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A Plenitude of Nudes: Drawn to Michelangelo’s Musclemen at the Met

“This drawing is the reason why I’m a curator at the Met,” Carmen Bambach confided during a victory lap around her masterpiece marathon—Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer (to Feb. 12). She told me she had joined the Metropolitan Museum’s staff because doing so gave her “extraordinary access” to its sheet of studies for a figure on the Vatican’s Sistine Ceiling, exquisitely executed in red chalk, which she treasures as “the most beautiful drawing in America”:

“Studies for the Sistine Ceiling’s Libyan Sibyl,” Metropolitan Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

For three magical months, America’s “most beautiful drawing” is accompanied by 132 other Michelangelo drawings, 3 of his marble sculptures, his earliest painting (which the Met had helped to authenticate), and his wood architectural model for a chapel vault. Assembling and interpreting this once-in-a-lifetime display was a herculean feat, accomplished over a period of eight years, while the Met was burdened by the weight of serious financial setbacks and while Bambach was mourning the death, almost one year ago, of her husband, Ronald Street, the Met’s manager of 3D imaging and modeling.

It was not until a few weeks later, when I learned about her personal loss, that I better understood why Carmen’s voice broke during opening remarks at the Nov. 6 press preview, when she mentioned that “art can provide solace in grief and instill a sense of hope in humanity when tragedies and chaos occur in our immediate world.” That comment, she said then, was directed “especially to the City of New York”—an apparent reference to the deadly terrorist attack of the previous week.

Curator Carmen Bambach at press preview for her “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Recovering her composure, the curator gave a hat-tip to the museum’s support staff and to “our past director” (Thomas Campbell), under whose auspices the project took flight. She had proven her ability to succeed at this monumental undertaking by organizing the Met’s definitive 2003 Leonardo da Vinci drawings show.

Paradoxically, the ravishing drawing that drew this star curator to the Met hints at what, to me, is Michelangelo’s main shortcoming: His female subjects often seem strangely mannish. My one beef against the show’s abundant display of beefcake is Michelangelo’s seeming lack of aptitude for (or interest in) depicting female nudes. They come across as men on whom breasts have been either concealed or awkwardly appended. The muscled model for the Met’s “Libyan Sibyl” (an ancient prophetess) was “a young male assistant,” as the label tells us.

“Michelangelo’s circle of friends and acquaintances was all men,” Bambach explained as we toured the show. “He was pretty homosocial. His love for young, beautiful men who were aristocrats was well known by his contemporaries.”

The Met displayed its Sistine drawing last year at the Met Breuer’s inaugural show, Unfinished. On this occasion, we’re also granted a rare look at the image on its reverse:

“Studies for the Libyan Sibyl and a Sketch for a Seated Figure,” Metropolitan Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Met’s holding holds its own in a room of Sistine Ceiling studies that occupy the exhibition’s “wow” space, beneath the glow of a backlit, one-quarter scale reproduction of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel:

The Met’s quarter-scale reproduction of the Sistine Ceiling
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

This decor initially struck me as an exercise in tacky atmospherics. But then I realized it serves a worthwhile purpose: It allows you to compare the ceiling’s finished images with the preparatory studies arrayed beneath it.

The Met’s famous red-chalk study relates to this image on the faux ceiling, with its masculine origins barely concealed:

Libyan Sibyl, as seen on the Met’s ceiling
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The drawings’ object labels helpfully provide a “map” showing the finished image and its position on the ceiling (the white-outlined box that you can see, if you look closely, at the top right of the black-and-white schematic):

More hokey is the scaffold that runs along the entire length of the faux ceiling, meant to suggest the structure on which Michelangelo perched to paint his masterpiece. To Bambach, “it evokes the work-in-progress that Michelangelo’s art is so much about.”

You can glimpse it behind me (below), where photographer Jill Krementz again asked me to pose. (Is she planning another book, “A Very Old Art Critic”?)

Photo ©Jill Krementz

Below is the finished image on the Met’s ceiling that relates to the drawing on my left—“Study of a Seated Male Nude (Ignudo) on the Sistine Ceiling,” Albertina, Vienna. It is beside the iconic central image of Adam (on the left, below):

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

“There are very few drawings of the Sistine Ceiling that are extant,” Bambach noted. “We imagine that all of the Sistine Ceiling was painted with full-scale drawings. None of them survive, except for a little fragment that is very schematic. Of the life studies for all these figures, very few survive. Many of them [including the Met’s] are here.”

Among the tasty tidbits in Bambach’s voraciously researched, must-have catalogue is the revelation that the body of Michelangelo drawings that have come down to us today is “heavily edited,” not only because of the “destruction of drawings during the artist’s normal working procedures” but also because he “deliberately destroyed” them, burning sheets “in great numbers” on at least four separate occasions.

Notwithstanding his talent for creating stunning likenesses, Michelangelo rarely did straight portraits of sitters. “There is a passage in Vasari [Giorgio Vasari‘s “Lives of the Artists”] where he says Michelangelo abhorred doing portraits, unless of very beautiful men,” Bambach told me.

Perhaps the most notable among those (and the most famous) is his sole surviving large portrait drawing, now thronged by a new group of admirers. As you can see from my askew photo, it’s not easy to plant yourself directly in front of it:

“Portrait of Andrea Quaratesi,” British Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Andrea Quaratesi, 37 years Michelangelo’s junior, was “one of these beautiful young men that Michelangelo probably was in love with,” Bambach told me.

“Were they lovers?” I asked. (The label coyly describes him as “the object of the master’s affection.”)

