Superlatives fail when it comes to Michelangelo, of course. And so what can be said of an exhibition that attempts to take the measure of his endlessly creative life and actually pulls it off? Superlatives fail there as well.
The scope, scholarship, and sheer bravura of Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which opens to the public on Monday, are astonishing any way you cut it. There are 128 of his drawings, with dozens more by contemporaries, as well as three of his sculptures; the list of works in the exhibition catalogue, including provenances and bibliographies, is laid out in small, single-spaced type that goes on for 15 large pages.
The technical logistics, not to mention the reams of insurance spreadsheets, that went into making it all happen must have been mind-bending, to say the least. The show will not travel, and it’s hardly an exaggeration to assert that an exhibition of this magnitude will never happen again.
And so a note of heartfelt thanks to Dr. Carmen C. Bambach, who spent eight years organizing the show — and who, through her prodigious research, added another feather to her cap by moving one of the drawings in the exhibition, “Sleeping Reclining Male Nude with Boy-Genius,” from the “attributed” to the “autograph” column (though the wall label still modestly retains the former categorization).
“Sleeping Reclining Male Nude,” which is done in black chalk and bears the handwriting of Michelangelo’s frequent collaborator, Sebastiano del Piombo, is a minor work, but I couldn’t detect a false note in the treatment of form or the handling of the medium. I mention this only because the differences between Michelangelo’s methods and those of his contemporaries becomes a subtext of sorts, perceptible through the strategic placement of Michelangelo’s works vis-à-vis corresponding ones by others. You don’t have to look at the wall label to know the difference.