Michelangelo buonarroti: formation and dispersal

Michelangelo buonarroti: formation and dispersal

General view of the frescoes of the Sistine chapel

Michelangelo buonarroti: formation and dispersal

The most significant exceptions are the carefully elaborated architectural modelli – the authenticity of which was often denied during the twentieth century – and some of the late Crucifixion drawings. The majority of the drawings in – or once in – Casa Buonarroti date from before 1534 when Michelangelo transferred permanently from Florence to Rome, and it is a reasonable assumption that the predominant source was material abandoned or overlooked in Michelangelo’s various workshops when he left Florence for good.

This was material that would never have passed out of the family’s possession, and it is likely that this mass of
paper – it is one of the largest surviving archives of a non-princely family – was accompanied by many sheets
of drawings. Among them would also have been drawings by his students, occasional drawings by other artists
acquired by Michelangelo for one reason or another, and strictly utilitarian drawings – such as ground plans – by
others that Michelangelo required for some purpose.
The Archivio Buonarroti contains letters both to and from Michelangelo throughout his life, and it is evident
that, on the master’s death in 1564, part of his archive that must have been housed in Rome – although it is not
recorded in Michelangelo’s posthumous inventory – was returned to Florence by his nephew. This body of paper
too is likely to have contained numerous drawings made on the same pages as poems or accounts. And there are and were a sufficient number of drawings in Casa Buonarroti made by Michelangelo after 1534 to make it clear that the family also took possession of drawings made by Michelangelo in Rome during the last thirty years of his life. Some of these, one presumes, were recovered from his Roman house after his death. It is otherwise difficult to explain why, for example, drawings made for Saint Peter’s found their way to Casa Buonarroti in Florence.
When Michelangelo died, his nephew Leonardo was placed in a difficult position. Throughout the last quarter
century of his life, Michelangelo, paying lip-service to Cosimo’s regime, but at heart unreconciled with it,
trod a precarious line. He had a profound sense of family and, with immensely valuable properties in the Florentine hinterland, could not risk their being sequestered, inevitable had he opposed Cosimo’s regime openly and
been declared a rebel. But he wished to distance himself from the regime as far as possible, in 1561, presumably realising he would never get anything directly from Michelangelo, Cosimo had to exert great pressure on Tommaso dei Cavalieri to extract from him one of these trophies. Tommaso gave Cosimo the Cleopatra, made for him by Michelangelo nearly thirty years earlier. Furthermore, Michelangelo’s action in destroying, at the very end of his life, many drawings (including ones made for various Florentine architectural projects) that Cosimo might legitimately have considered should be made over to him, since they concerned Medici projects, was an act of defiance that angered Cosimo – rarely given to open admission of emotion – sufficiently for him to say so in a letter to his representative in Rome.

Rest. Judith and Holofernes (C. 1509) (570 x 970 cm)

Rest. Judith and Holofernes (C. 1509) (570 x 970 cm)

