Saturday, 28 January 2012

Michelangelo's The Dream: A closer look at melancholy

As my interest is predominantly early modern/Renaissance, I thought a brief excursion into the sixteenth century was in order. I wrote this a few years ago but it's still interesting so thought I'd share it.

London's admittedly wide and varied collections of art cannot compete with the palaces, churches, museums and art galleries of Rome when it comes to treasures from the high renaissance (a 'fluffy' term but usually accepted as around 1500). However at London's National Gallery, British Museum and other places, the works of art freely and publicly available are masterpieces of their type. One of the best small galleries in London, the Courtauld Gallery is in possession of an excellent collection of over 7000 drawings and includes one of these masterpieces.

Michelangelo's drawing Il Sogno (The Dream) (1533-4) formed the centre piece of an exhibition where specialists brought together the artist's poetry, correspondence and drawing by other artists such as Raphael and Durer. As The Dream is rarely on display due to conservation issues, it not only provided an opportunity to see it in the flesh but also to see it in its historical, social, artistic and romantic context. On a quick point of access, it is possible to make an appointment with the prints department and see anything in the collection.

Copyright: © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London. Accepted by HM Government in lieu of capital transfer tax and presented to the Samuel Courtauld Trust for The Courtauld Gallery in 1981.
The Drawing

I was immediately engaged by the sheer beauty of its execution and the puzzling nature of its meaning. You can gaze at it, as close as you can get, absorbed by its detail and perfection. As the exhibition curator said, 'these drawings were meant to be looked at and studied, people looked at them with magnifying glasses and mirrors for hours and hours. With these you can't reach higher'.

Words cannot do justice to this drawing ; the focus of the drawing is the idealised male nude who reclines awkwardly so that his shoulder and leg muscles are tensed. His head turns to look up at an inverted nude flying figure, his wings outstretched and blowing vigorously down a long slim trumpet directly at the seated figure's forehead. He is seated, reclining against a sphere, on an open fronted box which appears to contain theatrical masks, softness supplied by the ruched drapery. This central tableau is flanked by a wreath of smaller, fainter male and female nudes which appear to be in a range of contorted active positions. When examined minutely you find the figures fight, embrace, sleep, and roast things on a spit.

The difference in finishes between the nude, the wing figure and the figures in the background is very deliberate; the images surrounding the youth were not left unfinished deliberately but he wanted to convey a number of ideas. He wanted to convincingly show depth or recession in the drawing; the lightly sketched images have a dreamlike unreality, each one seems to morph into the next. The various levels of non finito chalk work emphasises the shimmering movement within the individual groups of figures. As Walter Benjamin points out in his work on Genius, this unfinished state is evidence of the 'constant labour', the potential for further beautiful drawings to emerge from the initial sketches.

This can be obviously contrasted with the recumbent figure which is almost sculptural in its solidity. The rounded three dimensional quality of the figure is achieved by the application of minute strokes of black chalk, far more laborious and accurate than stippling or smudging. The depth of shadows around the nude firmly grounds him and though the flying figure is as carefully and finely drawn, the dark outlines are missing. This gives him the lightness to realistically hang in mid air, suspended only by his energetic contortions and delicately feathered wings. The two figures belong together and make up perfect symmetry, a triangular composition where the focus is very much on the forehead and trumpet.

Reason Created

Recent scholarship has placed The Dream within Michelangelo's 'presentation drawings' series, a group of works which the artist gave to his closest friends. It was probably made for a Roman nobleman called Tommaso de' Cavalieri who was celebrated for his outstanding beauty, manners and intellect. Michelangelo met him in Rome in winter 1532 and instantly fell in love. He gave Tommaso a superb group of drawings during the first years of their relationship therefore it seems reasonable to assume that The Dream was part of this series. Despite the personal nature of these drawings they were well known and highly praised. In his Life of Michelangelo (1568) the biographer and artist Georgio Vasari praised these exceptional works as 'drawing the like of which have never been seen'.


The Dream was named soon after its creation. Although no one appears to be asleep in the drawing, we are invited to enter the nocturnal journey of the artist's mind. Vasari's title could not refer just to the dreams of the nude but it may be a picture of the artist's dream. But what is he dreaming about?

The first interpretation was suggested in 1545 by an anonymous majolica plate maker who understood it as an illustration of an angel awakening from the Prophet Daniel from a nightmare he was having about the Seven Deadly Sins.

Non biblical textual interpretations range from the satirist Aretino's erotic poetry to the serious discussions of Plato concerning Eros. At this time during the 1530s Michelangelo was writing love sonnets in the tradition of Dante and Petrarch and their imagery was steeped in neo Platonic thought. However it's accepted that The Dream does not directly illustrate his his poems but merely offer a parallel reading, as Francoise Viatte's exhibition notes say, the pictorial languages mirror each other.

Plato has been central to the theses of Erwin Panofsky, Ernst Gombrich and others. Combining bothpoetic and neo Platonic sources, Gombrich opens his hypothesis with this arrogant statement, 'the interpretation of [the drawing] offers no major difficulties' and links it with Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola's neo Platonic Latin poem A call to rise from the wretched sloth of mortal life to the perpetual vigil of the happy life (1532-4). Perhaps this reflects the intellectual sentiment of the artist's world but it is far too simplistic and unsatisfying interpretation given the complexity of the image.

Staying with neo Platonism, Panofsky's reading of the drawing is complex. Briefly, the youth is surrounded by the SDS and reclines on an unstable sphere embodying the human mind 'placed as it is between the fallacious and unreal life on earth and the celestial realm whence the awakening inspiration descends to dispel the evil dreams'. The angel who blows the trumpet awakens the mind of the virtuous.

More recent interpretations from van den Doel (2008) and Ruvoldt (2003) suggest that the youth is melancholic temperament surrounded by its negative aspects namely gluttony, dipsomania, lust, greed, anger and sloth. These have obvious similarities to the SDS but subtle and crucial differences. In Renaissance medicine, melancholy was one of the four humours and said to be associated with artistic and creative genius so this reading immediately links to the artist. Ruvoldt interprets the youth as a portrait of Michelangelo's soul.

The drawing has also been compared with the fabulously complicated and intellectual engraving'Melancholia (1514) by Albrecht Durer. Both include geometric shapes, bags of money and winged figures.
The unusual placement of the trumpet is significant in The Dream. Not only is it the spot for the cauterisation of melancholics according to medieval medical texts but Leonardo da Vinci supposed it to be the part of the brain which received and processed visual images. The box of masks is intriguing. The bearded mask is supposedly a self portrait but they also form part of the drawing's dream iconography, representing deceit, artifice or imitation. Should the idealised youth be a representation of the soul of the artist, perhaps masks are a caricature of the corporeal being of Michelangelo.


The intellectual endeavour of this drawing cannot be stressed enough. It is a complicated image designed to stand up to repeated, satisfying study with a magnifying glass, supplemented by learned and witty conversation. It is multi-faceted and multi-layered, not designed for uninformed general public consumption but a gift created by a passionate educated man who wanted to dazzle an equally cultured gentleman who by all accounts dazzled Michelangelo in turn with his beauty. The drawing is a labour of love, that is to say in neo Platonist, Ficinian terms, 'the state of frenzied inspiration, ignited by physical beauty and love.

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