La Cappella Sistina

The Old Library has received a superb set of volumes illustrating the Sistine Chapel with ‘life size’ photographs, thanks to a generous donation from Robert Chartener, a Fellow Commoner of Magdalene College.

The front covers of the three volumes of La Cappella Sistina
The three volumes of ‘La Cappella Sistina’, Vatican Museums/Scripta Maneant, 2016. Old Library H.20.122-124.

‘La Cappella Sistina’, published by the Vatican Museums and Scripta Maneant in 2016, is a three-volume set produced in a limited edition of 1999 copies, and a landmark in modern luxury book production.  The volumes contain every detail of the chapel captured with 270,000 high resolution digital images over the course of sixty-seven nights, while the chapel was closed to tourists.  The set of images in these volumes will be a highly useful resource for history of art students.

Detail of hands from the painting The Creation of Adam, featured in the book La Cappella Sistina
Images from ‘The Creation of Adam’ in ‘La Cappella Sistina’, Vatican Museums/Scripta Maneant, 2016.
Images © Governatorato dello S.C.V.

‘La Cappella Sistina’ is now the tallest set of books in the Old Library collection, standing at an impressive 63 cm.  The former ‘record holder’ for the tallest book in the library, at 60 cm, is William Nicolson’s ‘The English Atlas’, a five volume set published in Oxford in the 1680s.

Woodcut portrait and biography of Pope Sixtus IV in the Old Library's copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle, printed in 1493
The portrait and biography of Pope Sixtus IV in the Old Library’s copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle, Old Library H.10.2.

Although ‘La Cappella Sistina’ is a modern set of books, they have an affinity with older items in Magdalene’s historic collections.  The Old Library’s copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle, printed in 1493, includes a biography and portrait of Sixtus IV – the Pope from whom the chapel derives its name.  The biography mentions the ‘Ponte Sisto’, a bridge over the river Tiber in Rome which the Pope sponsored (‘pontem sup[er] tiberim maxima impensa…’).  Unfortunately, there is no mention of the chapel.  The Old Library’s copy of Vasari’s ‘Lives of the Artists’ provides biographical information on artists associated with the painting of the chapel, such as Domenico Ghirlandaio.

Engraving of male figure from the book, Michael Angelus Buonarotus pinxit Adam Sculptor Mantuanus incidit, printed in 1612
An Engraving from Pepys Library 1463: ‘Michael Angelus Buonarotus pinxit Adam Sculptor Mantuanus incidit’ [Rome: Giovanni Battista de Rossi, 1612].

However, the most striking parallels can be drawn between ‘La Cappella Sistina’ and a series of seventy-two engravings of figures in the Pepys Library.  The engravings by Adam Ghisi depict the Ancestors of Christ, the Prophets and Sibyls from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel painted by Michaelangelo.  It is believed that the set of engravings, published in 1612, was intended for the use of students studying anatomy.  This would explain the engravings’ small and convenient size.  Even though this volume and ‘La Capella Sistina’ were published over 400 years apart, they have a shared intention of conveying the beauty of Michelangelo’s art through a portable medium. 

By Catherine Sutherland

Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections



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