Sunday, January 1, 2017

Michelangelo, Moses, Julius II

Today's photos:

1. An overall view of the tomb of Julius II

2-5. Various views of the statue of Moses

6. The reclining statue of Julius II

In Chapter 29 of my book, The Sights of Rome, I wrote about one of Michelangelo's

greatest masterpieces: the statue of Moses in the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains. This is a follow-up to that chapter, providing further information about this great work of art. But as the title of this post indicates, we will also present some interesting details about the Pope who commissioned the tomb from Michelangelo, especially as regards his death and burial.

The sculpture of Moses is the centerpiece of what was intended to be the tomb of Pope Julius II Della Rovere (1503-1513). Michelangelo's first sketches for the tomb included, somewhat unrealistically, forty statues, most of them life-size or larger. It was intended to be free standing, so that it could be admired from all four sides, in the center of the new St. Peter's Basilica. However, not only was the tomb never finished as Michelangelo had designed it, but the body of Julius was never laid to rest in it.

A curiosity

If his body is not in the tomb in St. Peter in Chains, then where is it? Incredibly, according to R.A. Scotti in his book, Basilica, the body of the great warrior Pope was unceremoniously ". . . stuffed into the same space with his uncle, Sixtus IV." A different source, Ross King's Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling, states that Julius was buried ". . . beside the grave of Sixtus IV in a temporary tomb."

The monument/tomb of Sixtus IV can be seen in St. Peter's Basilica in a space called the Treasury, a museum which contains many items remaining from the fourth century basilica built by Constantine. There is, however, no marker indicating that Julius II is buried here.

The statue of Moses is one of the top three masterpieces of Michelangelo. The other two are the Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica and the David in Florence, both of which were sculpted while Michelangelo was still in his 20's. It is difficult to determine the exact date when the Moses was finished, but because the artist worked on the tomb for 40 years beginning in 1505, most sources list the completion date as 1545.

A curiosity

Almost all paintings and statues of Moses show what appear to be two horns jutting out from his head. This strange sight is due to a mistaken translation of a Hebrew word in Exodus: 34.29-35. The Hebrew text uses the verb qaràn (emanates rays of light), which is very similar to another Hebrew word, qeren (horn). The error seems to have been made first in the second century B.C. when the bible was translated into Greek. Centuries later St. Jerome continued the error, using in his Latin translation the word cornuta (horned) and rendering the passage into Latin as: Ignorabat quod cornuta esset facies sua (he did not know that his face was horned). Most modern English versions render this passage as: He did not know that his face was radiant with light.

In the years 2001-2003, the tomb of Julius II underwent an extensive cleaning and restoration carried out by the renowned archaeologist Antonio Forcellino. Some 15 years later Forcellino returned to the tomb which by then had acquired a thin layer of dust and grime, hiding in part the natural white brightness of the marble. This second cleaning lasted four months and the sculpture was just unveiled in early December of 2016, revealing the original marble in all its brilliance.

A curiosity

We can be sure that only the finest marble available was used to create the tomb because Michelangelo himself traveled to Carrara where he remained for eight months, choosing personally the marble he wanted. He even worked with the stone cutters to cut the marble out of the mountain and he supervised its packing and transfer to Rome.

According to Forcellino, the layer of dust and grime which made this second cleaning of the monument necessary was caused by the presence of the many visitors who come to this church to admire the mighty statue of Moses. In fact, an estimated 3,000 people every day crowd in front of the monument, almost all of them snapping photos of it. (You can avoid the big crowds by going to the church at 8:30 a.m. on a cold winter morning as I did recently. You will have Moses all to yourself!).

During the cleaning Forcellino discovered a detail which had not been noticed during the previous restoration. He found that the surface of the marble had been worked by Michelangelo in different ways, making some parts of the sculpture more glossy than others in order to re-create the natural effect of the light hitting the marble from different angles. After 500 years the genius of Michelangelo in his attention to details continues to amaze us!

A curiosity

Everyone who has seen the statue of Moses has been awestruck by its strength and beauty. But it seems that even Michelangelo himself was spellbound by his creation. The story is told that when he finally finished the sculpture he struck the knee of Moses with his mallet and exclaimed: "Ma perché non parli?" (But why don't you speak?).

One final note about the death and mysterious burial of Julius II. The pontiff expressed a last wish, on his deathbed, that he be buried in the Sistine Chapel in the tomb sculpted by Michelangelo and beneath the artist's ceiling fresco commissioned by him. This wish was never honored, and the empty tomb was moved to St. Peter in Chains where it remains to this day.


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