Michelangelo, The Mind of the Master Explored Through Rarely-Seen Drawings

October 9, 2019

The Renaissance was a historical turning point due to a shift of a social, cultural, religious and political paradigm. The emergence of cities/states which became hubs for arts and sciences, the technological advancement and the appearance of global trade changed the way people perceived their own existence. During that time, Italy was a dominating center of creativity and philosophical thought where some of the leading artists produced memorable artworks, architectural sites, and writings.

One of them certainly was a Florentine artist Michelangelo Buonarroti whose entire practice influenced generations of artists and is more than important for the development of Western art. Celebrated throughout his lifetime for his craftsmanship, voluminosity and innovative approach to classical themes, Michelangelo constantly searched for new challenges, expressing himself through painting, sculpture, and architecture. Some of his most iconic works include David and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (Creation of Adam being the most celebrated paintings).

Parts of Michelangelo’s grand production were thoroughly examined through various exhibitions, but the current one titled Michelangelo: Mind of the Master at The Cleveland Museum of Art is focused on the artist’s perhaps less known, but outstanding drawings which represent the foundations of his large-scale paintings.

Michelangelo Buonarroti - Studies of a prophet or evangelist
Michelangelo Buonarroti - Studies of a prophet or evangelist; architectural studies; sketch of a male torso (verso). Recto: about 1555; Verso: about 1555–58. Black chalk; Verso: Black chalk, brush and light brown wash, 180 x 136 mm. Teylers Museum, purchased in 1790

The Michelangelo Drawings

The central group of drawings present at the exhibition initially belonged to Queen Christina of Sweden (1626–1689), drawn from the Dutch Teylers Museum (this institution is the oldest museum in the Netherlands opened in 1784). Since 1790, this collection of Michelangelo drawings has been held in the museum, and the majority of them were never shown outside Europe, meaning that this exhibition is practically a drawings debut in the US.

As is it was the case with many Old Masters, drawing was the basis of Michelangelo’s creative process, and he increasingly used it for the exploration of human anatomy. Although the artist destroyed a large portion of his drawings, this show features the best examples of the remaining production and an excellent chance to revisit those exquisite sketches which unravel Michelangelo’s development as a painter, sculptor, and architect. Emily Peters, CMA curator of prints and drawings who organized Michelangelo: Mind of the Master stated the following:

This group of drawings encapsulates the various ways Michelangelo drew throughout his long career, from anatomical renderings to sketches for the nude male figures on the Sistine Chapel ceiling to drawings from live models for a sculpture on one of the Medici tombs. The Teylers group of Michelangelo drawings is among the best preserved in the world, and the red and black chalks used by the artist retain a vibrancy and freshness that allow visitors to really appreciate the immediacy and power of Michelangelo’s thinking on paper.

Left Michelangelo Buonarroti - Studies of the upper body Right Michelangelo Buonarroti - Male head in profile
Left: Michelangelo Buonarroti - Studies of the upper body of a man and separate studies of an arm, a hand, and an ear; sketch of a tree (recto); Fragmentary cartoon of a male head; upper body of a man; study of a crouching figure (verso), 1511-12. Red chalk(s) and black chalk; Verso: Red chalk and black chalk, 252 x 205 mm. Teylers Museum, purchased in 1790 / Right: Michelangelo Buonarroti - Male head in profile, studies of limbs (recto); Various figure studies (verso), 1511. Red chalk; Verso: Red chalk over stylus underdrawing, leadpoint, black chalk, 296 x 195 mm. Teylers Museum, purchased in 1790

The Thematic Sections

A total number of fifty-one Michelangelo drawing works are included in the exhibition. The whole installment consists of four thematic sections, preceded the introduction titled Drawing in Italy before Michelangelo; as the title indicates, this section explores the drawing production in Florence before Michelangelo settled in this prosperous city, the center of the Renaissance where at the time the artists mostly used pen and ink, and metal point, and they rarely studied anatomy.

