What It Took to Create the Met’s Once-in-a-Lifetime Michelangelo Show

Bill Glass
Nov 30, 2017 9:38PM

Michaelangelo Buonarroti, Archers Shooting at a Hern, 1530-33. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It didn’t take a village, but mounting the exhibition of Michelangelo’s work currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum did take dozens of people and a team of conservators—not to mention a forklift. Visitors to the highly anticipated exhibition—which hinges on the Renaissance concept of disegno, the fluid union of mind, eye, and hand required to create art—can enjoy some 200 works of art by Michelangelo and his Renaissance colleagues. But what does it take to assemble a blockbuster exhibition of this scale and quality?

“Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer” has been eight years in the making, a process that the exhibition’s curator, Carmen C. Bambach, an expert in Italian Renaissance drawings, said culminated in a demanding installation process. Among the most complex of the installations was the effort to mount a large-scale drawing that was a preliminary study for a fresco in the Vatican’s Pauline Chapel. The work arrived inside a metal case weighing 650 pounds, and required not only a forklift to install it securely, but also scissor lifts and 40 people to help with the task. Marcello Venusti’s famous copy of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment was even heavier, weighing in at 750 pounds.

The exhibition’s inclusion of an array of media—from chalk drawings and charcoal on paper to marble and bronze sculptures—also necessitated the presence of conservators of various expertise. “The monitoring is constant to be sure the climate conditions are absolutely stable,” says Bambach. “There must be no vibrations.”

Michaelangelo Buonarroti, Il Sogno (The Dream), 1530’s. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Michaelangelo Buonarroti, The Torment of Saint Anthony, ca. 1487-88. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


But the process of putting together the exhibition began years earlier, with Bambach taking a tour of Europe and the U.S. to pay in-person visits to every Michelangelo work in existence. Some of those she expected to request for the show turned out to be unsuitable, while others, she said, surprised her in being unexpectedly illuminating. “You think, oh my God, this is really fantastic,” she says. “The experience of seeing it in the original changes your mind and you work very hard to integrate it into the selection.”

One such example is the 1519 letter that Michelangelo wrote to fellow artist Pietro Urbano, who was in the marble quarries of Carrara at the time. The letter, requesting information on the marble blocks Urbano was reviewing for Michelangelo’s use in the façade of San Lorenzo, is illustrated with the artist’s sketches of birds.

Once Bambach arrived at her selection of works, then came the problem of soliciting permissions. Perhaps surprisingly, the Met doesn’t simply ask and receive. There have been numerous Michelangelo exhibitions in the past, and curators must demonstrate that theirs offers a new approach. In Italy, Bambach explains, one must not only persuade local institutions, but also local administrations. Curators must also solicit regional approvals, as well as seek a final seal of approval from the Ministry of Culture. “Much of this has to be done over time and face-to-face, and with very formal presentations,” says Bambach.

Jacopino del Conte, Michaelangelo Buonarroti, 1515-1598. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Michaelangelo Buonarroti, Female Figure Seen in Bust-Length from the Front (Cleopatra) (recto and verso), ca. 1530-33. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On the other hand, some of Bambach’s negotiations were unexpectedly expeditious. The conversation with Britain’s Royal Collection at Windsor Castle, for example, “was one of the most rapid negotiations, almost not a negotiation at all,” she says. “Of course, given the number of beautiful drawings by Michelangelo that were lent, [the Queen] had to sign the loan agreement herself.” Thanks to that royal signature, the show includes drawings such as Michelangelo’s Punishment of Tityos (c. 1530); Giulio Clovio’s copy of the now-lost, homoerotic Rape of Ganymede (c. 1520s); and several drawings of the resurrection.

The end result affords a rare, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see some of Michelangelo’s most extraordinary drawings. The exhibition will not travel, and the drawings will ultimately return home to be protected from overexposure to light—where they’ll once again be near-impossible to view. “Access to Michelangelo’s drawings is extremely restricted, even to scholars,” says Bambach.  

One case in point is Michelangelo’s powerful red chalk study of Masaccio’s 1425 Expulsion from Paradise fresco. Masaccio was a major influence on other artists of the High Renaissance, and Michelangelo’s drawing is almost invariably used to evidence that point. “Yet this is a drawing that hardly anybody has seen in the original other than the specialists,” says Bambach. Though it’s housed in the Louvre’s collection, it is rarely seen. “Having that very powerful drawing in red chalk and in the company of all [other] late 15th-century works…is really a first,” she says.

Michaelangelo Buonarroti, Design for the Tomb of Pope Julius II della Rovere, 1505-6. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Michaelangelo Buonarroti, Young Archer, ca. 1490. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition presents both a glimpse into Michelangelo’s process and conjures the artist’s whole Renaissance milieu. Visitors can see sketches by Domenico Ghirlandaio, in whose workshop he apprenticed; Michelangelo’s copies of pieces by Giotto, Donatello, and Masaccio; and works by those he collaborated closely with, such as Sebastiano del Piombo, Daniele da Volterra, and Marcello Venusti.

But the real treat, of course, is following a progression of Michelangelo’s own drawings, through which visitors are given a window into the artist’s development of ideas. There are multiple drawings of the Resurrection, for example, so that visitors can observe Michelangelo’s nuanced variations in poses. The most dramatic of these is Risen Christ (c. 1520s), which shows Christ alone, his arms raised toward heaven, his face blissful above a gracefully muscled body, which Bambach describes in the catalogue as “earthly beauty [that] becomes the sacred sublime.”

A long gallery features a false ceiling covered with reproductions from the Sistine Chapel, while preparatory drawings at eye level allow viewers to compare studies to the finished product. A drawing of a young male workshop assistant seen from the back displays multiple attempts to get his big toe just right. Looking up, viewers see him transformed into the female figure of the Libyan Sibyl.  

Michaelangelo Buonarroti, Studies for the Libyan Sibyl (recto); Studies for the Libyan Sibyl and a small Sketch for a Seated Figure (verso), ca. 1510-11. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Michaelangelo Buonarroti, Unfinished cartoon for a Madonna and Child, ca. 1525-30. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Drapery study of a standing figure, 1485-90. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The artist’s involvement in every step of the artistic process separates him from today’s art world, Bambach reflects, where the idea is often divorced from the finished work. “It pains me to think that there are sculptors out there who provide just a sketch,” she says, while “professional stone carvers at a marble quarry actually execute the sculpture.”

One of the loveliest moments in the exhibition is the detailed, naturalistic portrait in black chalk of Andrea Quaratesi, a young noble who worked for a time in Michelangelo’s studio, followed later in the exhibition by a worksheet on which Quaratesi practiced drawing eyes. A note from Michelangelo on the page exhorts the young student to have patience. It gives the feeling, as does much of this exhibition, of looking over Michelangelo’s shoulder as he works and observes, of “seeing 500 years…melt away,” which is, in Bambach’s words, “absolutely magical.”

Bill Glass