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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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Art
5 Things You Might Not Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—who was born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs. But there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.

1. AN EARTHQUAKE LED TO HIS DISTINCTIVE NOSE.

Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.

2. HE ALMOST BECAME A PIANIST.

Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.

3. HE HELPED CREATE A NATIONAL PARK.

If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.

4. HE WELCOMED COMMERCIAL ASSIGNMENTS.

While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams's mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.

5. HE AND GEORGIA O'KEEFFE WERE FRIENDS.

Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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