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Getting Up Close and Personal With Michelangelo at the Met

By A. E. Colas, Contributing Writer, November 13, 2017

There are times when an artist’s name becomes verbal shorthand for discussing anything that remotely resembles their talent – or when it doesn’t. As a result it’s easy to lose sight of the original reason for the praise. Michelangelo is a case in point. The bulk of his finished works are in Italy, available to the public but not easy to view with crowds of visitors around. His drawings are fragile and kept in more controlled conditions, mostly seen by art professionals. This distance between the art and a general audience is not what keeps a reputation alive. People need to experience firsthand the color, line, and texture of the work to understand why this art has held its meaning throughout the centuries. In Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer the Metropolitan Museum of Art gives us this opportunity to see the artist and man behind the fame.

Michelangelo Buonarroti began his career in 1488 by becoming apprenticed to Domenico Ghirlandalo, a master in the fresco style of painting as well as portraiture. Moving on to an academy founded by the Medici, he received an education noted for its emphasis on literature and philosophy. By 1496, he was known as a talented sculptor and began receiving commissions on various subjects. In 1499, he completed a monumental sculpture of the Pietà, an instant success and a benchmark of the Italian Renaissance. From that moment, Michelangelo’s reputation as an artist with fresh ideas on established themes and subjects was assured.

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer gives a strong sense of the artist and the effort that went into his most famous works. In more than a dozen softly lit rooms a global collection of drawings, paintings and sculpture introduce Michelangelo, his colleagues, friends, influences, and teachers. Through this display, we see the artist working obsessively to master techniques, make images believable, and even give the illusion of movement on the page. Progressing through the galleries, the visitor is able to follow the blossoming of Michelangelo’s talent as well as the effect he had on the cultural landscape of Florence and Rome. At times he seemed to be everywhere with commissions in architecture, painting, and sculpture.

Michelangelo Buonarroti: Design for the Tomb of Pope Julius II della Rovere; drawing (1505–6); pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash, over stylus ruling and leadpoint 20-1/16 x 12-9/16 in. (51 x 31.9 cm); Rogers Fund, 1962.

There are sketches for Pope Julius’ tomb, the Basilica of San Lorenzo, never created sculptures, figures for paintings, and architectural studies. The condition of most drawings is remarkably good: details of ink, chalk, or gouache are strong, adding depth to the images. In the preparatory drawings issues of composition and placement are tested and refined. Life studies tremble with movement: muscles strain to lift, twist, or bend bodies. An intimate portrait of Andrea Quaratesi shows the unconscious beauty of a young man. Michelangelo appreciates the loveliness but isn’t sentimental. Instead he chooses to show an expression of uncertainty flitting across Quaratesi’s face, letting the viewer wonder what happened before and after that moment.

Michelangelo Buonarroti: Young Archer, sculpture, ca. 1490; marble; overall (wt confirmed): H. 37 x W. 13 1/4 x D. 14 in., 177lb. (94 x 33.7 x 35.6 cm, 80.2867kg); lent by the French State, Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs.

Also in this exhibit are three of Michelangelo’s sculptures, all unfinished but with a wealth of information regarding technique in his favorite medium. Young Archer shows a young boy striding forward, head thrown back, a quiver of arrows behind his left arm. The beautiful lighting of this piece displays the child’s soft bone and muscle structure to perfection. The Apollo David is an adolescent boy, lost in contemplation. Chisel marks defining the body and area at the base allow the visitor to follow the artist as he removes sections here, smoothes out areas there. The Bust of Brutus is shown with two other contemporaries works: one of the Emperor Caracalla, the other of Julius Caesar. Brutus is shown looking to the left, his expression thoughtful and alert. In contrast, the other portraits are static and weighted with a mass of detail. Michelangelo’s piece is only a rough draft but to modern eyes it looks animated compared to the more polished works nearby.

Another highlight of this outstanding show is a room dedicated to preparatory drawings for the Sistine Chapel. Reuniting The Met’s own Libyan Sibyl with drawings of The Last Supper for public viewing is a once in a lifetime experience for museum visitors. In addition, there is a projection image on the gallery ceiling of the chapel’s own ceiling so that comparing the drawings to the finished work is as simple as looking up.

By the end of this show, it’s clear why Michelangelo has been revered by artists for centuries. His comprehensive understanding of human form, imaginative framing of secular and religious themes, and his outstanding talent for capturing emotional states of people all combine into a model of artistic achievement nearly impossible to match. There have been many artistic movements since Michelangelo’s lifetime but all recognize his influence to be timeless.




Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer opens today and continues through February 12, 2018 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, NYC. For more information on this exhibition click here.


Cover: Michelangelo Buonarroti. Italian, Caprese (1475–1564) Rome; ‘Archers Shooting at a Herm,’ drawing (1530–33); red chalk, sheet: 8 5/8 x 12 11/16 in. (21.9 x 32.3 cm); lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (RCIN 912778).


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