This exhibition examines Michelangelo Buonarroti's genius as a draftsman and designer within the widest possible scope of his creativity as a sculptor, painter, and architect. In 1568 the biographer Giorgio Vasari lauded Michelangelo's incomparable command of disegno, an Italian word that encompasses the meanings of both "drawing," in concrete terms, and "design," in the abstract sense of the creative idea. Michelangelo's disegno ultimately explained his mastery and versatility in the three major arts—sculpture, painting, and architecture—to his contemporaries. They revered work "by his hand," and the notion of authenticity as understood in his time is explored here in a variety of ways.
Born in Caprese (southeast of Florence) on March 6, 1475, Michelangelo was first praised as Il divino (the divine one) at the age of 41, by the Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto. The accolade accompanied mention of the artist's name for the rest of his life, as he was befriended by nobles and honored by popes and monarchs. He died on February 18, 1564, a wealthy, famous, and unusually long-lived man, already the subject of a number of biographies. Although he considered himself foremost a sculptor, he was widely recognized as Il divin' disegnatore, "the divine draftsman and designer."
This exhibition presents more than 200 works from 48 public and private collections in Europe and the United States. The 133 drawings by Michelangelo reunited here are infrequently on public display because of their fragility and rarity. The selection features drawings in a variety of media and of a great diversity of types—small and large in scale, famous and little known. The exhibition also includes his earliest surviving painting, three marble sculptures, and an architectural model in wood, as well as an array of complementary works by Michelangelo's teachers, associates, and pupils, and by other artists, including ancient sculptors, who inspired him. Together, these artworks chart the inventive powers and complexity of Il divin' disegnatore.
While Michelangelo and his biographers downplayed the significance of his early training in the Ghirlandaio workshop in Florence (1487–90/91), research aided by scientific imaging techniques continues to uncover important connections to the creative processes of his late 15th-century predecessors. The Florentine workshops of the Ghirlandaio family, Andrea del Verrocchio, and the brothers Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo were places of stimulating collaboration (and rivalry), professional networking, shared knowledge, efficient delegation of labor, high productivity, and impressive technical development.
This section presents works by Michelangelo's teacher Domenico Ghirlandaio, a virtuosic draftsman in metalpoint, black chalk, and pen and ink, and by some of Michelangelo's contemporaries, such as Francesco Granacci—a lifelong friend who studied with him in the Ghirlandaio workshop. There, Michelangelo learned various techniques of drawing and of painting in tempera and fresco, as well as general procedures for designing compositions. Also on view is Michelangelo's fabled first painting, the Torment of Saint Anthony.
Although Vasari emphasized Michelangelo's break with the immediate past, the biographer celebrated the young artist's study of works by Giotto, Masaccio, and Donatello—the great masters who represented the earlier, heroic era of Italian art. Michelangelo's earliest surviving drawings, seen here, from the mid-to late 1490s, are inspired copies after these artists and the ancients.
Michelangelo considered himself first and foremost a sculptor in marble. His emphasis on the three-dimensional form in drawings emerged alongside his practice as a marble sculptor, informed by his close study of classical sculpture and the work of Donatello. Contemporary biographers agree that Michelangelo's friend Francesco Granacci introduced him to Lorenzo de' Medici's Garden of San Marco (probably around 1490–91), which featured a lauded collection of antique and Renaissance sculptures curated by Bertoldo di Giovanni, a student of Donatello's.
Michelangelo's marble Young Archer, carved in the late 1490s, is the focal point of this gallery. His precocious understanding of the figure is wholly personal and innovative, yet the young artist has not fully unified the different parts or synthesized the lessons learned from his predecessors. Works by classical sculptors and Bertoldo here illuminate certain aspects of Michelangelo's approach to the figure. The tactile surface treatment of the boy's torso and limbs, evocative of living flesh, is an effect probably learned from Roman and Hellenistic sculptures like the nearby Eros Sleeping. The elegant spiral pose of Michelangelo's archer may have come to the artist as he studied bronze statuettes by Bertoldo and ancient sculptors.
