Approaches of Michelangelo’s drawings
Any serious discussion of Michelangelo’s drawings must start with the surviving body of his graphic work. It
might, of course, be possible to produce an idealist account of Michelangelo’s drawings, by deduction from
his works in other media and taking no notice of those drawings generally attributed to him, but whether such
a construct could have any value is doubtful. But it must be admitted also that there is not and cannot be absolute
proof that any drawing generally believed to be by Michelangelo is genuinely by him. This can be generalised
to the observation that there can be no absolute proof that any drawing is by any artist to whom it may be
attributed. Any drawing can be dismissed by the iconoclastically minded critic as a copy, a forgery, a pupil drawing, or simply a drawing by another, unidentified, hand.
These constraints apply to all attempts to attribute drawings of whatsoever type and period, but they are particularly to be borne in mind in the case of graphic oeuvres produced before the invention of photography; graphic oeuvres that have been reassembled from scattered survivals on the basis of internal resemblance and/or relation to documented or otherwise generally accepted works in other media; and graphic oeuvres assembled with little support from collateral evidence such as paper types, collective provenances, or anecdotal testimony. In such territory, the assertions of a connoisseurship that calls itself scientific can acquire an apparent authority because they seem to provide simple maps through difficult terrain.
But all soi-disant “scientific” attempts to construct corpora of drawings, quite apart from the fact that the
methods employed are never as scientific – in the terms of the mathematical sciences – as their adherents claim,
are inevitably circular in that they start from a core of “authentic” drawings, drawings against which others are
measured, whose composition itself is a matter not of proof but of faith. The same critiques that the conoclastically minded critic direct to works that he or she rejects can be applied also to those that he or she accepts. Such “scientific” assertions invariably prove disastrous, whether they be expansionist or contractionist (almost invariably the latter), for they rest on the illusion that the eye of the individual critic is an unchanging and impartial instrument of analysis. The connoisseur who believes himor herself to be possessed of a supra-personal eye, able to allocate authorship on the basis of pure visuality, is suffering from self-delusion, and from this the descent into solipsism is likely to be rapid. This is not to say that the application of a few rigid visual criteria to a poorly defined oeuvre may not be useful in clearing perimeters and pruning excrescences. But it is less effective in the work of positive construction and is particularly illsuited to grasp variety, development, and change.
In practice, when attempting to define the graphic oeuvre of an artist, one’s judgements – always provisional –
must rest on close analysis of individual drawings seen not as isolated objects but within the context of the artist’s work both in drawing and other media. Particular judgementsmust be situated within an awareness as detailed and profound as possible of the stylistic range and particular traits of the artist being studied and of his or her chronology.
A knowledge of work by contemporaries and a general experience of the ways in which artists work within certain traditions will serve as helpful controls. But, finally, such loose concepts as “the balance of probability” cannot
be avoided. It is also salutary to remember that, when the complete or virtually complete graphic work of an
artist is known – a situation rare before the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – the changes of drawing-style to
be found between one page of a sketchbook and another, the variety of interests to be found over a few sheets of
studies for a single work, or the variety of techniques exploited on a single page of drawings can be enormous.
Such experiences should alert the student to the fact that
major artists are always more various than their interpreters
can conceive. And they should also remind the
student that time has severely edited the work of most artists prior to the modern period, and especially severely
their drawings: fragile, uncared for – Annibale Carracci reportedly used some of his most beautiful studies to clean frying-pans – sometimes deliberately destroyed or discarded by the hands that made them. Keeping in mind the
enormous losses suffered by, for example, Renaissance drawings should make the student wary of relying on normative
stylistic analysis, and still more hesitant in asserting his or her views.Awareness of howmisleading the kinds of
analysis generally employed to reconstruct the oeuvres of Renaissance artists would be were they applied to a major
twentieth-century artist, for example, should enjoin the student to treat the possibilities of the past with extreme caution. In principle, no type of evidence should be rejected per se. Any clue that the drawing – or, if mounted, its mount – provides, of whatever sort – inscriptions, numbers, types of paper, types of mount – can prove valuable in attempting to answer the questions the student might pose. A recent development that has, in the case of Michelangelo, proved especially valuable, is the listing of watermarks. Even though a watermark in a piece of paper does not prove that the marks on that paper are made by a specific hand, it can at least restrain wilder speculations, and it provides also a valuable control for the dating of what is on that paper.
The surviving corpus demonstrates that Michelangelo, like any draughtsman, made drawings for many different
purposes, and because he was active as painter, sculptor, and architect, as well as an occasional designer of decorative objects, his drawings are more varied than those of most of his contemporaries in their functions and forms.
1. Concetti – drawings that embody the first ideas, usually roughly and on a small scale, of figural projects (Cats. 10, 13).
2. Loose sketches – somewhat more developed drawings for a pose or a composition (Cat. 15).
3. Compositional draughts – laying out an arrangement in some detail but not to the level of precision of a modello
(Cat. 5, Corpus 45 and 73).
