The Muscles Behind Michelangelo’s Masterpieces, a Featured Exhibit at the Getty Center  

Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475 – 1564)
Seated male nude study for Sistine Chapel ceiling; separate study of his right arm (recto); Studies of figures and limbs; figure sketches (verso), 1511.
Credit: Image © Teylers Museum, Haarlem


Circling The News Contributor

If Michelangelo had had his way, there would not be any evidence of his meticulously detailed preparatory drawings for his splendid artistic achievements. No studies of anatomy, movement, composition or emotion. The very underpinnings for his most important commissions in painting, sculpture and architecture—would not have survived.

The artist was much admired in his lifetime and was often called Il Divino (the divine one). Biographer Giorgio Vasari proposed that Michelangelo’s work transcended that of any artist living or dead, and was “supreme in not one art alone but in all three.”

So why would Michelangelo want to destroy his drawings? In fact, he almost did. Of the estimated 28,000 drawings rendered over his long life—some seven decades—only 600 sheets exist.

Several explanations account for his periodic destruction of his works. According to Vasari, “He burned a great number of designs, sketches and cartoons made with his own hand, so that no one might see the labors he endured and the methods with which he tested his imagination, so that he might appear nothing less than perfect.”

He was also deeply protective of his ideas and forms expressed in drawings and exhorted his assistants to guard against potential copiers. So when he had worked out a scheme in preparatory drawings and completed the sculpture or painting, he burnt the drawings.

Portrait of Michelangelo at 75 by Daniele da Volterra,
about 1550.
Credit: Image © Teylers Museum, Haarlem

Given these unfortunate circumstances, the exhibition “Michelangelo: Mind of the Master,” currently on view at the Getty Center, provides an opportunity to experience the genesis of some of Michelangelo’s most inspiring works.

The exhibition, organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Getty in conjunction with the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands, displays a selection of more than 28 drawings, many of which have never before been shown outside of Europe.

The surviving sketches were once in the collection of Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689), a monarch who abdicated the throne and moved to Rome, where she built an important art collection, including the master drawings not only by Michelangelo, but other famous draftsmen, reputedly Raphael and Titian.

Ultimately, the drawings ended up in the Teylers Museum, where they have been since 1791. The exhibition at the Getty is the first time they have left the Teylers as a group.

“Every one of Michelangelo’s iconic creations began with a drawing,” said Timothy Potts, director of the Getty Museum. “It is through his masterful drawings that we can witness his creative process at its most spontaneous and expressive.”

The exhibition explores the range of the artist’s work as a painter, sculptor and architect through his works on paper, including designs for the Sistine Chapel ceiling, “The Last Judgment,” the Medici Chapel tombs, and the cupola of Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome.

The drawings in the exhibition encompass the range of Michelangelo’s approaches and span his techniques from pen and ink to black and red chalks.

His reliance on drawing for every facet of his work was a relatively new approach in the 15thcentury. As workshops expanded with the wealth of Florentine merchants and the Catholic Church grew, drawing became integral to the ways artists taught pupils and planned and won commissions.

While drawing the human figure from life was not new, Michelangelo took it to a new level of verisimilitude through intense observation as well as by studying dissected corpses to better understand the underlying muscles.

“Drawing was a key aspect of Michelangelo’s creativity, and arguably no artist has used it more effectively in the expression of the human form,” said Julian Brooks, curator of drawings at the Getty Museum.

The exhibition is especially interesting when comparing the suite of drawings with the finished painting or sculpture. There are several life-size murals that offer a fascinating look at the process Michelangelo worked out in sketches that we can see in the final painting.

Section through the dome of Saint Peter’s with alternative designs for the lantern; figure sketches, 1549-59 (recto); Ground plan of the lantern’s base with volutes; figure studies (verso), 1547-1559.
Credit: Image © Teylers Museum, Haarlem

Several walls illustrate actual size portions of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, for example the “Creation of Adam” and “The Last Judgment” that give the observer a much clearer view of the magnificent frescos that stretch over 5,700 square feet of ceiling and contain over 300 figures, 133 feet above the floor.

“Today Michelangelo’s achievements still amaze us with their grandeur and ambition,” writes Emily Peters, curator of prints and drawings at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

“The art of drawing was also at the core of his inventive process, which we witness directly when his sheer manual brilliance unites with his boundless mental inventory of forms on a sheet of paper.”

Michelangelo: Mind of the Master” continues at the Getty through June 7.

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