Leonardo Buonarroti had to find ways of placating the ruler, evidence of whose irrational behaviour and mental
decline was becoming apparent. He presented to Cosimo five statues that had been left in Michelangelo’s Florentine
workshop and the relatively unfinished four large prigioni, which, at Cosimo’s
command, were installed by Bernardo Buontalenti in the grotto he constructed in the gardens of Palazzo Pitti. All
these figures, of course, had been made for the tomb of Julius II and had no connection with the Medici. Also in
1564, died the earliest recipient of Michelangelo’s Presentation Drawings, Gherardo Perini. He had owned at
least three finished drawings by the master, and these too were acquired by Cosimo, also to be displayed and, consequently, degraded.108 Ironically, these drawings, all of which have a continuous provenance and the best possible claims to authenticity, were doubted in the twentieth century by adherents of “scientific” criticism.
It cannot be ruled out that such drawings, or some of them, were presented to Cosimo and subsequently returned to Casa Buonarroti by his grandson, but, on balance, it seems more likely that they remained in Leonardo’s house: Whether he attempted to supplement them is unknown. Leonardo died in 1593, and Casa Buonarroti was then taken over by his son, Michelangelo the Younger, Michelangelo’s great nephew and namesake.
Michelangelo the Younger was the man most responsible for turning Casa Buonarroti into a museum and shrine of his ancestor. He commissioned a series of paintings on the biography of Michelangelo from some of the leading contemporary Florentine painters and installed them in a gallery. Michelangelo the Younger was a significant poet
and litterateur, and he was also concerned to vaunt the literary achievements of his ancestor, of whose poems he published the first edition in 1623.
Probably in connection with the planning of this edition, Michelangelo the Younger acquired either directly
from the architect Bernardo Buontalenti (1536–1608), perhaps Michelangelo’s most intelligent and inventive
interpreter in architecture and decoration in the later sixteenth century, or from Buontalenti’s heirs, an unknown
number of sheets of drawings by Michelangelo including five that also contained poems, which he described with
sufficient clarity to be identifiable.109 How and where Buontalenti had obtained these sheets is unknown, but
at least one had belonged to the Irregular Numbering Collector (to be discussed later), and it is likely that some
of the scrappier sketches had simply strayed in one manner or another from Michelangelo’s studio and had been
acquired by Buontalenti piecemeal.
It is also worth noting that drawings arrived in Casa Buonarroti from other sources. At least three drawings
seem to have come from the Irregular Numbering series and another, smaller, group is also identifiable by the
roman numerals in red chalk to be found on some sheets – mostly but not entirely containing architectural
drawings – most of which are still in Casa Buonarroti but of which at least one – with a provenance from
Bernardo Buontalenti and Casa Buonarroti – is now in the Ashmolean (Cat. 56). Because these roman numerals
are found on drawings made by Michelangelo at very different periods, it is probable that they were applied
only after his death in 1564. They were presumably due neither to Buontalenti nor to a member of the Buonarroti
family because they were not applied uniformly to other drawings known to have been owned by Buontalenti
or the Buonarroti.

The Libyan sibyl (Agrippa, or Tarakendra) (C. 1511) (395 x 380 cm)

The Libyan sibyl (Agrippa, or Tarakendra) (C. 1511) (395 x 380 cm)

In addition to his efforts to put Michelangelo’s literary reputation on a firm footing, Michelangelo the
Younger was concerned to expand the family collection of Michelangelo’s works. No doubt he also acquired
from Buontalenti drawings that contained no writing.
And it is tempting to suggest that it was Michelangelo the Younger who was responsible for making a division
between pieces of paper whose primary interest was historical, records of the most famous member of the family
and of Michelangelo’s transactions, and those whose primary interest was artistic. In a few cases, pages on which
the two kinds of interest were separable were divided, and the drawings collections of Casa Buonarroti and the
Archivio Buonarroti proper contain several part-pages that match each other.110 Although this division is not
certainly attributable to him, Michelangelo the Younger would certainly have had the interest, acumen, and intellectual confidence to undertake such surgery.

