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Michelangelo’s Drawings, Anatomy of a Genius

Updated on November 15, 2014
Michelangelo, Studies for Leda's Head (a. 1525), Florence Casa Buonarroti
Michelangelo, Studies for Leda's Head (a. 1525), Florence Casa Buonarroti | Source

Drawing as the Fundament of the Arts

In 1563 Cosimo I de’ Medici, on the initiative of Giorgio Vasari, author of the Lives of the Artists and first historian of the Italian art, establishes the Academy of the Arts of Drawing, in Florence. Michelangelo Buonarroti, who was then 88 years old and was living in Rome, was called to be the first member of the Academy, with the title of Father and Master of the Arts. The name chosen by Vasari for the academy that he had strongly wished is significant. “Arts of Drawing” (and not “Art”) means that drawing is the true basis of all the visual arts. This is the vision of Vasari, the vision of the Tuscan School. The versatile Michelangelo – sculptor, painter, architect - is the artist who wonderfully embodies this vision.

However, saying that drawing is the basis of Michelangelo’s art, is only a part of the matter. He used to prepare his paintings studying the details by drawing on carton and paper, as it should be done, according to Vasari’s theory. But drawing was for Michelangelo even something more. A companion of his life, a sort of personal diary that reflects what is passing in his mind and maybe will never fixed in a finished work.

Michelangelo, Study for a Fluvial God (a. 1525), London British Museum
Michelangelo, Study for a Fluvial God (a. 1525), London British Museum | Source

The Hidden Graffiti of the Sagrestia Nuova

In the summer of 1530, the political events happening in Florence suggested Michelangelo to disappear for some months. He feared the revenge of Alessandro de’ Medici who was returning in the town with the aid of the Spanish troops, after been expelled three years before by a republican government, enthusiastically supported also by Michelangelo. To avoid Alessandro’s retaliations, Michelangelo hides in a narrow cell under the Medici Chapels in the San Lorenzo church. What does he do, to pass the time during the three months he stays alone in this prison? He draws. Since he has no paper, he draws with the charcoal on the walls, as a graffiti artist. After leaving the place, Michelangelo cancels any track of these works, covering the walls by white lead. In fact, these drawings were discovered only in 1975, during some works of modernization. The walls show the Michelangelo’s thoughts at those times. Reflections on his works (some figures of the Sistine Chapel, the head of Laocoon…) mixed with bodies and limbs, the head of a horse, a pensive figure that might be a self-portrait.

(Michelangelo) had burnt a large number of drawings, sketches and cartons made by his own hand in order that nobody could see the efforts done by him and the various ways tempted by his intelligence, so that he could appear nothing but perfect

— Giorgio Vasari, Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti
Michelangelo, Study of a Man for the Battle of Cascina (a. 1504)
Michelangelo, Study of a Man for the Battle of Cascina (a. 1504) | Source

A Bonfire of Drawings

Another episode told by Vasari reveals the particular relationship of Michelangelo with his drawings. Vasari says that before dying he destroyed lots of designs, because he did not want to leave any traces of the great disordered activity that was lying under the ground of his “official” masterpieces. One might wish to do the same with personal diaries demonstrating the uncertainties, the dark sides of his own life. Really, also the “official” production of the artist, featuring so many works remained unfinished and a progressively less classic view, is revelatory of several “dark sides” that we find surprisingly modern nowadays, so that we can even play to find affinities with modern artists.

Michelangelo used to draw to prepare both his sculptures and his paintings or to fix some ideas on the paper. Most of his drawings are simple sketches that focus on a detail of the work, with possible variants sketched in a corner of the same paper. In a few cases the drawings are autonomous finished works: for example, when they were addressed to friends, such as his young pupil Tommaso de’ Cavalieri or the poetess Vittoria Colonna. He used red and black chalk, stylus, pencil, always demonstrating a perfect mastery of the technique. We could even say that drawing has been for Michelangelo an alternative way of thinking.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Vitruvian Man (a. 1490), Venice Gallerie dell'Accademia
Leonardo da Vinci, The Vitruvian Man (a. 1490), Venice Gallerie dell'Accademia | Source

The Male Body

The subject most frequented is the male body. Michelangelo often represents the bodies incomplete, without the head or a leg, evidencing what he is interested in seeing: the action of the muscles that tend, that twist them. Or he concentrates on a detail of the body, a leg that flexes, an arm. We can think of another great designer of the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo, and watch at the Vitruvian Man, for example, the synthesis of the humanistic vision of the man body. The proportion of the different parts of the body is a crucial point also for Michelangelo, but with respect to the Vitruvian Man, carefully studied in his static proportions, Michelangelo’s men are figured in their movement, as if the quiet were the only status they can not maintain. Four hundred years later, if we can hazard such a comparison, a great exponent of the Vienna expressionism, Egon Schiele, has the same interest for the form of the bodies. He represents the bodies naked, twisted in a way that can recall Michelangelo. But Schiele’s bodies have lost their proportion, unconceivable thing for a Renaissance artist. They feature deformed head, long arms, oversized hands.