Under the title Michelangelo’s Florence, the first section shows how the ravishing 15th-century art Florentine scene affected the young artist who started his career as an apprentice in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio in 1487/88. It is there he learned the craft of drawing and developed a style that made him famous. By 1490, Michelangelo started working for the wealthy Medici family, the famous patrons of arts.

The second section called Early Work: New Models for Art is focused on the period of Michelangelo perfecting his craft by studying a collection of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture found in the Medici garden. The artist presumably saw and sketched from a human cadaver at the hospital of Santo Spirito in Florence around this time, meaning that the mentioned exposures inspired Michelangelo to focus on the human body. Some of his earliest studies and drawings are displayed in this section, including two rare studies for his Battle of Cascina fresco (1502–04), commissioned by the city of Florence.

Medici Florence reveals the works on paper made by Michelangelo in between the 1510s and 1520s. Namely, this medium dominated his practice during this period, since it helped the artist to plan and produce elaborate commissions for the Medici family and Pope Julius II. This section unravels the artist’s meticulous preparatory sketches on paper for the Medici tombs, at the Basilica of San Lorenzo (1519–34) in Florence, as well as other sketches for Michelangelo’s sculptural tomb of Pope Julius II, which was eventually finished and installed in Rome in 1545.

The final section Papal Rome reveals Michelangelo’s drawings made for the grandiose projects released in Rome that the artist worked on practically until the end of his life. On display is a series of four double-sided preparatory drawings for the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508–12) dating from the second half of his work on the ceiling. After observing his work from the ground for the first time, Michelangelo decided to produce larger figures larger and clearer compositions. After Antonio da Sangallo, the lead architect of the new Saint Peter’s Basilica, died in 1546, Pope Paul III elected Michelangelo chief architect, entrusting him with this most important large scale project despite his limited experience as an architect. The visitors have a unique chance of seeing a crucial architectural drawing for the dome of the new Saint Peter’s Basilica from 1547.

Michelangelo Buonarroti - Study of the back and left arm
Michelangelo Buonarroti - Study of the back and left arm of a male nude (recto); Study of the right shoulder (verso), 1523–24. Black chalk; Verso: Red chalk and black chalk, 192 x 257 mm. Teylers Museum, purchased in 1790

Michelangelo at The Cleveland Museum of Art

This outstanding survey will confirm the iconic status of Michelangelo and the relevance of his entire oeuvre by underling the ever focused, sophisticated, and meticulous approach best expressed by the grand artist through the media of drawing.

Michelangelo: Mind of the Master will be on view at The Cleveland Museum of Art until 5 January 2020. Afterward, the exhibition will travel to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Editors’ Tip Michelangelo: Mind of the Master

The works of Michelangelo (1475–1564) remain an enduring source of awe and fascination more than 500 years after his death. Michelangelo: Mind of the Master offers a new context for understanding the drawings of one of art’s greatest visionaries. Through a group of drawings held since 1793 in the Teylers Museum and once in the eminent collection of Queen Christina of Sweden (1626–1689), this book sheds new light on Michelangelo’s inventive preparations for his most important commissions in the realms of painting, sculpture, and architecture. Essays in the volume further explore the history and fate of Michelangelo’s drawings during his life, as well as the role of Queen Christina and her heirs in amassing a group of drawings that are among the best preserved by the master today.

Featured images: Michelangelo Buonarroti - Six figures in attitudes of fear and terror (recto); Sketch of headless figure, striding to the right (verso) about 1517/18–about 1535; Verso: about 1517/18–about 1535. Red chalk; Verso: Red chalk 110 x 194 mm. Teylers Museum, purchased in 1790; Michelangelo Buonarroti - Three studies of a left arm and shoulder, seen from the back, 1523–24. Black chalk, 268 x 160 mm. Teylers Museum, purchased in 1790. One side shown. All images courtesy The Cleveland Museum of Art.