Book Review: Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer

Art historian and visual arts blogger Nigel Ip reviews Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer and is impressed by the book's exceptional research and brilliant illustrations. Read his thoughts here:

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer (by Carmen C. Bambach, with essays by Claire Barry, Francesco Caglioti, Caroline Elam, Marcella Marongiu, and Mauro Mussolin. 392 pp. incl. 370 col. ills.) is the companion book to the exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 13 November 2017 – 12 February 2018.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) is a name that requires little introduction. The Sistine Chapel and his marble David (Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence) are some of the world’s most visited attractions. As Carmen Bambach mentions in the exhibition catalogue Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, the scholarly literature on the artist is ‘gargantuan’. Throughout the course of eight chapters, Bambach swiftly describes the circumstances of Michelangelo’s life and career, from his early training in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio to his fame and legacy as il divin’ disegnatore (the divine draughtsman/designer), so-called by his biographers Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi.

Book Review: Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer

An additional five specialist essays by external contributors provide fresh insights with the latest research on various aspects of the artist’s work, including a technical examination of his earliest known painting, The Torment of Saint Anthony (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth). Based on Martin Schongaeur’s engraving, the painting caused Ghirlandaio so much envy of Michelangelo’s abilities that, according to Condivi, he ‘used to say that the painting came from his own workshop, as if he had some part in it.’ Furthermore, it is a well-known belief that Michelangelo wanted very little to do with Ghirlandaio; Condivi’s account claims that Michelangelo ‘received absolutely no assistance from him [Ghirlandaio]’. Bambach provides an excellent reassessment of Ghirlandaio’s role towards the younger artist’s knowledge of painting in the buon fresco medium, drawing with metalpoint on prepared paper, and the sculptural modelling of figures in pen-and-ink using straight strokes of parallel hatching or cross-hatching. One of these is the J. Paul Getty Museum’s newly-acquired pen-and-ink drawing which shows Michelangelo’s own interpretation of a mourning figure from Donatello’s bronze Crucifixion relief on the Passion pulpit in the Basilica of San Lorenzo, Florence.

Book Review: Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer 2

This book is primarily concerned with the concept of disegno (meaning both drawing and design) in all areas of Michelangelo’s creative endeavours. Vasari called it the ‘father’ of the three major arts: architecture, sculpture, and painting. As Bambach states in the book, much of it engages with ‘Michelangelo’s creative process as a draftsman and designer, and his role as disegnatore is defined in the broadest possible terms, including his delegation of labor in the execution of projects.’

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Although many of the artist’s early drawings have not survived – including any for the David – it is clear from what exists that he initially preferred drawing in pen-and-ink. By the time he was commissioned around 1504 to paint the Battle of Cascina on a wall of the Great Council Hall (Sala del Gran Consiglio) in the Palazzo della Signoria (now Palazzo Vecchio, Florence), black and red chalk had become a staple in his creative process, the latter especially for nude studies. This is most evident in his sheets of designs for the Sistine Chapel ceiling between 1508 and 1512, some of which contain architectural motifs and pen-and-ink schizzi (sketches) for the much-delayed tomb of Pope Julius II (San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome) which spanned 40 years from 1505 to 1545. Readers are also treated to a double-page spread comparing Michelangelo’s monumental fresco cycle with the ceiling’s former appearance – ultramarine blue sky with a constellation of gold stars – as recorded in Piermatteo d’Amelia’s demonstration drawing in the Uffizi.

Michelangelo : Divine Draftsman and Designer

Michelangelo was indeed a busy man, often receiving many commissions at once. In 1513, Pope Leo X was elected as Julius II’s papal successor. In a grand scheme to glorify his Medici heritage, he bombarded the artist with numerous time-consuming projects between 1515 and 1534 relating to the Basilica of San Lorenzo. These included decorating its façade-less front (abandoned in 1520 by order of Leo X), creating the Medici tombs in the New Sacristy, and building the adjacent Laurentian Library. A year after Leo’s election, Michelangelo also accepted Metello Vari’s commission to sculpt a Risen Christ for the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. The artist famously abandoned the first version of the marble statue due to an unsightly black vein running along Christ’s face. The second version was begun in 1519 and completed by 1521.

