Michelangelo: The Last Decades

British Museum (London), May-Jul/24

An elegant and erudite exhibition that appeals more to the intellect than the senses…

“The voyage of my life at last has reached, /across a stormy sea, in a fragile boat, /the common port all must pass through, to give /an accounting for every evil and pious deed […]”: these are the first lines that we read crossing the threshold of the exhibition, in which Michelangelo looks at his life from the end, and sums it up. 

Curated by Sarah Bowels (The Smirnov Family Curator of Italian and French Prints and Drawings at The British Museum) and Grant Lewis, the show illustrates the last thirty years of Michelangelo’s activity, from when he left his hometown Florence to Rome in 1534, until his death at almost 90 years old. These were intense decades, in which the artist dedicated himself to a variety of works in different media (drawings, architecture, frescoes) and in which, left behind the youthful masterpieces, his evolution continued constantly. Admiring the sketches and reading the papers on display, we obtain an intimate and human portrait of a polymath who, in his decline towards old age, meditates like all of us, on memory, death and the destiny of the world.  

From an explanatory panel exhibited

An highlight: Vittoria Colonna and the spirituali

The exhibition also invites the public to rediscover Vittoria Colonna, a very interesting figure: Roman noblewoman, intellectual and poet, close friend of Michelangelo. The two were both members of the spirituali, an elite group of religious reformers. “United by their profound faith, they exchanged letters and poems, and he created artistic compositions for her. Vittoria’s deeply personal spirituality had a profound effect on Michelangelo, influencing his late poems and religious imagery”.

Why to visit the exhibition

The exhibition intercepts a current rampant trend and tries to stand in contrast to it: framing famous artists as absolute geniuses and focusing with uncritical veneration only on their major masterpieces. The consequences of this dangerous approach are two: the first is an idealisation of the artist, rather than a correct historical contextualization of him, the second is an incentive to the unbridled over-tourism that makes those visiting Florence queue for hours to see the David, instead of going, for example, to Casa Buonarroti, which is always empty. This phenomenon affects many artists, but it is particularly accentuated with Michelangelo, considering the reputation of divinity that was attributed to him since he was alive (from Vasari in Le Vite). Nevertheless, it should be remembered, and this exhibition contributes in this sense, that the “absolute genius” and the “absolute masterpiece” are only inventions of contemporary historiography. The term absolute, from the Latin ab-solutus, means “loose” by ties, and an isolated artist who produces a work not steeped in links with the context does not exist. On the contrary, as an ancient Arabic proverb says: “Men resemble their times more than their fathers”.

Camilla Ceppini for London Art Walk
June 2024