There was a second time, but that involved a scary landing at Douala's airport and with unclear plan on how to get to a hotel. But that's a tale for another day.
This time, we are talking about getting up close and personal. And I was reminded of this encounter as I watched footage of the esteemed cardinals filing into the Sistine Chapel to elect a new pontiff. As I saw a glimpse of the magnificence of Michelangelo's handiwork, I was instantly transported back.
As it happened, I was attending an agency meeting in Rome in 2006. After one of the early afternoon sessions, our Roman hosts told us that they had a special treat lined up. A van pulled up and drove us to the Vatican. The museum and the chapel had already closed for the day. But not for Saatchi & Saatchi.
We were ushered in and guided by a rather elderly and extremely knowledgable guide. She took us through all the rooms of the Vatican museum until finally, we reached the Sistine Chapel.
There we were. Eight of us. And the guide. And a handful of angry looking dudes who made sure we didn't snap any pictures. Quick, badly framed, badly lit shots like this:
To be virtually alone in that space, surrounded by the genius of the man, is a truly breathtaking experience. Unrushed, your eye could scan across the scale of his work. One could truly take in the time scale too, as you notice how his painting style evolved over the four years that it took him to paint all the frescoes.
One could, for a moment, fully appreciate the displacement of consciousness from the heavens into this tiny little building in downtown Rome.
And then, as we were about to leave, our guide talked to us about The Last Judgement - a painting Michelangelo completed 20 years later on the Northern wall of the Chapel. She told us that the pope's Master of Ceremonies complained about the time it took and all the nudity. To punish him, Michelangelo lent the official's likeness to Minos - a judge of the underworld. He also added donkey ears. When the outraged official complained, the pope just smiled and said his jurisdiction did not extend to hell.
We all chuckled at this tale. We've all had clients like that. And good for Michelangelo. In that moment, he wasn't just the god-like genius, he was just the hustling creative, getting his own back. In other words, a man, like the rest of us.