4. Studies of parts of figures, some of which might precede and some of which might follow 5 – such drawings
might be made to experiment with the most effective solution for a particular movement or pose of part of the
body, a shoulder, a wrist, and so on (Cats. 18, 26).
5. Studies of drapery (Corpus 119 verso, 154 recto).
6. A modello – laying out the arrangement of individual figures in detail and finalising the composition.
7. The cartoon – a full-size version of, usually, a composition to be painted, from which points or lines are transferred to the surface of the support or, more likely, to an intermediate cartoon which would actually be used for this task, thus preserving the cartoon proper from damage (Corpus 384 and 389).
8. A (primarily) outline drawing on a surface to be painted (Cat. 21).
9. Close to and at times indistinguishable from 8 is a category of drawings that, although not invented by
Michelangelo, was much exploited by him: the Presentation Drawing, made as gifts for the artist’s friends and
considered by him and them as independent works of art.
10. Record drawings (ricordi) after the artist’s own threedimensional models or sculptures (Cat. 18 recto?; Corpus
11. Copies after the artist’s own models to establish the most effective angle of vision, or to test the particular
emphasis required for lighting (reported by Vasari, but no certain surviving examples, although Louvre Inv. 694 and
699/J49,48 may be copies of such exercise).1. Concetti – small drawings that adumbrate roughly architectural,
decorative, or multi-media projects. In the case of architecture these might be ground plans and elevations
(Cat. 54 verso).
Architectural and/or Decorative Designs
1. More developed sketches plotting a project in somewhat more detail, with general articulation more
2. Studies, bringing to a fairly finished level single or groups of elements whose place within a project is now
determined (Corpus 202 recto and 554).
3. Studies of parts of members or decorative forms, for example, capitals and the shapes of volutes, some of which
might precede and some of which might follow4 (Corpus 530).
4. Diagrams of the dimensions of the elements required for the wood or clay model for architectural schemes or
decorative objects determining the size and shape of the individual units of which the ensembles are composed
5. Block sketches, diagrams of the dimensions of the blocks of marble required for the architectural or decorative
projects determining the size and shape of the individual units of which the ensembles are composed
(Corpus 508 and 509).
6. The model template, a full-size version of the forms to be carved or modelled in the models, which acts
as a guide for the transfer of the idea onto the objects to be worked (Corpus 600, 612 verso, and 613
7. Templates proper. In the New Sacristy, some were drawn on the walls of the Cappelletta (Corpus 536 and
8. Ricordi of architecturalwork already carried out (putative, no surviving examples).
9. Copies of antique architectural forms designed to familiarise the artist with their elements (Corpus 516 and
10. Theoretical drawings, analysing or explaining the principles to which work has been planned (Corpus 593
Rates of survival
Before essaying a chronological overview of Michelangelo’s development as a draughtsman, it may be useful
to look at his surviving graphic oeuvre as a whole. To repeat, it comprises some 600 sheets and 870 pages, and
it includes drawings of almost all the types listed previously.
The drawings range from notations of a few lines that would have taken no more than a second or two
to throw onto the paper to highly elaborate Presentation Drawings that might have taken a day or more to execute.
But these are likely to be the temporal limits.
Leaving aside Presentation Drawings, copies of works by other artists or architects made either for research
or recreation, anatomical drawings, drawings made for educational purposes, and the like, it is instructive to
turn to drawings made for Michelangelo’s major projects.
But when the final versions of projects for which drawings survive are compared with the versions found in
those drawings, even quite developed figure-studies rarely match precisely the finished works. This may in part be
due to Michelangelo’s making changes in the course of execution – he certainly improvised to some extent on
the Sistine ceiling – but it strongly suggests that more – perhaps many more – drawings were made between the
surviving ones and the executed works. Therefore, even when relatively large numbers of drawings survive for a
project, these must still represent a small proportion of those Michelangelo made.
Because no complete sequences of drawings survive for any of Michelangelo’s projects, no analogies can be
drawn among them, and even if a complete sequence had survived, there would be no guarantee that it was
representative. It is also evident that some projects and some periods of Michelangelo’s life are likely to have
generated a greater quantity of drawings than others: The Sistine ceiling, for example, would have required
a very large number. Michelangelo’s sculptural projects, even massive ones like the Julius Tomb or the New
Sacristy, probably fewer comparatively, because much of the individual statuary would have been worked out,
after preliminary drawings had been made, in models of wax or clay; however, even in these cases one cannot
be categoric, for Michelangelo made multiple studies of, for example, the shoulders of Day (Corpus 215 and
The quantity of drawings made by Michelangeo would also have varied with his age. In his formative years, to
attain his high level of proficiency in drawing, he must have made practice sketches and studies in very large numbers.
At the other end of his career, it was recounted, by Tiberio Calcagni writing to Michelangelo’s nephew Leonardo on 29 August 1561, that Michelangelo was still capable of drawing for three hours at a time, and this practice was probably not related to particular projects of that time, but as exercise, to keep his hand in. From his own advice to a pupil, “Disegnia Antonio, disegnia Antonio, disegnia e non perdere tempo” (Corpus 240), it is evident that Michelangelo held the act of drawing in supreme regard and emphasised the importance of continual practice. It is also worth remarking that no contemporary testimony suggests that Michelangelo was lazy.
