Casa Buonarroti digitizes Michelangelo’s drawings

The Casa Buonarroti museum in Florence has embarked on a new project to digitize figure studies, architectural designs and handwritten notes by Michelangelo and make the ultra-high resolution images available on their website. The goal is to upload the most significant drawings in the Casa Buonarroti’s collection to create an online catalogue of Michelangelo’s greatest works on paper, and now first 20 pages have now been uploaded.

The 20 pages include some recto and verso (front and back) sheets, denoted on the thumbnail with two arrows in the upper right corner. It’s a fascinating glimpse into Michelangelo’s art and life, seeing, for example, an iconic image like the dynamic male nude preparatory study for his Battle of Cascina fresco on one side of the page and his literal shopping list on the other. Or anatomical studies for one of his Pietà sculptures backed by anatomical studies for figures in the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.

The digitization of these materials gives artists, scholars and anyone else with even a passing interest access to works that are too fragile to be widely handled. The paper has to be protected from exposure to light, fluctuating temperatures and humidity levels, so the sheets are kept in carefully controlled environments. The pages were conserved before digitization, removing the artifacts of previous interventions and revealing some drawings that were obscured by flawed restoration attempts. Each sheet is also extensively annotated with background information, transcripts of texts and historic and artistic commentary.

Here’s one passage from a Madonna and Child study illustrating how content-rich the curator’s comments are:

The observation of the drawing allows one to follow the entire compositional process. First of all, Michelangelo sketched out both protagonists in black chalk, with a highly spontaneous handling: the fast, parallel hatching is combined with a soft, loose outline, drawn with a tormented manner. Initially, the face of the Madonna appears faintly sketched to the left, intent on looking down, in profile, at the Child in her arms, to be modified and rotated up three-quarters to the right, while gazing into the distance with an absorbed expression. Perhaps lost in the premonition of future pains, the Virgin’s head is executed on a smaller dimensional scale than the rest of the imposing body and with much more finished results, thanks to a soft chiaroscuro obtained with a broad-tipped black chalk, which lends the face a veil of shaded melancholy. This initial phase of compositional analysis was followed by the pictorial deepening of part of the figure of the Infant Jesus, perfectly executed even in the colouring, thanks to the overlapping of multiple techniques, all typical of Michelangelo’s heritage. The artist outlined the profile, already characterised by numerous pentimenti, with a red chalk, which he used together with a very shaded black chalk also to model the body with its rosy complexion, and interpreted the precious chiaroscuro effects with highlights of white lead, applied with chalk for the parts in light, and retouches of brown ink wash, applied with a very fine-tipped brush, for the areas of greater darkness. At this point, Michelangelo had to abandon work on the sheet, leaving the drawing with a distinct difference in finish, intentional and related to his graphic interests.

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