Michelangelo’s rare works visit the College’s Muscarelle museum

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February 9, 2010

1:05 AM

Despite its small size and a name that proves difficult for many to pronounce, the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William and Mary has recently hosted exhibitions by such well-known artists as Andy Warhol, Louis Comfort Tiffany and now, Michelangelo. The exhibition, “Michelangelo: Anatomy as Architecture, Drawings by the Master,” will be on display at the Muscarelle until Sunday, April 11.

The collection highlights 12 drawings, engravings and archival pages of Michelangelo’s on loan from the Fondazione Casa Buonarroti in Florence, Italy. The Casa has been the home of Michelangelo’s family line since the 1700s and houses 250 of Michelangelo’s drawings and the largest collection of his poems, sonnets and letters.

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born in Tuscany and he went on to become one of the most famous artists in history, known for his paintings, sculptures, sketches, poems and architecture. Michelangelo worked during the Italian Renaissance, creating works such as the Sistine Chapel, the David and the Pièta.

“The rare and infrequently seen drawings of this Renaissance artist are among the most treasured in the world,” Aaron de Groft, director of the Muscarelle, said.

De Groft first became interested in the works of Michelangelo when he was an art history major studying abroad in Florence through the College. His professor, Miles Chappell, used his extensive connections with the art community in Florence to gain access to an incredibly exclusive collection of Old Master drawings and prints in the Uffizi Gallery. It was in this gallery that de Groft was first exposed to Michelangelo’s sketches.

“Michelangelo anthropomorphized his architecture, giving it human qualities and proportions [so that] his designed parts were akin to parts of the body,” de Groft said.

This idea generated the primary theme of the exhibition, which revolves around Michelangelo’s conception of architecture as fundamentally anatomical. As a young man, Michelangelo was fascinated by the human form and anatomy. He studied and dissected numerous corpses in a convent hospital in order to more realistically portray his human subjects. Michelangelo saw this anatomy — bones, muscles, nerves, and the proportions of the human body — as synonymous with the primary components of architecture. This mindset is reflected in Michelangelo’s 12 sketches on display at the Muscarelle.

“It’s all about how he incorporated the human figure into his architecture,” Lenna Walker ’11, president of Museum University Student Exchange, said. “The museum [exhibit] related his works to how he studies the human body and how he incorporated that into his drawings.”

While the exhibit emphasizes an important facet of Michelangelo’s work through the connection between architecture and human anatomy, one of the main highlights of the exhibit is it’s novelty.

“Our collection of Michelangelo drawings has more drawings than there are in the rest of the U.S. combined,” Rusty Meadows ’11 said. “It is a very big honor to have these at the College.”

De Groft acknowledged the great privilege of exhibiting these works at the Muscarelle.

“Being able to host these magnificent works is really the pinnacle of what any museum can do,” de Groft said.

The Muscarelle has the privilege of being the only U.S. venue to host the exhibition before it returns to Italy.
De Groft explained that the museum has received frequent calls from other museums requesting to host the exhibition. Unfortunately, due to strict regulations at Casa Buonarroti, each work can only travel once a year, and this year Williamsburg was chosen.

“You cannot go to any museum in America today and see any drawings by Michelangelo because they are so rare and precious,” de Groft said.

He credits the realization of this exhibition to his close relationships with Florentines and the international prestige of the College. These connections allowed de Groft to bring this landmark exhibit to Williamsburg this spring.

“This is the first time they have been in America,” Walker said. “It is great to see a William and Mary museum host something like that.”

As the president of MUSE, a student organization that volunteers for events and exhibits at the Muscarelle, Walker attended the exhibition opening. The amount of people at the opening foreshadows the large crowds the exhibit is expected to bring.

“Most of the time I was walking the floor and talking to alumni,” Walker said. “I only got about 10 minutes to go and look at the exhibit myself.”

Along with hosting various events and volunteering many hours at the museum, Walker is also able to attend special events like the opening of this exhibition due to her involvement and leadership in MUSE.

“We are the volunteers for the Muscarelle,” Walker said. “We help out at exhibition openings, and we have different events that we host, which are usually art appreciation-type things.”

While the Muscarelle generally draws in crowds of 50,000 visitors per year, de Groft predicts attendance of over 60,000 for 2010, a predicted increase attributed largely to the Michelangelo exhibition. Students, faculty and staff of the College receive free admission to the museum, while it costs $15 for community members to gain entrance.

“[The exhibit is an] amazing opportunity, [which] for some may be the only chance in a lifetime [to experience],” de Groft said.

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