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Inside the Mind of the Master: Sketches from Michelangelo on show at the Muscarelle Museum of Art

“Drawings bring you closer to the artist than any other art form,” says eminent Michelangelo scholar, Dr. John T. Spike, assistant director at The College of William & Mary’s Muscarelle Museum of Art. “You can see what he’s thinking, how his mind works. In a drawing we see the artist’s thoughts as they come to him and he puts them down on paper in pen and ink, or chalk.” Spike is also curator of “Michelangelo: Sacred and Profane: Masterpieces from the Casa Buonarroti,” on view at the Muscarelle through April 14, 2013.

The 26 drawings on display, which include studies for paintings as well as architectural plans and sketches, are from the Casa Buonarroti in Florence, which houses the world’s largest collection of Michelangelo drawings. This important exhibition will be traveling on to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts after it closes in Williamsburg.

Within the broad selection of subjects and techniques featured in the current exhibition displaying Michelangelo’s extraordinary talent, the winsome “Cleopatra” and the Madonna of “The Madonna and Child,” on either end of the profane and sacred spectrum, present his ideal of feminine beauty. In the latter, the simply staggering rendering of the infant Christ’s flesh and musculature is one of the highlights of the show. Contrasting to the careful execution of these two works are a number of quick sketches that capture Michelangelo’s sure-handed brio, including the marvelous “Study for the Leg of the Christ Child for the ‘Doni Tondo.’”

The architectural drawings reveal not only Michelangelo’s revolutionary design ideas, but are also perfect embodiments of the Renaissance in their unity of science and art. So, his human figures divulge Michelangelo’s intimate familiarity with anatomy, and a drawing like the “Ground Plan of a Bastion for a City Gate,” where it appears that he’s exploring the trajectory of potential missiles directed at the structure, is both a complex diagram of the angles of attack as well as a design for the bastion.

Other architectural sketches of note include the plan for the church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini in Rome (a beautiful geometric image composed of solids and voids), as well as several perspectives of the famous Mannerist steps from Florence’s Laurentian Library and a what-might-have-been drawing of the remarkable, but never-built, triangular-shaped “Pichola Libreria”—the “little library,” which would have formed a sanctum sanctorum inside the larger Laurentian. Spike argues this proposed building would have been Michelangelo’s bricks and mortar embodiment of enlightenment.

Whether architectural or figurative, Michelangelo commonly “recycled” old sketches and writing, filling in blank areas with additional drawing, which creates the layered effect of a palimpsest, (originally a reused piece of parchment that has writing added onto its surface from which earlier writing has been scraped off but is still visible).

The drawings are displayed under low light, for conservation reasons, and with minimal labels in order to invite their contemplation. For further exploration, there’s an accompanying illustrated catalogue, which features an essay by Spike (who is a scholar of philosophy as well as art history) in which he discusses with exceptional insight Michelangelo’s inner philosophy.

For something that began as an afterthought, the Muscarelle Museum of Art has developed a sterling reputation. The seed of what would grow into the museum was planted in the 1970s when a visitor to The College pointed out to then President Thomas A. Graves a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe hanging cavalierly on the wall. Realizing this was but the tip of the iceberg, President Graves approached the art history department’s Miles Chappell to figure out exactly what The College owned. Today, the collection, weighted in 17th- and 18th-century English and American portraits, now consists of more than 4,000 works, including those by Hans Hofmann, Picasso and Matisse.

Built through the support of William & Mary alumni and friends, the museum was named for its major benefactors Joseph L. Muscarelle (W&M ’27), his wife Margaret and their family. The Muscarelle opened in 1983 under the helm of Glenn Lowry (current director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art) and within five years had become accredited by the American Association of Museums—the first Virginia university/college art museum to do so.

Thirty years after opening, there are plans to enlarge the museum with a new arts complex so as to exhibit more pieces from the permanent collection and accommodate larger traveling exhibitions. Muscarelle Director Dr. Aaron H. De Groft would not reveal any specifics, but could confirm that “the College is in the process of determining a revamped concept and the Museum is moving full speed ahead in private fundraising for its facilities needs and toward a design … over the next two years there will be significant strides towards the goals of the Museum.”

For now, the Michelangelo show serves as indication of the Muscarelle’s ambition. For a small institution to mount such an exhibition is extraordinary—a fitting accomplishment to crown its 30th anniversary. De Groft expresses it best: "I'm not only the director here, but I’m also a William & Mary alumnus. I was here when the museum first opened and I am so proud that the Muscarelle is offering this exceptional show of Michelangelo's drawings.”


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