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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.

The most contentious part of his book concerns a large number of supposed late drawings by Michelangelo, none of which can be associated with work by him in another medium. These include some of the best known items in the canon, and Perrig confidently assigns virtually all of them to other artists of the period. His exposure of the often insubstantial basis for the traditional attribution of such drawings is welcome, even though this does not prove that they are not by Michelangelo. His alternative attributions are less convincing than they might be, partly because of his sometimes tendentious readings of primarily sources, but mainly because he fails to apply to these other artists the same kinds of detailed argument that he has deployed in the case of Michelangelo. If we are asked to believe, for example, that a celebrated study of the Resurrection is not by Michelangelo but by the miniaturist Giulio Clovio, who certainly knew the design, we need to be given a comprehensive account of the drawings that can unambiguously be assigned to Clovio on external evidence. Likewise, the attempt to assign a group of drawings to Tommaso de’ Cavalieri seems exceptionally speculative, both because there are no drawings at all that can be given to him with certainty, and because in one important instance Perrig simply asserts, without any supporting evidence, that an inscription hitherto thought, even by himself, to be by Michelangelo is actually by Cavalieri. In the case of another of his candidates, Venusti, he does not trouble to discuss the small group of drawings that have, with some plausibility, been assigned to that artist. That these drawings are for the most part in a different medium from those considered by Perrig, that almost all of them must be somewhat later, and that Venusti’s career as a painter is still scarcely studied, provide some excuse; but the omission certainly detracts from his argument. It is also regrettable that Perrig’s detailed discussion of one of his other candidates, Benvenuto Cellini, who is credited with a number of pen studies normally regarded as early works of Michelangelo, is only available in a previous publication.*

Even though Perrig’s alternative attributions of many of these drawings must be regarded as highly speculative, his arguments against the prevailing view that they are certainly by Michelangelo are still largely valid. For by concentrating on the actual evidence on which the attributions are based, he has underlined the fragile nature of this kind of connoisseurship, which depends, far more than does the study of paintings, on the subjective opinions of art historians. Indeed, the weight that is habitually given in catalogs to tradition, to the process of counting up positive and negative scholarly opinions, merely reveals the absence of more substantial grounds for making judgments of authorship. It is relatively rare that historians, in dealing with old master drawings, have much more to go on than a perceived general stylistic resemblance between a drawing or group of drawings and the work of a particular artist in other media.

We could take as an example a group of supposed late Crucifixion drawings rejected by Perrig. Why are these commonly assigned to Michelangelo, even though the technique cannot be precisely paralleled in any of the other drawings commonly assigned to him? The answer is that they seem to conform to our preconceptions of what the artist ought to have produced in old age: the subject is gloomy, the technique faltering, the forms insubstantial and “spiritual,” there is a palpable sense of the draftsman struggling to find a successful formal resolution, and the figures are of a type that Michelangelo made popular in the middle decades of the sixteenth century. These are not conclusive reasons for supposing the drawings to be by Michelangelo himself rather than by one of his contemporaries, but equally they do not exclude the traditional attribution.

Unfortunately, in the case of many well-known painters there are no drawings, or only a very small group, that can be assigned to them with complete confidence. Yet it is rather unusual in catalogs to come across the statement that a drawing might be the work of a particular artist, with a clear statement of the evidence for and against, and an explicit acknowledgment that this evidence is insufficient to reach a secure judgment. It is not difficult to guess the reasons. The pressures of the market and the conventions of art history itself, and of catalog writing in particular, demand names; drawings are supposed to reveal the hand of a particular master in a notably clear and unambiguous way, especially in the case of an artist with unique gifts such as Michelangelo; and the art historian is expected to possess the knowledge and sensibility to discern such things. A confession of uncertainty may well be regarded not as honesty, but as lack of perception. Who would wish to admit to an inability to recognize the hand of Michelangelo?

The inherent difficulties in reaching a decision about the authors of old master drawings is one reason why they are so often and so successfully forged. A recent autobiography by one of the most able forgers of modern times, Eric Hebborn, is particularly revealing in this respect. Hebborn has enjoyed a highly successful career over the past thirty years producing drawings in the manner of a whole range of artists, from the fifteenth-century Ferrarese painter Francesco del Cossa to Augustus John, several of which (no one knows how many) have found their way into major collections. Naturally enough, experts tend to claim that they can now recognize his work, that many indeed were never deceived. But Hebborn tells us the British Museum acquired a Van Dyck by his hand, the National Gallery of Art a Sperandio, the Morgan Library a Cossa, to mention just three.

Hebborn’s deceptions were successful because he did his art-historical homework, choosing artists who were either very prolific or ill-defined as draftsmen, or both, and taking care to use old paper and ink of a traditional type of manufacture, and also because he is remarkably skillful. His drawings were accepted because standards of connoisseurship are necessarily unrigorous, because the attribution of drawings is almost always much harder than that of paintings. And, as he has been at pains to emphasize, his production gives little support to those who claim, as so many have done, that forgers give themselves away both by reflecting the aesthetic of their own day, and, more importantly, by a tightness and a lack of spontaneity in their technique.

