Sunday, 20 September 2009





There is no doubt that the show of Michelangelo drawings now at the British Museum in London will count as one of the artistic events of the year, if not of the decade. It is unlikely that the public will have another chance to see such a complete panorama of the artist’s achievement as a draughtsman for many years to come, if indeed ever again. The museum reported, before the exhibition had even opened, that advance bookings had reached a level three times greater than that of any previous show held in its – rather cramped – temporary exhibition space.


The reasons for this rush to get in are not hard to discover. Michelangelo’s reputation is that of the greatest of all artists. Most of his finished, or near-finished, works are in marble or fresco, and can never leave their locations in Florence or Rome. His drawings are the only portable objects we have, and many of the best of these are in British collections – in the British Museum itself, and in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. To these the show adds drawings borrowed from the Teyler Museum in Haarlem. Many of the sheets on view are now so familiar from reproduction – for example, the studies of bathers for the ‘Battle of Cascina’, or the red chalk drawing for the figure of Adam on the Sistine ceiling – that many visitors will feel sure they have encountered them previously.

In fact, they probably haven’t. Old Master drawings are too fragile, and too vulnerable to the effects of light, to be put on view very often, or for prolonged periods of time.


However, there are other, subtler reasons for this sense of familiarity. Drawings are intimate in scale. Further more, they seem to admit us behind the scenes, so are intimate in another sense – they lay bare the processes of creativity. As Hugo Chapman, the curator of the exhibition, points out, this is something that Michelangelo would have disliked instensely, since he was secretive about what he did. Yet it is also clear that he used drawing as a process of communication with others, not just as a method of research and exploration of form and compositional arrangement. There are finished drawings here that were made as presents for his intimates, among them the youth Tommaso de’Cavalieri, with whom Michelangelo was in love, and the Roman noblewoman Vittoria Colonna. Some sheets were made to instruct students – in these images made by Michelangelo mingle with much inferior work by other hands. Michelangelo also made preliminary drawings to help other artists whom he favored. One was Sebastiano del Piombo, whose huge Raising of Lazarus, now in the National Gallery in London depends on drawings given to him by Michelangelo. Another was the much-less gifted Marcello Venusti, whose painting of Christ Purifying the Temple, based directly on compositional sketches by Michelangelo, is included in the show.


Sebastiano’s gloomy altarpiece, and still more so Venusti’s finicky cabinet painting, raise questions about our own attitudes to Michelangelo and his achievements that have never quite been resolved by any of the numerous art historians and critics who have devoted attention to him. Let me put it this way – in both cases, we find ourselves rather pleased to be disappointed by the finished result.


Michelangelo and his slightly older contemporary Leonardo da Vinci are the two acknowledged heroes of High Renaissance art. Raphael, who used to be ranked with them, now occupies a much less secure position.  Clearly one of the things that fascinates us about them, and which in turn puts a special emphasis on their legacy of drawings, is the amount of unfinished or aborted projects that they left behind them. In Leonardo’s case this can be attributed to his inability, with rare exceptions, to fix his mind on any one project. Damming rivers, digging canals, designing flying machines and costumes for princely entertainments – all of these enterprises interested him at least as much as painting pictures. In Michelangelo’s case it is fair to point to sculptures like the David in Florence and the Pieta in St Peter’s as fully finished works, still more so the supreme achievement of the frescos in the Sistine Chapel. There nevertheless remain a substantial number of sculptures that remained incomplete, among them the unresolved Rondanini Pieta now in Milan, which Michelangelo was still hacking away at less than a fortnight before his death.


These unfinished works now seem to invite us to participate in the act of creation, and that is the reason why they fascinate us. Yet there is a little more to it than this. The two biographers, both of them artists, who wrote accounts of Michelangelo in his own lifetime were Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi. Michelangelo was quite close to both of them. For Condivi he made the full-scale cartoon, one of only two such works that survive, which is included in the British Museum show. Using it, Condivi produced a fairly dreadful painting, now in the Casa Buonarroti in Florence. Vasari and Condivi clearly with Michelangelo’s tacit consent, both pursue the same line. For them he was a kind of superman, possessed or more than mortal powers.


This was an entirely new concept. The Greeks understood the notion that certain people could possess or be linked to a ‘daemon’, which advised them at crucial moments in their lives.  Socrates had a link with just such an admonitory voice, though it did not save him from being condemned to drink the hemlock. In the Middle Ages, there were frequent instances of individuals, such as Joan of Arc, who were guided by supernatural beings or voices. Michelangelo, however, was perhaps the very first individual where the purely natural and supernatural elements in his personality were perceived by contemporaries as things that had become inextricably fused.


Essentially therefore, the Michelangelo drawing show is not simply an exhibition of art works. It is also an exhibition of relics, of things that have been, in the most literal sense, touched by the hand of genius. Great painter and sculptor as he undoubtedly was, he stands at the beginning of a long and slippery slope. Much of the art produced at the present time has much more to do with a cult of relics that it has to do with any conventional definition of visual art. Michelangelo’s true successor is Joseph Beuys, who was as much a shaman as he was an artist. It is this quasi-supernatural element that, in the coming months, will bring tens of thousands of visitors flocking to the British Museum. The title of the exhibition says it all: ‘Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master’.



‘Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master’, British Museum,. London 23 March to 25 June 2006.


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