Tag Archive: Vatican


Please, do yourself a favor and check out this link above- the official Vatican virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel. It’s in great detail and gives a great impression of what it’s like to be there, minus a few hundred people pointing and the museum guards yelling at people to be quiet. Enjoy!


Gian Lorenzo Bernini was a true master of the Baroque, and his mark is everywhere on Rome. His tremendously real and impossibly difficult action sculptures of “David”, “Apollo and Daphne”, and “the Rape of Persephone” are found at the Borghese, and his statues and fountains are all over the place, most famously his “Fountain of the Four Rivers” in Piazza Navona. As if that weren’t enough, he forever altered and enhanced the visual experience of St. Peter’s Basilica. He spent decades in service of the Catholic Church, and was the logical choice when it came to commissioning the creation of art works to fill such an enormous place.

Let’s start with Bernini’s Baldacchino. St. Peter’s Basilica is shaped like a cross, with the very center positioned over the tomb of St. Peter. This is where the high altar of St. Peter’s is, the literal center of Catholicism. Above the tomb and towering over the main floor of the interior is a huge cloth-looking canopy with shimmering angels supported by 4 spiral pillars 60 feet high. The entire work is made entirely out of cast bronze, and was finished in 1634 after 11 years of work. Traditionally, a cloth canopy called a Baldacchino was carried over the head of the Pope on holy days, so the form goes back long before Bernini. Bernini masterfully designed his canopy to appear both powerful and grounded, yet also intricate and delicate. Decorative tassels hang off of the draped cloth, yet it is all metal. The peak of the cloth supports a towering cross on a sphere, which represents the world saved by Christianity. The spiral columns are called Solomonic columns. In the 4th century, the Christian emperor Constantine supposedly brought spiral columns back to Rome from Jerusalem, claiming they were part of Solomon’s temple. Those columns stood for a thousand years as part of Old St. Peters, and are seen today  built into the supports of the church across from Bernini’s Baldacchino. Bernini took the twisting form of the Solomonic column and enlarged it as the base. It is amazing form in bronze, with intricate leafing and designs from bottom to top. The Baldacchino was an enormous undertaking, and had to be cast in many pieces before being assembled and completed. At the time, it was a controversial. Supposedly, all the bronze, which is of unimaginable value, was stripped from the interior ceiling of the Pantheon and melted down. Of course, most of ancient Rome was pillaged for building material, and St. Peter’s uses a lot of it.

Directly past the Baldacchino at the far end of St. Peters is the “Cathedra Petri”, or “Throne of St. Peter”, completed in 1666. Bernini, along with other architects and artists at St. Peters envisioned a glorious work at the end of the Cathedral to enhance the experience of looking down the central nave past the Baldacchino. The work holds the relic of St. Peter’s throne (which is most likely a chair from the 12th century). Bernini’s design is a much larger symbolic chair that houses the relic, surrounded by large sculptures of the 4 doctors of the church and a towering cloud of bronze angels that bursts out of the columned architecture of the cathedral. The massive work, also in cast bronze, takes up the entire space in the front of St. Peter’s, and is based around a huge stained glass window with a white dove of peace. The dove is 6 feet wide, which is astounding to realize when you view the work. It really puts into perspective just how massive the entire work is. To accentuate the look of glorious light through the window and past the many hovering bronze angels, Bernini has added beams of light also made of bronze strips. The end effect is visually stunning. It is without question one of the most beautiful sculptures in the world. 

