Michelangelo’s early biographers called him “the divine Michelangelo”, insinuating that he was no ordinary mortal but a being sent from heaven. When he was still only in his twenties, he created the most famous sculpture in the world, the monumental figure of David , carved from a block of Carrara marble so enormous that it had defeated generations of Florentine sculptors before him. He went on to create the most celebrated cycle of paintings in the entire canon of Western art, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, together with the great Last Judgement on its far wall. As if that were not enough, he also designed the most moving and eloquent architectural masterpiece of the High Renaissance, in the shape of the Laurentian Library staircase – a chamber of blind windows, a dream of darkness awaiting enlightenment, articulated from dumb stone. He was also one of the subtlest poets of sixteenth-century religious experience, weaving strands of neo-Platonic idealism and post-Reformation Christian anxiety into sonnets of great power and feeling. His achievements are so multifarious, so awe-inspiring, that he himself can seem a forbiddingly remote genius: an admirable but unknowable giant of the Renaissance.
For a truly intimate sense of Michelangelo as a human being – for a sense of all the effort, and all the changes of mind, that lay behind his astonishing creations; for a sense of his sympathy, and of his kindness as a teacher of others; for a sense of his capacity for love; for a sense of his self-doubt, and of the penitential intensity of religious feeling to which he was frequently subject – for all this, it is necessary to turn to Michelangelo’s drawings. Michelangelo himself did not make this particularly easy to do. Late in life, he destroyed a large quantity of his drawings, for reasons that remain shrouded in mystery. Perhaps he was fearful of being posthumously plagiarised and wanted to spare his own unrealised ideas and sketches the indignity of being carried out by other, lesser artists. Perhaps he wanted to conceal the extent of his own labours and thereby preserve the illusion that his greatest works were miracles of spontaneous creation, sparked into existence at a stroke, like Athena springing fully formed from the skull of Zeus.
Whatever his motives, he did not succeed in destroying everything, and one of the most remarkable groups of his surviving drawings is to be found in the Prints and Drawings Room of the British Museum. Due to their fragility and extreme sensitivity to light, they are rarely placed on public display, which is why the British Museum’s new exhibition, “Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master”, is such a rare event. This is the first large-scale exhibition of Michelangelo’s drawings in this country for more than 30 years – the last show was also at the BM, in 1975 – and it is unlikely to be repeated for some considerable time.
About a hundred drawings by Michelangelo have been assembled for the occasion. Exhibition organiser Hugo Chapman has selected them with such care and fastidiousness that they can truly be said to show Michelangelo the draughtsman at the peak of his powers, at almost every phase of his long and prodigiously prolific career. And Chapman has arranged them, with great clarity, in such a way that to follow the course of the exhibition is rather like seeing the artist’s whole life pass before one’s eyes in fragmentary form, with each new drawing or set of drawings illuminating a part of him, or a moment of his life, like so many revelatory flashes of lightning. The display, designed in collaboration by the BM’s Caroline Ingham and the design company Metaphor, is exemplary. The light levels have been kept to the statutory 50 Lux for drawings, but because the latest lighting technology has been used the show feels unusually bright for an exhibition of works on paper. Upright, double-sided display cases have been used throughout, which means that both verso and recto of each sheet can be seen – a great improvement on the BM’s exhibition of 1975, and particularly vital in the case of Michelangelo, who was both impatient and parsimonious and tended generally to draw on both sides of his paper.
The exhibition begins with a small display of drawings by Michelangelo’s teacher, Domenico Ghirlandaio, a group of subtly expressive preparatory sketches showing how carefully the earlier Renaissance master plotted out his frescoes (in this case the complex series of paintings for the Tornabuoni Chapel in the choir of Santa Maria Novella in Florence). Michelangelo’s biographers, Vasari and Condivi, working presumably to the master’s instructions, wrote Ghirlandaio out of his life story. So these drawings have been included as a kind of corrective to the authorised biography: a short, sharp reminder that everyone has to begin somewhere, and that Michelangelo began here. Throughout his life he would produce rapid thumbnail sketches for his more ambitious and complex compositions, a method learned from Ghirlandaio and the equivalent, in Renaissance art, of first thoughts scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet.
Within the twinkling of an eye, however, Michelangelo surpasses not only Ghirlandaio but every other draughtsman of the earlier Renaissance. After a handful of juvenilia, including a solemnly draped figure of a prophet and a splendidly fierce drawing after an antique bust of a soldier, the exhibition suddenly transports the viewer to the years 1504-5. The artist has already completed the David , and he has just stunned Rome with the Pieta , his incomparably tender and melancholy statue of the Virgin cradling the dead Christ on her knees – perhaps the most brilliant and profound of all his works in marble. Now he is back in his home town, preparing to fight a duel with none other than Leonardo da Vinci, each artist having been commissioned to produce a great battle painting to decorate the Sala dei Cinquecento, the council chamber of the Florentine Republic. Michelangelo’s subject was the Battle of Cascina , and he chose to depict the moment when a group of soldiers, having undressed to bathe, are suddenly surprised by the enemy. The painting was never finished although the full-scale sketch, or cartoon, which hung for several years in the Palazzo della Signoria, was regarded by all who saw it as an unprecedentedly original masterpiece. That is lost too now, so all that survive are the drawings for it – and what amazing drawings they are.
