Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer Part II
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
As I left the exhibit at the Met, a little overwhelmed, and took a taxi back to the hotel, my thoughts turned to three questions regarding: chalk, provenance and conservation. I didn't think at the time that the earth, the Queen and seaweed would answer my questions.
What drawing materials were available to Michelangelo? There were a lot of red and black chalk drawings in the exhibit. Was his chalk like the chalk we can buy at an art store?
About fifty of the drawings – one-fifth of the exhibit – came from collections in the United Kingdom, predominantly Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the British Museum. How on earth did so many of Michelangelo’s drawings end up in these collections?
The very fragile nature of paper made me wonder, what conservation measures are used today? There were obvious tears, creases and stains on the paper. Their worth must be inestimable. And they must have been handled many times in the course of nearly five hundred years and stored in all kinds of conditions regardless of heat, cold or humidity.
Chalks and Paper
Let’s start at the beginning – drawing materials in the 1500s. Chalk, lead point, and paper were not as easily manufactured as they are now. And paper was very expensive. By mid-1400s a high-quality sheet of paper cost the equivalent of a common laborer’s wages for a week. Paper was usually made from hemp and linen, soaked in water and beaten to a pulp. The pulp was spread on a thin wire grid so the liquid drained away, leaving a fine lined paper. The most labor-intensive drawing surface was vellum, made from calf or goat skin. As paper costs came down, artists could “brainstorm” or experiment more on paper, instead of using it sparingly. Reduced paper costs were possible with the proliferation of printing presses and book publication.
Michelangelo, Study of a Man in Bust Length, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, exhibit at Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Red chalk drawing completed about 1525-28, most likely drawn from life, perhaps an assistant or laborer.
Michelangelo used red, black and white chalk. Red chalk is composed of red hematite, iron oxide suspended in clay. Red chalk allows for subtle shades and give modeling and depth to the figures. Natural red chalk hue varies depending on the quarrying site and responds well to pressure from the artist’s hand resulting in blended tonal variations, not unlike pastels. Red chalk was quarried directly from the earth and cut into sticks or short blocks in a ready to use format. It became a favored and popular medium, so much so that eventually the naturally occurring clay became harder to locate. Michelangelo’s red chalk has a smoky reddish-brown color. Leonardo da Vinci was an early adapter of red chalk.
Michelangelo, Study for the Head of the Cumaean Sibyl, Biblioteca Reale, Turin, exhibit at Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Black chalk with touches of white gouache, 13 x 9. This figure, done mid-way through the Sistine Ceiling project, represents a female prophet associated with Rome. Black chalk with touches of white gouache.
Black chalk is taken directly from black carbonaceous shale and was more available than red chalk. It could also be sharpened for thin lines or used for broad strokes. Michelangelo completed first drawings for the Sistine Ceiling in black chalk or pen and ink before switching to red chalk. Breadcrumbs served as an eraser for black chalk. By about 1534 he stopped using red chalk as it became harder to obtain. Pen and ink were also popular drawing materials. White chalk was used mostly for highlights and is derived from calcium carbonate. Michelangelo, and other artists, often used these materials together along with a wash (diluted ink) to produce the desired effect.
The Queen and Michelangelo
How did so many of Michelangelo’s drawings end up in England? Michelangelo died a rich man. His wealth helped the Buonarroti family to maintain his legacy and keep most of his drawings intact at the Florentine family residence until the last heir died about 1858. The Buonarroti house and art were bequeathed to the city of Florence. However, much of the art and drawings were sold off to collectors. Sketch books were not kept together and instead were dismantled to sell as individual sheets. But tastes had also changed by the eighteenth century. The soft, sweet Madonnas of Raphael were preferred to the tense, twisted figures so prevalent in Michelangelo’s work. Michelangelo was admired for his virtuoso and imagination; Raphael for refined style.
Allan Ramsay, King George III Coronation Portrait, 1762-66, Courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields. Often referred to as the “mad king,” his legacy was patron and collector of the arts. He was Queen Victoria’s grandfather.
King George III (yes, the King that lost the American War of Independence) was a massive collector of all art forms including maps, paintings, drawings, medals, gems, manuscripts and books. By the time of his death in 1820 he had amassed 65,000 books and established a Royal Library and Royal Academy of Arts. He started gathering a state held art collection for Royal perpetuity. The Royal Librarian, familiar with Italian art, purchased many drawings, and presumably this is how some Michelangelo drawings entered into the collection. They are first recorded in 1810. Provenance is not always recorded as accurately as it would be nowadays. However, the core of the British Museum’s Michelangelo drawings was purchased directly from the Buonarroti family in 1858-9.
