Monday, January 27, 2014

Michelangelo's Dream

Michelangelo's Dream
February 18-May 16, 2010
Looking at Michelangelo
February 18-May 16, 2010

The Courtauld Gallery
Somerset House

"Drawings the like of which have never been seen…"

— Giorgio Vasari, 1568

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), The Dream of Human Life, c. 1533, Black chalk, 39.4 x 27.7 cm, The Courtauld Gallery, London.

Michelangelo’s masterpiece The Dream (Il Sogno), described as one of the finest of all Renaissance drawings and amongst Courtauld Gallery’s greatest treasures, was executed in c. 1533 when Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was at the height of his career, it exemplifies his unrivalled skill as a draughtsman and his extraordinary powers of invention. Michelangelo’s Dream examines this celebrated work in the context of an exceptional group of closely related drawings by Michelangelo, as well as original letters and poems by the artist and works by his contemporaries.

The Dream is one of Michelangelo’s "presentation drawings", a magnificent and famous group of highly refined compositions which the artist gave to his closest friends. These beautiful and complex works transformed drawing into an independent art form and are amongst Michelangelo’s very finest creations in any medium. The Dream was probably made for a young Roman nobleman called Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, who was celebrated for his outstanding beauty, gracious manners and intellect. Michelangelo had first met him in Rome in the winter of 1532 and had instantly fallen in love. The Dream is likely to have been part of the superb group of drawings which Michelangelo gave to Cavalieri during the first years of their close friendship. This group forms the heart of the exhibition and includes The Punishment of Tityus, The Fall of Phaeton, A Bacchanal of Children, and The Rape of Ganymede.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), A Bacchanal of Children, c. 1533, Red chalk, 27.1 x 38.5 cm, Royal Collection © 2010 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), The Fall of Phaeton, 1533, Black chalk, 41.1 x 23.4 cm, Royal Collection © 2010 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), The Punishment of Tityus, 1532, Black chalk, 19 x 33 cm, Royal Collection © 2010 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Rape of Ganymede, circa 1533 Black chalk, 19 x 33 cm Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge

In his Life of Michelangelo (1568) the biographer and artist Giorgio Vasari praised these exceptional works as "drawings the like of which have never been seen" — and they are still regarded as amongst the greatest single series of drawings ever made.

Michelangelo’s drawings for Cavalieri have not been seen together for over 20 years and this is the first time that The Dream is shown as part of this group. Also, The Fall of Phaeton is reunited with two earlier versions of this composition. Both carry inscriptions in Michelangelo’s hand, one requesting Cavalieri’s approval of the preliminary design.

The exhibition starts with the earliest surviving letter from Michelangelo to Cavalieri, dated January 1, 1533, in which the artist expresses delight that Cavalieri had accepted the gift of some drawings. Cavalieri is thought to have been no older than 17 at the time and, according to Vasari, Michelangelo’s gifts were intended to teach him how to draw. The mythological stories such as Phaeton falling to earth with the chariot of the sun, the abduction of Ganymede — the most beautiful of mortals — and the punishment of the lustful giant Tityus may also have been intended to offer moral guidance. The drawings certainly also served as expressions of Michelangelo’s love for Cavalieri.

Michelangelo’s ardour is eloquently described in the poems that the artist composed for Cavalieri, mainly in the early phase of their friendship. Five handwritten sonnets are included in the exhibition; most shown for the first time. While adhering to conventions of love poetry, these sonnets record Michelangelo’s adoration of the young man whose sublime beauty he regarded as a reflection of God’s eternal beauty on earth. The poetic imagery of dreaming, transcendence and the struggle between the carnal and the spiritual realms offers insight into the meaning and function of the presentation drawings, and The Dream in particular.

