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Michelangelo – Painting the Sistine Chapel

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michelangelo-deluge
michelangelo

In this hard toil I’ve such a goiter grown,
Like cats that water drink in Lombardy,
(Or wheresoever else the place may be)
That chin and belly meet perforce in one.
My beard doth point to heaven, my scalp its place
Upon my shoulder finds; my chest, you’ll say,
A harpy’s is, my paintbrush all the day
Doth drop a rich mosaic on my face.
My loins have entered my paunch within,
My nether end my balance doth supply,
My feet unseen move to and fro in vain.
In front to utmost length is stretched my skin
And wrinkled up in folds behind, while I
Am bent as bowmen bend a bow in Spain.
No longer true or sane,
The judgment now doth from the mind proceed,
For ’tis ill shooting through a twisted reed.
Then thou, my picture dead,
Defend it, Giovan, and my honour–why?
The place is wrong, and no painter I.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Sonnet V (to Giovanni da Pistoia)(ca. 1509), transl. S. Elizabeth Hall, The Sonnets of Michelangelo Buonarroti, p. 89 (1903).


The final lines of this sonnet may refer to a famous incident, recorded by Michelangelo’s biographer, Ascanio Condivi:

Meanwhile difficulties were not wanting, inasmuch as, when [Michelangelo] had begun the work, and had painted the picture of the Deluge, the painting began to turn mouldy, so that the figures could hardly be discerned. So Michelangelo, thinking that this excuse would suffice to relieve him of the task, went to the Pope and said : “I told Your Holiness that I was no painter. What I have done is ruined: if you do not believe it, send some one to see.” The Pope sent San Gallo, and he, examining it, perceived that the lime had been made too watery, and that the moisture oozing through had produced this effect: and having informed Michelangelo of the reason, he directed him to continue the work; nor was excuse of any avail.

(Ascanio Condivi, Vita di Michelangelo Buonarroti cap xxxvi (1553).)

Listen to a performance by Jonas Kaufmann of Michelangelo’s Sonnet LV from Benjamin Britten’s Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo for tenor and piano, op. 22 (1940):

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