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Michelangelo’s last decades examined in British Museum 2024 exhibition

Updated: Jan 12

The last decades of Michelangelo’s life were his busiest as an artist — and in spring 2024 a major exhibition at the British Museum will spotlight them in detail.

In 1534 — at the age of 59 — Michelangelo left Florence for Rome, never to see his native city again. This move marked the beginning of a dramatic new chapter for him, which would fundamentally shape his experiences as an artist and as a man, as well as his legacy in the centuries to come. 

Michelangelo: the last decades will be an exhibition that opens at the London museum in May 2024. It will focus on the last 30 years of the artist's life in the Italian capital, where he embarked on major new commissions, and when he also reunited with some of his closest friends. 

Drawing of a figure with their back to the view and muscular arms by their side
Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), Study for The Last Judgement. Chalk on paper, 1540

One of the other reasons why these years were so remarkable was that during this time, the average life expectancy was barely above 40 years old. Yet in the end Michelangelo died just a few weeks shy of his 89th birthday.

Highlights for visitors will be stunning preparatory drawings for the monumental Last Judgment fresco which covers the whole altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. The sketches on display from the British Museum’s collection show some of the early versions of many of the over 300 figures which are featured in the final incredible artwork in Vatican City.  

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Also on show will be the Epifania — one of only two surviving Michelangelo cartoons — which has been recently restored by the museum in order to stabilize the very fragile work for the coming decades. The work was made by the Italian master around 1550, and has been damaged by degradation over the past 500 years. While there have been previous repeated attempts to repair the work over five centuries, this new conservation work is hoped to have secured its future in the medium term at least.

The cartoon was in Michelangelo’s studio at the time of his death. It remained in Italy until the late 18th century, and then travelled to England, the Netherlands and back to England. It was acquired by the British Museum in 1895.

Other works on show in the exhibition include studies for Michelangelo’s grand architectural projects, including the rebuilding of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. 

There’ll also be intimate letters, poems and drawings which together will offer powerful insights into Michelangelo’s  faith, relationships and experiences of old age.

Other details on what visitors can expect to see have yet to be revealed. And we don’t yet know how much tickets will be or when they will go on sale. 

But we do know the show will be a major must-see history of art exhibition in London in 2024. History lovers will also be able to get their fix by also visiting the British Museum’s other major spring exhibition which looks at the Roman legion and life in the Roman army. That show will open slightly earlier, in February. 

Michelangelo: the last decades runs at the British Museum in London from 2 May until 28 July 2024.

— Want more? Here's the full line-up of 2024 exhibitions at the British Museum

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