One of Bernini’s final masterpieces is his Monument to Alexander VII, which is a much smaller work above an exit door near his other great sculptures. It remains fascinating, among Bernini’s strangest works for what it depicts and the material Bernini uses. He was 80 at the time, and made the work with the help of assistants who completed the figures. Alexander VII, who commissioned the work but died before its completion, is depicted kneeling in prayer at the top. The elderly Bernini most likely worked on the statue of the Pope. 4 figures, personifying Justice, Truth, Prudence and Charity, were designed in drawings and a model and passed on to assistants.The figures are allegorical in their positioning. For example, the figure of Truth, seen to the far right, rests her foot on a globe, specifically on England, where the rise of the Anglican church was a thorn in the side of Pope Alexander VII. The strangest part of the monument is the figure of death, seen as a bronze skeleton emerging from the door. In his hand he holds an hourglass, a reminder that death comes to all and our time on earth is limited. His head and a large part of the upper door are obscured by a large cloth shroud made of precious colored stone. The entire work is really all about contrast. The Pope and the 4 figures are all in white marble, contrasted with the bronze skeleton and the amazingly intricate colored shroud, which has been carved in such a way that the natural pattern of the stone adds to the effect of folded cloth.

Bernini’s greatest contribution to the Vatican is his architectural design for the Piazza San Pietro. Bernini envisioned a huge open space that would enhance the grandness of St. Peters, bracketed on both sides by a curved open colonnade. The structure resembles 2 enormous arms, welcoming people to the Cathedral. The piazza is based around a huge oval, with an Egyptian obelisk at the center. The Obelisk was brought to Rome in ancient times and erected at Nero’s Circus, the huge chariot racing track that stood where St. Peter’s currently does. The obelisk was moved to its current location in 1586, a process which took 13 months. Bernini designed the piazza to surround it. Along the entire top of the cathedral are hundreds of statues of biblical figures saints and created by Bernini’s workshop. The piazza closest to the front of the Cathedral is not a square- rather, the colonnade is slightly narrower toward the oval, which gives the illusion that the church is even more massive from below. Everything about St. Peter’s square is designed to heighten the sense of awe that the viewer has in entering the Vatican. In more recent times, a neighborhood of dense houses stood in the way of St. Peters square, so that when a visitor came around the final corner and into the piazza, the effect was mind-blowing. Today, a huge open road runs all the way to the Castel St. Angelo and the river. Lost forever is the total surprise that visitors felt when they entered the Vatican for the first time.

The sheer amount of work by Bernini in and around Rome and the Vatican is staggering. He truly was among the most prolific and exceptional artists who ever lived. I would encourage you to watch Simon Schama’s Power of Art video on Bernini if you haven’t. Enjoy.


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When most visitors visit the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, they immediately gaze upon the world-famous ceiling painted by Michelangelo. When the ceiling was painted, Michelangelo became something of a god among artists, divine in his talents for sculpture (as seen in his “David” and “Pieta“) as well as painting. It could be argued however, that the front wall of the chapel, which he painted 30 years later, is his greatest masterpiece among many masterpieces. It’s his depiction of “The Last Judgement”, a commonly commissioned subject seen over and over across many painted churches and chapels of the time. It’s also one of the craziest paintings ever, crammed with symbolism a metaphor, all at once stunningly beautiful and disturbing. It’s so loaded with images and meanings that books could easily be written about it. I’ll attempt here to give the basic keys to understanding this astounding painting.

The scene depicts Christ at his second coming, bringing judgement upon the world. He is in the center, seated on a cloud with Mary to his right. You notice right away that this is not a normal looking Christ figure. He is not brown-haired, bearded or dressed in flowing robes. Instead, he is clean-shaven with defined facial features and bulging muscles. He is very much a roman Apollo, certainly a surprise for the Popes chapel.

This was a complex time for the church, and much had happened since last Michelangelo was working at the Vatican. Pope Clement VII was the one who commissioned the painting, and he was the second of the Medici popes. Michelangelo, being from Florence, had a long history with the Medici, the ruling family of Florence. They were the greatest patrons of the arts, but they also abused power and eventually bought the papacy, leading to the great uprising we call the Reformation. 1537 was a tough time with much uncertainty. Protestant armies, fueled by religious hatred of the Catholic church, sacked Rome ten years before, killing, burning and looting. It was a huge turning point, and the church faced crisis. Michelangelo was certainly conflicted, and it shows in the painting. It’s pretty clear though, that Pope Clement VII had humanistic sensibilites and gave Michelangelo creative control. Christ himself is an Apollo figure, while the many other figures are larger-than-life nudes. It’s a complete mash-up of mythological visual language with Biblical subjects, a continuation of what Michelangelo began with on the ceiling as a young man pushed to the extreme.

