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Michelangelo’s last decades examined in British Museum 2024 exhibition

Updated: May 4

The last decades of Michelangelo’s life were his busiest as an artist — and a major exhibition at the British Museum that's now open is spotlighting 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 the artist, which would fundamentally shape his experiences as an artist and as a man, as well as his legacy in the centuries to come. 

So that's why these important final years are the focus of this exciting new art exhibition and its accompanying catalogue.

Visitors to Michelangelo: the last decades get to move through the last 30 years of the Renaissance master's life in the Italian capital, where he embarked on major new commissions, and when he also reunited with some of his closest friends. 

There are over 50 exquisite Michelangelo drawings on show, alongside around 50 other items and works by his contemporaries. Unsurprisingly, it's the drawings that the exhibition reviews say are the standout pieces and are worth the admission fee alone.

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

What also makes this period so remarkable and worthy of attention 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 include the 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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Michelangelo's Epifania

The exhibition's big showstopper however is the Epifania — one of only two surviving Michelangelo cartoons — which at more than two metres high, is also one of the largest Renaissance works on paper to survive. Work to restore and repair this very fragile work has taken the British Museum six years.

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 it over five centuries, this new conservation work is hoped to have secured its future, in the medium term at least.

Dark black and white chalk drawing on obviously faded paper
Michelangelo, Epifania. About 1550 - 53. © The Trustees of the Bri/sh Museum

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.

It's called a cartoon because it's a term derived from the Italian for a large piece of paper - “cartone.” It was drawn to the scale of a planned painting, although this one was apparently unexecuted. The drawing depicts the Virgin Mary, the Christ Child and other male figures.

In the British Museum's Michelangelo exhibition, it is reunited for the first time since the 16th century with a painting created from it by Ascanio Condivi, Michelangelo’s assistant. That work is being loaned by the Casa Buonarroti.

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. 

Many other works from the British Museum’s vast collection of Michelangelo drawings are shown for the first time in almost two decades.

Drawing of a giant winged creature attacking a man on a cloud
Michelangelo, the punishment of Tityus, 1532. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024

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

Michelangelo: the last decades tickets

Michelangelo exhibition tickets are now on sale. You'll pay from £18 for a weekday ticket, and £20 for weekends. Under-16s are free when accompanied by a paying adult, 2-for-1 tickets are available for students on Fridays. And British Museum members get in free as always.

If you want an even bigger Michelangelo fix then you can also get the exhibition's accompanying catalogue too. Written by the show's curator Sarah Vowles, the beautifully illustrated book is "fascinating" and "demonstrates the creativity of Michelangelo’s late years in a way that is both accessible and scholarly" according to Jill Burke, who authored How to be a Renaissance Woman and The Italian Renaissance Nude.

And if you love Italian history, then the British Museum is treating you this year. Their other major spring exhibition looks at the Roman legion and life in the Roman army. That blockbuster is now open too.

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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