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Phoenix Art Museum's Michelangelo Exhibition Is Worth a Visit, Even If You're Not an Art History Buff

Maybe all you know of Michelangelo is that he’s one of four Italian Renaissance artists whose names got co-opted for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise. Chances are, you’ll still get a charge from seeing a collection of his drawings now on view at the Phoenix Art Museum. Frankly, you don’t have to be an art nerd to appreciate them. You just have to enjoy getting a glimpse of greatness.

“Michelangelo: Sacred and Profane, Masterpiece Drawings from the Casa Buonarroti” comes on the heels of two Phoenix Art Museum exhibitions of works by über-famous artists. In 2015, the museum presented “Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester and the Power of Observation,” which included 72 pages of the artist’s notes and illustrations, and “Andy Warhol: Portraits.” A current exhibition titled “The White Shirt According to Me” features works by another Italian creative, the late fashion designer Gianfranco Ferré.

The Michelangelo exhibition, which includes 26 drawings and sketches, is must-see viewing — even for those with merely a modicum of interest in the arts. It’s the first exhibition of the artist’s work in Arizona, and these particular pieces don’t get much time on the touring circuit because they’re so fragile. They hail from the Casa Buonarroti, a museum in Florence, Italy located in a building the artist once owned. Typically, seeing several Michelangelo works requires traveling to Europe, where they’re on view in cities that include Rome, London, and Paris.

But there’s another reason this exhibition – which includes figural sketches, studies for paintings, and architectural renderings – is a big deal. Most of these works were made after Michelangelo completed his Sistine Chapel frescoes in 1512, as he strived to surpass his prior body of work. Art historians have pegged him as a possible perfectionist, pointing out that Michelangelo burned most of his sketches before his death, perhaps so others wouldn't see his work in anything but it's fully-realized form. Only a small number of his drawings, including those in this exhibition, survive – having been given by Michelangelo to patrons and friends.

The opening day crowd on Sunday, January 17, seemed to get it. A steady stream of people walked slowly from one work to the next, most lingering to read text panels that set these pieces in their historical and cultural context, which includes conflicts between church and state, and the influence of patrons on artistic practices. They're issues still at play in contemporary society.

For those who nodded off during Western Civ class in high school, here’s a quick refresher: Michelangelo lived from 1475 to 1564, while some significant stuff was happening on the planet. The short list includes Christopher Columbus sailing to the New World, Henry VIII becoming king of England, Martin Luther posting the 95 Theses that launched the Protestant Reformation, and the start of the Spanish Inquisition.

“Michelangelo: Sacred and Profane,” which was organized by the Muscarelle Museum of Art at The College of William and Mary in Virginia, takes a straightforward approach to presenting the artist’s work. It’s especially refreshing considering the intellectual contortions undertaken by Phoenix Art Museum for last year's Leonardo da Vinci exhibition. Instead of recognizing the power of simply sharing space with pages written by a master artist, the show offered a muddled mix of the artist's writings with works from the museum’s collection meant to reflect and amplify its themes.

Ultimately, what makes this exhibition so powerful is the fact that viewers can just spend time with Michelangelo’s work, unfettered by a sideshow that would only distract from its splendor.

“Michelangelo: Sacred and Profane” continues through March 27. The exhibition is included with general admission. Find more information about the exhibition and related programming on the Phoenix Art Museum website. For those eager to explore other elements of Italian arts and culture, PAM has several additional offerings. Its Teatro Italiano film series featuring works by Italian filmmakers includes screenings of Suspiria, El Deserto Rosso (Red Desert), and The Conformist. Its Salon Series: The Best of Italy includes lectures on Italian leather and the Vespa. 
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble