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The Titan of Titans

Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master

Catalog of the exhibition by Hugo Chapman
an exhibition at the Teylers Museum, Haarlem, the Netherlands, October 5, 2005–January 8, 2006, and the British Museum, London, March 23–June 25, 2006
Yale University Press, 320 pp., $50.00

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 apprenticeship in the studio of the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio clearly taught him solid artistic practice, evident in his early but hardly exciting works. However, he needed a stiffer challenge to discover his true skill as a draftsman. That challenge came in the person of Leonardo da Vinci, commissioned, like Michelangelo, to provide a fresco for one of the long walls of the new Hall of the Great Council in the Palazzo Vecchio, the city hall of Florence.

At the time of this commission, in 1504, Florence had just renewed its old republican government by casting out first the Medici family (in 1494) and then the Dominican firebrand Fra Girolamo Savonarola (in 1498). Exhilarated by their sudden freedom from tyranny, the Florentines began to commission works of public art, beginning with Michelangelo’s David (1501–1504), a sculpted distillation of the pride and wariness that guided the new republican city-state under its “Standard-Bearer,” Pietro Soderini, and its secretary, Niccolò Machiavelli.

The frescoes for the new Hall of the Great Council were to portray two Florentine military victories over neighboring powers: the Battle of Anghiari, where a Florentine militia had trounced Milan in 1440, and the Battle of Cascina (1364), in which Florence had conquered the port of Pisa, itself newly independent of Florentine rule since 1504. Leonardo’s incomparably lively sketches for the Battle of Anghiari inspired a thirtyish Michelangelo to try drawing knots of men and horses for his own Battle of Cascina (two examples are on display in the Haarlem exhibition). But Michelangelo never shared Leonardo’s fascination with nature, or the elder artist’s peerless facility with pen and ink. Leonardo’s sketches of galloping horses kicking up the dust have a dynamism that Michelangelo simply could not equal—but then neither could anyone else.

It is no accident, then, that Michelangelo’s cartoon for the Battle of Cascina focused instead on a moment in the conflict when a troop of Florentine soldiers, bathing in the river Arno, were startled by a sudden attack by the forces of Pisa; caught naked, they are climbing out of the water and putting on their armor. Horses are grazing far away and the bodies are pushed to the foreground, twisting and turning in a virtuoso display. Michelangelo’s cartoon for the Battle of Cascina became as famous in its own way as Leonardo’s for the Battle of Anghiari; one provided a virtual encyclopedia of the human frame in motion, one of the interaction between horses and riders. Neither fresco was ever completed; Leonardo, as he did so often, tried a new recipe for paint, in hopes of replacing the matte surface of fresco (pigment applied to wet plaster) with glistening oil. The Battle of Anghiarifailed to dry, and eventually slid off the wall. Michelangelo, just as characteristically, dropped work on the Battle of Cascina because he got a better offer from Rome.

That offer came from Pope Julius II, the famous papa terribile, a human whirlwind who as Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere had amassed the city’s most phenomenal collection of ancient sculpture (it now forms the nucleus of the Belvedere Collection in the Vatican Museums). Cardinal Giuliano had also commissioned new sculpture, notably the bronze tomb of his uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, a freestanding catafalque in the wiry style of Antonio del Pollaiuolo, decked out with voluptuous weeping figures of the liberal arts. As pope, Julius envisioned his own tomb as something still grander than his uncle’s; a small marble building set beneath the crossing of St. Peter’s basilica, the huge early Christian structure he had ordered razed and replaced by a wholly new church. He gave the commission for designing the new St. Peter’s to Donato Bramante, an artist whose mild personal manner disguised a capacity for epic visions that matched the Pope’s own. He offered the tomb commission to Michelangelo, and shortly thereafter added on another assignment: frescoing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Sketches for these two projects took up about a third of the show in Haarlem, from closely observed figure studies to evanescent sketches of the mighty architectural scheme that melds the disparate scenes of the Sistine Chapel ceiling into a single coherent structure. In his own way, Julius and his unerring patron’s eye provided Michelangelo with an artistic challenge as stiff as that posed by Leonardo, and the drawings show the effects of that challenge; they are as good as Michelangelo can make them. It was Julius who vetoed Michelangelo’s original design for the Sistine Chapel ceiling, with figures of the twelve apostles, and it was Julius whose flailing cane almost literally whipped the huge project to completion. The muscled bodies, muscular architecture, and wild colors are Michelangelo’s own, and yet they, too, must owe some profound debt to the stubborn old priest who first willed them into being.

