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On one of his drawings, Michelangelo jotted a note to his pupil Antonio Mini: “Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw—don’t waste time.” (The admonition sounds still more insistent in his unpunctuated Tuscan vernacular: “Disegnia Antonio disegnia Antonio disegnia non perdere tempo.”) As Antonio well knew, Michelangelo lived by his own advice. For almost eighty years (he was apprenticed at twelve, and died at eighty-eight), he drew as if nothing were more important to him: in ink, in pencil-like black chalk, and, most magnificently, in soft red chalk. With the help of a few white highlights, he could give his drawings such shimmering, vibrant contrasts of light and shade that their two-dimensional figures invite a surreptitious touch as irresistibly as his sculpture.
With few exceptions, Michelangelo’s drawings concentrated on two themes: classical architecture and the human figure, in his case almost exclusively the human male. But then Renaissance architects, like the architects of ancient Greece and Rome, wrote of classical columns as if they were in fact human: they referred to Doric youths, Ionic matrons, Corinthian maidens. In some classical buildings statues replaced columns altogether, like the stately Caryatids who hold up the Porch of the Maidens on the Athenian Acropolis, or the wild, hairy male figures called telamones, after Telamon, the father of Homer’s big, slow hero Ajax. The fifteenth-century architect Francesco di Giorgio Martini extended the ancient analogy between buildings and people still further, to include the floor plans of churches—which he drew as images of Christ on the cross—and the stacks of ornamental moldings that decorated rooflines both ancient and Renaissance. To these he gave faces and profiles as if they were ancient Roman patricians or grinning grotesques.
In Rome, where Michelangelo spent half his life, ancient statues and ancient monuments were so plentiful that they came to be seen as part of nature, examples to be studied with the same attention as the rippling muscles of a studio assistant or the cadavers he and Leonardo da Vinci skinned to learn exactly how those muscles worked. In his native Florence, Michelangelo collected Etruscan bronzes whose strange, exaggerated anatomy made them powerfully expressive. He also studied Leonardo da Vinci and Donato Bramante, the modern masters who had become classics by his own time, struggling to emulate Leonardo’s swift pen and Bramante’s majestic scale. Michelangelo may have been a notorious loner, but his artistic imagination thrived on contact with the work of other people, both living and long dead, and this may be why he continues to connect so unerringly with the generations after him.
The sheer sociability of Michelangelo’s art shows to marvelous effect in the gathering of his drawings recently exhibited at the Teylers Museum in Haarlem and currently on display at the British Museum. His earliest works, in pen, are scratchy and angular, with popping eyes, their subjects ranging from a sketchy group of onlookers to the profile of what a nineteenth-century London curator identified as Satan (the figure may actually be an Etruscan demon). Michelangelo’s…
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