The history of the Vault of the Sistine Chapel narrates two different historical phases. A precedent, from the fifteenth century and one from the beginning of the sixteenth century, made by Michelangelo.
The vault of Piermatteo d’Amelia
The first pictorial decoration of the vault of the Sistine Chapel dates back to 1481 and was commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV. The vault was decorated with a starry sky by the Amerine painter Piermatteo di Manfredi , called Piermatteo d’Amelia or by Amelia (Amelia, ca 1445-1448 – 1508).
In the engraving in fig. 1, you can see the vault of the Sistine Chapel decorated with the starry sky, the presence of the two windows on the west wall (later removed by Michelangelo) and the barrier in a central position (subsequently moved towards the entrance on the east wall).
The damage at a time
During the first years of 1500 the vault of the Sistine Chapel suffered damage due to the instability of the foundations, inherited from the ancient Cappella Magna, dating back to the end of 1200. Probably due to the works for the new St. Peter’s Basilica , a few meters away. The decorations by Piermatteo d’Amelia were irreparably damaged by a gash in the vault.
The vault was restored using a series of metal chains and plugging the crack from Bramante with mortar and bricks. The then Pope Julius II then decided to redecorate the vault, entrusting the work to Michelangelo Buonarroti . The latter had fled a few months earlier to Florence because of his profound dissent and disappointment towards Julius II, guilty of having blocked the work of the papal tomb that should have been placed in St. Peter’s Basilica (it was later built in a reduced form by Michelangelo himself in the last years of his life and placed in the basilica of San Pietro in Vicoli).
But the ambitiousness of the project convinced Michelangelo to return to Rome, and the contract was signed between March and April 1508.
Michelangelo Buonarroti, the artist who painted the Sistine Chapel
Italian sculptor, painter, architect and poet, Michelangelo Buonarroti (Caprese, March 6, 1475 – Rome, February 18, 1564) is the one who painted the marvelous Sistine Chapel. It was the artist himself who created the David, Moses, Pietà and the Dome of St. Peter.
While the Florentine master builder Piero di Jacopo Rosselli was preparing the surfaces of the dome, Michelangelo spent the first months in making the preparatory drawings. The initial project involved the representation of the twelve apostles on the large architectural thrones that dominate the corbels, while the vault was decorated with geometric elements.
Unfortunately, most of the preparatory drawings were burned at the request of Michelangelo himself, according to his biographer Giorgio Vasari. It seems that Michelangelo did not want the public to have the awareness of the amount of work that was necessary for the realization of his works, which could have reduced the idea of creative genius attributed to him. A further hypothesis is that the artist did not want competing artists to have been able to use the preparatory sketches for study purposes (not surprisingly, two young sculptors stole 60 preparatory drawings in his workshop in Florence, which were then returned).
Only two preparatory drawings have come down to us.
The first shows one of the twelve apostles above the corbels (where the seers are today ). It is probably a seated nude and the geometric elements of which the vault should have been composed are clearly visible. The drawing is kept in the British Museum in London (1508). Dark ink (study of the vault) and black chalk (arms and hands, presumably to be attributed to the figure of Adam). 1
The second shows a study for niches, preserved today at the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit, Michigan, USA. Dated 1508. Dark ink and chalk on laid paper.
A first project for the scaffolding necessary to easily reach the dome was conceived by Bramante. It was a scaffolding suspended by ropes anchored to the ceiling. Criticized by Michelangelo because of the inevitable holes where the hooks would have been inserted, it was replaced by his alternative project.
The latter was a wooden scaffolding anchored to the side walls of the chapel through self-supporting trusses. This solution covered half of the Sistine chapel and consisted of six pairs of trusses which in turn supported a stepped walkable surface.
If on the one hand this solution was practical because it covered a very large surface, on the other it forced the artist to work conditions and harsh body positions. Natural lighting was also almost non-existent and it was necessary to make up for it with candles and lamps, which created an uneven lighting.
The realization of the work proceeded from the wall of the entrance door in the direction of the altar wall.
Spreading the plaster
The first draft of the plaster based on lime mortar and pozzolan (instead of lime mixed with sand) was not a happy choice. The mixture too diluted and the slow drying phase led to the appearance of mold. It was necessary to completely remove the plaster and spread it again. The final plaster was a mixture devised by Jacopo Torni (known as Jacopo Fiorentino or the Indaco, a pupil of Domenico Ghirlandaio) of lime and pozzolan on a bed of curls made using the same mixture. Only in the area of the lunettes was marble dust used, without a layer of curling 2.
Transposition on the plaster
Two different methods were used by Michelangelo to transpose the preparatory drawings onto the plaster.
I dust it off. It is the creation of a series of holes made with an awl following the lines of the drawing made in 1: 1 scale. These reference points were then highlighted on the plaster by banging a bag of fine black coal dust on the drawing. It is the method used mainly for the transposition of drawings that required greater accuracy, such as hands and faces.
Indirect engraving (or tracing). Method mainly used for core elements such as Creation . It involves the transposition on the plaster directly from cardboard, tracing the outlines of the drawings with a metal tip.
