Magazine | June 3, 2013, Issue

Two Masters

Catesby Leigh compares the work of Michelangelo Buonarroti and Albrecht Dürer

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564) and Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) were contemporaries, though Michelangelo had a much longer life. Both are titans in the annals of Western art. But, as two enlightening exhibitions of their drawings attest, Michelangelo was far more consistent in his formal aims: His drawings were essentially, though not exclusively, accessories to achievements in sculpture, painting, and architecture that rank him as incomparably the greatest of modern artists. Dürer, on the other hand, will always be remembered first and foremost as a draftsman. Drawing, however, is the foundation of the visual arts, architecture included (though that fact is routinely overlooked in the computer age). And the virtuosity of Dürer’s prolific achievements as a draftsman, varied as they are in terms of medium, genre, and style, never ceases to amaze.

Thus the exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts of 26 Michelangelo drawings from the Casa Buonarroti in Florence (through June 30) and the display of 137 Dürer drawings, watercolors, engravings, and woodcuts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington (through June 9) are not to be missed. The latter exhibit mainly features works on loan from the Albertina in Vienna.

In Dürer’s work, the Renaissance mingles with medieval artistic traditions. A Gothic profusion of intricate, picturesque detail persisted in prints he devoted to religious and allegorical subjects long after Renaissance perspective technique had modified his treatment of landscape and architectural settings. It is his wonderfully fluid drawings in charcoal as well as pen and ink that seem modern — and none more so than his view of Antwerp’s harbor (1520), a late work strikingly spare in its pictorial approach.

In a woodcut from the late 1490s, in which a youthful Saint John the Evangelist is martyred in a cauldron of burning oil, the urban vista is confused, and the nude saint’s head is noticeably overscaled. Yet his hands are sensitively rendered — hands would prove a subject of inexhaustible interest to Dürer — and considerable attention has been lavished on the modeling of the rest of his body. The same anatomical rigor, along with a much better resolved but still fanciful landscape setting, is evident in an engraving from the same period, Saint Jerome Penitent in the Wilderness, in which the kneeling Church father contemplates the Cross before smiting his breast with a stone.

Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506), whose engravings of mythological scenes Dürer copied in pen and ink, influenced the latter’s pursuit of a sculpturally informed clarity in drawing the nude or partially clad figure. Dürer’s picturesque streak could lead him to focus on vesture, however, at the expense of the proportions or dimensions of the human body. In an enigmatic 1514 pen-and-brown-ink portrait of his lanky brother Endres — shown from the side, in everyday garb, but looking away from the viewer — the graphic technique is impeccable, with the head and lean, muscular neck beautifully fleshed out; but one might wonder what became of Endres’s chest.

The medieval love of nature, conspicuously embodied in the arboreal forms of Gothic architecture, was fused in Dürer’s oeuvre with a humanistic thirst for knowledge of the natural world. Hence the drawing of uncertain date, in watercolor and gouache heightened with white and gold, of a blue roller, in which Dürer brilliantly captures the patterns, textures, and colors of the gorgeous bird’s plumage. His 1503 watercolor The Great Piece of Turf is rigorously designed, as its meticulously depicted array of botanic forms is arranged within the simple geometric envelope of an asymmetrical triangle. The tallest plant is the apex, and the picture’s center of gravity is the thick clump of vegetation directly beneath it.

#page#The anthropomorphic and heavily symbolic treatment of trees represents a counterpoise to Dürer’s naturalistic tendencies. In the ca. 1501 engraving of Saint Eustace, the Roman military commander who on a hunt encounters a stag with a crucifix rising between its antlers, the main trunk of the dead tree between the warrior’s horse and the stag in the middle ground includes an arboreal trope of a male torso, with knots filling in for navel and nipples and two subsidiary branches extending from the trunk in a manner suggestive of the Crucifixion while playing off the bifurcations of the stag’s antlers. Along with the beautifully drawn if rather primitively arranged animals in the picture, the tree assumes a vivid presence. Such trees recur in Dürer’s work. In the 1515 etching of the agony in the garden, a tree’s branches recoil from the glory of the kneeling Christ’s aureole and the epiphany of the chalice and strengthening angel.

Where Dürer comes closest to Michelangelo is in his 1504 engraving of Adam and Eve, with Eve taking the forbidden fruit from the serpent’s mouth. These frontal figures are based on Dürer’s study of Vitruvius and his prolonged quest for a canonic system of proportions that would govern male and female figure types. Adam’s musculature is impressively resolved; Dürer has achieved a high degree of unity in the figure as a whole without sacrificing the clarity of its parts. Though of course a non-sculptural work — albeit one obviously informed by antique sculpture — this Adam bears comparison with Michelangelo’s contemporaneous statue of David. Here Dürer’s grasp of heroic male form is comparable to what we encounter in the celebrated statue, which is far less rigorous in its proportions.

