Michelangelo’s poem about Labour Pains

Michelangelo‘s poem about Labour Pains

jeanniejeanniejeannie.co.uk BLOG Friday 2nd April 2021


Labour Pains

Michelangelo’s poem about the awkward parturition of the Sistine Chapel.

After a certain point, reverence can become automatic. Our admiration for great works of art can get a bit reflexive, then synthetic, then can harden into a pious coating that repels real attention. Michelangelo’s painted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican might be an example of such automatic reverence. Sometimes, a fresh look or a hosing-down is helpful—if only by restoring the meaning of “work” to the phrase “work of art.”

Michelangelo (1475-1564) himself provides a refreshing dose of reality. 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 (or “tailed”) sonnet, with a coda of six lines appended to the standard 14. The translation I like best is by the American poet Gail Mazur. Her lines are musical but informal, with a brio conveying that the Italian artist knew well enough that he and his work were great—but that he enjoyed vigorously lamenting his discomfort, pain, and inadequacy to the task. No wonder his artistic ideas are bizarre and no good, says Michelangelo: They must come through the medium of his body, that “crooked blowpipe” (Mazur’s version of “cerbottana torta”). Great artist, great depression, great imaginative expression of it. This is a vibrant, comic, but heartfelt account of the artist’s work:

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 honour.

I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.


He is “not a painter”! The hint of rhyme between “honour” and “painter” in Mazur’s translation gives some suggestion of a clinching couplet. (The rhyme—onore/pittore—is much more distinct in the Italian original.) Although Michelangelo may, in part, have intended “I am really a sculptor—not a painter,” despair is certainly there in his self-description. I like to imagine his friend Giovanni laughing out loud at his final “nè io pittore,” as we—anyone who has had a hard time at work on a demanding project well worth doing—can add our own exclamation of astonishment, rue, and amusement.

By Robert Pinsky



The world’s 10 most awesome giant Buddhas

  1. The Great Buddhas of Monywa, Myanmar, 138 kilometres northwest of Mandalay

At 90 metres long, the one lying down is the largest reclining Buddha in the world. It houses a collection of 9,000 etchings illustrating Buddha’s life that can be viewed by entering through a door in the statue’s backside.

  1. Buddha Dordenma Statue, Thimphu, Bhutan

Made of bronze and gilded with gold, the Buddha Dordenma sits atop a hill in Kuenselphodrang

  1. Giant Buddha, Leshan, China

Gazing serenely over the confluence of the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi rivers in Sichuan province, the Giant Buddha of Leshan is one of the most popular tourist spots in China.

  1. Fo Guang Shan, Kaohsiung, Taiwan

Located in Ta Shu of Kaohsiung City, Fo Guan Shan Monastery is the biggest Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. It’s the headquarters of a new religious movement, founded in 1967, that promotes a new form of Humanistic Buddhism. The monastery covers more than 30 hectares and includes a university and various shrines, with the complex dominated by a 36-metre tall statue of the Amitabha Buddha.

  1. Ling Shan Great Buddha, Mashan, China

Standing more than 88 metres high, the Great Buddha at Ling Shan is a bronze Amitabha Buddha. It was completed at the end of 1996, weight over 700 tons and is reached by climbing 99 steps.

  1. The Daibutsu of Kamakura, Japan

Whether covered in snow or prettily framed by cherry blossoms, the giant Daibutsu of Kamakura, sits serenely in the south of Japan with his eyes closed, desperately trying to block out the world.

  1. Gal Gal Viharaya, Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

Carved into the face of a granite boulder, the Gal Gal Viharaya is considered one of the most beautiful representations of the Buddha in the world.

  1. Laughing Buddha, Vinh Trang Pagoda, Vietnam

Bo Dai, or the laughing Buddha, is popular in homes and with children in Vietnam. He is famous for his big grin and even bigger belly, but it is rare you to see this incarnation of Buddha writ large.

  1. Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok, Thailand

The reclining Buddha of Wat Pho. Wat Pho in Bangkok is a temple of superlatives. It is one of the largest and oldest temples in Bangkok, boasting the largest number of Buddha images in the country, and it houses the largest reclining Buddha in Thailand. The gold-plated Reclining Buddha statue is 46 metres long and 15 metres high. Its eyes and feet are decorated with engraved mother of pearl and the soles of the feet display the 108 auspicious characteristics of the true Buddha.

  1. Bongeunsa temple, Seoul, South Korea




I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the water to create many ripples. Mother Teresa


Happiness is… Michelangelo’s poem about Labour Pains


“I have a friend. He keeps trying to convince me he’s a compulsive liar, but I don’t believe him.” – Ben Bailey


Love is…taking it to the limit, one more time!


A time for Michelangelo to be a painter…A time for Michelangelo to be a poet.


2nd April

Would You Believe?

1962 The first official Panda crossing is opened outside Waterloo station, London.

1902 “Electric Theatre”, the first full-time movie theatre in the United States, opens in Los Angeles, California.










©2021 Phil M Robinson