Such grand projects required an extraordinary amount of delegated labour that intruded on areas of the design process. As disegnatore, Michelangelo frequently hired surrogate artists (Stefano di Tommaso Lunetti, Jacopo da Pontormo, Marcello Venusti, Daniele da Volterra) to execute finished designs intended for showing to patrons (so-called presentation/ demonstration drawings). He also personally produced designs for projects that were not his own, as was the case with four of Sebastiano del Piombo’s projects between 1512 and 1533/34: the Viterbo Pietà (Museo Civico, Viterbo), the Borgherini Chapel (San Pietro in Montorio, Rome), The Raising of Lazarus (National Gallery, London), and the frequently overshadowed Úbeda Pietà (Fundación Casa Ducal de Medinaceli, Seville).

Michelangelo : Divine Draftsman and Designer

Michelangelo’s diverse activities as a disegnatore has led to much confusion in the attributional history of his drawings. Rejected attributions have often been deposited nonsensically to the oeuvres of his workshop and close collaborators. To complicate matters, the artist frequently re-used the same sheets of paper, some of which also contain drawings by his pupils. In the catalogue, Bambach proposes a number of new attributions to the master: the Cleveland Museum of Art’s sheet of nude figure studies in red chalk for the Sistine Chapel ceiling, a modello drawing in the Louvre for the Medici Tomb of the Capitani, and a cautious ‘attributed to Michelangelo’ for the Annunciation drawing at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York. She also believes two red-chalk drawings (both at the Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf) are the work of his pupil Antonio Mini which record lost autograph drawings depicting the Brazen Serpent story, whilst another Louvre drawing for the Medici Tomb of the Magnifici has been attributed to a member of Michelangelo’s workshop, possibly Stefano di Tommaso Lunetti. Regarding the much-disputed black-chalk study of Christ at the Column (British Museum, London), made for the Flagellation scene in the Borgherini Chapel, Bambach has given the attribution to Sebastiano rather than Michelangelo. Special attention has also been given to a unique sheet in Frankfurt (Städel Museum) containing an autograph drawing by the latter and handwritten script at the top, which Bambach has identified as being by Sebastiano’s hand.

Michelangelo : Divine Draftsman and Designer

The obsession with drawings di sua mano (by his hand) contributed to a rising trend in collecting drawings by Michelangelo. The concept of disegno is irrevocably entangled with an artist’s physical and mental input towards a creative work. Even during the final years of his life, when he was physically weak and half-blind, Michelangelo continued to draw regularly, creating some of the most intense and moving sets of drawings for a Crucifixion in a manner that has been described as la mano tremante (the trembling hand). In addition to the disegni finiti (finished drawings) he made as gifts for close friends, Michelangelo received countless requests for products by his hand, ‘however small it may be…only it be a thing by his hand’. Many of these remained unfulfilled or simply neglected. Nevertheless, the remarkable survival of several large cartoni (cartoons), including a fragment for the Vatican Pauline Chapel (Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples) – all previously in Fulvio Orsini’s collection – is a testament to this phenomenon.

Michelangelo : Divine Draftsman and Designer

Indeed, this phenomenon certainly began when the cartoon for the Battle of Cascina became publicly visible, standing in place of the unexecuted fresco for the next seven years. Despite being unfinished – or rather because of this – the Battle of Cascina was an exemplar of disegno alongside Leonardo da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari cartoon; Condivi called it ‘the fountain source for all painters who picked up a brush thereafter’. For many artists, including the young Raphael, it was the only public demonstration of Michelangelo’s draughtsmanship and inventive potential on a monumental scale. This marked a new beginning for drawings to be appreciated as autonomous works of art in their own right, beyond their primary function as preparatory media.

