A Love Called Sistine

What is it like to visit an art treasure like the Sistine Chapel? An account by Riccardo Tomasello that evokes all the emotions of a visit to the Sistine Chapel.

We very gladly receive and publish this story, which came to us from one of our fans, Riccardo Tomasello, from Catania, Italy: a beautiful narrative about what one can experience when admiring one of the world’s greatest masterpieces of art history, in this case the Sistine Chapel. We thank Riccardo for this fine narrative and hope you enjoy it. Happy reading!

Michelangelo, la volta della Cappella Sistina
Michelangelo, The Vault of the Sistine Chapel, 1508-1512 (detail)

In my heart there is no desire to write a book about the monumental artistic and pictorial work that is the Sistine Chapel. Indeed, I would rightly be accused of insolence and arrogance toward those who have more expertise, professionalism and scholarly experience to tackle such a relevant yet complex task.

Mine is only the sincere limpeto of a heart in love that, without the restraints of reason, recounts its feeling for the beloved, but also for the sublime and incomparable Sistine, yours truly. It is the passionate recounting of the strong emotions, the vivid sensations that run through the depths of my interiority, every time I prepare to experience a visit to the Vatican Museums. My heart beats faster when, having descended that steep and final flight of steps, I cross the Holy threshold that opens my gaze to the magnificence of the Magna Chapel.

I have visited it numerous times, but I always experience the same emotions as if it were the first, the heart-pounding descent, the uncontainable awe of its vision. A succession of thoughts that gradually give way to careful contemplation: to meditation on the highest religious and artistic significance that Michelangelo’s work has bestowed on the universal art.

Lammirazione of the stupendous and glorious frescoes of the vault of the Sistine Chapel, from which it is difficult to separate oneself each time, create in my soul a new jolt, capable of refreshing me with an indescribable sensation of serenity, peace, spiritual union with God, together with a strong sense of protection from the adversities of life, from the imperfection of my human nature, from a life that, at times, knows how to be severe and at others prodigal of every good.

The whole history of the catechesis of the Catholic Church manifests itself before you, small and helpless. You realize that you are part of something special. You acquire with your attentive gaze the awareness that you are in the presence of God, that you belong to the work of his divine creation while at the same time feeling the fear of not being up to such an act of generosity and the terror of finding yourself unprepared before the final judgment.

In order to exemplify in a flatter and more tangible way what I feel, I would like to tell you about my journey to the Sistine Chapel that preceded his visit, my admiration for the artist who painted it: the ineffable Michelangelo Buonarroti, the man who challenged all the limits imposed by nature, overcoming himself and early resistance. This thought is not meant to minimize the 15th-century artists who frescoed the side walls with stories from the lives of Moses and Christ, such as Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pietro Perugino, Cosimo Rosselli, Luca Signorelli, and Bartolomeo della Gatta. Absolute masters of the Renaissance period, of whom, however, Michelangelo Buonarroti is the sublime: the artist who admirably depicts living scenes that sweep you away with their impetuous movement. A chromatic program that gives the figures a dazzling, almost supernatural light.

Knowledge of art has increasingly characterized a part of my life, the experience of an ordinary visitor, an acerbic enthusiast, a budding scholar; a path that involuntarily became a long chain, a succession of episodes such as to enrich my knowledge and shape my vision of a segment of art history.

I have always admired the divine Michelangelo with the firm conviction that, behind that character described by scholars, behind that difficult, distrustful, moody, introverted personality, characterized by a strong restlessness bordering on irritability, was concealed the greatest artist humanity has known and to whom it boasts a debt of gratitude that it will never repay, except with absolute devotion to his works.

I always remember that rhyme of the master’s, number 285, in which with great afflatus he states that Giunto gia l corso della mia vita con tempestoso mar, per fragil barca, al comun porto, ova render si varca conto e ragion dogni opra trista e pia. Onde laffettuosa fantasia che larte mi fece idol e monarca, conosco ora ben comera derror carca, e quel ca mal suo grado ognuom desia. What an extraordinary testimony of absolute love for larte. It cringes at the vision of a man who sacrificed everything, who devoted his existence to creating those works that made his memory immortal, taking much from him nevertheless in terms of time and daily life.

My first encounter with Michelangelo’s work took place on July 22, 1995. I was seventeen years old. I was in Florence to attend the wedding of the son of a special couple of friends whom my parents had met many years earlier during their stay in the noble Tuscan city, in my father’s early years as a student Carabiniere, in Via Monticelli 31; I was one year old and born in Sicily. It amuses me to think that that brief but intense stay in Florence modified my genetic profile, indelibly writing in my cells the passion toward the artistic lestro of the Florentines. Certainly today I feel far removed from its glory: I am not an artist, nor a painter or sculptor, but surely my irrepressible desire to study and discover Michelangelo, his life and works, binds me doubly to that land.

On that happy occasion, I have the opportunity to visit, at my explicit and ardent request, the Galleria dellAccademia, and finding myself before the grandeur and splendor of the David, I still plastically recall the shiver that ran through my back. A thrill of wonder at that athletic, anatomically perfect body in the act preceding the heroic struggle with Goliath. How can a man depict such beauty and carve it into the hard material of marble with unparalleled skill and enviable mastery that do not seem of this world?

My life since that first visit has gone through ups and downs, from environmentalist achievements, to study, to the search for work, to the demands that life imposes on you; for two decades my passion toward larte has declined toward protecting the environment and enhancing the natural heritage that my Sicily holds. My participation, meanwhile, has become active in the ranks of environmental associationism.

