• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Michelangelo, True or False?

Michelangelo’s Drawings: The Science of Attribution

by Alexander Perrig, translated by Michael Joyce
Yale University Press, 167 pp., $55.00

Drawn to Trouble: The Forging of an Artist

by Eric Hebborn
Mainstream Publishing Projects, 380 pp., £17.50

Michelangelo’s Nose: A Myth and Its Maker

by Paul Barolsky
Pennsylvania State University Press, 168 pp., $28.50

More than any other artist of his time Michelangelo exemplified the Renaissance idea that art should improve on nature. He also subscribed to the Florentine belief that the use of preparatory drawings was an indispensable part of the creative process. At various times in his life he is said to have burned large numbers of his own drawings, supposedly because he wished to conceal the intense labor which his works involved, but presumably also because he did not regard them as works of art in their own right. Only one class of graphic material did not fall into this category, the so-called Presentation Drawings, highly finished compositions which he made for a few privileged friends such as Vittoria Colonna and the young Roman nobleman Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. When other wealthy collectors begged Michelangelo for anything by his hand, including drawings, most of them probably had in mind works of this kind or even cartoons for frescoes and panels rather than preliminary studies. This is no doubt one reason why the Presentation Drawings were so frequently copied. But the copying of drawings was also an essential element in the training of artists, and this would account for the fact that several of the few preparatory chalk drawings plausibly associated with the Sistine ceiling exist in more than one version.

In modern times the center of scholarly interest in Michelangelo has shifted decisively from his finished works to his drawings, which have been studied more intensively than those of any other Renaissance artist, with the possible exceptions of Raphael and Leonardo. A small army of distinguished scholars has catalogued and recatalogued the principal public collections, while others have produced series of heavy volumes of reproductions of his entire output. Such publications tend to follow a standard formula. The drawing itself is reproduced; there is a short accompanying text discussing, with very variable degrees of rigor and completeness, the possible purpose and date of the sheet in question, which in Michelangelo’s case often contains a number of separate sketches; this is followed by references to the work of earlier scholars, which, unhelpfully, seldom indicate their views. And while there is frequently disagreement about chronology, or about the status of individual sketches, the impression of intense scholarly consideration and expertise is both intimidating and reassuring: intimidating, because it is evident that it would take half a lifetime to master all this academic industry; reassuring, because so many art historians have evidently given so much careful thought to the problems these drawings provide. At the same time, there is a certain irony in the fact that this enormous labor has been devoted to those very aspects of Michelangelo’s output that he was himself at such pains to conceal, and it is difficult to avoid the impression that many scholars are more interested in the ideas that he rejected than in those that he carried through to realization.

Most of the experts now credit Michelangelo with several hundred extant drawings, although individual estimates vary greatly. Some relate to known commissions, but it is striking that in no case do we seem to have anything approaching a full set of preparatory (or supposedly preparatory) studies for any single work of painting or sculpture. Thus for his various frescoes there are detailed studies of only a very small proportion of the figures he painted. This would seem to corroborate the idea that he customarily destroyed drawings of this type, although it would appear that a few somehow escaped the flames. Another significant group of extant sheets consists of the Presentation Drawings. Others in the corpus are copies of frescoes by Giotto and Masaccio, of a type that Michelangelo is said to have made in his early years. Then there are a large number of studies which relate not to works by Michelangelo himself, but to those of artists whom he knew, either minor figures such as Marcello Venusti or more distinguished ones such as Sebastiano del Piombo and Daniele da Volterra. Finally, there is a substantial group of architectural sketches associated with such projects as the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo and St. Peter’s; but in this case it is reported that special efforts were made to preserve them shortly before Michelangelo died.

In recent times the only scholar who has attempted to examine the foundations of this scholarly edifice is Alexander Perrig, professor of art history at the University of Trier in Germany. That his efforts, published over the past thirty years or so, have so far done little to disturb the confidence of his colleagues is caused by several obvious factors. His theories first appeared in a number of separate essays written in German and published over a period of years, which certainly blunted their impact; his arguments are often intricate and highly elaborate; and, most important of all, if he is right, the present consensus about Michelangelo’s drawings will need to be demolished and reconstructed in a very different way. Now his main arguments have been outlined in a single volume, translated with remarkable skill by Michael Joyce.

