Anonymous Sixteenth-Century Italian Artist
Study after Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment”
gouache on paper
16 ¼ x 10 5/8 inches
(40.6 x 27 cm)
Private Collection, New York.
This intriguing drawing is a study by an anonymous sixteenth-century Italian artist after Michelangelo’s fresco of The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. The altar wall of the Sistine Chapel was already richly decorated when Pope Clement VII commissioned Michelangelo to paint his Last Judgment, replacing Perugino’s frescoed altarpiece of the Assumption of the Virgin among other things. Michelangelo’s colossal fresco, which beautifully depicted the physical power of nude bodies paired with the spiritual power of Christ to either damn or save, made a splash in Rome after its unveiling in 1536. It was engraved shortly thereafter by Giorgio Ghisi, which helped quickly circulate the imagery beyond the borders of Rome, making it accessible to artists both near and far. Artists also flocked to the Sistine Chapel to learn from Michelangelo’s remarkable paintings. The number of drawings made after the Last Judgment, many of which similarly concentrate on small groups of figures, shows the profound effect that Michelangelo’s fresco had on the next several generations of artists active in Italy.
The present drawing is based on the lower left section of the fresco, where the souls of the dead are being raised up by angels (fig. 1). The artist has here focused in on two angels battling a demon over the fate of a soul. The human figure, who is shown upside, is hoisted up by the two angels. The figure’s legs are draped over the shoulders of the angel in green, who peers out at us from between the human’s knees and presses his foot into the head of the demon below, using it as leverage. The angel above works in concert with his partner below to tear the soul away from the grasp of the horned demon, who glances at us with a mischievous look while tugging at the soul’s hair, causing him to scream out in pain.
The faithful reproduction of the fresco’s colors and minor details in this drawing demonstrates that the artist had direct knowledge of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and likely executed the drawing in front of it, rather than from a printed or drawn source. The fact that Daniele da Volterra was tasked with covering the nudity of the figures in the fresco in 1564 does not help us with dating this sheet, as the unclothed bodies in the lower left segment were left uncovered during both his and subsequent campaigns to sanitize the painting. However, it appears to be drawn by a roughly contemporary hand.
This section of the fresco was frequently copied by artists. Not only was it the most clearly visible and easily studied given its proximity to the ground, but also the compositional arrangement of the figures in this area are particularly dynamic and inventive, undoubtedly exciting Michelangelo’s viewers and fellow artists. Two drawings by another anonymous sixteenth-century Italian draughtsman after this part of the fresco, showing the neighboring figural group, are in the Royal Collection in Windsor. The passage of the Last Judgment depicted here was also copied by Peter Paul Rubens during his stay in Rome from 1601-1602. Additionally, Federico Zuccaro made a drawing of his brother, Taddeo, shown drawing a copy after this same section of the fresco in 1595, which helps us to envision how our draughtsman would have looked standing at work before the imposing fresco.
 See: Paul Joannides, Michelangelo and His Influence: Drawings from Windsor Castle, London, 1996, pp. 172-175, nos. 56 and 57.
 See: Jeremy Wood, Corpus Rubenianum XXVI. Copies and Adaptations from Renaissance and Earlier Artists. Italian artists, III, Raphael and his School, London and Turnhout, 2010, vol. 1, p. 67; and Jeremy Wood, Corpus Rubenianum XXVI. Copies and Adaptations from Renaissance and Earlier Artists. Italian artists, III. Artists working in Central Italy and France, London and Turnhout, 2011, vol. 1, pp. 182-194, nos. 189-191.