Drawing
of Cleopatra, which Cosimo I had extorted from Cavalieri.
The donation of the Cleopatra is significant, for this drawing was, of course, a gift to Tommaso Cavalieri,
and had never been in Buonarroti possession. This may be relevant to the fact that Woodburn both in 1836
and 1860 recorded two other very highly finished Presentation Drawings by Michelangelo as coming from Casa
Buonarroti: the Dream of Human Life of c. 1530 and the Madonna del Silenzio of c. 1540. Both were certainly given by Michelangelo to friends and would not have remained in his family. If Woodburn’s statement is correct, it must
be presumed that they were at some date either donated to Casa Buonarroti by the heirs of the original recipients
or purchased in order to build up the museum consecrated to the Buonarrotis’ great ancestor. It is hard to
divine how systematically he bought, but it was, after all, Michelangelo the Younger who acquired in Rome Condivi’s large panel of the Epifania, painted from Michelangelo’s cartoon, under the mistaken impression that it was by Michelangelo himself.
The fact that some of the drawings in Casa Buonarroti’s collection were not inherited but were acquired by
purchase, as they appeared on the market, or as gifts from artists or collectors persuaded that the rightful home for their treasureswas Michelangelo’s family house and shrine means that one cannot be sure that all Michelangelo drawings with a Casa Buonarroti provenance had come to the Casa directly from Michelangelo himself. It is possible, for example, that even great and entirely authentic drawings acquired from the Casa may not always have been there.
This would be much less sure in the case of drawings acquired for Casa Buonarroti forty or fifty years after his death. Thus, the possibility is opened that some of the drawings acquired later might have been misattributed.
In the absence of written record, it is difficult to be sure how many drawings by Michelangelo were in Casa
Buonarroti and what they comprised, quite apart from how and when they arrived there. However, two late sixteenth- or early seventeenth-century visual sources have not been fully exploited. These comprise two series of copies after Michelangelo drawings; they are complementary: one focuses on architectural drawings; the other, on figure drawings. The first, brought to scholarly attention by Sebregondi Fiorentini in 1986 and Morrogh in 1992, is the more straightforward.114 Leonardo Buonarroti’s youngest son, Francesco (1574–1630) was, among his other activities, a competent amateur architect, who made a speciality of designing decorative forms such as doors, tabernacles, and funeral plaques. Resident for much of his life in Malta, he periodically returned to Florence. He left a sizable body of graphic work, now in the Uffizi, among which are ten sheets of generally sketchy copies after surviving architectural drawings by Michelangelo that, in all except one case, noted later, are either in, or have direct provenance from, Casa Buonarroti. This group also includes some sketches for which no Michelangelesque source is known, but which can reasonably be assumed to be after drawings by Michelangelo nowlost.115 It is an assumption, but an assumption verging on certainty, that all the drawings copied by Francesco were in Buonarroti possession when he copied them.