It is immediately noticeable that the numbers of surviving figure drawings fall off greatly after 1530. According
to the compiler’s calculations, there are seventy-one pages of drawings for the Sistine ceiling, a fresco that contains a complement of some eighty substantial full-length figures – comprising the ignudi, the Prophets and Sibyls, and the Ancestors of Christ, plus many subsidiary decorative figures, as well as large numbers in the vault histories and the pendentives – but, in his view, only about twenty-six pages of drawings survive for the Last Judgement, whose overall complement of figures has been calculated at some 390 – although, of course, many of these
are minor. However, a recent discovery (Turner and Joannides, 2003) has shown that Michelangelo studied even
the limbs of fairly secondary figures with care. For neither the Sistine ceiling nor the Last Judgement is there a
single surviving cartoon fragment. Only two reasonably secure preparatory drawings (Cat. 43 and Corpus 358)
plus a large fragment of the cartoon survive for the two frescoes in the Pauline Chapel, which, taken together,
contain over seventy figures.
In architecture, the situation is in some ways similar but in others different. Some twenty sheets of block sketches are known for the fac¸ade of San Lorenzo and, probably, another dozen for the New Sacristy, but there are
none for the Laurentian Library or any of Michelangelo’s later architectural projects. It is evident that very large numbers of drawings must be lost, quite apart from those that Michelangelo deliberately destroyed at at least two moments in his career.
Finally, although one can do no more than conjecture how many drawings Michelangelo might have made, it may be helpful to move back and look at the matter in large. Michelangelo’s active working career, one of the
longest on record, continued for a little more than three quarters of a century. During most of that time, he was
a central figure, and for many years the central figure, in the universe of Central Italian art. He was responsible
for a sequence of massive, complex, and exceptionally important projects, and he worked for the richest, most powerful, and most sophisticated patrons that Florence and Rome had to offer. All his schemes – pictorial,
sculptural, and architectural – would have required extensive and elaborate preparation, and his universally recognised accomplishment as a draughtsman – by common consent one of the greatest that Europe has produced –
can have been achieved only by constant exercise. The existing total of his drawings provides an average of some
eight sheets or twelve pages of drawings – of all types – per year, which further averages one sheet of drawings
every six weeks or one page per month. Because Michelangelo was not a constipated draughtsman, or one who found the act of drawing difficult, it is quite feasible that an artist renowned for his hard and rapid work might have averaged, over a working lifetime, one sheet of drawings – regardless of type – per day. Because few among all the drawings that survive would have taken much more than an hour or two of concentrated work to execute, then, over a lifetime, Michelangelo could easily have made some 28,000 sheets of drawings. This would mean that the surviving corpus of sheets containing autograph drawings would comprise no more than about 2 percent of his total output. If an average of two sheets of drawings a day were assumed, and on some days, in the heat of work, Michelangelo could have made many more, then the total would be some 56,000, of which the surviving corpus would comprise about 1 percent. The second is the sort of total to be found in an artist of comparable genius and comparable longevity, who was also a great and fluent draughtsman: Picasso. Whichever totals are adopted, it is evident that only a minute fraction of the drawings that Michelangelo made is now known.
the phases of michelangelo’s drawing The earliest phase of Michelangelo’s drawings shows him following in the footsteps of his master Ghirlandaio.
Although no drawings by Michelangelo can certainly be dated before 1500, there is a general consensus – which
may be correct – that his copies after Giotto and Masaccio (Corpus 3 and 4) were made during the early 1490s. Significantly, it was in the Brancacci chapel, where they were drawing after Masaccio’s and Masolino’s frescoes, that Torrigiano reportedly broke Michelangelo’s nose. And Ghirlandaio was a key figure in the revival of interest in Masaccio’s work that took place in the last third of the quattrocento.
Ghirlandaio’s surviving drawings are in pen and in black chalk. His pen drawings consist both of rapid ompositional sketches, and of fairly highly finished treatments of drapery. Like most of his contemporaries, he used relatively
thinly applied black chalk for underdrawing, but he also employed black chalk in an elaborated and systematic
way to make drapery studies. However, this aspect of his work seems little to have affected Michelangelo. It
is sometimes suggested that Michelangelo’s early use of pen was affected by engravings. Although Michelangelo
was certainly interested in the engravings of Schongauer, it was primarily for their iconography, and there is little need to posit such an influence. Pen drawing was a particularly Florentine skill, much valued, and Donatello – whom Michelangelo greatly admired – is reported to have made many drawings in pen. Michelangelo would have been aware of a much larger number of drawings by Ghirlandaio and others than is now known, and he no doubt found whatever inspiration he needed in them.
