Renaissance master Michelangelo Buonarotti was a well-known perfectionist, so consumed with preserving his brand that he would burn his sketches and studies. He didn’t want anyone to know what existed before the masterpiece.
It’s precisely that self-preservation instinct that makes the Muscarelle Museum of Art’s new show, “Michelangelo: Sacred and Profane” a must-see. The show, which opens to the public Saturday, features 25 sketches from the Casa Buonarotti, a museum in Florence dedicated to the artist.
Landing the show is a coup for the university museum, which will share the show with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Museum Director Aaron DeGroft said the show, which marks the museum’s 30th anniversary, is unrivaled. “You can’t see it in Italy…certainly not these pieces together,” he said Wednesday. He anticipates it will break the museum’s attendance record, which was set with a French Impressionists show in 2011.
The show was made possible by a long-standing friendship between W&M’s art professor emeritus Miles Chappell and Pina Ragionieri, director of Casa Buonarroti, said DeGroft. She was impressed with the college’s history and reputation. She collaborated with the museum to stage “Michelangelo: Anatomy as Architecture, Drawings by the Master” in 2010; at that time, DeGroft said they began discussing ideas for another collaboration to mark the museum’s anniversary.
“This is a rare thing. His works have come many times to the states, but never in such a number and chronology,” Ragionieri said. The collection is possible, she said, because her museum has preserved a family collection that was never damaged or altered as it passed through the art market.
Throughout his career, Michelangelo’s subject matter included representations of both the sacred and the worldly, or profane. Michelangelo believed, as many artists of the time, that the best way to reflect divinity was through the creation of beautiful works. The exhibition includes his large drawing “Virgin and Child,” along with architectural sketches for churches and military fortifications. Most sketches were rendered first in soft black or red chalk, sketched over in pen and ink and finished with a brown wash.
The drawings provide a peek into the artist’s process. Viewers will get a sense of the creative mind at work, and the urgency to get an idea on paper. In several instances, Michelangelo sketched an idea on top of a previous work. His studies for the staircase of the Laurentian Library in San Lorenzo were drawn directly over a student’s figure sketches. Museum Assistant Director and Chief Curator John Spike said Michelangelo was famously parsimonious, using and reusing paper as much as possible.
A landmark piece in the show is a double-sided sketch of Cleopatra, gifted to Michelangelo’s friend, Tommaso Cavalieri. For centuries, the sketch was believed to show only one side, depicting the infamous seductress looking serene, even as an asp begins its attack at her chest. In 1988, Ragionieri discovered the paper was attached to a backing sheet, and once it was removed, discovered an entirely different view of Cleopatra.
On the backside, the depiction is closer to the gorgon Medusa than an empress celebrated for her beauty. Cleopatra’s face is in a state of anguish, and her hair is depicted as snakes. “The discovery was astounding,” Ragionieri said. She believes no one knew it existed. Spike said the conflicting faces suggest the theme of the exhibition, showing the price paid for a love of mortal beauty.
The Michelangelo show is staged in the upstairs exhibition hall, with walls painted the color of oxblood and low lighting to protect the fragile works. It is complemented downstairs by an exhibition of the works of Mattia Preti, who was a follower of Michelangelo da Caravaggio, the master of contrasting dark and light. Spike authored his doctoral dissertation on Preti.
Preti doesn’t have the name recognition of his famous idol, but his works are included in the collections of the best museums in the world, Spike said. The paintings have never been displayed together in a comparable retrospective, and Spike said W&M students have already benefited from the opportunity to get close to the works. On Monday, he guided a museum seminar, showing students how paint was layered, and where restoration work had been completed.
For those who are interested in the work of Italian Baroque painting, the exhibit is so landmark that Spike imagined those who see it will speak of it reverently long after. “We’ll talk about it like we, the band of brothers, who were there,” he said.
Locals can learn more about the exhibits when Spike gives a lecture at 6 p.m. on Feb. 21. The lecture is open to the public.
The Michelangelo and Preti exhibits will be on view from Saturday to April 14. DeGroft recommends purchasing tickets in advance here. Tickets are $15. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. The museum is closed Mondays. Find more information here.