Eritrean sibyl (Genofile or Samia)fragment

Eritrean sibyl (Genofile or Samia)fragment

For figurative drawings, the situation is less clear-cut. The evidence consists of a number of copies of drawings
by Michelangelo by the Florentine artist Andrea Commodi (1560–1638). Commodi had a considerable reputation as a copyist of paintings, and it is evident that when he wished to reproduce accurately a drawing by Michelangelo, he could do so. Most of those he chose to copy precisely are relatively broad sketches of figures or studies of details such as hands and legs. But in addition to these, Commodi also made, in a sketchbook with a page size of approximately 290 × 215 mm, a series of quick and rough sketch copies, witty, vigorous, and generally in media different from those of the originals, after individual drawings. He frequently juxtaposed on the same pages copies of drawings from different sheets or different sides of the same sheets and included several copies of drawings made not by Michelangelo himself but by his students, notably Antonio Mini. The impression these copies convey is of a deep, but self-confident interest in Michelangelo, of a wish to acquire motifs, not to absorb a figure style. The sketchbook has been disassembled and its components survive as half-pages, individual pages, or as “double spreads” (approximately 290 × 430 mm), which, in every case, were used as two pages, a further indication that they were once bound. From the layout of these sheets and the rough and ready nature of the drawings upon them, it is a reasonable assumption that the originals upon which Commodi focused were together when he copied them. These sketches do not give the impression of being made at different times and in different places.
Andrea Commodi was a friend of Michelangelo the Younger, and although he did not contribute to the series of paintings devoted to Michelangelo’s biography installed in the famous Galleria constructed in Casa Buonarroti, he
did present to his friend his Self-Portrait. It would seem that Commodi had access to Casa Buonarroti and that he
copied the drawings there. Support for this conclusion is provided by the fact that he also knew three models by
Michelangelo, all in Casa Buonarroti, including the clay group of a Mature Man Overcoming a Young One, often
mistakenly connected with Michelangelo’s project for a Hercules group to accompany his David in the Piazza della
Signoria but, in fact, made in preparation for a counterpart to the marble Victory on the front of the Julius Tomb.
Commodi copied this model from different angles, in three large and impressive drawings, and must have had
access to it for at least an hour.119 Still more significant evidence for Commodi’s access to the Buonarroti property is that he also made a copy of the large charcoal drawing of a Triton, of controversial attribution, preserved in the Buonarroti house in Settignano: This suggests that he was a family intimate, for the drawing remained on the wall on which it was made until 1979.
It is conjectural when Commodi’s copies were made. His closest acquaintance with Michelangelo the Younger
seems to have come after 1600, but one cannot be sure that they were not friends earlier. In any case, Commodi
certainly knew Ludovico Buonarroti, Michelangelo the Younger’s brother, who died in 1600; his series of drawings in the Uffizi includes the drafts of three letters to Ludovico. This suggests an alternative avenue of access to the Casa Buonarroti drawings, and it would coincide with the opinion of the only scholar to discuss these copies at length – and with that of the compiler – that they date from the first part of Commodi’s career, before 1592. His pupils and no doubt of several others who cannot now be traced. There is, however, a caveat. It cannot
finally be proved that all the originals copied accurately by Commodi – or even all the originals copied in
his “sketchbook” – were in Casa Buonarroti when the copies were made.123 None of the drawings copied by
Commodi was also copied by Francesco Buonarroti, so the two series do not corroborate each other. And because
Commodi’s drawing after the Settignano Triton is not part of the sketchbook and is rather different from all his other copies after Michelangelo, it cannot be used to certify absolutely Buonarroti possession of the drawings. But
because most of the surviving drawings that Commodi copied either remained in or have a clearly established
provenance from Casa Buonarroti, the presumption must be that they were together there when Commodi copied
them. There are a few exceptions, but most present no serious difficulties. Thus, Commodi copied twice a study
for the Last Judgement, now in the British Museum, which was acquired in Italy in the 1820s by the Reverend Robert
Sandford from the Florentine sculptor Aristodemo Costoli (1803–71), who would then have been quite a young
man.124 Costoli may have acquired it from – or acted as an intermediary for – Fedi or Wicar, or another of the
Buonarroti heirs, for it is unlikely that the disposals of the late eighteenth century and of 1859 were the only
ones. Sandford’s drawing, therefore, is not a major obstacle.
Similarly, Commodi seems to have known a drawing now in Besanc¸on, which, while not by Michelangelo himself, must be an exact facsimile of a lost drawing. The Besanc¸on sheet – or its original – might
well have been in Buonarroti possession in the 1580s, and because it has no known provenance prior to its appearance in Jean Gigoux’s bequest of 1894 to the Museum of his home town, it too – or its original – could well have been part of the dispersals of the 1790s.
