Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer

By Ashley Walton

This past weekend I wandered through Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see a special exhibit I had been dying to see for months- Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer. 

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, or more commonly known simply by his first name Michelangelo (1475-1564), was considered the greatest living artist during his lifetime and has since been described as one of the greatest artists of all time.  He was a sculptor, painter, architect, and poet of the High Renaissance, a period that represented the pinnacle of the visual arts, beginning in the 1480s with Leonardo da Vinci and ending in 1527 with the sack of Rome. 

The archetypal "Renaissance Man"

Michelangelo was a master of representing the human body.  His idealized and expressive works have had a major influence from his own time to ours.  Over his long life, Michelangelo was celebrated for the excellence of his disegno, the power of drawing and invention that provided the foundation for all the arts.  Given the sheer volume of his surviving works, he is the most well documented artist of the 16th century.  What is truly interesting about this exhibit is that most of the beautiful drawings and sketches on view are process drawings- not finished work.

This finely rendered study of the musculature of a man’s leg and forearm may have served as a teaching aid in both draftsmanship and anatomy. 


'Torment of Saint Anthony' is one of Michelangelo’s early works based on the work of another artist, Martin Schongauer.  Michelangelo improved on the original by visiting a fish market to study from nature, "the shape and coloring of the fins of the fish".

He utilized sketches to study and refine his forms- from the anatomical accuracy of a fish’s fins to that of the human figure.  What I found especially interesting was the way he studied shade and shadow first in sketches, then in more finalized drawings, to perfect the human form, later realizing them in his frescoes or marble sculptures.


Michelangelo relied on a young male assistant posing in the workshop to create these closely observed studies for his Libyan Sibyl.


Michelangelo was just 24 at the time of completion of The Pietà, which was soon regarded as one of the world’s great masterpieces of sculpture.

Michelangelo's reputation as an artist and true innovator led to commissions extending beyond just frescos and sculptures.

Studies of Architectural details at the New Sacristy at San Lorenzo Church

Designs for the profiles of Moldings and Column Bases at the Laurentian Library. The paper is cut out in the shape of a modano, or full-sized profile, which his workers used to carve the architectural ornament of bases and moldings in stone.


Studies of the façade of the Tomb of Julius II

Later in his life, Michelangelo devoted himself almost entirely to architecture and poetry, including the rebuilding of the Capitol area- the Piazza del Campidoglio. Other architectural works include the design of the upper floor of the Palazzo Farnese, the interior of the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, San Giovanni dei Fiorentini, the Sforza Chapel in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, the Laurentian Library, and the Porta Pia.


Study of Porta Pia’s monumental gate  

Porta Pia’s monumental entry gate  

In 1546, at the age of 74, Michelangelo succeeded Antonio da Sangallo the Younger as architect of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Located in Vatican City, St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the most renowned works of Renaissance architecture and one of the two largest churches in the world today. 

St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome

In his lifetime, Michelangelo was often called Il Divino or "the divine one" and was greatly admired for his terribilità—the ability to instill a sense of awe in the observer.  In addition to drawings, he also utilized three-dimensional models to study the impact of his architectural designs.

This rare wooden model is one of only two surviving models for Saint Peter’s.

For the plan of St. Peter’s, he returned to the earlier concepts of Bramante, and developed his ideas for a centrally planned church, strengthening the structure both physically and visually. The dome, not completed until after his death, has been called by some "the greatest creation of the Renaissance". 

The central dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica


Studies of the hands and musculature for the famous Creation of Adam scene from the Sistine Chapel

One of the great masterpieces of Western art, Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, is also on display at the Met.  The image of the near-touching hands in The Creation of Adam has become an iconic image of humanity and has been imitated innumerable times.

The Creation of Adam, from the Genesis narrative on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Don’t miss this once in a lifetime exhibit!  It is only on view for a few more weeks until February 12th!