A man who was rather fond of drawing men’s bums and willies has filled a room in the British Museum with drawings of bums and crosses. Michelangelo’s willies were largely covered over in later years by scandalised puritans within the Catholic church.

The museum has put on a mixed exhibition that looks at the last few decades of Michelangelo’s work, ranging from his close friendship with a nobleman, described as a “friend”, his spiritual friendship with a lady, architecture, and later his fear of death and religious redemption.

The exhibition opens with a sombre voice reading from Michelangelo’s letters and a portrait of him in the guide most of us have seen — as an old man with a large beard.

A video wall shows his painting of the Last Judgement, with loin clothes covering the undesirables that Michelangelo had left exposed — but look on the side wall at the grey sketch. It’s the sole surviving record of what the painting looked like before the willies were covered up. You can spend quite a bit of time looking as if you’re watching a game of tennis with your head turning from one side to the other as you compare the painting and the sketch.

Broken into chapters, the first looks at Michelangelo’s friendship with the nobleman, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri and the many drawings and poems sent between them.

Although the collection of drawings is impressive, it’s a shame that they’ve glossed over the issue of just how intimate or not the friendship was. Most scholars lean towards a very close but platonic friendship, one that was quite likely an unrequited love on Michelangelo’s side. But to describe them as “friends” without qualification seems to be a strange choice and one more suited to an exhibition from 30 years ago than one today.

The exhibition spends as much time looking at his very platonic friendship with the proto-protestant poet Vittoria Colonna, and one of the treasures here is in the corner — the sole surviving first edition of a book that was banned by the Inquisition.

Filling one wall is Michelangelo’s sole surviving full-size cartoon — a preparatory sketch for a painting, and reunited for the first time in about 500 years, Ascanio Condivi’s painting based on the cartoon. Both have been specially restored for this exhibition.

Unsurprisingly, for the time he was working, this is an exhibition with a lot of Jesus and a lot of crucifixes — indeed, they dominate the second half of the exhibition as Michelangelo seemed increasingly concerned about his unworthy worldly thoughts and his salvation after death.

Possibly though, one of the more fascinating sights here are the two different designs for the Christian Cross, and the one we’re familiar with is very much a later invention. Elsewhere, a painting of the crucifixion of St Peter used as a background decoration on the wall, has had a sketch placed strategically over the saintly groin.

There’s also a lot of his letters to relatives, including some pretty intimate details about his ailing health and how it affects all of us eventually.

And then he dies, and the exhibition ends.

It’s a bit mixed as a show. Arguably, each of the chapters would stand alone as an exhibition in their own right, so bundling them together into a package that looks at the artists’ last few decades leaves the exhibition feeling somewhat disjointed.

However, Michelangelo is always worth seeing, and this is a large collection of works brought together in one place in a way that’s a rare pleasure to admire.

The exhibition, Michelangelo: the last decades is at the British Museum until the end of July 2024.

Mon to Fri

Adult: £18 | Concessions: £16 | National Art Pass: £8 | Under 16 (with adult): Free

(Students get 2 for 1 tickets on Fridays)

Sat & Sun

Adult: £20 | Concessions: £18 | National Art Pass: £10 | Under 16 (with adult): Free

British Museum members get free entry to all their exhibitions.

Also, if seeing the Last Judgement has whetted your appetite for his other masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel — there’s no need to travel to Rome to see it as there’s an impressive replica here in England.


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  1. Emma says:

    Friendships in the past were very intimate. It’s common to find letters from ladies in waiting writing to one another expressing their love and how they cannot live without their friend.
    It’s a shame this isn’t widely discussed more, as it leads a lot of people to assume the person must have been LGTBQ.
    Unfortunately for most of these people we can never know the truth, which is why people err on the side of caution and say that they were friends.

    • Robert says:

      I agree: the sexualisation of intimate friendship is an unjustified contemporary obsession. I think IanVisits is a brilliant site but also that Ian has done himself no favours with this write-up. I’ve been to see it (it’s well done and informative, but not extensive) and anyone hoping to catch a glimpse of male genitalia will be left a little disappointed.

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