Reviews: Michelangelo at the British Museum

Peter Clossick LG and Corinna Lotz on Michelangelo, the Last Decades

Michaelangelo’s Gift

by Peter Clossick 

You cannot explain the existence of genius, it is much better to enjoy it.” Ernst Gombrich.

My first response on arriving at the British Museum was surprise at seeing the enormous crowds queueing to enter the building and not necessarily to see this exhibition, but a popular weekday excursion for all.

At 13, Michelangelo was apprenticed to Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) to learn the technical tricks of the trade. He became a master of anatomy who loved the naked body executed with masterful draughtsmanship and no problem was too difficult. He had unique and precious gifts with the body’s perspective and anatomy. The human body did not hold any secrets for him on posture or movement, none were too difficult to draw. His supreme skill and amazing knowledge allowed the depiction of nudes in the most complicated of poses.

This relatively small exhibition on a human scale is composed mainly of drawings with some paintings and a little sculpture. It is a wonderful tour through the last three decades of his life. To his admirers, his works were regarded as “Terribilita” – wonderstruck awe. 

Many of the drawings are tiny, some no bigger than a postage stamp. Made with black chalk in minute detail and sometimes on both sides of the same paper. Was this economy, did the black chalk have to be chiselled to a fine point? 

The punishment of Tityus

One questions the how and the practicality of these drawings. Drawings created by a sculptor with line-defining rhythm, using tone to form before confirming where the edges are ever-shifting are mesmerising. He must have had good eyesight to work in such small detail. Even down to the quality of his handwriting in the letters on display. From today’s perspective looking back to those 16th-century artists, I am always amazed at how historically and culturally knowledgeable they were. The works are full of symbolism.

At the time it was difficult for the Catholic church with the rise of Protestant theology against the meta-narrative and social engineering force of Catholicism that prevailed throughout Christian Europe in the 16th century.  The church needed support from its finest painters, sculptors and engravers to pass the message on and only the best such as Michaelangelo would serve this purpose.

Man rising

As a Republican, he had to flee Florence to Rome, escaping the violent wrath of the Medici reprisals that the Republicans had tried to overthrow. Historically he lived through political and religious feuds of his day which leads you to think of the present. 

Marcello Venusti (about 1512-79) The Purification of the Temple

One astounding contemporary piece in the exhibition was the cinematic portrayal of the “Last Judgement”. It was enjoyable to watch and made you realise what a deep thinker Michaelangelo was. There were several paintings by Marcello Venusti (1512-1579) on display, after drawings by Michaelangelo. Venusti often made scaled copies in oil which met with Michaelangelo’s approval. There were also beautiful Virgin and Child drawings which made me wonder if there was anything of a mother fixation with him.

The Last Room of Crucifixion drawings are loaded with emotion and meaning. You are made aware of a man who has reached old age, Michaelangelo writes “…he has become old in a day” and “…to calm my soul, now turned toward that divine love, that opened his arms on the cross to take us in.

Michaelangelo’s personality was said to be withdrawn, with a sharp temper and a sarcastic tongue, but affectionate to his family and friends. As architect, painter and sculptor. I question if we have anything artistically comparable with Michaelangelo today, in our Capitalist Post-Modern Relativist World. Without a doubt a thought-provoking exhibition to muse and ponder over, well worth a visit.

Peter Clossick PPLG, 2024

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni was born 6 March 1475 and died 18 February1564.


Searching for the universal human

by Corinna Lotz

Do we already know what there is to know about Michelangelo? His great nude David, his weeping Mary, her dead son sprawled on her lap, the Creation and Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel? The British Museum’s offering replies with an understated but still resounding No.

At first glance, these late drawings and writings seem remote from today’s Zeitgeist and fashion. Indeed, one critic has castigated the curators for holding back on Michelangelo as a gay artist/icon. But while some of the drawings have a homoerotic charge, this complaint misses the big picture.

The Last Decades provides insight, through letters, poems and images, into the artist’s circle of friends, lovers, family and artistic collaborators, and especially the remarkable poet Vittoria Colonna. Some of Michelangelo’s 490 surviving letters and 300 poems are displayed. We can marvel at his eloquent writing in exquisite red-brown ink (though I yearned for a translation of his poetry). We discover how, far from being a loner as he grew older, he collaborated closely with friends and colleagues.

These are mostly small studies, made with black chalk on small pieces of paper depicting religious or mythological themes. Michelangelo’s preoccupations drew away from the bold virtuosity of his youthful work. Here, the focus on his late period allows us to explore his inner thoughts, his hesitations and doubts. Above all we can appreciate his unceasing quest to find ever more powerful ways to make the configurations of human body express emotions: yearning, grief, mourning.

The only full colour images appear in a film projection of the tumbling, daringly foreshortened bodies on the Sistine Chapel’s Last Judgement. The artist’s original figure studies are superimposed on the completed frescoes, revealing Michelangelo’s meticulous preparations. The knowledge and manual dexterity he had gained from drawing cadavers some 30 years was now second nature.

Michelangelo – “My hand no longer serves me“.

Towards the end of the show there is a shadowy rotunda space devoted to the last surviving drawings, made by the artist, now in his eighties, almost like Stations of the Cross. We are surrounded by a series of crucifixions, stark and simple, with Christ sometimes alone, other times flanked by mourners. They are visual meditations, focussing on human suffering. The figures emerge from the paper three-dimensional and sculptural, their outlines flickering constantly as if testing out variations, or as if the figure itself is moving.

Christ on the Cross between the Virgin and St John

Michelangelo moved from Florence to Rome at the age of 59 during a period of huge crisis for the Roman Catholic Church under the impact of the Reformation, when the pope had to take refuge in the Castel Sant Angelo. The artist himself was in hiding in 1530 from a temporary death sentence for supporting the republican uprising in Florence. Rome was still reeling from the devastating imperial Sack of 1527, which saw half its population die or flee.

As a young man, Michelangelo had sympathised with heretical priest Savonarola, burnt at the stake in 1498 for criticising the corruption of church and society. The artist’s ascetic lifestyle, his ability to capture essence rather than outer distractions, show that this approach remained with him, even while enjoying patronage by the Vatican.

His late drawings are the visualisation of human mortality rather than any glorification of the church establishment. They are not so much “Catholic Christian” (despite the cross!) as a concentration on our common humanity. His restless chalk outlines, readjustments, the softness and vulnerability of the human body are like direct transcriptions of human emotion. In this way, he remains our contemporary across four and a half centuries.

Corinna Lotz, 2024

Michelangelo, the Last Decades
2 May – 28 July 2024
Daily: 10.00–17.00 (Fridays 20.30)

Room 35, The Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery
British Museum
Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3DG

Adults from £18, Members and under-16s free

Michelangelo – Press image captions and credits