Michelangelo: The Last Decades

michelangelo: the last decades sketch

Around this time last year I contracted a severe case of Michelangelitis in Rome. I read Vasari’s ‘life’ along with various other bits and bobs, gawked at the Sistine Chapel and Pieta, fawned over both at length on this very website, crinkled the pages of many a related book in the shops around the city, and suffered various other fanboyish symptoms. 

When an exhibition on the man himself recently opened at the British Museum I had no choice but to visit, and went to great lengths to do so (a whole other, not particularly interesting story).  


It was a genuine privilege to visit. You feel lucky to be there. With many museum exhibitions, even if they are enjoyable and informative, there’s the sense you could see something similar elsewhere. 

Michelangelo’s stuff is all over the place. Some is held back in the old Angelo family home in Florence. Obviously the sculptures don’t move around much, but the other artefacts are scattered across museums around the world and – the usual annoyance – private collections. Our own royal family has quite the trove of his letters stashed in Buckingham Palace.

This exhibition draws together his artwork, personal letters, books and more from all manner of places. True or not (it probably really is), you get the sense that not only is it the first time such a collection has been amassed, but will likely be the last. I went to such lengths to visit because it really felt like now or never for an insight into Michelangelo’s later years. 


While the focus is indeed on that latter period, the exhibition opens with preparatory sketches for the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. Particularly having stared at the thing itself for so long so recently, these were amazing to see. 

There’s a natural, subconscious tendency to see a finished work of art and think… well, I guess they just got up there and painted it like that! It’s true too of books, films, pieces of music, when we only ever experience the finished product. 

Seeing these sketches you begin to get a picture of the true depths of time and effort which went into this incredible creation. Actually painting the thing took over four years. Already quite impressive. Only now can you begin imagining how much work went in before brush ever touched wall. 

The attention to detail is obsessive. A single arm on a single figure is drawn in five slightly different positions. Another is stooped over at several slightly different angles. There are over 300 figures in total within the scene. It’s said that every emotion is depicted, and every possible bodily contortion. You suspect sometimes that regular, everyday perfection no longer interests Michelangelo – that he’s constantly experimenting and pushing towards harder and harder goals as a challenge to himself. 


This sense of experimentation, for whatever purpose, continues throughout. You get the sense of the creative mind, not merely the painter. You see a reproduction (or sometimes the original) of a finished painting. Again, should you see it in an art museum, you’d unthinkingly assume this was always the design, then he just sat down and painted it. 

That’s certainly not how it worked. 

You see instead that he began with the very basic idea. Perhaps he was commissioned to draw an Annunciation. Fine, so – according to the well-established formula – he needed Gabriel visiting Mary. 

But with that obsessive attention to detail and desire for not only originality but absolute perfection he would go through iteration after iteration. If any normal human being managed to produce even his first draft, they’d be beyond delight. He would merely use that as the starting point for perceived improvement. Gabriel’s hand might be rotated a few degrees this way or that, Mary’s head turned a little towards or away from the angel, adjustments which a normal person would surely never have deemed necessary but which Michelangelo made to symbolically express a subtly different meaning. 

Other times he would take entire scenes which you or I could only dream of producing after an entire lifetime of practice, clearly think it was rubbish, and rearrange absolutely everything. 


Aside from the ludicrous work ethic evidenced by the Sistine Chapel, and the obsession with improvement to the point of perfection, to do all of the aforementioned required two things. 


Firstly, talent. I’m aware how stupid that sounds. Breaking news, incredible insight – Michelangelo was talented. But I genuinely think it’s something easy to overlook, for a couple of reasons. 

When you see work by someone like this in an art museum it’s surrounded by that of other all-time greats. You only compare them to each other – their subjects, styles, and so on. It’s easy to forget they were one of, if not the most talented artist in the entire world at the time they lived. 

Seeing an exhibition of an individual’s work removes that comparative element and lets you focus exclusively, and perhaps only then can you appreciate them for themselves. 

Secondly, I think it’s easier to appreciate sheer artistic talent in drawing than painting. 

You see a painting varnished, framed, the colours – particularly in the Renaissance – bright and bold and smoothly applied (compared to the heavier brushstrokes which came later with Velazquez, for example, or Van Gogh slapping on layer after layer of thick paint). It’s professional; that ‘finished product’.

A drawing looks more like something an actual human makes. You, like me, probably have no idea how to mix colours and how thickly to apply paint and how many layers you must apply and how to touch up and varnish a painting and all the rest of it. But you could physically sit down with a pencil or charcoal and make marks on paper. 

When you see a drawing you can picture the person creating it. And only then can you really think to yourself… how on Earth did he possibly do this? How can we be two humans, both capable of sitting down and making marks with charcoal on paper, and he can do this


The second requirement is a deep, deep understanding of human nature. On a level which not only other visual artists, but artists in other media, would struggle to even approach, never mind express. It’s this which not only makes art of this divine level possible, but – even if you can’t quite understand how he does it – automatically evokes the emotion which sweeps you, unexpected and initially unexplained. 

Those slight changes of hand or body position, never mind the adjustments to facial expressions, aren’t merely made for marginal aesthetic improvement. They’re made to more effectively evoke the silent emotion he’s trying to express. 

How could you or I or any normal person express a young mother’s premature loss of her child, an old man’s ruminations on mortality, without using spoken or written word or even something so primally moving as music, without motion, using dead implements – pencil and paper, paint and canvas, chisel and stone? 

Surely it requires incredible talent to execute your vision. But it requires that deep understanding of human nature in the first place to create the vision then develop it to the point of perfection. 

