It was in 1532, during an extended visit to Rome, that the 57-year-old Michelangelo fell in love with a young nobleman, Tommaso di’Cavalieri, who was more than 40 years his junior. It is not known whether the relationship, which was to be lasting, also became a physical one, but the teenager’s beauty, his grace of manner and intellectual refinement bewitched the great Florentine. He made a series of what have since become known as his “presentation drawings” for the young man.
These drawings — “the like of which have never been seen”, the Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari said — set a precedent. For the first time, a chalk work on paper was not conceived of as a preparatory study but as a piece of art to be appreciated in its own right. The finished works are characterised not only by the superlative draughtsmanship but also, because they were presented as private gifts, by an intimacy that allowed their creator a unique degree of inventive freedom and presents their interpreters with the fullest range of possibilities. They have a richness and complexity to match that of any grand oil.
Now some of this superb sequence is being presented in an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery as the curators — giving a drawing collection that encompasses about 7,000 pieces the sort of emphasis more usually offered to paintings — bring out their greatest treasure and set it at the heart of an exhibition that also includes a handful of very fine loans.
This show focuses on a drawing, traditionally dated 1533, that has become known by the title that Vasari gave it: Il Sogno (The Dream). It shows a magnificent male nude roused from his slumbers by a trumpeting angel, his beautiful muscular body stirred to a fresh awakening as the fading figures of his dreams still swirl about him, writhing embodiments of the vices, of wrangling lusts and erotic satisfactions.
Letters from Cavalieri to the artist can testify to his intense engagement with this work. Hours were spent gazing and analysing: using mirrors and magnifying glasses, learning and imagination. Now, visitors to the Courtauld are encouraged to look at The Dream in the much same way. This is an unabashedly scholarly show. Its catalogue is a reminder of how thorough and how thoughtful, how patient and how pedantic, the art historian can be. But it has an important message for the broader public: it serves as a reminder, in the day of the blockbuster, of how scrupulously, deeply and protractedly an art work must be pondered before it begins to offer its more complex rewards. The Dream remains a profoundly enigmatic image. At its simplest it can be seen as an allegory of vice and virtue. But read the catalogue essays and you can pursue a long, densely interwoven, multilayered history of interpretations that attempt to decode this polysemic picture. The history of the representation of the seven deadly sins is traced and related to this picture, for example; the many possible meanings of the masks beneath the pedestal on which the youth rests are explored. The importance of the globe on which he leans is pondered. Does he push it away from him or pull it towards him? Every detail is significant to the art history anorak.
To the everyday visitor such analysis may feel decidedly arid, if not downright peculiar. There is, for instance, a search for what the experts assure you is a disembodied hand busily masturbating a giant phallus — its presence is confirmed by a contemporary etched copy that leaves the prurient spectator in no doubt.
But Michelangelo’s work has a power that can survive such dismemberment. These works were expressions of passion and love, of intellectual esteem and sexual desire. The exhibition emphasises this by looking at them in the context of not only the letters but the passionate poems that the artist wrote to Cavalieri. The original manuscripts are also on display, several of them for the first time.
On one level the presentation drawings were meant to be instructive, designed to teach Cavalieri the art of drawing. A spectacularly dramatic sequence exploring the plummeting fall of Phaeton (now shown together for the first time in Britain) suggests alternative ways of telling a story in pictures as well as revealing the role that Cavalieri himself played in their design. On another level they show Michelangelo working out ideas that he would later pick up, develop and elaborate, as when his lustful giant Tityus, rotated through 90 degrees, becomes a prototype for one of his most powerfully eloquent figures, his Risen Christ. But, even as the drawings serve a practical function, they never lose the sensuality, the passion and erotic desire that first gave them their impetus. You only have to look at his almost pornographic Ganymede to see that.
This exhibition includes an accompanying display of works related to The Dream — among them a superlative imprint of Dürer’s Melancholia. It is likely that Michelangelo learnt his subtlety of textures from this northern master, who renders every detail, from the hairs on a bended cow’s knee to the surface of a millstone, with fantastical precision. It is easy to see why The Dream became in its turn so copied and reproduced. But, in the end, what the drawings and copies make clearest is quite how magnificent Michelangelo’s talent was. This show works like a trumpet blast, reawakening the viewer to his inspirational powers.