My personal idea of the ultimate artist was born on this date in 1475—Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni commonly known as Michelangelo. From the ceiling and The Last Judgment of the Sistine Chapel to the Pietà and the David, Michelangelo is, as Giorgio Vasari praised him in his Lives of the Painters, the ultimate Italian Renaissance artist. Whole big, beautiful books have been written about Michelangelo, so there’s no use in me trying to somehow encompass this giant in a few words. So, I’ll concentrate not on what he finished so gloriously but, rather, the traces of genius he left in the works left unfinished, either intentionally or unintentionally. Drawings such as his Study for Adam (above, from 1510-1511) show the artist’s mind at work, formulating the ideas he would embody in figures such as the first man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo used such drawings both to prepare for and to begin his frescos. To meet the deadline imposed by rapidly drying plaster, Michelangelo would take drawings, prick tiny holes along the lines, and force powder through the holes, which would provide an outline for him to paint within. Most of those drawings were destroyed, “worthless” once they had served their purpose. One of the things I’d love to do once I invent a time machine would be to gather those “worthless” drawings as the master cast them aside.
The Renaissance abounds with master draftsmen. Drawing truly became an art form in itself during that time, the basis for all painting and sculpting. Looking at The Crucifixion with the Virgin and St. John (above), you feel as if you are looking through the mists of time to the power of Michelangelo’s hand. Somehow, the mistiness of this drawing only adds to the mystery. I read recently that a new study of Michelangelo claims that many of the drawings currently attributed to Michelangelo were really done by students or imitators. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m not sure I’d care if it was. If they were really the works of students or imitators, they would still be of the high quality Michelangelo demanded and express the same humanist belief system his figures embodied. If those values come second hand, they still remain the same values.
One of the great temptations when going to the Accademia in Florence is to see David at the end of the hallway and rush to his side. Along that hallway, however, literally dwarfed by the giant, are several of the unfinished sculptures (such as The Captive, above, from 1527-1528) Michelangelo began for the tomb of Pope Julius II. These Captives are literally held captive within the stone. Michelangelo claimed that he could “see” the figures he was carving within the stone. These examples show the result of stopping in the middle, before the form could be freed. Michelangelo achieved a mythic status in his lifetime, as if he created his finished masterpieces through pure magic. I love the rougher side of Michelangelo because it shows the hard work behind the magic, the sweat that helped shape those iconic works. We remain as star-struck today by his achievements as those who knew him five hundred years ago. “Certainly he was sent into the world to be an example to men of art, that they should learn from his life and from his works,” Vasari wrote of Michelangelo, “and I, who have to thank God for felicity rare among men of our profession, count among my greatest blessings that I was born in the time when Michelangelo was alive, and was counted worthy to have him for my master, and to be treated by him as a familiar friend, as every one knows.” Vasari loved to exaggerate, but I think this is him at his most sincere.