This material is in copyright: C Michael Bloch 1967. Requests for permission for any use of this material should be addressed to email@example.com
Information about the life and work of James Lees-Milne may be found at www.jamesleesmilne.com
Paul III was a generous contributor to the Vatican Library. Although he patronized men of learning, theologians were more welcome to his court than poets. He gave a sitting to Titian in 1543, it is true; otherwise he employed only second-class painters. Architecture however was another matter, and the Farnese Palace, one of the undoubted masterpieces of the Renaissance, will be his lasting monument. In the Vatican Palace he was responsible for the Cappella Paolina and the Sala Regia, the construction of which unfortunately involved the destruction of the chapel painted by Fra Angelico for Nicholas V. But Paul was not the man to be over-scrupulous when making room for something he wanted. And although he issued stringent commands that the ancient monuments of the city must be protected, he nevertheless removed from them large blocks of marble for the building of St Peter's and, in laying out new streets, razed several historic temples to the ground.
In December 1534 Pope Paul summoned Peruzzi, who since the Sack of Rome had established himself in Siena, to resume his duties at St Peter's. The architect was immediately directed to carry on work at the Belvedere. Before he could turn his attentions to the basilica, he died in January of 1536. Paul was not to be deterred by this misfortune. He was absolutely determined to continue the rebuilding of the church of Peter begun with such impetus by Pope Julius II and Bramante, but practically static since their deaths. The obvious architect of great experience, long associated with St Peter's and faithful service to himself was Antonio da Sangallo. To him the task was now solely entrusted; and he was exhorted to proceed with promptness. Pope Paul's fanaticism in prosecuting a decision was no less formidable than that of Pope Julius, but there was one thing he lacked in which the other abounded, and that was money. He had the greatest difficulty in raising funds, and he set about the attempt by questionable means. He pilfered part of the contributions from Spain towards the crusade against the Turks, and re-embarked upon the dangerous course of selling indulgences.
As long ago as 1520 Antonio da Sangallo, in reversal of Raphael's Latin cross plans, was experimenting upon Greek cross designs for Pope Leo. He did not depart from them now. In fact the Greek cross plan he prepared for Pope Paul III approximates to Bramante's far more closely than Peruzzi's had done. We are able to judge it minutely, because the detailed model which he submitted to the pope has survived. Very large and made of wood, it took seven years to finish and cost as much the building of a fair sized church. It shows how closely Sangallo repeated the Lombardic features which Bramante had introduced to the Roman Renaissance. They constitute the design's chief weakness which critics were not slow to pounce upon. Antonio's spaces were far too cluttered with closely packed orders, tabernacle windows and arcades. Vasari referred deprecatingly to 'all those minute pyramids of which he proposed to form the finish, seeing that in all these things the model does rather seem to imitate the Teutonic or Gothic manner than the good and ancient one now usually followed by the best architects'. Vasari was right in considering Sangallo's design overwrought and fussy. His dome was a mixture of Bramante's St Peter's dome and S. Maria delle Grazie cupola in Milan, and made to rest upon a drum of two orders of arcades. The crowning lantern was packed with columns, and fairly bristled with pyramids. The distinguishing feature was two immensely high towers flanking a porticoed vestibule which projected towards the east. Sangallo's vestibule is unlike anything we have considered hitherto, and if carried out would seemingly have extended his centralized plan into a Latin cross.
Sangallo's model had distinct likenesses to Bramante's project, but is without the older architect's ultimate grasp of the ancient Roman economy. It is full of motives taken from the Colosseum and the Theatre of Marcellus, but unassimilated and unrefined, of such sort as Bramante adopted from text books in his Milanese days before seeing and studying these things for himself at source. Certainly Michelangelo thought he filched his master's schemes without improving upon them in the process. It is true Michelangelo's well-known dislike of Sangallo was not directed exclusively against his architecture. He gravely resented Sangallo's explosion of ill nature in his presence when Paul III approved of Michelangelo's design of a cornice for the Palazzo Farnese. The occasion was almost a reflection of the uncle Giuliano's resentment years previously at being superseded by his superior in talent, namely Bramante. Michelangelo was also involved in a row with Antonio over the Borgo fortifications, when he caused work on the other's Santo Spirito gateway to be discontinued. Antonio was undeniably touchy and jealous. He was also snobbish and unfeeling. He allowed his wife, a beautiful but spoilt and haughty girl, to insult his poor relations; and he is said to have been so disagreeable to his old father that he died of a broken heart. These failings doubtless exacerbated Michelangelo's antipathy. But above all the great sculptor genuinely disapproved of the other's methods of composition, his insensitivity in assembling his masses and his overall heaviness. He found Antonio's architecture derivative, stodgy and dull.
