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15 Lofty Facts About the Sistine Chapel

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On August 15, 1483, Pope Sixtus IV consecrated the Sistine Chapel. The works of Michelangelo were years away—the artist was only eight years old at the time and had no idea what the building's future held for him (and vice versa). But even before he added his famous ceiling and frescoes, the Cappella Sistina served an important role within the Vatican (and it already had its fair share of fine art, too).

1. IT WAS BUILT FOR WORSHIP—AND DEFENSE.

Construction on the chapel began in 1475 (coincidentally, the year of Michelangelo's birth). It was intended to replace an assembly hall for select members of the clergy and local elites. The building was completed around 1481 and was designed to have sturdy, high walls to help defend against any potential attacks on the Vatican. Architect Baccio Pontelli designed the chapel—he is also known for another Roman Renaissance marvel, the Ponte Sisto bridge that spans the Tiber river.

2. IT MIGHT BE A RECREATION OF AN ANCIENT TEMPLE.

According to many scholars, the main hall’s dimensions were designed to match Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. According to the Bible (1 Kings 6), “The house that King Solomon built for the LORD was sixty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and thirty cubits high.” (A cubit back then was defined as the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger.) The dimensions of the main hall of the Sistine Chapel are approximately 132 feet long, 44 feet wide, and 68 feet high. But other scholars think that these proportions are too approximate for it to be a recreation, and instead think that these were just a common set of Renaissance building proportions.

3. IT'S STILL USED FOR ITS ORIGINAL PURPOSE.

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Named for Pope Sixtus IV, who consecrated the chapel and held its first mass on August 15, 1483, the Sistine Chapel was built to be the Pope’s personal chapel, and it serves that function to this day. It is also the site of the papal conclave, where the College of Cardinals meets to elect new popes.

4. MICHELANGELO ISN'T THE ONLY MASTER WHOSE WORK IS DISPLAYED.

Before the Sistine Chapel formally opened, the Pope commissioned artists like Sandro Botticelli, Cosimo Rosselli, and Pietro Perugino to cover the interior walls with frescoes. (This took place around 1481.) The hires, who were from other city-states like Florence, made quite an impact: they brought Renaissance art to Rome and helped usher in an artistic awakening in the papal capital.

Of those early works in the Sistine Chapel, the following remain (according to the Vatican Museums): “The false drapes, the Stories of Moses (south and entrance walls) and of Christ (north and entrance walls), and the portraits of the Popes (north and south and entrance walls).”

5. THE ORIGINAL CEILING WAS PRETTY PLAIN.

The chapel’s most famous artwork would not be created until a few decades after its opening. The original ceiling did not feature Michelangelo’s sprawling vision, but rather a blue sky painted with gold stars. This was the work of artist Piermatteo d'Amelia, and it would not last long.

6. THE WORLD HAS A CRACK TO THANK FOR MICHELANGELO'S MASTERPIECE.

In 1504, construction work near the chapel caused a crack to form in its ceiling. The damage was repaired, but the fix disrupted d'Amelia’s starry painting. The sitting pope at the time, Julius II (Sixtus IV's nephew), sought to commission a new artist to repaint the ceiling, and in 1508 he hired Michelangelo Buonarroti. Michelangelo was in the midst of sculpting Julius II’s tomb (a dramatically scaled down version of this project was finally finished in 1545) when he was called away to work on the Chapel.

7. MICHELANGELO DIDN'T THINK HE WAS A GOOD PAINTER WHEN HE WAS HIRED.

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Michelangelo considered himself to be a sculptor and nothing more. When the Pope commissioned him to work on the Sistine Chapel, the artist insisted he didn't have talent as a painter. According to art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon, author of Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo dreaded the project to the point of paranoia—he thought he was being set up by his enemies for failure and humiliation. He wanted nothing more than to stick to sculpting, but he was put in an awkward situation because he couldn’t turn down the Pope’s request.

Despite harboring extreme doubts about his own abilities, Michelangelo decided to exceed the plans he had been hired to take on. Originally, he was supposed to paint the 12 Apostles, each in a vaulted nook, but he convinced the Pope to let him contribute something much grander. He wound up painting the entire ceiling, which takes up around 12,000 square feet of space, and other segments of the Chapel’s walls.

8. MICHELANGELO WAS A NERVOUS WRECK.

Even after proposing his ambitious scheme, Michelangelo was still unsure he would be able to pull it off. This is evidenced by the section he began with: The Flood. According to Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King, he did this because that particular scene would be tucked away, some 15 feet to the west of the entrance and above a series of windows. “His lack of experience in fresco made him wary of starting with a more prominent scene,” King explains, “one more likely to strike the visitor’s eye as he or she entered or, more critically, that of the Pope as he occupied his throne in the sanctum sanctorum.”

