Michelangelo (1475-1564) was not only sensitive to criticism and bore some questionable quirks (as has been documented in these posts), but he revealed himself to have at least one thing in common with every person reading this: sometimes he got stuck with a job that he just didn’t want to do. In his case, that unwanted work was none other than the thing that is widely considered his greatest masterpiece: the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Visitors to the Vatican gaze in wonder at the great artist’s breathtaking fresco. What most do not realize is what a tedious task the artist found in the assignment. When most of us experience such moments, we might express our frustration to a friend. When a man like Michelangelo got annoyed at making art, he expressed himself in an artistic way.
Michelangelo put his thoughts on paper. In addition to being a gifted painter and sculptor, he was also a poet. His despair about the progress of his work at the Sistine Chapel took the form of a sonnet. His writing reveals his pain, feelings of inadequacy, impatience, and irritation with the work. He said that it shouldn’t be surprising that his ideas were so unusual, coming from that “crooked blowpipe” which he calls his body. He concludes the poem about one of the greatest artistic works in history, by lamenting, “I am not a painter.”
His poem was written in Italian. The following is the English translation.
Michelangelo: To Giovanni da Pistoia
“When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel”—1509
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.
Read more fun facts about art and artists.
Read more fun facts about poetry.