The first is that he made copies after six sheets of rather scrappy drawings by Michelangelo that are now in the Uffizi. These cannot be shown to have a Buonarroti provenance and might already have been in
Grand Ducal possession when Commodi copied them.
But if Commodi had access to the Grand Ducal Collection, then it is strange that he should have chosen only
these slight sketches and ignored the famous Ideal Heads, which were certainly in Medici possession by this time.
Another possibility is that they could have been part of a different collection to which Commodi had access – perhaps that of an artist friend – and only subsequently found their way to the Uffizi. However, in the compiler’s opinion, the most likely explanation is that these six sheets of drawings too were in Buonarroti possession when Commodi copied them, but that they were part of a batch that at some point left the collection: They may, for example, have been gifts to friends of the Buonarroti family, and thence have entered the Uffizi. Whatever the answer, it is worth noting that the Uffizi sheets after which Commodi’s copies were made were ones that did not retain their identity and were restored to Michelangelo only around 1900 by Ferri and Jacobsen.
Two other observations are relevant to this issue. This drawing bears the stamp of Sir Peter Lely and, therefore, if it was in Casa Buonarroti when Commodi copied it, it must have left there before Lely’s death in 1680. But if it was in another collection, it too would undermine the locational homogeneity of the sketchbook copies. Second, on Uffizi 18632F, Commodi copied, in red chalk, Michelangelo’s black chalk sketch for the head of the ignudo left above Isaiah on the Sistine ceiling, a drawing now in the Louvre, which entered French Royal possession with Jabach’s collection in 1671.126 Commodi’s copy is approximately the same size as the original and is careful in its handling. It does seem – although it is impossible to be certain – to have been made directly from the
original and not from an intermediate copy. But because Commodi’s copy was not part of his sketchbook, even
could it be proved that the original was in a collection other than that of the Buonarroti, it would not, unlike
the copy of the ex-Lely drawing or the Uffizi sketches, affect our estimate of the source of the remainder of the
sketchbook copies. However, if the assumption that the sheets now in the Uffizi, Hamburg, and the Louvre were
all in Casa Buonarroti when Commodi copied them is correct, it would open a different avenue of investigation,
for it would argue that they left Casa Buonarroti at some time between, at the outside, c. 1590 and c. 1670, more
probably between 1620 and 1670, and that at least some disposals were made during the seventeenth century from
the family collection.
In fact, it is not an unreasonable assumption that a few drawings were exchanged for others or given to friends
or as diplomatic presents; others could have been sold, or even stolen. There is, indeed, one certain instance
of a sheet of drawings that was in Buonarroti possession in the early 1620s subsequently passing out of it.
This double-sided sheet, which also bears a burlesque poem, was referred to by Michelangelo the Younger,
who printed the poem, as having been acquired for Casa Buonarroti from Buontalenti. Even though the possibility
of theft cannot be ruled out, it seems more likely that it was sold or gifted by a Buonarroti descendent, and
if this is so, it is unlikely to be an isolated case. Indeed, some of the other drawings by or attributed to Michelangelo described byWinckelmann in the Stosch Collection were clearly working studies with “conti di cassa” on their versos, which again strongly suggests – although does not prove – a provenance from Casa Buonarroti. Further support for the hypothesis of leakage from Casa Buonarroti is provided by the single-copy drawing by Francesco Buonarroti (5406A [c]), which does not depend on a known sheet by Michelangelo either still in, or with direct recorded provenance from, Casa Buonarroti. This is his copy after one of the sketches on the verso, preparing the modello of a monumental altar on the recto, on a sheet from the collection of Filippo Baldinucci bequeathed by General John Guise to Christ Church in 1765. Rubens made a pair of copies
of the Battle of the Centaurs, probably during his sojourn in Florence in late 1600, and as these show the relief lit from opposite directions, he was presumably permitted to manouevre an oil lamp before it.128 But Rubens was an
artist with the highest and most powerful social connections, an accomplished diplomat, and an extraordinarily
forceful and resourceful personality, and no copies even by Rubens after Michelangelo drawings in Casa Buonarroti
are known.129 And where Rubens might have gone, not all could follow. The next recorded copy of the Centaurs,
by David’s pupil Jean-Germain Drouais, was made in 1786.
If Michelangelo’s relief of the Battle of the Centaurs, which must always have been on display in the house,
was not well known, then access to the drawings may not have been easy – although a black chalk drawing
on seventeenth-century paper by an unidentified artist in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh,
made after Michelangelo’s anatomical pen sketch still in Casa Buonarroti, demonstrates that they were not entirely concealed from view. It must also be borne in mind that Michelangelo was not generally a reference-point for artists for most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and that there may not have been much demand
