Laura Gascoigne

Fascinating insight into the mind of Michelangelo

In the drawings from the artist's last decade, which are at the heart of a new British Museum show, the emphasis is on frailty rather than power

Study for the ‘Last Judgment’, c.1534–36, by Michelangelo Buonarroti. © The Trustees of the British Museum

You’re pushing 60 and an important patron asks you to repeat an artistic feat you accomplished in your thirties. There’s nothing more daunting than having to compete with your younger self, but the patron is the Pope. How can you say no?

Besides, it’s an excuse to get away from Florence, where your work for the republicans who expelled the Medici has become an embarrassment since their return. So you tell Pope Clement VII that, yes, you will move to Rome and paint a Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel.

Bladder stones, colic, backache, gout – Michelangelo had them all and moaned about them in letters

Contemplating this monumental fresco, it’s hard to believe that it was the work of a man already complaining of old age, but Michelangelo (1475-1564) was an artistic titan. That’s what makes the British Museum’s new show so special: by focusing on his last three decades, it demonstrates that even titans age. Bladder stones, colic, backache, gout – Michelangelo had them all and moaned about them in letters to his nephew. Italians, even titans, don’t have stiff upper lips.

This is not a show of Michelangelo masterpieces; it’s an introduction to how a great artist thinks. It includes some polished presentation drawings made in the early 1530s for his young pash Tommaso dei Cavalieri – with whom he was infatuated to the point of offering: ‘If you do not like this sketch… I have time to make another one’ – and some marvellous life drawings for the ‘Last Judgment’. But more fascinating are the jottings on the backs of sheets where we can read the artist’s first, second and third thoughts on different projects. Always careful with money, he used and reused every scrap of paper, sometimes even gluing irregular offcuts together.

Ideas came so easily to Michelangelo that he could afford to be generous with them. Increasingly overwhelmed with papal projects, mainly architectural, he kept importunate patrons at bay by throwing them scraps executed by collaborators. The show includes a few too many sugary paintings by Marcello Venusti after the master’s designs. ‘If it is yours, I want it from you at all costs,’ the discerning Vittoria Colonna wrote to him. ‘But if… you wish your assistant to complete it… I would prefer him to make something else.’

 ‘The Resurrected Christ Appearing to His Mother’, c.1560-3, by Michelangelo. Image: © Ashmolean Museum University of Oxford.

The close friendship Michelangelo developed with this devout widow and fellow poet came at a point in his artistic life when he was moving away from the muscular Christianity of his Sistine frescoes towards something more spiritual. The ‘Christ on the Cross’ (c.1538-41) he drew for Colonna is still a powerful figure, but in the drawings from his last decade at the heart of this show the emphasis is on frailty rather than power. In these late meditations on mortality and loss, the vigorous chalk-marks of the life drawings become the faintest touches, as if the artist is almost afraid to breathe on the paper. Gone is the muscular definition of the ‘Last Judgment’: defined and redefined by multiple outlines that make their hazy figures appear to tremble, these drawings don’t have vigour, but they have life.

Who did he do them for? In the absence of alternative evidence, it looks as if he made them for himself as acts of devotion. Towards the end he became increasingly concerned with the state and destiny of his soul: in 1554, aged 79, he sent Vasari a sonnet renouncing ‘the affectionate fantasy, that made art an idol and sovereign to me’. But it was too late to kick the habit. Instead, on the monastic principle ‘laborare est orare’ – ‘to work is to pray’ – he may have offered up these drawings as prayers. Their subject is closeness: closeness to death, and to loved ones. Michelangelo could be prickly, but he was not a loner. He formed warm relationships and was devastated by the loss of friends and assistants: on the death of his faithful servant Urbino in 1555 he was ‘so overwhelmed with emotion’ he couldn’t write.

In old age, memories of early childhood seem to have returned to a man who lost his mother at the age of six. A tender ‘Virgin and Child’ (c.1560-63) celebrates the bond between mother and baby, while other drawings focus on the mature mother-son relationship he never experienced. In ‘The Resurrected Christ Appearing to his Mother’ (c.1560-63) she is old and stout, having a sit-down; he flits in, insubstantial as a shade, and their extended fingertips echo the contact between God and Adam on the Sistine ceiling. If you’ve ever wondered what the resurrection of the body might look like, this drawing gives a convincing impression. But when he drew it, Michelangelo was still in the world of the living – a note at the top reminds him to contact a courier. The artist sanctified by Vasari – and the whole of subsequent art history – as ‘a being rather divine than human’ is exposed by this revelatory show as a man after all.

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