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July 20, 2010 — Michelangelo stands apart from his contemporaries. But is he a genius, as his historical legacy would have us believe?
In her book, "Michelangelo, Drawing, and the Invention of Architecture," University of Virginia associate professor of architectural history Cammy Brothers counters the commonly held notion of genius as a function of spontaneity, which Michelangelo himself set forth. He encouraged the idea that he never studied with anyone, and that his gifts just came to him naturally.
Brothers argues, "What we see in his drawings – and the same can be said about Leonardo – is that there is actually evidence of tremendous labor. There is a huge amount of work that goes into anything he comes up with and the drawings document that in a way that the finished works cannot."
The drawing evidence also counters the idea of genius as having an endless supply of ideas that "crop up in a spontaneous manner." Michelangelo kept his drawings as an archive "from which he keeps drawing. He goes back to old ideas revising them and repurposing them," she said.
In the book, Brothers focuses on two aspects of Michelangelo's work – the relation between the drawings he made of the human figure and his architecture, and what these drawings, considered together, reveal about Michelangelo and his way of thinking.
Looking at different aspects of an artist's work together is rare for art historians. In Michelangelo's case, that means they would be examining either his paintings, sculptures or architecture, Brothers said, but rarely two or three of those genres together.
"Even though it seems quite obvious that if one person did all these different works, it makes sense to think about how they are related, it's very rare in scholarship to do that," Brothers said.
Another rarity is to study architectural drawings removed from the investigation of what they reveal about the built architectural work, such as the study of the sequence of ideas for a project in order to arrive at new dating for a building or insight into a specific project.
"What is unusual about my work is that I was interested in the drawings for their own sake, in terms of what they reveal about Michelangelo's way of thinking," she said. "That led me to ask different questions than had been asked of them before."
Brothers began thinking about these ideas while researching her dissertation, a project about the 15th- and 16th-century drawings of ancient Roman ruins. Brothers' interest was piqued when she saw Michelangelo's drawings of architectural details.
"I was immediately struck by these, because I'd been looking at drawings that were very archeological in nature. They were extremely detailed with measurements and always identifying what type of architectural fragment was being looked at and its location. The drawings I looked at by Michelangelo were utterly different," Brothers said.
"They were in red chalk rather than pen and were very freehand rather than measured. They just seemed to be very different in their attitude."
That chance discovery led Brothers to explore the broader issue of why Michelangelo's drawings were so different from those of his contemporaries, and if that could help explain why his architecture is so different also.
"One of the things that is so remarkable about Michelangelo's drawings is that the process is documented. You can watch the sequence by which he gets from one idea to another. That's unusual, and I think it's probably the first time you see that in drawing. I can't think of any of his predecessors where that whole process of arriving at a design idea is documented," Brothers said.
One contributing factor was that the printing press was invented in the middle of the 15th century, and by the end of the century paper was plentiful. Michelangelo used that bounty to his advantage, filling pages with original figure drawings from models and then adapting those drawings.
"He would take the figure through a series of steps to allow him to arrive at a seemingly infinite number of variations on the interpretation of the body," Brothers said.
In these variations, he "seemed to be just rotating the body or changing its angle in some way or creating a mirror of an image. And what I found is that he took similar steps when he approached architecture," she said.
Rather than be beholden to or imitate architectural precedents, as his contemporaries did, if Michelangelo needed a capital or base for a column, he would start at a similar point as his contemporaries but "he would keep drawing and drawing and vary certain parts or distort certain angles or maybe change the scale – similar shifts that he had done with the figure – and arrive at something utterly different from where he started."
"He certainly studied ancient Roman models of architecture, but he did so in a more distinctive and more independent way. He always expressed his confidence and ability to go beyond those models and you can see that in his architecture – both in the details and the plans," Brothers said.
"So there is a sense of newness to what he is doing, a sense of invention that hadn't been present in many works of his contemporaries."
Teaching in the School of Architecture helped Brothers frame her ideas about Michelangelo's work. "Being able to observe young architects being trained and observing colleagues and the role drawing plays in their own process – all of that had a large impact on my own thinking about the project as it developed," she said.
"For this project, I think the idea of the vitality of drawing as a continuous practice in architecture has been really important to me, and that I think I could have only gotten from an architecture school."
"Michelangelo, Drawing, and the Invention of Architecture" won this year's Charles Rufus Morey Book Award from the College Art Association and the Alice Davis Hitchcock Book Award from the Society of Architectural Historians.
Brothers' next project will focus on the work of Giuliano da Sangallo. "He is very significant as one of the first architects to draw the ruins of Rome. He was a trusted friend of Michelangelo's and also an important teacher of architecture for him. But unlike Michelangelo, Giuliano has been a little bit ignored by history," she said.
She plans to explore the ways 15th- and 16th-century architects experimented with ways of representing ancient Roman architecture.
"It was a period before the conventions of architectural representation that we have today – plan, section and elevation – were set in stone, so you can see these ideas in flux," Brothers said.
Brothers spent a month in Rome this summer looking at archival drawings and will continue her research in January in Washington, D.C., as a research fellow at the Center for Advanced Study of the Visual Arts, mining the National Gallery's photographic collection of architectural drawings.