9. HE DIDN'T PAINT LYING DOWN.

Michelangelo and his team designed a scaffold that allowed him to paint the ceiling while standing up, not lying on his back. According to King, this myth has its origins in a mistranslation from a 1527 biography of Michelangelo written by Paolo Giovio, the bishop of Nocera. He uses the word resupinus, meaning “bent backward,” though some interpreted it as “on his back.” The resulting misunderstanding led to many (incorrect) depictions of a supine Michelangelo hard at work, like Charlton Heston’s Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) or the animatronic Michelangelo in Epcot's Spaceship Earth ride.

10. THE PROJECT LEFT MICHELANGELO IN AGONY.

Even with his specially designed scaffolding, painting the ceiling was a miserable endeavor for Michelangelo. The project took four years to complete, and the long hours spent with his neck craned upwards took a toll on him both physically and emotionally. Still, he found time to write a hilarious poem about the ordeal, which he sent to his friend Giovanni da Pistoia. The following translation of "When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel” comes from American poet Gail Mazur (a translation favored by former American Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky):

I've already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water's 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.

11. THE PAINT WAS OVERTAKEN BY MOLD.

GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

In the midst of painting the fresco, around January of 1509, Michelangelo’s work “began to turn moldy, so that the figures could hardly be discerned,” according to biographer Ascanio Condivi, writing in 1553. The lime became too damp, perhaps because Michelangelo and his crew had applied plaster while it was still wet. This caused a kind of fungal growth, and much of the completed work was ruined.

Legend has it that Michelangelo went to the Pope and said, “I told Your Holiness that I was no painter. What I have done is ruined: if you do not believe it, send someone to see.” But the Pope told him to carry on, so Michelangelo had to scrape away all the affected work and start again from the beginning.

12. MICHELANGELO MADE IT UP AS HE WENT ALONG.

Despite the complicated nature of his plans—nine vivid scenes from the Book of Genesis, over 300 individual figures, and other ornate motifs—Michelangelo worked relatively on the fly. According to King, “His habit for the Sistine Chapel would be to produce sketches and cartoons only as he needed them—that is, only at the last possible minute. After making designs for and then frescoing one part of the ceiling, he would go back to the drawing board—quite literally—and begin making sketches and cartoons for the next.”

13. NOT EVERYONE KNEW GOD WAS SUPPOSED TO BE GOD.

For modern viewers, Michelangelo’s depiction of a bearded, floating God in the ceiling’s central work, The Creation of Adam, looks pretty canonical. But it was so unique and shockingly new at the time that some early appraisers had no clue who the figure was supposed to represent. A little over a decade after the ceiling's completion in 1512, Paolo Giovio, the bishop of Nocera, wrote, “Among the most important figures is that of an old man, in the middle of the ceiling, who is represented in the act of flying through the air.”

In earlier imagery, God was shown as staid, solemn, and stationary (if at all). This represented a stark break from tradition.

14. YOU AREN'T ALLOWED TO TAKE PHOTOS INSIDE THE CHAPEL.

More than 4 million people visit the Sistine Chapel each year. Despite the deluge of tourists, one decidedly anti-tourist rule is in effect: No photography is allowed in the main hall. As Rick Marshall explained for mental_floss, when Vatican officials wanted to restore Michelangelo’s works in the Chapel in 1980, “the price tag for such an endeavor prompted them to seek outside assistance to fund the project.” Nippon Television Network pledged the most money ($3 million) and was awarded with exclusive rights to photography and video for all the art. Though the exclusive contract has since expired, the Vatican keeps the no photography rule alive to this day.

15. MEXICO HAS A REMARKABLY ACCURATE RECREATION OF THE SISTINE CHAPEL.

YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images

If you do want to snap a few Instagrams of Michelangelo’s work, may we suggest Mexico? A Vatican-approved, full-size replica of the Sistine Chapel’s main hall was unveiled in Mexico earlier this year. (It started in Mexico City and will be touring the country over the next three years.) The Capilla Sixtina en México cost around $2.4 million to build, and the interior artworks were painstakingly recreated by copying over 2.6 million photographs. The process of taking those photos was staggering in its own right; it took 170 nights under strict supervision from the Vatican's museum director to snap all the needed images.

