The Piazza Rusticucci was not one of Rome's most prestigious addresses. Though only a short walk from the Vatican, the square was humble and nondescript, part of a maze of streets and densely packed shops and houses that ran west from where the Ponte Sant'Angelo crossed the River Tiber. A trough for livestock stood at its centre, next to a fountain, while on its east side was a modest church with a tiny belfry. Santa Caterina delle Cavallerotte was too new to be famous. It housed none of the sorts of relics - bones of saints, fragments from the True Cross - that each year brought thousands of pilgrims to Rome from all over Christendom. However, behind this church, in a narrow street overshadowed by the city wall, there could be found the workshop of one of the most sought-after artists in Italy: a squat, flat-nosed, shabbily dressed, ill-tempered sculptor from Florence.
Michelangelo Buonarroti was summoned back to this workshop behind Santa Caterina in April 1508. He obeyed the call with great reluctance, having vowed he would never return to Rome. Fleeing the city two years earlier, he had ordered his assistants to clear the workshop and sell its contents, his tools included, to the Jews. He returned that spring to find the premises bare and, nearby in the Piazza San Pietro, exposed to the elements, a hundred tons of marble still piled where he had abandoned them. These lunar-white blocks had been quarried in preparation for what was intended to be one of the largest assemblages of sculpture the world had ever seen: the tomb of the reigning pope, Julius II. Yet Michelangelo had not been brought back to Rome to resume work on this colossus.
Michelangelo was thirty-three years old. He had been born on 6 March 1475, at an hour, he informed one of his assistants, when Mercury and Venus were in the house of Jupiter. Such a fortunate arrangement of the planets had foretold 'success in the arts which delight the senses, such as painting sculpture and architecture'. This success was not long in coming. By the age of fifteen, the precociously gifted Michelangelo was studying the art of sculpture in the Garden of San Marco, a school for artists fostered by Lorenzo de' Medici, the ruler of Florence. At nineteen, he was carving statues in Bologna, and two years later, in 1496, he made his first trip to Rome, where he soon received a commission to sculpt the Pietá. His contract for this statue boldly claimed it would be 'the most beautiful work in marble that Rome has ever seen' - a condition he was said to have fulfilled when the work was unveiled to an astonished public a few years later. Carved to adorn the tomb of a French cardinal, the Pietá won praise for surpassing not only the sculptures of all of Michelangelo's contemporaries but even those of the ancient Greeks and Romans themselves - the standards by which all art was judged.
Michelangelo's next triumph had been another marble statue, the David, which was installed in front of the Palazzo della Signoria in Florence in September 1504, following three years of work. If the Pietá showed delicate grace and feminine beauty, the David revealed Michelangelo's talent for expressing monumental power through the male nude. Almost seventeen feet in height, the work came to be known by the awestruck citizens of Florence as Il Gigante, or 'The Giant'. It took four days and considerable ingenuity on the part of Michelangelo's friend, the architect Giuliano da Sangallo, to transport the mighty statue the quarter-mile from his workshop behind the cathedral to its pedestal in the Piazza della Signoria.
A few months after the David was finished, early in 1505, Michelangelo had received from Pope Julius II an abrupt summons that interrupted his work in Florence. So impressed was the Pope with the Pietá, which he had seen in a chapel of St Peter's, that he wanted the young sculptor to carve his tomb as well. At the end of February, the papal treasurer, Cardinal Francesco Alidosi, paid Michelangelo an advance of a hundred gold florins, the equivalent of a full year's salary for a craftsman. The sculptor then returned to Rome and entered the service of the Pope. So began what he would later call 'the tragedy of the tomb'.
Papal tombs were usually grand affairs. That of Sixtus IV, who died in 1484, was a beautiful bronze sarcophagus that had been nine years in the making. But Julius, a stranger to all modesty, had envisioned for himself something on an entirely new scale. He had begun making plans for his sepulchre soon after his election to the papacy in 1503, ultimately conceiving of a memorial that was to be the largest since the mausoleums built for Roman emperors such as Hadrian and Augustus. Michelangelo's design was in keeping with these tremendous ambitions, calling for a free-standing structure some thirty-four feet wide and fifty feet high. There were to be over forty life-sized marble statues, all set in a massive and highly detailed architectural setting of pillars, arches and niches. On the bottom tier a series of nude statues would represent the liberal arts, while the top would be crowned by a ten-foot-high statue of Julius wearing the papal tiara. Besides an annual salary of 1,200 ducats - roughly ten times what the average sculptor or goldsmith could expect to earn in a single year - Michelangelo was to receive a final payment of 10,000 more.
