Once in a while, an artist comes along who is endowed with not just one particular kind of high-level intelligence but with a whole storm system of high-level intelligences.
In Michelangelo Buonarroti, lurching vectors of astonishing smarts produced agitation, anguish, and yearning aplenty: His life was no picnic. More importantly, however, they produced works that live on — even in our skeptical, genius-weary age — as a kind of gold standard of artistic invention and execution.
The agitation and intelligence are both on full display in a remarkable show of Michelangelo’s drawings at the Museum of Fine Arts. The 25 drawings in “Michelangelo: Sacred and Profane” (through June 30) are all from the Casa Buonarroti, the Florentine museum that was once Michelangelo’s house and belonged to his family until his last heir died in 1858. Despite setbacks and sell-offs, it remains the largest repository of Michelangelo drawings in the world.
Half the works in the show deal with the human figure. The other half are architectural drawings. Both categories include things that, were they not by Michelangelo, would probably fail to stall your progress. But there is no way to dampen the excitement of seeing, up close, drawings like the “Madonna and Child,” the violently kinetic “Sacrifice of Isaac,” and the sumptuously worked-up “Cleopatra,” one of several so-called “presentation drawings” Michelangelo gave to Tommaso Cavalieri, a young Roman nobleman for whom he harbored intense affection.
The show was organized for the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., by the Michelangelo (and Caravaggio) expert, John Spike. Spike is the author of the excellent recent biography, “Young Michelangelo: The Path to the Sistine.” And yet almost all the selected drawings here were made after the completion of the Sistine ceiling, during the long period of Michelangelo’s maturity.
His life during these years, roughly 1512 until 1560, was tumultuous. On several occasions, his tense but resilient inner life almost snapped under the pressure of outside events. He was dogged for several decades by the obligation to work on an unfinished tomb project for the dead pope, Julius II. For three years, he put this work aside to develop plans for an elaborate façade for the church of San Lorenzo, the family church of the Medici, one of whose members, Giovanni, was now Pope Leo X.
In 1520, the façade plans, illustrated in several drawings here, were abruptly canceled. Another Medici, Giulio, a cardinal on the verge of becoming Pope Clement VII, consoled him with another commission: a mausoleum for the Medici Chapel. As Michelangelo worked on this complex project, laden with allegory and symbolism, he entered a period of “serious philosophical reflection,” writes Spike in the show’s excellent catalog. He also made two extraordinary drawings, one of which is the “Madonna and Child.”
It’s really the show-stopper here, if only because it packs so many different techniques into the one, gorgeously tender image. The effect is arrestingly sculptural, as the breast-feeding baby, whose arms and torso are tinged with color (red chalk and wash), modeled with dark black hatching and glistening with white highlights, seems to emerge from the much sketchier figure of the Madonna (just as the figures in Michelangelo’s late sculptures emerge from roughened blocks of marble).
The sidelong glance of the big-eyed Madonna is tender but wary, anxious for the future. Her bulky shoulder, bulging bicep, and oddly fudged seat all foreshadow the bizarre attenuations of Mannerism. The infant’s head, just fractionally behind the worked up arm, is sketched in lightly, almost as if it were dissolving back into the breast of its mother. The whole drawing has a spellbinding quality — mysticism and tender yearning inseparable from an almost aloof measure of philosophical speculation.
The second fascinating drawing from this time is Michelangelo’s worksheet showing designs for the staircase which would eventually dominate the vestibule of the Laurentian Library at San Lorenzo in Florence. These sketched designs, overlaid with figure sketches believed to be by others, show Michelangelo’s thought in the very act of unfolding.
Beneath superimposed studies for the base of a column are three sketches of the staircase. Only in the bottom, least developed sketch does Michelangelo get the sudden idea of turning the flat back of the central niche into a concave curve. And then, as if in response, he makes the steps of the central stairway itself curve out, like spilling waves, and very like its eventual form.
In 1527, Rome was sacked and pillaged by mutinous troops in the army of Charles V. Michelangelo’s brother died soon thereafter in a plague. The Medici were kicked out of Florence and Michelangelo found himself designing fortifications to help the newly republican city defend itself (two of his designs are on display here).
Florence endured a long siege. When Clement VII, a virtual prisoner, agreed to crown Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor, it was in exchange for Charles’s undertaking to restore the Medici to power in Florence. That promise was fulfilled, and Michelangelo found himself in hiding in his own city.
After a harrowing period, he was offered a pardon if he agreed to resume work on the plans for the complex at San Lorenzo. Even now, however, the trials did not abate. How did he rise above it all?
It must have helped that on a 1532 visit to Rome, he met Cavalieri. He wrote poetry for and about the young nobleman, and made a number of astonishing drawings for him, on the pretext that he was teaching him to draw.
These drawings, including the last of them, “Cleopatra,” on display here, have — for all the self-conscious prowess of their almost painterly finish — an amazingly direct and personal quality, since they were intended as intimate, heartfelt gifts to Cavalieri.
Referring to another of these so-called “presentation drawings,” Giorgio Vasari wrote: “not even by breath could one achieve a finer blending.” Another commentator observed that Michelangelo “caresses what he makes.”
The technical prowess, in other words, was part of the point. But so was the subject.
The beautiful seductress, Cleopatra, often associated with Venus, the goddess of love, and with the dangerous goddess Medusa, is shown with her lavish hair coiled atop her head, and falling in a single braid behind her neck and over her shoulder, where it merges with the asp she presses to her breast — the suicidal act that supposedly ended her life.
Michelangelo’s interest here is in beauty, yes. But also in antithesis — in the tension between beauty and sin, between carnal and spiritual love, and, as always, between sculpture and drawing — the representation versus the thing itself. All such questions were given an electric charge by his platonic but clearly erotic relationship with Cavalieri.
In 1988, a sketch was discovered on the back of this drawing. It shows Cleopatra again, but with demented eyes and an open, distorted mouth revealing her teeth. Many scholars believe it is by Michelangelo; they point out that he made sketches, with a similar suggestion of antithesis — the tortured figure of Tityus, for instance, transformed into a risen Christ — on the back of other “presentation drawings.”
But at least one major scholar, William Wallace, rejects the attribution. He calls it “a truly hideous drawing” — in truth, it is, but so are some of Michelangelo’s other grotesques — and believes it is most likely by Cavalieri. You decide.
Categorizing kinds of intelligence is finally pointless, like distinguishing between decaying plant matter and earthworms and microbes: Ultimately, it’s all good compost. But it makes some sense to argue that the three main strands of Michelangelo’s intelligence were sculptural, spiritual, and sensual.
If sensual intelligence sounds to you like an oxymoron, or in some way at odds with the other two, this show will help you see that it isn’t. Not by a long shot.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at