Michelangelo and the Fully Formed Idea

Michelangelo supposedly said that all blocks of stone already contain a statue. The job of the sculptor is to simply release it by chipping away all the bits that don’t belong. His unfinished slaves–which line the hallway leading to dear David in Florence–show parts of the statue stuck in stone, struggling to step free. They imply that Michelangelo started in some random spot, hacking away to reveal a foot here, a torso there, an elbow there.

But not so. The Seattle Art Museum has a dozen drawings by the Renaissance master on display. They show the artist at work: erasing lines, rethinking compositions, and refining the overall layout before beginning the final work. Many of the sketches are preparations for the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The drawings are exceedingly rare. To reinforce the idea that his ideas sprung into his head fully formed, Michelangelo burned hundreds of his preparatory sketches.

The exhibit only runs through January 31, so be sure to catch it while you can if you’re in the Seattle area. If you’re too far or too late to attend in person, there’s a series of great videos on the exhibit by Dr. Gary Radke. They include this one detailing my favorite sketch–a hastily constructed shopping list.


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