Saturday, February 20, 2010

Michelangelo drawing show explores the hand of a master

Michelangelo created this circa 1532 study of a soldier for a work 
known as the "Resurrection of Christ."
Michelangelo created this circa 1532 study of a soldier for a work known as the "Resurrection of Christ." (Courtesy of Casa Buonarroti, Florence, Italy / February 16, 2010)

Even in his own lifetime, the works of Michelangelo stood out in ways that commanded awe and reverence.

While many other Italian Renaissance artists strove to understand the unclothed figures of their subjects, he often peered beneath the skin to understand the exact relationship of the bones, tendons and muscles.

And where others sought to depict lifelike physical forms, "Il Divino" — as he was often called by his admiring peers — injected his twisting, turning portraits with such convincing energy that they bristled with emotional and spiritual life as well as movement.

Such unequaled understanding of the human body revolutionized the world of sculpture and painting — and helped make 16th-century Italian art one of the high-water marks of Western Civilization. But in Michelangelo's ceaselessly restless hands, it rewrote the laws of architecture, too, introducing a game-changing approach to building design based on the parts, as well as the bilateral symmetry of the human face and body.

"When people think of architecture, they think of mathematical precision. But Michelangelo didn't see it that way," says Aaron De Groft, director of the Muscarelle Museum of Art, which explores the subject in "Michelangelo: Anatomy as Architecture, Drawings by the Master."

"He trusted his eyes — because he knew it not only had to be right, it had to look right, too. And he trusted his understanding of human anatomy because, to him, you couldn't understand architecture until you understood anatomy."

Drawn from the world-renowned collection of the Casa Buonarroti in Florence, Italy — which was Michelangelo's ancestral home — this small group of about a dozen images represents a genuinely rare opportunity to look first-hand into the mind of one of history's greatest artists.

Though he was known to draw incessantly — using and reusing sheets of paper to explore the faces, figures, muscles and bones of his subjects, as well as the forms and ornaments of his buildings — only about 600 sheets survived after the artist began destroying them shortly before his death at the age of 88 in 1564.

Fewer than 20 examples can be found in American museums. Several important small groups reside in the vaults of the Louvre, the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University, Windsor Castle and the British Museum. Yet even the largest surviving collection at the Casa Buonarroti numbers just more than 200 sheets of drawings.

"These are his ideas — his preparatory studies — and with multiple images per page, there originally would have been thousands of them. So you're seeing inside his mind," De Groft says.

"But he didn't want people to see the struggles behind his work — and he burned most of them before he died."

Indeed, Michelangelo used his drawings like a workbench and his crayons and pens like tools, pressing them into service whenever he needed to perfect the ideas found in his sculptures, architectural designs and paintings.

Despite this utilitarian attitude, however, his genius as a draftsman easily matched if not surpassed his other artistic talents as a sculptor and painter. So even the quickest, most fragmented and seemingly most casual sketch shows the incontrovertible hand of a master.

"Michelangelo had a very special quality of expression that was recognized in his own time — and these drawings are part of that," says College of William and Mary professor emeritus Miles Chappell, who collaborated with De Groft on the exhibit.

"They're sketchy, but they're also full of life — and they're an indispensable part of the mosaic of his work."

Michelangelo drew in the Florentine style he learned as a young man, delineating the contours of his subject first, then following up with hatched lines to add shading.

He also used a quick, masterful and decisive line, Chappell says, altering its width and weight to produce a nearly infinite range of expression.

Sometimes he peers inside the body, as in the anatomical studies of torsos and legs that might have been conducted in preparation for two male figures sculpted for the Medici Chapel. Other times he explores the surface, as in a circa 1525 sketch tracing the way light falls across the muscled back of a classical Venus.

In another study of a soldier witnessing the resurrection of Christ, the artist's habitual attention to the evocative power of physical detail is so well-honed that you can almost feel the sense of tension, surprise and alarm in the headless figure's muscles.

"There's nothing here but a few lines," Chappell says. "But you can really sense the expression he was looking for."
Michelangelo devoted equal attention to his architectural studies, sketching tirelessly in search of forms, proportions and ornaments that would not only echo the lessons of the human body but also suggest its energy and emotions.

Among the most persuasive examples on view here is a study for the Medici Chapel, where the elaborate bases of the pilasters against the tomb's walls resemble the profile of a face consumed by sorrow.

Even in Michelangelo's day, his biographers noted that such devices were designed to echo the qualities expressed more overtly in the artist's figure sculptures.

That enabled the seemingly inanimate parts of the building to cry out in unison with its marble figures.

"There's real anguish in this room," De Groft says, studying a photograph of the finished chapel. "Everything about the architecture here is calculated to evoke sadness."

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