Some of Michelangelo’s early drawings show unmistakable links with Ghirlandaio’s sketchy style: The same formula
is employed for heads and faces, obviously influenced by the copying of lay-figures and small jointed models, and Michelangelo incorporates similar features, obtaining, more potently than Ghirlandaio, a sense of power by the very distortion of his forms.Better known are Michelangelo’s highly finished pen drawings in which he brought cross-hatching to a pitch of flexibility and density not previously attained, and never quite to be attained again. It was this type of drawing, illustrated both in his studies of draped figures (Corpus 5) and in his more detailed studies of the nude (Corpus 21 and 22), that was to provide the basic model for certain drawings by Raphael and by Bandinelli and those artists who followed him. In principle, it involved tighter or more open weaves of lines according to areas of shadow of light, but Michelangelo’s mesh was both richer and more varied than Ghirlandaio’s. Risking illegibility by excessive application of ink, he went down densely in the shadows and created greater range and flexibility in the mid-tones, thereby imbuing his forms with more vitality and mobility than those of his master. Put thus, the process sounds simple; in practice, it demanded extraordinary dexterity and manual control. In one or two instances, Michelangelo carried this technique to a pitch of extreme virtuosity, creating plastic form by the pure intersection of hatching lines, without any bounding contours or internal guidelines, so that the forms emerge dream-like from the paper (Corpus 35).
In a few instances, Michelangelo employed a form of hatching somewhat different from that demonstrated in
his usual pen drawings (Corpus 34 and 35). In these, a diagonal orientation of the strokes creates a sheen on the
forms, not unlike that sometimes found in Bandinelli’s drawings, especially his studies for bronze statues. This,
however, probably related to specific commissions or specific effects and does not seem to have been a common
practice of Michelangelo’s.
Other artists who employed cross-hatched pen approached it in either a looser more sketchy way or else a more systematic one, losing the vitality and substantiality of Michelangelo’s stroke. Thus, Bandinelli creates
minimal textural variety within his figures, whereas in Michelangelo’s there is great differentiation between flesh
and drapery and different types of flesh.
Because there is no guarantee that the survival of drawings is proportional, it may be that the examples of Michelangelo’s apparently characteristic type of pen drawing are less representative than they seem. Nevertheless,
although copies of lost drawings do not suggest that any radical reassessment is required, it is wise to include
some caveats. For example, a group of drawings usually distributed by art-historians over several years might in
fact all be for the same project and be drawn over a few days, or weeks. Similarly it must be asked whether particular types of projects called for particular types of drawings, and whether aspects of style considered to be essential were in fact contingent. Thus, one drawing, which has been found to be particularly problematic, the study for the Magdalen (Corpus 31) in the National Gallery Entombment, is unusual in several ways. Its definition of form differs from, and is, in certain respects, inferior to, the modelling normally associated with Michelangelo; and it is unique in his work in being drawn on rose-tinted paper. If the dating of the Entombment project to 1501 is correct, it could be argued that these features correspond to an early drawing style of which no other examples have yet been identified, and that drawings commonly believed to antedate 1501 have been incorrectly placed.
On the other hand, it may be that Michelangelo consciously drew in a particular way for a particular purpose
related to the tonal and colouristic qualities required for painting rather than sculpture. The doubts that some
critics have had might therefore arise from a misapprehension of this drawing’s function and the application to
it of criteria derived from Michelangelo’s drawings for sculpture.
A factor that contributes to uncertainty in this case however is one of the key features of Michelangelo’s art,
his reference to one medium as inspiration for another. It has been universally remarked – and it goes back to statements by the artist himself – that Michelangelo’s painting is intensely sculptural; it has been less commonly noted that some of his sculpture, the St. Peter’s Piet`a, for example, is intensely pictorial. His architecture too began with a fundamentally pictorial bias, as the project for the fac¸ade of San Lorenzo demonstrates, and only gradually matured into a form of large-scale sculpture, increasingly shorn of anything extraneous. Such cross-fertilisation among media naturally makes a straightforwardly functionalist approach hazardous. And while a supple functionalism has proved most revealing and rewarding in the study of Michelangelo’s drawings, it is necessary to be aware of a possible pitfall: In attempting to fix a purpose for a particular type of drawing one might merely be inferring too much from chance – either of survival or handling.
In another aspect of pen drawing, Michelangelo probably gained inspiration from a different Florentine tradition.
Some concetti, or quick sketches, made in the first decade are in pure outline (Corpus 40 and 46). Michelangelo employed stressed pen line, with breaks to evoke the swell of muscles or bones, and his achievements in this respect are quite remarkable. Pollaiuolo and Botticelli – with whom he was personally acquainted – had made use of pure outline, but Michelangelo’s command of anatomy and capacity for suggestion meant that he could evoke a fully plastic form with the most minimal means. In this respect, the artist who may most have influenced him was Leonardo, some of whose drawings he surely knew, despite the enmity between them. This interest extended to concetti, for although Michelangelo produced very few of the “pentimento” drawings that characterised Leonardo, he certainly developed something of Leonardo’s interest in movement and in characterisation by movement.
