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Sistine Chapel: history and art
The Sistine Chapel takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV Della Rovere. It was built between 1475 and 1481 by Giovannino de’ Dolci on a design by Baccio Pontelli. The chapel was inagureted on August 15, 1483 and it was dedicated to Saint Mary. The dimension of the chapel are the same of those of Jurusalem Temple. The building that would house the palace chapel also serve as a Vatican fortress.

The interior of the chapel has a single nave with a flattened barrel valut with spandrels and a lunette above each of the twelve arched windows. The floor is in opus Alessandrinum (multicolored marble, this particular kind of decoration was created by Cosmati family in the medieval period).

The chapel is divided into two parts by a marble balustrade created by Mino da Fiesole and Andrea Bregno, who were also, with Giovanni Dalmata, the designers of the Choir. The Sistine Chapel, the Chapel of the Chapels, was built as a private chapel for the popes and also for the most solemns ceremonies of the Holy See, it is also the site of the Conclaves.

When Pope Sixtus IV decided to create the Chapel he calls the greatest Tuscan and Umbrian artists of the period (Botticelli, Signorelli, Cosimo Rosselli, Ghirlandaio, Perugino and Pinturicchio). They decoreted the walls with frescos representing two great cycles from the Old and New Testament.

The scenes were placed in symbolic correspondence in a high band that ran just below the height of the windows along the walls. Below these, a stretch of simulated draperies framed a series of Della Rovere family emblem. The remainder was painted over in the 19th century. A series of portraits of the first thirthy popes was set high between the windows. Of this work, done between 1480 and 1483, only the part on the lateral walls was preserved.

The vault was blue and scattered with stars until Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to redecorete the vast surface. Michelangelo worked on the ceiling from 1508 to 1512. The original plan of Julius II was to paint the 12 Apostoles but later when he discovered that the work wasn’t good enough, he gave Michelangelo a free hand so the artist created an incredible masterpiece.

The Tuscan artist created a powerful architectural framework for the figures of the Sibyls and the Prophets, the Ignudi, the nine Stories from the Genesis.

In the spandrels and in the lunettes (the lower area of the ceiling) there are the "Ancestors of Christ" (except the corner spandrels which contain four "Miraculous Salvations of Israel"- Torture of Aman, the Bronze Serpent, Judth Cutting of the Head of Holofernes and the Slaying of Goliath). The gigantic figures around the vault. Alternating each other, are those of the Prophets and Sibyls that prophesied to the birth of Christ.

The nine episodes of the Genesis are represented on the ceiling and they are ideally divided in three groups relating to the Origins of the Universe, of Man, of Evil. In the first group there are the Division of the Light from the Darkness, Creation of the Sun and the Moon, Dividing the Waters from the Land and the Creation of the Animals,in these frescoes God is the solo protagonist. In the second group there the Creation of Man, the Creation of Woman, the Expulsion from Paradise; In the third group the Sacrifice of Noah, the Great Flood and the Drunkenness of Noah (it was the first fresco created by Michelangelo).

The famous Ignudi (nude youths), that Michelangelo painted at each corner of the central panels, are modelled on Classical sculpures and they represent a glorification of the human body.

The Tapestries

The Pope Leo X de’ Medici decided to create some tapestries for the Sistine Chapel. He commisssioded Raphael who drew the cartoon designs between 1515 and 1516 and sent them on to Brussels where they were woven with Scenes of the Lives of St. Peter and St. Paul. The whole series was completed by 1524 and hung that year immediately below the 15th century frescoes.

The Last Judgment

Twenty years after the completion of the ceiling, Michelangelo returned to work again in the Sistine Chapel. The Pope Clement VII called Michelangelo in 1534 to complete the decoration of the Chapel with the frescoe of the Last Judgement.. After the death of Clement VII his proedessor, Paul III Farnese took up his idea and the work began in 1535.

The Last Judgment was planned for the present altar wall as a perennial warning about the frailty of life and the universe. The official inauguration took place at Christmas, 1541.

The focal point of immense composition is Christ’s gesture of Judgment. To his right the elect float up to heaven; to his left the throng of the damned whirl in tumult, thrown down below where, with the boat ready, the inexorable Charon waits, In the righ corner there is a divinity of the infernal regions, Minos, to whom the artist, according Vasari, gave the features of Biagio da Cesena, the papal master of ceremonies who continually criticized Michelangelo harshly. In the lower part at the left is the resurrection of the Dead.

In the center there is a group of angels intent on blowing their trumpts. Around Christ there are the Madonna, St. John the Baptist, St. Andrew with his special cross, St Peter with the keys, and we see St. Laurence with the grill, and St. Bartholomew, who holds in his hand his own skin torn from, his body (On the skin Michelangelo has left his own self portrait like a sort of dark watermark). To the left of this group there are the Holy Women.

In the year of the Counter-Riformation Pope Paul IV (1555-1559) asked to Daniele da Volterra (that he was called "braghettone" - pants putter on) to cover up the most critical parts of the sacred nudes.


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