Study of Torso and Legs c.1520 – Michelangelo

The 12 drawings by Michelangelo on loan from the Casa Buonarroti in Florence and on view here in the Muscarelle Museum represent a rare opportunity to see Michelangelo in his workaday mode of production, jotting down visual ideas in a hurry alongside poetic verses or assorted notes. Typically, exhibitions of Renaissance drawings feature the most spectacular, most finished works the artists produced. This creates a lot of visual punch, but gives a distorted view of the artistic process—as if everything issuing from the hand of the artist was pure genius.

By contrast, the drawings on view at the Muscarelle give a more realistic view of all the stages involved in devising and executing an idea, and in the process they provide a number of insights into Michelangelo’s way of working. For example, the exquisite material quality of Michelangelo’s sculptures was no accident—the man was obsessed with marble. The show includes one of the many drawings he made for the “cavatori,” or quarrymen, indicating the size of the blocks to be quarried and the name of the person who excavated them. Another sheet shows how he took a sculptor’s approach to paper, literally carving out the profile of the architectural detail he was designing. Other architects did this, but typically relied on careful measurements, a compass and a straightedge to create a precise template for the stonemasons. Michelangelo attacked the page with a knife. This sheet happens to be one in which he had already begun composing a love poem. Together the architectural profile and the poetic fragment point to two activities for which Michelangelo is less famous today but in which he was equally accomplished.

Sonnet with a caricature – Michelangelo

If any aspect of Michelangelo’s output is undervalued, it is certainly his poetry. Though the artist’s literary efforts are not the subject of “Michelangelo: Anatomy as Architecture,” the show, curated by Aaron De Groft, includes several sheets with fragmentary poems, highlighting the way Michelangelo’s mind worked along parallel tracks and how he saw no need to strictly separate his activities. Among the sheets is a draft of a sonnet to his love object Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, a handsome young Roman nobleman. Modeled after Petrarch’s sonnets but original in tone and diction, his poetry often includes artistic metaphors and vivid evocations of his emotional suffering.

Better known of course is Michelangelo’s extraordinary mastery of the human figure. It essentially came from two sources, both highlighted in the show: direct dissection and analytical study of human musculature, and careful study of ancient sculpture. In both cases, he left a sparse record, giving cause for suspicion that in this, as in so many other cases, he edited his own files to hone the myth of the spontaneous nature of his genius. (He famously burned piles of his drawings at the end of his life, leaving a selective record.)

For example, the muscle studies in the show point to a missing link in Michelangelo’s drawings of the human body. While texts document his rigorous studies of anatomy, no dissection drawings survive. Instead, these studies for the famous marble figures of the Night, Day, Dusk and Dawn in the New Sacristy at San Lorenzo in Florence suggest an eye capable of penetrating the surface of a body to its musculature, but no further (in this way they are utterly different in their interests than Leonardo’s cutaway and other dissection-related studies of the body, which show an interest in systems and interconnections). His energetic hatch marks in pen, highlighting the planes of the leg, anticipate his sculptural gestures, hewing into the marble block.

Michelangelo left an even scarcer record of his studies of ancient sculpture, but the show includes a rare example in the form of a fragmentary study of a statue of Venus. Live female models were hard to come by, and while Michelangelo has been unfairly accused of representing women as men with breasts, the sheet shows him attending to the particular contours of a woman’s hips and bottom.

Another sheet provides a view of a little-noted aspect of Michelangelo’s mind: his sense of humor. Featuring the profile of a lady with precipitously drooping breasts facing that of a bearded man emerging from a boar’s head, the odd pairing makes for a comic effect. Lest we miss his bawdy intent, Michelangelo includes a sketch of a hand making the gesture known as “giving the fig”—slang for a particular female body part.

Michelangelo’s drawings are paired with a room of engravings from the Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae (the “Mirror of Roman Magnificence,” printed by Antonio Lafréry in the 1570s), a collection of images depicting ancient Roman ruins and sculpture. Another room is devoted to a speculative reconstruction of a bell tower project in Pietrasanta in which Michelangelo might have been involved. For those drawn by the lure of seeing the master’s hand at work, this material will be of secondary interest. But the prints are instructive in illustrating the monumental Roman sculptures to which Michelangelo was responding. They also suggest the immediate sensation created by his projects, such as the Tomb of Julius II and the redesign of the Capitoline Hill, that were instantly memorialized in engravings. By contrast, the digital reconstruction video has a tenuous connection both to Michelangelo and to the themes of the show.

The ambition of the show’s premise—to demonstrate a connection between Michelangelo’s approach to the body and his understanding of architecture—is illustrated in the catalog if not fully by the drawings on view. This reflects in part the extraordinary demand for these drawings (there are contemporaneous shows in Rome and London) and the curatorial decision to work with only one collection.

But the advantage of seeing a show of Michelangelo’s drawings in Williamsburg, as opposed to Rome or London, is clear—even on a “crowded” day, it is actually possible to have the drawings to yourself. This doubles the intimacy of the experience—you can see the artist at work, as if peering over his shoulder.

Ms. Brothers, an associate professor at the University of Virginia, is the author of “Michelangelo, Drawing and the Invention of Architecture” (Yale).

Master of Anatomy

The male nude is a favorite motif in Michelangelo’s work, whether in his drawings, paintings, or sculpture. It allows him, in multiple variations, to glorify the beauty of the human body in movement. These drawings, exquisitely executed and striking in their expressive force, are nevertheless based on an extraordinary knowledge of anatomical science.

The regular practice of dissecting bodies at the Santo Spirito hospital in Florence explains the artist’s expert knowledge of anatomy.

Michelangelo was a guest of the convent of Santa Maria del Santo Spirito (Florence) when he was seventeen years old, after the death of his protector Lorenzo de’ Medici. Here he could make anatomical studies of the corpses coming from the convent’s hospital; in exchange, he is said to have sculpted the wooden crucifix which was placed over the high altar. Today the crucifix is in the octagonal sacristy of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Santo Spirito.

His science is particularly noticeable in the present study, in which Michelangelo’s perfect craftsmanship is amply illustrated. Through the skillful use of pen hatching, he models the nude in light and imbues it with a monumental plasticity.

It is known that Michelangelo intended to write a treatise which would probably have had anatomy as a principal subject. He studied anatomy and did dissections at several points in his life, and he was evidently proud of his anatomical accomplishments.

Later paintings of anatomy & dissection:

The Anatomy Lesson (Rembrandt, 1632)
The Anatomy Lesson (Adriaen Backer)
The Anatomy Lesson (Passarotti)

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