“What kind of fresco would Your Holiness like?” Michelangelo asked Pope Julius after he had agreed to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
“Paint me the Twelve Apostles.”
Michelangelo made a face. “That is going to be kind of poor, Holiness — just those Twelve, however illustrious they were. I think we could do something richer.”
“Oh, go ahead and do whatever you think fit,” said the Pope. “You’re the artist.”
And so Michelangelo went home and began to draw. What was his idea? How was a sculptor going to fill the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, all ten thousand square feet of it?
With statues. He would paint statues, hundreds of them. He always had a thousand ideas for statues: he would draw each of the figures as if it were a statue. He could use the same resources as in sculpture to highlight this or that feature, to vary a shape. He would clothe each with drapery or invented clothing as it is used in sculpture. The drawn statues could feature the good old props and conventions sculptors had always made use of: books, a tree-trunk, a pillar to lean on. But they would bend and gesticulate and fly through the air too – something they couldn’t do in marble. The sum total of all of them would be his picture, his fresco.
What was not a painted statue in those frescoes would be the Renaissance’s preference in general and Michelangelo’s love in particular for classical architectural motifs, simulated marble moldings and pilasters, medallions, pedestals that looked like old Roman gravestones, and so on. He preferred those rather cold, rational, lines to the confusion of nature’s unreason. Given the choice of a green plant or a stiff marble pedestal, he chose the pedestal. He needed the frame of a rationalized world. He never thought much of vegetation as decoration, the way Gothic artists had. All his trees are pruned trunks. What he loved was a geometrical shape, not a crooked line or an untrimmed growth.
So he alternated great art with plain decoration – and not very plain either: ornate decoration. Too ornate?