Skip to Content

Members' Research Report Archive

The Quest for Authenticity in Michelangelo’s Drawings

Carmen Bambach, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Andrew W. Mellon Professor, 2010–2012

In writing the book from which this report takes its title, I have devoted much of my work during my second year at CASVA to the study of Michelangelo’s original drawings, related archival manuscript materials of various types, and pre-nineteenth-century printed books documenting the early collecting and critical fortunes of Michelangelo’s drawings. (A conceptual description of my project appeared in Center 31.)

As the authorship of numerous drawings by Michelangelo (1475–1564) has been heatedly contested by scholars of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, I have continued my firsthand examination of his drawings and those by members of his circle (pupils, assistants, stonecutters, servants, and independent artists whom Michelangelo helped by providing them with his drawings) in Italian, British, and French collections. I have focused on the attentive comparison of autograph drawings with early drawn copies derived from these originals in order to establish Michelangelo’s authorship. I have also sought to clarify problems of technique and physical condition in both the originals and the copies by studying them in the laboratory with colleagues and conservators. I have had the opportunity to see Michelangelo’s drawings in private collections, including the highly finished Madonna del Silenzio in red chalk (Duke of Portland), previously little studied by scholars from the original, as well as the mural drawing fragment of a satyr in the Villa Michelagniolo, Settignano, to which I have devoted a separate article, to be published in I Tatti Studies in 2013. Although much remodeled, the building and grounds of the villa at Settignano were part of the property of Michelangelo’s family beginning in the late fourteenth century.

I have been highly fortunate to study the private archive (formerly of the Rasponi Spinelli family) on deposit at the Casa Vasari in Arezzo, which has been relatively inaccessible to scholars for decades. It contains a notebook with fourteen signed original letters written by Michelangelo to Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) between 1550 and 1557, when Michelangelo was in Rome, engaged as architect of Saint Peter’s and other projects, and Vasari, mostly in Florence, was in the active service of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici. These letters have been previously published, but their examination in the original has proved crucially important and has enabled me to rethink entirely and to write the first part of my book, which focuses on Vasari’s 1568 biography of Michelangelo as the divine draftsman. Two of the letters, written in 1557, include carefully constructed drawings by Michelangelo for the vaulting of the Cappella del Re di Francia, on the south transept of Saint Peter’s. They describe to Vasari the errors in the centering as calculated by the master builder. Vasari cites the Arezzo drawings in his 1568 biography of Michelangelo as works “by his hand” (di sua mano), making them the best-documented autograph drawings by Michelangelo. (Vasari’s discussion of Michelangelo’s mature architectural career is the most neglected aspect of this biography.) Since the Arezzo drawings are functional outline designs in which the signs of personal expression by the artist’s hand were much suppressed in favor of communicating informative detail, they provide especially important test cases for a history of connoisseurship of Michelangelo’s drawings.

The papers of Michelangelo and the Buonarroti family (which date from the 1290s to about 1858), preserved in the Archivio Buonarroti of the Casa Buonarroti in Florence, continue to provide a vast, largely untapped wealth of data and insights for my project. In the past, a number of attributions and deattributions to Michelangelo have been made on the basis of early inscriptions on drawings. Such inscriptions were particularly mistrusted, and sometimes entirely misinterpreted, by the “scientific” connoisseurs of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as in the case of Bernard Berenson’s demotion of Michelangelo’s Oxford Sketchbook (Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology). The volumes of letters written to Michelangelo and members of his family preserved in the Archivio Buonarroti have provided me with helpful samples of signatures and handwriting with which to verify or identify early authors of annotations on various Michelangelo-related drawings. This exercise has shown that the secondary literature is often incorrect on such matters.

Michelangelo was unique among early modern artists in that most of his descendants were deeply committed to the preservation of his memory over the course of nearly three hundred years. They also controlled a large part of the artist’s legacy of drawings. My research in the Archivio Buonarroti has consisted of sifting through the vast quantities of unpublished manuscript material pertaining to Leonardo Buonarroti (1519–1599), Michelangelo’s nephew and a close friend of Vasari; Michelangelo Buonarroti “Il Giovane” (1568–1646), the letterato who built the palazzo with its gallery of paintings glorifying Michelangelo and his family; the erudite Filippo Buonarroti (1661–1733), an Etruscan antiquarian of international reputation and a cultural figure visited by the great connoisseurs of Michelangelo of his time; and Cosimo Buonarroti (1790–1858), the last issue of the primogenital line of the family, who bequeathed the Casa Buonarroti, together with its art collection and documents, to the city of Florence.

As my book endeavors to clarify changes in artistic taste in relationship to the collecting of Michelangelo’s drawings during the little-explored period between 1568 and 1858, my research has consisted also of reading the early Italian, French, and British authors who expressed critical and still useful opinions about Michelangelo and his drawings.

Center 32 (includes image not shown here)

Italian, 1475 - 1564
Vasari, Giorgio
Italian, 1511 - 1574