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Google Launches World's Largest Digital Collection of Frida Kahlo Artifacts
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Fans of iconic Mexican artist Frida Kahlo have a lot of new material to sift through, thanks to Google’s launch of the largest-ever digital exhibition of artworks and artifacts related to the painter. As reported by Forbes, the “Faces of Frida” retrospective and its 800-item collection were the result of a collaboration between the Google Arts & Culture platform and 33 museums around the world.

A screenshot of Google's digital archive of Frida Kahlo artworks
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Visitors to the website can peruse rare artworks from private collections that had never been digitized until now, including View of New York, a sketch Kahlo made in 1932 while staying at the former Barbizon-Plaza Hotel. There are also personal photographs of Kahlo, as well as letters and journal entries that she penned.

Using Street View, you can even see inside the “Blue House” where she lived in Mexico City. Another feature lets visitors zoom in on high-resolution paintings, which were created using Google’s Art Camera, according to designboom.

For Google executives, the decision to celebrate the life and work of Kahlo was a no-brainer. “Frida's name kept coming up as a top contender when we started to think of what artist would be the best to feature in a retrospective,” Jesús Garcia, Google's head of Hispanic communications, told Forbes. “There's so much of her that was not known and could still be explored from an artistic perspective and life experience.”

An original artwork by multimedia artist Alexa Meade was specially commissioned for “Faces of Frida.” Photographer Cristina Kahlo, Kahlo’s great-niece, aided in the process. Check out the video below to see how she brought Kahlo's artwork to life in a living, breathing painting.

[h/t Forbes]

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15 Secrets of Caricature Artists
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The word caricature likely conjures up images of street artists on boardwalks or outside museums working up quick, humorous sketches of visitors, to the delight or dismay of their subjects. But the exaggerated illustrations of caricature include a lot more than what you see on the boardwalk—and can be more art than kitsch. We spoke to three experts in the field about the subjects caricature artists love and hate to depict, the best way to make their job harder, what they do if you don't like their drawing, and how they can tell when you really don't want to sit for a portrait.

1. THEY WANT YOU TO KNOW IT'S OLDER THAN YOU THINK.

Caricatures by Leonardo da Vinci
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Some of the greatest artists in history practiced caricature as a means to develop their skills. Eileen Owens, curator of "Biting Wit and Brazen Folly: British Satirical Prints, 1780s–1830s" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, says Leonardo da Vinci was one of the first artists to use caricature, in the “grotesque” sketches of unusual faces and heads that populated his notebooks. (His 16th-century biographer, Giorgio Vasari, wrote that Leonardo was “so delighted when he saw curious heads, whether bearded or hairy, that he would follow anyone who had thus attracted his attention for a whole day.”) Many other well-established Renaissance artists dabbled in caricature on the side, as breaks from their rigorous training: "It was a lot more huge noses, big hair, ways to poke fun at faces. You had to be adept at drawing to know how to exaggerate," Owens says.

The form gained momentum in late-17th century Italy, when Pier Leone Ghezzi “started making funny little drawings that poked fun at well-to-do Romans and tourists,” according to Owens. From there, it spread to Britain, where it became so popular that publishing companies sprung up for the sole purpose of printing caricatures. Publishers also rented out portfolios of caricatures by the day, and hung prints in their windows, to which crowds flocked to see the latest depictions of a buffoonish Napoleon and laughable upper-crust fashions. Owens says, “This was your chance to keep up with the gossip—kind of like People magazine today.”

2. MANY OF THEM ARE SELF-TAUGHT.

A street artist paints a caricature of a girl in Prague
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Lots of caricature artists learn on the job, in part because there's not a ton of specific training available. Illustrator Tom Richmond, who spoofs movies for MAD Magazine (among other gigs), says, "Only a handful of art schools teach cartooning or caricature as a major part of curriculum, so it's hard to find instruction on how to do it. Caricature is such a specialized sort of thing, and diverse; you can’t teach it like you teach people how to draw comics, where [there's] storytelling technique and sequential art tricks and a science behind it, so to speak." Overall, what Richmond and others strive for is to “translate [your] art skill [into caricature], really lean into it—no matter how you practice.”

3. IT CAN BE GREAT TRAINING FOR OTHER ART FORMS.

Richmond says that when he teaches at workshops around the country, he always recommends—no matter what facet of the industry they are interested in—that students try their hand at live drawing, "maybe even volunteer at the local homecoming or draw for free at a daycare center." Having to work quickly with a model in front of you develops a sensitivity to gesture, to how the body leans and how weight is distributed, that's different from the skills you get "shading something for hours," Richmond explains. When you "go back to doing longer pieces, you've got an inner eye that sees things you missed before. It's great discipline for the developing eye."

