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State of the Arts: Making Michelangelo's Masterworks

Teylers Museum, Haarlem, purchased in 1790.
Studies of figures and limbs; figure sketches (verso), 1511. Michelangelo Buonarroti (Italian, 1475–1564). Red chalk, leadpoint; 27.9 x 21.4 cm. ";

Michelangelo's sculptures and paintings are a cornerstone of art history. But the artist was notoriously private with his notes and sketches. A new exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art provides a rare glimpse into his creative process. On this week's State of the Arts, we take a walk through "Michelangelo: Mind of the Master."

Michelangelo created some of the world’s most beautiful and treasured artwork, from his iconic sculpture David to his vast exploration of faith and origin painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

But what if you could get a glimpse behind the curtain to see how Michelangelo created his 16th Century masterpieces?

"He worked very hard, he labored," Curator Emily Peters said as she leads me into the first gallery.

She said the artist created up to 30,000 preparatory drawings, or studies, using chalk, ink and paper to hone the fine details of his world famous sculptures and fresco paintings.

"These are really some of the strongest drawings ever made, in my opinion," Peters said.

One is from the CMA’s own collection. Two are from the J. Paul Getty Museum. The rest are from the Teylers Museum in the Netherlands. Peters said since the Teylers acquired its studies back in the late-1700s, they are some of the best preserved Michelangelo drawings in the world.

An interview with Teylers Museum Director Marjan Scharloo about the magic of Michelangelo's studies.
a photo of Michelangelo drawings and finished work
Two studies framed against the full Michelangelo cartoon. You can see where the studies fit into the larger drawing behind them.

The status quo

Peters guides our conversation to a set of drawings not by Michelangelo himself, but by his older renaissance contemporary Perugino.

Peters said Perugino’s paintings, with their traditional, elegant and static figures, illustrate just how much Michelangelo shifted the landscape.

"When Michelangelo comes on the scene we’ll see a real change in how the human body is depicted," she said.

Walking just a few strides into another gallery, you get a picture of just how drastic the change was.

We are confronted with twisting figures of nude men drawn with such precision they almost move off the paper.

Peters said the male torsos, backs and arms are all pieces of a battle scene in a fresco painting puzzle Michelangelo was commissioned to paint by the city of Florence in the early-1500s.

"And for this battle scene his concept was not to show soldiers wearing armor and fighting, but instead to show the soldiers bathing in the Arno River and being called to battle."

You can see that attention to detail in other corners of the study, where Michelangelo drew arms extending at different angles, trying to get the figure exactly right.

Peters said scholars think Michelangelo attended at least one human dissection to see exactly how muscles worked.

"The motion of this figure is so completely different from the Perugino that we looked at in the previous gallery. And to his contemporaries this was absolutely astounding."

The elusive master

Since these are essentially pieces of the artist’s sketchbook, Michelangelo used both sides of paper.

"And the back of this sheet is quite interesting," Peters said as we come around to the other side of the two sided exhibit.

"There’s another drawing and this drawing in the gallery is upside down, because of course when Michelangelo grabbed the sheet of paper he wasn’t thinking of how one would see it in a frame."

Michelangelo used these sheets of paper not only for studies, but also for anatomical notes and even poetry.

Peters said there's evidence that some sketches on the same sheet of paper were actually from different projects decades apart.

The exhibition is a direct line into Michelangelo's thoughts and process that the public was never actually supposed to see.

"In fact, Michelangelo was very secretive about his design ideas, and as a result of that he ordered the burning of many of his drawings throughout his life," Peters said.

"In 1517 he ordered a servant via a letter to burn all of the drawings in his studio."

Of Michelangelo's tens of thousands of sketches, only about 600 are known to have survived.

A photo of sistine chapel drawings
Four studies Michelangelo drew in preparation for painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The hand of God

Peters said most of the studies for the Sistine Chapel were lost.

"However we’re very lucky to have four beautiful drawings from that project in this exhibition that did survive." One of which is in the CMA's permanent collection.

These studies of the male body are placed in front of a giant recreation of the entire Sistine Chapel ceiling. Peters shows me where the red chalk studies correspond in the Sistine Chapel painting.

It's kind of a like a fine art version of "Where’s Waldo?"

Peters points to the smudge marks Michelangelo made with his fingers in the chalk of his study, working out how to best represent a naked figure so far above the viewer's head.

"He very strongly outlines the figure. And if you can imagine him thinking about how he would need to make a figure so it was visible from 70 feet below, essentially. It’s bold, it’s in almost a Z-shape. It’s perched on one toe, which is very different from the gracefulness and balance of nudes that you might see a few decades before."

Next to it, is a study that may very well take your breath away.

"We have an arm extending and a finger pointing. And this is actually the hand of God reaching toward Adam, to enliven Adam on the central scene of the Sistine Chapel ceiling."

For Peters, this is the beauty of this exhibition. You can get within inches of one of the great masters.

"You'll get very close to Michelangelo’s hand in this gallery. You’ll see the marks he made with chalk and pen and ink."

"Michelangelo: Mind of the Master" is on display through January 5, 2020.

The exhibition is organized by the Teylers Museum in collaboration with the Cleveland Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Editor's Note: This article previously stated the exhibition originally offered patrons magnifying glasses to view the artwork. The Cleveland Museum of Art has since announced those will no longer be available.