“Michelangelo: Sacred and Profane, Masterpiece Drawings from the Casa Buonarroti” will be on view at the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg through April 14, then move to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where it will run from April 21 through June 30.
While the collection is divided between figures and dazzling architectural drawings of libraries, churches and fortifications, the centerpieces are “Madonna and Child” and “Cleopatra.” These two works open and close the Muscarelle exhibit, which is presented in a stark setting with each drawing individually illuminated on burgundy walls.
The work typically is viewed only by scholars who must travel to the Casa Buonarroti museum in Florence, the city where Michelangelo spent most of his 89 years.
The Muscarelle was able to snag the exhibition because of the long relationship between the museum’s assistant director, John T. Spike, and Pina Ragionieri, the elegant 86-year-old director of Casa Buonarroti. The exhibit honors her and the Muscarelle’s founding 30 years ago. They call it the most important Michelangelo show in the U.S. in decades.
“We sent to the Muscarelle our best, because I have old friends here,” Ragionieri said during a playful, bilingual discussion with Spike in the museum prior to its opening.
Spike selected the show from approximately 230 drawings that are held by Casa Buonarroti, the home of Michelangelo’s descendants. He burned many of his drawings, Ragionieri said.
“He said all that remained of his had to be perfect,” she said.
Muscarelle’s director, Aaron De Groft, said Michelangelo destroyed the bulk of his drawings for another reason: “He was protecting his brand. He didn’t want other people to go and execute his paintings.”
The drawings were done after Michelangelo completed the Sistine Chapel in 1512, when he was 37.
“Over the next three decades he set his heart on the impossible task of surpassing himself,” Spike writes in an introduction to the show. “Michelangelo between the ages of forty and sixty labored incessantly on projects too huge to complete on time or as planned.”
The drawings, however, are treasured for the hand that created them and the stories they tell.
“I don’t use the word ‘unfinished’ because it is abused in this sense,” Ragionieri said. “It’s something that comes from the deepest part of the artist.”
Michelangelo’s “Cleopatra” drawn in black chalk pleasantly confronts visitors as they enter the exhibit: her head is cast to the side, looking over her shoulder, an asp on her breast, her face “an emblem of divine beauty,” Spike said.
But circle around the drawing and Michelangelo has conjured a terrifying vision on the reverse, hidden until 1988 by another piece of paper. Her eyes are blank, she appears anguished, her features blunt.
“It’s not for delicate eyes, it’s so shocking,” Spike said. “She looks diabolical.”
The show draws its name from these two contrasts: the sacred and the profane, meaning mortal or earthly.
Spikes writes that the jarring contrasts are intended to suggest that “that the opposite face of mortal beauty is the danger of submitting to sensual pleasures and, ultimately, destruction.”
The “Madonna and Child,” separated by a panel from the rest of the exhibit, is a showstopper as well. It depicts a muscular infant at the breast of his mother, who is looking away from the child. The Madonna is drawn sparingly with black chalk, while the child’s torso is highlighted with red chalk, appearing very much like polished marble.
“She looks very remote,” Spike said. “She’s not supposed to look with foreboding with what is to come.”
Spike said the iconography is personal to Michelangelo.
“He seems to have suffered from the loss of his mother at age 5 and because of this alienation — or the disappearing mother — he does this three times in different sculptures,” Spike said.
While the “Madonna and Child” and “Cleopatra” are studies in sensuality, many of the other drawings rendered in pen, ink and chalk are dizzying in their complex geometry: the fortifications for the gates of Florence; the facade for the church of San Lorenzo, which was never built; and the plan for the Church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini in Rome, which again was never realized.
The work represents Michelangelo’s “tormented middle decades of his life,” Spike said. The period included the Protestant Reformation, turmoil among the pope-producing Medici family and the sacking of Rome. At one point, fearing for his life, Michelangelo went into hiding as his fellow Florentines were executed.
“It’s possible,” Ragionieri said, “if you begin from the beginning to follow the life of Michelangelo to the last moment. They are the most wonderful drawings.”
Michelangelo spent the final 30 years of his life in Rome. He died in 1564.
A parallel exhibit at the Muscarelle is “A Brush with Passion: Mattie Preti.” It will feature 15 paintings on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the artist’s birth.
If You Go...
MICHELANGELO: SACRED AND PROFANE, MASTERPIECE DRAWINGS FROM THE CASE BUONARROTI: Muscarelle Museum of Art, campus of The College of William & Mary, www.wm.edu/muscarelle . Open Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, noon-4 p.m. Admission: $15. Exhibit on view Feb. 9-April 14 before moving to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, April 21-June 30.