Creation by Committee

Phil Factor got to wondering how on earth the wonderful frescos of the Sistine Chapel ever got painted, if the type of corporate 'best-practice' and management now seen in IT development projects were in place then. Phil Factor imagines the pressures on Michelangelo and the Pope, from strategists, MVPs,  project managers, analysts, architects, sponsors, and bureaucrats, and conjures up two visionaries in a very modern predicament.

“Once a development project looks likely to be a success, it’s amazing how many people consider themselves essential for its completion.” Pope Julius scraped a drop of paint from his immaculate cape and studied it frowningly for a moment. Then he continued “For is it not said, (1 Kings 9:23), These were the chief of the officers that were over Solomon’s work, five hundred and fifty, which bare rule over the people that wrought in the work‘.”

Pope Julius shifted his attention to Michelangelo’s packed lunch “I say, you don’t really want all those pickled gherkins do you?”

The two men sat high in the scaffolding in the Sistine Chapel, their legs swinging in the air. Below them draped netting, designed to protect the chapel furnishings from plaster and paint. Above and around them blazed the half-completed frescos. Up here, they felt closer to God, rank was forgotten and their friendship felt simpler, more like the companionship of two schoolboys who have climbed up a tree.

Michelangelo shrugged. He generally hated interruptions, especially when the plaster was drying. Still, he always looked forward to a visit from Pope Julius, and it was nice to straighten his back. He sighed and scratched his head before replying with ‘So and more also do God unto the enemies of David, if I leave of all that pertain to him by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall. (1 Samuel 25:22). Help yourself to a Gherkin.’

The pope munched reflectively. “I’m getting a lot of pressure from the cardinals to put this project on a proper footing. I’ve just had a very difficult meeting with them. They kept raising tiresome issues. In the end, I had to concede that I would at least introduce you to a Project Manager. His function will be to oversee the work and ensure that it meets its targets.”

The pope gestured to a group of befrocked clerics standing in a respectful group far below them in the nave. Michelangelo pulled a face and muttered “If a wise man contendeth with a foolish man, whether he rage or laugh, there is no rest. (Proverbs 29:9)”

Wearily, the two men descended ladders, from scaffold to scaffold, until they reached the nave. A solemn looking young priest moved forwards to them.

“Antonio,” said the pope, “I believe you’ve some interesting observations to make about this project.”

“Yes,” he replied, earnestly studying a large wadge of manuscript paper, “I have performed a time-management study and calculated that Michelangelo actually does productive work for only 40% of the time. On an average day, he spends 20% of his time staring at the designs in an apparent trance-like state, 10% of his time gazing out of the window, scratching, 15% of his time chatting, particularly to youthful choristers, and 15% of the time showing the work to interested officials.”

Michelangelo flushed with irritation. “That apparent ‘trance-like state’ is the process of planning out the grand design!” he snapped. “Every figure has to be painted in fresh plaster. There is no time for preliminary sketching; the design has to be there in every detail before the plaster fully sets, which it is doing at the moment, incidentally. If there is any mistake in the overall design, then the plaster has to be stripped off again. A figure looking in the wrong place, or just a few inches to one side, or God forbid, in the wrong scale…”

“Yes, I’m glad you mention the designs” interrupted Antonio, curtly, pulling out another manuscript, “because it has come to our attention that they are not in source control. Some of the figures have been painted without any prior design at all, or agreement with the steering committee. One can only imagine the consequences of an earthquake or fire. We’ve also had a number of complaints from the specialist craftsmen who expand and transfer the approved plans onto plaster ready for painting. Evidently you’re not drawing exactly to the specification but painting freehand. How are the testers going to check that it conforms to the spec?”

“‘Agile’, they call it. It is the latest thing,” muttered Michelangelo.

“Latest? Hardly…you’re still working in two layers of plaster when the fresco hotshots are all using N-layer Architecture! What I suggest is that we get a couple of these fresco hotshots on board – Perugino, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio are all available. They will do the designs and leave you to do the painting. We won’t insist on you coming in and painting at weekends of course, but it is customary when projects are in overrun.”

Michelangelo stared at the netting draped from the scaffolding. The vast fresco swirled up over the ceiling, like a Technicolor tsunami, awesome even in its partially-completed state.

‘I have, here in my heart, a vision of the entire work, in every detail,” he said. “It would pain me beyond endurance to see it misinterpreted. Besides which, I employed four contractors from Florence and, as soon as I’d got them trained they tried to double their rates. They were MVPs too. Mercenary Vatican Painters’.

“You’re not much of a team player are you, Michelangelo?” said the Pope, chuckling fondly.

