The Mystery of Why Michelangelo Burned His Sketches Just Before He Died
In the days before Michelangelo’s death, while his health was deteriorating, the artist built two bonfires and burned everything he could get his hands on.
At the end of a long vaulted room in the Galleria dell’Accademia, there stands a man who has been hailed as the embodiment of perfection.
He looks nonchalantly off to the side while positioned in a casual contrapposto stance. His abs ripple in the natural light that gleams through the domed ceiling, his curly hair is perfectly coiffed with every strand defined, and his fingers and toes are faithfully detailed down to the creases and veins in a show of artistry that just might bring viewers to tears.
This man is the David sought out by millions of tourists visiting Florence each year, and he represents the pinnacle of Renaissance sculpture.
But if you were to study the drawings, cartoons, and papers left behind by Michelangelo, the genius behind this work, you would be forgiven for thinking the master sculptor picked up his chisel one day and carved this ideal specimen out of thin air. No preparatory drawings for the David exist.
Michelangelo worked hard to hone his talent and skills, not to mention his public perception (he was an early genius at personal branding), and it paid off. During his lifetime, he was lionized and his work highly sought after by the top patrons of his day. But he didn’t always want to put on display the effort that it took to achieve this greatness.
While 600 of the master’s drawings have survived, that is but a fraction of the preparatory works he is believed to have produced throughout his lifetime. (His elder and rival Leonardo da Vinci, for instance, left a surviving 4,000 pages.)
A variety of factors contributed to the loss including the vagaries of time, but for many of the drawings, it was the artist himself who was the agent of destruction. In the days before Michelangelo’s death, while his health was deteriorating, the artist built two bonfires and burned everything he could get his hands on.
This was not the first time Michelangelo had consigned his work to the fire.
By 1518, the sculptor was in his early forties and already a well established artist in Renaissance Italy.
By this time, he had sculpted the Pietà, Bacchus, and the David and painted the Sistine Chapel. He had completed multiple commissions for the Vatican, before being called up to Florence in 1515 by the other great pillar of artistic patronage of the era—the Medicis. (In the second half of his career, these two became one and the same.)
Throughout Michelangelo’s development as an artist, drawing was his foundation. It was where he developed his ideas and his technique, where he worked out technical problems, and where he explored innovations. He embraced the concept of “disegno,” the idea of drawing and design that reigned in Florence at the time.
According to Alan Riding in The New York Times, Michelangelo wrote a note to a student in 1520, imploring him to, “Draw Antonio, draw Antonio, draw and don't waste time.”
While drawing was essential to developing a vaunted artistic practice, it was not at the top of the hierarchy of art according to Michelangelo. It landed squarely behind sculpture, painting, and then architecture.
But just because Michelangelo didn’t rank his sketches up there with the David doesn’t mean he wasn’t protective of these works.
Maybe the Pope Julius IIs and the Lorenzo de’ Medicis of the world could afford to commission grand sculptures and paintings and chapels from him, but the ordinary denizens of the upper class in the Italian city-states had to content themselves with getting their hands on any piece of the star artist that they could.
His drawings were in high demand and Michelangelo was not always happy when they made their way into the world.
Riding writes that Michelangelo once scolded his father via post for showing some of his drawings to “outsiders,” and in Michelangelo: The Achievement of Fame, Michael Hirst describes some of his actions as driven by “his intense dislike, if not paranoia, of unauthorized access to his creations.”
It was perhaps in this psychological climate that the first recorded instance of Michelangelo destroying his own preparatory works occurred. In early 1518 he ordered his assistant in Rome, Leonardo Sellaio, to burn some cartoons that were stored at his house.
Cartoons were the preliminary drawings artists made to transfer designs onto walls or canvases, and in this instance it is believed that Michelangelo had it in for the cartoons he used to paint the Sistine Chapel.
“On February 5, 1519 Sellaio reported that almost all of them had been burnt; he expresses his grief over the decision, while confirming that he has devotedly carried it out,” Hirst writes.
This was not welcome news to the many Michelangelo acolytes, not to mention scholars from the following centuries. During the artist’s life, at least one of his supporters, Pietro Aretino, begged him to stop destroying his drawings.
In Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master, Hugo Chapman writes that Aretino, “in his sustained but unsuccessful attempt to wheedle the gift of some drawings out of Michelangelo, mentions in letters to the artist written from Venice in 1538 and 1546 that he would be happy to accept works that might otherwise end up being burnt.”
He would have been appalled to learn what Michelangelo would do at the end of his life. In 1546, when the sculptor was in his early seventies, his health began to decline. Michelangelo had experienced the recent deaths of several close friends and he must have known what was in store for him.
He made a very short will “leaving his soul to God, his body to the earth, and his material possessions to his nearest relations,” Howard Hibbard writes in Michelangelo. And then he decided to cull those material possessions.
According to reports from the artist’s nephew, Michelangelo made two bonfires and proceeded to burn all of the drawings and works on paper that were in his studio in Rome at the time. The only things that survived were some of the cartoons and two drawings.
We will never know for sure what treasures were burned in those final bonfires or why Michelangelo was so determined throughout his life to keep his process from being seen. His secretive nature surely played a role and it wasn’t entirely unfounded. He had rival artists and up-and-comers nipping at his heels eager to decode the secrets of his innovative style and genius.
But there is another explanation for his actions, one promoted by Giorgio Vasari, the biographer to the Renaissance artists.
Vasari believed that Michelangelo wanted to maintain an aura of perfection, and he wanted to hide the painstaking work that had gone into creating each of his masterpieces. In short, he was trying to control the narrative and image of Michelangelo, the Great Sculptor, so he burned the evidence of the work and process it took to get there.
As Vasari wrote,“I know that a little before he died he burned a great number of designs, sketches, and cartoons made with his own hand, to the end that no one might see the labours endured by him and his methods of trying his genius, and that he might not appear less than perfect.”
Artistic genius aside, Michelangelo, it turns out, may not have been that different from us all.