Andrew Lambirth

Spiritual journey

There has been a certain amount of controversy about this exhibition, the first Michelangelo show at the British Museum for 30 years. The exhibits are drawn almost entirely from the collections of three museums — the Teylers in Haarlem (where the exhibition was shown last year), the Ashmolean in Oxford and the BM itself. These are three of the greatest repositories of Michelangelo’s drawings, but over-reliance on them does exclude, for instance, the remarkable presentation drawings from the Royal Collection at Windsor. The exhibition has also been attacked on the grounds of authenticity. As the Daily Telegraph’s art critic Richard Dorment points out, ‘Only three of the 80 or so drawings attributed to Michelangelo on display are universally accepted by all scholars as being by the hand of the master.’ Will such dire warnings deter ardent gallery-goers? I hope not.

The problem with attribution is that scholars have to make a name for themselves, and what better way to do so than by overturning previously accepted masterpieces and insisting that they are actually by lesser artists? Delightful rumpus and everyone reads your book. Of course, fashions in art history change, and what might have been accepted as by Rembrandt or Michelangelo 100 years ago may indeed be questioned today. Certainly we think we know more in these enlightened times, though actually connoisseurship, which is the key to attribution, is less widespread than ever before. Dorment quotes a Swiss scholar called Alexander Perrig, who in 1991 identified only 95 drawings as being by Michelangelo. The usual count is around 600, so this is a depressingly low estimate. There is, in fact, very little consensus on the actual number of Michelangelo drawings in existence — various other ‘authorities’ have proposed such varying (but frighteningly precise) figures as 244 or 300. However, most people will not be much interested in the squabbles of academics beyond wanting to know how this might affect the exhibition under discussion.

I went into this show trusting the authority of the British Museum and I was not disappointed.

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