Michelangelo's Dream - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Michelangelo’s Dream

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Michelangelo's Dream

18 February – 16 May 2010

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The Dream (Il Sogno)
Michelangelo Buonoarroti The Dream, c.1533 © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

“… a sensational exhibition in more ways than one.”
The Guardian

“This show works like a trumpet blast, reawakening the viewer to [Michelangelo’s] inspirational powers.”
The Times

“… one of the greatest … shows you will ever see.”
The Observer

“A curatorial and scholarly triumph.” orangestar[1]orangestar[1]orangestar[1]orangestar[1]
The Daily Telegraph

“… far and away the most accomplished study of the subject yet.”
Evening Standard

“A breathtaking collection of drawings…” Rating: Outstanding
The Independent

“These are drawings of the most arcane refinement, unearthly beautiful.”
The New York Times

“… an unforgettable exhibition.”
Oxford Times

Michelangelo’s masterpiece The Dream is one of the greatest of all Renaissance drawings. This complex work shows a nude youth being roused by a winged spirit from the vices that surround him.

The Dream was probably part of the celebrated group of drawings which Michelangelo made as gifts for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, a young Roman nobleman with whom he had fallen passionately in love. With loans from international collections, the exhibition unites The Dream for the first time with these extraordinary drawings.

Michelangelo’s Dream also included a selection of previously unexhibited handwritten poems which the artist composed for Cavalieri. Further closely related drawings by Michelangelo as well as works by Albrecht Dürer and others shed light on the meaning of Michelangelo’s enigmatic masterpiece.

Exhibition Supporters

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  • The Friends of The Courtauld
  • Vermeer Associates Limited
  • The Samuel H. Kress Foundation
  • Tavolozza – Katrin Bellinger
  • The Doris Pacey Charitable Foundation
  • Mrs Elke von Brentano

“If one chaste love, if one sublime compassion, if one fortune affects two lovers equally, if one harsh fate matters as much to both, if one spirit, if one will rules two hearts…”
S’un casto amor, s’una pieta superna

Michelangelo Buonarroti, c.1532

The exhibition Michelangelo’s Dream contained not only drawings but also the manuscripts of some of his most important letters and poems. The poems, recorded for the exhibition and available here as podcasts, were composed for the Roman nobleman Tommaso de’ Cavalieri and deal with spiritual longing and passionate desire. Michelangelo’s sonnets and madrigals are perhaps less well known than his sculpture and painting but were considered of great worth by humanist intellectuals in his time. The introduction is narrated by Jim Harris. The poems follow in English translation, and then the original Italian.

Michelangelo and Tommaso de’ Cavalieri

Find out about the relationship between Michelangelo and the Roman nobleman Tommaso de’ Cavalieri with whom the artist had fallen passionately in love.

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Further information about the exhibition

“Drawings the like of which have never been seen.”
Giorgio Vasari, 1568

Michelangelo’s masterpiece The Dream (Il Sogno) has been described as one of the finest of all Renaissance drawings and it is amongst The Courtauld Gallery’s greatest treasures.  Executed in c.1533 when Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was at the height of his career, it exemplifies his unrivalled skill as a draughtsman and his extraordinary powers of invention. The exhibition Michelangelo’s Dream examines this celebrated work in the context of an exceptional group of closely related drawings by Michelangelo, as well as original letters and poems by the artist and works by his contemporaries.

Michelangelo Buonoarroti Bacchanal, c.1533. Royal Collection © 2010, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Michelangelo Buonoarroti Bacchanal, c.1533. Royal Collection © 2010, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

The Dream is one of Michelangelo’s ‘presentation drawings’, a magnificent and famous group of highly refined compositions which the artist gave to his closest friends.  These beautiful and complex works transformed drawing into an independent art form and are amongst Michelangelo’s very finest creations in any medium.

The Dream was probably made for a young Roman nobleman called Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, who was celebrated for his outstanding beauty, gracious manners and intellect.  Michelangelo had first met him in Rome in the winter of 1532 and had instantly fallen in love.  The Dream is likely to have been part of the superb group of drawings which Michelangelo gave to Cavalieri during the first years of their close friendship.  This group forms the heart of the exhibition and includes The Punishment of Tityus, The Fall of Phaeton, A Bacchanal of Children and The Rape ofGanymede.  In his Life of Michelangelo (1568) the biographer and artist Giorgio Vasari praised these exceptional works as ‘drawings the like of which have never been seen’ – and they are still regarded as amongst the greatest single series of drawings ever made.

Michelangelo Buonoarroti The Fall of Phaeton, c.1533 © The Trustees of the British Museum, London
Michelangelo Buonoarroti The Fall of Phaeton, c.1533 © The Trustees of the British Museum, London

 

Michelangelo’s drawings for Cavalieri have not been seen together for over twenty years and this is the first time that The Dream will be shown as part of this group.  Exceptionally also, The Fall of Phaeton will be reunited with two earlier versions of this composition.  Both carry inscriptions in Michelangelo’s hand, one requesting Cavalieri’s approval of the preliminary design.

The exhibition starts with the earliest surviving letter from Michelangelo to Cavalieri, dated 1 January 1533, in which the artist expresses his delight that Cavalieri had agreed to accept the gift of some drawings.  Cavalieri is thought to have been no older than 17 at the time and, according to Vasari, Michelangelo’s gifts were primarily intended to teach him how to draw.

The mythological stories such as Phaeton falling to earth with the chariot of the sun, the abduction of Ganymede – the most beautiful of mortals – and the punishment of the lustful giant Tityus may also have been intended to offer moral guidance.  The drawings certainly also served as expressions of Michelangelo’s love for Cavalieri.

