For almost four years it was a common sight on Vatican Hill. Between eight and a dozen men at their various tasks: Mixing plaster, using pick-axes to give a ceiling the rough surface which helped plaster stick, applying plaster and painting it.
Does that sound like an ordinary construction job? It’s actually how one of history’s greatest artistic masterpieces was created—Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.
The famous story of that achievement is suitably classic. A still young Michelangelo has arguably surpassed all predecessors and contemporaries as a sculptor. But he remains largely inexperienced in fresco painting. He accepts the Sistine Chapel commission only because he has little alternative. The result stuns the world.
It was a feat which needs no embellishment. Only a handful of art’s greatest masters could have designed a work of such beauty. Perhaps another handful could have executed its most intricate parts with comparable success. Nevertheless, some accounts have Michelangelo doing the physically impossible—not “merely” the artistically brilliant.
According to these mythical stories, Michelangelo worked alone in the Sistine Chapel as though in a studio. But for one man to do all the job required in the time it took was beyond human ability. Written records confirm his use of assistants.
Total Team Effort
For fresco painting to be a team effort was actually standard practice. And it was more common among great masters than lesser artists. Great masters were in higher demand and commissioned for the largest projects.
Assistants were necessitated by the sheer volume of work. Raphael, Botticelli, Masaccio, Fra Angelico and numerous others depended on them. Had they not, they would have created far fewer masterpieces.
Help was not just used for the prosaic tasks. Less experienced or talented assistants indeed did no more than prepare plaster or paint. But those with more experience and talent did much of the painting, supervised by the master and in accordance with his detailed plans. Their brushes were typically responsible for a fresco’s less intricate parts. Those parts’ relative simplicity made differences between the work of masters and assistants negligible.
That the hand of a creative master couldn’t improve on that of a technically skilled assistant might seem odd. But it is easily explained by the difference between fresco and oil on canvas.
Artists working in oil paint on top of the canvas’s surface. This means additions can be made after earlier paint dries. It also means an artist can remove as much or as little paint as he wants.
Such a combination allows for experimentation with every brush stroke. That’s a job for a master’s creative mind. Multiple layers of paint allow for more intricate detailing, even in the most minor parts. That’s a job for a master’s hand.
Frescoists paint into wet plaster that is part of a wall or ceiling. Work must be completed while the plaster is wet. Two consequences follow:
First, experimentation during painting is impractical. Plaster dries too quickly for artists to rethink their plans while painting. Any change would require removing a section of plaster and repeating all the painting on it.
Second, images cannot have as much detailing for their size as those in oil. This means both less detailing and larger details. Larger details are easier to paint than smaller ones.
Such a combination limits the proportion of a fresco that can benefit from a master’s hand. It also makes strict adherence to a preexisting design essential.
It’s All in the Design
Creating that design is the part of a frescoist’s job that most resembles an oil painter at his canvas. It’s while making preparatory drawings that the frescoist has time and scope for experimentation. Once the drawings are finalized experimentation ended.
Those final drawings were the exact size of the planned fresco. Small holes were poked through them and they were held up to the surface to be painted. The figures in the fresco were then outlined by pushing charcoal dust through the holes. Assistants could then be trusted to do much of the painting.
What needed the master’s hand were major figures and more detailed parts of the background. Drawings for these could never be precise enough.
The master had to work from his mental conception. He had to perfectly transfer that conception into paint on the first try. And he had to do that on a tight timetable. Success was among painting’s greatest feats.
Honing the necessary talents was not, however, a matter of classroom practice. Renaissance apprentices worked as assistants to their masters. Employment as fully trained assistants followed. Talent then determined who remained in such roles, and who became masters themselves.
That team approach was central to the Renaissance’s accomplishments. Through it great masters increased their output. Lesser artists contributed to great works, rather than getting “leftover commissions” and painting inferior ones.
Geniuses were able to gradually build from formation in a great tradition to highly individual interpretations of it—a combination T.S. Eliot stressed is all but essential for superlative artistic achievement.