The works in this gallery demonstrate the young Michelangelo's process of designing compositions for works small and large. He developed a number of designs for private devotional imagery, probably small in size, between 1500 and 1505. In a dazzling pen-and-ink sheet, a tender arrangement of the Virgin and Child is surrounded by a frenzy of ideas for other figures. Emanating from an earlier, more stilted concept in a marble relief, the intimate figural group in turn inspired a painting by an artist in Michelangelo's circle. The painter is most likely the mysterious Piero d'Argenta, trained in the tradition of the city of Ferrara, who was friendly with Michelangelo from at least 1498 to 1530. The comparison of the painting to the drawing demonstrates Michelangelo's influence beyond the confines of Florence, and at a young age. The nearby study for a painting or sculpture of the Virgin and Child with Saint Anne already communicates a monumentality of the figure that would became the hallmark of Michelangelo's art.
Michelangelo's encounter with the monuments of ancient Rome between 1496 and 1500 fed his artistic ambitions for large-scale work. The language of his disegno matured with his work on two commissions: the colossal marble David in 1501 and a large mural composition soon thereafter. The 29-year-old Michelangelo was charged with painting the Battle of Cascina on a wall of the Great Council Hall of Florence's Palazzo della Signoria in the summer of 1504. The project brought him into face-to-face competition with the much older Leonardo da Vinci, then his major rival in Italy, who had been commissioned to paint the Battle of Anghiari a year earlier. The artists prepared monumental cartoons, or full-scale drawings, for their respective murals, but the projects were abandoned by 1506–8. While neither cartoon survives, together they were called the "school of the world" by the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, because numerous younger artists learned their craft by studying and copying their compositions and individual figures.
In conceiving the Battle of Cascina cartoon, Michelangelo focused on the portrayal of the male nude in action, studied from life and from three-dimensional clay or wax models. His command of anatomy and its expressive possibilities was his artistic strength, as evidenced by the drawings related to the project gathered here.
Two monumental projects that exemplify Michelangelo's energy, ambition, and courage were commissioned by Pope Julius II: the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes and the pope's marble tomb. Michelangelo's 40-year ordeal of completing the tomb ended in February 1545, when the present, scaled-down structure was unveiled in Rome (far from the papal majesty of Saint Peter's Basilica, the intended site).
Michelangelo labored most intensely on the design drawings and figure studies for the Julius monument between 1505 and 1520–25. The works gathered here served a variety of functions. Intended for the eyes of the patron, the demonstration drawing, or modello, of Michelangelo's early concept for the tomb is drawn in a clear and careful manner, with all details complete. In a quick sketch for a seated prophet, done for his own creative purposes, he improvised more freely. His magnificent life study for a slave is based on a muscular model (probably a workshop assistant).
Although Michelangelo's contracts forbade him from undertaking other projects while carving the tomb, he accepted a commission for the marble Christ the Redeemer for the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome in 1514. The only confirmed sheet of studies for this sculpture is on view.
Michelangelo was contracted to work exclusively for two Medici popes for about two decades: Leo X, elected as pope in 1513, and his cousin, the future Clement VII (elected in 1523). They engaged him as sculptor-architect for four ambitious projects (among others) related to the Basilica of San Lorenzo, the Medici family's parish church and their traditional burial site in Florence. Michelangelo first created designs for a grandiose facade, which was never executed. In 1519 he began building the New Sacristy to house the Medici family tombs; he carved the sculptures for two tombs, while a large team of assistants executed much of the interior architectural sculpture. Almost concurrently, he designed the Laurentian Library, with its magnificent vestibule, adjacent to the two cloisters of the church. The sacristy and library remained unfinished upon his permanent departure from Florence in 1534.
As seen in this gallery, Michelangelo produced a wide variety of drawing types for his projects at San Lorenzo, including sketches, figure studies, and demonstration drawings (modelli) for the patrons.
Michelangelo's love for the handsome, aristocratic young men he befriended was an open secret among his contemporaries. He produced beautifully finished drawings (disegni finiti) of bust-length figures for intimate friends, which Giorgio Vasari called teste divine, or "divine heads," in his 1568 biography. Apart from the drawing technique, the most striking aspect of these representations is the highly decorative detail on the figures' headdresses and costumes. Though they are largely the artist's invention, these fantastical passages were inspired in part by antique gems and paintings.