Christ raises and lowers his arms, giving the entire painting a clockwise swirl motion, and you can read the painting that way. On level with Christ and larger in the image, are saints and martyrs of the Christian faith, seen holding the tools of their martyrdom as in medieval paintings. A shroud of people await judgement, and are either sent to Hell (on the bottom right), or Heaven at the peak. The dead are also raised out of the ground and redeemed in the bottom left.

Lets start with the saints and martyrs. There are many across the center of the painting strangely holding the objects of their martyrdom. St. Catherine is seen with a large spiked wheel on the center right, and St. Lawrence is below Christ on the left holding the grate on which he was roasted alive. The strangest is St. Bartholomew, seen here, who according to tradition was skinned alive. Bartholomew sits perched on a cloud, holding in one hand a knife and in the other, a rubbery, flayed human skin. Stranger still, Michelangelo has apparently painted a self portrait on the skin, perhaps revealing in some way his own creative torment and anguish.

The lower right is Michelangelo’s depiction of Hell, and is one of the strangest, darkest and most fascinating works in art. In the space between Hell at the bottom and the saints above, poor souls sent to Hell are being pulled down by demons. Michelangelo’s devils muscular and human in appearance, but grotesque with animal ears, horns and green, grey and blue skin. What’s worse is that they very much seem to enjoy the pain and torment they are inflicting. One of the most striking is this scene called “the damned soul”, which shows a condemned man at the moment of full knowledge and grief of his upcoming punishment. He cowers in in shame, even as 2 demons drag him downward and a third reptilian creature bites into his thigh. Perhaps one of the few mistakes by the artist is the demons hand around the other thigh, which is not colored gray as the rest of the creature is.

Michelangelo’s depiction of Hell also deviates from a strict Biblical view. He borrows the visual language of Dante from the “Divine Comedy”. We see Charon, the mythological ferryman of the underworld in his large boat. He ferries the newly condemned souls across the river styx to the land of the dead. The souls are terrified as they scramble out of the boat, and Charon raises his paddle like a baseball bat to make them get out a little faster. Demons await the poor souls, dragging them out out and pulling them down. Two demons violently grab a man around the neck with a gaff. In behind the demons are many different small details and demonic faces.

The other figure from Dante is Minos, the mythological king of Hell, seen as the most prominent figure in the bottom right. It’s well documented that Michelangelo faced opposition surrounding his artistic interpretation of the scene and the many nudes, which were all completely nude at the time with the loincloths painted years later (the fresco was restored in 1993, with some of the loincloths removed and others left- just look back at St. Bartholomew to see the convenient piece of cloth). One of Michelangelo’s most vocal enemies was the Pope’s master of ceremonies Biagio da Cesena, who was constantly on Michelangelo about the nudes. Michelangelo responded by painting his likeness as that of Minos, with large donkey’s ears and a snake wrapped around and biting him in a precarious spot. Better yet, it is right above the side door, the most visible spot from ground level. Cesena complained directly to the Pope, who supposedly joked that he had no power over Hell so it would have to remain.

Hell is contrasted on the left of the huge wall with the “Resurrection of the Dead”. A patch of earth opens up as many dead souls return to their earthly bodies and await Christ’s judgement. The deceased figures sit, some shrouded in burial cloths or as ghostly skeletons, between the forces of heaven and hell. In the center of the painting is a large open pit which looks directly into the center of hell. Fire is visible behind the outline of human figures. From underground beside the pit, demons dig their way up to drag the souls down. Two of the figures towards the center, are caught between angels and demons in a tug of war. Those raised to righteousness are pulled upwards by the angels towards the center of the painting and the saints.

Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement” is a work that always reveals something new. The figures are so dynamic and so complex in their movements, the entire painting appears to be pulsating with action and energy. Michelangelo was an old man when he made the painting, aware of his own shortcomings and mindful of his own judgement. One of the details I was struck with in seeing the painting with my own eyes was the hellish pit in the bottom center. It is dark and unassuming, but based on it’s placement within the painting the high alter fits directly in front. On top of the alter at the exact center of the front wall and the floor of Sistine chapel was a simple golden cross, which appeared super-imposed over the pit of hell. As a theological parallel, it’s a perfect fit for a theme of judgement. The cross holds victory over the pit of hell and destruction, yet another of Michelangelo’s genius details.

I have only begun to pick apart this amazing painting. I’ll include a great video from Smarthistory here. The video uses a virtual recreation in second life to look at the painting, which I find really dumb. However, the analysis of the painting is really great and the detail images they show are really helpful. Enjoy-

The Medici were the greatest patrons of the arts and the godfathers of Florence. Their patronage had helped to bring about a great revival of culture in Italy, called the Renaissance. Perhaps there’s no greater sign of just how powerful the Medici were than the life of Giovanni da Medici. In the middle of great turmoil in Florence after the departure of Savonarola and the exile of the family, Giovanni, who was prepared from childhood to take a place in the Catholic church, was elected Pope. He changed his name to Pope Leo X, and made fateful decisions that had huge consequences for the church and the entire western world. The Medici had basically bribed other cardinals to vote Giovanni to the Papacy, and Leo swiftly placed family members in high places to benefit the family, including his brother who became a cardinal.

Pope Leo and his higher ups promptly partied as if there was no cost involved. He is often quoted for saying to his brother Guiliano,  “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” He had elaborate feasts every night, and hosted large celebrations in Rome, including a parade where he rode on the back of a white elephant. Being a Medici, he was fascinated with the ideas of humanism so popular in Renaissance Florence, and he brought this perspective to the Vatican. He had few limits when it came to dishing out money, and soon enough, he had more or less bankrupted the church. To compensate, he authorized the sale of indulgences. An indulgence was a piece of paper, priced affordably to anyone who wanted one, that granted forgiveness of sins and entrance to Heaven. They could also be bought on behalf of dead family members, to assure their escape from punishment.

For Martin Luther, a German monk, that was the final straw.He was furious and posted his 95 theses, disagreements with the church, on the door of the Cathedral in Wittenberg. It was the start of the protestant reformation, and touched off a firestorm of controversy. Luther contended that grace came through God alone and not through the Pope. Similar reformers had been burned at the stake for questioning the church in the past, but Luther persisted, gaining momentum and starting a movement that swept over Europe. It’s an extremely complex history whose consequences are still felt and argued over today. Leo’s response was to fight back with all the threats he could as Pope, but the damage was done. He died rather suddenly in 1521 of illness. His successor Pope Adrian VI, did his best to respond to the protestant reformation, but also died, after less than 2 years as pope.

Leo’s cousin, Guilio de Medici, was destined to become another Medici pope. He chose the name Clement VII, and inherited a nearly impossible situation. His papacy was defined by monumental struggle that was tearing the church and Europe apart. Eventually, fanatical enemy troops, fueled by religious hatred of the church, arrived in Rome. Clement fled to the Castel St. Angelo, where he held out for 6 months. Eventually, he bribed his way out and fled. Called the sack of Rome, it was a truly terrible event. The enemy armies pillaged the city, killed and raped, and Rome would never be the same. The resistance spread to other cities too, including Florence, where Michelangelo had to go into hiding. After some time, Clement returned to Rome and the long process of rebuilding began. The sack of Rome marks the end of the Renaissance and the a turning point for the popes. Their place as supreme power and authority has never been the same. One of his last acts was to commission Michelangelo, then in his 50s, to return to the Sistine Chapel and paint a massive scene on the front wall of “The Last Judgement”. It’s one of the most amazing works of art in the world, and I’ll talk about it extensively in a few other posts.