for access to his drawings.
It would seem that Mariette had heard about the drawings rather than seen them. Gori himself did see them. In his
introduction, he remarked that Nella Galleria e Casa propria del medesimo Michelagnolo Buonarroti si conservano due grossi Volume di Disegni, parla maggior parte di Architettura, di Chiese, di Porte, di Palazzi, di Scale, e di vari studi di Anatomia, e di altre opere, da me con sommo piacere pi`u e pi`u volte veduti, ora posseduti dal Sig. Leonardo Buonarroti, figliuolo del dottissimo e mio ottimo maestro Signor Filippo.
It is notable that the drawings that Gori particularly remembered, or was particularly impressed by, were those
of architecture. For it is in drawings of this class, and particularly of finished type, that Casa Buonarroti remains supremely rich, and few of these seem to have left the collection. This is another irony; it was finished architectural drawings that twentieth-century scholarship was most reluctant to accept into Michelangelo’s graphic
oeuvre.
This sounds as though he might have been aware of possible dispersals.
However, nothing substantial seems to have left Casa Buonarroti at that time. In 1760 Bottari noted that housed
there were “due grossi tomi ben legati” of drawings by Michelangelo, although whether he himself knew them
or was merely quoting Gori is uncertain.
In an inventory of the collection of Casa Buonarroti made after the death of Leonardo Buonarroti, in 1799,
it was noted of the two large albums of drawings by Michelangelo, which had been recorded in an inventory
of c. 1684136 and had been mentioned in several eighteenth-century accounts, that many pages of one
of them were missing. It is presumed that these were removed by Filippo Buonarroti who, in disposing of
drawings from Casa Buonarroti, would seem to have been in violation of the entail imposed upon the collections and, on the face of it, to have been a thief. Whether Filippo raided the family collection surreptitiously or with
the connivance of his father – but that would be difficult to explain – it may be that he felt he was doing no more
than realising his legitimate inheritance. It seems unlikely, given Filippo’s life-long history of lofty idealism and commitment to the ideals of the French Revolution, that his action was merely mercenary: Perhaps the sale was to help finance revolutionary causes; it may have been encouraged by friendship for Wicar and shared political ideals.
How many drawings or mountings of drawings by Michelangelo Filippo Buonarroti abstracted is unknown, and it is impossible to be precise about the dispersals. As noted previously, a very rough guess would be that some
seventy-five mountings of drawings left Casa Buonarroti, comprising something over one hundred sheets of drawings, with Wicar being the main, if not necessarily the sole, beneficiary. As also remarked previously, it is impossible to say whether Filippo sold the drawings in a single batch or released them gradually over the years, as he required funds. Given what can be inferred of the pattern ofWicar’s collecting, the latter seems more likely, but further information would be necessary to establish whether or not this is so.
Some reparation was made by Filippo’s son, the Cavaliere Cosimo Buonarroti, who died in 1858. Reacting
strongly against his father’s politics, he inherited something of his public conscience, combined with strong loyalty to Florence. Lacking direct heirs, he bequeathed Casa Buonarroti and its collections to a foundation controlled by the City of Florence. Nevertheless, admirable and generous though his bequest was, his devotion to scholarship left something to be desired, given that he was in the habit of cutting up minor drawings – artistically speaking – by Michelangelo, his order pages for marble blocks, and giving the pieces to friends or even acquaintances.
One such example, which he presented to “Sig. Segret. Gonnelli in segno di sincero riconoscenza” in 1827, is
in the Mus´ee Bonnat, Bayonne; another, which sold at Christie’s, London, 1 July 1986, lot 40, was accompanied
by a note “L’Aul: Cosimo Buonarroti offriva/l’accluso saggio del carattere del/suo illustro Antenato Michelangelo/
al Sig:r Dr: Bowring in segno di partiolare stima il di 3 9bre 1836”; and two similar fragments recently entered
the British Museum (Turner, 1999, nos. 353, 354). Cosimo also gave away some Ricordi by Michelangelo.
Shortly after Cosimo’s death, his cousin, the Cavaliere Michelangelo Buonarroti, removed some drawings and
manuscripts, claiming that they were his personal property and had only been placed in Casa Buonarroti on
loan. He was the source of the second great dispersal from the Casa Buonarroti, that of 1859; from this, the
British Museum was the beneficiary, acquiring thirty-six sheets of drawings and a number of manuscripts. The
circumstances of this sale are not fully clear, but even though there is no documentary evidence to prove that
these drawings had always been in Casa Buonarroti – they were first seen by Eastlake in 1858 in the Villa Buonarroti in Settignano – some of the sheets are en-suite with those in Casa Buonarotti, and it can be taken as certain that the drawings came from this source. Happily, a number of drawings and manuscripts were later returned by the Cavaliere Michelangelo to the Casa. Nevertheless, the depredations had been great. An indication of the
original strength of the collection is that at least fifty-six of the British Museum’s Michelangelo drawings, and at least thirty-eight of those in the Ashmolean, were in Casa Buonarroti until c. 1790.