Michelangelo’s Drawings Burned
- December 12, 2013
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Around February of 1518 Michelangelo asked his friend, Leonardo Sellaio, to burn the drawings that he had left at his house. It is believed that these drawings were preparatory works for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s nephew reported that in his uncle’s final days, Michelangelo burned the majority of his drawings and preparatory works that were in his Roman studio in two bonfires. Michelangelo himself left us no explanation for his motivation to burn his drawings but a number of speculations exist.
Michelangelo had worked hard to create the illusion that he was a creative genius and that his masterpieces were envisioned in his head and came out perfectly with little effort. However, the reality is that he worked meticulously behind the scenes to perfect his works through drawings, models and casts. He never intended these preparatory works be seen by the public lest anyone see his work as less than perfect.
Michelangelo’s drawings somehow humanize the artist as they expose the creative process which led to his masterpieces. Even during his lifetime Michelangelo was revered as a master artist. He was the first artist to have a biography written while he was still living. The biographer, Giorgio Vasari, explained Michelangelo’s drawings in this way, “Michelangelo’s imagination was so perfect that, not being able to express with his hands his great and terrible conceptions, he often abandoned his works and destroyed many of them.” Vasari explained the reason Michelangelo burned his drawings, “so that no one should see the labours he endured and the ways he tested his genius, and lest he should appear less than perfect.”
Many believe that when he burned his drawings Michelangelo intended to destroy the “menial and mundane” work that made up his creative process. Drawings during that time period were typically not viewed or appreciated as artwork but instead were functional pieces in working toward the finished product. Michelangelo intended to leave only finished masterpieces for the world to enjoy.
Some believe that Michelangelo destroyed his drawings in an effort to prevent artistic rivals from possibly using his works and executing his paintings. This fear was not unfounded as 50-60 of his drawings were stolen when two young sculptors broke into his workshop in Florence. The crime was not punished and the drawings returned.
The remaining drawings that we have today are evidence of Michelangelo’s natural talent as a draughtsman and show how meticulously he worked out the details of his masterpieces. The largest collection of Michelangelo’s drawings still in existence is at the Casa Buonarroti. For conservation reasons only a small sampling of the drawings can be on view at any given time.