Michelangelo, Male Figures (a. 1530), Paris Louvre
Michelangelo, Male Figures (a. 1530), Paris Louvre | Source
Egon Schiele, Two Women (1915)
Egon Schiele, Two Women (1915) | Source
Umberto Boccioni, Charge of the Lancers (1915), Milano Museo del Novecento
Umberto Boccioni, Charge of the Lancers (1915), Milano Museo del Novecento | Source

Movement, Rise and Fall

The movement is a common characteristic in most of the drawings. If we exclude the portraits (not the splendid portrait of Cleopatra, gift to Tommaso de’ Cavalieri) and a few static representations of nudes, we can say that it is very rare to find a figure at rest in Michelangelo’s drawings. The rush toward a unique target it is the movement giving the charge to the group of the archers, left to right, all stretching out their right arms. An artist very interested in movement, Umberto Boccioni, has used a pretty similar scheme in his Charge of the Lancers. The group of the lancers, that here is rendered by an intrigue of lines, is crossed by a unique wave of movement, this time going right to left, up down.

The Fall of Phaeton and the Rape of Ganymede belong to the set of drawings that Michelangelo donated to the young Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, that he had met in 1532 (see the capsule below). They are finished works, intended for a gift, and not simple sketches. The drawings illustrate two Greek myths featuring two opposite movements: Phaeton falls from the sky, struck by Jupiter with a thunderbolt, Ganymede rises to the sky, brought by Jupiter who, in love with him, in the occasion has transformed into a eagle.

Michelangelo, Archers (a. 1533), Windsor Royal Library
Michelangelo, Archers (a. 1533), Windsor Royal Library | Source
Michelangelo, Rape of Ganymede (1532), Cambridge Fogg Art Museum
Michelangelo, Rape of Ganymede (1532), Cambridge Fogg Art Museum | Source
Michelangelo, Fall of Phaeton (1533), Windsor Royal Library
Michelangelo, Fall of Phaeton (1533), Windsor Royal Library | Source

Fall of Phaeton

The fall of Phaeton is one of the most elaborated Michelangelo’s drawings. We know three different versions of it: Cavalieri had not been completely satisfied with the first version and Michelangelo offered to make a new one in the space of a morning. The drawing is formed by three layers and has an exact triangular structure. Jupiter is at the vertex of the triangle, the group of the desperate Phaeton’s sisters is at the basis. In the middle, Phaeton precipitates vertically, upside down, more ridiculous than dramatic, together with the horses of the Sun chariot that had risked incinerating the earth. The gestures of terror and despair of the three naked women on the ground anticipate the figures of the Last Judgement.

Rape of Ganymede

The Rape of Ganymede may somewhat allude to Michelangelo’s love for the young and beautiful Tommaso. Ganymede indulges to the taking of the eagle which transports him in the sky. In the Renaissance, the Ganymede myth was symbolizing the “platonic love”, i.e. a spiritual love free from any material constrictions, that could well represent the sentiment of Michelangelo for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. We know that Michelangelo was thinking to this theme for the decoration, never realized, of the dome of the Sagrestia Nuova in the San Lorenzo church (the church where he had stayed hidden in 1530). The myth was admirably painted by Correggio, instead, in one of the four canvases representing the Jupiter’s Love.

Michelangelo, Back View of a Woman (1520 ?), Paris Louvre
Michelangelo, Back View of a Woman (1520 ?), Paris Louvre | Source
Edgar Degas, Danseuse (1874)
Edgar Degas, Danseuse (1874) | Source

Back of a Woman

Psychologists say that representing the women from behind, by a man painter, may mean a difficulty in the relationship with the other sex. In this unusual Michelangelo’s drawing, the woman is completely dressed. This time, Michelangelo seems to be interested in the dress of the woman, especially the drapery of the inferior part, rather than in the body structure. The woman is unusually thin for Michelangelo’s standard and the face is just sketched. Degas has pictured one of his dancers in quite an inverse way. The skirt is just sketched, but it represents the envelope from which the bust springs out.

Drawings for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri and Vittoria Colonna

In 1532, at the age of 57, Michelangelo met, in Rome, a young noble man aged 23. He was astonished by the beauty of the man that he called “light of our century”. The name of this beautiful and cultured man is Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. Michelangelo was gaving him drawing lessons and, it seems, fell in love with him. This love was well known and variously commented by the contemporaries. Probably, it did not exceed the boundaries of a spiritual relation. Anyway, the friendship between Michelangelo and Tommaso de’ Cavalieri lasted 30 years, until the death of the artist, in 1564.

