A History Lesson With Booze ®

The Sistine Chapel’s Unwilling Artist

This week back in 1512, Michelangelo’s glorious frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel were unveiled for the first time. Turns out, they were not expressions of boundless joy. Here's the story, and a fortifying drink to serve with it:

(Photo by Fotopress/Getty Images)

If you look up the term “reluctant artist” in the dictionary, there oughta be a picture beside it of Michelangelo.

Back in 1508, he had done some sketches and paintings, but he was mainly known as the guy who carved, y’know, only the most amazing sculpture ever: The David, in Florence. He thought of himself as a sculptor, not a painter.

So when Pope Julius II decided Michelangelo should be the guy to paint frescoes on all 5,000 square feet of the Sistine Chapel ceiling — The room where new Popes are elected — he said “Er, no thanks.”

For one thing, he was in the middle of another project for Pope Julius: Carving him a massive marble tomb.  The chapel would be a distraction! Also, uh… he had never actually painted a fresco before. In fact, he suspected other artists, jealous of his success, had told the Pope he’d be just the guy to paint the Chapel… so they could watch him fail.

But when the Pope says “paint,” you paint. So Michelangelo did – with difficulty.  Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t work lying on his back. He stood on special platforms attached to the walls. Which forced him to contort his body for hours at a time, his brush held high, paint falling onto his face.

Midway through the four-year job he wrote an only half-joking poem about his agony:
“I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy…
I am not in the right place.  I am not a painter.”

When he finished the frescoes, though, Michelangelo seemed to understand he’d done a pretty good job. And history confirmed it.  Hundreds of years later, Goethe wrote, “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”


The Blood of Michelangelo

Photo credit: Elana Lepkowski, stirandstrain.com
Photo credit: Elana Lepkowski, stirandstrain.com

A masterpiece of its own by Marco Leoni, artist and owner of Exit Bar Pub & Gallery in Rome, Italy

  • 5 ounces Bloody Mary base of your choice (example recipe)
  • 2 ounces of Prosecco sparkling wine
  • Splash of grappa

Combine the tomato base and sparking wine in glass, float splash of grappa on top.  Garnish with mint and basil leaves and a paintbrush-esque celery stalk. Drink in the restorative vitamins after a long day of painting.