Michelangelo at the Met

When I was 10 years old, my family took at trip to Italy. This trip included a necessary stop at the Vatican to see the Sistine Chapel (and the 5 hour wait in sweltering heat that is just part of the experience in the summer months). I was tiny at the time, even for a 10-year-old, and I remember looking up at the expansive ceiling and feeling completely overwhelmed and totally overpowered. So naturally, I pouted in the corner. Not one of my better moments.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition, “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer,” had an entirely different feel for me. While they do have a glass replica of the chapel’s ceiling in one of the large, arcade galleries of the exhibition, the focus is more on his drawings. There is an intimate feel to the rooms you pass through, and this gives an impression of having a much clearer insight into the artist’s mind and the evolution of his genius.

Replica of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling at the Met’s exhibit

One of the words introduced at the exhibition is the Italian Disegno. This meaning of this word has both a concrete and abstract connotation. It encompasses the idea of “drawing” in a literal sense and “design” as a creative force. As you move through the exhibition, you begin to understand this word as it relates to Michelangelo and his work, in the technical aspects of his drawing, and also the creative force inside him that spills onto the paper in a seemingly uncontrollable stream.

The exhibition takes us from Michelangelo’s time as an apprentice in the studio of Ghirlandaio, to his death at the age of 88 in 1564. You are shown works that the artist produced at the age of 13, and can trace the evolution of his style and artistry throughout. It was exciting to feel as though you could understand the growth of a genius, and see his extraordinary talent at such a young age. From the very beginning, Michelangelo was taking inspiration from the life around him and imbuing his drawings with that same sense of vitality and spirit.

Virgin and Child
Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564). Sketches of the Virgin, the Christ Child Reclining on a Cushion, and Other Sketches of Infants.

In the above work from Michelangelo’s early years as an artist, you can see in the lines of the drawing an almost uncontrollable force of creativity. Even when working in pen and ink, one of the most difficult mediums, his lines are confident and dynamic. He masterfully wields the techniques of cross-hatching and stippling to create depth and contours. He also makes use of the paper itself to highlight and a evoke a three-dimensional quality.

I couldn’t help thinking as I stared at this work of art and others, that I was breathing on paper over 500 years old. As it turns out, Michelangelo used handmade paper of the highest quality to work with. This is partly why, despite centuries of handling by untold numbers of people, these works have been able to stand the test of time.

study of a torso from back
Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564). Study of the Torso of a Male Nude Seen from the Back.
Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564). Studies for the Libyan Sibyl.
Virgin and child finished
Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564), with slight retouching by a later hand in pen and ink. Unfinished Cartoon of the Virgin and Child.

Another aspect of Michelangelo’s work that you can clearly see through this exhibition is his ability to express bodily movement in his drawings. The human forms he depicts are expressive and alive. He considers the build of the body and the tension and release of muscles in a sculptural way. He uses his understanding of anatomy as its own language. In some of these works above, we see studies for sculptures and also paintings. What is noteworthy, is that he approaches the form in the same sculptural way. Whether it be the back of a male, the arm of the Christ child, or the hands and feet of another figure, you are privy to the way he studies from life and evokes movement and spirit.

I also enjoyed seeing the process of the artist in some of these works. What was fascinating is that Michelangelo actually burned many of his own creations throughout his lifetime to curate his oeuvre and leave a legacy that he had effectively designed. What we are looking at throughout the exhibition are works that he had hand chosen for us to see. However, there are also examples from the artist’s private sketchbook that have been preserved.

process 1 - head and ear
Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564)
artist shorthand
Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564). Sketches for the Design for a Double Tomb in the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo.
process 2 - door frame
Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564). Design for a Window, Palazzo Farnese.

Michelangelo was an artist overflowing with ideas and creativity, and he believed strongly in the concept of process. In the works above, you can see an artist making changes and testing out ideas. He is constantly making adjustments and improvements to his works as they occur to him. Whether it be multiple different drawings on one sheet or playing with structural outlines, visitors to the exhibition can see the way his mind works through his creations. In the window sketch for the Palazzo Farnese, his attempts to raise and lower the frame are clearly visible, and his final draft is marked by a darker line and shadowing.  We can also see him trying out potential ideas and using an artistic shorthand in the tomb sketch for the New Sacristy of San Lorenzo. He draws a loose outline of what appears to be a sculpture in the top right of the page, testing it out until he is ready to fully realize it. I found it fascinating to be able to see this process up close on these papers.

Ultimately, this exhibition felt like a lesson in drawing, where Michelangelo’s development as an artist, and the way in which he designs and creates, is exhibited through the many techniques he was inventing at the time across multiple mediums. You see his drawings of human bodies, faces, the handling of a fabric’s drapery, as well as his incredible building designs and draftsmanship. To see the diversity of his talents all in one place was the best expression of this remarkable man’s genius, and a true once-in-a-lifetime experience. I could not recommend it more.

A final few words of advice to those going to see the exhibition:

  1. Take your time. There are over 200 works of art to see, and 133 drawings in total. This is the largest grouping of Michelangelo’s works ever to be assembled in one place. It also also likely the last time in our lifetime we will have the opportunity to see his work at this magnitude. Progress slowly. Take time to see the texture and lines of his drawings that aren’t able to be captured by photography.
  2. Get the audio guide. There are plenty of explanatory texts along the way, but the audio guide has even more information that you can absorb without having to fight your way to the front of a crowd to read. If you don’t want to pay for the guide at the museum, you can also listen to it here either before or after you go.
  3. Don’t let the crowds get to you. Yes, the exhibition is immensely popular and therefore always crowded. I went on a random weekday afternoon and it was still packed. Just go at your own pace and be patient.