News | March 8, 2024

New Exhibition Features Michelangelo's Poems, Letters and Artistic Designs

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Michelangelo, study of the Last Judgment

A new exhibition at the British Museum will explore the final three decades of Michelangelo’s illustrious life and career. 

Michelangelo: the last decades will look beyond the artist to reveal his personality. Through a diverse array of his poems, letters and artistic designs, the exhibition will provide insights into the artist's interaction with his innermost and most trusted circle.

Loans from the British Library include lively letters to his young nephew that show Michelangelo had an irritable side. Meanwhile, poems and drawings directed to his aristocratic friends, Tommaso de' Cavalieri and the poet Vittoria Colonna, provide evidence of his passionate and deeply felt attachment to them. One exquisite work created as part of this correspondence, lent by His Majesty The King from the Royal Collection, is The Punishment of Tityus (about 1532) showing an eagle tearing out the liver of a bound naked man, gifted to Tommaso as moral guidance for the young man.

Michelangelo: the last decades (2 May – 28 July 2024) will delve into this significant period of the artist’s life, focusing on how his art and faith evolved through the common challenge of ageing in a rapidly changing world.

The monumental, 2m+ high Epifania (about 1550–53) will be displayed for the first time since its conservation which began back in 2018. The only complete surviving cartoon by Michelangelo, it is among the largest Renaissance works on paper.

For the first time in over four centuries, the exhibition will reunite the Epifania with the painting made from it by Michelangelo's biographer, Ascanio Condivi. The work, loaned from Casa Buonarroti, Florence, is a fascinating example of how the elderly Michelangelo used his skill in drawing to create models for others to paint.

The popular perception of Michelangelo focuses on the famous works of his youth such as the David (1501–04), or the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo: the last decades will introduce visitors to the variety and inventiveness of his late career which saw him still working four days before his death in 1564, aged 88. The exhibition will look at the way Michelangelo redefined the iconography of religious art to create hugely influential compositions of key moments in Christianity, such as the Crucifixion, the Lamentation and the Last Judgment, at a time when the Catholic Church was being challenged as never before.

Numerous other works from the British Museum’s collection of Michelangelo drawings will also be shown for the first time in almost two decades, including preparatory drawings from the Last Judgment, which chart how Michelangelo invented a fresh vision of how the human form would be refashioned at the end of the world.

The intensity of Michelangelo’s faith strengthened as he aged. On show will be one of the most moving examples of his meditation on Christ's death and his own mortality: a group of drawings of the Crucifixion, made during the last ten years of his life. Through them we witness an elderly artist turning to the act of drawing as a means of spiritual meditation, variations on a single theme to explore his feelings about mortality, sacrifice, faith, and the prospect of redemption.