ceiling, not just because it gives a blow-by-blow account of how one man, figuratively if not literally, could achieve a creation of such power, grace, and style that it still remains today one of the most famous works of art in the world. Add to that a complex history of the papacy and European monarchies and you've got a wonderful narrative, supplemented by accurate technical information on exactly how the whole thing was brought about.
If you've seen the film The Agony and the Ecstacy, you've only gotten a fraction of the story behind the Sistine Chapel ceiling and indeed, the perceptions of one man painting while on his back that have lingered are in large part due to tales like it. However, as King is quick to point out, while Michelangelo's genius was the driving force there were other artists involved who get the short shrift of history.
The book also gives generous space to Raphael, the rival and artist working elsewhere in the Vatican at the time and, naturally, to the amazing character of Julius II, a pope who clearly did not conform to tradition. Elements of both the Sistine ceiling and Raphael's work are given thoughtful attention and analysis.
The detailed descriptions of the methods and techniques employed by the artists were interesting, but in some instances went on for too long and took something away from the narrative flow that had been established. Even so, it was very educational and entertaining.
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on July 12, 2004
I'm not a fan of historical books but the topic of arts intertwigled with the Papacy was too good for me to resist. The book is a very well written, real non-fiction page-turner, which does not have the typical hundred names and hundreds places and dates of the typical historical book. It has plenty of interesting facts about the time of Michelangelo's fresco paintings, and places the topic well in the time and place context of such an age. However, there is a relatively small proportion of the book that is specifically focused on the topic of the title. Rather, the author sidetracks time and time again on events that occur at the time when the Sistine Chapel ceiling was being painted. Although not related, the topics described are quite interesting and the overall narration flows quite well.
This is definetly not a biography on Michelangelo, neither is it a compendium on fresco painting. It is a very good historical book, which could have been complemented with plenty of more insights into the subject matter rather than delving on tangents.
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on July 2, 2004
King exhibits a masters touch in his descriptive writing, panache and almost daily record of the artists life. The reader is taken into the work area of the master and provided a firsthand knowledge of how the conditions of this era played upon the capability of producing artistic results. The descriptions of the personalities of King's characters reflect the detailed research this author has done with much discipline to properly set the atmosphere for the reader. The description of the diferences between Michelangel's and Raphael's use of assistants and teaching is a typical, interesting side story. " He ( Michaelangelo) was interested in instilling his art in only "noble people"....and not in plebeins"
King also is not intimidated by other authors writing on this era. In fact, it is refreshing to see his references to Condivi,George Bull, and Lehmann in much of his storytelling.
Truly a "keeper" for the grndkids to read as an into to Michaelangelo Buonarroti
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on May 25, 2004
None of Michelangelo's other works ever won him quite the same renown as his fresco in the Sistine Chapel, a building now virtually synonymous with his name. Almost immediately after Michelangelo unveiled it in 1512, the fresco became like an academy for artists, who had since long been using the Sistine Chapel as storehouse of ideas. They treated works of Michelangelo as some kind of a portfolio through which they concocted new ideas. The prestigious style of buon fresco generated intense interest, in particular, among a new generation of painters that pioneered a movement later known as mannerism.
MICHELANGELO AND THE POPE'S CEILING recounts the beguiling, fascinating story of the four extraordinary years Michelangelo Buonarroti spent laboring over the 12,000 square feet of the vast ceiling made up of concave vaults, spandrels, and lunettes. The works marked an entirely new direction in which he had brought the power, vitality, and sheer magnitude of works of sculpture into the realm of painting.
The commission, however, did not commence on an auspicious note, as Michelangelo had meager experience as a painter, let alone working in the delicate medium of fresco and painting bent-back the concave and curved surfaces of vaults. Having been a masterful sculptor who had unveiled the statue "David" four years prior to the pope's summon, his rival Bramante took advantage of his lack of experience to thwart Michelangelo's ambitions and so to destroy his reputation. Such alleged conspiracy as perceived by Michelangelo made the dreadful commission all the more invidious. He would either refuse the Sistine project, and in doing so incurred the ire of Pope Julius II, or else failed miserably in his attempt through lack of experience.
The outcome of Michelangelo's works had proudly (and vindictively) served as a triumphant reply to the sneer of his insidious rival, who had once stated that he would be unable to paint overhead surfaces because he understood nothing of foreshortening. What Michelangelo had achieved was exactly the sheer opposite: he demonstrated how vastly more daring and successful his foreshortening technique had become following four years on a special scaffold he designed for the purpose. It was through the power, arm-raced politics, vicious personal rivalries, and a constant paranoia over the possible hiatus of the commission that Michelangelo achieved a virtuoso performance at the summit of his powers.
Battling against illness, financial difficulties, consistent changes of assistantships, domestic problems, family drama, predatory rival of the commission, and the pope's impatience and petulance, Michelangelo created his masterful scenes - The Creation, The Temptation, The Flood, The Crucifixion of Haman, The Brazen Serpent, David and Goliath - so beautiful that the telling movements lent the figures their verisimilitude and intense drama.