4. THEY’RE NOT (NECESSARILY) OUT TO MOCK YOU.

Caricatures have been defined as "portrait[s] with the volume turned up." But that doesn't mean they have to be mean-spirited. Richmond says, “Caricature is a depiction of someone in a humorous way, but at its best it has a narrative behind it—you’re pointing out something about their presence, not just making fun of their features.” He explains that he’s not examining someone’s face to find a nose or a chin or dimples to blow out of proportion, but "trying to understand who you are as a person and exaggerate that.”

"I want to make [clients] smile or laugh," says CeCe Holt, who sketches at events and amusement parks, and is also business manager for the non-profit International Society of Caricature Artists (ISCA). "I never want to make anybody cry."

5. THEY DON’T SWEAT IT WHEN SOMEONE DOESN’T LIKE THEIR LIKENESS …

Just because caricaturists strive to capture your essence doesn't mean you're going to like it. People can be in denial about their appearance, with a radically different idea of their weight, for instance, or even whether they have freckles. In Holt’s experience, party guests usually don’t make a fuss about their caricatures, since they haven’t directly paid for them. But when the occasional amusement park patron kicks up a fuss, “I just say I’m sorry and move on to the next person.”

Richmond is similarly blasé, pointing out that when a caricaturist is drawing a quick sketch for $15, the occasional bad portrait is bound to sneak in. "Sometimes they refuse to pay, or come back later and want their money back. Live caricature can be hair-raising, which is why I prefer working with art directors."

6. … BUT SOMETIMES CUSTOMERS RETALIATE.

Christopher Walken's caricature in the foreground at Sardi's following its unveiling in 2010.
Christopher Walken's caricature in the foreground at Sardi's following its unveiling in 2010.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Occasionally, customers do try to turn the tables. Ipecacxink, a caricature artist at a Midwest theme park, writes in a Reddit AMA about a boy she accidentally made very upset with her drawing. "I went to lunch right after I did it. Apparently while I was gone, he came back and drew a circle with spikey hair, glasses, and frowny eyebrows and a note that said, 'How do you like someone making fun of you?!' under it. He then placed it on my chair. It was hilarious. I saved it."

At Sardi's—the Times Square tourist destination known for its wall of caricatures—some of the celebrities depicted have gotten mad enough to take down their pictures, the restaurant's owner told AMNew York. It used to be that the in-house caricaturist (who's paid in meals instead of money) would hand over unfinished versions to the subjects first, to get the seal of approval, before going on to later exaggerate their features. That's stopped, but these days the caricatures have become less humorous, and more like regular portraits—which helps keep the peace between the restaurant and its famous clientele.

7. THEY CAN DO PORTRAITS IN AS LITTLE AS THREE MINUTES.

When she’s sketching guests at amusement parks like Worlds of Fun in Kansas City, Missouri, Holt aims to churn out a black-and-white portrait in three minutes. Working at a wedding reception, where she might add color, six minutes is the max. Much of this has to do with fitting in as many guests as possible—“You have to be fast to get through the crowd or they’ll leave,” she says.

For Holt, the need for speed means she has to “go with her instincts; there isn’t time to second-guess” a depiction. For Richmond, working quickly means caricaturists develop a "sixth sense" for how to capture expressions: “You develop an instinct for people, whether they’re energetic and outgoing, or more quiet." Some of that means honing in on their signature details: "Friends behind will be going, 'It’s the smile! That's exactly how he looks!'" Richmond says.

8. BORING-LOOKING CUSTOMERS ARE THE HARDEST.

Man's hands with pencils drawing a woman's portrait
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The caricaturist's worst fear is the customer who comes in looking exactly like the girl (or guy) next door. "Most people are surprised to hear that what I consider to be the most difficult sort of person to draw is one that is completely average looking," caricaturist GertrudisSlugworth, who works at a theme park, wrote on Reddit."I will get a bland looking individual every once in a while, and when it happens I usually try to focus more on things like clothes, hair, or jewelry to get a decent likeness."

On the other hand, people who are naturally distinctive-looking are often artist favorites. Richmond says he particularly loves drawing Slash, the guitarist from Guns N’ Roses. “He’s already funny looking, with no features, just glasses, hair, and a big top hat, so you don’t have to work that hard,” he says. “You can just do him standing there with his guitar by his ankles, like he plays it, or exaggerate how he puts his head back, which shows a lot about him as a player.”

