London Art Reviews

Magazine of art press and reviews from London

The Sistine Chapel 500 year’s anniversary and the Raphael Cartoons in London.

The Sistine Chapel 500 year’s anniversary and the Raphael Cartoons in London.

Gregory Hilde Brand, 1st November 2012

Raphael Cartoons are on show at the V&A Museum in London

Sistine Chapel, The creation of Adam, particular, Michelangelo Buonarroti, courtesy Wikipedia

Wandering around Italy in these days, you can be overwhelmed by the news about the celebration for the 500 years of the inauguration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo.The very famous ceiling frescos, in fact, were unveiled the 31st October 1512. These images are in between the most famous in the world. Everyone has seen, at least once in his life, the image of the two fingers getting closer, a particular taken from “The creation of Adam”.

Italy is inundated with news of the Sistine Chapel celebration, also a way to enhance the low appreciation the Vatican faces in these days.

However, it is undoubtable the Sistine Chapel is a marvellous patrimony of the world, one of the primary functions of which is as a venue for the election of each successive pope in the Conclave of the College of Cardinals.

The 31st October 2012, Pope Benedict XVI presided at the celebration of Vespers in the Sistine Chapel, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the inauguration of the ceiling painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512.

Pope Julius II, who entrusted the decoration of the vault (1,100 square metres) to the sculptor of the Pieta, celebrated the completion of the work with the solemn rite of Vespers on All Saints’ Day, 31st October 1512.

The story of the Sistine Chapel starts in the XV Century. The return of the pontiffs in Rome, after the period in Avignon (France), marked a reconstruction time for the capital city of the Christianity, ruined and devastated by the civil wars.

Pope Sixtus VI worked on renovating Rome and culminated in the restoration of the Palatine Chapel of the Apostolic Palaces – aka the Vatican Palaces, residence of the Pope in Rome- that took its name of Sistine Chapel (Latin: Sacellum Sixtinum) from the pope’s name.

The architectonic project of the chapel was made by Baccio Pontelli. It has been built under the supervision of Giovannino de’ Dolci, between the 1477 and 1481, and consecrated in 1483.

The Sistine Chapel is a rectangular brick building, exteriorly unadorned. The internal measurements are 40.9 metres (134 ft) long by 13.4 metres (44 ft) wide—the dimensions of the Temple of Solomon, as given in the Old Testament. The vaulted ceiling rises to 20.7 metres (68 ft).

The interior presents a screen, or transenna, in marble by Mino da Fiesole, Andrea Bregno, and Giovanni Dalmata, who also provided the

Michelangelo Buonaroti, The last judgement, complete view, Vatican Gallery, Sistine Chapel, courtesy Wikipedia

cantoria, or projecting choir gallery.

The internal walls are divided into three main tiers. The lower is decorated with frescoed wall hangings in silver and gold. The central tier of the walls has two cycles of paintings, which complement each other.

The decoration was started by Perugino, and Piermatteo D’Amelia decorated the ceiling. In the meantime Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence, as a part of the reconciliation project between him and his enemies of the Pazzi Conspiracy (1478), offered his help for the decoration of the chapel, including sending to Rome artists who left Florence on 27th October 1480.

The group of Florentine was composed by Sandro Botticelli, Cosimo Rosselli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and their assistants Pinturicchio, Piero di Cosimo e Bartolomeo della Gatta. They joined Perugino, who was perhaps the superintendent of the whole decoration. They started to work in the Sistine Chapel in the spring of 1481. Later on, Luca Signorelli replaced Perugino.

In 1504, for soil problems the Sistine Chapel was damaged, and once restored the ceiling needed to be redecorated. Pope Julius II wanted to commission Michelangelo Buonarroti, who signed the contract in 1508.

The decoration was terminated the 31st October 2012. Michelangelo was helped by Bramante for the scaffolding. The frescoes were subject to fungus attack but an assistant of Michelangelo, Jacopo l’Indaco, created a special mix that remained in the Italian builder’s tradition.

Furthermore, Pope Clement VII commissioned to Michelangelo the decoration of the wall above the altar with The Last Judgement, 1537–1541. There was a strong dispute between Michelangelo and Cardinal Carafa, who accused the artist of immorality and obscenity because he painted naked people.

Therefore, after Michelangelo’s death Daniele da Volterra was hired to cover the genitals in Last Judgment with vestments and loincloths. This earned him the nickname “Il Braghettone” (“the breeches maker”). In 1994 restoration, they have been partially removed but only on 38 minor figures and causing many protests.

Raphael, Christ’s Charge to Peter, Cartoon, (1515) courtesy Wikipedia

And here is the connection with the UK – and this website. In 1515, Raphael was commissioned by Pope Leo X to design a series of ten tapestries to hang around the lower tier of the walls. The full-size preparatory cartoons for seven of the ten tapestries, known as the Raphael Cartoons, are on show at the V&A Museum in London. The fate of the other three cartoons is unknown.

Due to their large size, Raphael tapestries were woven in four years in the shop of Pieter van Aelst (Brussels). Their first delivery was in 1517, and seven were displayed in the Chapel for Christmas in 1519. Raphael’s tapestries were looted during the Sack of Rome in 1527 and were either burnt for their precious metal content or were scattered around Europe. In the late 20th century, a set was reassembled and displayed again in the Sistine Chapel in 1983, and used during occasional important ceremonies.

The seven Raphael Cartoons were bought from a Genoese collection in 1623 by Sir Francis Drake on behalf Charles I of England. He only paid £300 for them, probably they were considered as working designs rather than works of art. Charles I, in fact, made further tapestries from them at Mortlake but he was well aware of their artistic significance. They had been cut into long vertical strips a yard wide, as was required for use on low-warp tapestry looms, and were only permanently rejoined in the 1690s at Hampton Court. In Charles’ time they were stored in wooden boxes in the Banqueting House, Whitehall. They were one of the few items in the Royal Collection withheld from sale by Oliver Cromwell after Charles’ execution.

William III commissioned Sir Christopher Wren and William Talman to design the “Cartoon Gallery” at Hampton Court Palace in 1699, especially to contain them. In 1763, when George III moved them to the newly bought Buckingham House (now Buckingham Palace) there were protests in Parliament by John Wilkes and others, as they would no longer be accessible to the public (Hampton Court had long been open to visitors). In 1804 they were returned to Hampton Court, and in 1865 Queen Victoria decided that the cartoons should be exhibited on loan at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England, where they are still to be seen in a specially designed gallery.

The celebration of 500 years of Sistine Chapel marks that a piece of history is available to people, as every year 6 million of tourists visits the place.

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