Michelangelo on painting his masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel. A gifted poet as well as a sculptor and painter, he wrote energetically about despair, detailing with relish the unpleasant side of his work on the famous ceiling. The poem, in Italian, is an extended sonnet. The translation below is by the American poet Gail Mazur.
Michelangelo: To Giovanni da Pistoia
“When the Author Was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel”
I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!
My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.
Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.
My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.