“We don’t really know that,” she dodged. (She also tactfully dodged my question as to whether she believes the $450-million Leonardo is truly by Leonardo.)

One of the Michelangelo exhibition’s outstanding achievements is reuniting closely related works that are now widely dispersed—not just the Sistine Ceiling drawings but also other studies for major projects, including one that was never realized—a 1504 commission to paint a monumental “Battle of Cascina” on a wall of the Great Council Hall of Florence’s Palazzo della Signoria.

Michelangelo did create a full-scale drawing (“cartoon”) for the project, but only the smaller studies survive, including this jaw-dropper:

“Study of the Torso of a Male Nude Seen from the Back,” Albertina
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

This grisaille painted copy of the lost cartoon shows us the enormity of the loss when plans for the “Cascina” mural were scotched. The above figure appears at the top center of this central scene:

Bastiano da Sangallo, “Copy after the Central Episode of the Bathers in Michelangelo’s ‘Battle of Cascina,'” 1542
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The very rare opportunity to compare firsthand (rather than through reproduced images) a wide selection of Michelangelo’s drawings has led to advances in scholarship and connoisseurship, as Bambach explained:

I think the most important thing in studying the originals is you can see the continuities of the sculptural draftsman—the searching outlines and corrections on the paper; the incisive final outlines [created “with a sculptor’s force,” according to the wall text]; the sketching of figures in a very quick way, but always self-confident; the hatching and diagonal strokes, which is the first way which he puts the chalk on the paper. This is pretty continuous in his work.”

In many ways, some of the things I have proposed more tentatively in the catalogue [regarding authorship] are getting confirmed as pretty much fact. This is good for scholarship.

The distinguishing characteristics of Michelangelo’s drawings, including “firm outlines, almost chiseled onto the paper,” are what recently led Bambach to assign the drawing below to Michelangelo (notwithstanding the handwriting at the top by a different artist, Sebastiano del Piombo):

“Sleeping Reclining Male Nude with Boy Genius,” Städel Museum, Frankfurt
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Sebastiano is one of several artists who play supporting roles in the Met’s exhibition. He and Michelangelo worked in “close collaboration,” according to the wall text, and their “draftsmanship seems to have been particularly close at times,” as stated in the label for this work:

Sebastiano del Piombo, “Study for God the Father,” Royal Collection, Queen Elizabeth II
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Other artists who influenced Michelangelo or collaborated with him flesh out the exhibition. The show unexpectedly begins not with the title artist but with a large selection of drawings by his teacher, Domenico Ghirlandaio (whose influence Michelangelo tried to downplay).

One of the show’s subtexts involves examining the master’s affinities to and collaborations with other artists, including Giulio Clovio, Marcello Venusti and Daniele da Volterra. The last became one of Michelangelo’s closest professional collaborators, taking on major patrons’ monumental commissions that “the aged master declined to execute himself,” according to the wall text.

Daniele’s greatest claim to fame (or infamy), however, was painting loincloths on nudes in the Sistine Chapel’s “Last Judgment,” in deference to papal sensibilities. The exhibition includes Marcello Venusti‘s not entirely faithful copy of that fresco, which, according to its label, provides an “invaluable visual record” of what the loincloths later concealed.

Daniele also altered this highly controversial passage showing Saint Biagio ogling Saint Catherine’s plump, dangling breasts:

Detail from Marcello Venusti (after Michelangelo), “The Last Judgment,” Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Among the few sculptures in the show is the so-called “Young Archer” that the Met had played a role in authenticating. It didn’t convince me (or several renowned experts) as a Michelangelo in 1996, when it was trumpeted as a fresh discovery. I still wasn’t convinced in 2012, when the Met quietly changed its label from “attributed to Michelangelo” to “Michelangelo.”

Bambach says that while there are still doubters, there is now a general consensus among experts that it’s an early Michelangelo. That may be true only because three distinguished dissenters whom I interviewed after the announcement of the “discovery”—Creighton Gilbert, Leo Steinberg and James Beck—are now deceased.

Lacking the artist’s signature mastery of musculature, this vapid lad still fails to move me.

“The Young Archer,” on loan at the Met since 2009 from the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

But with no mature “David” to vie for attention, the prepubescent waif does pull an admiring crowd:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

If you want, you can even take him home with you:

At the Met’s gift shop
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As Bambach stated in her introductory remarks to the press, this voluminous exhibition could be pulled off “perhaps only at the Met, which has tremendous resources,” not to mention tremendous borrowing power: The exhibition’s more than 200 works were wrangled from some 50 public and private collections in Europe and the U.S., with particularly impressive contributions from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; Albertina, Vienna; and Louvre, Paris.

But to me, the red-chalk drawings extracted from the British Royal Collection are the most consistently riveting. This was one of many gifts to another young object of Michelangelo’s affections, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri:

“Bacchanal of Children,” Royal Collection, Queen Elizabeth II
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

This, also from Queen Elizabeth‘s collection, is the cover image for the show’s hefty catalogue:

“The Archers,” Royal Collection, Queen Elizabeth II
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In these and other drawings, as Bambach told me, “the sculptor’s eye is always there.”

If you’d like a chance to hear the curator’s insights in person (as I was privileged to do), soon you can: She will discuss the ideas and influences behind Michelangelo’s major works in the Met’s auditorium on Jan. 7, 2-3:30 p.m., in conversation with art historians Maria Ruvoldt, William Wallace, James Saslow and David Ekserdjian.

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