The Sistine Chapel was created 500 years ago by Michelangelo... or was it?

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It is one of the wonders of the world. It covers 550 sq m, took three years of back-breaking work to create, and has been marvelled at by millions. Now, a controversial study is throwing new light on the 'inspiration' behind Michelangelo's greatest masterpiece.


Before he dipped the brush in the paint and set to work on his God and Christ, his Adam and Mary and all the rest, how did Michelangelo prepare himself? We know that, unlike his peers and predecessors, he did not use cartoons to transfer existing designs directly on to the wet plaster, because there are no the telltale peg marks left in the plaster's surface. We know that in some cases he worked from small drawings because a grid can be discerned over the finished work, indicating that he upscaled from a smaller sketch.

But what the norm for his preparation was we simply don't know – because Michelangelo didn't want us to know. Throughout his life he hated showing drawings to outsiders. Vasari claimed that this was because they revealed the endless effort he expended in reaching the perfection at which he aimed. Though he was dependent, like all Renaissance artists, on the patronage of the powerful, even men like Cosimo I were unable to get him to part with a single drawing. Before moving from Rome to Florence in 1518, he burned all the drawings in his house in Rome. Another terrible bonfire took place, on his instructions, at his death. Even Michelangelo's closest friends possessed only a tiny number of drawings, all of them highly finished.

Yet despite this well-documented niggardliness, the world's great museums are awash in Michelangelo drawings: the consensus among Anglo-American and Italian scholars is that there are around 800 in existence, including those of the Risen Christ and the Labours of Hercules in the Royal Collection, and the artist's preliminary sketch for the Sistine Chapel's fresco of the Creation of Man, in the British Museum.

But if three eminent German scholars are to be believed, the methods by which Michelangelo prepared for the epic struggle of painting the 300 figures on the chapel ceiling remains a mystery, and the drawings that are said to explain it merely mystify it. In a beautiful and weighty new book, Michelangelo: Complete Works, they insist that only a small minority of the drawings currently attributed to the master are definitely by him....

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