Michelangelo had begun this daunting project with energy and enthusiasm, spending eight months in Carrara, sixty-five miles north-west of Florence, supervising the quarrying and transport of the white marble for which the town was famous, not least because both the Pietá and the David had been carved from it. In spite of several mishaps in transit - one of his cargo boats ran aground in the Tiber and several others were swamped when the river flooded - by the start of 1506 he had transported more than ninety wagonloads of marble to the square before St Peter's and moved into the workshop behind Santa Caterina. The people of Rome rejoiced at the sight of this mountain of white stone rising in front of the old basilica. No one was more excited than the Pope, who even had a special walkway built to connect Michelangelo's workshop with the Vatican and thereby facilitate his visits to the Piazza Rusticucci, where he would discuss his magnificent project with the artist.
Even before the marble had arrived in Rome, however, the Pope's attentions were being distracted by an even larger enterprise. Originally, he had planned for his sepulchre to stand in a church near the Colosseum, San Pietro in Vincoli, only to change his mind and decide it should be installed instead in the grander setting of St Peter's. But soon he realised that the old basilica was in no fit state to accommodate such an impressive monument. Two and a half centuries after his death in ad 67, the bones of St Peter had been brought from the catacombs to this location beside the Tiber - the spot where he was believed to have been crucified - and the basilica that bears his name constructed over them. By a sad irony, this great edifice housing the tomb of St Peter, the rock on which the Christian Church was founded, therefore came to occupy a low-lying patch of marshy ground in which, it was said, there lived snakes large enough to eat babies whole.
These undesirable foundations meant that, by 1505, the walls of the basilica were leaning six feet out of true. While various piecemeal efforts had been made to rectify the perilous situation, Julius, typically, decided to take the most drastic measures: he planned to have St Peter's demolished and a new basilica built in its place. The destruction of the oldest and holiest church in Christendom had therefore started by the time Michelangelo returned from Carrara. Dozens of ancient tombs of saints and previous popes - the inspiration for visions, healings and other miracles - were smashed to rubble and enormous pits twenty-five feet deep excavated for the foundations. Tons of building materials cluttered the surrounding streets and piazzas as an army of two thousand carpenters and stonemasons prepared themselves for the largest construction project seen anywhere in Italy since the days of ancient Rome.
A design for this grand new basilica had been put forward by the Pope's official architect, Giuliano da Sangallo, Michelangelo's friend and mentor. The 63-year-old Sangallo boasted an impressive list of commissions, having designed churches and palaces across much of Italy, among them the Palazzo Rovere, a splendid residence that he built in Savona, near Genoa, for Julius II. Sangallo had also been the favourite architect of Lorenzo de' Medici, for whom he designed a villa near Florence at Poggio a Caiano. In Rome, he was responsible for making repairs to the Castel Sant'Angelo, the city's fortress. He had also repaired Santa Maria Maggiore, one of Rome's most ancient churches, and gilded its ceiling with what was said to be the first gold ever brought back from the New World.
So confident was Sangallo of gaining the commission to rebuild St Peter's that he uprooted his family from Florence and moved it to Rome. However, he faced competition for the design. Donato d'Angelo Lazzari, better known as Bramante, had a collection of equally prestigious works to his credit. Hailed by his admirers as the greatest architect since Filippo Brunelleschi, he had built churches and domes in Milan and, after moving to Rome in 1500, various convents, cloisters and palaces. To date, his most celebrated building was the Tempietto of San Pietro in Montorio, a small classical-style temple on the Janiculum, a hill south of the Vatican. The word bramante means 'ravenous', making it an apt nickname for someone with the 62-year-old architect's overweening aspirations and vast sensual appetites. And the voracious Bramante saw, in St Peter's, the chance to exercise his considerable abilities on a larger scale than ever before.
The competition between Sangallo and Bramant...
In 1508 Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He had been advised against doing so. The painting of the vaults was so difficult and Michelangelo was so inexperienced in fresco that it was considered a folly. Indeed, Michelangelo himself was reluctant for he considered himself primarily a sculptor rather than a painter. However, for the next four years he would labour over the vast ceiling, at first employing assistants and later, working alone, spending back-breaking hours with his face turned upwards. The result was one of the greatest masterpieces of all time. 'There is no other work to compare with this for excellence, nor could there be,' wrote Vasari in his Lives of Artists. Ross King's fascinating new book tells the story of those four extraordinary years. Battling against ill health, financial difficulties, domestic problems and inadequate knowledge of the art of fresco, Michelangelo created figures so beautiful that, when they were unveiled in 1512, they stunned his onlookers. Modern anatomy has yet to find names for some of the muscles on his nudes, they are painted in such detail. From Michelangelo's experiments with the composition of pigment and plaster to his bitter rivalry with Raphael, who was working on the neighbouring Papal Apartments, Ross King paints a magnificent picture of day-to-day life on the Sistine scaffolding and outside in the upheaval of early sixteenth-century Rome.
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