First sitting

31st March 2006 at 01:00
Michelangelo Buonarroti. 1475-1564

Michelangelo's drawing for the Sistine Chapel's ceiling shows a masterwork evolving. Hilary Williams explains

In 1488, Michelangelo was an apprentice in Florence, where he learned fresco-painting. Arriving in Rome in 1496, he carved the "Piet..." in St Peter's Basilica, showing his mastery of anatomy and the representation of drapery. Returning to Florence, he sculpted "David" (1501-4) and created "The Battle of Cascina". By the age of 37, he was considered the greatest living artist. He painted the "The Last Judgement" on the Sistine Chapel's altar wall (1536-41) and was chief architect in the building of St Peter's.

He was unparalleled as painter, sculptor, architect and poet.

"The Erythraean Sibyl" is one of many drawings made in preparation for the design of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, in the Vatican. Pope Julius II had summoned Michelangelo to Rome from Florence in 1508 to decorate the ceiling of this private chapel, adjacent to St Peter's Basilica. Painting on the first half of the ceiling was completed in 1510 while the Pope was away fighting in northern Italy, so it was not unveiled until the following year. Michelangelo painted the second half of the ceiling much more quickly than the first and the whole vault was unveiled in 1512, shortly before the death of Pope Julius II in 1513. It was an instant success.

Michelangelo's designs became some of the best-known images in the world.

This drawing of a female figure, with drapery flowing over her legs, was made in preparation for painting one of the figures on the outer edge of the vault, close to where the ceiling and wall connect. Half of these figures are male - the prophets - while the other half are female - the sibyls. Both belong to classical antiquity and were endowed with the gift of prophecy.

Erythrae was a town on the Ionian coast of what is now Turkey, opposite the island of Chios. It was the Erythraean sibyl who supposedly revealed Alexander the Great's divine ancestry. This drawing shows the beginning of what will emerge as a female figure, with her right leg crossed over her left, seated within an architectural framework, looking back to turn with her left hand the pages of a large, gilt-edged book - one of the Sibylline Books in which was written a prophecy of the coming of Christ.

In the finished painting, immediately above her head are two small figures, one of whom holds a flaming torch. None of this context is shown in the drawing. It seems unlikely that Michelangelo ever made one drawing for the whole overall design of the Sistine Chapel ceiling; more probably he worked bay by bay along the vault first. This drawing is for the fourth bay of the chapel.

There was a widespread Renaissance tradition of drawing figures heavily draped to define their form without actually exposing it. The painter-author, Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), describes a practice of draping a model with a cloth or slip dipped in liquid clay, which would then harden to hold the shape of the folds, defining the body underneath the fabric.

Other artists, especially in Florence, worked like this before Michelangelo. His painting master, Domenico Ghirlandaio, as well as artists Fra Bartolommeo, Andrea del Verrocchio, Lorenzo di Credi, and even famous contemporary Leonardo da Vinci, all made such drapery studies, using brush and tempera or distemper on linen. Michelangelo's drawing was quicker to create, but just as sculptural in effect.

The drawing reveals his methods. He begins using black chalk to block in the figure. Then he applies a light brown wash with a brush. On top of this, he applies hatched and cross-hatched lines using a quill pen and ink, allowing the brightness of the paper to shine through as the highlights on the edge of the ridges of drapery. This composition would then be refined and his finished design used to create a cartoon on a larger scale, which would then be used as a template against the damp plaster, pounced or pricked with holes. A bag of soot or chalk was then dabbed against the paper. When the cartoon was removed, an exercise in painting by dots ensued.

None of Michelangelo's cartoons survives and, in fact, pounced cartoons are extremely rare today. Recently, when the Sistine ceiling was cleaned, many chalk dots were found under the painted pigment, proving that pounced cartoons would likely have been used for many of the sections, to transfer and scale up the design on to the ceiling.

This drawing of the sibyl is a wonderful evocation of Michelangelo thinking aloud on paper, plotting out his designs for a giant figure on the lofty ceiling (with sketchy related figures on the verso). It came to the British Museum in 1887, having passed through the hands of collectors Henry Vaughan, Samuel Woodburn, the artist Sir Thomas Lawrence, and JBJ Wicar, and stemming from the collection in the home of Michelangelo's family in Florence, the Casa Buonarroti.

* Michelangelo: Closer to the Master is an exhibition at the British Museum until June 25, open 10am to 5.30pm daily, except Thursdays and Fridays when last entry is 7.40pm. Tickets are on a timed entry system and advance booking is strongly recommended. Adults' tickets cost pound;10, and concessions are available. There is a preferential booking slot for schools, on Mondays from 10-11am. Book in person at the box office.

Tel: 020 7323 8181 www.thebritishmuseum.ac.ukmichelangelo

Resources

* For a full teachers' resource pack for the exhibition: www.thebritishmuseum.ac.ukeducationartdesignhome.html

* Visit Children's Compass for a tour aimed at KS2 www.thebritishmuseum.ac.ukchildrenscompass

* Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master (pound;25) and Michelangelo - The British Museum (pound;9.99), both by Hugo Chapman, are published by the British Museum Press

* The Vatican website has a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling mv.vatican.va3_ENpagesCSNCSN_Main.html

Hilary Williams is art history education officer at the British Museum

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