The drawings by Michelangelo provide a unique and rare insight into how the artist worked and thought. Each drawing is a beautiful artwork in its own right but they also simultaneously provide a crucial link between his work as a painter, sculptor and architect.
Michelangelo was astonishingly celebrated during his lifetime, so much so that other artists produced portraits of him and three biographies were written. His artistic achievements set him in a class apart from his contemporaries; after the death of his main rival Raphael in 1520, he was to dominate the Roman art world for more than four decades. His primary focus as an artist was the male body, and his drawings chart his persistent search to find poses that would most eloquently express the emotional and spiritual state of his subjects.
Michelangelo’s drawings were never intended for public display, as he hated showing them to outsiders. He destroyed a large number before he died, probably to prevent them from falling into other hands; he may also have wished to conceal the amount of preparation behind his major works.
Michelangelo was the second of five sons, born in March 1475 near Arezzo in Italy. His family was middle-class – his father was a minor Florentine civil servant – but the family had fallen on hard times.
Michelangelo’s artistic career began at the age of twelve, despite his family’s disapproval because of the low status of artists at the time. He was apprenticed to the successful Florentine artist Domenico Ghirlandaio. Although later in life he claimed to be entirely self-taught, Ghirlandaio’s influence can be seen in his work.
After leaving Ghirlandaio’s studio Michelangelo went to work for Lorenzo the Magnificent, the ruler of Florence and head of the powerful Medici family. Lorenzo spotted his gift as a sculptor and soon Michelangelo was invited to join his household. Here he met two of his most important future patrons: Giovanni de’ Medici (the future Pope Leo X) and his cousin Giulio, who became Pope Clement VII.
When Lorenzo died in 1492, Michelangelo went on to serve his heir, Piero, whose control of Florence only lasted two years. To avoid the political turmoil surrounding the Medici’s fall, the artist went to Rome, where he made his name with the celebrated marble sculpture the Pietà, now in St Peter’s basilica in the Vatican. He returned to Florence in 1501 and the next four years – during which he became a lifelong supporter of Florentine republicanism – was one of the most productive periods of his life.
Domenico Ghirlandaio (about 1448/9-1494) ran one of Florence’s most successful workshops and was a hardworking and talented artist. By the time Michelangelo joined his studio at the age of twelve in 1487, Ghirlandaio was part of the way through painting an ambitious series of frescoes for the choir chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.
The frescoes illustrated the life of the Virgin and St John the Baptist, and the young Michelangelo almost certainly assisted in their creation. This study for The Birth of the Virgin must have been drawn at a very early stage as the architectural setting was refined in later drawings. Ghirlandaio’s principal aim here appears to have been the arrangement of the figures. These are shown as spindly bodies with blank ovals for heads and blobs as hands – a technique strikingly similar to Michelangelo’s in some of his preliminary compositional sketches.
I particularly adore his drapery studies. They are stunning. I find myself returning to his drapery studies just because I enjoy them so much. Im not sure why. There is just something about them that I really love.