Antonio scented support from the Pope. “Look here Michelangelo, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but why aren’t you standing back and managing this project rather than getting involved in the actual development processes. After all, at your age it’s time you were moving up the promotional ladder”

Michaelangelo frowned. “You forget that the game is called ‘Snakes and Ladders’, not ‘Ladders’. There’s a reason for that, I’ll wager. I’ll play safe and carry on painting and carving just so long as someone pays my invoices”

Antonio sighed wearily. “Well, someone has to manage this project,” he said. “It is all taking far too much time. Talk about Scope Creep! When the cardinals submitted their strategic business proposal for this fresco, it was for a 2-year project based on pictures of the twelve apostles, fully clothed. Instead, you have felt obliged to deliver a vast panoply of naked and half naked bodies…”

“It came out strongly in the Focus Groups,” said Michaelangelo, delighted to trump Antonio with his own jargon. “People insisted on a naked Adam and Eve, and, anyway, I charge extra for clothing. Those folds in fabric don’t come cheap. Besides, the ‘ignudi’ are very popular with the visiting monks”.

“Yes, incidentally,” muttered Antonio, pulling out the appropriate form. “Cardinal Carafa has put in a change-request to have breeches painted over all those reproductive organs. He finds them distracting when he is in prayer.”

Michaelangelo opened his mouth to protest but was interrupted by the officious Antonio. “This whole project is a mess. We’re now talking at least four years to completion if things go on at this rate. Half the chapel roof is full of scaffolding and netting, which is both unsightly and obstructive.’

Michaelangelo was exasperated. “Since the project got the go-ahead, every cardinal in the place has insisted on getting their pet components in as part of the overall design. I never wanted to paint all those blasted ancestors of Christ. I even ended up having to put pictures of the cardinals’ families in the triangular spandrels above the chapel windows. How on earth can I be expected to get the project finished on time, when it keeps being expanded!?”

Antonio looked up and spotted his own boss, depicted in a spandrel, above the east window. He shifted uneasily and decided to switch the focus of his attack. “Let’s look at the other issues. We have done a health and safety risk-assessment. We were shocked at the risks, and our employee insurance won’t cover it.”

“Oh, come off it! How many Fresco-painters have ever been injured at work?”

“That’s not the point. Risk assessments evaluate the risks, rather than look at accident statistics. Besides, there are many compliance issues. Did you study Church law and best-practice before putting in all those Humanist elements into the grand design? This is going to cause all sorts of difficulties when we audit the expenditure”

“Hardly. The pope commissioned this and the pope is infallible: Humanist elements or not.”

Antonio looked appealingly at the pope, but Pope Julius avoided his gaze by affecting to scrape a bit of plaster from his robes.

“And who do you think you are to tell me what I ought to be doing? Have you ever painted a fresco?” cried Michaelengelo, his patience finally at an end.

“I have a proven track record in organizational effectiveness and project management,” said Antonio proudly, “which continues to be the discriminators that the Vatican wants to see. My company’s deep experience in managing the decoration of church architecture will allow the church organization to achieve the efficiencies and increased productivity they desire. It’s a win/win relationship”

At this, the Pope finally raised his hand and interjected. “Thank you Antonio, I’d like a word with Michelangelo in private,”

Antonio had worked himself into a state of righteous pride. He glared disapprovingly at everyone as he gathered up his papers and flounced off, importantly.

“…and all you others, too,” said the pope, looking round at the assembled cardinals. “Please go. Michelangelo and I have some things to discuss.”

The two friends sat together in a pew, staring reflectively at the high alter as the clatter of clerical shoes died away.

“Your holiness, I suspect you want to talk about sponsorship.”

“It is a delicate matter, but we have to be conscious of the business plan”

“Everyone knows that the ceiling glorifies God, demonstrates his might, and instructs the faithful the bible story.”

“Quite. However, we both know why Libica, Daniel and Cumala are all carrying enormous books – the printers’ and papermakers’ Guild paid a handsome contribution to this project. You did very well to paint all those prominently positioned hops and grapes. The Brewers, Vintners and Publicans have all been most generous. As the book says ‘And thou shalt make bars of shittim wood (Exodus 26:26)’ Joel seems to be unraveling a roll of toilet paper- – a useful and lucrative reminder to the worshippers. We must look at all revenue sources where we can: For is it not said ‘Take ye from among you an offering unto the Lord: whosoever is of a willing heart, let him bring it, an offering of the Lord; gold, and silver, and brass’ (Exodus 35:5) I don’t understand why you were so rude to the Medici’s marketing manager, though.”

“I merely pointed out that a large sign, pinned over Adam’s crotch, announcing the Medici’s Banking Services, might militate against the theological message”

“Hmm. He is walking strangely and muttering about being assaulted with the handle of a paintbrush.”