The "divine heads" provide a contrast to Michelangelo's sole surviving large portrait drawing. It depicts a young nobleman, Andrea Quaratesi, with a remarkable psychological intensity. According to Vasari, Michelangelo "abhorred making a resemblance true to life, unless the subject was of extraordinary beauty."
Numerous written accounts confirm that patrons approached Michelangelo to secure works "by his hand" (di sua mano) in the 1520s and 1530s. The requests were especially for drawings that could be given to other artists to use as guides in creating paintings or sculptures. Many of the masterful chalk drawings on view here are not connected to identifiable projects.
Michelangelo's hand on the paper usually comes across with a sculptor's force, especially in the outlines. In his quick sketches and in the more unfinished parts of his drawings he breaks down forms with a secure control of volumes. He often creates subtle tensions by contrasting surface treatments within one drawing, alternating passages of refined polish (usually in torsos) and suggestive sketchiness, much as in his unfinished marble sculptures. Sometimes he searches for the forms on the paper with a series of light reinforcement outlines, and then finalizes a contour more emphatically, pressing the pointed chalk down hard on the paper. Even when gently modeling shadows, he usually first applies chalk in strokes of hatching. At times, he changes his mind on the paper, erasing chalk outlines or crossing out discarded solutions.
Michelangelo's large corpus of surviving drawings is full of evidence of how he taught draftsmanship. He often provided models (eyes, heads, skulls, legs) that his pupils then repeated on the same paper. Unlike the students of Leonardo and Raphael, however, his pupils did not go on to have noteworthy independent careers. The artist's correspondence and Vasari's biography record the names of various protégés, some of whom must have received drawing lessons from the master, especially between 1510 and 1530. Broadly speaking, Michelangelo’s pupils were of two kinds: garzoni (assistants) he employed as stone carvers, servants, or workshop helpers; and gentiluomini amici (aristocratic male friends).
In 1516 Michelangelo discovered a brilliant artistic and political ally in the affable Venetian Sebastiano del Piombo. He provided Sebastiano with drawings to create pictures in competition with Raphael, the leading painter in Rome. This model of collaboration through a strong professional friendship with a younger artist—here, a surrogate painter—worked well for Michelangelo in his role as disegnatore (designer) in his later years. According to Vasari's biography, the friendship ended abruptly about 1533 or 1534, when Sebastiano all but insisted that the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel be painted in oil rather than the traditional medium of fresco.
This close collaboration presents fascinating issues of authorship. Crucial factors in identifying the drawings by Michelangelo are his Florentine design practices: the use of red or black chalk on white or neutral paper, the sculptural conception of form, and the forcefulness of the final contours. A brilliant draftsman, Sebastiano absorbed Michelangelo's monumentality of the figure, but stayed true to his Venetian training, choosing a pictorial handling of drawing media—at times he almost painted on the paper—and often using black chalk or charcoal on blue or gray paper.
Above is a photographic reproduction, at one-quarter scale, of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican Palace, which Michelangelo painted in the difficult medium of fresco between 1508 and 1512. Both of his commissions from Pope Julius II, the Sistine ceiling frescoes and the pontiff’s marble tomb, rely on a similar concept of figures populating an architectural framework. Conceiving the design for the ceiling's monumental surface area, about 1,754 square feet, would have demanded a herculean effort. The works in this gallery are a sampling of the precious few records of this campaign: Michelangelo's two surviving sheets of sketches for the ceiling's overall program, which reveal his gradual thought process as he filled the large vault with figures, and his original figure studies in black or red chalk, drawn from life and from models in clay or wax.
In the final frescoes, as seen above, Michelangelo designed an illusionistic framework simulating white marble that contains, along the central spine of the vault, rectangular narrative scenes from the Book of Genesis. Around the perimeter are Prophets alternating with Sibyls (female prophets). Pairs of seated Ignudi (athletic nude youths) flank fictively painted bronze medallions depicting historical events from the Book of Maccabees. The four corners represent episodes in the deliverance of the Jewish people from mortal dangers. In the lower realms are the Ancestors of Christ in the order given by the Gospel of Matthew.
