The Vatican dinosaur

Ceiling of Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel – the ceiling and the Last Judgement – are amazing works of art, designed to cause awe and rightfully considered as some of the jewels of human ingenuity. These paintings have been hailed as revolutionary on a technical and aesthetic point of view. However despite all their amazing qualities these amazing pieces are also oversized anachronisms, almost the last of their kind. Not too dissimilar from the last great dinosaurs.

The Sistine Chapel frescoes followed rules that had been put in place around 1300 or even earlier and were about to disappear in the early 1500s. The painters of the early Renaissance were producing few very expensive pieces. These paintings were very costly because they tended to be very large, enriched with gold leafs and the famous ultramarine blue and one-of-a-kind commissions. Moreover supply was very limited since most of the paintings were bought by religious institutions that neither died nor got bankrupted.

As a result there was no secondary art market to speak of: if one wanted a painting he had to commission a new one. Sixteenth-century painters tended to produce smaller, easier to transport pieces that could be easily sold and later re-sold. They abandoned gradually religious art to concentrate on subjects any one could buy. These changes accompanied the rise of “speculative” art, produced for the anonymous market, as opposed to the works commissioned by a specific client.

Michelangelo was one of the very last one to follow the old model and not apply any labour saving techniques. He painted the frescoes almost alone even though since the 1300s Italian artists had relied heavily on their assistants and even sometimes subcontracted a whole commission to another painter.

Others, like Neri di Bicci, made an extensive use of cut-outs to help them draw faster the most common shapes in their work. Rembrandt or Velazquez used a rough-brush technique allowing them to save a lot of time. On the other hand, in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo painstakingly drew by hand numerous details often so minute that they can hardly be seen from the floor.

A painting requires a large amount of preparation, an artist has to work on the layout of the piece, find models and often train himself to draw a rare detail he was not accustomed to before. This may require a significant amount of labour and thus increase noticeably the price of the piece. To diminish that cost, painters often re-used details and techniques they developed for earlier paintings. Lucas Cranach the Elder for instance introduced the same red dress in more than twenty of his works. Jan van Scorel often had his assistants copy his original creation, thus slashing fixed costs.

Golden Age Dutch painters went even further; they specialized in a given kind of paintings (landscapes, battle scenes, portraits, etc.) allowing them to increase significantly their output by reaching a level of standardization. Michelangelo, on the other hand, was not even a specialized painter, he actually saw himself more like a sculptor, but he also acted as an architect, a costume-designer, etc. He could only reuse a very small quantity of what he had created for the Chapel.

Here is I believe one of the great paradoxes of art history: one of the most revolutionary painting ever made arose from an antiquated – even backwardish – business model.

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