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 …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.