In 1532, at age 57, Michelangelo met the young Roman nobleman Tommaso de' Cavalieri, and they became lifelong friends. Tommaso, who would eventually be one of the great collectors of antiquities and drawings, impressed the artist with his classical learning and appreciation for culture. Utterly smitten, Michelangelo expressed his intense feelings for Tommaso by giving him beautifully finished drawings and passionate poetry.
All on display in this exhibition, the surviving drawings made as gifts for Tommaso are the jewels of Michelangelo's draftsmanship. The subjects are inspired by classical mythology. Although the drawings were private gifts, the compositions soon became famous and were widely reproduced in prints, paintings, drawings, gems, and relief sculptures by a variety of artists. Michelangelo created refined drawings as gifts for other friends and patrons as well.
The works by Michelangelo in this gallery communicate a sense of the monumentality of his art. He worked in a complex, highly charged political climate, with variable allegiances and turbulent shifts in leadership. After 1528 his friends and private patrons included anti-Medici Florentines in political exile in Rome; the Apollo-David, Brutus, and Venus Kissed by Cupid were all produced for members of this group.
The Apollo-David and bust of Brutus reveal Michelangelo's working process in marble with a fascinating immediacy. He carves away to gradually liberate the forms from the inchoate stone block, echoing his famous sonnet: "Not even the best of artists has any conception / that a single marble block does not contain / within its excess, and that is only attained / by the hand that obeys the intellect." In their incomplete state, the sculptures suggest the quality of non finito, or "lack of finish," so admired in his work.
A work of tremendous psychological presence, Michelangelo's marble Brutus reintroduced into the tradition of Italian bust sculpture a sobriety of style—described as "pure without ornament" (puro senza ornato)—that had not been seen since Donatello. Michelangelo sought inspiration in ancient Roman portraiture, specifically the marble Caracalla, also on view here. According to a guidebook of 1556, it was owned by a collector living on the same street as the artist. In contrast to the Brutus, the bust of Julius Caesar by Michelangelo's sometime associate Andrea Ferrucci exemplifies the delicately ornate, all'antica (in the manner of the ancients) style of Florentine sculpture fashionable in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.
The comparison of these three marble busts—a rare opportunity—attests to Michelangelo's powers of invention in transforming the art of the past to forge a new, profoundly personal style.
In 1534 Michelangelo moved permanently to Rome, where he spent the last 30 years of his life. His poetic impulse and deepening spirituality during this time nurtured his artistic vision. His most prolific writing of poetry, between 1536 and 1546, coincided with his friendship with Vittoria Colonna, marchesa of Pescara and the only significant woman poet of her time. Highly cultured and of exalted social standing, she exhibited intellect, power, and fervent spirituality. Their poetry reveals a shared emphasis on a personal, unmediated relationship with God. Michelangelo expressed his deep, though not romantic, love for Vittoria through gifts of poetry and drawings. The private drawings soon became famous enough that their designs were replicated in a variety of media. In 1540 or 1541, she presented him with the rare manuscript of her spiritual poetry on view here.
Also in this gallery is the enormous, exceedingly rare cartoon (full-scale drawing) that Michelangelo prepared for the Crucifixion of Saint Peter fresco in the Pauline Chapel (Vatican Palace), finished in 1550.
This section frames the artistic relationship between Michelangelo and Marcello Venusti as one of professional friendship and collaboration, and probably a formal arrangement. A 1642 biography of Venusti confirms that he "befriended and took on service for Michelagnolo Buonarroti, the Florentine, who gave him many works to produce from his drawings." Too busy and uninterested in painting, Michelangelo relied on Venusti to produce small religious pictures based on his designs. As one of his closest protégés from 1546 until the master's death in 1564, Venusti replicated Michelangelo's religious compositions slavishly, and in great numbers; he subsequently gained a level of artistic autonomy and financial well-being. Michelangelo was godfather to Venusti's son, who was named after the master.
In 1533 Pope Clement VII commissioned Michelangelo to return to the Sistine Chapel, the most prominent ceremonial site for the papal court, to paint an enormous Last Judgment fresco on the wall behind the altar. The project continued during the papacy of Paul III, Michelangelo's greatest patron in his later years and one who gave him immense artistic freedom. He produced drawings for the fresco over a protracted period, beginning in 1533 with the first compositional sketches and life drawings and continuing with the revision of partial cartoons and other designs until about 1540.
