Divine Lust

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, November 13, 2017–February 12, 2018
Catalog of the exhibition by Carmen C. Bambach, with contributions from Claire Barry, Francesco Caglioti, Caroline Elam, Marcella Marongiu, and Mauro Mussolini
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 392 pp., $65.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
British Museum, London
Michelangelo: Studies for Adam in the Fresco the Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, red chalk, 7 5/8 x 10 3/16 inches, 1511

In a career lasting more than seventy years Michelangelo reigned supreme in every art: sculpture, painting, architecture, drawing, poetry. So absolute was his mastery, and so Olympian were his creations, that he seemed more than mortal to his contemporaries. They called him “divine,” said his works were the most sublime ever made, even greater than those of antiquity, and used a new term, terribilità, to describe the awesome majesty of his art.

His titanic creativity can never be fully conveyed within the confines of a museum exhibition. His greatest masterpieces, such as the Sistine Chapel ceiling in Rome and the New Sacristy in San Lorenzo in Florence, must be experienced at their sites, and even the works that can be moved are deemed so precious that they are rarely loaned; some never are. While there have been exhibitions on parts of Michelangelo’s life and oeuvre, few museums have tried to outline the broad sweep of his inexhaustible artistry.

Yet that is exactly what “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art sets out to accomplish. It covers the entire career of the artist, from his first extant drawings made while he was a teenager to works created shortly before his death at eighty-eight in 1564. The heart of the exhibition is a selection of 133 of his drawings, the largest group of them ever displayed at one time. It also includes his earliest painting, one late architectural model, and three of his sculptures, from very different points in his life. Michelangelo’s activity as a poet is included as well, with two manuscripts in his own hand of his very moving sonnets; these add significantly to our understanding of the artist. Brilliantly curated by Carmen Bambach, a scholar of drawings at the Metropolitan, and beautifully presented by the museum’s exhibition and lighting designers, this is likely the finest show on the artist any of us will ever see.

The material is arranged mainly in chronological order, but this is meant to do more than merely tell the familiar story of Michelangelo’s career. His fame as the greatest artist of all time both trapped and liberated him. For almost his entire life he was compelled by rulers to slave away on their pet projects, yet he was more free than anyone before him to make art in any style he willed, and to devise new imagery wholly of his own choosing. His works have a deeply personal character that was unprecedented in the history of art. As Bambach writes, “his drawings, like his sculptures, often exude a certain autobiographical intensity of feeling.” Without ever being tendentious, this grouping of works allows the viewer to begin to see the passion,…

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