On June 26, 1511, Pope Julius II della Rovere returned to Rome from Rimini to call the opening of the Ecumenical Council (Lateran Council V, aimed at returning to an ecclesiastical unity) which would take place the following year in the Basilica of San Giovanni in Lateran . On that occasion he had the scaffolding taken down to discover the first half of the work done by Michelangelo which was viewed by the pope between 14 and 15 August of the same year.
This occasion was precious for the artist himself to update the dimensions of the figures for the continuation of the work, as they were rather small and hard to read.
Conclusion of the works
In October 1512 Michelangelo sent a letter to the Pope, informing him that the Sistine Chapel was completed. The work was completed by Michelangelo in 1512, just under a year before Pope Julius II died (February 21, 1513).
On October 31 of the same year the chapel was reopened on the occasion of the celebration of the liturgy of Vespers, on the eve of the feast of All Saints.
The lunettes represent the semicircular frame around the arch of the windows of the side walls of the Sistine Chapel, positioned above the niches of the popes. Although they are not technically part of the vault, they have been included in this page due to the iconographic coherence with the rest of the vault.
The lunettes of the Sistine Chapel were painted by Michelangelo using the same wooden trussed scaffolding made for the painting of the vault. These are the frescoes made in a more hasty way, to the point that no transposition system was used on the plaster, except for the central plaques.
They represent, as for the “vele”, the generations of the Ancestors of Christ . On the sides of each lunette are represented individual seated figures, divided by plaques that identify them in Latin.
As for the popes in the lunettes, the progression of the lunettes is to be read alternately from the altar wall towards the entrance wall.
It should be noted that the first two lunettes on the altar wall were eliminated by Michelangelo himself in 1537 for the drafting of the plaster aimed at the realization of the Last Judgment.
- Aminadab, prince of the Levites
- Woman combing her hair
The “vele” are the spaces with a concave triangular surface that connect the side walls of the Sistine Chapel with the lowered barrel vault. Like the lunettes below, they represent the forty generations of Christ’s ancestors, taken from the Gospel of Matthew.
They represent compositions of family groups, men and women who represent humanity and the succession of generations. Each “vela” is surmounted by two bronze nudes in symmetrical pose with each other and by bucranos (ox skulls, representing sacrificial rituals).
- The crucifixion of Aman
- David and Goliath
- The brazen Serpent
- Judith e Holofernes
Frescoes of the vault
The vault is divided horizontally into nine panels, which show the stories of Genesis, arranged in chronological order starting from the altar wall. These are five larger squares each containing two figures interspersed with four smaller squares containing a frame surrounded by two medallions and four seated figures.
- Dod separating light from darkness
- Creation of the sun, moon & planets
- Separation of the sky & water
- Creation of Adam
- Creation of Eve
- Temptation & expulsion
- Sacrifice of Noah
- The flood
- Drunkenness of Noah
The stories of genesis
The Creation of Adam is the most famous composition of the vault, and represents the encounter between the divine and the human and the moment of creation. Adam, lying on the earth, stretches his hand towards the divine wrapped in a pink cloth, until it touches his fingers.
Sibyls and prophets
This is the series of frescoes that decorate the corbels, or the hanging capitals placed between one “vela” and another. In the space between two plinths with fake self-reliefs of putti in pairs, the seers, or sibyls and prophets, are represented, each flanked by a couple of young assistants.
The vault of the Sistine Chapel underwent several restorations over the years. The reasons were not solely to be found in the natural deterioration of the frescoes and colors, but also in the structural state of the Sistine Chapel. In 1522, just nine years after the completion of the works, the architrave on the entrance wall collapsed (killing a Swiss guard), while during the conclave of 1523 there were major failures on the vault.
The first restoration works began in 1543.
During the conclave of 1565 large gashes were opened, always on the vault.
In 1625 a restoration was entrusted to Simone Lagi, whose task was to remove the dark patina deposited over the years on the frescoes with a linen cloth and breadcrumbs.
Between 1710 and 1713 a new restoration was entrusted to the painter Annibale Mazzuoli, which was carried out in collaboration with his son using sponges dipped in “Greek wine” and repainting the details, including some that were lost due to the efflorescence of saltpetre (phenomenon of evaporation of water of crystallization on the outside of the plaster, which causes the detachment of the surface).
Between 1935 and 1938 the restoration laboratory of the Vatican Museums started a further phase of restoration and cleaning of the surfaces on the eastern portion of the Chapel.
1979-1994: the restoration by Gianluigi Colalucci
In 1979 the largest restoration project on the vault of the Sistine Chapel began. This work was entrusted to a team of experts led by Gianluigi Colalucci, on the basis of the guidelines written in 1978 by the archaeologist and director of the Vatican Laboratory for the Restoration of Paintings, Carlo Pietrangeli.
For the restoration, aluminum scaffolding was made hooked to the side walls of the Chapel using the same holes in the walls used for Michelangelo’s scaffolding.