Once Sangallo's model was approved by Pope Paul, work was put in hand, and there was a spurt of activity. The architect hastened to enlist as many of his relations as he could muster on whose complacency he could rely. Vasari refers to them as la setta Sangallesca, the clique or mutual admiration society, whose greed in making money out of St Peter's filled Michelangelo with intense disgust. In 1538 Sangallo raised a divisional wall across the nave of the old basilica in the thirteenth bay towards the east at a point which was to terminate his new building. In 1540 he was diverted to tackle work on the Sala Regia in the Vatican Palace. Between 1544 and 1546 he was back at the church engaged upon the inner ring of piers on the apsed transepts. All was proceeding smoothly when the pope sent Sangallo to canalize the waters of the river Velino near Marmora. The heat was intense; Antonio was old and delicate. He caught a fever and died.
Once again, another long and carefully prepared scheme for the new St Peter's went by the board. There is no reason to regret that Sangallo's design was not carried out. It is enough to have it in the beautifully made model. It is too eclectic, too pernickety and too tasteless to have been a success. With Sangallo's death, the Bramante school may be said to have come to a close. His programme was then finally jettisoned as we shall shortly see. Even so, Sangallo's work went far enough to settle once and for all the interior volumes of the future basilica. This architect also determined the level of the pavement by raising it above that of Constantine's, and so forming the height of the crypt, or Grotte as they are called, below. Finally, a debt of gratitude will always be due to him for having strengthened the fabric he inherited. Vasari gave him unstinted praise for the precautions he took to prevent further cracks appearing in Bramante's piers. 'If this masterpiece of care and prudence were upon the earth,' he observed justly, 'instead of being hidden as it is beneath it, the work would cause the boldest genius to stand amazed …' How much more amazed and grateful should note we be who are able to enjoy the great building which rests solidly upon these very piers four centuries after Vasari's words were written.
The immediate action of Paul III and the Congregazione della Fabbrica was to invite Giulio Romano, then at work in Mantua, to fill Antonio da Sangallo's place. Before Giulio could persuade his employers to release him, he too died. The Congragazione thereupon invited Jacopo Sansovino; but he resolutely refused to leave Venice. After these reverses, the pope in great anxiety not to waste further time - he was already seventy-nine - decided upon a course of action which secretly he had always wanted to take, and for some reason not in accord with his imperious character had failed to take. Now he would delay no longer; he would brook no refusal. He would issue a command which had to be obeyed. By this decision he altered the whole history of St Peter's.
In 1546 Michelangelo Buonarroti was seventy-two years old. Ever since Pope Paul III's election twelve years before, he had been in papal employment intermittently, but not in any capacity concerned with St Peter's Basilica. One of the first acts of Paul's reign had been a visit, accompanied by a retinue of cardinals and prelates, to Michelangelo's modest dwelling in the vicinity of Trajan's column. 'For thirty years', the formidable new pontiff addressed the artist. 'I have longed to employ you, and now that I am pope shall I deny myself the fulfillment of my wish?' Any other artist than Michelangelo would have succumbed with awe and gratification to such blandishments. But politely and with dignity he declined. He was unwilling, he replied, to be committed at his age to regular duties and was only anxious to complete at his own leisure the monument to Pope Julius II, undertaken so many years ago. The imposing deputation withdrew and the cavalcade trotted back to the Vatican without having accomplished its purpose. Nevertheless, in the following year Michelangelo was persuaded to become a member of the papal household. He was appointed by brief the principal architect, sculptor and painter of the Vatican Palace. This was the sequel to the consent he had already given to Clement VII to paint the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. He had then demanded and was granted the condition that he should be protected from all importunities of papal servants and fellow artists. Apart from the Last Judgment commission, over which he was allowed to take his own time, the high-sounding appointments were rather honorary and advisory than obligatory duties. Michelangelo had not yet capitulated.
