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Renaissance Fractal Awareness

It is hard to define graphic art. Originally, study drawings, the recreation of forms was used to tutor painter apprentices, so the works thus created were test pieces, a proof of the apprentice’s skills and knowledge, the promise of applying forms and techniques they acquired. These drawings are entries in the dictionary of a future visual language, but, at the moment, they are only words. Copying designs is the opposite of originality, and it was used for mastering the artistic language of the era. When an apprentice’s drawing was too original, it was considered unacceptable. Michelangelo served as Domenico Ghirlando’s apprentice, and it is almost impossible to evaluate his study drawings: if they were too original, he actually failed his apprenticeship; if not, they are not remarkable.

One of the special items in this exhibition in Budapest was Michelangelo’s first study drawing discovered in a private collection in London. Usually, study drawings were thrown away, even Michelangelo treated them as sketches, as inspiration, and not as art, and therefore he often destroyed them. This exhibition, however, did not explore Michelangelo’s oeuvre as such, but his sketches; it introduced us to the world of schizzi (quick sketches), primi pensieri (first runs) and studii (studies). We could take a look at his thoughts, pry into his notebook, skim through his “garbage pile”. What we saw was not what the artist wanted, but how he imagined his pieces, so, to an extent, our gaze was illicit. But this unauthorised gaze was the actual driving force behind the exhibition, the art history adventure to find the big picture in the small details: the sybils in a face; David in a pectoral muscle; the Battle of Cascina in a calf; a feature of a sepulcher; or the gaze of an ignudo in the Sistine Chapel in a pair of eyes. Many of the sketches include several different drawings that cannot be considered a composition and they cannot be completed along the usual artistic concepts.

According to the legend, Michelangelo was nursed by the wife of a stonecutter, and he actually sucked into himself the art of sculpture – thus explaining the instinctive, natural artistic quality of his works. Neither the wax model nor the sketches for David has survived, but a male nude in a very similar pose was shown at the exhibition, and it is often regarded as a preliminary study. Male nudes were the defining genre here: the transformation of the movement and the anatomy into art was almost tangible (for example the Male Nude Back View from cca. 1504, drawn with black chalk; or the Two Male Nude Studies, drawn with brown ink), and there was a lingering eroticism in the elaborated details. From a modern point of view, these studies are nevertheless seen as complete, final works; it is the poetic force of their fragmented gestures what impresses us – similarly to the primal force of the unfinished sculptures. These nudes recalled the outstanding characteristics of Michelangelo’s poems: the dynamics between elaborate details and cryptic insinuations. If we combine the drawings with the poems, it becomes obvious that his art is not only about The Triumph of the Body, it incorporates the soul as well. This dichotomy, this dialogue was perfectly shown in a publication by Magyar Helikon (Michelangelo Buonarroti versei, 1980), where the poems were paired with his drawings. György Faludy also contemplated this idea in his famous poem on Michelangelo, as the human body and the materials used for an art piece form a unified identity, and the interlaced materials entail a spiritual complexity as well:

How can I cast aside the body’s inner
confines? If You still love an aging sinner,
strike here, great Master Sculptor! I’m the stone.
(Translated by Thomas Ország-Land)

Often it lofts my soul to God, although wearing, that soul, the body like a shroud. … (translated by John Frederick Nims), writes Michelangelo in one of his poems on the redeeming power of beauty. Beauty is eventually the only earthly fruit which informs us about heaven, and the adoration of this beauty is synonymous with the adoration of the creator, who is the cause and the effect at the same time. The soul of the beloved and adored girl is ripped from God, while the fallible eye only notices the wonders of the earthbound body.

The destruction and the recreation of the cartoon drawing of the Battle of Cascina (the fresco was never realised) is especially interesting. The image depicts nineteen male nudes in an intricate constellation – bathing soldiers from Florence who swiftly pick up their armours to defend themselves against the attacking army from Pisa. There was a full collection of nude fight scenes: from Bastiano da Sangallo’s reproduction of Michelangelo’s original to Antonia Pollaiuolo’s copperplate engravings or an image about the Massacre of the Innocents gave more texture to the genre. There were also ample examples of drapery studies, encompassing artists from Ghirlandaio to Baccio Bandinelli.

One of the most beautiful items of the exhibition was a head study made for the Doni Tondo. The red chalk drawing essentially fades in from the empty paper, its aethereal, otherworldly expression loses almost all of its gender characteristics, it can free itself from earthly and human burdens. The devotion on the face has a more profane interpretation: some think that Michelangelo incorporated the features of one of his apprentices, Antonio Mini. There was also a red chalk drawing attributed to the painting that only survived in copies, Leda and the Swan, that had arrived directly from Florence, from the Casa Buonarroti Collection – another important piece in the exhibition and, supposedly, another Mini-transformation. The drawing is almost like a painting, it transcends its own material barriers. The Rape of Ganymede can be interpreted as the intellect raptured by constellation or as the apotheosis of love, for the drawing addresses that mysterious cavalier who appears in one of his poems as well:

If being bested and bound is my delight,
no wonder I’m made a prisoner, nude, alone,
as a cavalier in armor turns the key
(Translated by John Frederick Nims)

The above described cavalier is supposed to be Tomasso dei Cavalieri. This drawing from the Uffizi is paired with a local piece, a copperplate by Nicolas Beatrizet after Michelangelo’s work. The red chalk drawing about the ignudo left above the Persian sybil in the Sistine Chapel (drawn by Bartolommeo Passatori) is exceptionally expressive just like the sketch of the naked figure opposite to him: the instinctive beauty of his powerful, terrified recoil is indeed the triumph of the Renaissance body over the sacred fear of the unknown. The refinement of Christ’s body in the Pietà in Vienna is similarly mystifying.

The exhibition tried to fit the drawings into the chronological narrative of Michalengelo’s life. It provided detailed explanations, even on reconstruction attempts and methods of use, while the main concept was supplemented with similar works from contemporary and later artists who both safeguarded and adored Michelangelo’s work. Leonardo da Vinci’s head study – an emblematic picture drawn with red chalk on rose-tinted paper, from the collection of Museum of Fine Arts – was finally been properly put in context, just like his two face studies drawn with charcoal. It is interesting to see how other artist’s ouevre work in this context: Luca Signorelli’s male nudes with its red and black chalk lines and the freedom of the body shapes gave a particularly modern impression.

It was also worth looking for recurring motifs: how the composition of Michelangelo’s Samson and Delilah reappeared in Jacopo Pontormo’s Venus and Cupid. The Laocoön Group was also present in the exhibition as it was unearthed in Rome in 1506, and it immediately became the most often copied and drawn antique work of arts. Lynn Catterson even suggested that was a forgery created by Michelangelo. Of course, this theory is disproven but the immediacy of the representation and the concept of the bodies is obvious. The sculpture is represented by Marco Dente’s meticulously detailed copperplate and Giovanni Jacopo’s Fury, influenced by Caraglio Rosso.

The museum’s own drawing by Raffaello da Montelupo’s – a copy of Michelangelo’s drawing The adoration of the Bronze Snake in Oxford – was also exhibited; on its verso, drawings based on the Medici Chapel can be seen. The exhibition highlighted these small comparisons, presented in a meticulous and thorough fashion. These small details, sketches, reconstruction attempts, art history riddles and their solutions completed the oeuvre of Michelangeo: the fractal awareness of the immense in the smallest and the complete in the miniature. Thus, Michelangelo is multiplied in ourselves.

The exhibition The Triumph of the Body – Michelangelo and Sixteenth-century Italian Draughtsmanship, curated by Zoltán Kárpáti, was open between 6 April and 30 June at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.