It was the greed and corruption of the Medici popes that finally crossed the line and broke the church. Still, Leo X, Clement VII and many other corrupt popes throughout the ages are an indicator of just how strong and engrained the Christian religion is. That it would survive to its present state, in spite of so many disastrous detours and power hungry people with other motives, is truly a miracle. As for art and culture, a movement called the counter reformation or catholic revival came in the years after Clement, and altered the attitudes of the church and created what we have today.

I highly recommend that you watch the PBS series on the Medici. Part 1 and Part 2 are linked here. Part 3 is below, and does a great job at telling the crazy story of Leo X, the Medici Pope.

Another one of the greatest sculptures in the world, also found in Italy at the Vatican, is the “Laocoön”, also known as “Laocoön and his Sons”. This without a doubt is one of the toughest words to read then sound out-  It’s pronounced LAY-OCK-OWE-ON, and here it is:

The statue depicts the ancient story of Laocoön, who was a priest of the god Poseidon in Troy. He tried in vein to warn the Trojan’s of the Trojan horse, and for his actions 2 sea serpents were sent to kill him. Here we see the unlucky guy and his 2 sons, locked in a violent battle- one they will loose- against the serpents. At first glance, it is a stunning work of art. The amount of shear action crammed into the work is unbelievable. The serpent appears to be writhing as the figures turn and twist their bodies to free themselves. Their faces are filled with pain and suffering, and the muscles tense under their flesh. Just look at the muscles in the Laocoön’s torso, and the intricate carving of his hair and beard. A reason why so many old statues depict figures standing stoic and still is because it’s a much more reasonable kind of sculpture to make. The Laocoön is insane. Whoever made it had some serious skill. This is the kind of sculpture more commonly seen from the likes of Bernini, some 1600 years later.

The “Laocoön” is old, probably made in Greece at around the time of Julius Caesar and at some point brought to Rome. It’s not known if this particular statue is Greek or if it is a Roman copy. Most historians seem to believe that later, that artists in ancient Rome admired it so much that they made their own version for the eternal city. While there are still many mysteries about its origins, a few things are known about how it got to where it is today. It was found, as many such sculptures were, in ancient Rome and brought to the Vatican, where then Pope Julius II took a great liking to it (Julius II is the same pope who later commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel). When it was found, a few arms and hands were missing, so he requested that artists be brought in to restore it. The restorers imagined the missing arms to be facing up, as seen here-

It looked this way until 1906, when a random chunk of discovered arm was found in Rome that fit the Laocoön. The replacement bits were removed, and today you can see the original arm in a slightly different color reattached. The statue was revolutionary when it was discovered in the Renaissance. Artists at that time had a new-found fascination with the ancients, and the Laocoon instantly became something of a measuring stick for art. Sculptors and painters now had an extraordinary work that they could look too. It’s influence is seen in the work of many artists. The greatest of these is Michelangelo, who had huge respect for it and studied it intently.

One of many modern theories surrounding the Laocoön is that Michelangelo himself forged it, which would explain both it’s amazing condition compared to so many other ancient statues and it’s uncommon and undeniable brilliance. Michelangelo was around Rome and the Vatican at the time of its discovery, working on his “Pieta”. It’s highly unlikely that he had time to forge it, but given the genius of Michelangelo, who could put it past him? Either way, the “Laocoön” is a truly amazing sculpture and a real highlight of the Vatican tour.

