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Published 05/05/2006 email E-MAIL print PRINT

The remarkable exhibition of Michelangelo's drawings currently causing major traffic congestion around the British Museum (through 25 June) raises the question of capacity control. The viewer has to be determined in this sardine syndrome. The drawings for the most part are so small that only one person alone, not two or three, can properly view a work at a time in the majority of cases. There is an excellent catalogue wisely and fortunately authored by the Curator at the British Museum, Hugo Chapman. This compensates thoroughly, with its high-quality reproductions, for lack of time to study the works in situ.

Currently, in an article in The New York Review of Books (27 April 2006, see www.nybooks.com/articles/18911), Ingrid D Rowland reviews three books related to Michelangelo: first, this catalogue. Second, the book Michelangelo and the Reinvention of the Human Body by James Hall and third, Michelangelo's Mountain: the Quest for Perfection in the Marble Quarries of Carrara by Eric Scigliano. What is original here is Rowland's own emphasis on the importance of Michelangelo's Etruscan patrimony. He collected Etruscan bronzes himself, 'whose strange, exaggerated anatomy made them powerfully expressive'. There are shades of an Etruscan 'demon' in one work, loosely identified by a London curator in the 19th century as Satan himself. Rowland goes on to take task with James Hall for a purely academic referencing of Michelangelo's ties to the Etruscans. Rowland rightly re-emphasises that Michelangelo's bonds to his Etruscan heritage were more deep-seated: 'as deep as his bonds to the Tuscan soil that provided ravenous Renaissance appetites with wine, truffles, and Etruscan artefacts'. The inhabitants of 16th-century Tuscany, as with their 14th- and l5th-century ancestors, found the Etruscan handling of form highly acceptable and 'as natural as eating or drinking'. The collections of Etruscan sculptures in Casa Buonarotti demonstrate that wild attraction of the soil, where even David echoes these Etruscan characteristics, in Rowland's expression, 'of a small wiry man, with long arms, compact proportions, with a springy tension that recalls Etruscan figures.'

It is to be regretted that conventional art historical wisdom about Michelangelo's rooting seeks always to ignore his vital Etruscan heritage and its profound effect on his work. Ingrid Rowland has done art scholarship a service here, by bringing truth rather than presumption back into the frame.



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