There is not a single word that comes close to adequately describing the spectacular, splendid, superb, magnificent, monumental, massive, memorable, exhaustive, exhausting, and exhilarating experience of Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition comprises more than two hundred works of art gathered from fifty art institutions, countless private collections, and those culled from the Metropolitan Museum’s own holdings. Carmen C. Bambach curated the exhibition brilliantly. Its title is carefully chosen: Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer. Each word, even the artist’s name, resonates with significance.
Michelangelo: “michel” translates to “not mortal” and “angelo” to “heaven sent.” Michelangelo was named by his father, Lodovico, a minor dignitary who held high expectations for his second son only to be disappointed when he discovered Michelangelo could not be stopped from wasting his time drawing studies of male anatomy and insisted on following in the footsteps of his wet nurse’s stonecutter husband. (Michelangelo later jokingly declared, “[T]ook the hammer and chisels with which I carve my figures from my wet-nurse’s milk.”) Lodovico might have noted with the benefit of hindsight that “Michelangelo” could not have been more appropriately named.
Divine, or “Il Divino,” was the name Michelangelo earned with his talent, the one his contemporaries used to address the nobly-regarded, highly-respected, wealthy, famous artist, and god-like superstar. He paved the way for future artists to reach the social status of celebrity. The use of the word “divine” also points to the underlying Neoplatonic concept of Michelangelo’s oeuvre, namely, the artist’s concern for the relationship between man and God, the human body as a holy creation—neither shameful, sinful, nor pornographic.
“Draftsman” is usually used to describe someone highly skilled in drawing, and it is a term sometimes used with a negative connotation. In this context, its meaning denotes one who draws beautifully and expressively. Michelangelo’s draftsmanship evinces not only unsurpassed skill, but also serious searching and visual thinking. It is a language of its own, drawing taken to the level of an independent art. In this sense, he was not only a draftsman but also an artist.
“Designer” is the closest English translation of disegno, though it lacks the nuances of meaning the Italian usage carried with it in Michelangelo’s time. The term encompassed not only the idea of designing but also drawing as well. It also refers to a person with the genius and crucial inherent sense of balance and proportion and with the aesthetic sensibility necessary to create original concepts that underlie any art form.
The Met’s exhibition demonstrates the artist’s all-encompassing genius. It is beautifully mounted. Starred among the show-stopping paintings and sculptures are one hundred and thirty-three rarely seen drawings, most by Michelangelo.
The images display a wide range of techniques: line, crosshatching, blending, smudging, moistening, and erasing, as well as an impressive variety of materials: black and red chalk, charcoal, lead, silver, ink, gouache applied with pen, brush, stylus, and metal point,* often in multi-media layered combinations. There are informal anatomy studies, detailed presentation and architectural drawings on handmade papers, some toned, some faded, and some joined into quite large surfaces for full-sized fresco cartoons.
The fragility of these works on paper limits the time they can be illuminated, so this exhibition presents a rare opportunity to not only photograph them (not just the entire image but also smaller sections), but also use the camera as a magnifier to enlarge the images to see the fine details. It is surprising to discover smudges that suddenly emerge as several sketches, one on top of another, revealing not only the artist’s technical process but his creative one as well.
Michelangelo often drew on his students’ study sheets, and they on his. Attribution, consequently, is sometimes an issue. How do you know who did what? You have to judge for yourself. Look for the casual assurance of Michelangelo’s hand: his flowing, twisting mannerism as well as the grace, rhythm, and the forceful rapid energy of his marks. Craft in the service of curiosity. An artisan’s skill in the service of an artist’s searching soul.
The exhibit is full of curatorial surprises. The first object in the exhibit is neither a drawing nor a painting. Instead, at the very beginning of the first gallery, there is a display case containing a slim paper pamphlet open to an etching of Michelangelo accompanied with Latin text. Few stop to glance at it. But the placement of this extract from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists of 1568 is an obvious clue to both its importance in art history and to this exhibit in particular.
The extract contains a biography about Michelangelo written by Vasari, someone who knew him well. Vasari had been apprenticed to Michelangelo as a young man, became a noteworthy artist, sculptor, and author credited as the first art historian, renowned for writing about both the life of the artists of his time and the renaissance of interest in classical concepts, the divine beauty of the human body, and the rise of the importance of drawing in Italy that began during the fourteenth century and continued through the sixteenth century.