No single artist has left a more prominent fingerprint on a city that Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Rome. His work is everywhere- his breathtaking statues are in museums and churches, his architectural designs in plazas and church facades, his designs in the grand fountains of old Rome, and endless jaw-dropping works adorn the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. He’s pretty much unavoidable, not that you would want to avoid such work. Bernini (1598-1680) is the greatest sculptor of the Italian Baroque, and he worked most of his life at the commission of church officials in Rome and at the Vatican. Baroque artists pushed the ideas of Renaissance artists to their breaking point, creating works with dynamic energy. Caravaggio, arguably the greatest of Baroque painters, used intense theatrical light, dynamic body positioning and in-your-face subject matter. Bernini created astounding sculptures that push the limit of stone, sculpting his figures at the moment of high-action. Consider his take on “David” in comparison with Michelangelo’s “David” from 120 years earlier.

Michelangelo’s “David” is at a moment of quiet confidence and strength. He is grounded and stoic, a perfect hero who is just about to kill Goliath or already has. Bernini’s “David” is actually in the act of throwing the stone, his body twisted like a big spring ready to release all of its energy. The rope sling is pulled taut, as are the visible muscles and tendons beneath his skin. His eyes are focused on the target, and he bites his lip in total concentration. Bernini’s incredible skill as a sculptor earned him every grand commission that there was during his lifetime, and he was lucky enough to live long enough to tackle all the work. His attention to detail and ability to push his work to unprecedented levels of intensity is a common trait.

Another amazing early work of Bernini’s is his “Apollo and Daphne”, which depicts the very moment in the mythological tale that Daphne turns into a tree after she is captured by Apollo, the result of a spell cast by her father the river god. Her fingers turn into leaves and her legs to bark and the trunk of the tree. She cries in terror as she is transformed. What Bernini is doing here is absolutely crazy: there’s a reason why stone sculpture figures from previous times are stoic and still, and it’s because stone can’t be manipulated to tell an action narrative, to actually show a transformation. Yet, that’s what his piece does.

When you move around it, you can actually see her changing and it feels active. Apollo is also in motion, with a huge billowing piece of drapery that must weigh hundred of pounds extending off of his back into the wind, as if he is jumping into the air to grab her. The very fact that Bernini even tackled such an impossible subject in stone is mighty impressive. What’s even more impressive is that Bernini was only 25 when he made “David” and “Apollo and Daphne”.

There are lots of great resources on Bernini and I’ll devote later posts to his work inside St. Peter’s Basilica, his architectural designs for the Vatican and his famous fountains in Piazza Navona. For now, I highly recommend another episode of Simon Schama’s “Power of Art” on Bernini, which includes some stunning video of the sculptures that moves around them and gives a real sense of how amazing they are. The video centers around one of Bernini’s most famous works, “The Ecstasy of St. Theresa” and is one of the great art documentaries. You’ll discover pretty quickly in watching it that Simon Schama’s take is raw and uncut, but then again, so is Bernini. The film doesn’t at all shy away from the motivation of Bernini’s work, which has all the makings of a scandalous baroque soap opera. It’s raw but it is real, and you will have a much better grasp on Bernini after watching it.


To greater appreciate the work we’ll see across Italy, you need to understand the technique of fresco, or painting on wet plaster. Today the technique isn’t exactly standard in the art world. Fresco is time-consuming and difficult. It requires a ton of prep time, specific materials, an in-depth knowledge of the process, and a very confident brush stroke. Today, we have astounding works by Raphael and Michelangelo in brilliant color because of fresco. That’s because with fresco, the paint is absorbed by the wet plaster and becomes part of the wall. Once the wall was prepped and wet plaster applied, the artist had a matter of hours to apply the paint before it dried. If mistakes were made or segments dried, they would have to be chipped off with a chisel and started completely over (Michelangelo did this more than a few times in the Sistine Chapel). Take into consideration that Michelangelo was also 70 feet off the ground on scaffolding working by candlelight with his neck craned back for 4 years- paint and plaster dripping onto his face and into his eyes, and it’s even more impressive. The main thing to understand about fresco is that a big work is made up of many parts and if you could see the surface up close you would see tiny seams, each section a day that the artist worked. By counting them we can figure out how long the process took.

