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Michelangelo's drawings offer a unique insight into how the artist worked and thought. They are beautiful artworks in their own right but also provide a crucial link between his work as a sculptor, painter and architect. 

Michelangelo was extraordinarily famous during his lifetime, so much so that other artists produced portraits of him and three biographies were written. His artistic achievements set him in a class apart from his contemporaries; after the death of his main rival Raphael in 1520, he was to dominate the Roman art world for more than four decades. His primary focus as an artist was the male body, and his drawings chart his relentless search to find poses that would most eloquently express the emotional and spiritual state of his subjects.

Most of Michelangelo's drawings were never intended for public display. In fact, he would have been appalled to see them exhibited as he hated showing them to outsiders. He destroyed a large number before he died, probably to prevent them from falling into other hands; he may also have wished to conceal the amount of preparation behind his major works.

Michelangelo was the second of five sons, born in March 1475 near Arezzo in Italy. His family was middle-class - his father was a minor Florentine civil servant - but the family had fallen on hard times.

Michelangelo's artistic career began at the age of twelve, despite his family's disapproval because of the low status of artists at the time. He was apprenticed to the successful Florentine artist Domenico Ghirlandaio. Although later in life he claimed to be entirely self-taught, Ghirlandaio's influence can be seen in his work.

Left: Domenico Ghirlandaio, Standing Woman, 1485-90, pen and brown ink, 19.04 x 30.48 cm, Right: Michelangelo, An old man wearing a hat (Philosopher), c. 1495-1500, pen and brown ink, 33.1 x 21/5 cm. Both, © Trustees of the British Museum.Left: Domenico Ghirlandaio, Standing Woman, 1485-90, pen and brown ink, 19.04 x 30.48 cm, Right: Michelangelo, An old man wearing a hat (Philosopher), c. 1495-1500, pen and brown ink, 33.1 x 21/5 cm. Both 
© Trustees of the British Museum.

Ghirlandaio’s influence on Michelangelo can be seen by comparing their works. In the period that Michelangelo was in his studio, Ghirlandaio was working on the frescoes for the Tornabuoni chapel in the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella. Standing Woman is a study for one of the female figure in that fresco cycle. Ghirlandaio records precisely and rapidly the folds of the dress and decorative detail. The sumptuous dress was most likely modelled here by a boy apprentice, hence the head would be drawn separately. This drawing conveys Ghirlandaio’s practical approach to designing a large scale commission. In his time in Ghirlandaio’s workshop Michelangelo would have seen hundreds of drawings like Standing Woman. There is no doubt that aspects of his style and working practice can be traced back to this early period. By comparing his early drawings with those of his master we can see similarities in the pose, handling of drapery and hatching. Although still an inexperienced artist, Michelangelo’s drawing surpasses Ghirlandaio’s. Michelangelo’s figure has a more convincing depiction of volume and solidity, achieved by much denser cross hatching, a time consuming method of modeling that was employed sparingly by Ghirlandaio.

In an authorized biography written by Condivi in 1553, Michelangelo denies that he was ever apprenticed to Ghirlandaio. After a long and successful career it seems that Michelangelo was keen to establish himself as a self taught genius, setting himself apart from and perhaps even above the traditions of artists who came before him.

After leaving Ghirlandaio's studio Michelangelo went to work for Lorenzo the Magnificent, the ruler of Florence and head of the powerful Medici family. Lorenzo spotted his gift as a sculptor and soon Michelangelo was invited to join his household. Here he met two of his most important future patrons: Giovanni de' Medici (the future Pope Leo X) and his cousin Giulio, who became Pope Clement VII.

When Lorenzo died in 1492, Michelangelo went on to serve his heir, Piero, whose control of Florence only lasted two years. To avoid the political turmoil surrounding the Medici's fall, the artist went to Rome, where he made his name with the celebrated marble sculpture the Pietà, now in St Peter's basilica in the Vatican. He returned to Florence in 1501 and the next four years - during which he became a lifelong supporter of Florentine republicanism - was one of the most productive periods of his life.

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