In the bottom right corner of Michelangelo's magisterial fresco of the Last Judgement, we see a naked man with large pointed ears. This is Minos, a judge of the dead in the underworld, whose body is wrapped in the coils of a snake, a clear reference to Dante’s Divina Commedia.
However, Minos is also a portrait of Biagio da Cesena (1463-1544), who was the pope's Master of Ceremonies at the time Michelangelo (1475-1564) was at work. It seems that the good M. C. was very critical of the amount of naked flesh he observed in the fresco. Instead of keeping his opinion to himself, he expressed it very strongly in a letter to Pope Paul III (r. 1534-49): ‘It was most dishonest in such an honoured place to have painted so many nude figures who so dishonestly show their shame and that it was not a work for a chapel of the Pope but for stewpots and taverns.’
These views made their way to Michelangelo, who responded by giving Minos the features of the carping M. C.. To add insult to injury, Michelangelo depicted the coiling serpent in the act of biting a rather personal part of his anatomy!
Biagio was, understandably, furious when he saw what Michelangelo had done and rushed off to complain to his boss. The offended functionary wanted the Pope to order Michelangelo to erase the likeness. Paul III wryly pointed out that once Biagio had been consigned to Hell, not even he, as Pope, could intervene.
But, perhaps, the M. C. had the last laugh. Twenty-five years after the fresco was completed the Church, in the wake of the reforming zeal of the Council of Trent (1545-63), decided to tighten up its control of images which it deemed inappropriate.
In 1565, the painter Daniele da Volterra (1509-66) was commissioned to cover up the many nudes in the Last Judgement. Needless to say, such over-painting was carried out after Michelangelo's death.
Volterra’s addition of ‘drapery’ to the nude figures led to his being nicknamed Il Braghettone (the Breeches Man).
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private and
small-group walking tours
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