The earliest chalk drawings that survive from Michelangelo’s hand are in black chalk and are connected
with, or contemporary with, the cartoon for the Battle of Cascina. Michelangelo probably made charcoal drawings too, but none survive. Vasari describes the technique of the Cascina cartoon: “V’erano ancora molte figure
aggruppate et in varie maniere abbozzate, chi contornato di carbone, chi disegnato di tratti e chi sfumato e con
biacca lumeggiatio,” from which it is evident that it was, at least in the less defined parts, softly drawn, with the concentration on mass rather than on contour. Indeed, this seems also to have been true of his preparatory drawings.
The most extensive surviving compositional sketch, in the Uffizi (Corpus 45), is drawn in soft black chalk
partly over stylus indentation, and Michelangelo seems to have established his composition primarily in black chalk, bringing some figure studies to a very high degree of finish in the medium. Particularly significant however is the distinction that Michelangelo made according to the purpose of the drawing. In two of the surviving chalk studies for a background figure, the chalk is handled softly and broadly, with the masses of the body as the primary focus of attention (Corpus 54 and 53 verso). But in two studies for foreground figures (Corpus 50 and 51), the medium, again black chalk, is handled in a much harder manner, with a sharp point and with strong emphasis on contours.
And certain figures upon which Michelangelo wished to place special emphasis were worked up by him in pen (Corpus 52 and 53 recto). Of course, accidents of survival may convey an incorrect impression of Michelangelo’s thought processes as they were expressed in the media and the types of handling that he employed, but it is clear
from his paintings – notably the Doni Tondo and the Sistine histories – that he differentiated focus and definition
between different spatial layers of his compositions.
Unlike Cascina, the very few concetti that survive for the Sistine histories and the Prophets and Sibyls (Corpus 123 and 151–2), and the fairly numerous ones that survive for the Ancestors (Cats. 9–16), are drawn in pen rather than chalk. And a study for the drapery of Cumaea is a multimedia drawing in pen, wash, and white-heightening
(Corpus 154). Further studies for figures were made in black chalk, in much the same way as they were made for
Cascina, with very broadly handled drawings to establish the basic masses of the figure, and then tighter studies
to fix deployment of gesture and musculature. It seems evident then that Michelangelo conceived the ceiling as
in a harder, more sculptural style than Cascina, and there are a number of plausible reasons why he might have
done so. One, obviously, is that the shape of the ceiling made it impossible to impose upon it any sort of
unified scheme. The design had to be an accumulation of repeated arrangements comprising more or less discrete
forms, which could be individualised at will, but whose basic configurations remained broadly constant:
The ignudi are obvious examples of this. Light, bright tones and sculpturesque form may also have been encouraged
by the difficulty of seeing the inadequately lit vault from the floor of the chapel and by a desire to harmonise the frescoes tonally and stylistically with those executed on the walls of the chapel in the 1480s by, among others, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, and Signorelli. Of course, such conclusions are based upon a very few survivals from the thousands of drawings that Michelangelo must have made for so complicated a project, and further discoveries may modify them. But that a significant alteration took place in Michelangelo’s preparations for his frescoes in the second half of the ceiling may be inferred from a change in his use of media. For even though concetti for the histories, ignudi, and Ancestors painted in the second half of the ceiling continued to be drawn in pen, the majority of the further figure-studieswere made in red chalk (Corpus 144 and 156). Red chalkwas first extensively employed in Italy by Leonardo. This might have discouraged Michelangelo from using it, but, significantly, he seems to have experimented with red chalk even in Florence, when preparing the formally Leonardesque Doni Tondo (Corpus 158).
Lighter in hue, red chalk also tends to take a sharper point than most varieties of black chalk and is generally
somewhat greasier in texture, allowing a smoother and more flowing line. Sharpened, it thus can approximate
to a pen-line, although lacking the flexibility of a quill, and to a silver-point line as well. The latter was of
little interest to Michelangelo because, although one or two lead-point drawings by him do exist (Corpus 141)
and although he occasionally, even as late as c. 1530, used metal-point to block out a composition before working
over it in pen or chalk, he seems never to have been interested in a medium that tended to work against the
liveliness that was so central to his drawings. But the legibility of red chalk, its capacity, when fused or moistened, to create passages of dark almost equivalent to black, and to extend much more broadly in the mid and high tones would have invigorated him. Red chalk allowed more flexible and elastic form than black, as well as in its obvious approximation to the colour of flesh. Indeed, even though it can hardly be put down merely to a change in the medium employed to prepare them, it is clear that some of the most beautiful and elastic nudes on the second
half of the Sistine ceiling were prepared in sanguine.
It is likely too that the change to red chalk also allowed Michelangelo to economise in preparation: It was less
necessary to make loose studies in black chalk and then to work them up in pen and wash. The whole procedure
could be undertaken on the same page. Certainly some of the drawings made by Michelangelo at this stage are among the most complete and evocative nude studies ever produced.
After completing the Sistine ceiling, Michelangelo returned to work on the Tomb of Julius II and simultaneously
accepted a commission for the Risen Christ, planned for the Roman church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. His
single surviving study for the Christ (Corpus 94) was made in tightly hatched pen, akin to his drawings of the first half-decade, and it has recently been shown that it must be some four years later than previously assumed because it was made for the second version of the statue, not the first. But in preparing the prigioni, although not abandoning pen, he seems to have made more use than hitherto of red chalk, establishing rich surface modelling (Corpus 62). Red chalk was also used for some compositional drawings (Corpus 73).
