Contemplating the divine

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At The Met Fifth Avenue, a historic showcase of drawings by Michelangelo


  • Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, Caprese 1475–1564 Rome). "Archers Shooting at a Herm." 1530–33. Drawing, red chalk; 8 5/8 x 12 11/16 in. ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST/© HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II 2017."

  • Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, Caprese 1475–1564 Rome). "Portrait of Andrea Quaratesi." 1532. Drawing, black chalk; 16 3/16 x 11 ½ in. The British Museum, London

  • Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, Caprese 1475–1564 Rome). “Tityos (recto); Sketches for a Resurrection of Christ (verso).” Drawing. Ca. 1530–32. Black chalk; sheet: 7 1/2 x 13 in. Lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (RCIN 12771). ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST/© HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II 2017."

  • Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, Caprese 1475–1564 Rome). “Studies for the Libyan Sibyl (recto); Studies for the Libyan Sibyl and a small Sketch for a Seated Figure (verso).” Ca. 1510–11. Red chalk, with small accents of white chalk on the left shoulder of the figure in the main study (recto); soft black chalk, or less probably charcoal (verso). Sheet; 11 3/8 x 8 7/16 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1924

  • Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, Caprese 1475–1564 Rome). “Unfinished cartoon for a Madonna and Child.” 1525–30. Drawing, black and red chalk, white gouache, brush and brown wash: 21 5/16 x 15 9/16 in. Casa Buonarroti, Florence

  • Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, Caprese 1475–1564 Rome). “Three Labours of Hercules.” 1530–33. Drawing, red chalk; 10 11/16 x 16 5/8 in. ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST/© HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II 2017."


“It’s humbling to be in the presence of genius,” curator Carmen Bambach gushes in a video about Michelangelo’s red chalk studies for the Libyan Sibyl. The female prophet, modeled after a young male, inhabits the north end of the Sistine Chapel’s frescoed ceiling, reproduced here in a photograph, one-quarter the size of the real thing but still massive. Look up and be humbled.

The feeling stays with you as you tour the galleries at The Met Fifth Avenue’s sprawling new exhibit, “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer,” which is being billed as unprecedented. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Daniel Weiss, president and CEO of The Met, said at a preview. “It is the largest and most comprehensive gathering of drawings by Michelangelo in history.”

It features more than 200 rare items, including 133 drawings, three sculptures and the earliest surviving painting by the Renaissance master, “The Torment of Saint Anthony” (1487-88), made when he was about 13 and an apprentice in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio. It is a small, radiant jewel presented alongside his earliest surviving drawing from around 1492, a copy of two figures from a fresco by Giotto. His earliest known sculpture, “Young Archer” (1496-97), is displayed nearby.

The works by the hand of the precocious Michelangelo — and his teachers, pupils, friends, associates, collaborators and wannabes — are drawn from some 50 public and private collections, including many from The Royal Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle and The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

It was biographer Giorgio Vasari who dubbed Michelangelo “the divine draftsman and designer” in 1568 in his famous “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects.” He extolled the artist’s mastery of “disegno” — drawing and concept design — a gift that accounted for his extraordinary skill in the arts. As Bambach said at the preview, “His drawings themselves were often called ‘divine works’ by his contemporaries.”

Born in Caprese, southeast of Florence, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) had an uncanny adeptness with pen-and-ink, a challenging medium in the hands of lesser talents because it did not allow for erasures. But he also used red chalk, black chalk, wash and gouache — white gouache highlights especially.

Il Divino (“the divine one”), as he came to be known, set a high bar for himself. His competitive nature “made him ‘a lover of difficulty’ ... intent on conquering all manner of challenges in his art, physical and creative, and on outdoing all others, past and present,” Bambach writes in the catalog, noting his rivalry with contemporaries Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael.

His drawings are a force, renowned for their sculptural and expressive qualities and anatomical precision. He drew inspiration from classical sculpture and past masters of Italian art like Giotto, Masaccio and Donatello.

The exhibit is a dizzying, somewhat overwhelming showcase, best experienced in small takes so the individual works can be savored. A vast, airy gallery houses the replica of the Sistine ceiling at the Vatican Palace (1508-12), with a selection of chalk studies for the frescoes at ground level.

The labels for the drawings include tiny diagrams of the ceiling so you can relate the sketches on paper to the heavenly paintings above. It’s a climactic juncture, but then Michelangelo lived an extremely long life — he died at 88 — and there were more masterpieces to come. The section devoted to the figural studies for the “Last Judgment” (1533-41), a fresco behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel, is a sobering reminder.

He achieved both fame and fortune in his lifetime. In the course of his career, he was commissioned to design a multitude of public projects, including a marble tomb for Pope Julius II that took 40 years to finish. He spent roughly two decades on the drawings; a sampling is on view here. But some of the most arresting items in the show are the private works he created for friends and benefactors, so-called gift drawings.

When he was 57, he befriended Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, a much younger gentleman from Rome with a taste for antiquities. Beguiled by the young man’s learnedness, Michelangelo offered tokens of affection in the form of poetry and drawings based on myths from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” One black chalk sheet from Queen Elizabeth II’s Royal Collection, “Punishment of Tityos,” depicts the giant Tityos, nude and recumbent in the underworld, on the verge of having his liver bitten by a vulture for eternity, retribution for attempting to rape the goddess Leto.

Michelangelo’s fondness for attractive young men with noble pedigrees was “an open secret,” the wall text states. Moreover, Vasari wrote that he “abhorred making a resemblance true to life, unless [the subject] was of extraordinary beauty,” an allusion to his dislike of portraiture.

Andrea Quaratesi, 37 years younger than the master, made the cut though and is the subject of an enigmatic portrait from 1531-34. The aristocrat’s “remote gaze” and “three-quarter pose” call to mind the “Mona Lisa,” Bambach writes. “Leonardo pioneered this type of portrait, in which subtle tensions in the pose suggest a complex psychological presence.”

Divine indeed.

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