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Drawings by Michelangelo at the Courtauld Gallery

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Drawings by Michelangelo at the Courtauld Gallery

Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review

THE Courtauld Institute at Somerset House in the Strand, London, contains the art gallery of the University of London, and in recent years has made a name for its small exhibitions in which some of the best known works are displayed with related and often revelatory pieces, usually from other collections. Michelangelo's Dream mainly consisted of a group of drawings presented to a friend as finished works of art.

Whilst still apprenticed to the Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) often strayed into the gardens of Lorenzo de' Medici the Magnificent. His master Ghirlandaio, who had painted a fresco in the Sistine Chapel, was generous in his praise of Michelangelo's early drawings; but Michelangelo longed to enlarge his bounds. In Lorenzo's garden, which was copiously ornamented both with antiquities and with more recent works, such as those of Donatello, Michelangelo decided that he would try sculpture. Although, according to his biographer Vasari, he had never before worked in marble, he began to copy an antique bust of a faun; the only difference being that Michelangelo's faun was open-mouthed and laughing, with his teeth and tongue exposed, true to life. Perhaps he had studied these details from Lorenzo (whose jocularity was famous), whom by this time he knew well, since Michelangelo was rapidly becoming part of Lorenzo's household. He had the pleasure of hearing Lorenzo's well-known benign laughter, coupled with praise, at seeing the bust of the faun.

Lorenzo wished to glorify the city of Florence and also to glorify the Medici, its effective rulers, by founding a school of sculptors to equal its painters. To this school, directed by Donatello's pupil Bertoldo di Giovanni, he earnestly wished to recruit Michelangelo; so he borrowed the son of Lodovico Buonarroti and the apprentice of Ghirlandaio at a handsome interest. Laying his hand on Lodovico's shoulder, Lorenzo said 'Lodovico, you will always be a poor man', when Lodovico, recently retired as a minor district judge, asked merely for the post of a customs officer.

Not only did Lorenzo adopt Michelangelo as one of his family but, from the time Michelangelo was fifteen until he was twenty in the year of Lorenzo's death, he lodged him in his palace and gave him a place of honour amongst his most distinguished guests. (Michelangelo did not fare so well nor stay so long under Lorenzo's successor Piero de' Medici, who used him to build a snowman in his courtyard.)

At Lorenzo's feasts Michelangelo would often have met Marsilio Ficino, physician, priest and classical scholar, who had completed in 1469 his Latin translation, with a commentary, from the Greek of Plato's Symposium. (It was first published fifteen years later, as part of Ficino's tireless translation of the entire works of Plato.) Michelangelo later lamented that he had never learned Latin, but the conversations and discussions would have been in Italian. Since Ficino had just finished his translation of Plato's Symposium from a Byzantine manuscript, given to him by Lorenzo's grandfather Cosimo de' Medici, he would, as an appreciative guest, have given the company at least an outline of it.

In The Symposium the playwright Agathon has gathered some admirers together for the second evening of celebrations of the success of his first tragedy. The friends, who include Aristophanes, Phaedrus and Socrates, decide that since they drank too much the previous night, on this occasion they shall pour out the wine only for refreshment, not for inebriation. They all speak at length and in turn. Phaedrus chooses the topics of beauty and love, whereupon Aristophanes entertains the party with a droll but symbolic myth of his own invention: men were originally spherical, but the gods, in order to subjugate them, divided them into hemispheres. Now each hemisphere longingly rushes around seeking its other half, and does not trouble the gods.

At this mid-point, as is usual in Plato's dialogues, Socrates takes over the discussion and brings it to a close.

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