Vasari’s Lives is key to unlocking the door into Michelangelo’s world and his role as “unsurpassed master of “disegno.” “Design” may be the most commonly used English translation of the term as an alternative to the Italian, but there really is no adequate translation of the word in any language. Vasari used disegno to refer to the idea of an artist as a God-like creator capable of using imagination to form an original aesthetic compositional concept, one able to execute that idea in a drawing, painting, sculpture, or architectural structure.
The biography is filled with authoritative descriptions, antidotes, and insights. If you are curious about Michelangelo’s broken nose, or looking for a firsthand account of the painting of the Sistine ceiling, you might want to read an English translation Lives. It would have been helpful to have key excerpts from the text placed along with the extract, but there are many excerpts to be found sprinkled throughout the exhibit. It is possible to ask for a copy of the printed information accompanying the images on the walls of the exhibit and as well as the text of the audiotapes.
The exhibition unfolds chronologically, touching on crucial stages of Michelangelo’s achievements, including the work of his predecessors, instructors, mentors, and collaborators who contributed to the development of his skills and sensibilities as well as examples of the work of artists his vision immediately influenced. The exhibit provides an opportunity to see what he studied and then observe what he did to equal and surpass it all.
As a thirteen-year-old newly apprenticed to Ghirlandaio’s workshop, Michelangelo had access to Martin Schongauer’s etching Torment of Saint Antony. He had the courage to not only copy it, but to also embellish the original concept, turning it into a painting by adding tempera color, and then adding details of fish scales and a landscape in the distance.
Michelangelo relentlessly studied perspective, proportion, and anatomy. He did dissections and countless drawings from life, whole figures, but also studies of hands, feet, even toes. He created movable wax models to design simple and complex composition possibilities. He traced, altered and perfected detailed presentation images and full-sized cartoons that enabled him to prepare to paint frescos like those of the Sistine Chapel. Many of those drawings are on view together under one of the most arresting installations of the exhibition; the breathtaking backlit photographic reproduction of the Sistine Chapel fresco hung on high from the ceiling of a gallery
Although the photographic mural is mounted in a flat manner that unfortunately does not come close to approximating the height and arching shape of the original ceiling, the museum display is an unforgettable sight. Looking up with your head tilted back to locate, say, Studies for the Libyan Sibyl within the ceiling reproduction, you can begin to feel what it may have been like for Michelangelo to work, day after day, painting a painting he never wanted to start, in a position no one should be asked to endure. “My brush, above me all the time, drips paint turning my face into a perfect drop cloth.”
Imagine how difficult it must have been for Michelangelo to conceive and complete such a work of art, and a fresco no less. A surface that required an extremely carefully prepared and correctly applied wet mixture put on one predetermined area at a time and furthermore demanded that the damp section be painted totally perfectly and completely finished before it dried.
In spite of the amazing accomplishment of completing the Sistine Ceiling, Michelangelo never thought of himself as a painter but rather as a sculptor. He was an architect. He was a poet. He was the embodiment of “Renaissance.”
Don Maniato, a cleric, in a letter to Vasari described meeting Michelangelo just weeks before his eighty-ninth birthday. The ancient man appeared caked with dust mixed with sweat. “He walks bent over and has difficulty raising his head. And yet he still continues to work at carving stone.”
There has never been another artist like him. It is impossible to write about his whole life’s output. There has never been an exhibition of work by and about Michelangelo of this scale. It is impossible to adequately describe all of the work on view.
It is amazing to witness visitors queuing outside in the freezing cold just to see this exhibition. To avoid them, try using the street-level “Education Entrance,” just south of the main one or even the garage entrance. Consider leaving backpacks, purses, packages, and extra heavy clothing at home to avoid lengthy inspections and long waits at the coat check. Do bring your phone camera fully charged to take photographs of your favorite images and explanatory wall text. The catalogue accompanying the exhibition is well-written, but even it cannot tell the whole story.
Think about seeing the exhibition starting from the end where it is likely to be less crowded than at the beginning. Many people find it too much to see at once and stop halfway through for a break.
Plan to see it, not just once but several times to properly view the whole exhibit. But whatever you do, don’t miss it.
*It is interesting to note that although the information on the wall accompanying Francesco Granacci’s Studies for a Standing Draped Figure and Heads of Two Youths states that “no metalpoint drawings by Michelangelo survive,” wall cards describing materials used in several examples of his architectural studies note that “leadpoint,” a form of “metalpoint,” was used for fine lines in those images.