My search for Michelangelo’s way slumbered, almost narcotized, until it exploded overbearingly on July 27, 2006. It was a very hot day and I had gone to Rome with my girlfriend to file an application with the Ministry of the Environment. At the end we decided together, she also an art lover, to visit the Vatican Museums to share a view of the Sistine Chapel. I remember a lively confusion, a heat at the limits of the bearable, we were really as many as every day at the museums, anxious to arrive in front of the most beautiful work: the most popular destination for tourists.

At last we are rewarded for lingering, in line for the stairs there seems to be a lack of air, the splendor opens to our eyes. Initial amazement gives way to wonder as we remain almost incredulous at the sight of such a work of man. You wonder how, 500 years ago, a painter could have accomplished such a complex and intricate work with the means at his disposal. Above all, you are dazzled by the admirable light that the frescoes propound throughout the room, as if testifying to their divine inspiration. For there is no doubt that Michelangelo was enlightened and inspired by God to decorate the vault of the universal chapel, the symbol and beating heart of the Catholic Church, the place where the cardinals gathered in conclave elect Peter’s successor on earth under the blessing of the Holy Spirit. I think it was precisely at this moment that the famous lightning strike was triggered in me: anestasis that would soon turn into profound admiration of Michelangelo’s sublime work.

I also remember as a particular episode related to my passion for the Sistine that on September 6, 2014, in the company of my mother, I attended in the splendid setting of the Teatro Antico in Taormina the performance of Mozart’s opera The Rape from the Seraglio. As is customary, I bought the libretto like all the publications I avidly seek out in museums. For me it represents an opportunity to delve in the intimacy of my beloved armchair into what I have seen and the authors of those works. Thus I learn that Mozart visited Rome on April 11, 1770 and heard the twelfth Miserere, sung by the choir of the Sistine Chapel. This work, composed by Gregorio Allegri around 1630 at the request of Pope Urban VIII, is based on Psalm 51 (50) from the Bible. It had first been composed in 1514 on the commission of Leo X and was sung strictly and exclusively in the Sistine Chapel on Good Wednesday and Good Friday. It was considered a sacred piece, the transcription of which was forbidden on pain of excommunication. The 14-year-old Mozart was able to transcribe it from memory after hearing it. The Miserere is a penitential psalm, through which the sinner invokes God’s mercy for his or her sins. For it recites: Have mercy on me, O God, according to your mercy; in your great goodness blot out my sin.

A few days later, exactly on September 9, 2014, during a trip to Rome, I decided to have breakfast at the Vatican Museums: an unforgettable experience that I recommend to everyone and I immediately went to the Sistine Chapel, still uncrowded by the many tourists and with my music player I listened to Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere sitting. 12 minutes and 36 seconds of uncommon emotion: in an extraordinary inner transport I communicated to the Most High the overwhelming desire to be pervaded by his mercy, towards a path of faith and Christian example.

I also feel it is my duty to address a heartfelt and moving remembrance to St. John Paul II who, in the exercise of his Petrine ministry, initiated in 1980 the restoration work on the Sistine vault: a careful and accurate cleaning job that from the colors now graying from dust and fumes revealed what he called in the Roman Triptych the Sistine polychromy: Here, in this chapel Michelangelo described it, not with words, but with a tributary richness of colors. A love called Sistine, could not have been more apt as the title of this short story, for in conclusion it can be read as an act of love for the grandest work of all universal art.

I hope to continue to visit the Sistine Chapel frequently, at least once a month, to recharge myself, to receive that strength that only prayer and meditation can instill in you. A strength required by life to overcome its tribulations and to ensure a future that reflects the religious and ethical ideals that this society sorely needs.

And, why not, continue jokingly to envy the custodians for the opportunity to spend many hours of their day in the presence of the majesty of the Sistine Chapel.

Mine is also a moment of escape from the world, a safe haven from the social problems that this belpaese of ours has been facing for years; it is a moment of healthy escape from a world that no longer follows the path of respect, of the equality of peoples, of peace, of fraternity, of solidarity, now a slave to a globalizing misery of the soul.

I find myself very close to the words of the German writer Goethe: There is no surer way to escape from the world than the art; but there is no surer bond with it than the art.

And my travelogue to discover the museums and churches where the works of Michelangelo Buonarroti are kept. It will represent the tangible conclusion of the commitment sealed with myself to admire in the arc of life all the works of the divine master and note the dates and places of the visit, so that the wonder, the emotion and the amazement of contemplating such and so much beauty will remain indelible. A personal via pulchritudinis, for we can give up many things, but not sacrifice our innate inclination to beauty. Italy is a republic founded on beauty, the cradle of the Italian Renaissance, the gateway to paradise, the embodiment of the artistic ideal. Surrendering to ugliness will make everyone more empty, sad, resigned. Men like Michelangelo Buonarroti are the true testimony of those who dedicated their lives in the pursuit of the perfection of beauty, so as not to succumb to human wickedness, the treacherous prospect of decadence and the bombastic practice of resignation and frustration.

Only the search for the way of beauty will be able to heal the wounds of the soul, the wounds that everyone carries in their hearts, the weeping of men and women discouraged by precariousness, of families humiliated by misery, of young people deprived of their future. Only the beauty of sharing, of participation, of revolution, of aggregation, of change, of scientific and technological progress, of innovation, of merit, of dignity, will be able to open wide for us the doors of a new horizon. Our horizon.

Riccardo Tomasello

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