Now Pope Paul, deprived of Antonio da Sangallo's twenty-six years services as Capomaestro, and disappointed by Giulio Romano's death and Jacopo Sansovino's refusal to come to Rome, issued a command which Michelangelo, then in the Holy City, could hardly disobey. He was to direct affairs at St Peter's. Even so, the septuagenarian sculptor laid down and obtained his own terms. He prefaced them by reiterating his genuine reluctance to take over so onerous a work. How was he, and old man, to succeed where many of his predecessors had failed? There are frequent references in his letters written at this time and at later dates to dislike and fear of the new responsibilities thrust upon him. He regarded them as a visitation from the Almighty, a penitential discipline to be endured with the best grace possible. Therefore in his deep humility, and for the good of his soul, he tells the Holy Father, he will receive no salary over and above the fifty scudi a month which he is already receiving by virtue of his advisory post at the Vatican Palace. His new office shall be undertaken 'only for the love of God and in honour of the Apostle', Peter. Secondly, he stipulates that if he is to succeed, he must have complete freedom of action. The pope is so anxious to endorse Michelangelo's appointment that he agrees unreservedly to the last condition to the extent of absolving him from the tedium of keeping accounts. Moreover, he gives full authority over the administration of the Fabbrica, and confers on him the right to adopt, amplify or reject all previous plans for the church and to formulate entirely new ones, if he thinks fit. His trust in the artist could hardly go further.
Michelangelo to his credit fully acknowledged the generous manner in which Paul III conferred upon him the duties of Chief Architect of St Peter's. 'He never showed me anything but kindness', were his words written after this pope's death. They were about the only unqualified appreciation of the many popes he served. Indeed, the Farnese pope remained his consistent supporter even after the alluring and elusive bird had finally been netted. Michelangelo was soon in dire need of support, for his appointment and the terms of its acceptance raised him bitter enemies. The setta Sangallesca, who were well and truly organized to carry out their master, Antonio da Sangallo's, long-laid plans, were infuriated by the imputation in Michelangelo's refusal of a salary that they had been feathering their nests out of St Peter's over the past decades. They were also intensely jealous of the pope's absolute confidence in their rival. Michelangelo, fortified by the papal authority, thereupon dismissed the whole clique. The effect of the new broom was to sweep away many abuses and to instill the basilican workmen with a fresh enthusiasm and zest for the great and holy task ahead of them.
There is no doubt that the responsibilities of Chief Architect of St Peter's brought Michelangelo's old age intense tribulation and suffering, which were greatly exacerbated by his own intransigence and unevenness of temper. Yet he looked upon the work at St Peter's as the crowning achievement of his life. His letters, although full of complaints and anxieties, bear this out. Writing to his friend, Vasari, in 1554 he says that it is his duty to see the work on St Peter's through, come what may; and that, were he to throw it up, he would be committing a very grievous sin. Again in 1557, when eighty-three years old, he writes: 'I believe…that God entrusted me with this labour.'
I have now reached a stage where it is necessary to interrupt the chronology of my story. I must retrace the years as far back as to the fifteenth century, when Michelangelo made his first historic contribution to the priceless treasure which St Peter's Basilica enshrines. The famous marble Pietà was commissioned from the young sculptor, then in his twenty-fifth year, by a nobleman from Gascony, Jean de Bilhères. He was a Benedictine monk who became Abbot of St Denis, a member of the French Royal Council and President of the States-General. He was sent by the King of France in 1491 as Ambassador to Rome, where he was soon made a cardinal. He was a great promoter of the arts. He enclosed St Petronilla's altar in the chapel attached to the south-west angle of the old basilica. It was for this chapel, or rather French mausoleum, which it soon became, that he intended the Pietà. In May 1499 the group was finished just in time to be set over the saint's altar. In the following August Cardinal de Bilhères died and was buried a little to the right of the masterpiece which he had commissioned and paid for. The Pietà remained in place until the demolition of the mausoleum in 1544.
