It was November 1, 1512, and Michelangelo’s resplendent new ceiling took everyone by surprise. A full 134 ft long by 44 ft wide, painted with vast biblical scenes, and hundreds of characters known to all… it was the largest, the most spectacular, and probably the most profound piece of art ever created by one person.
Everyone who was anyone in Renaissance Italy was there, and they were taken aback. Mouths fell open and there were gasps of astonishment. Fingers were pointed and the murmurs echoed to and fro. They had gathered at His Holiness’ invitation for the first mass in the Sistine Chapel for four years, and Julius II, secret son of Sixtus IV (who built the chapel), smiled broadly at the envy of all those gathered there. The moment was unforgettable.
He raised his hands, as if to the Almighty, while high above, God reached out to touch the finger of Adam. And then, with the spark of life about to pass between those most famous of fingers, Adam spoke. But no one heard the words. For 500 years, it crossed no one’s mind, for even a moment, that Adam had something to say about it. But the words were there, all the time, written on Adam’s face… His comment, though, was far too shocking to be revealed, and so Michelangelo hid it, carefully, on the young man’s neck, under his chin, by his throat, where words are born. Had the congregation known the truth, mouths would have opened wider still, the gasps would have thundered, the murmurs would still be echoing today… and His Holiness would most certainly not have been smiling.
The reason was simple. Adam had revealed two of the Holy Father’s darkest and most scandalous secrets. But no one knew the truth, only Michelangelo, and he dared do no more than hint.
Looking closely, we find that Adam is not really Adam, God is not really God, and that grim looking cloud is not a cloud. Adam is labeled many times over with his real name: Iohannes… Iohannes, son of Michelangelo’s elder brother. And the cloud? The cloud is marked ‘MA9’, that is, Michelangelo, the ninth claimant to the throne of France, which had been stolen from his family more than 150 years before. And God? He went by the name of Giulio della Rovere.
So how to unlock the mystery of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? If all the characters are real, then what is the story they are telling? The clue lies in the most obvious place on the entire ceiling. It lies in that pregnant gap between the fingers of God and Adam, where, if we enhance the tonal contrast, evanescent forms start to solidify. There, right between the two most celebrated of fingertips are several letter ‘C’s. And beneath each one there follows the rest of the word ‘chiave’, meaning ‘key’.
Above, and forming the handle of the key, we find a set of tiny pale letters curving clockwise that spell ‘Michel’, and another set of dark ones, running the other way spelling ‘Agniolo’. It is Michelangelo’s name, in Italian. He is the handle of the key. And running beneath is the blade, and that is composed of two names: Iohannes, and Felice.
Iohannes was a pawn in the dynastic ambitions of Leonardo da Vinci, and he was supposed to make Felice pregnant. The resulting child would have the support not only of the della Roveres, but also the wealthy and powerful family of which Michelangelo and Leonardo were part. More, since Felice was married to the head of the Orsini clan, once her husband was dead, the child would inherit the vast Orsini fortune.
For Iohannes it was a no brainer. Felice was gorgeous. And for Felice, too, it was a gift from Heaven. Her husband was much older than her, with little interest in sex, and in his manner very gross. Iohannes, though, was every bit as beautiful as she was. It was a done deal. But Felice had a brother, Giulio, who we just met in God’s cloud. And he, like Felice, lived in Rome where Michelangelo was working. Being known to have an eye for such things, Giulio found that just a glimpse of Iohannes left him as breathless as it did Felice. He wanted Michelangelo’s nephew as he had never wanted any man before, and so he said he’d make Iohannes Duke of Ferrara, if he would become his lover.
But the young man was having none of it. The hand that ‘Adam’ reaches out to who we once thought was God is less than enthusiastic. And a little further along the Chapel ceiling we see him again, as one of the naked youths, and being propositioned, implored indeed, by Giulio. The response from the languid youth is clear. He uses the same dismissive and insulting ‘crooked-finger’ gesture that Adam used when being propositioned by the Serpent in the Garden of Eden.
And as if this weren’t enough, Iohannes spoke. Erupting from the boy’s throat up to his lips we read ‘vada pisciarsi’. Which, translated from medieval Tuscan means – exactly – ‘piss off’. The powerful and pampered Giulio was hurt, humiliated, and utterly enraged by the rejection.
What of Felice’s husband, then? He knew. And being gay, he could perhaps have accepted Felice becoming pregnant and giving birth to Iohannes’ children (both of whom appear in ‘God’s cloud), but there was something else he would not forgive. Because, you see, Felice’s husband was not only gay, he was also Giulio’s lover. Felice’s marriage was just a good excuse for Giulio and Prince Orsini to be together without too much scandal, but now Giulio had fallen in love with the boy, too.
And so it was that Prince Orsini, with Giulio’s approval (according to God’s cloud of cherubs), murdered the handsome Iohannes, and cut off those parts of him Giulio most liked. His head, with its pretty face, that is, and… well, you can imagine what else.
The portentous gap between those two immortal fingers indeed held the key, and now a lot of inexplicabilities are resolved. For example, why, in the next scene but one, ‘Expulsion from Eden’, Adam now looks quite different. He is older, not the same person at all as in the Creation of Adam. And that is because he isn’t the same person. Adam is now not Iohannes, but the boy’s father. We see him after his son’s murder as he flees Rome. We see him driven out at swordpoint with his grieving wife, Edoarda.
We know, because her name is on her body… but on that head, the head that sits so impossibly on her shoulders, we do not find it. The reason for the visual awkwardness here is not any anatomical incompetance on Michelangelo’s part. It is because Eve’s head is not Eve’s head. The name on it is not ‘Edoarda’, but ‘Iohannes’. Eve is leaving paradise, carrying the severed head of her beloved son.
The sorry tale is repeated all across the ceiling. Notably, in the depiction of ‘God’ creating the Sun and the Moon, where Iohannes’ body, minus his head, is ghosted into the scene, along with the word ‘coltello’… ‘knife’. And here, falling from the youth’s hand, are the letters ‘MA9’. They cascade down on, and form another larger word… ‘vendetta’. Michelangelo had accepted responsibility for avenging the crime. The days of Prince Orsini and his lover Giulio were numbered.
And that is why, coming from the mouth of the ominous cloud in the sky we find the words ‘Als ix kan, nipote’… an odd combination of the Flemish motto of the clan – ‘as best I can’… and the Italian word for nephew, ‘nipote’. He will avenge the boy. But how? Running along the upper profile of Adam’s hand we find the words ‘veleno arsenico’ – ‘arsenic poison’ – and we also find the word ‘arsenico’ drifting down in a shower from the boy’s hand. Michelangelo is going to poison Giulio and Prince Orsini to death.
But I have held something back from you. ‘Giulio’ has an English equivalent. It is ‘Julius’. The lover of Prince Orsini, the man flying in the cloud, was in fact His Holiness Pope Julius II, the man who insisted Michelangelo paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and who in return received the most dramatic, the most famous, and the most eternal denunciation in the history of art.But so powerful was the Holy Father that, sadly, it made further vengeance impossible. Or did it?
There is a portrait of Michelangelo in which he gestures towards his notebook. And if we examine the book closely, we find that Michelangelo wrote in it. He says that in 1513, the masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel now concluded, he brought Julius’ earthly reign to an abrupt close. With arsenic. And Julius’ lover Prince Orsini, it says, he murdered just four years later.