Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer Part I
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
Rare Michelangelo drawings on view in New York City? Count me in! I was delighted to see the “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (November 13, 2017-February 12, 2018). It was a major exhibition of rarely seen drawings gathered in one space. Why so special? Thirty-seven museums outside the U.S. loaned artworks to the Met and a total of fifty-one private and public collections participated in the exhibit. Two hundred and forty-six artworks were on view. A little daunting! The hefty catalogue accompanying the exhibit weighs about five pounds.
Michelangelo was active as an artist for some seventy years and the exhibit brought together works from his earliest teenage years to drawings completed in his late eighties. About 70,000 visitors attended - in the top ten of the Met’s most popular shows. I will vouch for the crowded galleries and trying to enjoy smaller scale drawings with four or five people deep waiting for a close-up view. Patience required.
At the Met!
Drawings are rarely exhibited due to their delicate nature and state of preservation. The exhibit area was darkened as light damages the drawings. One of the most intriguing features of the show was a large light-box mounted on the ceiling duplicating the Sistine Ceiling. Michelangelo’s drawings corresponding to the painting were exhibited below. This offered viewers a unique glimpse into the creative mind and how he first imagined the figures on paper and in their final painted form. It is not very often we can look over the shoulder of a great master during the creative process.
Reproduction of Sistine Ceiling, the Metropolitan Museum, New York
Here are some of my favorites from the exhibit with some background and context. It was very impressive to see his chalk drawings as well as sonnets and inscriptions by his hand. The exhibit skillfully demonstrated the breadth of the artist’s “divine” genius in painting, sculpture and architecture over seven decades of his work.
Michelangelo, Studies for a Boy Attendant, Right Hand of the Libyan Sibyl in the Sistine Ceiling, Studies for the Slaves in the Tomb of Pope Julius II, Sketch of a Cornice, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Red Chalk, pen and brown ink.
This 7 x 11 inch sheet contains sketches for three projects: the Sistine Ceiling, the Tomb of Pope Julies II and a cornice for an architectural project. The two red chalk figures, a boy turning away from the viewer, and sketch of a right hand are preparatory for the Sistine Ceiling. Despite the significance and size of the Sistine Ceiling frescoes there are few surviving drawings. Early on in his Sistine Ceiling drawings he used black chalk; red chalk was preferred as the project evolved. The six smaller figures are slaves for the Pope Julius II tomb. Although the tomb was never completed, some unfinished sculptures reside in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence.
He approached the human body, which he saw as a divine creation from God, as a sculptor. Michelangelo used the same sheets time and time again for multiple projects. He did not like wasting paper or materials.
Michelangelo, Sonnet about the Sistine Ceiling, Casa Buonarroti, Florence, exhibit at Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Michelangelo is known not only for his art but for his way with words. Sonnets were a source of private communication between friends. Michelangelo wrote of his hardships frescoing the Sistine Ceiling including a self-portrait standing on scaffolding reaching upwards to paint a seated figure. In part, the sonnet says:
“With my beard toward heaven, I feel my memory-box
Atop my hump; I’m getting my harpy’s breast;
And the brush that is always above my face
by dripping down, makes it an ornate pavement.”
He ends the sonnet by declaring “I am not a painter.”
His handwriting is in beautiful script. In his letters he disdains sloppy handwriting.
Michelangelo, Portrait of Andrea Quaratesi, The British Museum, London, exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
An 11x 17 black chalk rendering of young Andrea Quaratesi was a standout at the exhibit, with many onlookers crowded around for a close-up view. The softness of the modeling and three quarters length pose with eyes looking beyond the frame are reminiscent of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. The Quaratesi were rich merchant bankers in Pisa. Completed about 1531-4, Michelangelo was 37 years senior to the young aristocrat. Does the hint of sensuality in the portrait signal a sexual attraction on Michelangelo’s part?
