Male Torso, ca. 1540. Light terracota. Florentine artist, XVI century, 9.1 in. high. Photo courtesy of Fondazione Casa Buonarroti.

SEATTLE, WA.- Michelangelo’s towering reputation as the quintessential Renaissance man — architect, painter, sculptor, poet and engineer — intimidated both his contemporaries and later historians to the point that the adjective “divine” became a fixture attached to his name. Bringing together drawings and sculptural models by Michelangelo with a range of works by his contemporaries and generations of followers, Michelangelo Public and Private: Drawings for the Sistine Chapel and Other Treasures from the Casa Buonarroti is a small but powerful exhibition that humanizes the great master, exposing the working process that led to masterpieces such as the Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes. Organized by the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), the exhibition’s only venue, in collaboration with the Casa Buonarroti in Florence, Italy, Michelangelo Public and Private will show a side of this unequivocal master that he never wanted the public to see. The exhibition will be on view October 15, 2009–January 31, 2010.

“The Casa Buonarroti houses the greatest repository of Michelangelo’s drawings in the world, and it has been such a pleasure and an honor to work with them,” said Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM’s Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture. “Only twelve drawings by Michelangelo exist in public collections across the entire US. The twelve drawings in Michelangelo Public and Private double that number and represent an important opportunity for American audiences to learn from these treasures.”

Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari tells us that Michelangelo Buonarroti burned most of his drawings and other preparatory works before his death “so that no one should see the labors he endured and the ways he tested his genius, and lest he should appear less than perfect.” He purposefully cultivated the myth of an inspired genius, for whom completed masterpieces materialized through a single, near-divine effort. This was far from the truth, however, as the master worked meticulously and tirelessly behind the scenes to perfect his works through drawings, models and casts.

Combined with a prodigious artistic ability that was expressed from a very early age, Michelangelo’s efforts to craft his own image led to the artist’s widespread and enduring celebrity status. Painted and sculpted portraits and commemorative medals celebrating his life demonstrate the “cult of Michelangelo” that had already begun well before his death. Engraved copies of passages from the Last Judgment – sold throughout Europe – document the original appearance of Michelangelo’s grand opus and prove the demand that existed for images of his work. Bringing all of these together with intimate drawings by the master’s own hand, Michelangelo Public and Private offers a rare glimpse at the artist’s humanity and the longevity of his vision, confirming Michelangelo’s status as an exceptional artistic genius.

Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel
The largest collection of Michelangelo’s drawings still in existence resides at the Casa Buonarroti in Florence, although for conservation reasons only a small handful can be on view at a given time. Twelve of these drawings are traveling to the Seattle Art Museum as the centerpiece of Michelangelo Public and Private: Drawings for the Sistine Chapel and Other Treasures from the Casa Buonarroti. Most of the drawings on view are original preparatory drawings for Michelangelo’s frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling and altar wall – drawings, which reveal that the full-blown designs we marvel at in the Sistine Chapel were often the product of painstaking reflection, study and revision.

For instance, the artist incorporated allegorical nude figures throughout the narrative of the Sistine ceiling paintings. Several drawings on view in the exhibition at SAM expose Michelangelo’s repeated studies and alterations as he puzzled through how to make these figures work within the odd-shaped ceiling spaces. At the same time, these drawings show the artist perfecting the muscular monumentality of form for which the Sistine figures have become known and which is a hallmark of Michelangelo’s style.

Other drawings in the exhibition are much more finished, directly reflecting passages from the final paintings on the chapel ceiling. The beautifully nuanced and meticulously shaded Study for a Man’s Face in the Flood in the Sistine Ceiling seems perhaps a study of emotion rather than the monumentality of form. In still other drawings, Michelangelo appears to have had a very clear idea – in even the most preliminary of sketches –what he wanted to achieve in the final painting. In the Study for Adam in the Expulsion from Paradise, the artist has, in just a few sweeping strokes, evoked the powerful gesture and sense of shame that the final painting conveys.

Throughout the exhibition, the curators include reproductions of the final paintings that correspond to the working drawings on view. This allows museum visitors to witness much of Michelangelo’s process, from initial conception to finished masterpiece. Other supporting works help viewers understand the narrative scheme and formal attributes of the ceiling frescoes and the Last Judgment painted on the altar wall. A nineteenth-century tabletop illustrating the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, serves as a guide for visitors as they match the preparatory drawings with the completed paintings. Etched copies of the ceiling frescos created by Giorgio Ghisi shortly after the cycle was completed express the hunger that Michelangelo’s contemporaries and public had for images of his work. A vibrantly-colored painted copy of the Last Judgment from the circle of Giulio Clovio, also created just after the work’s completion, is a key piece of evidence proving that the surprisingly vibrant colors uncovered when the Last Judgment was restored in the 1990s actually match Michelangelo’s original palette.


Study of a man's face for the Flood in the Sistine ceiling, 1509-1510, Red chalk. Michelangelo Buonarroti, Italian, 1475-1564, 4.92 x 5.59 in. Photo courtesy of Fondazione Casa Buonarroti

Michelangelo the Man and the Myth
Michelangelo worked hard to hide exactly that which interests us today: glimpses into his private life and working process. His reputation as divinely-inspired – if not in fact divine himself – began very early in his life when as a young boy he showed incredible skill as an artist; and it followed him throughout his life and into perpetuity. Michelangelo Public and Private presents works that tell us more about Michelangelo the man – his family, his friends and his own complex personality and career – as well as objects that underscore the reverence felt for him during his lifetime and beyond.

In a letter written to his father in 1509, Michelangelo wrote, “I’ve finished that chapel I was painting. The Pope is quite satisfied.” This dutiful report from a son to his father, delivered in a laconic manner familiar to many parents, reminds us of Michelangelo’s humanity, despite his incredible place in the history of art, architecture and engineering. Visitors to Michelangelo Public and Private can peruse personal documents, letters, even an illustrated menu, that remind us of the complex business dealings, the personal connections and the day-to-day life of this artistic genius.

In addition, the exhibition includes a bronze cast of Michelangelo’s earliest sculpted work, the bas-relief Madonna of the Stairs from the late 1480s-early 1490s (bronze cast from 1566). This work shows the awe-inspiring precociousness of the young artist and demonstrates how the master-artist earned such a lofty reputation at so young an age. Commemorative works such as a Medal of Michelangelo created by Leone Leoni in 1561, a bronze bust of the artist fashioned after his death mask, and an early 17th-century painting commemorating the placing of this bust on Michelangelo’s sepulcher in the church of Santa Croce in Florence show how revered he was in his lifetime and beyond.

Dr. Gary Radke discusses the upcoming exhibition "Michelangelo Public and Private" on view at the Seattle Art Museum October 15, 2009-January 31, 2010.