Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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The genius of Michelangelo: Museum displays a master's sketches

In a gallery beyond the Millennium Falcons and Imperial Star Destroyers, a True Renaissance Master has beamed into the Toledo Museum of Art. (Slide show of Michelangelo's genius)

“Michelangelo: Drawings and Other Treasures from the Casa Buonarroti, Florence” opens Sept. 21, and remains on show through Nov. 25. It is a small show, a collection of only 47 objects - 22 of them created by Michelangelo Buonarroti himself. It occupies an exhibit area off the Great Gallery, as the Canaday Gallery, the usual home for visiting artistic dignitaries, was taken over in July by “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth.”

The humble Michelangelos shine brighter than any light saber, if only because they're so rare.

Michelangelo Buonarroti was obsessed with perfection. He wanted history to see only his finished works, not the dozens of notes, studies, and sketches each required. He burned most of the evidence, thousands of drawings and models of wax and wood.

After he died in 1564 at age 89, the master's family gathered up what remnants they could. For centuries, their cache of drawings and sculpture was accessible only to intimate friends of the Buonarroti family. Their homestead in Florence is now a museum, and the drawings are usually kept in storage to protect them from damaging light and air. The majority of art historians and tourists who visit Florence have never seen them. Nine of these sketches have never been to the United States before.

“Even at home, at Casa Buonarroti, they're only displayed six at a time,” said show curator Gary Radke, a Renaissance art expert from Syracuse University. “Toledo is so lucky. Here you have two dozen Michelangelos on display in one place. It's really pretty amazing, seeing as there's less than a dozen pieces of Michelangelo's work in United States collections. And you get it in the fall, the best museum-going season, and at the same time you have the Star Wars show down the hall, and a new sculpture garden, too. Toledo's such a museum town, I'm sure this is going to be a major, major event.”

Roger Berkowitz, director of the Toledo Museum of Art, said visitors will see both the private and public faces of the Master at this show.

“Pages from his hand-held notebooks show him drafting simple dinner menus. They're complete with drawings of the food items, and provide instructions to the workmen who quarried his marble in Carrara. And then there are examples of Michelangelo's supreme powers of invention, like his studies for the head of Leda, and his designs for the New Sacristy in San Lorenzo. The entire spectrum of his genius - painting, sculpture, architecture, and poetry - is represented in these works on paper.”

But the show is not all works by Michelangelo. Part of the mission of this show, Mr. Radke said, is to show the scope of the collection housed at the Casa Buonarroti. The family accumulated art treasures over generations, and this show includes a life-sized bronze bust of Michelangelo, the world's finest surviving Roman copy of the arm of Myron's famous Greek Discus Thrower, an Etruscan funeral urn, and later artworks clearly inspired by Michelangelo (some of these overblown tributes provide needed comic relief). Architects and draftsmen may find Michelangelo's architectural renderings particularly interesting. The man designed down to the last vault and dentil.

The drawings give insight into how ideas developed. Here is a study of a man's arm, the beginning of the master's concept of God's first outreach to mankind: The Creation of Adam, a centerpiece of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Mr. Radke said a drawing of a pensive mother and her nursing baby is probably the most significant piece in the show, for many reasons.

“The Madonna and child is a theme Michelangelo returned to, over and over, from his earliest work up to his Pieta: mother and child, mother and adult son,” Mr. Radke said. “What's so wonderful about this drawing is the modeling on the child's figure. It makes the whole image come alive, even though only a tiny portion is actually modeled. It shows just how apt he was at creating three dimensions, even in a flat, 2-D medium. And if we didn't have this drawing, we would have no clear idea of what the finished painting looked like. It is lost, gone, destroyed. This is our clue to what was lost, so in a way, that masterpiece is not as lost.”

Michelangelo was a control freak, Mr. Radke added. “The man felt anything created under his name had to be truly his work. He provided detailed drawings of every molding and pilaster. He kept his own nightly accounts. He paid his assistants and masons each week. He knew each of his stonecutters and masons intimately. He had dozens of people around him all the time, but he was still a bit of a loner.”

Timed tickets for Michelangelo are available at the museum box office, or can be ordered online at Cost is $9 for adults; $7.50 for seniors, students, and children age 6 to 18. Combination tickets for “Michelangelo” and “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth” are $14 for adults and $11 for students, seniors, and children. Children age 5 and under are admitted free.

The museum also is planning a one-day Michelangelo symposium on Oct. 6. The symposium is free, but reservations are encouraged.

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