It would be interesting to see how Perrig’s “scientific” methods would fare with the corpus of Hebborn drawings. Indeed, this might provide a valuable control for his claims, were Hebborn prepared to identify all his productions, which seems unlikely. But even if we accept that Perrig’s methods are unproven, his book is valuable for the way in which he has tried to discount the modern consensus, such as it is, on Michelangelo’s achievements as a draftsman, and go back to first principles. This is always a useful exercise. He has outlined very clearly exactly why he assigns to Michelangelo the drawings that he does, and allows his readers to judge his arguments for themselves, instead of invoking the accumulated wisdom of his predecessors. What he has failed to do is to admit the obvious conclusion that follows from his premises, namely that in many cases the available evidence does not permit us unhesitatingly to assign many drawings, even of high quality, to named artists. It is striking that, for all his skepticism, Perrig never seems at a loss for a name, even if it is that of Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, whose abilities are entirely a matter of speculation.

No one will be surprised that Perrig’s arguments have so far been dismissed by most of the scholarly community virtually without comment, and with very few attempts at detailed refutation, since they provide an overt challenge to a century of tradition. Even if he is completely wrong, which I doubt, he has drawn attention to some very curious features in our current conceptions of Michelangelo as a draftsman. Thus he forcefully confronts us with the paradox that so many of Michelangelo’s drawings should have survived, when he seems to have made no effort to preserve them, but actually himself to have destroyed large numbers. And while it is common ground between Perrig and others that Michelangelo made drawings of many different kinds, it still needs to be explained why his drawings are much more varied in style—and arguably in quality—than those of almost all his contemporaries. If the publication of Perrig’s book, which most regrettably falls short of being a comprehensive account of his views, encourages other scholars to provide convincing solutions to such problems and to devote more critical attention to other Renaissance draftsmen, he will have performed a valuable service.

The steady growth of the corpus of drawings attributed to Michelangelo is a typical instance of the art-historical principle that big fish eat little fish, as the works of minor masters are overshadowed and eventually absorbed by those of their greater contemporaries; and Michelangelo, of course, is the biggest fish of all. His unique status is partly the result of his exceptional talent, but it also depends on a process of deification originating in his own lifetime, which is explored by Paul Barolsky in Michelangelo’s Nose. The crucial texts in this process are two contemporary biographies, one of them by Ascanio Condivi, published independently, and the other by Giorgio Vasari, which is the culmination of his great collection of the artists’ lives. Since both writers, and especially Condivi, certainly derived a good deal of their information directly from Michelangelo, Barolsky argues that the artist played an active part in the creation of his public persona. Thus Michelangelo himself is almost certainly the source of the self-serving and dramatic account of his quarrel with Julius II, in the course of which he supposedly turned down an invitation from the Sultan to build a bridge in Constantinople before submitting himself to the Pope in Bologna. Barolsky is right to emphasize that such stories are not necessarily to be taken at face value, but his attempts to wring every possible implication from even passing comments of Vasari and Condivi do not always carry conviction, and it remains unclear how much of the image of Michelangelo that he outlines derives from the artist, how much from his early biographers, and how much from Barolsky’s own ingenuity.

Barolsky is on surer ground in the other two books under review, both of which are devoted to Vasari’s Lives. This enormous compilation is still often read today, especially by students, as a straightforward if not always dependable exercise in historical writing, and principally as a collection of facts. Barolsky, by contrast, treats it as literature, concentrating on the anecdotal elements which form such a large part of the text. As he demonstrates, these passages are by no means just padding or embellishment, but are central to Vasari’s purpose, often propagating his ideas about how artists ought to conduct themselves personally and professionally and his notion of the development of Renaissance art as the cumulative achievement of generations of craftsmen bound to one another by a multitude of personal and familial ties. So time and again the careers of artists are said to have been crucially affected, for good or ill, by the conduct of their fathers, and they themselves are often credited with entirely fictitious relatives who supposedly practiced the same craft and thus assisted them in advancing their fortunes.

A case in point is Donatello’s otherwise unrecorded brother Simone, with whom he is said to have collaborated on two prestigious commissions, a papal tomb and some temporary decorations set up for the coronation of the Emperor Sigismund in Rome. For good measure Vasari also claimed that Simone worked in Rome with another Florentine sculptor, Filarete. Barolsky is surely right in implying that attempts to discover the true identity of this shadowy figure are perhaps misconceived. There is a good deal of overlap between the two volumes, but they contain many acute observations, and together they provide a useful and provocative introduction to the Lives.

  1. *

    Alexander Perrig, Michelangelo Studien, Vol. IV: Die ‘Michelangelo’-Zeichnungen Benvenuto Cellinis (Bern and Frankfurt: Lang, 1977).

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