Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer

The Metropolitan Museum of Art | November 13, 2017 – February 12, 2018

Michelangelo Buonarotti,
Three Labours of Hercules, Red Chalk, 1530-1533, 10 11/16 × 16 5/8 in. Lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

You really have got the old man,” Kenneth Clark told John Pope-Hennessy upon reading his study of Michelangelo. The “old man” (1475–1564, painter, sculptor, architect, and poet) seems always to have been the old man, always at the top. But no matter how divine, he was always irritable, always touchy, with always the big chip on his shoulder, yet another great something to prove, and a petty score to be settled. He is more highly character-enriched, complex, and self-frustrating than any other artist but Leonardo da Vinci (who was also recently subject of a museum drawing retrospective, by the same curator Carmen C. Bambach). The two artists are paired in posterity, as they never cared to be in life. As draftsmen and as artists, they were inadvertently closer than perhaps anyone but themselves noticed.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition, Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, although it includes three autographed works of sculpture, is in effect an exhibition of drawings. It could hardly be otherwise: practically all the artist’s three-dimensional work is fixed in situ, or would otherwise present near-impossible logistics against travel. Among 133 drawings, the exhibited objects (all carved stone, in various states of finish) really don’t add much anyway. Autograph clay and wax models, more akin to the drawings, would be more apropos, but are disconcertingly few. This is not a “retrospective,” as the curator and the excellent catalogue make clear. It is something of a biography of the artist’s mind.

Michelangelo Buonarotti, Studies for the Libyan Sibyl (recto); Studies for the Libyan Sibyl and a small Sketch for a Seated Figure (verso),Red Chalk, with small accents of white chalk on the left shoulder of the figure in the main study (recto); soft black chalk, or less probably charcoal (verso). 11 3/8 × 8 7/16 in. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The title’s reference to design is apt because Michelangelo’s career was so much more a matter of design, planning, and intention than finished works. Just name them; of the celebrated sculptures, only the Pieta and the David were finished, and those two are the work of an artist under thirty. Michelangelo lived to eighty-eight. Just as soon as he became sought-after, he became a work-in-progress, forever incomplete, never to be known in full. Post-David, he began the façade of San Lorenzo; the stone was quarried (a three-year, exclusive effort by an artist then in his prime) but never shaped, and not one stone was ever raised. The Medici Tombs? They were far from finished when, in 1534, Michelangelo was called to Rome and left Florence for good. He never saw the chapel we know today. The story of the Julius tomb? Much the same, but so much worse. And architecture? At Saint Peter’s—which, of all his career, every medium included, was perhaps his cardinal work—he came into a project already 40 years underway, which was to be completed 80 years later. Standing in the Piazza di San Pietro today, he might not even recognize it.

The exceptions to these non finito tragedies are painting: the Sistine ceiling, The Last Judgment, and the Pauline frescos. They exist as intended and were completed by his own hand. As a boy, Michelangelo had been apprenticed to a painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449–94). As the first gallery makes clear, the boy was so diligent, absorbed, and happily fulfilled in painting that one might ask why he ever moved into sculpture. At sixty-seven, he said of himself, "It would have been better had I been put to making matchsticks in my youth."

He was a great complainer, but it has been noted that as an architect he seemed actually to prefer inherited problems to a clear field of his own. The exhibition intends to reveal the artist as a problem-solver, perhaps even more than a “creator,” but since the original problems are not made plain down to their original jumble of loose ends and impasses, the viewers have more process than problem before them. The exhibition does not quite make its argument in full, but we can hardly complain. As Clark told us, Michelangelo was probably the greatest draftsman in history, and such an ambitious exhibition will almost certainly not be attempted again in our lifetimes.

True to expectation, most of the drawings deal with problems of the figure and figure composition. Michelangelo conceived the figure as a harness of sinews, braided to make bosses and hollows, which he rendered as a polyphonic skin of lights and shadows, most famously in black or red chalk (called sanguine). These are the most iconic of his drawings. Though they are very much the drawings of a sculptor, capital-S, they are as warm and humid as they are incisive. One expects the chisel and finds atmosphere.

One is struck even in the earliest drawings—the work of a boy—not by the force of the soon-to-be-titanic sculptor, but by the lightness of his touch and the delicacy of his thinking, even where he attains a magical and emotional massiveness quite beyond his models. One may also be surprised at the scale throughout. The full-size fresco layout cartoons very rarely survived (the exhibition includes just one, and it is a distinct breather), while the sheets that bore the grunt work of design are letter-size, and often coursed with handwriting (frequently poems), some of them creased and addressed. With one idea established on paper, the artist frequently spun the sheet 90 degrees or turned it over to start another. They suggest absorbed work (the images are rarely hurried), so closely attended that one could presume that he was rarely not alone, with the sheet very close, at a desk or trestle, the physical connection immediate, as if it had all happened in his head or his lap.

Michelangelo’s figure-based modeling all but dissolves in his later architectural drawings, which though abstract, retain the presence of sentient beings. In studies of architectural features, frequently a window or a portal, an initial freehand tracery in red and black chalk (pencil was not yet invented), with only a minimum of ruled reference lines, is overlaid by ink washes; white-out in lead and reinforced shadows in gray beckon some forms forward and retire others in a single image. The left- and right-hand sides rarely agree; they are alternative to each other. Each side registers a history of its own. The dry-wet-dry process suspended the designer’s decisive moment. Time stood still. Almost nothing was left out. These early studies were followed by progressively cleaner copies transcribed by others. The construction drawings isolated details selected reluctantly from the original chorus of forms, but even as-built his architecture is quite obscure. The studies are true to the source. In them, perhaps more than in any of his other drawings, from any other point in his working life, to any other purpose, is the mind and character of the artist more clearly and purely evident in itself.

The late portal images are our occasion nearest-ever to Michelangelo. Massively elaborated empty space. Not the figure but the niche wins in the end. Moreover, leaving room after room and walking away at last, the after-image of so many divine drawings on paper is the unwelcome awareness that so many more are lost; on at least four known occasions (twice just before his death) the old man and a boy fed the fire with sheet after sheet after sheet. Precious matter feeds the void.


Brandt Junceau