Here’s a few videos on fresco- The first is a video on Michelangelo’s technique (with the audio really off- sorry)

This second video shows a current painter working in fresco-

The Sistine Chapel is jammed packed with figures and symbolism. In painting, everything you see is a deliberate act on the part of the artist, so for centuries people have wondered at Michelangelo’s intent and all that is up there. In recent years (especially since “the DaVinci Code” and “Angels and Demons” phenomenon) books and articles have popped up with all kinds of claims about coded images on the ceiling. There are things that Michelangelo hid, especially on “the Last Judgement” wall, but many of these claims seem a real stretch. One of the most popular and hard-to prove claims concerns the famous center panel of the ceiling, “The Creation of Adam”. It is widely speculated that Michelangelo, Leonardo, and other Renaissance artists performed human dissection on corpses to understand the inner workings of the body (this would have been totally taboo at the time). Some have taken notice at the strange shroud that surrounds God and the angels on the right, and theorized that Michelangelo has copied the exact shape of a human brain, complete with the brainstem. It may just be a crazy coincidence that the shape matches so closely, but what if Michelangelo in his own hidden way portrayed God and his infinite knowledge (and also the triumph of the human mind)? Is it true? We’ll never know, but it is fun. You be the judge…

On our first full day in Rome, we’ll be leaving bright and early for the Vatican Museum to beat the crowds. It’s one of the greatest museums in the world with an infinite collection of high church art, as well as centuries of tapestries, many thousands of Roman sculptures and ancient historical artifacts, tapestries, manuscripts, weapons… even a modern art collection. It’s a beautifully strange and crazy place where you are completely overwhelmed with the shear amount of what there is to see. It’s really too much to absorb at one time. That’s they way it is though- with so many people you just keep moving and just when you’ve reached art overload you enter the Raphael rooms and the Sistine Chapel, the crown jewel of the Vatican (and then you exit the museum into St. Peter’s Basilica and get bombarded with amazement again! It never stops).

Soon after completing his “David” in Florence and his epic battle with Leonardo that never happened (more on this later), Michelangelo was summoned to the Vatican by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He was not a painter, but a sculptor, and he refused. I guess you can’t say no to the Pope, because after much back and forth fighting, Michelangelo reluctantly agreed. The story goes that the great architect Bramante, who was working at St. Peters, recommended Michelangelo knowing he was not a painter in order to see him fail. We must remember that these great artists weren’t pals… they all wanted to be the best and have the acclaim. They all wanted the spotlight. Michelangelo responded by making the greatest painting ever, a feat that took him 4 years. 20 years after completing the ceiling, he returned to paint his epic “Last Judgement” on the front wall. His work in the room is so impressive, you don’t even notice the intricate marble floors or the multiple works by Botticelli and other masters around the perimeter.

The many figures in the chapel are sculptural in nature, huge figures with bulging muscles and dynamic poses. I can go on and on and on about all that’s contained within these monumental frescos, but it would be much too long to read and this video does a better job, even if it’s in Italian with occasional hilarious mis-translated subtitles and the recycled soundtrack from Jurassic Park.  I think it may be an official Vatican produced video- it has the same guy from the History of St. Peters video, which you need to watch for sure.

The video does a good job in part 2 explaining the restoration. In the 80s, a long restoration of the frescos set about a big debate in the art community and shocked scholars. Basically, 450 years of grime and candle soot had left the paintings really dark, almost black. When the grime was painstakingly removed, the colors were shockingly vibrant. Many art historians objected, saying that Michelangelo must have covered the entire surface with a coat of glue to intentionally darken and finish the work and never would have wanted things so bright. Scientific analysis revealed however, that Michelangelo was long dead when the varnish and glue were added, so what you see today is more or less accurate. Enjoy these videos-

Michelangelo’s Pieta

To say St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican is awe-inspiring would be an understatement. As if entering one of the world’s most impressive structures wasn’t enough, immediately to your right in the first side nave is Michelangelo’s “Pieta”, among the most famous works of art in the world.

