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Musei Capitolini Exhibits Michelangelo's Most Mysterious Work of Art
Michelangelo Buonarroti, "Madonna and Child", circa 1525. Black pencil, red pencil, white lead, and ink on paper, 541 x 396 mm. Inv. 71F

ROME.- This drawing on a support made by gluing two sheets together, has often been called a “small cartoon”. However there is no evidence that this piece represents a preparatory phase of any work by Michelangelo or by artists connected to him. It is instead enlightening to think of this piece, without comparison in the corpus of Michelangelo’s drawings, as a meditation – continually recurring in the artist’s mind- on a maternity that is too painful for the mother to fully express her love for her son. It is no accident that the most notable “pentimento” on this page shows that Michelangelo had first drawn the Madonna’s face in profile, with downcast eyes looking at the Child. Here and very often elsewhere, we find reminiscences of a tradition of maternal-filial tenderness that the artist was not able to accept from his predecessors, arriving instead at a dramatic absence of communication between mother and child.

The image of the mother has a pose and an expression that are completely disconnected from The Child at her breast; her gaze is lost in the foreboding of future tragedy. In terms of the piece’s content and psychology, the youthful Michelangelo had already dealt with the enigma of this gaze in his Madonna of the Steps.

But over time the idea would evolve stylistically until it reached its highest expression in the mysterious "Madonna of the New Sacristy" in San Lorenzo, whose undeniable similarities to this drawing support the date we have accepted here.

A number of pentimenti can be seen in The Child as well. His head is traced with a delicate use of chiaroscuro that makes it similar to the Madonna’s.

His body, sketchy and finished with effects of painterly illusion, is completely void of holiness, as Paola Barocchi effectively summarizes when she speaks of “the putto’s concrete plasticity”.

The expressive disparity and technical rendering of the two figures make the general reading of the drawing problematic. This does not explain, however, why this disparity should be cited by several scholars of the stature of Berenson or Dussler to deny the attribution of the work to Michelangelo.

Michelangelo the Younger had recognized the excellent quality of the “small cartoon”. Placing it in the Room of the Angels, that is in the (even spiritual) center of the seventeenth – century rooms that he had set up on the second floor of the Casa. The drawing’s fame reached its apex during the nineteenth century, especially on the occasion of the four-hundredth anniversary of Michelangelo’s birth in 1875, when the Casa Buonarroti’s exhibition of drawings made the collection famous in Italy and abroad . In fact, an intervention discovered during a recent restoration probably dates from that time: the upper part of the page shows the signs of a cut, probably made for framing purposes but which, at the center, has removed part of the Madonna’s veil.

Musei Capitolini | Paola Barocchi | Michelangelo |

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