I have had builders in for the past few weeks, tearing out an old kitchen and installing a new one. The experience, as anyone who's ever had building work done, is an odd combination of fine judgements and frustration. Will it look better if that gap is four millimetres rather than two? Does Mellow Sage offer any chromatic advantage over Hunter or Lichen Green? Will the emotional effect of the whole work (Domestic Interior without Figures, Mixed Media, 1995) be ruined by the wrong doorknob? You cannot rush such decisions - they require agitated conferences, test samples, crouching down, eyeing up, standing back. At the same time, the impatience with delay grows daily. The finished product exists in the mind, but reality crawls towards consummation, stopping now and then for a tea break. The experience made me wonder if such frustrations were experienced on more ancient building projects. Did Cheops grit his teeth as the works overseer explained that the suppliers had let him down again - they were six monoliths short and now the quarry was busy with an order for paving stones? Did the architect mollify him with soothing words? - "I promise you Pharaoh, it'll be finished by the time you die." Probably not, if only because Cheops had sterner sanctions available than a 5 per cent completion clause.

But there is plenty of evidence, coming closer to the present day, that the agonies of the contracted work of art are not unique to this century. The accounts for Westminster Abbey include an edict of 1252, in which Henry III ordered his treasurer and his master of works to cough up the necessary funds to get the workmen back on site. They had gone off to do other jobs when the money dried up. In his book The Cathedral Builders, Jean Gimpel notes that the restrictive practices of Parisian plasterers at the end of the 13th century bear a close resemblance to the union rules of American plasterers in the 1970s - which suggests that the sites of the great cathedrals may have echoed to the sound of demarcation disputes and hotly defended perks. Gimpel also reprints a selection from the accounts of Autun cathedral which make for interesting reading. Much of it is pretty conventional: eight pounds and 16 sous to carpenters for cask wood cut in the chapter's forest; three sous and 16 deniers for the cost of lathing. But the odd item seems to hint at other matters. What lies behind "For treatment to a horse, five sous", for example? A good excuse, perhaps. "Sorry guv, I can't get the tiles round to you because the horse did himself a mischief on that last load. If you can see your way to paying the vet, of course... well..."

The more skilled the craftsman, the greater is their power. When Julius II got the painters in to finish off a chapel built by his predecessor Sixtus IV, he cannot have imagined that the work would take four years, even though his plans were grandiose. At first things went well: Michelangelo signed the contract on 10 May 1508 and started work on the same day. Work was immediately slowed by problems with mould, but in the face of this difficulty Michelangelo displayed a reckless disregard for conventional practice. "I do not ask anything of the Pope," he wrote to his father, "because my work does not seem to me to go ahead in a way to merit it."

Things soon soured. At one point the Pope threatened to throw the painter off the scaffolding after asking when the work would be finished and receiving the offhand answer: "When I can." Michelangelo himself expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of some of the work because of the pressure on him to finish quickly. Which is why I shall greet my own builders - all Michelangelos in their field - with a contented smile and a cup of tea on Monday, even though they were meant to be finished yesterday.

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