Sketch spared from fire is ‘the very first Michelangelo’
The artist burnt a large number of his own drawings and sketches, making this an even greater discovery
Few would guess that the artist who created the image of a seated man was just 12 or 13 years old. But this was the genius who would go on to create the iconic sculpture of David and the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel, and the sketch is his earliest surviving drawing.
Sir Timothy Clifford, a leading scholar of the Italian Renaissance, said that, as soon as he saw the drawing, he thought it was “very likely” by Michelangelo.
After further research, he concluded that it is “the earliest drawing efforts of a youth who would one day emerge as one of the most remarkable artists that has ever lived”.
He said Michelangelo went to great lengths to destroy many of his drawings and that it was “just by sheer chance” that this very early drawing has survived. He dates it to about 1490.
“It’s the earliest-known Michelangelo drawing by a year, maybe two, than anything else we know. So it is particularly fascinating.”
The drawing, in pen and two shades of brown ink, measures about 22cm by 15cm, and is based on a classical antique, a colossal Roman marble fragment, which originally formed the lower half of a statue of the Enthroned Jupiter. It is now in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples but, in Michelangelo’s day, it belonged to a noted collector and dealer in Rome.
Clifford said that, in the drawing, the figure is wearing a toga and appears to be sitting on a throne and holding a sceptre. He noted several “divergences” from the marble, including the positioning of the god’s right foot.
The drawing is owned by a British collector, who prefers to remain anonymous. He bought it in 1989 in a French auction as the work of an unidentified artist, and he is now sharing it for the first time in a major exhibition of Michelangelo drawings, titled Triumph Of The Body, in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest.
By the age of 12, Michelangelo was learning his trade as an apprentice in the studio of Domenico Ghirlandaio. Giorgio Vasari, the 16th-century biographer, wrote: “The way Michelangelo’s talents and character developed astonished Domenico, who saw him doing things quite out of the ordinary for boys of his age and not only surpassing his many other pupils, but also very often rivalling the achievements of the master himself.”
Vasari also reported: “Just before his death, [Michelangelo] burned a large number of his own drawings, sketches and cartoons to prevent anyone from seeing the labours he endured or the ways he tested his genius, for fear that he might seem less than perfect.”
The Seated Man drawing may well have been copied from one made by Ghirlandaio himself, Clifford said. He pointed to Michelangelo’s richly descriptive hatching, shading with closely drawn lines: “He uses two different varieties of brown ink. He has an idiosyncratic way of drawing, with rounded chins and a very hard line under the nose, which also appears in a slightly later drawing. It’s an extraordinarily interesting object because Michelangelo is very young indeed.”The owner said: “When I first saw it, it gave me a buzz that it was an important early Renaissance drawing. It’s all the more satisfying to find out that it’s a Michelangelo.”– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)