Michelangelo's Pietà is the only one of his works to be signed. It is said that the sculptor, having overheard another claim the work for his own, went one night by stealth into St Peter's and carved his name on the Madonna's girdle. The group shows no sign of that terrible spiritual anguish conspicuous in the sculpture of Michelangelo's later years. The tenderness of the stylized composition, the grace verging on insipidity of the figures, and of course the sanctity of the subject (which, incidentally, Michelangelo's contemporaries were shocked to see treated at all) have made it one of the most popular works of sculpture in the world. The symbolism of eternal motherhood and the incarnate crucified accounts for the incongruity of a young matron supporting in her lap a son of apparently riper years than her own. The situation in which the Pietà was placed in 1749, skied above an altar that had been erected for it, was most unsatisfactory, because the group was created to be seen at eye level. In the old basilica it was correctly sited. Francis I's request in 1507 that the precious work of art might be sent on loan to Paris was rightly ignored. Until 1964 it had never left St Peter's. In that year it was shipped to the United States for exhibition. A subsequent Vatican decree forbidding the future exportation o major works of art for exhibition is clearly a wise and welcome measure.
The Pietà aroused unstinted admiration in those people to whom great art meant more than faithful representation and religious instruction in iconographical form. There are reasons for assuming that one of its first competent admirers was Pope Julius II. He decided in 1505 that the young sculptor's services must be enlisted. So he instructed his old friend and favourite architect, Giuliano da Sangallo, to bring about an introduction. Michelangelo, who was then in Florence, put aside his work on the Battle of the Cascina cartoon for the Sala del Consiglio, thus forfeiting 3,000 ducats which was to have been his payment, and obeyed the summons to Rome. In this manner was brought about the ill-fated conjunction of two impetuous, uncompromising minds. Irritation, frustration and anger were to be engendered by the white-hot love-hate which developed between them. At first, however, all went merry as a marriage bell. The two men took to each other in ecstacies of mutual harmony. The sculptor was raised high in the pope's graces to the extent of causing much resentment among the numerous competitive artists who had flocked to the court of the new papal Maecenas in search of patronage.
Pope Julius's first command was that the young artist should create his tomb on a stupendous scale. The original contract stipulated that it must contain forty statues, to be delivered within five years. The finished thing was to be erected in the fifteenth-century choir designed by Rossellino. Accordingly, Michelangelo was dispatched with every flattering demonstration of favour and promises of liberal reward to the Carrara quarries to mine the finest marble. There he spent at least eight arduous months selecting 110 tons of flawless blocks. On his return to Rome, he set up at much cost and trouble a workshop and lodging for himself in front of St Peter's. Meanwhile, Julius's enthusiasm for the tomb had waned. The volatile old tyrant was now conceiving grandiose plans for Michelangelo to paint the vast expanse of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. By the spring of 1506, the sculptor had received no money with which to pay for the freight of marble coming by sea from Tuscany and the workmen he had hired there. Several times in April he begged to see the pope, and each time was put off with an excuse. At last Julius grudgingly granted an interview. Michelangelo complained that being owed money he was seriously in debt. The pope flew into a rage and had him driven from the room. This behaviour was too much for Michelangelo's spirit. He felt insulted, and immediately fled to Florence.
Michelangelo recounted the story of Julius's stingy and insolent treatment of him, the flight and subsequent pursuit, in letters to friends years later. What was the real cause of the artist's sudden fall from favour? Julius was exacting, mercurial and autocratic. On a whim he would change his mind, no matter what the consequences. Michelangelo supposed that Raphael and Bramante's envy poisoned the pope against him; that the latter mischievously whispered to Julius that it was tempting providence to proceed with plans for a tomb while yet living. The two rivals 'wanted to ruin me', Michelangelo wrote in 1542, 'and Raphael had a good reason indeed, for all he had of art, he had from me'. This accusation made thirty-six years after the row over Pope Julius's tomb need not be taken too seriously. A desire to ruin a successful rival was not in accord with Raphael's gentle nature; and Michelangelo's memory having brooded so many years over past grievances became notoriously unreliable. Bramante, on the other hand, had more reason to feel hostile. He saw Michelangelo as a dangerous competitor for the post of Architect in Chief of St Peter's; and he had not forgotten how readily Pope Julius overthrew his old friend, Giuliano da Sangallo, in his, Bramante's, favour. Moreover, he was aware that Michelangelo had complained to the pope of his shocking destruction of the classical columns of the old basilica and also of Mino da Fiesole's tomb of Nicholas V.