Increasingly, however, Michelangelo’s sculptural ideals changed in the course of the second decade. Instead
of polished surfaces and exquisitely detailed musculature, the mode of the Belvedere Torso seems gradually to have
come to dominate his imagination. He had already registered its effect in the later ignudi of the Sistine ceiling,
in which contour plays a reduced role, and in which precise and crystalline modelling gives way to more massive,
less closely defined, and more rubbery form. And, with the passage of the third decade, Michelangelo increasingly
came to see this as a mode for his sculpture as well.
As a result, he seems to have changed his employment of media once more. He continued to use pen, in an
analytical mode equivalent to ´ecorch´e studies in order to establish the underlying structure of his figures (Corpus 209 and 224), and then he worked up the surfaces in black chalk (Cats. 26, 27 recto), as if to avoid the flesh-evoking qualities of red chalk. Of course, no system was absolute, but only one study in red chalk remains for a statue in the New Sacristy, and this is specifically concerned with establishing the qualities of the surface (Cat. 27 verso).
Throughout this time, Michelangelo frequently used red chalk for architectural copies (Corpus 516, etc.),
grasping in a single stroke both line and texture, but he employed pen and black chalk for laying out architectural
sketches, the former when it was a matter of establishing the main lines and relations of architectural elements,
the latter when it was the overall pictorial effect that he wished to establish (Cats. 39 recto, 25 recto). Architecture, which, from the mid-1520s, came to occupy an increasing amount of his time and imagination, was initially for Michelangelo a support and frame for sculpture – figures in the round and compositions in relief. For these projects he continued to employ highly finished modelli (Corpus 497) like those he had prepared for the Julius Tomb (Corpus 55 and 489), following in this the lead of his architectural master Giuliano da Sangallo.
Nevertheless, compared with those of Giuliano,
Michelangelo’s modelli are richer and more pictorial, employing underdrawing in black chalk, generally used
with a ruler, ruled pen-lines, and chalk or pen outlines combined with wash and, sometimes, white heightening,
to establish the forms of the statues and reliefs envisaged for the project (Corpus 276 and 280 recto). It
is Michelangelo’s drawings of this type, particularly the earlier more detailed modelli for architectural–sculptural projects, where the detailing can appear finicky and the dynamism and inventiveness of the figures is apparent only after close study, that modern criticism has found hardest to accept; but with expanding study of Renaissance architectural drawings, they are gradually coming to be appreciated at their true value.
From the mid-1520s onwards, as Michelangelo became more of a pure architect, reducing or even eliminating
figurative sculpture from his projects, drawings of this type abandon the use of pen-lines, as the grander masses of the architectural forms take precedence over details. Some of his project drawings for doors and windows, employing chalk, wash, and white heightening, are among the most painterly drawings Michelangelo had produced up to that time (Corpus 550 and 551).With characteristic ingenuity, he saw the possibilities that the fusion of media created.
As the functional role of pen diminished, Michelangelo used it in other ways. During the 1520s, he produced
a number of drawings whose techniques, dense cross-hatching or open parallel hatching, often combined
with rather rangy contour, look back to those of his early pen-drawings. Some critics have indeed dated them
early, but they are coarser and more exaggerated both in local modelling and in outline than the drawings of
the first decade. Several sheets of this kind are in the Ashmolean (Cats. 22, 23, 33), and none of them can
be connected with a work in another medium. They have an emotional exasperation, combined with a caricatural,
satirical edge rarely seen in Michelangelo’s drawings of other periods. They relate neither formally nor in
mood to projects that Michelangelo had under way at the btime, hence the temptation of another group of critics
to give them to draughtsmen like Baccio Bandinelli or even Bartolommeo Passerotti, both of whom specialised
in vehement and “expressive” pen styles. It is not impossible that Michelangelowas actually responding to thework
of Bandinelli, which he knew well, but these drawings may also have represented a private need – of a type familiar
from Leonardo’s work – to indulge in the grotesque and brutal as a counter-balance to the sublimely beautiful
forms that he was currently creating in the New Sacristy, a project that, unlike the Sistine, allowed no room for
ugliness. In any case, whatever their motivation, it seems that drawings of this type did not stay in Michelangelo’s possession but were given to others, as may be inferred from the fact that more early copies survive after them than any other category of his figure drawings. Indeed, sheets of this type strongly coloured later appreciations of Michelangelo’s style.
If, as it seems, they are self-sufficient drawings, then they may also be seen as the shadow side, technically and
spiritually, of Michelangelo’s contemporary production of idealised images, in the chalk Presentation Drawings that
he made in the 1520s. They may also relate to his practice as a teacher, for at this time, with his assistant Antonio Mini, and his young friends Andrea Quaratesi and, perhaps, Gherardo Perini, Michelangelo seems to have been
more preoccupied with teaching than at any other period of his life. And his teaching drawings often include elements of the grotesque (Cats. 28 verso, 30 verso).