The black chalk Fall of Phaeton has a secure provenance to King George III. Michelangelo gifted the mythological drawing to Tommaso de’Cavalieri, a Roman aristocrat some 38 year younger than Michelangelo. Clearly enamored, Michelangelo made many finished drawings and wrote poems to Tommaso. Phaeton was the son of Apollo, the sun god. He pleaded with his father to let him drive the chariot across the sky. Apollo finally relented. Unable to control the chariot, chaos ensued with the gods and universe reacting in horror as earth is nearly destroyed.
Michelangelo, Fall of Phaeton, Windsor Castle, the Royal Collection, HM Queen Elizabeth II, exhibit at Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The 16 x 9 inch drawing has remarkable detail and is highly finished.
The subject was often leveraged to demonstrate the harm of rash thinking, pride and the merits of self-control. Tommaso passed the drawing to Roman Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in the late 1500s and it remained in the Farnese collection until sold to King George III after 1760. It is now part of HM Queen Elizabeth II Royal Collection.
There has been little agreement among art historians on the number of authentic Michelangelo drawings. A vast range of 30-600 authentic drawings have been proposed since the early 1900s. I will spare readers the pros and cons of these arguments; about 300 seems to be reasonable, especially considering Michelangelo burned large quantities of drawings on four occasions. By comparison, Leonardo’s drawings and notes number more than 1,000.
How are these priceless drawings conserved to reduce deterioration of paper and the drawing medium? Collectors and conservators have taken different approaches through the centuries. We would never tear apart a Michelangelo or Leonardo notebook today. Restoration used to be the main purpose in trying to preserve old master art, often with unintended results: adding coats of varnish to paintings, gluing drawings to canvas or mounting drawings with glue on corners.
Today’s measures are considered less intrusive without losing sight of the original intent of the artist. Blemishes are reduced in order not to detract from the drawing. Conservators do not try to make the drawings look new; drawings should show their age.
Michelangelo, Designs for a Monumental Altar or Facade, Governing Body of Christ Church, exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Drawn about 1518-20, the mediums used are pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash, over black chalk, stylus ruling and compass construction. This is the “verso” or front side of the drawing. The back side of the drawing is referred to as the “recto.”
Michelangelo’s Designs for a Monumental Altar or Façade is a case study in conservative care. The drawing has a long crease caused by gluing two mounts to the paper; one mount applied by Michelangelo’s grand-nephew and another one-hundred years later. The mounts were intended to facilitate handling of the drawing, which is on both sides, but were too small for the paper size and caused the paper to buckle. Mold spots and a large tear are also visible on the paper. The tear is visible at the top center of the paper extending down and to the right. The crease is to the right of the building facade in dark ink.
To prevent further damage and to prepare for the exhibit the 500-year-old adhesive needed to be detached from the paper to remove the mounts. The Met’s Paper Conservator found a gap in the adhesive in order to scrape some off for testing. A seaweed derived gel was then applied around the mount to dissolve the adhesive. This painstaking treatment took many weeks. The mounts were finally removed from the delicate and thin linen and flax paper. The paper was gently humidified and afterwards flattened with weights and the process repeated several times. This helped to straighten the paper. The tear could be mended but since the tear was the product perhaps of Michelangelo’s studio, or hundreds of years ago, it was left as is.
Conservators examine drawings with light-boxes, ultraviolet light and microscopes to see watermarks, tears and identify previously treated areas. The artist’s ink is tested for solubility before any work is done on the drawings. Japanese tissue is often used to mend tears as the fibers are strong and the paper is chemically neutral. Japanese paper treatment is also reversible. Thankfully the 500-year-old glue was also due to today’s technology.
Ames-Lewis, Frances. Drawing in Early Renaissance Italy. Yale University Press, 2000.
Bambach, Carmen C. Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2017.
Chapman, Hugo and Marzia Faietti. Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance Drawings. Lund Humphries, 2010.
Portner, Jessica. “Drawing the Line: Conserving Master Drawings with a Light Touch.” The Iris: Behind the Scenes at the Getty. February 11, 2011.
The Met, “Conserving Michelangelo” YouTube Video November 3, 2017.
“The Secret Life of Drawings.” Exhibit at the Getty Center, November 23, 2010 – February 13, 2011.