The book is not a critique of Michelangelo's art works, but to a small extent it does make comparison to works of Raphel, a brilliant young painter who was working in fresco on the neighboring Stanza del Segnatura, the papal apartments. Michelangelo's ability to generate, in a short space of time, so many of hundreds of postures for the Sistine's ceiling stunned the young artist. Raphael's works after 1512, the unveiling of Michelangelo's fresco at Sistine, manifested absorption of Michelangelo's style: the tumult of bodies, throngs of figures in dramatic, muscle-straining poses showing gradations of tone along anatomically accurate knots of muscles.
Ross King has written a brilliant book that combines uncommon insight on Michelangelo's works with historical facts. Woven through the artist's progress on the Sistine commission was history of upheaval during 16th century Italy, when Pope Julius II devoted on military campaigns against other Italian city states and against Louis XII of France. Niccolo Machiavelli defended Florence, Michelangelo's hometown, against Julius's attacking forces bent on restoring the Medicis to power. MICHELANGELO AND THE POPE'S CEILING painted a portrait of life in Michelangelo's Rome, on the ingenious scaffold in Sistine Chapel, as well as the daily minute history of Italy. It is a book through which history and art converge.
2004 (32) © MY
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on February 28, 2004
Ross King's delightful book, "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling" changed the way I see and think about the fresco painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Rather than a painting isolated from both its creation and its author I now see it as a painful four-year journey to create a masterpiece. Pope Julius II, who saw himself both as Caesar and Pope, Warrior and Spiritual Guide, commissioned Michelangelo to paint the vault of the Sistine Chapel in 1508 - some 12,000 square feet of lunettes, spandrels, pendentives, and curved spaces. It would be the largest fresco ever painted to date. Michelangelo abandoned work on the Pope's tomb some 2 years earlier for non-payment and had fled back to Florence fearing retribution from the Pope, a man called Il papa terribile because of his violent temper. He had misgivings about accepting the commission because he considered himself a sculptor, not a painter; the only painting he is know to have completed before this was the Holy Family for a friend. Amid his suspicions of a conspiracy by Donato Bramante to deprive him of the work and a strained relationship with the Pope Michelangelo began work on the fresco. Painting a fresco on a flat surface, let alone a curved one such as Sistine Chapel ceiling, was a complex and difficult task requiring experience to execute properly. It required such preparation as drawing the cartoon's that would serve as patterns, selecting pigments and mixing them to create the paint, covering the surface with an undercoat of plaster, and finally adding a layer of plaster onto which the artist which apply color while still wet. In the case of the Sistine Chapel, scaffolding capable of reaching the ceiling nearly 100 feet above the floor was also required.
Despite an inauspicious start - his first sequence, The Flood, needed to be redone, requiring about 4 weeks of rework - family problems, depression, a temper almost matching that of Il papa terribile, plague, and Julius' military campaign's Michelangelo managed to complete the first half of the fresco by 1510, though he would have to wait until 1511, due to the Pope's wars and illness, to unveil it and begin work on the second half. Though painted by a man who claimed not be a painter the fresco was unveiled to great acclaim. And though Raphael's fresco's in the Pope's library were certainly more beautiful and showed a unity of composition that Michelangelo had not achieved, the fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was the more powerful, the more sublime. Having gained the necessary experience, work on the second half of the fresco proceeded more quickly. He even, in some cases, skipped the step of transferring the cartoon to the surface of the plaster and instead painted freehand. Again, family problems and war threatened the completion of his work. The second half of the Sistine Chapel contains some of Michelangelo's best work - particularly the paintings of The Crucifixion of Haman and The Brazen Serpent. The entire fresco was completed in 1512, four years after it was started. Pope Julius II would die in early 1513 and Michelangelo resumed the work on the papal tomb that had been abandoned six years before.
It is ironic that today Michelangelo's fame almost surely rests on the Sistine Chapel ceiling fresco - a virtuoso work created by a man who until that time had really only created sculpture. At a state funeral held after his death, Benedetto Varchi proposed that Raphael would have been the greatest artist that had lived - if Michelangelo had not existed.
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on January 13, 2004
This wonderful book is as much about life as it is about art. In addition to setting aside misconceptions (the artist bent over backwards rather than worked on his back), King adds all the rich tones and elements of this turbulent and colorful era.
In Michaelangelo's day (the end of the fifteenth and the start of the sixteenth century), Rome was still recovering from years of neglect. Vain and often unscrupulous popes at times advanced Rome and, at other times, took the city a few steps backwards. Ill-gained wealth paid for much of the great art. Proud popes built tombs, churches and cathedrals as memorials to themselves. Michaelangelo's patron, Julius, tried to undo some of the art work of his predecessor, a man who apparently at one time attempted to poison Julius.
