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Special Exhibition: Michelangelo's First Painting

Keith Christiansen, the Jayne Wrightsman Curator of European Paintings, and Michael Gallagher, conservator in charge of Paintings Conservation, discuss their research and conservation of the first known painting by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), believed to have been created when he was twelve or thirteen years old. Recently acquired by the Kimbell Art Museum, the painting The Torment of Saint Anthony has undergone conservation and technical examination at the Metropolitan Museum, leading to this new attribution.


Keith Christiansen: Hi, I'm Keith Christiansen, Jayne Wrightsman Curator of European Paintings at The Metropolitan Museum. I'm with my colleague Michael Gallagher, conservator in charge of Paintings Conservation. We're standing in the Met's paintings galleries, in front of a beautiful, small picture, The Torment of Saint Anthony, that has a fascinating history to it because it was painted by Michelangelo when he was twelve or thirteen years old. It's the centerpiece of an exhibition at the Metropolitan called Michelangelo's First Painting, and it will be on view through September 7 of this year.

I suppose Michelangelo's one of the very few Western artists who needs no introduction. He is one of the greatest figures in Western visual culture. And the question is: What did he paint? How did he draw? What did he sculpt when he was a kid? Did it look like something I did? It's a question that has fascinated people for years. We happen to know, from his two principal biographers, that his first picture was a copy of an engraving by the great German artist Martin Schongauer and it showed Saint Anthony elevated above the earth and the sky, tormented by demons.

The picture that I'm standing in front of in the galleries is that picture. And the identification of it as the lost picture by Michelangelo is something that resulted from careful exam of the picture at the Metropolitan over the last year. The picture was sold at auction in London last July, in 2008. It already had a bibliography, since it was first acquired in Pisa in the 1830s. The question was whether it was the lost original, a copy of the lost original—what exactly it was. And Michael Gallagher has played an enormous part in looking at all the technical peculiarities of it, all of which seem to us to point to Michelangelo's authorship. Michael?

Michael Gallagher: When the painting arrived at the Museum, it looked very different than it does today. It was under a discolored varnish, a varnish probably applied in the nineteenth century or the very early part of the twentieth century, that had become very yellow, very oxidized. It distorted not only the color but the tonality, so the picture didn't seem to have much depth. It hid a lot of the detail in the treatment of the figures, the demons. Also, the small damages that had occurred to the painting over the centuries had been very crudely and rather generously retouched, and that retouching had become discolored as well. And so, the overall impression was somewhat crude and I think it was rather underwhelming for someone who didn't know paintings and the way they can appear under those circumstances. The first part of the process was the cleaning of the painting, very careful looking, examination. And then the very enjoyable part of removing the varnish and seeing these extraordinary colors and the three-dimensionality of the painting emerge. Allied to that was a technical investigation including X-radiography, infrared reflectography to look at the underdrawing, which is done in a carbon-based medium that lies beneath the paint layer. All of which strengthened our own opinion that this painting was, indeed, the earliest work by Michelangelo.

Keith Christiansen: The circumstances for the creation of this picture are as follows—we have this from Michelangelo's biographer Condivi, Ascanio Condivi, and we know that Michelangelo was the person who told the story firsthand to Condivi, so this all comes from Michelangelo himself: He's a youth. He's interested in painting. His father is dead set against him becoming an artist, because, of course, the Buonarroti family has a distinguished background. Why should you do something that's manual labor? Michelangelo strikes up a friendship with a young artist who lives down the street, six years his senior, named Francesco Granacci. And Francesco Granacci introduces Michelangelo into one of the busiest workshops in Florence, that of Domenico Ghirlandaio. He shows him around, shows him the painter's materials—artist's materials: drawings, pens, ink. And eventually Michelangelo wants to actually paint a picture. And it's Francesco Granacci who, Michelangelo told Condivi, supplied him with the panel, brushes, paint, and the engraving. At the Metropolitan, we've juxtaposed a facsimile of the engraving with the picture so that you have an opportunity to see exactly the changes the young Michelangelo made. Because he may only be thirteen years old, but he's already an artist who has no hesitation to correct—to improve—on the model that he's using. Michael, talk a little bit about some of the changes that Michelangelo made.

Michael Gallagher: I think one of the things that is so striking is the way he's turned this black-and-white graphic image, this graphic embellishment used in the figures, into three-dimensional form. Where he uses the paint to describe textures, leathery wings, bristling spines. All of this elaboration of the demons is an act of imagination. It's taking an engraving and moving to something that is colored, three-dimensional.

Keith Christiansen: Well, there's also the aspect that Condivi tells us—once again, it was Michelangelo who furnished him this information—that he wants the figures to look more truthful, more—have a physical presence. How does he do this? He goes to the food market and he looks at fish. And, in fact, in one of the monsters, that in the upper left, we see that fish scales have been added to Schongauer's print. This can only have been done by Michelangelo. It's one of the details that is told by Condivi. The second, I think, really big change is that he adds a whole landscape below. There are rocks that remind us of Netherlandish painting—and Ghirlandaio was a great fan of Netherlandish painting—and then there's this very distant sea view with a boat sailing across the distant waters. So he's transformed the whole scene into something much more visionary, I think, and at the same time more palpable.

