The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects

Author: Giorgi Vasari  | Date: 1851–1852

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Giorgio Vasari 5 London 1851–1852 Mrs. Jonathan Foster

Michelangelo’s Ordeal on the Scaffold


Among the gentlemen present at this visit, was one who asked Michelangelo which was the larger, the statue of that Pope or a pair of oxen.

"That depends on what the animals may be," replied the artist, "for if they are Bolognese oxen it is certain that our Florentines are not such great brutes as those are."

The statue was finished in the day model, before Julius left Bologna for Rome, and His Holiness went to see it, but, the fight hand being raised in an attitude of much dignity, and the Pontiff not knowing what was to be placed in the left, inquired whether he were anathematizing the people or giving them his benediction; Michelangelo replied, that he was admonishing the Bolognese to behave themselves discreetly, and asked His Holiness to decide whether it were not well to put a book in the left hand.

"Put a sword into it," replied Pope Julius, "for of letters I know but little."

The Pontiff left a thousand crowns in the Bank of M. Antonmaria da Lignano, for the purpose of completing the figure; and after Michelangelo had labored at it for sixteen months, it was placed over the door of San Petronio. The work was eventually destroyed by the Bentivogli, and the bronze was sold to the Duke Alfonso of Ferrara, who made a piece of artillery, called the Julia, of the fragments: the head only was preserved, and this is now in the Duke’s Guardaroba.

The Pope having returned to Rome and Michelangelo being still engaged with the statue, Bramante, who was the friend and kinsman of Raphael, and but little disposed to befriend Michelangelo, availed himself of his absence to influence the mind of Julius, whom he saw to be much inclined to works of sculpture. He hoped to fix it so that, on the return of Michelangelo, His Holiness should no longer think of completing the Sepulchre, and suggested that for a man to prepare his tomb during life was an evil augury and a kind of invitation to death. At a word, the Pontiff was persuaded to employ Michelangelo on his return in the painting of that Chapel, which had been constructed in the Palace and at the Vatican in memory of his uncle Pope Sixtus. Bramante and the other rivals of Michelangelo, thinking they should thus detach him from his sculpture, in which they saw that he was perfect, and throw him into despair, they being convinced that by compelling him to paint in fresco they should also bring him to exhibit works of less perfection (he having but little experience in that branch of art), and thus prove himself inferior to Raphael. Or even supposing him to succeed in the work, it was almost certain that he would be so much enraged against the Pope as to secure the success of their purpose, which was to rid themselves of his presence.

When Michelangelo returned to Rome, therefore, he found Julius no longer disposed to have the Tomb finished, but desiring that Michelangelo should paint the ceiling of the Chapel. This was a great and difficult labor, and our artist, aware of his own inexperience, did all he could to excuse himself from undertaking the work, proposing at the same time that it should be confided to Raphael. But the more he refused the more Pope Julius insisted. Impetuous in all his desires, and stimulated by the competitors of Michelangelo, more especially by Bramante, he was on the point of making a quarrel with our artist, when the latter, finding His Holiness determined, resolved to accept the task.

The Pope then ordered Bramante to prepare the scaffolding, which the latter suspended by ropes perforating the ceiling for that purpose. Seeing this, Michelangelo inquired of the architect how the holes thus made were to be filled in when the painting should be completed; to which Bramante replied that they would think of that when the time came, and that it could not be done otherwise. But Michelangelo, Perceiving that the architect was either incapable or unfriendly toward himself, went at once to the Pope, whom he assured that such a scaffolding was not the proper one, adding that Bramante did not know how to construct it; and Julius, in the presence of Bramante, replied, that Michelangelo might construct it himself after his own fashion. The latter then erected his scaffolding on props in such a manner that the wails were not injured, and this method has been pursued by Bramante and others, who were hereby taught the best way in which preparations for the execution of pictures on ceilings, and other works of the kind could be made, the ropes used by Bramante and which Michelangelo’s construction had rendered needless, the latter gave to the poor carpenter, by whom the scaffolding was rebuilt, and who sold them for a sum which enabled him to make up the dowry of his daughter.

Michelangelo now began to prepare the cartoons, for the ceiling, His Holiness giving orders to the effect that all the paintings executed on the walls by older masters in the time of Pope Sixtus, should be destroyed, it was furthermore decided that Michelangelo should receive fifteen thousand ducats for the work, an estimation of its value which was made by Giuliano da San Gallo. But the extent of the work now compelled Michelangelo to seek assistance; he therefore sent for men to Florence, resolving to prove himself the conqueror of all who had preceded him, and to show modern artists how drawing and painting ought to be done. The circumstances of the case became a stimulus to his exertions, and impelled him forward, not for his own fame only, but for the welfare of art also. He had finished the cartoons, but deferred commencing the frescoes until certain of the Florentine painters who were his friends should arrive in Rome, partly to decrease his labor by assisting in the execution of the work, but also in part to show him the processes of fresco-painting, wherein some of them were well-experienced.

