Divine Michelangelo at The Met

Detail of Zuccaro’s 1600 Portrait of Michelangelo as Moses

Crowds at the Metropolitan Museum of Art have been jamming into the galleries on the second floor to get a close-up look at rarely seen works by the Divine Mr. M – drawings, sketches, and sculptures pulled together from 48 institutions from across the world, including the Louvre and Queen Elizabeth’s own private collection.

Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer, in New York through February 12, is a blockbuster that tells the story of the master’s life, loves, teachers, students, and clients from his early-prodigy works through portraits of the legend late in life through 200 works, reunited here in a once-in-a-lifetime show.  See some of our favorites on our Flickr site.

Although Michelangelo thought of himself primarily as a sculptor, the assembled works principally illustrate his mastery in two dimensions – red chalk and pen-and-ink sketches where sculptural illusions are built up on handmade rag paper in studies of nude models that would later make it into larger commissioned works.

Pen-and-ink study of a model for the 1504 Battle of Cascina

Although he burned most of this prep sketches, the 133 drawings that you see in the Met’s show evoke a studio-lab that might not be so dissimilar to Warhol’s Factory – assistants everywhere, celebrity-artists dropping in, muscled models ever-present, up-and-comers asking for guidance, and teams preparing large-scale cartoons for the next fresco that the master would finish.

Crowds make it necessary to visit the show multiple times to see all of the fine, delicate work and examine sheets where he would whip off a small drawing and ask his students to copy it. The small scale of so many works makes it easy to miss a masterpiece.

For many visitors, the high point is the spacious central gallery with a scaled-down replica of the Sistine Chapel hanging overhead and matching preparatory studies displayed below.

Red chalk study for the Sistine Chapel’s Libyan Sibyl

The crowd dissipates as people waft toward the drawings distributed across the floor. It’s quite a pleasurable path of discovery as you meet the earlier incarnations of the Libyan Sybil and even the Hand of God.

The Met curators have helpfully added diagrams to the label copy to help you find the section of the ceiling that matches the sketch you are perusing. Seeing the early and finished versions together is nothing you can otherwise experience, even if you travel to Rome.

The massive show includes several unfinished marble statues, luxury works by others that were inspired by Michelangelo’s better-known drawings, and an architectural model of his portion of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in the Vatican.

Best times to visit this show at the Met are Monday mornings and dinnertime on Friday or Saturday, when the crowds thin out.

Look through works in the exhibition on the Met website, and learn about each section of the show here.

Get a preview before your visit by stepping through the audio guide of the show here.

Hear the curator Carmen Bambach speak about the joy of curating this show and how the master used drawing in his wider work:

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