How Michelangelo finally got his due

A Clovio drawing after a lost work by Michelangelo, The Rape of Ganymede.
A Clovio drawing after a lost work by Michelangelo, The Rape of Ganymede.PHOTO: ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST/HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II 2017

NEW YORK (NYTIMES)- There are more than 130 Michelangelo drawings in the exhibition opening next week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer. They are here on loan from dozens of institutions around the world, and span the artist's long creative life. But one of the works is a sort-of new arrival: a drawing in black chalk on white paper from about 1530, which the show's curator, Carmen C. Bambach, has attributed to Michelangelo.

The work, which has been in the collection of the Stadel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany since the 19th century, is a fragment of a page, with handwriting across the top and a sketch of two figures, one a reclining male nude, at the bottom. In an interview, Bambach, a curator in the Met's department of drawings and prints, explained how she concluded that the work is in Michelangelo's own hand.

Some experts considered the drawing at the bottom to be a copy of a Michelangelo original by Giorgio Giulio Clovio, Bambach said. Clovio is known to have made many such reproductions in the 16th century.

But Bambach had doubts. She pointed to a Clovio work of more certain attribution, The Rape of Ganymede, a copy of a lost Michelangelo drawing, which hangs nearby in the exhibition.

"Everything is very even on the paper," she noted. Especially when seen in person, as in the Met exhibition, the smooth grayscale of Ganymede contrasts starkly with Michelangelo's style. That evenness is a consistent feature of Clovio's drawings, including his originals and his copies. In the reclining nude, by comparison, the gnarled torso, the lightly sketched peripheral elements and the corrections made with parallel hatching are all hallmarks of Michelangelo.

Sleeping Reclining Male Nude With Boy-Genius, a chalk drawing on white paper, newly attributed to Michelangelo by Carmen C. Bambach, curator of the exhibition Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. PHOTO: STADEL MUSEUM, FRANKFURT

The handwriting across the top of the page was considered to be by an unknown person, Bambach said. But it was clearly not by Michelangelo, who left behind numerous letters and other documents for comparison.

The script, however, is distinctive, she said, pointing to the left hooks that top certain letters, an unusual style that pointed her to another contemporary of Michelangelo's.

Sebastiano del Piombo, a Venetian-born artist who spent almost 20 years in Michelangelo's orbit in Rome, was not only a painter, Bambach noted, but a poet. Enthralled by Michelangelo's work, the younger Sebastiano often made paintings based on his drawings, and the two had an extensive correspondence. Michelangelo would send drawings, and Sebastiano frequently shared madrigals, poetic vocal arrangements that were sometimes set to music.

Examining these letters led Bambach, who has studied the handwriting of the great artists of the period, to attribute the script to Sebastiano, whose handwriting includes the distinct hooked letters "l" and "d." Sebastiano was left-handed, she noted, but he taught himself to write right-handed. "But unlike any of the right-handed writers," she said, "all the hooks of the letter go to the left rather than to the right." After that, she said, "The natural question was, could the drawing be by Sebastiano del Piombo?" She concluded that it could not be, pointing to an example of Sebastiano's work nearby, a study for The Christ Child and Infant Saint John the Baptist. While Michelangelo's drawings show an incisive, authoritative contour, examining Sebastiano's work closely reveals fine, delicate strokes with multiple reinforcement outlines.

When it was acquired by the Stadel Museum in 1850, the drawing was described as a Michelangelo, which might seem like persuasive evidence, except that many such 19th-century attributions have fallen under scrutiny from modern researchers. Two major 20th-century scholars, Bernard Berenson and Luitpold Dussler, both rejected the claim.

The recent consensus among Bambach's colleagues was that the reclining nude was either by an unknown artist or a Clovio copy after a lost Michelangelo original.

But she argued that the general scepticism directed at 19th-century attributions does a disservice to Johann David Passavant, who bought the drawing as a Michelangelo and was "the greatest connoisseur of his generation." There is also a detailed inventory of Clovio's possessions made in 1577, the year before his death. It included many of his own works, of course, but also two Michelangelo drawings, which, Bambach suggested, could include the reclining nude. (She was quick to note that without further evidence, this particular detail was a hypothesis, not a conclusion.)

All these signs would be merely suggestive, though, without the key evidence of Michelangelo's style, Bambach said. In particular, she focused on the deeply incised contours of his work.

A detail of the Sleeping Reclining Male Nude showing the heavy contour line characteristic of Michelangelo. PHOTO: STADEL MUSEUM, FRANKFURT

Michelangelo's drawings on paper are marked by a forceful use of chalk. It's very difficult to see in a reproduction, or even in person, without the use of a magnifying glass. But looking closely, you can discern what seem like two lines outlining the body of the reclining nude. But that is the result of the artist pressing with such force that the chalk gouges a slight channel in the surface of the paper, leaving behind a barely visible striation that distinguishes Michelangelo from the other possibilities, Bambach said.

Another point of comparison is a known Michelangelo work, Fall of Phaeton, now in the Royal Collection, where a finished figure very similar to the reclining nude sits at bottom.

Ultimately, attributing a drawing to a single artist relies upon several pieces of evidence, Bambach said. It's not enough to examine a single work closely. It must be considered in the context of other works, and facts about the artist's life.

"Traditional connoisseurship in our field had always been done one by one," she said. "So, 'This is not by Michelangelo,' and the conversation stopped there. What I believe in is in thinking in terms of groups." Just as the building blocks of a language have to cohere when assembled, she added, "the group of drawings that we are attributing to somebody have to make sense as a whole."

But Bambach, as a scholar, is careful to couch her claims, even as she affirms them.

"I believe that we all have to have intellectual humility, so I will be very happy to be proved wrong," she said. But adding her new attribution of Sebastiano's handwriting to the larger picture makes Michelangelo the simplest explanation, she added.

This one drawing is only a part of a vast exhibition that took eight years to assemble, but nevertheless provided her with something that's rare for a scholar.

When she made the connection to Sebastiano's letters, she said, "I felt like I had won the lottery! Even though art historians are paid nothing. But it was - it's always exciting."