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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 March 2006, 11:20 GMT
Michelangelo and the art of drawing
By Nicholas Caistor

Nearly 100 drawings by Michelangelo are on display at the British Museum in London. It is the first time in 30 years that the museum has exhibited artworks by the Renaissance artist.

Study for Adam

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) is known for his magnificent public works: the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, the sculpture of David in Florence, the Pieta in St Peter's Basilica, Rome.

But these works all came out of his great love of drawing, and were the result of hundreds of studies in which he meticulously noted down his observations of the human form and the effects of light.

Michelangelo first learned to observe and draw when he entered the studio of the Ghirlandaio brothers in Florence at the age of 12.

The siblings placed drawing at the centre of their art, basing their frescoes for churches and public buildings on preliminary sketches that were often worked up into full-size cartoons.

These were then placed on the walls and ceilings where the finished work would be sited, the lines of the drawing pricked through onto the surface to guide the painter.

Muscle structure

Michelangelo is thought to have spent two years learning to draw in the Ghirlandaio studio. He went on to produce thousands of fine pen and chalk drawings which formed the basis for his sculptures, frescoes and other commissions.

The Resurrection
The exhibition traces 60 years of Michelangelo's life
Concentrating on the naked male figure in a way that was new to western art, he studied the structure of muscles and the possibilities of conveying dramatic movement by means of light and shade.

All his great works began as ideas on paper, as he explored the best means to portray his narrative and formal inspiration.

Five centuries on, some of his drawings still preserve the small circles he drew on them to remind himself where the light most struck the figure, in order that he could replicate it in the final painting.

These drawings were rarely finished, but they show his genius at work - almost as if the hand is pulling the mind along with it.

Only occasionally did he make a drawing he considered to be a finished work, like the sketch of the young nobleman Andrea Quaratesi (1528) he gave it to his family as a gift.

For the most part, his drawings were snapshots he used to work out how he would fill the space and make the final composition as dramatic and true to life as possible.

Intimations of mortality

It was towards the end of his long life that his drawings began to acquire a more intimate feel.

The Lamentation
It includes Crucifixion scenes drawn shortly before his death
As his death drew closer, he drew several versions of the Crucifixion which demonstrate how he was pondering on his own mortality.

Throughout a career spanning more than six decades, Michelangelo kept his drawings for himself and a few close collaborators.

He did not want his rivals to see the ideas he had worked out on paper that made his finished works so startlingly original and popular.

So jealous was he of his secrets that he burnt thousands of his drawings before his death.

The 600 or so that survive today show the secret workings of a Renaissance man who built his most grandiose creations on truths found in a close observation of the natural world.

Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master can be seen at the British Museum until 25 June.

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