As King writes, Rome was populated primarily by priests, pilgrims and prostitutes. As King did admirably in his telling of the story of the construction of Il Duomo in Florence, he again conveys the human element behind the sweat, genius and tumult. Intricate details about producing the most difficult art of the fresco, the daily accounting of the work, the intrigue among the assistants, the papal retinue and the two primary actors (pope and artist) breathe a life into the ceiling that comes to explain if not match the glory of the chapel work. You feel you can smell the animal dung, hear the assistants murmuring near their master, see the wet plaster transforming, and celebrate the triumph of human effort guided by God's hand.
Michaelangelo was petty at times, also often paranoid about his competitors as well as his assistants and patrons. He was also a pius man, a devotee of the rabid monk Savonarola and a man willing to read signs from floods, illness and other natural acts. Much of the time Michaleangelo feared for his life from seen and imagined enemies. The human miracle is how the artist triumphed amidst these real problems. Ross' triumph is in capturing this story in a highly readable, engaging style. Thank you.
Be sure to read this book before you set off on your own pilgrimage to Rome and the Sistine.
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on January 8, 2004
I'd seen this book and BRUNELLESCHI'S DOME in bookstores for quite a while. I just couldn't bring myself to purchase either for a very silly reason. The author's name, Ross King, just didn't sound very authoritative to me, for some reason. More a name for a movie actor than a Rennaissance biographer. As it turns out, that was a baseless bias. King definitely knows his stuff, as the book's bulging bibliography will attest to.
Purists may be put off by the fact that this book is so entertaining, that it can't possibly be serious scholarship. I say let them stick to Jacob Burckhardt, I'll take Ross King, any day. This is a masterly book, and King is an excellent story teller, marshalling his facts and arraying them in taut, controlled prose. His is an excellent overview of the full panoply of figures and events that made late 15th, early 14th c. Italy such an extraordinary place and era. Michelangelo lived in a time that teemed with larger than life figures. The Borgias were still wielding influence in Florence and Rome. Amongst Michelangelo's contemporaries that put in an appearance in the book are the firebrand priest, Girolamo Savonarola, Martin Luther, Machiavelli, and two of the other greatest artists of the Rennaissance, Leonardo and Raphael. The rivalry between Michelangelo and Raphael is one of the keynotes of the book. Raphael and his team of artisans were frescoing the pope's private rooms in the Vatican at the same time Michelangelo was frescoing the massive vault of the Sistine Chapel. Raphael is depicted as an expansive, open-minded, hedonist, good looking and attractive to all. Michelangelo is a "jug-eared, flat-nosed, and rather squat, somewhat miserly loner, who also happened to possess an unparalleled artistic genius.
King is particularly adept at conveying exactly how delicate and painstaking the art frescoing actually was. The artist would have only a brief window of time to apply the precious pigments before the plaster dried. Michelangelo started the project knowing very little about the involved techniques necessary to perform under such a timetable. As the months and years went by, he became so adept that he could paint ever larger sections at breakneck speed. He had to learn his craft on the fly, however, under incredibly difficult conditions.
King dispels a couple myths that have come down to us, primarily via Irving Stone and from the movie version of his novel, THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY. It is highly unlikely that Michelangelo had to paint any sections of the ceiling on his back. He did however, have to assume some rather uncomfortable craning postures for hours at a time. It's also evident that the artist didn't work alone on the project. He would hire assistants as the need arose. He definitely didn't mix his own pigments, for instance, a time consuming, exact and laborious task in itself. This in no way diminishes just how Herculean an effort he exerted, however. The sheer physical toll the painting exacted on his body was quite real. His spirit was drained by the enterprise. It was, after all, not a project he was eager to pursue. Had it not been for the overbearing will of Julius II, he would have turned the opportunity down and concentrated instead on sculpture, his first love.
This is a book I recommend without reservation and it goes to the top of my current list of reading suggestions. It's relatively brief at just over 200 pages and will keep anyone with even the slightest appreciation of art and of genius riveted.
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on June 27, 2003
Few do not know of Michelangelo's almost miraculous frescos in the Sistine Chapel. The author, Ross King, provides a nearly visual journey to the artistic project that began nearly five hundred years ago. With literary clarity not often found in non fiction, the author gives succinct, but never dull details of the Sistine masterpiece. The author is obviously in his element when giving interpretations and rationale for the various designs.
I did not, however, find myself able to fully comprehend the process of fresco painting due to my limited understanding of this medium, but I did not find myself cast adrift. I similarly do not understand Einstein equations, but I can appreciate the genius behind the formulations. Michelangelo is to art, what Einstein is to science. The same, though, cannot be said of Pope Julius II, who commissioned the work. The author, though, resists either canonizing the artist, or demonizing the pope.
Of special interest to me is the author's attention to other characters such as the master artist Rafael. Also, the author provides logical evidence to refute many of the commonly held beliefs of Michelangelo's fresco and of his personal life. Part of the book's fun is reading these tidbits, so I will not give examples. I utilized the internet to obtain close up and whole pictures of the work. For those of us who have not had the pleasure of seeing the masterpiece in person, this book is especially welcomed.
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