Arts feature

The Sistine Chapel as you've never seen it before

Rosie Millard gets her gloved hands on one of the world’s most lavish – and expensive – art books

27 February 2021

9:00 AM

27 February 2021

9:00 AM

‘The World’s Most Lavish Art Book’ is a pretty big claim, but when two men lugged it through my front door I conceded that The Sistine Chapel is one monster tome. Three, actually. Three hardback volumes, each two feet-tall, each weighing nearly two stone, each in its own calico bag, comprising of digitally perfect photographic recreations of the artwork in the 15th-century chapel. The first volume deals with the masterpieces along the walls, while volumes two and three are a quasi-Greatest Hits, one covering the Sistine ceiling and one the ‘Last Judgment’, both of course by Michelangelo and one of the most famous art sequences on the planet.

Lavish, yes, with beautiful creamy paper and no-expense-spared bookbinding, this is probably also the world’s most expensive art book. And one of its most limited. You will not find it in your local Waterstones, since the English-language edition runs to only 600 copies and will never be reprinted (the remaining 1,399 are in Italian, with a smattering of copies in other languages). The cost? Are you sitting comfortably? £16,500.

It is my task to examine this marvel of ultra-high everything: art, photography, bookbinding, printing and cost. Trembling slightly, I pull on the white gloves provided. Then I take them off, and wash my hands, again. Then I put them on again, after scanning the room for any rogue cups of coffee, ink pens or jars of beetroot that might come into disastrous contact with the World’s Most Lavish Art Book, by now unpacked and sitting portentously on a velvet cushion.

Where to start? I find myself skipping over work by Ghirlandaio and Botticelli in volume I and slide volume II out of its bespoke case. It seems almost impolite not to start my experience by paying homage to the world’s most famous index-finger bump. As I flip — carefully — past a few prophets and sibyls, I get goosebumps of anticipation. ‘Shall I put the theme for the South Bank Show on Spotify?’ asks my partner. YES.

I arrive at the key page, which folds out to a huge poster-size. Blimey, Michelangelo wasn’t half a messy painter. You can see the actual brushstrokes, with liberal black lines edging muscle and sinew. Adam’s ear looks as if it is drawn freehand with a paintbrush, God’s whorled beard the same. At a scale of 1:1, my gloved hand is dwarfed by the almost-touching fingers. Suddenly, I am a picture restorer in Italy, 68 feet up, coming face to face with the fresco. It is an almost vertiginous experience, even though my feet are firmly on the ground in Islington.

Publishers Callaway achieved this book after ten months of negotiation with the Vatican Museums and 67 evenings with photographers perched on a scaffold, rigged up each night to take the high-res pictures after the general public had gone. ‘Everyone thinks they know the Sistine Chapel,’ says CEO Nicholas Callaway, ‘but in fact they don’t. This book can give you a far deeper understanding of it, and that is a wonderful thing.’

It can certainly give you a less stressful understanding of it. My last trip before lockdown was a New Year visit to Rome, where we undertook the obligatory herd visit to the Vatican. It was an experience akin to Black Friday at Curry’s on Oxford Street, and not in a good way; 25,000 people a day file through the Vatican Museum, eventually reaching the Sistine Chapel in a moving, jostling, impatient throng. You are not allowed to stop. You are not allowed to talk. Or take photos. ‘This book is no substitution for the Chapel itself,’ says Callaway, ‘but over-tourism and the mass consumption of art means that when you go, the experience is not wholly satisfying. And in the case of the ceiling, you are looking at it from a distance of 68 feet. You can’t see the gestural, almost action painting quality of Michelangelo’s brushwork.’


Detail of the Damned Man from ‘The Last Judgement’. © Vatican Museums

Or anyone else’s. The detail is amazing, and instructive. From the arrangement of the elegant Florentine figures along the walls in volume I, to the High Renaissance perfection of the ceiling in volume II and the swirling, fleshy, mannerist naked bodies of the ‘Last Judgment’ in the third volume, the World’s Most Lavish Art Book is not only a comparatively relaxing way to ‘visit’ the Sistine Chapel but a bit of an Italian Renaissance art masterclass. Do academics agree?

‘The 1:1 scale detail gives a great deal of excitement,’ says distinguished art historian John Bernasconi, Renaissance specialist and former academic at the University of Hull. ‘It makes clear what a brilliant draughtsman Michaelangelo was and also what a brilliant colourist he was. Turning pages is much the nicest way to look at such details. When you go to an English country house, the library always has vast volumes with highlights of the Grand Tour in them, and this book is in that tradition. From a scholarly view, however, being able to move around digital images might be more useful. The V&A has a new digital rendition of the Raphael Cartoons which you can zoom in and out of, and that strikes me as a more 21st-century way of doing it.’

Bernasconi also opposes my theory that the work is revealed as daringly modern. Indeed, he thinks Michelangelo might have been horrified his magnum opus was being rendered in 1:1 close-up scale. ‘The images on the ceiling were meant to be seen from a distance, on the ground,’ he says. ‘Michelangelo started with the depiction of Noah and the Flood, which he painted in great detail, using preliminary drawings and a special technique to get an accurate line. However when he came down from the scaffolding, and observed the work from the ground, he saw it was too detailed. So he used a much bigger and broader scale for the subsequent pictures, and speeds up enormously. He abandons the preliminaries and simply gauges the line through the wet plaster. He thought he would be safe to do this, because you can’t see that from the ground. A lot of the things he would have assumed would be permanently hidden by distance are now revealed.’

Yet six centuries later, tastes have changed. We like splashy brushwork and freehand scribbles. We are encouraged to admire an unmade bed. So when confronted with what seems to us like expressionism by one of the highest of High Renaissance masters, we are delighted. ‘We like our things unfinished,’ says Bernasconi. ‘Michelangelo, however, wants his art to be enormously polished; his completed sculptures have an extraordinary degree of finish. Plus, I think you need to be in the Chapel to get a sense of the whole scale of the thing. This book might be a good preparation, but you need to be in the Chapel for the actual experience.’

Callaway is not denying this, but the timing is perfect. Nowadays, art lovers might not be so happy about spending hours being crushed in a scrum, and he is anticipating selling out of this book. Who does he think will buy it? ‘Well, some of the wealthiest people in the world,’ he says, unsurprisingly. ‘One set has already gone to the Royal Library at Windsor, where it will pair well with the Michelangelo drawings already in the Royal Collection.’ Of course it will. Who else? ‘We hope we might pair benefactors with institutions; the Bodleian is keen, and I think the Courtauld must have one.’

How about a big secondary school? ‘We are going to place it in university libraries, but also ordinary libraries. It should be available to everyone.’ But not at £16.5 grand! ‘There will be more affordable editions,’ he says comfortingly. ‘The Vatican are not agreeing to that at the moment, but once this set sells out, they will probably reconsider. Getting to a “yes” with the Vatican is… a process.’

He thinks the book might be something of a Covid-era harbinger. ‘The pandemic has opened up new possibilities for the art experience, and new ways to bring art to the public, art which was inaccessible before, either because it is not visible or because you have to fight through crowds to get there. Museums travelling to homes in the form of books is one way. The notion of “direct to consumer” also applies to art.’

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