A 16th-century drawing of a nude man, seen from behind, has been identified as a study by Michelangelo for his monumental masterpiece, the ceiling fresco of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.
The red chalk drawing has been linked to one of the figures battling serpents on the Worship of the Brazen Serpent painting. It is thought to date from 1512, shortly before Michelangelo painted that final section of one of the world’s most famous works of art, which he had started in 1508.
The attribution has been supported by Paul Joannides, emeritus professor of art history at Cambridge university and one of the world’s leading authorities on Michelangelo, who will publish it in the scholarly Burlington Magazine.
He told the Observer: “For an artist of Michelangelo’s greatness, and greatness as a draughtsman, any new discovery has some level of excitement. But this is a drawing by Michelangelo for one of the greatest masterpieces of western art.”
It is one of relatively few developed drawings for the Sistine ceiling to have survived. Georgio Vasari, the Italian renaissance master best known for his 1550 book The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, wrote of Michelangelo: “Just before his death, he burned a large number of his own drawings, sketches and cartoons to prevent anyone from seeing the labours he endured or the ways he tested his genius, for fear that he might seem less than perfect.”
The male figure in the newly discovered drawing is shown from another angle in the final painted version. “Looking at the drawing, one would assume that the figure was intended to be seen horizontally. It isn’t. It’s intended to be seen with the drawing rotated 90 degrees clockwise. Put the two images side by side and there it is. Once examined, it was obvious that the drawing is preparatory for this figure.” Joannides said.
In the Burlington, he writes: “Michelangelo reminded himself of the figure’s final orientation by a sequence of short lines at the right edge, which mark the vertical when the page is rotated.”
Michelangelo’s masterpieces include the marble sculpture of David, and the new drawing shows he was adopting an increasingly sculptural style in the later stages of the Sistine fresco. Joannides said: “He developed enormously as he progressed along the ceiling. His figures became larger, more energetic. The sculptural element of his forms plays an increasing part as he comes to the end of his work.”
The drawing – which measures 15.7 by 19.3cm – came to light after its owner, an anonymous European collector, sent Joannides a photograph through an intermediary. It had been purchased privately in 2014, when it had a tentative attribution to Rosso Fiorentino, a 16th-century follower of Michelangelo.
Although the drawing had never been reproduced, Joannides immediately remembered seeing a poor black-and-white photograph of it many years ago in the Witt Library at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. He writes: “I had filed it mentally as being ‘of interest’. It was therefore intriguing to be able to study the drawing in the flesh and satisfying to conclude that it was indeed by Michelangelo.”
The drawing bears 19th-century collectors’ marks and inscriptions. Its lower left shows the handwritten initials ‘JCR’, relating to Sir John Charles Robinson, a leading connoisseur of Michelangelo drawings, and its backing sheet has the stamp of Chambers Hall, a collector who donated many drawings to the nation. Joannides paid tribute to the drawing’s owner for having first realised that it related to a figure within the “turbulence of struggling men” in the Brazen Serpent fresco.
In the Burlington, he acknowledges that, despite Michelangelo’s supreme knowledge of male anatomy, there are weaknesses in this drawing, including a near-impossible pose, a left thigh that is too long and a “block-like” depiction of vertebrae.
Noting that Michelangelo represents the bones of the back in a similar way elsewhere, he adds: “This assessment by the surgeon Francis Wells substantiates Michelangelo’s lack of concern for skeletal and muscular accuracy… As Vasari remarked in a famous passage: ‘he used to make his figures with nine, 10, or 12 heads, seeking only to create, by placing them all together, a certain harmonious grace in the whole which Nature does not produce, declaring that it was necessary to have a good eye for measurement rather than a steady hand’. Michelangelo’s concern was dynamic expression, not anatomical fidelity.”