The Sistine Chapel was built between 1475 and 1483, in the time of Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere. Its basic feature is the papal function, as the pope's chapel and the location of the elections of new popes. It was consecrated and dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin on 15th August 1483.

The chapel has no architectural distinction, it is rectangular in shape and measures 40,93 meters long by 13,41 meters wide, i.e. the exact dimensions of the Temple of Solomon, as given in the Old Testament. It is 20,70 meters high and is roofed by a flattened barrel vault, with six tall windows cut into the long sides, forming a series of pendentives between them. The architectural plans were made by Baccio Pontelli and the construction was supervised by Giovannino de'Dolci. Later alterations modified the original exterior.

In 1481 Pope Sixtus IV summoned to Rome the Florentine painters Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Rosselli, as well as the Perugian Pietro Perugino to decorate the walls with frescoes. (According to Vasari, Luca Signorelli was also involved in the decoration.) The painting of the walls took place over an astonishingly short period of time, barely eleven months, from July, 1481 to May, 1482. The ceiling was frescoed by Piero Matteo d'Amelia with a star-spangled sky.

Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II della Rovere in 1508 to repaint the ceiling; the work was completed between 1508 and 1512. He painted the Last Judgment over the altar, between 1535 and 1541, being commissioned by Pope Paul III Farnese.

For great ceremonial occasions the lowest portions of the side walls were covered with a series of tapestries depicting events from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. These were Rosselli, as well as the Perugian Pietro designed by Raphael and woven in 1515-19 at Brussels.

The building in some respects can be considered a personal monument to the Della Rovere family, since Sixtus IV saw to its actual construction and the frescoes beneath the vaults, and his nephew Julius II commissioned the ceiling decoration. Oak leaves and acorns abound, heraldic symbols of the family whose name means literally "from the oak."

The decoration of the chapel was cleaned and restored in recent decades. The project started with the fifteenth century frescoes in 1965. The restoration of the lunettes, the vault and the Last Judgment started in 1980 and was terminated in 1994. The restoration produced a spectacular result.

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