In the first year of their friendship (1532-1533) Michelangelo donated Cavalieri some drawings that were not simple sketches. They had been conceived as autonomous works and were well finished in every detail. For this reason, they are known as “presentation drawings”. It is a set of four drawings inspired to Greek mythology and probably to neo-platonic ideas

- Punishment of Tityus

- Rape of Ganymede

- Fall of Phaeton

- Children’s Bacchanal

Here Michelangelo seems to indulge in the game of inventing and hiding allegories that only his beloved friend can decipher. A drawing that is not included among the set of the “presentation drawings” donated to Cavalieri, but seems to share the same inspiration, is the famous Dream. A winged angel coming from the sky blows the images of the dream into the head of a man who is sitting on a box containing some masks. Nourished by the ideals of Neo-Platonism, the drawing seems to anticipate a theme loved by the surrealists.

Michelangelo, Dream of the Human Life (a. 1533), London Courtauld Institute
Michelangelo, Dream of the Human Life (a. 1533), London Courtauld Institute | Source

Interpretation of a Dream

Michelangelo donated Tommaso also a sumptuous head of Cleopatra, featuring snakes wrapped up into her hair. De’ Cavalieri had to cede the drawing (now in the collection of Casa Buonarroti) to the Grand Duke of Florence Cosimo I in 1562. He wrote to the Grand Duke that parting with that work it was as parting with a child.

Michelangelo met Vittoria Colonna, a poetess and intellectual belonging to a powerful and ancient family, around 1537. She had a relevant influence on him, especially with regard to the religious themes debated in the circle that gathered around her. In fact, the drawings for Vittoria Colonna, produced by Michelangelo in 1545 and 1546, are developed around classic religious themes. We have two drawings (a Crucifixion hanging at the Louvre and a Pieta at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston) that were the preparatory studies for two paintings that have been lost. The drawings are in fact completely refined and could be considered like “presentation works”.

Michelangelo, Crucifixion (a. 1545), Paris Louvre
Michelangelo, Crucifixion (a. 1545), Paris Louvre | Source

Unique master Michelangelo and my most particular friend, I have received your letter and seen the Crucifix which has certainly crucified itself in my memory more than any other picture that I have ever seen...

— Vittoria Colonna, Letter to Michelangelo
Michelangelo, Cleopatra (a. 1533), Florence Casa Buonarroti
Michelangelo, Cleopatra (a. 1533), Florence Casa Buonarroti | Source
Michelangelo, Ideal Head of a Woman, London British Museum
Michelangelo, Ideal Head of a Woman, London British Museum | Source

Evolution of a Scream

Mihelangelo, Damned Soul, Florence Uffizi
Mihelangelo, Damned Soul, Florence Uffizi | Source
Edvard Munch, The Scream (1893), Oslo National Gallery
Edvard Munch, The Scream (1893), Oslo National Gallery | Source

Heads and Faces

The heads and faces are a separate chapter in Michelangelo’s drawings production. They usually are studies for the figures of some major work, but in same cases, such as the Ideal head of a Woman and the Cleopatra head, they are autonomous works. The two drawings, datable around 1533, share the same interest for the elaborated hairstyle, probably derived from the Cleopatra by the Tuscan painter Piero di Cosimo. The Michelangelo’s Cleopatra abandons the rigid profile view and turns her eyes towards something outside the foil, the movement of the head approaches her to the spectator. The braid transforms in the snake and becomes an element of her body.

The splendid study for Leda’s Head is a preparatory drawing for the painting of Leda and the Swan, a painting that he had made for Alfonso d’Este (probably destroyed, we know it only by some copies, one of these at the London National Gallery). The model for the Leda’s head has been individuated as Antonio Mini, an apprentice of Michelangelo. The position of the head recalls the sculpture of the Night in the Sagrestia Nuova, to which also Titian had inspired for his Danae.

The Damned Soul belongs to the category of the “presentation drawings”. The terrified scream leads to the figures of the Last Judgement, although the drawing has not a corresponding image in the Sistine Chapel’s fresco. The gaze, the nose and the open mouth of this man (pardon, soul), all contributing to the expressivity of the scream, are emphasized by the movement of the hair and the mantle around the head. It may seem surprising how much this image recalls another famous scream, the Munch’s Scream, substantially realized with the same ingredients (the open mouth, the holes of nose, the eyes sockets), stylized and reduced to their essentiality and, also in this case, emphasized by the lines escaping around the face.

© 2014 Massimo Viola


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    • sasanka7 profile image


      2 years ago from Calcutta, India

      Very useful hub for beginners.

    • ainehannah profile image

      Aine O'Connor 

      5 years ago from Dublin

      A very informative and helpful hub, thanks.

    • Brandon The One profile image

      Brandon The One 

      5 years ago from Southern california

      This was very thorough and in depth. Very well done.

    • Besarien profile image


      5 years ago from South Florida

      Beautiful and informative hub. His destruction of so much of his work is so sad in so many ways. That level of secrecy was probably a learned necessity when caught between the Medici family, other powerful merchants of the day, and the ever present Church.


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