An exhibition of Michelangelo’s (1475–1564) drawings is a rare and important event. "Michelangelo: Sacred and Profane," at the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary, presents twenty-six works on paper from the Casa Buonarroti in Florence. The variety of the drawings reflects the multifaceted genius of the Renaissance polymath—a painter, sculptor, architect and poet. There are sketches for the Bibliotecca Laurenziana, among them a pyramidal groundplan and overlapping versions of stairs and column bases. The architectural details are drawn in ink over a miscellaneous group of red and black heads and partial figures. As Leonard Barken demonstrates in Michelangelo: A Life on Paper (Princeton University Press, 2010), the artist was a prodigious visual thinker prone to putting a sheet of paper to multiple uses. Projects, both secular and ecclesiastical, include elaborate drawings of walls and fortifications, the façade of the Church of San Lorenzo in Florence and a groundplan, dated 1559, for San Giovanni dei Fiorentini in Rome. Cosimo de Medici asked Michelangelo for a proposal, and, while it was not adopted, it’s a striking design—a centralized plan with radiating chapels.
The real stars of the exhibition, however, are two spectacular examples of the drawing-as-masterpiece, which embody the Christian and pagan aspects of Renaissance culture. Madonna and Child (c. 1525) depicts the Virgin nursing the infant Jesus, a motif that usually evokes tenderness and intimacy. Michelangelo’s approach is more psychologically complex. The Virgin looks away from her son, her face shadowed with a foreboding of the tragedy that will follow. This Mary sees into the future, like the ancient sibyls Michelangelo placed on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The poignancy of the moment comes from the contrast between her melancholy and the baby’s simple hunger. Unaware of his destiny, he is a happy, muscular and surprisingly aggressive child, more like an infant Hercules than a babe in arms. The plasticity of the boy’s body is established by building up that section of the drawing with black and red pencil. The statuesque figure of the Virgin, in contrast, is sketched in more delicately. To modern eyes, the combination of distinct modes of draftsmanship on a single sheet seems aesthetically coherent, even virtuosic. We cannot know whether Michelangelo considered the drawing finished, but we do know that the non finito was a principle of his art, notably in his sculpture, where the forms sometimes emerged rough-hewn from the marble.
The other standout drawing in the exhibition, Cleopatra (c. 1533), can be more securely considered finished. Michelangelo presented the drawing, in black chalk, to Tommaso de’Cavalieri, a young patrician and aspiring artist. Michelangelo was 57 years old when he met the 17-year-old Tommaso and fell under the spell of the adolescent’s charm. Michelangelo wrote letters and sonnets to Tommaso and gave him a number of drawings, including one depicting Zeus abducting Ganymede. The all’antica subject of Cleopatra, configured as an armless antique bust, was appropriate: Tommaso’s family owned a fine collection of classical sculpture. Cleopatra looks over her shoulder with yearning eyes, her full lips slightly parted. Her swan-like neck has a Mannerist elegance, and she wears an elaborate upswept coiffeur with a dangling braid that mimics the sinuous curve of the serpent that attacks her. The fatal encounter is depicted with melancholy poise. On the verso of the sheet, the artist roughs out a different, expressionistic idea, with Cleopatra staring at us, eyes wide in a mask of agony.
The style of Cleopatra could be characterized as all’antica or Mannerist, but later artists and writers responded to this kind of image as foreshadowing a Romantic or Decadent sensibility. During an 1864 visit to Florence, the English poet Algernon Swinburne encountered the drawing at the Casa Buonarroti. He published a prose poem on it in "Notes on Designs of the Old Masters in Florence," comparing her to Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and describing "the electric hair, which looks as though it would hiss and glitter with sparks if once touched…wound up to a tuft with serpentine plaits and involutions" (see Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, Oxford University Press, 1970). Succeeding generations are always finding unexpected themes in past art. The Renaissance masters repurposed antiquity with spectacular results, no one more so than Michelangelo. He continues to fascinate us, not just for his extraordinary technical prowess in multiple disciplines but for the complexity of his creative mind. His drawings are an intimate and precious record of his genius.
"Michelangelo: Sacred and Profane" is curated by John T. Spike, the Muscarelle’s assistant director, in honor of the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the museum. The exhibition is on view February 9–April 14, 2013, at the Muscarelle Museum of Art, College of William & Mary, 603 Jamestown Road, Williamsburg, Virginia 23185. Telephone (757) 221-2700. wm.edu/muscarelle. It travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (April 21–June 30, 2013).