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Although “The Creation of Adam” is the most famous portion of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the entire work covers 12,000 square feet and took Michelangelo four years to complete.

Michelangelo the Poet

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni is one of the most celebrated artists of the Renaissance. A sculptor of remarkable works, he is also renowned as a painter and his works in the Sistine Chapel, especially its glorious ceiling, are among the most esteemed and recognizable in the world. An artistic genius in every sense of the word, Michelangelo did not consider himself a painter and his commission for the chapel made him very anxious. He considered painting the 12,000 square feet of the ceiling to be beyond his capabilities. Even five centuries later, the world has the evidence that he was wrong, but it nonetheless caused him considerable distress.

He famously worked 65 feet in the air on scaffolding that he designed himself. He did not, as is often described, paint exclusively while lying down on his back, although at times he did contort his body into various uncomfortable positions to gain the correct perspective. For much of the work, he painted in an awkward position while peering upward, with his arms elevated to reach the ceiling. After four years of toil, from 1508 to 1512, it had taken a physical toll on his body.

To relieve some of the emotional tension, Michelangelo took to poetry. He wrote an Italian sonnet in 1509 expressing his frustrations over tackling such a formidable project, while recognizing that he still had years of toil ahead of him. He sent the work to his friend, Giovanni da Pistoia. In the 20 lines of his poem, which do not rhyme as translated into English, we can sense his irritation with the working conditions, as well as his dry wit.

I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,

hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy

(or anywhere else where the stagnant water is poison).

My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s

pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,

my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,

above me all the time, dribbles paint

so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,

my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,

every gesture I make is blind and aimless.

My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s

all knotted from folding over itself.

I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.

Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts

are crazy, perfidious tripe:

anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.

My painting is dead.

Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.

I am not in the right place – I am not a painter.

Fortunately, Michelangelo persevered and his work in the Sistine Chapel has been a source of inspiration and awe for more than 500 years. It was an artistic feat that may never be duplicated and one well worth the sacrifice of his poor posterior.