Unveiling the Man Behind the Myth

The punishment of Tityus
Crucifixion
Daniele da Volterra
Virgin Annunciate
The fall of Phaeton
Study of the Last Judgment
Pieta
Epifania
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Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simon

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simon’s artistic prowess is so extraordinary that his very existence seems more myth than reality. A polymath who mastered sculpting in marble, painting frescos and architecture design. An artist who, at a young age, created not only The Pieta, one of the most achingly beautiful sculptures ever made but also completed the Sistine Chapel ceiling, a masterpiece that draws over 20,000 visitors daily, 500 years after its creation. 

He was crowned the greatest living artist in his lifetime. That is a lot to live up to, and it begs the question, can all this be attributed to one singular icon of Renaissance art – the renowned “Michelangelo”?

Michelangelo

In 1534, Michelangelo embarked on a new chapter, moving from Florence to Rome, never to see his native city again. He was fifty-nine years old and was to have three more decades of artistic productivity ahead of him. This is the turning point that the British Museum’s exhibition Michelangelo: the last decades details. The exhibit delves not only into his art but also into his poems, letters and artistic designs, offering insight into the man and the truth behind the myths.

Michelangelo’s personality was a clash of contrasting traits. He was passionate yet withdrawn. He was intensely religious, as evidenced by his artistic themes and writings. He strongly yearned for solitude and was a relentless perfectionist, often dissatisfied with his work and pushing himself beyond physical limits.

Tommaso de’ Cavalieri

Despite his preference for solitude, Michelangelo formed deep bonds with a few select individuals, including patrons, students and friends. His letters reveal a capacity for tenderness and loyalty, contradicting the image of a cold and distant genius. For instance, he gave his young friend Tommaso de’ Cavalieri a preparatory study called The fall of Phaeton, a work he held in high regard. This gesture speaks volumes about this personal relationship.

Epifania

The creativity that flourished in Michelangelo’s later years can be seen in the recently restored, Epifania drawing, on display for the first time since its conservation began in 2018. This two-meter-tall masterpiece is a cartoon (a full-scale blueprint for a work of art) later turned into a painting by his pupil and early biographer Ascanio Condivi, which is also on display.

During these decades, Michelangelo defined new religious iconography, creating emotionally charged depictions of central Christian events like the Crucifixion and Last Judgment. This coincided with the Protestant Reformation’s challenge to the Catholic Church.

Sistine Chapel

Among the exhibition’s highlights are preparatory sketches and studies for the Last Judgment, commissioned as an addition to the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. He worked on the Last Judgement from 1536 to 1541, twenty-five years after finishing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  He made numerous preparatory drawings. Study for the Last Judgment is one of these on display. A powerful drawing, it shows his continuing fascination with the human form and his ability to depict the body in dramatic poses. Braced on bent arms, this man appears to be one of the souls rising from their tombs at the bottom of the finished fresco.

St. Peter’s Basilica

Another highlight is his concept design for the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. This showed his mastery of architecture and three-dimensional space. He started this project in his seventies but did not survive to see the completion of one of the world’s largest and most magnificent architectural marvels. The dome was finished after his death and became a powerful symbol and a beacon visible to visitors to Rome. Michelangelo’s vision solidified the Basilica’s position as the heart of Christianity.

Vittoria Colonna

Materials on loan from the British Library showcase his sometimes-irritable nature in letters to his nephew, while poems and drawings dedicated to his friends Tommaso de’ Cavalieri and Vittoria Colonna hint at a deeper emotional connection.

The Punishment of Tityus

A particularly beautiful example is The Punishment of Tityus, a drawing gifted to Tommaso. This is one of a series of drawings based on classical mythology with moral messages. As punishment for his attempted rape of the goddess Leto, the giant Tityus was condemned to have his liver devoured daily by a vulture (replaced here by an eagle). Tityus’s powerful, contorted form, meticulously rendered, leaves no doubt about his torment.

Christ on the Cross between the Virgin and St John

As Michelangelo aged, his faith became a central focus. Drawings of the Crucifixion, like Christ on the Cross between the Virgin and St John, were among his most moving. This group of drawings showcase his fascination with the human form, capturing figures in a range of dramatic poses. More importantly, they are intimate expressions of faith, probably made over an extended period during the last ten years of his life. They showcase an artist using drawing as a form of spiritual meditation, grappling with themes of mortality, sacrifice and faith.

Michelangelo: The Last Decades

He stands as a testament to the enduring power of human creativity, a testament that continues to inspire awe and wonder centuries after his passing

Michelangelo transcended the boundaries of a single lifetime. The myth surrounding him stems from his artistic achievements’ sheer scale and emotional depth. Michelangelo: The Last Decades peels back the layers, revealing a man as multifaceted as his art. We see the fiery passion alongside the self-doubt, the religious devotion intertwined with personal connections, and a man so devotedly committed that he was still working four days before his death in 1564 at the age of eighty-eight.

Text Martin Wray / Photos courtesy of the British Museum