A scholar finds a sketch of Michelangelo in the margin of a book

A drawing tucked into the margin of a 15th century edition of Dante divine comedy shows Michelangelo at work, says author and scholar James Hall who researched the sketch for his new book, The artist’s studio: a cultural history (Thames and Hudson). “The hitherto unrecognized sculptor can only be Michelangelo during or shortly after his triumphant feat sculpting the David (1501-4),writes Hall.

Hall’s interest in illustration was piqued during a lecture on Dante’s book given by Bill Sherman, director of London’s Warburg Institute, a center for academic Renaissance research. “I briefly saw this amazing drawing during the lecture. I was wondering if I could include it in my book. After several months, I suddenly thought that many pieces of the puzzle seemed to fit Michelangelo”, explains Hall.

The design shows an artist at work sculpting a colossal head, wielding a mallet. An armless statuette stands behind him. “You don’t usually get something that feels naturalistic and human that tells an extremely interesting story, drawing a comparison to Dante,” Hall said. The Arts Journal. The drawing appears in the first canto, Hell, when Dante boldly decides to take the “high way” through Hell.

The sculptor abandoned the more frivolous statuette to carve the colossal head. “His head seems to be spinning over his shoulder, smirking. I think it’s supposed to be a faun,” Hall says. “It reminds me a lot of the faun clinging to Michelangelo’s leg Bacchus (1496-7). Also, on the Sistine ceiling, there are decorative putti [cherubs] fixed on the architecture flanking the prophets and the sibyls [oracles], who are similar, spinning with cheeky expressions on their faces; it seems very much in that spirit,” says Hall.

Basically, the colossal head is similar in appearance to Michelangelo’s statues of St. Paul and Rock (1501-4), made for an altar in Siena Cathedral. “The heads are very classical in style and this also corresponds to the passage in Dante where, still hesitating, he says: ‘I am not Aeneas, nor St Paul.’ So Dante says I’m not one of those great figures,” Hall says. “But that’s what he becomes when he enters hell. Likewise Michelangelo when he does vast works that go beyond antiquity.

The artist behind the living drawing is debated. “The Dante edition was thought to belong to the Sangallo family, architects and sculptors, mainly based in Florence and Rome. But recently this has been questioned because the handwriting of the annotations in the book doesn’t seem to match the Sangallos,” he adds.

A Tuscan artist or even a talented amateur could have created the depiction of Michelangelo, Hall adds. “It would have been a labor of love; whoever owned this book would have annotated it gradually over the years. In this drawing you see different styles: the faun is done in a lightly drawn linear style while the rest of the drawing has lots of shading. What makes the style particularly unusual is the way the artist fills the background with parallel hatching, a technique sometimes seen in prints by [the 15th-century artist] Andrea Mantegna.

The artist’s studio: a cultural history, James Hall, Thames & Hudson, 288pp, £30, hb (published October 21 in UK; Spring 2023 in US).

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