It took the young Michelangelo (age 25 at completion) 2 years to carve it from a single block of Italian marble. His interpretation of the scene, which is the virgin Mary holding the lifeless body of Jesus after his crucifixion, is fascinating. First of all, he dodges a literal interpretation of the scene in order to show the purity and perfection of Mary and Jesus. Jesus is in pretty good shape considering he’s just been crucified, showing only wounds on his hands, feet and side. Mary is not an older woman, like she would have been if her son was 33. Instead, she is youthful and beautiful, a picture of perfection. The most impressive aspect to the “Pieta” is the way Michelangelo disguises Mary’s body with drapery. She is holding what would be a very heavy,  lifeless body much larger than her own on her lap with great ease, yet we almost don’t even notice. Look carefully at the picture and try to image how enormous she would be based on the body structure suggested by the drape. She would be a giant! Michelangelo has manipulated her lap to be much larger than the rest of her body, so our focus is not on the awkwardness of Christ’s dead weight but rather the sadness and emotional weight of his death. It’s pure genius.

Another crazy thing about the “Pieta” is the Miss America-like sash across Mary’s chest. Michelangelo was a young and relatively unknown sculptor when he finished the Pieta. It was a big hit, and pretty soon he overheard that another more established artist was getting credit for the work. Enraged, he broke into the church and carved “Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence made this” across Mary. Later, he came to regret this prideful act and never again signed a work.

The only thing not to like about the “Pieta” is that it’s hard to see because it’s set a ways back behind glass. (Trust me, taking a picture doesn’t really work because all you see is the flash.) It’s protected like this nowadays because 1972  a mentally disturbed man walked into the chapel and attacked the sculpture with a  hammer while shouting “I am Jesus Christ.” He smashed it up pretty good, and many of the people standing around snatched up chunks of the marble that flew off as priceless souvenirs. Some pieces have never been found, the biggest being Mary’s nose, which was reconstructed from another piece.

Here’s a video snippet about the Pieta from the BBC. (the audio is not good, sorry about that). The video shows Carrera, a world famous deposit of white marble where Michelangelo got the stone. We’ll be able to see Carrera from the train on the way to the coast from Florence. It’s still a world famous quarry for sculptors around the world.


Raffaello Sanzio, or Raphael, was a ridiculously talented artist of the high Renaissance. He painted some of the most beautiful paintings in the world, and we’ll see quite a few of them in Italy. He was a very prolific artist until his sudden death from illness in 1520 at the age of 37. It’s hard to imagine how much more he would have done had he lived to the ripe old age of his fellow masters Leonardo and Michelangelo. His most famous works can be found in the Vatican, just out the door and down the hall from the Sistine Chapel in what was the Pope’s private library. In fact, Michelangelo was working on the Sistine ceiling at the same time Raphael created “the School of Athens”, “The Desputa” and other masterpieces there. No doubt they were aware of each others progress and reputation. Michelangelo initially turned down the Sistine Chapel commission and recommended that Pope Julius II get Raphael to do it. To that time, Michelangelo was primarily a sculptor and Raphael was the young up and comer. More on Michelangelo later….

Raphael’s paintings are amazing to see in person. His colors are very bright, and his understanding of light and shade on the human form is off the charts. He meticulously blends his brushstrokes and creates a superbly delicate end product. It’s easy to see why he is considered among the greatest painters ever. In the Raphael Rooms at the Vatican, Raphael has meticulously planned every last detail on all 4 walls and the ceiling. “The School of Athens” is arguably his most famous work, a nod to philosophy and a metaphor of Raphael’s time. He places the portraits of fellow artists in the composition as Greek philosophers, including Leonardo, Michelangelo, Bramante (architect of St. Peters), and even himself in the far right corner. Here’s a great video on the painting that picks the whole thing apart: