Michelangelo was not, contrary to popular belief, an angry loner who spent countless hours lying flat on his back as he painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a Washington University art historian concludes.
In fact, the Italian Renaissance master did his work standing on innovative scaffolding, and he had help from as many as 13 assistants, says William E. Wallace, assistant professor of art history."One of the larger myths about him is that he was incapable of working with others," Wallace said Friday. "But the fact is that for very large projects it was necessary to work with assistants."
"I think of him as something of an entrepreneur . . . a fairly efficient businessman," Wallace said. "It's just another side of an artist who's constantly surprising us."
Depicting the biblical story of creation on the chapel's ceiling was not without discomfort, however. Michelangelo described his painting position - on his feet, head tilted back - to a friend in this way:
"My beard toward Heaven, I feel the back of my brain upon my neck."
Wallace spent last year in Italy on a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities researching Michelangelo and studying the ceiling, which is undergoing a major renovation. Workers are using a special, mild solvent to remove layers of dirt, candle smoke and even Greek wine, which was once used to brighten the colors.
"It's truly stunning," said Wallace, who climbed the scaffolding four times, as the restorers worked to bring out the work's true colors, for leisurely close-up looks.
"I think the thing that's most important is the coloration," he said. "Although it comes as a surprise to some people, it's really probably exactly as Michelangelo intended it."
Wallace said Michelangelo used vibrant colors so they could be seen from the floor, 65 feet below.
Now that he's back home, Wallace is working on a book about Michelangelo and the assistants he used on his major works.
In Italy, he spent hours compiling scattered information on the Sistine project, which took from 1508 to 1512, and came up with a list of 13 assistants who helped Michelangelo.
An architect friend helped design the overhead scaffolding and a carpenter named Piero Basso built it, Wallace said. Michelangelo also hired assistants to grind colors, mix paints, trim and clean brushes, and take care of other mundane tasks, and he recruited other artists and instructed them in the technique of fresco painting.
Some historians have believed Michelangelo had help in the project, but workers cleaning the ceiling in the 1930s were the first to notice the tell-tale details, Wallace said. He thinks his book will be the first to provide an overall picture of Michelangelo's assistants in the Sistine Chapel.
"Examination of the ceiling from the scaffold clearly reveals the presence of helping hands, especially painting in the architecture, decoration and many of the secondary figures," Wallace said.
"Much of the architecture, for example, was a reptititous task that required competence but no imagination, and the presence of more than one hand is particularly evident when viewed at close range," he said.
Wallace said the myths about Michelangelo painting alone will probably continue, however, because "they are fictions that attempt to grasp a superhuman achievement."