Portraits were definitely not Michelangelo’s preferred subject. This rare drawing is sublime. Michelangelo’s drawing has great attention to detail, is thoughtfully planned out, and highly finished. I will let readers draw their own conclusions, but you won’t find many female subjects in his work. He wrote poetry and made gift drawings to handsome young men, and as evidenced by this exhibit – or paging through any Michelangelo book – he loved drawing, painting and sculpting the male body. Readers should resist correlating present day LBGTQ identities to the sixteenth century. “Gay” was not in their vocabulary. Suffice to say Michelangelo was pious, chaste, and infatuated.
Michelangelo, Bust of Brutus, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Gift drawings and poems were relatively common in Michelangelo’s time as a means to consolidate friendships and important relationships. Sculptures, not so much. They were more difficult to consign and much more time consuming to make. Yet Michelangelo began a rather large and imposing marble bust of Brutus intended for a Cardinal. At the time Michelangelo was living in Rome away from his beloved Florence due to uncertain political circumstances in Tuscany. He longed to return to Florence and the Republic he grew up in. However, he never returned and remained in Rome for the remainder of his life.
Although never finished and never given to the Cardinal, exiled Florentines could identify with the portrait of the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who knifed his father to death on the Ides of March. Michelangelo was one of many exiled Florentines living in Rome, called “fuoriusciti,” literally “exited out.” The fuoriusciti hailed the 1537 assassination of Duke Alessandro de’ Medici by his cousin Lorenzino di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici as a coup to re-establish the Florentine Republic. The former supporters of the Republic were exiled from Florence, Michelangelo included. The Brutus sculpture is a stand in for the murderer Lorenzino.
Michelangelo, Bust of Brutus, detail, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Michelangelo’s sculpture is monumental in attitude, stern, and evocative of Roman sculpture. You don’t want to mess with Michelangelo’s Brutus. Especially intriguing is the unfinished texture of the bust, with roughed in hair, ear and chin. The chisel marks are evident in the neck and contrast with the folds of drapery. The figure’s head turn to the left is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s David. Michelangelo captures the same intense focus and gaze.
Michelangelo, Roman Soldiers, Cartoon fragment for the Lower Left Part of the Crucifixion of Saint Peter in the Pauline Chapel, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, exhibit at Metropolitan Museum, New York
Michelangelo was well known for artistic secrecy. Besides burning many drawings, he did not allow prints from his drawings to circulate (they did anyway despite his wishes) nor finished cartoons to end up in the wrong hands. One of two surviving cartoons demonstrates the masterful technique necessary to scale up a sketch made on about 11 x 17 paper to a large wall surface.
Cartoons are the final blueprint for a fresco, drawn to scale for transfer to the painting surface. This cartoon of Roman Soldiers made for the lower left part of the Crucifixion Scene of St. Peter in the Vatican Pauline Chapel measures 8.5 x 5 feet and consists of 19 sheets of paper glued together. Michelangelo remained true to the Tuscan method of fresco preparation learned as a young assistant in his master’s shop decades earlier.
The three figures correspond to a day of frescoing. Frescoes were painted in “giornate” or days as the paint needed to be applied to a section of wet plaster. The cartoon shows Michelangelo prepared highly finished drawings – not just outlines – of his figures and then transferred the finished drawing to another set of papers glued together. The finished drawing was then pricked with holes and transferred to the second set of papers, and the second set of papers were transferred to the wall. The finished drawing cartoon in turn was not destroyed in this method. Finished cartoons were highly collectible and coveted.
Stylistically the figures remain robust muscular males. Michelangelo often depicted figures in some form of movement, usually turning or twisting, not in a static pose. The finished fresco depicts the soldiers with semi-transparent clothing. He was often criticizing for nudity in his late works as the Reformation took hold and the religious climate became more conservative. The Pauline Chapel, Michelangelo’s final frescoes, were painted in his 70s between 1542-1550 and served as the private papal chapel. The Pauline Chapel is adjacent to the Sistine Chapel; he painted the Sistine Ceiling forty years earlier and the Last Judgement ten years earlier.
The quality of the drawing and modeling of the figures is remarkable for an artist who in his 70s still had about 14 years of activity ahead of him.
Part II: My next post will explore the unique relationships between Michelangelo's drawings, Queen Elizabeth II, Japanese paper and red hematite.
Bambach, Carmen C. Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017.