The Hector Berlioz Website

Berlioz in Italy


The Sistine Chapel

This page is also available in French     

    The Sistine Chapel was built between 1475 and 1483, in the time of Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere, and it is remarkable, among others, for its wall paintings and especially Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement, painted on the ceiling between 1508 and 1512.

    But Berlioz was not impressed by the Sistine Chapel. In his Memoirs (chapter 50), he recalls a conversation with Spontini after a great performance of his Requiem in the church of Saint-Eustache on 20 August 1846:

He [Spontini] told me on that occasion:

« – You are wrong to criticise the practice of sending the prize-winners of the Institut to Rome; without Michelangelo’s Last Judgment you could not have conceived such a Requiem. »

He was strangely mistaken on this point, for this celebrated fresco in the Sistine Chapel was a total disappointment to me. All I can see in it is a scene of torture in hell, but nothing resembling the final gathering of humanity. In any case, I know little about painting and do not respond to works of conventional beauty.

    Berlioz was no more impressed with the choral music performed for religious services in the Sistine Chapel. He relates ironically in the Memoirs (chapter 39) that he « even heard a Miserere at the Sistine Chapel sung by five voices. » But, he goes on to say:

At least the part played by music in the Sistine Chapel has preserved its dignity and the appropriate religious character, while the other churches in Rome, betraying their ancient traditions, have fallen in this respect in an unbelievable state of decay, I would even say demoralisation. Several French churchmen who witnessed this scandalous abasement of religious art have been shocked by it.

The photos on this page have been scanned from our own collection. © Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights of reproduction reserved.

The Sistine Chapel in 1897

(Large view)

The above image reproduces one half of a stereoscopic photo published in 1897. (See the large view)

The Sistine Chapel in the early 20th century

(Large view)

© Michel Austin and Monir Tayeb for all the pictures and information on this page. All rights of reproduction reserved.

Copyright notice: The texts, photos, images and musical scores on all pages of this site are covered by UK Law and International Law. All rights of publication or reproduction of this material in any form, including Web page use, are reserved. Their use without our explicit permission is illegal.

Back to Berlioz in Italy main page