Controversy erupted soon after the public unveiling of the Last Judgment in December 1541, focused primarily on the nudity of the figures. The spread of the Protestant Reformation in northern Europe had elicited a strong conservative reaction from the Roman Catholic Church, culminating in the Council of Trent (1545–63) and a new era of censures. As even the sharpest critics conceded, however, the Last Judgment is a celebration of all that art can accomplish in depicting the human body. Although denounced as blasphemous, Michelangelo's emphasis on the beauty of the physical form alludes in a personal, if unorthodox, way to the religious doctrine of the Resurrection of the Dead.
In the late 1530s and the 1540s Michelangelo found a devoted friend in the experienced sculptor-painter Daniele da Volterra. Michelangelo turned to the versatile artist, 34 years his junior, to produce monumental paintings and sculptures that were commissioned by important patrons, but that the aged master declined to execute himself. Posterity has often been unkind to Daniele for having painted discreet coverings on the nudes in the Last Judgment in 1565, on the orders of Pope Paul IV, a task that earned him the nickname of braghettone, or "breeches maker."
This section focuses on three of Daniele's projects for which Michelangelo produced sketches—two paintings and a monumental equestrian statue—that illuminate the method of collaboration between master and assistant. It is plausible that Michelangelo was approached to create the compositions but, owing to overwork or lack of interest, did only the initial sketches (to satisfy a patron's demand for work by his hand) and then delegated the detailed drawings and actual painting or sculpture to Daniele.
Beautifully elaborated, often with ideas layered one over the other, Michelangelo's late architectural drawings were like nothing that had been seen before. At the core of his approach to architecture was his sculptor's sensibility that form should unify and command space. The drawings appear powerfully three-dimensional and luminous. As complements to his drawings, he relied on models such as the rare wood example on view here.
Little of Michelangelo's planned architectural work in Rome, where he settled permanently in 1534, was constructed during his lifetime, although his ideas and designs ultimately transformed the Eternal City. His original drawings for monumental architecture and urban redesign do not survive, but his intentions are recorded in a series of prints published around the time of his death. His projects in Rome include, among others, the complete redesign of the Capitoline Hill, or Campidoglio; revisions and a redesign of Antonio da Sangallo the Younger's Palazzo Farnese; plans for the church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini; and the construction of the Porta Pia. As chief architect of the new Saint Peter's Basilica for 17 years, he left an indelible mark, evident today mainly in the dome and the southwest transept.
Portraits of Michelangelo, from the fanciful to the realistic, were produced and replicated in great numbers near the end of his life and after—a phenomenon only comparable to the treatment of nobles, rulers, and religious figures. He was pronounced dead on February 18, 1564, two weeks shy of his 89th birthday, with dear friends at his side, including Tommaso de' Cavalieri and Daniele da Volterra.
In lamenting Michelangelo's death, the self-interested Duke Cosimo I de' Medici also despaired that the artist had destroyed his own work: "Our vexation is only increased by the fact that he left no drawings, for it did not seem to us to be an action worthy of him to have surrendered the drawings to the fire." Documents independently confirm that the artist had ordered his drawings burned on several previous occasions as well. Vasari's 1568 biography attributes Michelangelo's willful destruction of his numerous drawings, sketches, and cartoons to a wish "that no one might see the labors he endured and the methods with which he tested his imagination, so that he might appear nothing less than perfect."
Banner image: Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564). Studies for the Three Labors of Hercules (detail), ca. 1530. Red chalk, 10 11/16 x 16 5/8 in. (27.2 x 42.2 cm). Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017, www.royalcollection.org.uk. Related Content images: Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564). Apollo-David (unfinished) (detail), c. 1530. Marble, H. 146 cm (57 1/2 in.). Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence (Sculture 1879, no. 121) | Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564). Archers Shooting at a Herm (detail), 1530–33. Red chalk. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017, www.royalcollection.org.uk | Giorgio Giulio Clovio (Julije Klović) (Croatian, 1498–1578), after a lost drawing by Michelangelo. Rape of Ganymede. Black chalk, 7 5/8 x 10 7/8 in. (19.5 x 27.5 cm). The Royal Collection / HM Queen Elizabeth II (RCIN 913036)