Michelangelo at the Met

Divine Draftsman and Designer: a show eight years in the making

Anne Holler
January 12, 2018 - 11:40

Drawing exhibits are rarely blockbusters. But when the title of the exhibit includes “Michelangelo” you can bet there will be crowds. 

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is dramatically staged yet serene, thought-provoking but intimate. Five hundred years melt away when you are close up to the image of a wimpled matron or laughing apprentice. Giorgio Vasari praised Michelangelo’s mastery of disegno, an Italian word that describes both a drawing, the product on the page and design, the creative process behind the drawing. Spending time with the Renaissance master’s drawings will draw you into his thinking.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Three Labours of Hercules, drawing 1530-33, red chalk sheet, lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Michelangelo was many things—painter, sculptor, architect—but on one of the opening pages of the catalogue the curator to the exhibit, Carmen C. Bambach, makes it clear: above all else Michelangelo considered himself a Florentine. “Although he spent the last thirty years of his life in Rome, to the end his love was for Florence ... and all things Florentine.” The devotion was mutual. When Michelangelo died at the ripe age of 88, the two cities, Rome and Florence, vied for the honor of providing a sumptuous tomb for his final resting place. Eventually, according to the artist’s wishes, his body was transported reverently back home and placed in the Basilica of Santa Croce.

Florence literally left a strong mark on Michelangelo. The Met displays a portrait of Michelangelo as a distinguished older gentleman. A prominent feature in this portrait and every portrait—painting, bust or drawing—is his flattened nose. In his Autobiography, Benvenuto Cellini recounts how young Michelangelo loved to draw the works of art in Florence’s churches. One day, Buonarroti met up with fellow artist Pietro Torrigiano in the Brancacci Chapel at Santa Maria del Carmine. Torrigiano thought that Michelangelo was making fun of the drawings that his contempories worked on: “... clenching my fist, {I} gave him such a punch in the nose that I felt the bone and cartilage crush like a biscuit.”

One of the treats of the show is seeing Michelangelo’s drawings copied from the older masters, Giotto and Masaccio. Working in pen and ink, the teenaged artist reproduced figures from Giotto’s Peruzzi Chapel in Santa Croce as well as Masaccio’s figure of St. Peter in the fresco The Tribute Money from the Brancacci Chapel. These copies are faithfully rendered, yet there is a more sculptural quality to them all.

As an apprentice in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s workshop, Michelangelo had learned to work with parallel and cross hatching in creating depth and shadow from his master. Ghirlandaio, in turn, picked up the technique from his collection of Northern Renaissance art.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Torment of Saint Anthony,
painting ca. 1487-88, tempera and oil on wood, Kimbell Art
Museum, Fort Worth

Another highlight of the show is Michelangelo’s first documented painting, The Torment of Saint Anthony. Based on a print of fifteenth-century Alsatian artist Martin Schongauer, Michelangelo’s painting has a story to tell. The subject matter is the attack of poor, mild-mannered-looking Saint Anthony by a flock of ghastly demons. Claws and fins and spiny tails clutch at the saint who is barely seen amidst the furor. In preparation for painting the work, Michelangelo is said to have visited Florence’s fish market to get the details of scales just right.

Fast forward into the technological world and we learn that processed infrared reflectance hyperspectral imagery has picked up an exciting bit of art history. Art scholars were fairly certain that Michelangelo worked on some part of the Tornabuoni fresco cycle surrounding the high altar of the church of Santa Maria Novella, along with Ghirlandaio and his assistants. However, there was no concrete evidence until art conservations took a deeper look into The Torment of Saint Anthony. What they found behind the paint were some Michelangelo doodles. The brushmarks bear an astounding resemblance to a scene straight out of a part of the fresco cycle The Birth of the Baptist, with the headboard of a bed and a reclining figure. (The doodles, of course, are not viewable in the show, but take a look at page 267 in the exhibition catalogue.)

Florence’s political turmoil was never far from Michelangelo’s thoughts. During the periods of Republican government (1494–1512; 1528–30), the classical hero Hercules and his labors were emblematic of the struggles of his hometown. Michelangelo was pro-Republican and after 1530 he became even more so. In Rome, he surrounded himself with fuoriusciti, Florentine exiles. In his Study for the Three Labours of Hercules, the artist drew the classical hero, from left to right, in a three ages of man format. In the first scene, Hercules is killing the seven-headed Lernaean Hydra; in the second scene, he appears to have the upper hand with Antaeus; in the third scene, Hercules is portrayed as a jubilant older man, with an admirable physique. Michelangelo’s famous tense muscles and twisting torsos are on full display.

The exhibit ends on a high-tech note. A giant light box has been mounted on the museum ceiling reflecting the image of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling in one quarter the size. (“Oohs” and “ahhs” can be heard from several rooms preceding the space.) It is a giant visual aid to help you locate a selection of Michelangelo’s drawings that he created for this monumental project.

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer was eight years in the making. A visitor could easily spend four hours and then return. Michelangelo never did anything the easy way. You won’t breeze through his exhibit. Go back a few times, buy the catalogue, and then go back again.

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer

November 13, 2017–February 12, 2018
The Met Fifth Avenue, The Tisch Galleries, Gallery 899, 2nd floor, New York

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