Since then, the artist’s disegni took on a life of their own; they were copied, engraved, replicated in painted form, and even adapted for gems imitating antique cameos. Giorgio Giulio Clovio ranks among the best of the artist’s draughtsmen-copyists, whose command of Michelangelo’s style led Vasari to call him ‘a small and new Michelangelo’, as exemplified by the Morgan’s illuminated Farnese Book of Hours. Among his best copies is the Rape of Ganymede (Royal Collection, Windsor), the only surviving record of a now-lost disegni finiti created for the Roman nobleman Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. The dissemination of Michelangelo’s style was heavily indebted to the replication of his designs, whether they were private drawings or monumental frescoes, allowing an international audience to experience a glimpse of the artist’s creativity. Furthermore, he gained posthumous fame as an architectural designer of many of Rome’s important monuments, including redesigns of the Campidoglio (Capitoline Hill), Palazzo Farnese, and the new Basilica of Saint Peter’s.

Michelangelo : Divine Draftsman and Designer

Bambach’s discussion of Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna’s passionate exchange of letters and poems was especially illuminating, not only clarifying their relationship but also the spiritual themes that fed into the artist’s late works, including the Last Judgement and the two disegni finiti he made for her: a Pietà (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) and a Crucifixion (British Museum). Eight years after Colonna’s death in 1547, Michelangelo would go on to write the famous sonnet ‘Le favole del mondo m’ ànno tolto / Il tempo dato a contemplare Idio’ (‘The vanities of the world have robbed me / the time allotted for contemplating God’), a renouncement of earthly love and love of self.

Michelangelo : Divine Draftsman and Designer

Michelangelo’s reputation as a creative genius even applied to his unfinished sculpture. Since Vasari concluded that ‘disegno is none other than a visible expression and statement of the concept of the soul, and of other things that the mind has imagined and shaped in an idea’, it is fitting that he would go on to claim that Michelangelo abandoned so many works because his hands could not fully express ‘concepts so great and awesome [terribili]’ in his mind, and that ‘the judgement of this man was so great that he was never satisfied with anything that he did.’ About 26 of 43 extant marble sculptures are known to have been left unfinished in part or in their entirety. As Bambach notes, works like the ambiguous Apollo-David (Museo Nazionale di Bargello, Florence) reveal his ‘approach to form in relation to iconography’.

Michelangelo : Divine Draftsman and Designer

The contributors of the external essays also deserve commendable mentions for their research. Claire Barry’s technical examination of the Torment of Saint Anthony brings with it an exciting discovery hidden beneath the paint surface: an underdrawing that appears to relate to Michelangelo’s documented (lost) drawing of the scaffolding at Santa Maria Novella, Florence, when he was still under Ghirlandaio’s tutelage. Caroline Elam presents a renewed approach to viewing the artist’s architectural drawings, one that fully embraces Michelangelo’s drawing process and graphic visual language, and Mauro Mussolin’s revealing analysis of the artist’s combined use of two-dimensional drawings and three-dimensional architectural models to communicate his grandiose ideas is most informative.

Michelangelo : Divine Draftsman and Designer

Francesco Caglioti’s survey of Michelangelo’s sculptural forms also sheds light on a drawing in the Silverman Collection, Paris, which fully records the original appearance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s fragmented Young Archer and seemingly anticipates many of the artist’s later works. Finally, Marcella Marongui has contributed a brief but necessary biography of Tommaso de’ Cavalieri’s life and activities, who until now has been exclusively discussed in conjunction with Michelangelo’s graphic and poetic oeuvre, the most famous of all being the disegni finiti depicting the Punishment of Tityus, the Bacchanal of Children (both at Windsor), and the Fall of Phaeton (versions at Windsor, the British Museum, and Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice).

Michelangelo : Divine Draftsman and Designer

Bambach’s catalogue is a fluid balance between archival research, theoretical discussion, and detailed observation. The complex layers of meaning associated with disegno and its applications have been beautifully described in relation to Michelangelo’s vast repertoire in painting, drawing, sculpture, architecture, and poetry. The publication is without a doubt an irreplaceable addition to the artist’s ever-expanding scholarship. The rich illustrations allow for insightful comparisons and the selected objects have been brought to life with a critical understanding of their prior functions and diverse historical contexts, resulting in a brilliant monographic survey that will surely be difficult to supersede.

Michelangelo : Divine Draftsman and Designer

Our thanks to the team at Yale University Press for providing a review copy.

 

 


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