Vasari has put forward another cause of the pope's displeasure. Michelangelo would allow no one to look at his work in progress, and suspected that sometimes during his absence his workmen admitted strangers. One day the pope, having bribed an assistant, entered the Sistine Chapel while the artist, unbeknown to him, was engaged on the ceiling. Michelangelo, hearing an unbidden visitor whom he did not at first recognize, seized a plank and in a fury chased His Holiness out of the chapel. The incident may possibly have happened at a later date, but certainly not in 1506 when work on the Sistine Chapel had not begun.
Before leaving Rome, Michelangelo just had time to scribble a note to Pope Julius as follows: 'Most Blessed Father, this morning I was turned out of the palace by your orders; therefore, I give you notice that from now on, if you want me, you will have to look for me elsewhere than in Rome.' The pope sent in pursuit five horsemen who caught up with the sculptor at Poggibonsi that evening. But they could not persuade him to return. The fugitive proceeded to Florence. The Signory of that city were then submitted to three imperious briefs demanding Michelangelo's extradition. The members were worried and alarmed. The Gonfalier Soderini sent for Michelangelo and told him he had treated the pope in a cavalier manner which even the King of France would not dare assume. He urged him to go back to Rome at once, since Florence had no wish to be at war with the pope. The sculptor was impenitent. He was still enraged. He replied that he would sooner go to Turkey and work for the Sultan. The message was transmitted to His Holiness through a cardinal sent specially to mediate. Meanwhile, Michelangelo resumed work on the cartoon for the Sala del Consiglio. Graciously he conceded that if the pope would give him a five-year contract with advance payment he might consent to carve the papal tomb in Florence, but not in Rome. He feared that if he returned to Rome his life would be in danger from jealous rivals. Had he done so, he remarked years later, 'my tomb would have come before the pope's'.
The long and the short of the story is that before the year 1506 was out Michelangelo's proud spirit was broken. The incident had sorely shaken him. His poems of this date reflect irritability and bitterness. They complain of the corruption and depravity of Roman society, and of the pope's perverseness. 'You have believed all empty words, and done favours to foes of truth', he addresses him. 'The more I sweat and show my skill, The less you seem to care for what I've done.' Gradually his passion and resentment cooled. The reluctance of the Signory to be involved in trouble with Rome undoubtedly induced Michelangelo to leave Florence. In November he agreed to meet the pope at Bologna. The interview began inauspiciously. Michelangelo felt he was there under compulsion and he was ushered in. Sulkily he fell on his knees. Julius sat victorious and frowning. Then the situation was saved by the tactlessness of a bishop in attendance. He had the folly to observe that Michelangelo was merely an artist with bad manners. The remark provoked the pope to round upon the surprised prelate with his stick, and fall upon Michelangelo's nick with a bear-like embrace.
The tomb seemed to be forgotten. The pope, having won Bologna back to the Papal States without resistance, was very much alive and jubilant. He preferred to concentrate upon scenes of victory. So until June of 1507 Michelangelo was obliged to make and cast a huge bronze effigy of Julius in an attitude of triumph. The work was acclaimed by contemporaries; but it did not survive for long. It was destroyed by the partisans of the Bentivoglio tyrant in their revolt a year later against papal subjugation.
In May 1508 the contract with Michelangelo for painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling was concluded, and work began. The feverish haste in which the tremendous task was carried through is well known. The picture of the artist labouring in solitary confinement for months on end, cramped and on his back under the ceiling so that at the finish he could barely straighten his stiffened limbs, is apocryphal. It is true he spent consecutive days and nights at the top of his scaffold tower, directing the operations to which his whole soul was dedicated and occasionally snatching an hour or two's sleep. He had also to master the unfamiliar technique of fresco painting and the avoidance of mould formation from damp. But he was assisted by an army of laborers, who were well trained and drilled. They prepared the wet plaster in advance by lime washing, nailed the sections of cartoon to the vaults for outline tracing by stylus point, and dusted them over with black powder. The extent of this daily task has been accurately determined by a minute examination of the edges of each application of lime wash.