The book, which is the product of formidable learning and is at times entertainingly polemical in tone, is certainly not easy to read. Although most of the main drawings that Perrig discusses are reproduced at the back, to follow his arguments in detail it is necessary also to have the large four-volume corpus of illustrations by Charles de Tolnay to hand. Moreover, Yale University Press, faithful to their tradition of producing elegant books, has followed their usual policy of relegating the notes to a separate section at the back. Since these often contain much more than bibliographical references, readers need to keep their fingers in the text, in the notes, and in two or three separate sections of the illustrations, while leaving a free hand to struggle with Tolnay, not to mention Perrig’s earlier publications.

Perrig’s argument has two separate strands, of which the first and most obviously questionable is outlined in his opening chapter, entitled “Drawing and How It Is Produced.” Here he attempts to establish objective criteria for describing how an artist makes a drawing, rather as a graphologist might attempt to define the movements of the fingers used in producing handwriting, although he emphasizes that the two activities are very different, since handwriting does not involve arm or wrist movements. These criteria are then applied in the rest of the book to distinguish autograph works of Michelangelo from copies and from drawings by other artists. Perrig argues that each artist has a particular way of producing contours and hatching, depending on distinctive actions of the hand, wrist, and arm. Unfortunately, most of his assertions, though often plausible in themselves, have to be taken on trust, since no concrete evidence is produced for the universal application of the supposed principles. On reasonable but less than conclusive grounds, we are asked to accept Perrig’s premise that Michelangelo always drew in a similar way.

Less speculative is Perrig’s attempt to define exactly which drawings can be assigned to Michelangelo on external evidence, such as the presence of inscriptions relating to the actual image and in the artist’s own hand, references in contemporary documents, or unambiguous associations with known works in other media. One might have thought that such an exercise would be the starting point of any study of the subject, that scholars would use drawings whose attribution is established by evidence of this kind as a basis for giving others to the artist on account of their style; but in practice this simple procedure is seldom adopted, or at least not outlined in the explicit and rigorous way that Perrig has done.

The results are certainly dramatic. Excluding purely architectural drawings, which he regrettably does not consider, Perrig comes up with a list of slightly over fifty sheets which can confidently be regarded as either autograph drawings or copies on the basis of such external evidence as he allows. Using his own stylistic criteria he then adds another group of drawings to this list, producing a total of well under a hundred, by no means all of which are reproduced. This is still a substantial figure by the standards of many other Renaissance artists, but is far lower than the estimates produced by any other scholar in modern times, and it excludes many of the most famous drawings conventionally attributed to Michelangelo in the standard publications.

Some of Perrig’s demotions are very startling. For example, he suggests that a celebrated sheet of red-chalk studies in the Metropolitan Museum, for the head, arms, and torso of the Libyan Sibyl on the Sistine ceiling, is only a copy. There is another version of this drawing in Florence, and his argument that both depend on a common source has a certain plausibility, though the evidence is by no means conclusive. Questionable too is his claim that the fact that there is another study for the legs of the same figure on the verso of the New York drawing, this time in black chalk, “makes a synopsis of the parts belonging together impossible and contradicts any logical working method.” This would be true if Michelangelo’s procedure was to draw individual parts of a figure before combining them; but he could perfectly well have made a drawing of the whole figure first, and then used the New York sheet (and possibly others now lost) to clarify individual sections, before synthesizing his results in a full-size cartoon.

Even less convincing is Perrig’s discussion of the Children’s Bacchanal at Windsor, the most elaborate and usually regarded as the finest of the Presentation Drawings. There exists an unfinished copy of the composition in Berlin, and by analyzing the differences between them Perrig again concludes that both are based on a common prototype, the supposed lost original. In particular, he asserts that some contemporary engravings of the composition are much closer to the Berlin version than to the one in Windsor. If this were true, his case would be made. But having examined these engravings, I find that they correspond to the Windsor sheet in almost every detail that he mentions, implying that this is indeed the original.

Despite these lapses, it does not follow that Perrig is necessarily always wrong to be more suspicious than several other modern scholars about the status of various chalk drawings which relate closely to finished paintings by Michelangelo; these may well be copied either from the works themselves or from preparatory drawings which no longer survive. As has already been indicated, one would expect large numbers of such things to have been made; and the mere fact that they are outstandingly beautiful does not necessarily mean that they are by Michelangelo himself. In several of these cases, however, it must be admitted that others have anticipated Perrig in expressing their doubts.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print