Julius had less luck with his own tomb. Michelangelo completed perhaps four of the twenty-seven figures he had originally envisioned, and the tomb itself was moved from St. Peter’s to the Roman basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains), where Cardinal Giuliano had served as titular bishop. The construction we see today was delivered forty years behind schedule, and delivered only in part, but it is a powerful, enigmatic work even in its partial state. After all, one of the figures is the colossal image of Moses, carrying his tablets in one huge arm and holding back his long, unruly beard with his other hand. (To viewers of a certain age, Moses looks uncannily like Charlton Heston.) He is surmounted by the life-sized image of Julius reclining atop his own sarcophagus in good Etruscan style (most art historians now believe that Michelangelo executed this unfinished image as well); anyone who knew the Pope must have felt that the old man was more than a match for the sculpted giant. The tomb has been set in the church so that we see them first from the side, and from this vantage Moses and Julius II both seem to be full of frustrated energy, ready to get up and walk away from their tableau vivant at any minute. When we see them from the front, however, they have both relaxed; Julius looks down at—or beyond—Moses with the inclined head and intent expression that must have been characteristic of the man. Botticelli and Raphael also portrayed him with this same inclined head and abstracted gaze, noting it, moreover, at nearly thirty years’ remove, in 1482 and 1510.

After Julius’s death in 1513, the papacy fell to Leo X, son of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who engineered a return of Medici rule in Florence, first under his short-lived brother Giuliano and then under his cousin, Cardinal Giulio. Tugging on Michelangelo’s patriotism (and forgiving his republican adventures), Cardinal Giulio brought the artist back to Florence, holding out the prospect of a series of commissions for the Medici parish church of San Lorenzo: a funeral chapel for the family in the right-hand (“New”) sacristy, a marble façade for San Lorenzo’s bare exterior of fifteenth-century brick, and a design for the Medici library, which had been housed since its creation within San Lorenzo’s monastery. The Battle of Cascina, conceived in a moment free from Medici rule, could be conveniently forgotten; David, standing proudly before the Palazzo della Signoria, could not—no matter the political climate, he had become the embodiment of Florence. Michelangelo would eventually finish the vestibule for the Medici library with marvelously graceful stairs and leave his other assignments incomplete, for when Cardinal Giulio succeeded to the papacy in 1524 as Clement VII, Michelangelo once again returned to Rome.

His later years were taken up increasingly with architectural commissions: decades after Bramante (who had died in 1514), he would become architect of St. Peter’s in his own right, modernizing Bramante’s design by doubling the height of the ornamental pilasters that give the present building its tremendous sense of scale. He also redesigned the site of Rome’s city hall, the Campidoglio, the family palazzo of Pope Paul III (Palazzo Farnese), and a chapel for the Sforza family attached to the ancient basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. The Sforza Chapel’s obvious debt to the daring shapes and colossal scale of ancient Roman baths finds an echo in a nearby church also designed by Michelangelo: Santa Maria degli Angeli, set in a colossal hall of the Baths of Diocletian. For all of these commissions, he continued to draw, both his own designs and the works, ancient and modern, that he saw around him.