These masters, having reached the city, the work was begun, and Michelangelo caused them to paint a portion by way of specimen, but what they had done was far from approaching his expectations or fulfilling his purpose, and one morning he determined to destroy the whole of it. He then shut himself up in the chapel, and not only would he never again permit the building to be opened to them, but he likewise refused to see any one of them at his house. Finally therefore, and when tire jest appeared to them to be carried too far, they returned, ashamed and mortified, to Florence. Michelangelo then made arrangements for performing the whole work himself, sparing no care nor labor, in the hope of bringing the same to a satisfactory termination, nor would he ever permit himself to be seen, test he should give occasion for a request to show the work; wherefore there daily arose, in the minds of all around him, a more and more earnest desire to behold it.

Now, Pope Julius, always greatly enjoyed watching the progress of the works he had undertaken, and more than ever desired to inspect anything that was purposely concealed from him: thus it happened that he one day went to see the chapel, as we have related, when the refusal of Michelangelo to admit him, occasioned that dispute which caused the master to leave Rome, as before described.

Michelangelo afterwards told me the cause of this refusal, which was as follows: When he had completed about one-third of the painting, the prevalence of the north wind during the winter months had caused a sort of mould to appear on the pictures; and this happened from the fact that in Rome, the plaster, made of travertine and puzzolana, does not dry rapidly, and while in a soft state is somewhat dark and very fluent, not to say watery; when the wall is covered with this mixture, therefore, it throws out an efflorescence arising from the humid saltiness which bursts forth; but this is in time evaporated and corrected by the air. Michelangelo was, indeed, in despair at the sight of these spots, and refused to continue the work, declaring to the Pope that he could not succeed therein, but His Holiness sent Giuliano da Sangallo to look at it, and he, telling our artist whence these spots arose, encouraged him to proceed, by teaching him how they might be removed.

When the half was completed, Pope Julius, who had subsequently gone more than once to see the work (mounting ladders for that purpose with Michelangelo’s aid), and whose temper was hasty and impatient, would insist on having the pictures opened to public view, without waiting until the last touches had been given thereto, and the chapel was no sooner thrown open than all Rome hastened thither, the Pope being the first; he had, indeed, not patience to wait until the dust caused by removing the scaffold had subsided. Then it was that Raphael da Urbino, who was very prompt in imitation, having seen this work, instantly changed his manner, and to give proof of his ability, immediately executed the Prophets and Sibyls in the Church of the Pace. Bramante also then labored to convince Pope Julius that he would do well to confide the second half of the Chapel to Raphael.

Hearing of this, Michelangelo complained to the Pope of Bramante, enumerating at the same time, without sparing him, many faults in the life, as well as errors in the works, of that architect; of the latter, indeed, he did himself become the corrector at a subsequent period. But Julius, who justly valued the ability of Michelangelo, commanded that he should continue the work, judging from what he saw of the first half, that our artist would be able to improve the second materially; and the master accordingly finished the whole, completing it to perfection in twenty months, without having even the help of a man to grind the colors. It is true that be sometimes complained of the manner in which the Pope hastened forward the work, seeing that he was thereby prevented from giving it the finish which he would have desired to bestow; His Holiness constantly inquiring when it would be completed.

On one occasion, therefore, Michelangelo replied:

"It will be finished when I shall have done all that I believe is required to satisfy Art."

"And we command," rejoined the Pontiff, "that you satisfy our wish to have it done quickly"; adding finally, that if it were not at once completed, he would have him, Michelangelo, thrown headlong from the scaffolding.

Hearing this, our artist, who feared the fury of the Pope, and with good cause, desisted instantly, without taking time to add what was wanting, and took down the remainder of the scaffolding, to the great satisfaction of the whole city, on All Saints’ Day, when Pope Julius went into that Chapel to sing mass. But Michelangelo had very much desired to retouch some portions of the work a secco, as had been done by the older masters who had painted the stories on the walls. He would also gladly have added a little ultramarine to some of the draperies, and gilded other parts, to the end that the whole might have a richer and more striking effect. The Pope, too, hearing that these things were still wanting, and finding that all who beheld the Chapel praised it highly, would now fain have had the additions made, but as Michelangelo thought reconstructing the scaffold too long an affair, the pictures remained as they were, although the Pope, who often saw Michelangelo, would sometimes say:

"Let the Chapel be enriched with bright colors and gold; it looks poor."

Michelangelo would retort: "Holy Father, the men of those days did not adorn themselves with gold. Those who are painted here less than any, for they were poor men; besides which, they were holy men, and must have despised riches and ornaments."

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Chicago: Giorgi Vasari, The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, ed. Giorgio Vasari and trans. Mrs. Jonathan Foster in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Co., 1951), Original Sources, accessed April 24, 2024,

MLA: Vasari, Giorgi. The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, edited by Giorgio Vasari, and translated by Mrs. Jonathan Foster, Vol. 5, in History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, edited by Louis Leo Snyder and Richard B. Morris, Harrisburg, Pa., Stackpole Co., 1951, Original Sources. 24 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Vasari, G, The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, ed. and trans. . cited in 1951, History in the First Person: Eyewitnesses of Great Events: They Saw It Happen, ed. , Stackpole Co., Harrisburg, Pa.. Original Sources, retrieved 24 April 2024, from