I spent a large portion of my teenage life aspiring to be an artist, and I surrounded myself with art books. Hell, my screen name (which I’ve used since the mid-90s) comes from a French Neoclassical artist. For all that, however, I mostly only read the books for the pictures – not the text. So while I’ve memorized every line in some of Ingres’ sketches, or Michelangelo’s sculptures, I can give only quick outlines of Leonardo, or Michaelangelo, or Delacroix, or any number of other artist.
I realize, now, that I must’ve absorbed more information than I realized, because reading this book felt more like reconnected with an old friend.
We all know the Sistine Chapel. The lunettes, pendetives, and spandrels accentuating Biblical scenes spanning the breadth and scope of the Old Testament has for centuries been hailed as one of the greatest works of art in the world. Johann Wolfgang Goethe famously said, “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.” Its magnificence is overshadowed only by its ubiquity. Its moved beyond magisterial beauty into cartoonish familiarity. We’re lavished on the regular with sights and sounds that would stupefy our ancestors, and we don’t even have to leave our couch to see them. We are surrounded by every color imaginable, and on a daily basis. It’s impossible to put ourselves in a place where this:
– is not only novel, but impossible to fathom.
Ross King does an admirable job of putting your in that place, however. That’s not small feat.
But he doesn’t stop there. King dispels a number of myths (no, Michelangelo didn’t paint the ceiling while lying on his back. And, contrary to what Goethe thought, Michaelangelo didn’t paint the whole thing himself), and spends a great deal of time setting up the historical era in which these frescoes were made.
This was a marvelous book, and it can be an unexpected delight to approach the familiar and come away with a great appreciation for it’s novelty and brilliance. That doesn’t happen nearly often enough, I think.
Not previously reviewed for Cannonball Read.