Characteristically, Michelangelo began by a row with Bramante who had somewhat officiously provided a scaffolding suspended from the ceiling. He saw at once that the arrangement did not suit him and, no doubt tactlessly, however justifiably, scrapped it. Instead, he devised an alternative moveable scaffolding built from the ground upwards. Bramante took great umbrage and urged the pope to entrust the remainder of the chapel decoration to Raphael. It may have been awareness of this mischievous suggestion that led Michelangelo to number Raphael among the enemies anxious for his ruin. Work on the ceiling however, once started, proceeded fast and furiously. Michelangelo's chief complaint was not so much physical discomfort as irregular supply of funds with which to pay his workmen. The pope, having returned to Bologna to settle fresh troubles there, was now in great straits for money. He could only send payments to Rome at intervals. Within twenty two months, the central vault was more or less finished. On 27th June 1511 Julius, disappointed with the results of his expedition, was back in Rome anxious to see the frescoes unveiled. His presence was an embarrassment and irritation to the artist. The old pope, gouty and tormented by gall stones, would nevertheless insist upon climbing the scaffolding before the final touches had been put. Then in his impatience he ordered the scaffolding to be taken down before Michelangelo was ready. Not content with doing this, he asked for gilding to be added to the garments of the prophets in the lunettes. This last interference provoked an inevitable snub from the artist. Irritated beyond all endurance, he reminded His Holiness that the poor men depicted never wore gold in their lifetime, and he would not be a party to their doing so now.
When in 1512 the whole Sistine Chapel ceiling was completed, Michelangelo turned again to the tomb. But no agreement could be reached either as to the monument's form or the artist's payment. In October Michelangelo wrote to his father, 'I am still doing no work and am waiting for the pope to tell me what to do.' One of the difficulties, now that Julius's original intention to preserve Rossellino's tribune had been abandoned, was where to put the tomb. Nothing was settled before Julius's death; and the 10,000 ducats left in his will for the monument to be completed and erected in the Sistine Chapel only led to infinite posthumous troubles, whereas total abandonment at this stage would at least have avoided a prolongation of them. In May 1513 a second contract was agreed with the pope's executors, whereby a revised design was to be executed within seven years. Henceforth the story of the ill-fated project no longer has any concern with St Peter's. A third, fourth and fifth contract were drawn up, while the sculptor's original splendid conception was curtailed and successive inferior designs were churned out. Money disputes, frustrations, disappointments and rages made it the wasting tragedy of Michelangelo's life. 'I see', he wrote in 1542, when its completion was finally entrusted to inferior artists, 'that I lost all my youth chained to this tomb.' The final monument, reduced in size, disproportionate in scale, and mean in design, is to be seen in the church of S. Pietro in Vincoli, a failure only redeemed by the stupendous figure of the sculptor's Moses, serving as a memorial to the two men whose conflicting wills made a conciliatory whole impossible.
In the end, Pope Julius II's remains were to have no resting place of their own. His coffin was eventually shoveled into the grave of his uncle Sixtus IV, and left there with no epitaph to record his extraordinary character and the remarkable incidents of his reign. Sic transit Gloria mundi! Such are Fate's rewards for the ambitious!
