Conspiracies hatched by rivals, a boss with a temper, backaches and eyestrain, family problems, and loneliness—Michelangelo’s letters reveal both the personal problems and occupational hazards he faced while painting the Sistine Chapel. In preparation for a mural I am painting (with a team) downtown, I have been reading about the famous artist’s tough time with his fresco.

In a letter to his friend Sangallo, Michelangelo feared for his life: “There was something else besides, which I do not want to write about. It is enough to say that I had cause to think that if I had remained in Rome, my own tomb would be sooner made than the pope’s. This, then, was the reason for my sudden departure.” Michelangelo may have feared the architect Bramante and later Raphael, both of whom he suspected of a conspiracy.

“I am living here in a great state of great anxiety and the greatest physical fatigue,” he wrote his brother. “I have no friends of any sort and want none. I haven’t even time to eat as much as I should. So you must not bother me with additional worries, for I could not bear another thing.” He wrote about his “great fear,” which may have been fear of the conspiracy or working so close to the pope, subjected to the political climate of Rome and the whims of and abuse by Pope Julius. “All of the discords that arose between Pope Julius and me were owing to the envy of Bramante and Raphael,” Michelangelo wrote.

Working for Pope Julius II, who was called il papa terrible or the dreadful pope, carried risks of its own. Julius was strong and violent and known to strike his subordinates. He even hit Michelangelo with his staff for not painting the fresco quickly enough, though he later called it a “mark of affection.” Still, Michelangelo stood up to the Pope, painting on his own schedule and in private, with the chapel closed to an audience. He even removed the first section he painted of twelve giornatta depicting Noah’s flood; although, his letters do not indicate why. Michelangelo also argued with the Pope over content. As a sculptor, he wanted to concentrate on the human figure. He repeatedly complains that frescoing is not his occupation: he is a sculptor, not a painter: “My work does not seem to go ahead in a way to merit anything,” he wrote his father, “This is due to the difficulty of the work and also because it is not my profession.”

The chapel itself presented a different set of challenges. Rather than frescoing a flat wall, Michelangelo’s canvas was 12,000 square feet of space of vaulted ceiling, featuring spandrels, lunettes, and pendentives. Michelangelo’s initial team of assistants worked to build a scaffold so the artist could reach the ceiling. One of the perils common to fresco painters was falling from such structures.

Even today, the work environment painters experience is a dangerous one, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

“Painting requires a lot of climbing, bending, kneeling, and reaching. Those who paint bridges or buildings may be exposed to extreme heights and uncomfortable positions […] Painters have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations. Falls from ladders, muscle strains from lifting, and exposure to irritants such as drywall dust are common risks.”

The first four stanzas of a comic poem that Michelangelo wrote to Giovanni da Pistoia describe the extreme physical discomfort he endured while painting.

I’ve got myself a goiter from this strain,

As water gives the cats in Lombardy

Or maybe it’s in some other country;

My belly’s pushed beneath my chin.

Michelangelo included an amusing sketch of himself painting along with the poem. In the sketch he has depicted his neck hyperextended with a bulge at the front, which could be a goiter. However, goiters are not induced by work strain but by thyroid problems and drinking iodine-poor water; therefore we cannot consider this problem as an occupational hazard from painting the Sistine Chapel. However, prolonged hours of tilting his head backward to view his work likely would have strained his neck muscles.

My beard toward heaven, I feel the back of my brain

Upon my neck, I grow the breast of a Harpy;

My brush above my face continually,

Makes it a splendid floor by dripping down.

Bending his head back and peering at the ceiling for long shifts must have strained his neck considerably. King points out the bizarre vision problem that Michelangelo developed from the eyestrain from always looking up: he could only clearly see drawings and letters if they were held above his head, at arm’s length.

One must imagine Michelangelo’s beard and face a palette of colors as paint dripped down on him. While it is comical to imagine the painter’s head as a drop cloth, coated in a variety of colors, this, too, could be considered an occupational hazard. Some of the pigments he used contained ground glass (smaltino), arsenic (cobalt), and lead dust (minium is a kind of lead that was used to cut powdered vermillion). Judging by his sketch of himself painting that accompanies this poem, he painted without protective goggles, meaning his eyes may also have been exposed to various irritants such as dust from the drying plaster or airborne powdered pigment.

My loins have penetrated to my paunch,

My rump’s a crupper, as a counterweight,

And pointless the unseeing steps I go.

A crupper is part of the saddle that goes behind the horse, under its tail, to keep the saddle from sliding forward while riding on hilly terrain. You can almost feel the tightness of his muscles. In this pose, his gluteus would have been contracted, as well as his upper abdominal muscles for months on end (give it a try). In the final line, he notes the “unseeing steps,” possibly saying that he rarely, if ever, straightens his body, bends forward, or looks down. Given his peculiar vision problem, it could be that looking down would have been pointless. He wouldn’t have been able to see the ground except for several feet in front of him, as a person on a road bike can see the road in front of them by looking up instead of forward.

In front of me my skin is being stretched

While it folds up behind and forms a knot,
And I am bending like a Syrian bow.

Syrian bows have adrastic curve in them. Reading this stanza we imagine Michelangelo standing and bent backward, almost like a lowercase “q” or a person at the beginning stages of a backhand spring.

It’s also interesting to note what he leaves out of this poem: namely any kind of shoulder pain. Holding a brush above his head (or possibly two brushes, one in both hand, one charged with light paint and the other with dark paint) all day

could have produced a repetitive stress injury or tendonitis.

In addition to these physical complaints, Michelangelo was also dealing with personal problems as he worked on the fresco. His father was sued by a sister-in-law over the return of a dowry and preceded to borrow some money from Michelangelo’s bank account without consulting him first. His brothers were lay-abouts, misfits, and dreamers. Michelangelo berated his brother Giovansimone for some unknown wrongdoing:

“For twelve years now, I have gone about all over Italy, leading a miserable life. I have borne every kind of humiliation, suffered every kind of hardship, worn myself to the bone with every kind of labor, risked my very life in a thousan

d dangers, solely to help my family. And now when I begin to raise it up a little, you alone must be the one to confound and destroy in one hour what I have accomplished during so many years and with such pains.”

While family dramas aren’t particular to the work at the chapel, these letters to and from home likely weighed on Michelangelo’s mind. Art historians have suggested that Michelangelo painted some of dramas, or the emotions surrounding them, into a few of the panels in the fresco.

Throughout his letters, Michelangelo does not shy away from announcing his grievances with his rivals, the Pope, or physical or emotional stresses while painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. King appears to have found corresponding sources that match the dates of these letters to build a fuller picture of what problems and issues Michelangelo faced while working on the famous fresco.

Michelangelo doodled the little image above beside his poem.

To learn more, check out Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King.

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