The drawings that Michelangelo did not want you to see

There are about 600 drawings by the Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo that have survived to the present day – many of them stunningly beautiful – but he would probably have been “absolutely horrified” that the general public can now see them.

Twenty-nine of Michelangelo’s most famous drawings were at a special exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Michelangelo: Quest for Genius, which was held last year. To help introduce the collection, the gallery invited Hugo Chapman, Curator of Italian drawings at The British Museum, to give a lecture on Michelangelo Drawings: The Artist Revealed.


One of the most fascinating revelations of Chapman’s talk was that Michelangelo nearly always wanted to have his drawings destroyed, and would send letters back to his studio in Florence ordering they be burned. This is why only about 600 of them have survived since the 16th century, even though Michelangelo was constantly producing drawings throughout his 77-year career as an artist.

In the 1568 edition of Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari, written just four years after Michelangelo’s death, Vasari explains that Michelangelo did not want others to see the effort that had gotten into the creation of his work. However, Chapman finds that another reason that can be found in his letters – he wanted to deny access to other artists details about his own artistic process. “Keeping things away from other artists is key to his make-up” Chapman explains.


At one point he even writes to his father to complain “I wrote to you that no one should touch my things, or drawings, or anything else. You have not given me an answer so it appears you do not read my letters!”

Michelangelo saw the way best way in making a business out of his artistic endeavours was to be very exclusive, and not give away or share his talents. This is also why the Italian master only took on students who were terrible artists, with Chapman noting that he would feel very threatened if anyone remotely decent was around him, fearing they might steal his ideas.

The drawings that do survive tell us much about Michelangelo’s style and the workings of his studio. These drawings were often done as preliminary sketches for what he was designing. If he was commissioned to design a building or other artwork, Michelangelo would create a series of pen and ink drawings to form his ideas. For example, one can see here his plan for the Church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini in Rome, which he made around 1560:

Michelangelo - Plan for the Church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini in Rome

Chapman notes that drawings were also used as a means of communication between the artist and the patron, as the artist uses these sketches to help explain his ideas to his patron. We do have the extensive correspondence between Michelangelo and Pope Clement VII (1523-1534), related to the commission for designing the Laurentian Library at San Lorenzo’s Church in Florence. Several letters were exchanged between the two men each week for a period of about three years, which often included drawings of what the artist had in mind.


In some cases Michelangelo gave some of his drawings away, such as his portrait of Cleopatra – it was originally given as a gift to Tommaso dei Cavalieri, a young Roman aristocrat that Michelangelo had fallen in love with. Chapman notes that this was a work that showed the artist’s “most personal and intimate side.” When Tommaso was forced to give this drawing away to Duke Cosimo di Medici he would sadly comment that it was like the loss of a child for him. It is one of the pieces that you can see at the exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario – and you can see the back of the paper where Michelangelo had made a first rough draft.

Cleopatra at the AGO

For Chapman, Michelangelo is one of the great draftsmen in artistic history – his works, while never meant to be shown outside his own studio, are among the most beautiful of his creations. “We have to look at them very intensely and interrogate them with a kind of forensic detail,” he told his audience. “They are not works to be seen in 30 seconds – you walk past them and that’s it – they really do repay very close attention.”

You can learn more about the exhibition by visiting the Art Gallery of Ontario’s website.


Click here to listen to Michelangelo Drawings: The Artist Revealed, by Hugo Chapman