Around the years 1504–08, which included the second of his two Venetian sojourns, Dürer made numerous drawings with pen and black ink and white heightening on blue or green paper. The most famous of these shows a  highly detailed yet powerfully sculptural pair of hands folded in prayer. It is displayed along with the upraised head of the unnamed apostle to whom the praying hands belong. The apostle’s head is a masterwork; like his hands, it was unquestionably drawn from life. Here too Dürer is seeing form sculpturally, clearly following the subtly undulating contours of the skull in modeling the bearded apostle’s features. Such formal rigor would serve the artist well when it came time to draw the Emperor Maximilian’s portrait bust (1518) in polychromatic chalk.

Other marvelous works in the exhibit include the unforgettable engravings of the knight in armor resolutely ignoring the ghastly figures of Death and the Devil as he strides past them on his magnificent steed (1513) and that disconsolate angel of humanism, brooding amidst the emblems of geometry, art, craft, and the inexorable passage of time, the whites of her eyes flashing in the gloom (Melencolia I, 1514).

The drawings in the Michelangelo exhibit, originally organized and hosted by the Muscarelle Museum at the College of William and Mary, mostly post-date Michelangelo’s completion of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in 1512. Consisting of architectural designs and figure compositions, the drawings help us understand the essentially unitary development of his sculptural and architectural ideas in his later years. Unlike Dürer, Michelangelo was a stranger to stylistic eclecticism. The David’s frontal, pictorial orientation was a vestige of medieval realism that simply disappeared from his mature work. The influence of antique sculpture was decisive: The emphatically sculptural, dimensional male nudes, or ignudi, punctuating the Biblical scenes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling were largely inspired by a Hellenistic masterpiece, the Belvedere Torso.

#page#Michelangelo’s stupendously modeled drawing of the Madonna and Child (1524), though unevenly finished, vividly conveys the three-dimensional continuity of the figures. Employing black and red chalk, red wash, white heightening, and ink, Michelangelo imparts a rich, marble-like texture to the infant’s body, transforming what would normally be pudgy flesh into heroic musculature in a manner that is anatomically utterly convincing. In his highly finished, ravishing black-chalk drawing of Cleopatra (ca. 1532–33), which he presented to the young Roman nobleman Tommaso dei Cavalieri, the torsion in the figure of the Christ child is greatly intensified, with the doomed Egyptian queen looking back over her shoulder in sublime resignation as the asp’s head reposes on her bare breast. Her elongated neck assumes an impossibly serpentine plasticity, yet Michelangelo’s anatomical alchemy triumphs again: The counterspirals of the sternomastoid muscles in her neck, with the Adam’s apple subtly lodged between them, seem astonishingly natural. Dimensional patterns in this bust-length picture are added by the twists and turns of the snake and the long, braided tail of Cleopatra’s exotic coiffure.

A preliminary figure study from around 1535 shows the angel restraining Abraham as he is about to slay his son Isaac in fulfillment of God’s command. Michelangelo may have envisioned a relief sculpture when he made this drawing. The poses of Abraham and Isaac are very complex, with Abraham’s right leg perched on the sacrificial block and thrust under the boy’s bound right arm. Isaac, crouching on one knee, strains to catch a glimpse of the angel to his side and behind him. Abraham is of course an old man, of the same figure type as Saint Jerome. It’s worth noting how much less labored and at the same time more sculpturally informed Michelangelo’s drawing of the Old Testament patriarch is, compared with Dürer’s portrayal of Jerome four decades earlier.

Michelangelo’s architectural development is engagingly presented as well. In 1516, the Medici pope, Leo X, commissioned Michelangelo to design a façade for his family’s Florentine parish church, San Lorenzo. Michelangelo’s initial design reflects the Roman idea of monumental architecture as a pedestal for sculpture, to use the art historian Henry Hope Reed’s expression. The building’s pure geometry is revealed in exquisite detail on one side, then fleshed out with its sculptural accoutrements — ranging from relief panels to figures in the round — on the other. (After repeated alteration of the design, Leo canceled the façade project in 1520, probably out of concern for its cost.)

During the 1520s, Michelangelo’s architectural thinking took a new turn. Just as a significant element of abstraction appears in his Cleopatra’s serpentine form, so did his concept of architectural monumentality become more abstract. In his ingenious design for the Laurentian Library vestibule in the San Lorenzo complex, Michelangelo largely forsook sculptural enrichment, while his architectural vocabulary itself became more sculpturally expressive. The plasticity of the famously lava-like downward flow of the vestibule’s central stairs — a sort of architectural analogue to the preternatural plasticity of Cleopatra’s neck — is an obvious case in point.

An architectural drawing from the mid 1520s of part of a wall — or possibly part of a freestanding architectural monument — that would harbor a pair of papal tombs in San Lorenzo’s choir shows Michelangelo reworking the vestibule’s abstract wall articulation in a more spatially active manner, with bolder projections and recessions than the vestibule’s constricted floor area could accommodate. This intensely lucid approach to architecture culminated in the majestic articulation of the exterior walls Michelangelo subsequently designed for Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It is also amply reflected in his beautifully modulated and lamentably unrealized plan for the Church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini in Rome, a very late work dating to around 1560 that is one of the highlights of this exhibition. Fortunately, the possibilities of spatial experience Michelangelo envisioned here were not lost on architects of the baroque period.

– Mr. Leigh writes about public art and architecture and is based in Washington, D.C.

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