The presentation drawings created an immediate sensation at the court of Pope Clement VII in Rome. In an early letter to Michelangelo, included in the exhibition, Cavalieri wrote that they had been admired by "the Pope, Cardinal de Medici and everyone", adding apologetically that the Cardinal had already taken away Ganymede to have a replica made in crystal. The Dream too became famous amongst Renaissance collectors and artists soon after its completion and was copied numerous times. However, its precise meaning has remained elusive. Rather than illustrate a text, the drawing engages with contemporary (neo-Platonic) ideas about the ascent of the soul to the divine, aided by beauty. The composition shows an idealised nude youth reclining against a globe. Masks fill the open plinth on which he is seated. The swirling dreamlike mass of figures surrounding the young man have traditionally been linked with the vices. They enact scenes of gluttony, lust, avarice, wrath, sloth and envy, with a large phallus adding to the carnal imagery. A winged spirit — possibly a personification of beauty and chaste love — approaches the youth with a trumpet, awakening him from the illusions and deceits of the earthly realm to a new spiritual life. A single precise meaning for this complex allegory seems unlikely as the presentation drawings were clearly intended for careful scrutiny and prolonged learned discussion and enjoyment.

A further highlight of the exhibition is a superb group of drawings by Michelangelo of Christ’s resurrection, which concentrate on the heroic nude figure of the reborn Christ leaping free of the tomb and the bondage of life on earth. These drawings offer close thematic and formal comparisons with The Dream. This group includes the glorious Risen Christ— widely celebrated as one of the most magnificent and potent figures in Michelangelo’s art.

The exhibition further investigates the meaning of The Dream in the context of closely related works by Michelangelo’s contemporaries which address themes of rebirth, dreaming and the nature of Man. This section of the exhibition includes Albrecht Dürer’s enigmatic drawing of a bound youth and Giorgio Vasari’s free interpretation of The Dream. The final section of the exhibition focuses on copies of The Dream and illustrates how Michelangelo’s contemporaries and later admirers responded to the puzzling subject matter and the extraordinary technical virtuosity of Michelangelo’s great work.

The friendship between Cavalieri and Michelangelo endured for 30 years. Cavalieri was present at the artist’s death in 1564 and subsequently helped to realise some of his architectural schemes. He so valued the drawings given to him by Michelangelo that Vasari was to say: "… in truth he rightly treasures them as relics."

The exhibition has been developed with the support of major international collections including The Royal Collection, Windsor; The British Museum, London; Casa Buonarotti, Florence; Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Rome; The Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth; the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne; Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford; Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich; Das Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main; Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris; Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge MA, and the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.

Bringing together a focused selection of some of the artist’s very finest drawings, Michelangelo’s Dream promises to be one of the most enthralling exhibitions of 2010.

A display of rare Italian 16th century drawings and prints from The Courtauld Gallery’s outstanding permanent collection complements the exhibition Michelangelo’s Dream. Highlights of this rich group are three autograph drawings by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), ranging from his early period in Florence to his very last years in Rome and covering both religious and pagan subjects.

Whilst the vigorously drawn early pen and ink study of

Christ before Pilate

shows Michelangelo’s extraordinary powers as a narrator of dramatic scenes, his Christ on the Cross gives insight into the profound spirituality of the almost 90-year-old master.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), Christ on the Cross, 16th century, Black chalk on paper, 27.5 cm x 23.4 cm, The Courtauld Gallery, London, from Looking at Michelangelo.

This haunting black chalk drawing is one of a group of highly personal late works showing the Crucifixion and it powerfully communicates Michelangelo’s profound reflection on Christ’s death.

Michelangelo never had an organised workshop, preferring to work alone with just a few pupils and assistants. Nevertheless, his work was immensely influential in his own lifetime. The display explores how contemporary artists responded to Michelangelo’s creations. Two drawings by the famous Venetian painter Jacopo Tintoretto (1519-1594) provide an example of an artist studying Michelangelo through direct copying, whereas Jacopo Pontormo’s (1494-1557) great study of a seated youth shows the inspirational influence of Michelangelo in the development of an exceptional new work.

The display also includes a remarkable large composite print of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. Made up of ten separate numbered sheets of paper, the print is reassembled and displayed here for the first time.

Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), Allegory of a Dream, c. 1541-45, Pen and brown ink, heightened with white, on blue paper, 19.2 x 39.4 cm, The Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), The Fall of Phaeton (inscribed by Michelangelo), 1533, Black chalk, 31.1 x 21.6 cm, The British Museum, London.

Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564), The Risen Christ, c. 1532, Black chalk, 37 x 22 cm, Royal Collection © 2010 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.