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The Sacred and the Profane: The Sistine Chapel and a Fiery Renaissance Rivalry

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The Sistine Chapel is a pain in the neck - but only in the most aesthetically-pleasing sense of the phrase.

Join the crowds snaking through the Vatican and you too will find your eyes drawn from the tomb of St Peter, the Pieta and even the tapestries designed by Raphael to crane your eyes upwards to the ceiling and gaze upon the masterpiece of Michelangelo Buonarroti.

This week marks the 500th anniversary of the work being unveiled by the artist's Roman patron, Pope Julius II.

In the centuries since, the frescoes have become venerated as one of the true, man-made wonders of the world.

It may be hard to believe that, half a millenium ago, the project helped fuel one of the Renaissance's greatest rivalries, attended by stories of sex, violent rows, money and a dirty, bitter, misshapen genius in dogskin boots.

Depending on which contemporary accounts you read, Michelangelo either won the right to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling on the back of proving his undoubted artistic skills by sculpting both The Pieta and the gigantic David or had it thrust upon him as part of a plot to see him fail and bring him down a peg or two.

Even before the four-year operation experienced technical difficulties in its earliest days, he would repeatedly tell those who would listen that he was a sculptor and not a painter.

In fact, he very nearly never became an artist at all. As a boy, his father and uncle used to beat him when he skipped studies they hoped would lead to a career in the law to attend art classes instead.

By the time Michelangelo arrived in Rome to start perhaps his best-known work, though, it's possible that no-one paid him too much attention anyway.

In addition to his facility with a chisel and a brush, he had a gift for winding people up. It began in his teens when a flash of his prodigious talent led a fellow student to punch him in the nose, leaving him with the distinctive features which he carried to his grave.

The years between saw him have stand-up rows in the street with the delicate dandy of a polymath named Leonardo da Vinci, fall out with his fathers, brothers and colleagues and even threaten violence against Julius II, a no-nonsense cleric whose love of battle and profanities had earned him the nickname 'the Warrior Pope'.

The antipathy wasn't just down to a combative nature which won him few friends. Michelangelo appears to have had rather poor personal hygiene. Whilst his peers wore the finest fabrics of the day, Michelangelo wore boots made of dogskin for so long that when he took them off, he peeled away layers of his own skin too.

He also followed his father's advice not to bathe too often but to scrape himself down once a month.

At the same time, Pope Julius II's chief architect seemingly did everything he could to spite Michelangelo and win the Sistine Commission for Raphael.

Good-looking and with bags of ability, Raphael was popular with patrons and ladies alike. He even managed to mix his womanising with his work, taking time off from lucrative commissions for Roman bankers to paint the side wall of a bordello which he used to frequent.

His own patrons realised that allowing him to have his many girlfriends around was one of the best ways to get him to finish the jobs for which they were paying him.

However, commentators and biographers maintain that, despite his success both before and after Michelangelo's Sistine triumph was unveiled, Raphael took the loss of this Vatican setpiece to heart.

He died after characteristic indulgence with a baker's daughter to celebrate his 37th birthday.
Michelangelo, on the other hand, lived until he was 88 and continued creating stupendous pieces of art and architecture, although none are arguably more celebrated than the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The service conducted by Pope Benedict XVI this week to commemorate its anniversary will probably differ little from that with which his predecessor marked its completion 500 years before.

The mood around the event, though, will be both more peaceful and artistically poorer for the absence of the genius in dogskin boots.