Leo X, as was to be expected, cared little about the memory of his predecessor. He was not going to encourage its immortalization by an enormous tomb by Michelangelo. On the contrary, his ambitions were fixed upon the embellishment of that church of which his family were the principal patrons, namely S. Lorenzo in Florence. Because of Michelangelo's equivocal attitude towards the Medici family, Leo was not particularly well disposed towards him. The sculptor for his part was torn between personal loyalty to the Medici, who had been his earliest patrons and benefactors, and political allegiance to the free institutions in Florence which the ruling dynasty had overthrown. In fact a mutual embarrassed antipathy prevailed between the new pope and the great artist. 'He is an alarming man,' Leo remarked of Michelangelo, 'and there is no getting on with him.' Although the pope did not welcome him in Rome, he was ready enough to entrust to him the design of a façade for S. Lorenzo in his distant native city. After years of frustration, this project came to nothing. The sculptor was then directed by the pope to the Medici tombs. In this way Leo X successfully kept the man at arm's length from Rome while retaining the services of the greatest artist of the age. The next Medici pope was far more friendly and forgiving. The election of Cardinal Giulio de' Medici was hailed by Michelangelo as offering rare opportunities to artists. The gentle Pope Clement VII made much of his compatriot and bore his rudeness with docility. On one occasion, he gently admonished him with a reminder that even he, Michelangelo, was mortal and could not in a lifetime do everything he wished. When the second Florentine revolt, brought about by the Sack of Rome and the belief that the Medici pope was utterly routed, had been put down, Clement shielded Michelangelo from the reprisals which befell many leaders of the insurgents, and resumed their old acquaintance. In 1534 the pope commissioned him to paint the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo's work in Florence being finished, he moved in September to Rome, never to leave it for the remaining thirty years of his life. Two days after his arrival Clement VII died.
Pope Paul III confirmed his predecessor's commission and until 1541 Michelangelo was engaged upon the largest fresco painting in Rome, 48 feet broad and 44 feet high. It covers the whole of one end wall of the Sistine Chapel from ceiling to dado. Such overall treatment of an altar end of a chapel was an unorthodox lapse from tradition on the part of the patrons. It involved the removal of a pre-existing fresco by Perugino and two lunette paintings by Michelangelo himself. Windows in the altar wall had to be blocked up and plastered over, and the whole surface made to slope so that the top overhung the bottom by a foot in order to prevent any accumulation of dust and dirt. All preparation of the ground in lime and mortar, and the actual painting were done by the artist with the help of a single colour-grinder. When Paul III saw the finished fresco, he was so overcome with emotion that he broke into loud paeans of thanksgiving and praise.
The Last Judgment evoked an unprecedented applause from the theologians. The size, the nature and the treatment of the subject were exceptional and novel. It was as though Michelangelo were revealing a vision of the cosmic fate and interpreting, as no layman had done before him, the awful sanction of God's covenant with mankind. It was the most fervent spiritual expression of this astonishing genius who had wrestled with the mystic experiences of the soul. In every one of the scenes depicted, there was evidence of the artist's terrible awareness of the Dies Irae and the retributive justice of the Old Testament. The influence of the Last Judgment upon contemporary artist was equally profound, for it created a new style of centrifugal painting of a single grand theme which was to endure until the close of the baroque era.
The last echoes of applause had scarcely died away before the theologians, and men of letters too, whipped up a hostile criticism of the fresco on the plea of indecency. Irreverence and impudicity were now the charges leveled against it. 'Such things might be painted in a voluptuous bathroom,' wrote Pietro Aretino (author incidentally of a set of obscene sonnets, accompanied by pornographic illustrations), 'but not in the choir of the highest chapel.' Michelangelo's retort was to introduce in the fresco the angry critic in the likeness of St Bartholomew and his own tortured features in the folds of the flayed skin. But the ridiculous objections nearly brought about the fresco's complete destruction. The Council of Trent loudly denounced the use of unsuitable subjects in religious art, and as soon as Michelangelo was dead Daniele da Volterra was made to paint over all the nudities. Successive mutilations in the interest of purity have so altered the Last Judgment that it is practically impossible to imagine it in the original condition. Had the counter-reformation objectors attacked the Last Judgment on artistic rather than ethical grounds, their criticism might have been valid. For the fresco does convey, in a different sense to that meant by Pietro Aretino, the impression of a public bathroom - as it happens a quite respectable and in no sense voluptuous one. The area covered is an enormous ocean of swirling trunks, arms and legs. These do not form a composition which the eye can assimilate. Nor is it easy, owing to the paucity of natural light and the awkward height of the chapel to concentrate in any comfort or satisfaction upon individual scenes and figures.
On completion of the Last Judgment, Michelangelo promptly undertook the frescoes of St Paul's Conversion and the Crucifixion of St Peter in the Cappella Paolina of the Vatican Palace. He was then well over seventy years of age but, he complained ruefully, could refuse nothing to Pope Paul III. Both frescoes have suffered grievously from fire and over-restoration, with the result that the outlines are now harsh and the colours somewhat brash.