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The Sistine Chapel

Created by Pope Sixtus IV between 1473 and 1481, the Sistine Chapel is most famous for a later addition - the frescoed ceiling commissioned by Julius II from a rather unwilling Michelangelo in 1508. But this enormous barn-like chapel has much more to see besides.

This was to be the pontiff's own private chapel, a rectangular sanctum some 41 metres in length by 13 metres wide. 20 metres high, the chapel is summounted by a flattened barrel vault, with smaller side vaults over six centred windows. The floor or pavement is in Opus Alexandrium, a mosaic made from tiny, geometrically shaped pieces of glass paste and coloured stone, arranged in complex geometric patterns.

The chapel built, Sixtus did what popes always did, and called in the finest artists of the day to decorate his new shrine (as well as the temporal pleasure each addition to the Vatican would bring the current pope, it would stand as a monument to his papacy). And what artists there were. Pinturicchio was in charge of the project which decorated the walls with frescoed scenes from the lives of Moses and Christ. Perugino created the cityscape of Jesus giving St Peter the Keys to Heaven. Botticelli painted The Trials of Moses and Cleansing of the Leper. Ghairlandaio painted the Calling of St Peter and St Andrew. The work was completed in a mere 11 months, and by 1483 the chapel was ready to celebrate its first Mass.

These are superb works by the masters of European art, which anywhere else would pull in the crowds. However, in the Sistine Chapel, the visitors are inevitably looking upward. Sixtus hadn't ignored his ceiling, it originally sported a very pretty skyscape of golden stars on blue, but the new Pope - Julius II - had grander ideas. He pulled Michelangelo Buonarotti off another job, that of sculpting Julius's tomb. The artist was angry, and in any case believed himself more sculptor than painter, but had little choice to agree. Four years of backbreaking labour, eight hours a day at the top of a scaffold of his own design was to follow. Michelangelo had to race to get his work onto the Intonaco plaster before it dried, sealing the fresco. Julius had employed the master to paint just the 12 Apostles, but by the time he had finished there were 300 or more. His style had developed and loosened over the years, as he mastered the art of fresco painting - visitors can chart his progress as a painter.

Four years, a bad back and a worse temper later (there were constant fights with Julius, and Buonarotti would sometimes lock the doors of the chapel to keep his patron out) the job was done, though the artist would be brought back 20 years later by Paul III to add some finishing touches. And what we have is a masterpiece, perhaps the greatest example of representational art anywhere, certainly the largest contiguous body by one painter. We have the Creation of Light, the Drunkenness of Noah, the Creation of Adam and The Last Judgement - a breathtaking visual journey through the Old Testament. Not everyone approved. The open display of genitalia on the figures appalled many, with the Pope's master of ceremonies, Biagio de Cesena deeming the pictures more suited 'for the public baths and taverns'. Michelangelo responded by incorporating Biagio into one scene as Minos, gatekeeper to Hell, complete with ass's ears.

So, an enormous amount to see, but do take the time to lower your gaze and look at some of the 'lesser' masterpieces in the Sistine Chapel too.

Tickitaly are official agents for the Vatican and offer individual ticket booking as well as both group and private tours - click here for information on arranging a private tour for you and your party, and click here for information on joining a group tour of the Vatican.


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