At 9:15 am on a rainy Sunday morning in New York, my dad and I stand outside the doors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a quickly growing line. We’re waiting to see the famed exhibition, Michelangelo: Divine Draughtsman and Designer—the likes of which has never been seen before, and will probably never be seen again in my lifetime. Art experts and novices alike gather in line behind us as it grows from 40 to 250 people in less than 30 minutes.
If you asked anyone in line why they woke up so early on a weekend to see this exhibition, most would give you an answer along the lines of, “It’s Michelangelo; it’s a must–see.” This answer makes sense and it doesn’t. Everyone knows Michelangelo Buonarotti is an artist of perfection, and one of the greatest and most influential masters of Western art, but the process behind his beauty is mostly hidden. This exhibition of his plans and drawings tries to change that.
Michelangelo can be an elusive artist. The majority of his work is in sculpture, architecture, or fresco—all forms of art that can’t be transported. And even if you have the privilege of traveling to Italy to see it all in person, most of his pieces are plagued by unending crowds of tourists. With Michelangelo, the beauty is in the details. His obsession with the shape of the human body and attention to the subtleties of physical structure is unparalleled.
For art history enthusiasts like myself, this global separation from Michelangelo’s work limits the full appreciation of it. Until now, that is. In this recent exhibition at the Met, they worked to bring never before seen drawings, sketches, and plans to the public eye.
As you walk into the first room, you are immediately surrounded by a darkness that is interrupted only by the yellow light directed at the drawings. The aging paper and chalk of these drawings, the audio guide tells you, allow them only to be exposed to light for a brief amount of time, which explains why the exhibition (which ran from late November to mid–February) was so short.
You walk through galleries of body parts, as the exhibition focuses on Michelangelo’s training in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s workshop. His detailed studies of limb and torso shape show just how obsessed Michelangelo was with the ideal human form. And while, like most artists, he depicted bodies in regular postures, these early drawings show that he also wanted to consider how the shape of the muscles would change in positions of extreme force and torsion.
This theme of twisting structures is carried into the handful of statues in the exhibition. While they are certainly not the focus of the show, their sporadic placement throughout the galleries of it help patrons trace Michelangelo’s creative process, from sketch to sculpture. In fact, there are even paintings from other artists, like Michele di Jacopo Tosini’s Venus Kissed by Cupid that are paired with the original Michelangelo sketches after which they were modeled.
Still shrouded in darkness, the galleries slowly transition into Michelangelo’s work in architecture, including sketches from his Tomb of Pope Julius II and the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. His passion for the human body continues, as his sketches for The Last Judgment reveal a fixation on the twisting forms of those being raised from the dead. But with his sketches for the tomb, we also begin to see his application of this passion to architectural form.
The final rooms of the exhibition show his later architectural plans, including some for the dome of St. Peter’s, a structure that seems to defy gravity. But despite its impressive appearance, we now know that this daring dome broke under the immense pressure of lateral forces, and required iron rings and brackets for added support to prevent a full collapse. In other words, the dome is an example of a time when Michelangelo’s plans for perfection failed.
This exhibition, with its dim light and massive crowds, required a high level of patience. On one side of you is the pedantic guest sharing the Michelangelo trivia he googled the night before, and on the other is someone saying “Let’s rush through this room. I’m tired of looking at legs.” And I’ll admit, there were times when the situation became so exasperating that I too began to wonder how many more details of muscle I could squint at through the darkness.
But then, in the conclusion of the exhibition, some information on a small panel changed all of that. These 133 drawings from Il Divino came from collections public and private, some only ever being seen by a select few. Additionally, there was a long thank-you message for the exhibition donors, including a long list of all the locations from which the works had been acquired.The emphasis of this thank–you emphasized the impossibility of this exhibition: some of these works had never left the homes of their private collectors.
Beyond this, the reason these drawings and sketches are so few and far between however, is that Michelangelo tried to burn almost every journal or cartoon he did that he didn’t perceive as perfect. These 133 that remain are those that escaped his destruction. Not only did Michelangelo crave perfection in his subjects, but he desired it for himself, wanting to be remembered, as he often is now, for being flawless.
Michelangelo: Divine Draughtsman and Designer drew such massive crowds because of the name, but its significance to the art world is because of the way it exhibited failure. It showed the countless iterations of sketches that were precursors to his masterpiece, and plans for the St. Peter’s dome that betrayed its weaknesses. Yes, this exhibition was about the art of a master, but it was also about the power of human spirit and determination.
It’s romantic to think that Michelangelo was an effortless expert, but his hand, though gifted, was also well–practiced. And in this way, I think the exhibition can transform into a life lesson, even for those who aren’t so obsessed with art history. It’s enjoyable to admire a masterpiece like the Sistine Chapel ceiling or the statue of David, but the reason we respect it is because of the hours of grueling work that go into it. While we, like Michelangelo, all strive for perfection in our own ways, it’s important to remember the steps it takes to get there, and to value the process of finding it.
Even though this short–lived exhibition is now over, the implications it has for the process of hard work can apply to us all. At Penn especially, we try to present only the perfection of our final results, hiding the hard work that comes before it. But, as this exhibition strives to show, it’s important to cherish the process and appreciate the dedication that comes with it, even if it reveals your imperfections along the way.