Michael Gallagher: In the engraving, there's only the merest suggestion of a landscape in the bottom right corner. And here, you, in the painting, you really get the sense of the saint that has been swept up by this sort of maelstrom of demonic figures, pulled up above the landscape. And it's very striking the way, as you reach the horizon, the color is almost bleached out of the picture. And there's an extraordinary drama, I think, to the placement in the landscape.

Keith Christiansen: And the other thing is the colors. I mean, Michael talked about the vibrancy of the colors. But it's more than just vibrancy. There's a very particular palette. We have in some of the monsters sort of an apple green that moves into a sharp yellow. We have a lavender combined with green. We have a plum that moves into green, combined with a vermilion. These are all extraordinary combinations that, personally, I can't think of any other fifteenth-century artist using, but that we encounter again in the Sistine Chapel. Colors, I think, are one of the most innate things that an artist has. You're born with a particular color sense. So it's not surprising to me that a twelve- or thirteen-year-old, working from a black-and-white print—full license for whatever colors he wants—uses the whole palette of his favorite colors, and they turn out to be the ones that he's going to use throughout his life.

Michael Gallagher: Mm-hmm. I mean, if you look at, say, the group of three demons in the lower left quadrant around the figure of Saint Anthony, and you have this amazing almost like bat-eared figure that—he uses a sort of black underpainting, and then this tiny stippling of a very fiery red to create all the volumes and the forms. And then as it gets to the ears, they flush into a sort of bottle green. As Keith talked about, this lavender edge to that, and then beneath it—one of my favorite figures—the demon that is gripping onto the drapery of Saint Anthony and is tipped backwards into this sort of mad howl, where the paint is really stippled and layered on this sulfurous yellow, as it meets the crown of the head. And then again to these wings in this wonderful, leathery chestnut color.

Keith Christiansen: One of the things that we wanted in the exhibition was that viewers would have the opportunity of seeing details of the pictures that gave them an insight into all the technical particularities of it. There are wonderful panels that Michael has written that will take people right into the whole cleaning of the picture, the technical analysis, and will give them a clear idea, I think, of why this is almost certainly the panel that Michelangelo, we are told, did when he was about thirteen years old. Because the question obviously arises, if this picture was known since 1830, how come everybody else hasn't recognized it? You guys think it's so obvious, how come other people haven't?

I think that, number one, they didn't have the opportunity of seeing it cleaned. Number two, the technical evidence is now marshaled in a very extraordinary way. And then there's a third factor that I would like to suggest, and that is when you think of Michelangelo—the Pietà, the David, the Sistine Chapel, the great Holy Family circular picture in the Uffizi in Florence—these are incomparably great works of art, some of the pinnacles of Western art. It's difficult to move from these backwards, to something done by a twelve- or thirteen-year-old. And, naturally, this doesn't look like a great masterpiece. It's not a great masterpiece; it's a trial run of an incredibly gifted young person. That leap can only be made with the biographies in mind, with the documentation in mind. So we've actually looked at it from the other end of the tunnel—not moving back from the Sistine Chapel, but forward from the actual facts that we know about Michelangelo's life.

Michael Gallagher: There are also—aside from the color and the pigments used—there are some very particular techniques of painting, which seem to be something the artist stays with for many years to come. He has an obsession with contour and scrapes back into areas that he's already painted to tighten the edge of something, to really perfect it. And throughout the picture, you see these—he's not correcting the work he's done from the engraving, he's actually already changed that; even in the drawing stage, he's made changes to the engraving. But he's correcting his own painting. He's tightening up a contour, he's moving the edge of a bit of drapery, the edge of a leg, all with the idea of this interplay between the positive and the negative spaces. And I think it's one of the great strengths of the picture, when you look at how the sky pierces through between the figures, each one of those shapes is considered; each of it plays a role in the creation of a rhythm and pattern within the composition.

Keith Christiansen: George Lucas fans, this is a Star Wars picture. It's a picture that only a kid could have really painted. He really pulled out all stops. And I think it's one of the most intriguing things, that we have a twelve-, thirteen-year-old brilliant kid who looks at a print by Schongauer of the torment of Saint Anthony with all of these mythical monsters around, and he says, "Wow, that's cool. That one's for me, and I'm going to turn it into color. It's going to be fantastic." And, in fact, when everybody else saw it, it made the impression Michelangelo had hoped. But I think there's something very enduring about this young artist taking a subject with all of these monsters, obviously in very complex poses, and this must have been one of the challenges he liked, but also that simply set fire to his imagination. To me, looking at this picture, I think that's the thing that's the most intriguing: the quality of the rendition, but the brilliance of the imagination in the transformation of a simple black-and-white print into a colored vision.

Michael Gallagher: And as Keith was talking a bit before about going to the fishmonger's to look at the scales—if you have the opportunity to look from the engraving back to the painting, you'll see that it's not just, say, on the scales with fish. Each of the heads of those demons is more based in reality. They're reminiscent of a monkey, or a bat, a bird, a lizard, even a sort of iridescent body of a dragonfly. And he's anchored that nightmarish vision also in reality. But clearly sort of looking for inspiration, because he's a young man without maybe a stock of images. He would have had to go to nature to provide ideas, but where he's taken them from and how he's used them is really compelling.

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