 

Michelangelo Buonarroti Sonnett, c.1534/46 © Casa Buonarroti, Florence
Michelangelo Buonarroti Sonnett, c.1534/46 © Casa Buonarroti, Florence

Michelangelo’s ardour is eloquently described in the poems which the artist composed for Cavalieri, mainly in the early phase of their friendship.  Five handwritten sonnets are included in the exhibition; most of these are here shown for the first time.

Whilst adhering to the conventions of love poetry, these sonnets record with extraordinary intensity Michelangelo’s adoration of the young man whose sublime beauty he regarded as a reflection of God’s eternal beauty on earth.  The poetic imagery of dreaming, transcendence and the struggle between the carnal and the spiritual realms offers insight into the meaning and function of the presentation drawings, and The Dream in particular.

Michelangelo Buonoarroti The Dream (detail), c.1533 © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
Michelangelo Buonoarroti The Dream (detail), c.1533 © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

The presentation drawings created an immediate sensation at the court of Pope Clement VII in Rome.  In an early letter to Michelangelo, included in the exhibition, Cavalieri wrote that they had been admired by ‘the Pope, Cardinal de Medici and everyone’, adding apologetically that the Cardinal had already taken away Ganymede to have a replica made in crystal.  The Dream too became famous amongst Renaissance collectors and artists soon after its completion and was copied numerous times.  However, its precise meaning has remained elusive.  Rather than illustrate a text, the drawing engages with contemporary (Neo-Platonic) ideas about the ascent of the soul to the divine, aided by beauty.  The composition shows an idealised nude youth reclining against a globe.  Masks fill the open plinth on which he is seated.  The swirling dreamlike mass of figures surrounding the young man have traditionally been linked with the vices.  They enact scenes of gluttony, lust, avarice, wrath, sloth and envy, with a large phallus adding to the carnal imagery.  A winged spirit – possibly a personification of beauty and chaste love – approaches the youth with a trumpet, awakening him from the illusions and deceits of the earthly realm to a new spiritual life.  A single precise meaning for this complex allegory seems unlikely as the presentation drawings were clearly intended for careful scrutiny and prolonged learned discussion and enjoyment.

 

Michelangelo Buonoarroti The Risen Christ, c.1533. Royal Collection © 2010, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Michelangelo Buonoarroti The Risen Christ, c.1533. Royal Collection © 2010, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

A further highlight of the exhibition is a superb group of drawings by Michelangelo of Christ’s resurrection, which concentrate on the heroic nude figure of the reborn Christ leaping free of the tomb and the bondage of life on earth.  These drawings offer close thematic and formal comparisons with The Dream.  This group includes the glorious Risen Christ – widely celebrated as one of the most magnificent and potent figures in Michelangelo’s art.

The exhibition will further investigate the meaning of the The Dream in the context of closely related works by Michelangelo’s contemporaries which address themes of rebirth, dreaming and the nature of Man.  This section of the exhibition includes Albrecht Dürer’s enigmatic drawing of a bound youth and Giorgio Vasari’s free interpretation of The Dream.  The final section of the exhibition focuses on copies of The Dream and illustrates how Michelangelo’s contemporaries and later admirers responded to the puzzling subject matter and the extraordinary technical virtuosity of Michelangelo’s great work.

In 1533, Cavalieri wrote appreciatively to Michelangelo that he had been studying the drawings which the artist had given him for two hours a day.  The friendship between the two men would endure for thirty years.  Cavalieri was present at the artist’s death in 1564 and subsequently helped to realise some of his architectural schemes.  He so valued the drawings by Michelangelo that Vasari was to say: ‘…in truth he rightly treasures them as relics’.

The exhibition was been developed with the support of major international collections including The Royal Collection, Windsor; The British Museum, London; Casa Buonarotti, Florence; Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Rome; The Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth; the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne; Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford; Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich; Das Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main; Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris; Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge MA, and the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.

Poems

The exhibition Michelangelo’s Dream contains not only drawings but also the manuscripts
of some of his most important letters and poems. The poems, recorded for the exhibition and available here as podcasts, were composed for the Roman nobleman Tommaso de’ Cavalieri and deal with spiritual longing and passionate desire. Michelangelo’s sonnets and madrigals are perhaps less well known than his sculpture and painting but were considered of great worth by humanist intellectuals in his time.

Introductions narrated by Jim Harris. The poems are then read in English translation, and the original Italian.

Looking at Michelangelo

18 February – 16 May 2010

Christ on the cross
Michelangelo Buonarroti(1475 – 1564), Christ on the cross, Accepted by HM Government in lieu of capital transfer tax and presented to the Samuel Courtauld Trust for The Courtauld Gallery in 1981.

This related display offered a chance to enjoy further works by Michelangelo from The Courtauld’s collection as well as drawings by artists directly influenced by the master.

Highlights of this rich group are three autograph drawings by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), ranging from his early period in Florence to his very last years in Rome and covering both religious and pagan subjects. The display included the powerful late Christ on the Cross, drawn in the final years of the artist’s life.

Aeneas and a Child (recto)
Michelangelo Buonarroti(1475 – 1564), Aeneas and a Child (recto), The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Michelangelo never had an organised workshop, preferring to work alone with just a few pupils and assistants.  Nevertheless, his work was immensely influential in his own lifetime. The display explores how contemporary artists such as Jacopo Tintoretto and Jacopo Pontormo responded to Michelangelo’s creations.

The display also included a remarkable large composite print of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement. Composed of ten separate numbered sheets of paper, this marked the first time the print was reassembled since it entered The Courtauld’s collection.

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