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Michelangelo: Public and Private
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Michelangelo: Public and Private

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

Seattle Art Museum
Through January 31

The works of Michelangelo Buonarroti are, without a doubt, some of the most impressive artworks the world has ever known. His drawings and sculptures have redefined the human form and contributed to an era and movement of time we now call "The Renaissance." The majestic David has been called "the singular perfect representation of man on earth," and the beauty of the painted walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel have been observed and appreciated for over five centuries by commoners, kings, and popes alike.

The Seattle Art Museum has just opened its newest special exhibition: "Michelangelo - Public and Private." Hosting 12 works created by the master himself, S.A.M. gives an easy-to-follow layout of these rare and inspired drawings, on special loan from the Casa Buonarroti in Florence, Italy. Shortly before his death, Michelangelo destroyed his early sketches and models of his masterpieces. The drawings on display are a few of those remaining, and are all the more incredible because they are what Michelangelo did not want us to see.

They are, without doubt, a glimpse into his talent, but they show his human weakness and indecision, as well. These are sketches, done with pencil, chalk, and coal as quick guides and models for what he was proposing on a much grander scale. Diagrams of random torsos, arms, hands and even feet are hung on the walls with a brief explanation. Next to them are color representations of how and where they manifest in the finished works. The 12 drawings were all used as guides depicting Genesis, the surrounding prophets, sibyls and cherubs that adorn the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Also included are a few rough manifestations for what would become the imposing 72-foot-high wall painting, The Last Judgment.

Forbidden by the church to all but doctors, human dissection was a crime punishable by death. In exchange for a wooden sculpted crucifix (church of Santo Spirito), a priest allowed Michelangelo secret dissections of bodies awaiting burial. These makeshift operations gave Michelangelo an advantage over his contemporaries, giving him a deeper understanding of the human form and the muscular design under the skin. The knowledge is the basis of why his works are precisely defined and a physical celebration of the human form.

Aside from the drawings are other works done in tribute by contemporaries and devotees. There are engraved replicas of sections of The Last Judgment where the changes done to the original are notable. After the masterpiece was finished, later popes had issues with the blatant nudity and some of the saints' representations. One engraving shows a complete change from how Michelangelo originally presented Saint Blaise in The Last Judgment; the figure was literally chipped away and repainted by someone else to look as it does today. Other displays of interest include a model recreation of the shipping crate used to move the original David statue in 1504. The massive 17-foot high giant was carefully transported by a system of log rolling and careful crating.

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born in 1475, and Pope Sixtus IV built the "church of the popes," the Sistine Chapel, two years later. At age 24, Michelangelo received commission from the Holy See for the Pietá of Rome, and in five years' time, would display his most famous work, David, in front of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Pope Julius II (grandson of Sixtus IV) set a commission to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Thinking his enemies submitted his name to cause embarrassment, the 35-year-old Michelangelo declined, but eventually would win the commission and, four years later, would complete one of the greatest artworks of the Renaissance. Twenty-two years later, Pope Julius II would personally commission Michelangelo to paint the altar wall of the chapel, which became the 72-foot high The Last Judgment.

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