With his definitive move to Rome in 1534, there is a notable reduction in the survival rates of Michelangelo’s
drawings. As noted previously, compared with the number of drawings known for the Sistine ceiling, very few
preparatory drawings survive for the Last Judgement, and, other than the magnificent cartoon fragment (Corpus
384), almost nothing is extant for the Pauline Chapel frescoes. Ironically, even though no cartoons or cartoon
fragments remain from his early period, a second cartoon, of around 1550, for a panel painting by his pupil
and biographer Ascanio Condivi survives (Corpus 389).
Some compositional sketches but virtually no developed drawings are known for sculpture (Cat. 47). In compensation,
however, there are a few sketches and compositional drawings made for other artists (Cats. 45, 46 recto) and
even three cartonetti (Corpus 393, 399, and 409). Throughout most of the last thirty years of his life, Michelangelo’s preferred medium was black chalk. Increasingly, he avoided the voluptuousness that sanguine
could encourage, as he avoided sensuousness in fleshpainting.
The massiveness of the final group of prigioni for the Julius Tomb had become the mode of the painting
that he executed in the second half of the 1530s and that was composed entirely of figures, the Last Judgement.
Although the overall effect of the fresco is rugged and rough, with figures and groups at times appearing clumsy,
they were prepared with the most painstaking and elaborate care. Michelangelo may have made even more studies
for the Last Judgement than for the Sistine ceiling, given that the relation of figures to one another, quite apart from their individual poses, was much more complicated. And even though so few drawings survive, Michelangelo’s system seems clear. As with Cascina, the earlier composition whose structure, and therefore problems, resembled most closely that of the Last Judgement, he began broadly and gradually refined. The composition was established without pressure for neatness, but rather to achieve an agglomeration of expressive figures (Corpus 346 and 347). Individual figures, or groups, were then studied in detail: A sheet in the Royal Collection (Corpus 351), with repeated studies of a soul being tugged between an angel and a devil, shows Michelangelo’s determination to obtain the most compelling possible forms. It is reasonable to suppose that all the groups were studied with comparable
The next stage seems to have been very softly and broadly handled figure-studies, to secure the basic masses.
These drawings, although their forms are more innately defined than the examples of twenty-five years earlier,
do not differ from them greatly in kind (Cat. 41). And Michelangelo laid some ideas very lightly onto the sheets,
creating effects that are inherently pictorial (Corpus 354).
The succeeding drawings demonstrate a new, highly self-conscious, and individual technique (Cat. 42 recto,
Corpus 352). Michelangelo seems to have returned in some respects to an aspect of his pen drawing. The chalk
is employed with a sharp point and the form built up in bracelet hatching, which simultaneously hardens and
makes volumetric the depicted physique. Over this hard sub-structure, Michelangelo laid a surface sheen – in part,
apparently, by stumping – which was subordinate to the underlying form. Michelangelo thus created a new range
of superhuman physical types, akin to those favoured by body-builders, in which every muscle is given its maximum
development but in which the form retains organic coherence. It is as though, thirty years after it was made,
Michelangelo took Leonardo da Vinci’s criticism of the anatomical style and made it the foundation of a new
The purpose of this stylistic choice was twofold. In part it was to create effects of unparalleled energy, appropriate to the terrifying events of the Dies Irae. A conception such as this, based rather on the Olympian subject of the Fall of the Giants, could not adequately be treated using “normal” figures. And, although criticisms of the figures’ nudity were not in the event averted, another feature of the method was to de-sensualise the bodies depicted. The types are so far removed from ordinary human experience, and so far removed also from any possible concepts of beauty – Michelangelo, for example, consistently coarsened and simplified all the facial types – that the spectator engages in no erotic relation with the forms.
Michelangelo made drawings as presents for friends. As already remarked, the Presentation Drawing was not a
new genre; at least one drawing by Leonardo dating from the 1470s, the Head of a Warrior in silver-point in the
British Museum, is explicable only as a virtuoso display of technique, made for a patron or a friend, and Vasari
recounts that – probably shortly after 1500 – Leonardo made a now-lost drawing of the Quos Ego for his friend
Antonio Segni. It is likely that drawings of this type sprang from highly finished modelli, and Verrocchio’s studio was probably their crucible. Perhaps some of Michelangelo’s more elaborate early pen drawings, if not necessarily created as gifts, were given away, for there is evidence for early knowledge of some of them (Corpus 22 was known
to Raphael, whose lost sketch after it is known in a replica in the Metropolitan Museum, 87.12.69/BT 211). And it
may be that Michelangelo made self-sufficient drawings in pen, as Bandinelli was to do. However, drawings certainly
made by Michelangelo as gifts are either in black or red chalk, and none are known either in the original
or in copies that can reasonably be dated before c. 1520.
But Michelangelo made a highly finished modello in chalk for at least one of the paintings by his friend Sebastiano
(Windsor Royal Collection, PW 451), and it may well have been from drawings of this type that his Presentation
Drawings proper developed.