Jonathan Franzen once spoke of his jealousy of music; how his novels might take hours upon hours to read before finally evoking an emotion while music could do so within minutes. Where does the art of Michelangelo fall on this scale, when you can feel that evocation almost immediately, though you might struggle to explain why? Then of course the feeling will only strengthen as you begin to understand why you feel as you do. What he’s done, and how brilliantly. 


Getting a sense for ‘Michelangelo, the man’ was a clear priority of the exhibition. Once again the execution is brilliant, and helps you separate yourself still further from seeing only those ‘finished products’. 

Most obviously, his career is put into scale. 

Think of Michelangelo and you think of the Sistine Chapel, David, perhaps the Pieta. He finished the latter when he was 24, David when he was 29. He completed the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel aged 37, The Last Judgement at 66.  

He lived to the age of 88. A full quarter of his life – we could say roughly a third of his working life – remained even after finishing The Last Judgement. 

And he never stopped working. Obsessively. 

Having started as a sculptor before being co-opted into fresco painting he (once again reluctantly) turned to architecture later in life. St. Peter’s Basilica and the Piazza del Campidoglio on the Capitoline Hill were both built to his design (though he didn’t live to see either completed). He never stopped drawing either. Even when he was too busy to do the finished pieces, he provided the preparatory sketches for other painters in his ‘studio’. 

Then we have the letters sent to family and friends. These not only give the undeniable thrill of thinking ‘Michelangelo wrote this! With his own pen!’ but also flesh him out enormously as a man. 

Most amusing and even interesting to read are those to his nephew back in Florence. They’re intriguing in their very commonality. Here’s perhaps the greatest artist to ever live, thanking young Leonardo for some tasty Tuscan snacks he’d been sent, latterly urging him to stop being picky and get married (“As regards beauty, not being, after all, the most handsome youth in Florence yourself, you need not bother overmuch.”).

Other letters give glimpses into entire separate stories. 

A series are sent to Vittoria Colonna, a widow whose deeply religious poems Michelangelo respects enormously. There are several too, with accompanying artworks, to Tommaso dei Cavalieri, a young man in Rome with whom he was infatuated (pleasingly, considering much of the discourse nowadays about Michelangelo, his sexuality – irrelevant here – is scarcely mentioned). 

From these we gain a tremendous insight into Michelangelo beyond his art. We see the depth of his religious fervour and familial love. We see his generosity of time and art to those he cares for. We see his cranky, grumpy, cutting, ceaselessly direct attitude to anything and anybody he disagreed with; something which, per Vasari’s biography, extended even to the Popes with whom he dealt. 


The exhibition is arranged roughly chronologically. We arrive quite suddenly at the final years of Michelangelo’s life and both the drawings and letters take on a remarkable tragic poignancy. 

Always a particularly religious man, even for the time, Michelangelo grew closer still to God as he saw the end approaching. 

He began contemplating his life and what would follow. He developed an obsession with sketching the crucifixion, depicting it – following the old pattern, if not quite so perfectly – in slightly different arrangements, with different expressions on the faces of Christ. A short poem announces his regret at wasting his life on art, presumably when it could have been devoted entirely to God (“Now know I well how that fond fantasy / Which made my soul the worshipper and thrall / Of earthly art, is vain.”)

Then there are the final letters. His unusual but previously precise handwriting becomes irregular. The faultlessly straight lines now tail away towards the end. The final letter is written by his servant, urging his nephew to visit immediately, Michelangelo too sick to do anything but affix his signature in a shaky hand. He died days later, before Leonardo could arrive. 

Rare indeed is the museum exhibition which evokes emotion in the visitor. 


There’s a wonderful moment in Vasari’s life when Michelangelo complains that he’s not a good enough painter to take on a job like the Sistine Chapel. He’s a sculptor. That’s what he started as; that’s what he’s good at. When he revealed the first few scenes on the ceiling, the visiting artists – far greater experts in frescoes than he – were blown away. Michelangelo thought they were rubbish, and continued to change and improve his style as he went along. The eventual result, of course, being what this uninformed idiot believes to be the greatest creation wrought by human hand. 

There’s a quote in this exhibition, in the area dedicated to his urban planning, in which he’s referred to by a contemporary as the greatest architect who ever lived. He had never designed a building in his life when – aged 53 – he was pressured into rebuilding the fortifications of Florence ahead of an invasion by the recently-banished Medici. Talk about jumping in at the deep end. 

As for his true passion, his real ‘strength’, sculpting… David. The Pieta. Even the sections of Pope Julius II’s tomb he managed to finish. To the untrained eye they look no more nor less perfect than his efforts in the other two artistic forms. 

By the way, he also wrote poetry, which was highly-regarded at the time, and – even now, in translation – seems pretty damn good. 

Oh, and then – in the last year of his life – he began woodworking again, whittling for the first time since he was a child. Naturally, a lifetime later, he was still brilliant at it. 

Vasari believed Michelangelo to be the greatest artist who ever lived and who ever would live. It’s still hard to argue 460 years after his death. His pursuit was perfection, specifically in depictions of the idyllic human form. His execution was flawless. By definition, he might be impossible to surpass. 

We might go further, and simply call him the greatest creative mind to ever live. A textbook childhood prodigy, he simply carried on being the best at everything he tried throughout his life. There is the absurd talent. The vision. The work ethic. The belief in himself and art and in something higher. 

Then there’s the human element, fleshed out so brilliantly in this exhibition. A difficult, prickly, no-nonsense character, even to the most powerful people in the country. A lifelong bachelor who died childless. A devout Christian. 

It’s adding this story, these elements, which make him not only perhaps the greatest artist to ever live, but a truly and uniquely fascinating human being, who has not only left his fingerprints all over Western art and architecture, but continues to fascinate and stun us and engage us emotionally even half a millenia after his death. 





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