Pope Julius II recruited Michelangelo to design his tomb at St. Peter’s Basilica in 1505, but the work would go on for almost 30 years. Although the structure was supposed to include dozens of statues by the artist and more than 90 wagonloads of marble, after Julius’ death, Pope Leo X—who hailed from a rival family—kept Michelangelo busy with other plans. Only three statues were included in the final product, which was reassigned to the more modest church of San Pietro in Vincoli. Among them, the artist’s rendering of Moses is the clear scene-stealer. With his penchant for drama, Michelangelo referred to San Pietro as, “the tragedy at the tomb,” since he had “lost his youth” in the creation of it.
Sistine Chapel, the Vatican
Michelangelo considered himself to be foremost a sculptor, not a painter, and when Julius II asked him to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in May of 1508—tearing him away from his work at the pope’s tomb—the artist was less than pleased. A mildew infestation threatened a portion of the work, and Michelangelo pressed his advantage, telling Julius, “I already told your holiness that painting is not my trade; what I have done is spoiled; if you do not believe it, send and see.” The issue was eventually resolved; Michelangelo set back to work on the 343 human figures and nine stories from the Book of Genesis that the 12,000-square-foot masterpiece would eventually comprise.
Michelangelo often locked horns with the Pope about money and sometimes referred to him as “my Medusa,” while Julius, on at least one occasion, allegedly threatened to beat or throw the artist from the scaffolding of the Sistine Chapel if he did not finish his work more quickly. This abuse aside, the painting eventually took its toll on the artist, who suffered a leg injury when he fell from the scaffolding and partial blindness—a result of staring upwards at the ceiling for so long—which forced him to read letters by raising his arms above his head. In 1536, Michelangelo was summoned back to the chapel to paint The Last Judgment above the altar, this time for Pope Paul III.
Piazza del Campidoglio
Campidoglio, or Capitoline Hill, is one of the seven hills Rome was founded upon and has been central to the city’s government for more than 2,000 years. In 1538, when Michelangelo was asked to put a new face on the ancient site, the task was great: it had been used as headquarters for the Roman guilds during the Middle Ages, and required a major overhaul. The artist set to work on the main square, reshaping it as an oval to create symmetry; adding a third structure, the Palazzo Nuovo; and re-sculpting the base of the 2nd century A.D. statue of Marcus Aurelius (which has since been moved to the Capitoline Museums, nearby). Although the piazza wasn’t finished at the time of Michelangelo’s death, it was completed in various stages during the next 100 years using the artist’s designs. In 1940, Benito Mussolini installed the final element, Michelangelo’s brilliant starburst pattern in the pavement.
As a humanist, Michelangelo believed in the preservation of Rome’s ancient ruins. It was a task he took to heart in 1561, when the artist was hired to convert Diocletian’s massive bath hall, erected in 300 A.D., into a church named for the Virgin Mary. Ironically, the facility’s new destiny was at odds with its original means of construction, which is said to have required the forced labor (and frequent deaths) of 40,000 Christian slaves. The artist’s mission centered on the bath hall’s central corridor, the Terme di Diocleziano, with its eight red granite columns that still remain today. Although Michelangelo died before the church was finished, his pupil, Jacopo Lo Duca, saw the project through to completion.