They show muscular, naked men, wheeling to face an unseen enemy. Michelangelo concentrates above all on the torso, the twisting midriff and the muscles of the shoulder and the back – that part of the male form which, throughout his career, was to convey the spirit and emotion of his art. Among the earliest surviving life-drawings by his hand, they also mark the moment when life-drawing itself had become established as one of the cornerstones of artistic practise. But while Michelangelo is at the start of that tradition, these drawings already represent its pinnacle. It is slightly depressing to reflect that no artist since has drawn the nude male form with this degree of subtlety and sensitivity. Looking at them, it is not hard to see why the Battle of Cascina had as profound an effect on the art of the Renaissance as Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon had on the art of the early twentieth century. Michelangelo had rewritten the rules of painting in his time, and had at a stroke established the nude or nearly nude male form as the primary carrier of meaning and feeling in art. In doing so, he achieved a naked intensity of expression that still shines from the page.
From here, the exhibition continues to march along the mountaintops of Michelangelo’s art with a truly staggering display of preparatory drawings for the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Each and every contour of the body is drawn with incomparable skill and anatomical understanding, in these sketches, and drawn with a sculptor’s eye. The outlines of thigh or back are often doubled, as if Michelangelo wants to turn the figure round in his mind’s eye and see it from the other side. To see these drawings is, to a degree, to understand the mechanisms by which he was able to create the vast and seamless illusion of the Sistine Chapel ceiling – to see how he broke each separate section into its constituent figures and realised the totality by working, painstakingly, from part to whole. But the scale of the achievement rermains undiminished. These are not studies from the life alone – although they are partly that – but also miraculously realised distillations of the emotions at the heart of the biblical stories that he is seeking to flesh out. Every drawn body is also an essentialised feeling: the figure of Haman, reaching out desperately in the agonies of his crucifixion; a male ignudo , twisting in astonished contemplation of the mysteries of divinity; the languorous figure of Adam, placed in a pose impossible to achieve in real life, but utterly believable in art, awaking bemusedly into life at the touch of God’s outstretched hand. In most, Michelangelo has not even bothered to include the face, so closely focussed is he on achieving expression through the torsions and actions of the body itself.
The exhibition also gives several touching insights into Michelangelo’s relationships, both with his pupils and with those closest to his heart. One drawing, which he gave to a pupil to copy and learn from, is inscribed with the instruction, “Draw, Antonio, draw, and do not waste your time”, another with the brief phrase, “patience, have patience” (it is not hard to imagine the pupil’s despairing rejoinder that he will never be able to capture the form as Michelangelo himself has done). It also contains his only pure portrait, a drawing of his pupil Andrea Quaratesi in which the tonal modelling is so subtle – an effect he must have achieved by rubbing the chalk with his fingers – that it makes even Holbein’s great drawn portraits seem inferior by comparison. Quaratesi’s countenance has been pushed right to the front of the picture plane by the artist, so much so that he feels almost touchable. He gazes, disconcertingly, over the viewer’s shoulder, a vivid ghost with his face pressed to the glass of the past.
Elsewhere, there is a drawing that seems to be a kind of billet-doux , from Michelangelo to a young man with whom he had fallen in love, Tommaso de Cavalieri. It shows Phaeton falling to earth after crashing the chariot of the sun, a twisting nude figure intended by the artist to allegorise his own, head-over-heels feelings. By a masterstroke, this has been placed next to one of Michelangelo’s most sublime and mysterious religious drawings, for the Resurrection of Christ . The figure of Christ, rising from the tomb, is that of the tumbling Phaeton in reverse. Wrapped in swirling grave clothes that seem to spin off him as well as around him as he rises, his is a body that seems to be turning into a flame, a pure emanation of spirit. It is a conjunction of images that perfectly encapsulates the tension between sensuality and spirituality at the centre of Michelangelo’s sensibility.
The exhibition, which contains far too many extraordinary things to enumerate, reaches its climax in a room which contains just three of the last drawings that Michelangelo ever touched. Each one shows Christ suffering on the Cross, with the Virgin and St John agonising over his miseries. These late drawings are among the most affecting works of art in the world. They have a strange and ghostly quality. The faces are smudged and the forms seem to struggle into recognisability, each one haloed by a multitude of lines, showing that Michelangelo – who kept them and worked on them for many years – went over them repeatedly with his pencil and with his fingers. They are less like drawings, in a sense, than repeated prayers. They preserve the artist’s attempts to bring the dying Christ before his eyes, to feel his presence and comprehend the mystery of the divine made flesh – and to do so, obsessively, time and time again, as he felt his own death approaching. They call to mind one of his last recorded statements, made while pacing the streets of Rome in the rain one day in 1664: “I can find peace nowhere”. Looking at them feels like almost like a form of trespass, like eavesdropping on “the divine Michelangelo” at the moment when he felt least divine, and most human – the moment when he was readying himself to meet his maker.