Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer

by Carmen C Bambach, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 400pp, £50

Art criticism and art history are often either precious or, more frequently nowadays, jargon-ridden to the point of meaninglessness. Happily, Carmen Bambach’s book, handsomely produced and copiously illustrated, accompanying the largest exhibition ever held of the artist’s drawings, is neither. Her book, a judicious mixture of biography and aesthetic appreciation, is accessible and, if occasionally in its scholarship a little on the dry side for the general reader, clear and unmannered.

Here I must make a personal confession. No doubt it is a failing of mine, but while I can appreciate the magnitude of Michelangelo’s genius, admire the perfection of his work, wonder at its scale and magnificence, marvel at its energy, and so forth, I am rather unmoved by it. Vermeer and Velázquez move me far more, precisely because of the smaller, more human scale of their ambition. The picture in the book that moved me most was the portrait of Andrea Quaratesi, in the British Museum, a portrait tenderly drawn with the hand of love – as well as that of mastery, of course.

It comes as something of a shock, then, that attribution of this beautiful drawing to Michelangelo has not been constant or universal among experts. Indeed, one of the interesting things one learns from this book is the wide diversity of opinion among scholars and experts about the number of Michelangelo’s drawings which are still in existence. It varies by at least three or fourfold, and it seems that looseness or severity of attribution goes in waves, rather like bull and bear markets on the stock exchange. At the moment, the number of drawings accepted as being by Michelangelo is high – are we in for another crash, that is to say a reduction in that number?

This variation in attribution raises interesting questions that the author, the curator of the Metropolitan’s collection of drawings, does not stop to consider, though to me at least they are very interesting and philosophically important. The text speaks of drawings being “demoted” or “reinstated” as true works of the master, as if their aesthetic quality, and therefore our response to them, depended not so much on anything intrinsic to them, but on our knowledge of the personage who produced them. Writing of two Crucifixion scenes, one now in London and the other in Boston, the author says: “The authenticity of the British Museum cannot be doubted, contrary to the opinion of some sceptical art historians … The same art historians have condemned the Boston drawing even more unjustly.” Yet, to adapt slightly Bishop Butler, the drawing is what it is and not another thing – it ought to be beautiful or not, irrespective of who drew it.

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