European Art

Michelangelo Didn’t Show His Work: A Fun Fact

Michelangelo drawing
Michelangelo Buonarroti, studies for the Libyan Sibyl on the Sistine Ceiling, c. 1510-1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. [Public Domain]
Michelangelo was not a humble man. He knew he was a genius, and he wanted everybody else to know it, too. He was especially proud of his talents in sculpture. So, Michelangelo didn’t want people to know how carefully he prepared for his sculpture projects. He made copious drawings before beginning most major projects, but he wanted people to think that he just freehanded them. To cover up this fact, he decided to burn all of his preparatory drawings shortly before his death. It was only through the intervention of his biographer and former student, Giorgio Vasari, that many drawings were spared.

I’m glad they were. A few months ago, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s now-closed Michelangelo: Divine Draughtsman & Designer, an exhibition of Michelangelo’s drawings. This great show wouldn’t have been possible if Michelangelo had burned all of his drawings.

According to Ingrid Rowland and Noah Charney’s The Collector of Lives: Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art (my source for this entire fun fact), Michelangelo ran into some problems when he eventually abandoned his preparations. Looking at the partially-carved remains of some sculptures Michelangelo left unfinished at his death, they have observed that the great sculptor didn’t leave enough stone to fit the whole rest of the uncarved body. Oops!

Source: Rowland, Ingrid and Noah Charney. The Collector of Lives: Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.

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