MICHELANGELO & THE POPE'S CEILING

By Ross King

Walker & Co. 373 pp. $28 The vast lore surrounding Michelangelo Buonarroti, the subject of Ross King's new book, includes this story: In 1564, the master was posthumously elected president of the Florentine Academy of Fine Arts, whereupon his corpse was brought in a leather sack from Rome, where he had died, to Florence for a funeral. At a crucial point in the ceremony, the academicians filed by the body to touch the forehead with trembling hands, as if to absorb something of the divine Michelangelo's unparalleled brilliance.

In coming to grips with the supreme personalities of our culture, we always hold out the covert hope that we might be able to harness a sliver of their genius. Books on cultural superstars such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Dante, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Freud and others constitute a library unto themselves. We are so captivated by the power of these creative individuals that we're hungry for any morsel of insight into their gifts. The usual approach in writing about them is to intertwine events in their lives with their works, a formula King uses effectively in examining Michelangelo's painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling over a span of four years beginning in 1508.

In "Michelangelo & the Pope's Ceiling," however, King has broadened the scope by adding a heavy dose of the "times" factor, offering a magnified view of those charged years from the perspective of Pope Julius II, Michelangelo's most influential patron. The della Rovere pope was also the patron of Bramante, the architect of the new St. Peter's, and of Raphael, who frescoed rooms in the Vatican Palace.

King proves to be an impressive researcher, able to digest a web of tangled issues that defined the atmosphere in Rome at the onset of the Reformation. The backdrop of constant wars in Italy, in which Julius participated at the head of the papal troops, is convincingly depicted within the political, cultural and theological contexts. The author paints with a broad brush to clarify the history surrounding the Sistine ceiling, though in the process Michelangelo seems a bit obscured.

In his account of the ceiling, King is clearly attracted to the technical complexities of the painting process. He seems fixated on the number of days it took Michelangelo to fresco each of the scenes and compartments, but this is not especially illuminating of the entire vast enterprise. Any discussion of the Sistine ceiling must take into account the aggressive restoration carried out in the recent past. The theory behind that restoration, of which King approves, is that Michelangelo painted exclusively on a wet surface, a buon fresco. Some 16th-century writers regarded this as the most "manly" approach, as opposed to combining it with secco, or dry, applications, but no contemporary account indicates that this was Michelangelo's technique.

In the scenario scripted by the restorers, all applications on the ceiling executed in a secco could be, and were, removed, including most of the cast shadows as well as the light and dark modeling to achieve volumetric figures. The assumption that an artist did not need to revise his initial text is preposterous. In Michelangelo's case, his inexperience with fresco painting and the physical restrictions inherent in the assignment make the assumption particularly unlikely. His unease with fresco caused him to call in a team of experienced Florentine experts to assist him. The conclusion is inevitable: The restorers took off applications made by Michelangelo himself.

King also regards Michelangelo as a "dazzling" colorist, although not a single contemporary reference to such an attribute exists. Since contemporary artists picked up everything Michelangelo did on the ceiling, an echo could be expected. But rather than color, the commentary of the time stressed his draftsmanship. If Michelangelo put varnish in the form of tinted glue on his enormous fresco to tone down and unite its diverse portions, as many (including this reviewer) believe he did, then the color as now revealed should be understood as under-painting, effected by harsh solvents, and not representing Michelangelo's intended finished state.

King is a knowledgeable tourist guide, charging his long text with tasty tidbits; he points out, for instance, that a young cleric named Martin Luther was in Rome in those heady years. Sexual references abound, as they do in the pages of King's best Roman counterparts, who use them liberally, presumably to sustain the attention of their audience. He describes the "vast sensual appetites" of the "voracious" Bramante; Raphael "kept busy with love affairs" and his Galatea fresco was a "steamily erotic production."

Raphael, indeed, pops up with unnerving frequency in this book. It's as though King finds this Renaissance Don Juan far and away more intriguing than his actual subject. Poor, "misshapen," "gloriously ugly" Michelangelo allows for no lusty portrayal of his private life. He is "wretched" and "unhappy" by nature, in juxtaposition to "the affable and sociable" Raphael. The same goes for their artistic representations: Raphael's "curvaceous Eve" is contrasted with the "languid, passive posture" of Michelangelo's treatment of the first woman. King supplies the names of several of Raphael's mistresses, and the old story that Raphael died on his birthday of too much sex gives the book the color so dear to tourist guides, but in a volume on Michelangelo, one can't help wondering why there's so much material on Raphael.

The "antisocial," "surly, remote" Michelangelo, a "man of strife," is ostensibly the hero of "Michelangelo & the Pope's Ceiling," yet King seems uneasy with the master's persona, which apparently fails to engage him. Perhaps he would have done better instead to write a book about Raphael and the Vatican rooms he painted.