“Well, it was his insistence of an oscillating notice board, surrounded by candles, saying ‘Congratulations, you are our 10,000 visitor at the Sistine Chapel. Call into Medici Bank for your cash prize’. Even I can be provoked.”

The two men fell into a moody silence. They stood, staring at the vast ceiling, and lost in thought. Here, in plaster was a complex, intricate message. For the faithful, it was a map of their beliefs and dogma. For everyone, it was a depiction of faith, and a blueprint of civilized life, preserved so that future generations could see, and understand the glory of the Christian era.

“Damn it.”, said Michelangelo, “If ever we succeed, it will be through your vision, and my brush-strokes, not through management teams, and broad consensus.”

The Pope did not answer. He was lost in a reverie as he stared at the almost-completed design for the creation. His lips twitched as though, in his imagination, he was talking to someone.

“Michelangelo,” he said at last, “God has been laughing at us. See him in your fresco creating the universe: A single creator. Is he surrounded by bleating configuration managers, compliance officers, Health and safety officials, Strategists, project managers, accountants and Architects? Oh no, the act of creation is compelling, and yet it is too easily stifled. ‘Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest. (Proverbs 6:6-8)’ Paint away, and paint alone. It will upset Antonio and the cardinals but I will pay for it myself, and you shall not be bothered by distractions.”

Neither of them spoke for a while. They stood, running their gaze over the work, two figures alone in the vast space, with no movement but the gentle billowing of netting under the scaffolding.

“Y’know,” said Michelangelo eventually, “it must be my astigmatism, but I could have sworn that God winked at us from the fresco just then.”

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  • CGLuttrell

    Great story as usual! I will have to get some of my clients to read this one.

  • Dan Kennedy

    Phil, are you going to create a book with all these short stories in ? A christmas best seller if ever I read one.

  • Phil Factor

    Bless you Dan. Yes, the current book is over a year old, and too expensive in printed form. It can be downloaded as an Ebook from the site for free if you are registered; at
    There are plans afoot for a new printed book of The Phrenetic Phoughts of Phil Factor, but as you say, probably in time for Christmas!

  • Lee

    Concerning Your Bible Scholarship…
    Phil, I don’t think the Bible translators in your Bible are the same group that did my Bible. There weren’t any vowels in ancient Hebrew, so perhaps it’s possible that any might “passeth” against the wall. If not, “Pisseth” sounds like it might be a city in the land of Moab.

  • Gabe Lawrence

    Genius writing
    You have an amazing ability to intertwine a story with reality. This seems frighteningly accurate too.

    “N-Layer Architecture”


  • Phil Factor

    Concerning my bible scholarship.
    The biblical quotes are taken directly from the original version of the King James’ Bible, which was written in ‘Shakespearian’ english. I haven’t altered them. I chose that translation because he and the Pope would have spouted the latin texts at each other, which was similarly archaeic but understandable to them. ‘The term ‘he that pisseth against the wall’, was originally an idiom for a chap. In my imagination, I decided that Michalangelo had misinterpreted it to be a derogatory term for management. A similar term was used in many places where I’ve worked.

    My favourite quote by far is the one about the ant, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest. (Proverbs 6:6-8)’”.

    Although I’ve taken many liberties with historical details, the more I read about the creation of the frescos, the more accurate this story seems. For example, Cardinal Carafa really did request to have breeches painted over all the reproductive organs.

  • jtklopcic

    You’ve written some great stuff in the past, but this is the best yet!! Keep up the good work.

  • William Poel

    Diversity training
    I’m very sorry, but the clear absence of the acknowledgement of alternative religious systems and beliefs in this piece, along with many poignant insights that undermine and question the value of the much-cherished modern diverse way of life under New Labour, require that you take it down immediately, and present yourself at your nearest centre for the rehabilitation of those remaining few in possession of perspective and common sense, in contravention of the 2006 Offences Against the Stupid Act.

  • Phil Factor

    Health and safety for Fresco painters
    I have to apologise for the idea that fresco painters didn’t fall off the scaffolding. Actually, several fresco painters fell to their deaths whilst painting frescos. This has been pointed out to me by a reader. Curiously, the deaths to Fresco painters that I’ve traced all seem to have happened long after Michelangelo’s time. Michelangelo invented a special form of platform to do the work and he worked for several years without incident. Perhaps an expert can elucidate.

  • Ivor Fall

    William Golding
    This rather reminded me of William Golding’s The Spire which I remember reading when aged 10 or thereabouts. Quite a few people fell to their deaths in that book, though none were employed in IT.