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Tender and Brilliant: Michelangelo at the British Museum

By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels' Art Correspondent

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), sculptor, painter, poet, and architect, made the works that he is most famous for in his youth, the monumental sculpture of David (1501–04) in Florence, for example, and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City, Rome (painted between 1508 and 1512).


Now, drawing upon their marvellous collection of Michelangelo drawings along with generous loans from Italy, elsewhere in Europe and the UK, the British Museum delves into the Renaissance master’s less well-known final decades. It was a significant, and, arguably, most demanding period of the artist’s life – a period of remarkable variety and inventiveness that saw him still working four days before his death in 1564, aged 88.


Michelangelo lived in a time of seismic political, religious and societal change. He had grown up in the Florence of Savonarola, the Dominican friar’s preachings against impiety and luxury ringing in his youthful ears, when famously the 'bonfires of the vanities' took place and Florentines were urged, or forced to burn their books, artworks, musical instruments, and jewels. The Protestant Reformation was also beginning to affect lives in almost all of Northern Europe.

Above: Michelangelo Buonarro/ (1475–1564), study for the ‘Last Judgment’. Black chalk on paper, about 1534–36. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Michelangelo left Florence for Rome in 1534, and was never to see his native city again. This move marked the beginning of a dramatic new chapter which would fundamentally shape his experiences as both an artist and as a man, says Sarah Vowles, Curator of Italian & French Prints & Drawings. “When Michelangelo moved to Rome in 1534, he was almost sixty years old. The exhibition follows him through the next three decades… exploring the variety of works he produced – from the Last Judgment to the dome of St Peter’s – and the ways in which he evolved his working practice in later life. It also introduces visitors to Michelangelo as a man, bound in a rich network of friendships, and brings his own voice to the fore – articulate, impassioned, often prickly, but never anything less than compelling.”


Michelangelo: the last decades opens with a tender portrait of an ageing bearded and pensive Michelangelo by his pupil in Rome, the painter and sculptor Daniele da Volterra, born 1509 (on loan from the Teylers Museum in Haarlem).  Around the corner, a large colourful projection on the wall introduces Michelangelo’s fresco of The Last Judgment with its mass of tumbling and ascending bodies in complex poses. Destined for the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, directly beneath the ceiling that had helped to make Michelangelo's name in his thirties, The Last Judgment was a huge challenge and took over four years to complete (1536-1541).


Fresco painting is a physically demanding process; it involves working quickly to apply pigments directly on to wet plaster and so, requires a great deal of advance planning. The artist has to be satisfied with their composition before beginning to paint, and Michelangelo must have made tens of dozens of studies for the over 300 figures in this epic painting (mostly nudes originally, controversially, and later part covered in draperies) during the lengthy process of working out his ideas on paper. Some of the preparatory sketches are on display. In one magnificent black chalk drawing, a man is seen braced on bent arms, heaving his muscular torso upwards, rising out of the tomb on the Day of Judgment (in the Bible, when Christ returns to earth to judge humankind; a popular artistic theme in the 15th and 16th centuries). This and other drawings display Michelangelo’s enduring fascination with the human form and complex poses. Nearby, another sheet comprises two supremely sensitively sketched head studies.

Above: Michelangelo Buonarro/ (1475–1564), The fall of Phaeton. Black chalk, over stylus underdrawing, on paper, about 1533. © The Trustees of the British Museum

In a chronological show of about 100 works, the first section gives a snapshot of what it was like when Michelangelo arrived in Rome, and the friendships he made - from gifts of sonnets and presentation drawings to the young aristocrat Tomasso De’ Cavallieri – The Fall of Phaeton, and The Punishment of Tityus (from the Royal Collection) for example – to artworks, poems and letters to and from the poet Vittoria Colonna – presented here as evidence of his passionate and deeply felt attachments.

The next section revolves around his later-in-life collaborations and friendships with other artists, such as the Mannerist painter Marcello Venusti (1512–1579); it includes his version of the Crucifixion, still within its early frame, and Michelangelo’s unusual design for an Annunciation scene with the virgin sitting quietly at a desk reading her prayerbook, startled by the angel appearing from above; this is paired with Venusti’s painting. The focus then shifts to Michelangelo’s late architectural commissions like the Palazzo Farnese, which he reconfigured from the original design by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, and his work on St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. However, despite such major commissions, Michelangelo is known to have grumbled, “I am not an architect”.


Michelangelo’s over two-metre-high cartoon from about 1550–53, Epifania (Epiphany) is an absolute highlight, as it is newly conserved and displayed in the show for the first time since its painstaking conservation began back in 2018. Cartoons, or full-scale preparatory drawings made to transfer a composition onto another surface, are much handled, prone to damage, and therefore rarely survive.

Michelangelo Buonarro/ (1475–1564), Epifania. Black chalk on paper, about 1550-53. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Made on 26 joined sheets of paper, it is the only complete surviving cartoon by Michelangelo, and one of the great treasures of the British Museum collection. Now, for the first time in over four centuries, the Epifania cartoon is reunited with the painting made from it by Ascanio Condivi, Michelangelo's biographer and pupil. The work, loaned from Casa Buonarroti, Florence, is a fascinating example of how the elderly Michelangelo used his skill in drawing to create models for other artists to paint.

Faith seems to have informed every aspect of his life, says Vowles. As he became older and more infirm, he was increasingly drawn to the image of Christ on the cross. The works on paper from his last years are among his best known, most admired, and possibly least understood drawings, adds Vowles. Six of his crucifixion works are displayed in a room of their own entitled Meditations. Here too, some examples of Michelangelo’s late poetry reflecting a spiritual disquiet.


Poignantly, a late, unfinished wooden crucifix from 1563 is also on display. Michelangelo had not carved in wood since his youth. A loan from the Buonarroti family collection, it possibly is the one that Michelangelo started carving for his nephew, Leonardo, and mentioned in letters.   


There are many touching elements to this show. At the British Museum, London, until 28 July 2024, it is at once tender and a show of brilliance.


Michelangelo: The Last Decades

British Museum, London

Showing untl: 28 July 2024


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