Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer
by Carmen C Bambach, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 400pp, £50
Art criticism and art history are often either precious or, more frequently nowadays, jargon-ridden to the point of meaninglessness. Happily, Carmen Bambach’s book, handsomely produced and copiously illustrated, accompanying the largest exhibition ever held of the artist’s drawings, is neither. Her book, a judicious mixture of biography and aesthetic appreciation, is accessible and, if occasionally in its scholarship a little on the dry side for the general reader, clear and unmannered.
Here I must make a personal confession. No doubt it is a failing of mine, but while I can appreciate the magnitude of Michelangelo’s genius, admire the perfection of his work, wonder at its scale and magnificence, marvel at its energy, and so forth, I am rather unmoved by it. Vermeer and Velázquez move me far more, precisely because of the smaller, more human scale of their ambition. The picture in the book that moved me most was the portrait of Andrea Quaratesi, in the British Museum, a portrait tenderly drawn with the hand of love – as well as that of mastery, of course.
It comes as something of a shock, then, that attribution of this beautiful drawing to Michelangelo has not been constant or universal among experts. Indeed, one of the interesting things one learns from this book is the wide diversity of opinion among scholars and experts about the number of Michelangelo’s drawings which are still in existence. It varies by at least three or fourfold, and it seems that looseness or severity of attribution goes in waves, rather like bull and bear markets on the stock exchange. At the moment, the number of drawings accepted as being by Michelangelo is high – are we in for another crash, that is to say a reduction in that number?
This variation in attribution raises interesting questions that the author, the curator of the Metropolitan’s collection of drawings, does not stop to consider, though to me at least they are very interesting and philosophically important. The text speaks of drawings being “demoted” or “reinstated” as true works of the master, as if their aesthetic quality, and therefore our response to them, depended not so much on anything intrinsic to them, but on our knowledge of the personage who produced them. Writing of two Crucifixion scenes, one now in London and the other in Boston, the author says: “The authenticity of the British Museum cannot be doubted, contrary to the opinion of some sceptical art historians … The same art historians have condemned the Boston drawing even more unjustly.” Yet, to adapt slightly Bishop Butler, the drawing is what it is and not another thing – it ought to be beautiful or not, irrespective of who drew it.
However absurd or difficult in the abstract it might be to justify such concerns with “authenticity”, they are nevertheless so ancient and constant that it is probably futile to rail against them. They date back at least to the time of Michelangelo himself, for such was his fame during his lifetime that collectors and painters were desperate to have something, however minimal, from “his own hand” – nothing else would do, whatever its quality.
The book is much more concerned with the work of Michelangelo than with his character. Everyone knows that he could be very difficult, to put it mildly, but this aspect of his biography is only mentioned obliquely. It also deals with his homoeroticism but does not dwell on it unduly, in a way that now seems pleasantly old-fashioned, restrained and tactful.
In a similar fashion, Michelangelo’s religious and political opinions and motivations are alluded to discreetly rather than described in any strident detail (true aesthetes should avoid sex, politics and religion as rigorously as should polite guests at a dinner party). Michelangelo was certainly not the kind of man to adhere too firmly to anyone else’s orthodoxies, and yet his departures from religious orthodoxy were implicit rather than explicit. He was a republican in politics, but not so fanatically that he could not compromise when he found himself on the losing side, or work for those of whom he disapproved politically.
In any case, his transcendent genius, early recognised in his informal title, il divino, protected him from retribution. His celebrity was such that no one would have wanted the opprobrium of punishing him.
This splendid book, focusing as it does on his drawings, does justice to the phenomenal range of his activities: painting, sculpture, architecture and poetry. It is pitched very well at those who are neither specialists nor yet merely casual lovers of art.
But I must confess that Michelangelo’s grandeur and monumentality still touch me less than, say, the intimacy of Juan Sánchez Cotán’s or El Labrador’s still lifes, which were at least as religiously inspired as anything Michelangelo ever did.
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