9. THEY MAY CHANGE THEIR TECHNIQUE TO SUIT THE WAY YOU LOOK.

When she first started in the business, Holt says she dreaded drawing people who weren’t thin; she was afraid they might take offense at her portraits, although she didn’t intend any. Over the years she’s honed a technique in which she draws faces using a soft line that thickens toward the bottom. The result is “Cute, but they still feel like it looks like them,” Holt says.

GertrudisSlugworth writes that for people with obvious deformities, she may forego exaggerations, even though those are normally the hallmarks of caricature: "I find the best way to handle it is to go more realistic than exaggerated, depending on their attitude. Sometimes if it's an easy fix (e.g missing an eye), the customer will just ask to be drawn as 'normal.' For the most part though, people recognize any obvious deformities they have, and accept your portrayal of them."

10. STREET ARTISTS HAVE AN ADVANTAGE.

Tourists look at caricaturists in Rome
PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/Getty Images

Richmond says that artists "sitting in front of a museum while the subject is in front of them have more of an advantage" than he does when it comes to creating an expressive caricature, since he often has to work from photos, which don't show gesture and personality in the same way. "When I'm working from 2D photos, all you’ve got is what the photo shows you, and it's basically superficial. It doesn’t really do it."

Holt agrees: "Working from a picture is different from getting your first instincts from a person." When a freelance client wants her to draw someone from photos, she says she'll at least ask for multiple photos to work from, especially body shots, which help to show posture—yet another indicator of the subject's personality.

11. THEY'RE INCREASINGLY IN DEMAND.

Richmond says that although staff cartoonists may be disappearing at newspapers as that industry shrinks, editorial cartooning—which often relies on caricature—“is experiencing a boom right now." Some of this is thanks to the heated political climate, he notes. But there's a deeper reason, too: "Most media stories, TV shows, or articles are, at bottom, about people and need images of people to illustrate [them]," Richmond says. "Caricature is one thing you can’t do with a camera, so when you need a humorous touch, caricature is a great solution."

12. THERE'S A CARICATURIST CONVENTION.

The ISCA hosts an annual convention each November that draws hundreds of caricaturists from around the world. Aside from a week of guest speakers, seminars, and demonstrations, the main attraction is a days-long competition in which the artists draw each other for prizes in categories like best color technique and most humorous. (The big award there is called the Golden Nosey.) Richmond says, “The variety of styles [there] is crazy: acrylic painting, pastels, airbrush, sculpture, and everything in between.” Holt says there's even an artist who spits ink out of his mouth.

13. THEY MIGHT HIDE THINGS IN THEIR PORTRAITS.

Artwork by Al Hirschfeld on display at The New York Botanical Garden in 2011
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Richmond says that a favorite stylist of his is the late Al Hirschfeld, who for decades hid his daughter’s name, Nina, in his cartoons of cultural icons for The New York Times. (Hirschfeld would append the number of Ninas to his signature, creating a kind of game for readers). Ipecacxink says she "used to draw a picture of my face in [subject's] pupils sometimes. Really tiny. Or, I used to draw a little radioactive symbol somewhere in the drawing. We had to wear these god-awful neon yellow shirts to work, and I always felt we were radioactive."

14. THEY CAN TELL WHEN YOU DON'T WANT A DRAWING.

Occasionally, parents, friends, or partners will purchase a drawing for someone who just isn't interested. In that case, the caricaturist can probably pick up on it: "They either wouldn't look at you, wouldn't smile, or just sit down funny," ipecacxink writes. "I tried to handle it professionally. I would talk, if they wouldn't talk, I'd be quiet, but smile like an idiot when it was all said and done ... I always tried to be friendly to lessen the likelihood of them leaving without paying."

15. THEY MIGHT BE SWAPPING THEIR PENCILS FOR A TABLET.

Some contemporary caricaturists paint portraits, like Owens’s traditional satirical masters once did. They may also be adept with other analog media, like bullet-tip markers, color sticks (basically colored pencils with no wood casings), pen and brush, and paper. But thanks to the changing needs of publications in an online age, which want all files submitted electronically, caricature artists working in their studios have also gone digital. Holt sometimes works on an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil in Procreate. Richmond now does all his coloring on a computer or a tablet. “[A tablet’s] so convenient, because it’s like having unlimited amounts of paper, and your pencil never needs to be sharpened, and all your tools fit in a tiny bag,” he says. “But it’s still about the creativity behind it. Computers can’t do it all on their own.”

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