Like most other artists of his time, Michelangelo hoarded drawing paper; it was expensive. He turned sheets at right angles or upside down to use up every vacant space. Sometimes, when he set an architectural design on its head, he came up with a new idea, defying the fact that the individual elements that make up classical architecture, such as columns, moldings, and door and window frames, all have a definite up and down. Columns narrow at the top; egg and dart moldings set the darts beneath the eggs, brackets hold up cornices and balconies. Strikingly, some of Michelangelo’s pilasters for the Campidoglio and the Julius tomb reverse this usual classical pattern (and the basic laws of load and support) to grow wider from bottom to top. The Julius tomb also has a range of outsize, upside-down brackets.

During this same period, Michelangelo became involved in one of the movements for religious reform that grew up within Catholicism after its break with Martin Luther in 1521. This group revolved around the English cardinal Reginald Pole, the Venetian cardinal Gasparo Contarini, and the Roman noblewoman Vittoria Colonna, whose marriage to a Neapolitan marchese, Alfonso d’Avalos, had put her into contact with the intellectual circles of Naples. Widowhood brought her back to Rome from her picturesque but lonely castle on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples. Here she met the elderly Michelangelo, who provided her with a series of devotional drawings as well as a series of vernacular sonnets; both of them were accomplished poets.

Several of these late drawings are displayed in the Haarlem show. Their woolly execution and sentimental piety appealed greatly to Colonna herself, who noted of one of them that it had “crucified in my memory every other picture I have ever seen.” Indeed, Michelangelo’s flat-faced Christ is visibly gasping out his last breath, eyes rolled back into his head and barrel chest sagging wearily. The decisive line that distinguishes Michelangelo’s earlier drawings survives only in his designs for architecture. Like Titian, his virtual contemporary, Michelangelo adopted a distinctive style in his old age that differs significantly from his earlier work, largely in the direction of muddiness. Where Titian used muddy colors, Michelangelo resorted to muddy lines. Perhaps, as some have suggested, their hands hurt. Perhaps the change had nothing to do with the state of their hands but rather of the world they lived in. Notably, however, Titian painted for Vittoria Colonna a pink, plump Penitent Magdalene, now in the Pitti Palace in Florence, whose devotion is anything but dreary.*

The shared catalog for the Haarlem show and its London sequel, written by the British Museum’s Hugo Chapman, is really an artistic biography told through the drawings, but with several informative sidelights, including how drawings were made in the sixteenth century and how Michelangelo’s drawings have been collected over the centuries in Italy, Britain, and the Netherlands. If the biography sounds on occasion like Irving Stone’s 1961 novel The Agony and the Ecstasy, it is because Stone’s careful research used the same sources to tell the same tale. There was a time, indeed, when the public image of Michelangelo and Julius II was almost entirely shaped by The Agony and the Ecstasy or its cinematic version, with Rex Harrison playing Julius II and Charlton Heston playing Michelangelo. In these days of The Da Vinci Code, with its slapdash analysis of Leonardo and its yarns about the Holy Grail, Stone’s novel looks especially impressive, not least because he managed to present Michelangelo’s attraction for men sympathetically in days when that was not so easy. The movie, on the other hand, has become as dated as the female leads’ Cleopatra eyeliner and false eyelashes, not to mention the climactic scene where Heston, sweating amid the marble quarries of Carrara, conjures up the celestial vision of a dirty brown Sistine Chapel as the heavens resound with the (as yet unwritten) Hallelujah Chorus. The story has it that when Cecil B. DeMille was looking around for a lead in The Ten Commandments, he drew a white beard on Charlton Heston’s studio photograph, saw the actor’s resemblance to Michelangelo’s statue, and the rest is cinematic history.