It is not known how many Presentation Drawings Michelangelo made, but they fall broadly into two types:
ideal, emblematic heads and figurative compositions, generally of allegorical or mythological subjects. It seems
to have been the former that he initially drew most. Although Michelangelo may have made them, no allegorical or mythological Presentation Drawings survive that can certainly be dated before c. 1530. In 1531 or 1532, however, Michelangelo became deeply fond of the young Roman aristocrat Tommaso de’Cavalieri and for him made a series of moralising compositions in both red and black chalk, which rapidly became famous (e.g., Corpus 338 and 342). Further drawings of this type survive from the same period (Cat. 35), no doubt made for other friends. And some of the more highly finished drawings of the Resurrection, also made by Michelangelo in the early 1530s, were probably also intended as gifts for friends (Corpus 263 and 265).
There is some controversy over the technique of these drawings. Michelangelo seems to have made them more
rapidly than one might suppose from their hyper-finished appearance. In a note to Tommaso written on the version
of the Fall of Phaeton in the British Museum (Corpus 340), he says that if Tommaso likes it, he will make a complete version the next day. If, as is generally assumed, this second version is the very highly finished representation of the subject in the Royal Collection at Windsor, then Too heavy an application and the surface would go dead; too light a touch and the effect of polished marble or bronze, or even the sheen of flesh, would not be achieved.
In 1949, Wilde argued that these drawings were composed by stippling, that Michelangelo had used a chalk
with a hard point and had built up the surface by a series of touches, a very laborious system, approximating to
Seurat’s pointillism. This has been denied by other critics, notably Rosand, who argue instead that Michelangelo in
fact used the chalk quite broadly, employing the “tooth” of the paper to obtain textural variety. However, in no case among surviving drawings does the support appear sufficiently rough to obtain such luminescent variety, and the matter remains unresolved. In these drawings, Michelangelo certainly used many different types of handling and
techniques, from simple outline, to broader, broken linework, to areas that appear to be created by stumping, to
fine overlays of parallel lines to build up form, to some stippling. It seems most likely indeed, that, although a
full programme was not employed, Michelangelo made some use of stippling to obtain the effect of a surface created,
as it were, without signs of creation. And he may have placed his paper against slightly roughened surfaces,
in order that their textural variety would come through: like brass-rubbing. Interestingly, it was this very effect thatn Seurat was to exploit.
After the mid-1530s, so far as we know, Michelangelo ceased to make Presentation Drawings of secular subjects. All his later ones are religious, and all save the Madonna del Silenzio (Corpus 388), of c. 1540, are made in
black chalk, including his last series, dating from the first half of the 1540s, for Vittoria Colonna (Corpus 411 and 426).
Towards 1550, he also made two cartonetti for Annunciations to be executed by his friend Marcello Venusti
and, a few years later, one of the Agony in the Garden (Corpus 393, 399, and 409). In elaboration and detail,
these differ little from the Presentation Drawings proper, although some areas are left blank for Marcello to incorporate motifs of his own. When Marcello had finished with them, Michelangelo gave two to his pupil and associate Jacopo del Duca, later to be obtained and displayed by Cosimo I, Duke of Florence. In these drawings, continuity of form is greater than before, textural differences are less, and Michelangelo has aimed at a minimalism corresponding to the surfaces of his late finished sculptures.
Only two reasonably secure preparatory drawings survive for the Pauline Chapel frescoes (Cat. 43, Corpus 358),
and no firm conclusions can be inferred from so small a sample. What is most interesting – and surprising – is the
cartoon fragment for the Crucifixion of Saint Peter (Corpus 384). This is finished to a miniaturist level, with every detail defined and then pounced, a precision not found in the fresco, where the forms are depicted relatively imprecisely.
Although the present condition of the frescoes is partly the result of over-cleaning – it seems likely that
in the Pauline Chapel Michelangelo made greater use of a secco retouching than previously – it is evident that
his preparation was deliberately more exact than his execution and that he was reaching for a softer and more
painterly style in which the aggressive presence of plastic form would play a diminished role in the generation of
This pictorial style, making use of wavering contours played against broadly evoked central body areas, seems
to have become the dominant mode of the 1550s. The effect is finally to reduce the importance of contour and
expand that of mass (Cat. 50). And this development is pursued both in the architectural and figurative drawings
that Michelangelo made in his last years, from the later 1550s until his death in 1564. In this period, Michelangelo made use of multiple media (Corpus 435, Cats. 55, 56). This was natural for ground plans, in which wash was frequently used in conjunction with line.
The figure drawings of this phase are also remarkable. The thickening and simplification of forms seen in the
Pauline Chapel is extended. . The draped figure becomes the primary vehicle of Michelangelo’s expression, but in those elaborated compositions in which the nude still plays a part – the late Crucifixion scenes in which
the body of Christ is displayed in apparently infinite permutations of suffering – definition is deliberately reduced. Michelangelo had always made use of soft drawings in the primary stages of developing figural forms and the Crucifixion drawings are softened further by layers of wash and white heightening to create images that seemingly arise from another artistic culture, that of Venice, as seen in the latest works of Titian (Corpus 417 and 418).