Walk into the gallery, and there's Michelangelo, staring right at you. Above that set of dark eyes, the master's crinkled forehead bears the weight of a lifetime as the most prodigious Western artist of them all. His crooked nose reflects the battle scars of his time as an insufferable know-it-all youth (a fellow sculpting apprentice reportedly obliterated young Michelangelo's nose when he offered unsolicited fresco advice).
The portrait may be incomplete, but it's perfectly fitting that such a work-in-progress leads the way on the latest Museum of Fine Arts, Houston exhibition, titled Michelangelo and the Vatican. Pulled together over a relatively brief nine months, the process-heavy show is composed of an exquisite patchwork of loans from private collections and cultural institutions alike, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, Italy. Gary Tinterow, the MFAH director, additionally bragged of several "recent acquisitions" that were purchased only two weeks before the 40-object show opened this week.
Altogether, the staging belies the singular quality of the experience, with this exhibition occupying five galleries usually home to parts of the museum's permanent European art holdings. If it weren't a separate ticketed exhibition, longtime visitors might stumble into the gallery, look up, and be stunned to see a full-scale photographic recreation of The Creation of Adam transported from the Sistine Chapel. Look left, a Titian. Look right—holy moly, a Raphael!
"I think there are only three places in the world where you can stand in one place and see masterworks by these three great artists," Tinterow adds, gesturing to adjacent examples of Michelangelo, Titian, and Raphael. "It’s absolutely exceptional to have beautiful works of art by these giants of the Italian Renaissance—one of the great moments in human history regarding cultural production."
But even more remarkable than the brand-name artists is the visual timeline formed by their work, and the unique studies and sketches that offer glimpses into the process that yielded, say, The Crucifixion of St. Peter—Michelangelo's massive fresco decorating the Vatican's Pauline Chapel.
One gallery is anchored by a fragment of the artist's Pauline Chapel cartoon—the massive, detailed drawing later transferred to the painting surface to create the resulting fresco. These cartoons are extremely rare, with this particular example landing in Houston following a show at the Met described by the New York Times in 2017 as "the Must-See Show of the Season." It's not hard to see why, given the physical traces of the artist's stroke and the behind-the-scenes quality it adds to the exhibit. In one corner of the gallery, a video tour of the real-life chapel illustrates the end result, and a life-sized photographic recreation hangs opposite; visitors follow the artistic process from beginning to end.
Or, at least, from almost the beginning. The very next gallery goes a step further to show even more preliminary drawings of disembodied hands that precede these larger sketches. "We’re telling the story of preparatory process," says Curator Dena Woodall. "What are the different types of drawings before you end up making an astounding cartoon like this one?"
But, as the curators did not forget, there were Vatican coffers undergirding each step of that process. Pope Paul III, otherwise known as Alessandro Farnese, came to power via the usual mix of familial intrigue and built a reputation as a legendary patron of the arts, among other things. He's the papal power who commissioned the Pauline Chapel (no surprise), as well as The Last Judgment, which also figures prominently into the MFAH exhibit and whose long and dramatic story is too good to spoil.
Paul III also tapped Michelangelo as the architect for the new-and-improved St. Peter's Basilica we know today. The MFAH scored big in obtaining a loan on Michelangelo's wooden model of the Basilica dome originally presented to the Vatican for approval. (One can amusingly picture Michelangelo in a business suit pitching the design, a la Mad Men, to a boardroom of bishops and cardinals.)
Really, the only complaint one could lodge at the exhibition is its size, which, at only a few dozen pieces, might be fair. But think of the ticket price as a deep discount on the cost of a ticket to Rome or Naples, where you'd usually need to travel for this experience. With a triumvirate of wonderful exhibitions including an inside look at Indian Royalty and an almost-over glimpse at the wonders of Oscar de la Renta, a trip to the MFAH should certainly be in order for every curious Houstonian.
Thru June 10. Tickets $23. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 5601 Main St. 713-639-7300. More info and tickets at mfah.org.