Irving Stone was a professional writer who also produced well-researched biographical novels on Heinrich Schliemann (The Greek Treasure) and Vincent Van Gogh (Lust for Life). Hugo Chapman is a professional curator of drawings, yet he specifically notes at the beginning of his catalog that he is not an expert on Michelangelo. James Hall, a journalist, makes the same kind of demurral at the beginning of Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body. For all these authors, an admitted freshness in their approach to their subject lends their writing a sense of exploration and a contagious excitement (although Chapman, as associate keeper for the Department of Prints and Drawings of the British Museum, probably has as close an acquaintance with Michelangelo’s hand when it meets paper as anyone). This distance, or innocence, also permits a refreshing freedom to ask hard questions; thus Hall simply notes at the beginning of his book that Michelangelo’s women, whether carved or painted, usually look like men, and wonders about the implications of this fact. He is right to wonder: Michelangelo’s versatility in passing from poetry to painting to sculpture to architecture was largely devoted to portraying men’s bodies along with the odd grotesque.

Hall goes on to present Michelangelo’s life through drawing, painting, and sculpture: a melancholy, lonely life, marked indelibly by the early loss of his mother and his father’s obsessive pretensions to aristocracy. The contrasts with Raphael are suggestive; although the younger artist was entirely orphaned by the age of eleven, he spent his childhood with his family and absorbed their thoroughly middle-class devotion to the idea that hard work and good manners, rather than birth, provided the key to success. When Raphael finally made money, he spent it, shrewdly. Michelangelo hoarded everything: love, talent, wealth, success, and begrudged them to the rest of the world. The marble workers of Carrara called him a swindler. His father accused Michelangelo of turning him out of his own house. Yet the artist’s letters, some translated at the end of Chapman’s text, show how often, and how generously, he made secret gifts to the poor.

Sometimes, however, a fresh approach to a subject can mean missing a nuance. Although Hall mentions Michelangelo’s ties with the Etruscans, his discussion of that connection is somewhat academic, whereas for Michelangelo the bonds to his Etruscan heritage were anything but: they ran as deep as his bonds to the Tuscan soil that provided ravenous Renaissance appetites with wine, truffles, and Etruscan artifacts. For sixteenth-century Tuscans, as for their fourteenth- and fifteenth-century predecessors, Etruscan aesthetics were as natural as eating or drinking, and we can see their effect on Michelangelo’s work. For all his heroic height, his big hands and imposing head, David has the body of a small, wiry man with long arms; these compact proportions and the springy tension that suffuses them are also what give Etruscan sculptures their crazy charm, and Michelangelo knew them well; Casa Buonarroti is full of them.

Michelangelo’s Mountain by the Italian writer Eric Scigliano enters this visceral side of Michelangelo by literally climbing up into the blindingly white marble quarries of Carrara (where the author’s family originated) in order to present him specifically as a sculptor, who was nursed by a stonecutter’s wife and claimed to have imbibed stone along with her milk. All his life, Michelangelo could hew marble with astonishing speed—another reason for his Titanic reputation—and he composed his thoughts as readily by pounding an iron chisel into stone as by making a drawing. Stingy with paper, he seems to have wasted marble with reckless abandon. After carving a narrow, intractable block into David, as Scigliano suggests, Michelangelo seems to have developed a craving to test his sculptural ingenuity, or adaptability, and take it to greater and greater extremes. As a result, with a certain consistency and at tremendous cost, he chiseled marble into forms that he could barely complete. His Captives in the Accademia of Florence, destined once for the tomb of Julius II, still emerge from their stone shrouds with such evocative force that we hardly notice their faults. And yet the blockheaded Captive who bends under his stony headgear like a weary Atlas carries marble enough for only part of his face; another Captive crowds so near the edge of his enclosing stone that he has no room left for his right arm. Among Scigliano’s contemporary portraits of Carrara quarrymen, anarchists nourished on slabs of lard cured for six months in marble vats, moving mountains as a way of life, Michelangelo seems to fit right in as he never did in Florence or Rome. The only other person who could ever really keep him company was Julius II; and Julius may have chosen to sleep for all eternity in Michelangelo’s marble, but he preferred to live with frescoes by Raphael.

Letters

Michelangelo and the Etruscans November 2, 2006

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