This painting by an unknown artist is based on Michelangelo’s drawing The Dream (Courtauld Institute, London). Michelangelo’s presentation drawings were made as gifts for his friends and were always intended as self-sufficient works of art. The Dream is probably one of an important group of such drawings that Michelangelo gave to the young Roman nobleman Tommaso Cavalieri in 1532–3.
The art historian Vasari used the title ‘The Dream’ (’Il Sogno') in his 1568 edition of The Lives of the Artists. There is no other contemporary document to explain the composition’s meaning, but it appears to explore contemporary ideas about the ascent of the soul to the divine aided by beauty. The angel awakens or animates the perfect youth, drawing him away from the illusions and deceits of the earthly realm of sin to a new spiritual life in harmony with the will of God. Representations of the seven deadly sins are seen in the background.
This painting on slate by an unknown artist is based on Michelangelo’s drawing The Dream (Courtauld Institute, London). Michelangelo’s presentation drawings were made as gifts for his friends and were always intended as self-sufficient works of art. They are beautiful and complex works that transformed drawing from a preparatory exercise into an independent art form.
The most important group of Michelangelo’s presentation drawings were given to Tommaso Cavalieri in 1532–3. They were the visual equivalent of love poetry to the young Roman nobleman, who was no more than 17 years old at the time. Like Michelangelo’s poems – many of which he wrote for Cavalieri – the presentation drawings are a very personal form of self-expression. They record Michelangelo’s intense adoration of Cavalieri, whose beauty he regarded as the reflection of God’s eternal beauty on earth. The sixteenth-century artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari described these images as ‘drawings the like of which have never been seen’.
Although its recipient is not documented, The Dream is contemporaneous with and likely part of the Cavalieri group of drawings. It must have been made before 1537 as Battista Franco used the main figure in his allegorical painting The Battle of Montemurlo (Palazzo Pitti, Florence) in that year. The composition has been copied many times – in drawings, paintings and engravings – most of which, like the National Gallery’s painting, were probably made during Michelangelo’s lifetime. Vasari used the title ‘The Dream’ for the drawing in his 1568 edition of The Lives of the Artists. There is no other contemporary document to explain its complex meaning.
A nude youth sits on a box, leaning on a terrestrial globe. He is a perfect and idealised human figure – like Adam from Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling (Vatican, Rome). Inside the box are more than ten masks. The youth looks upwards at an angel or winged soul who flies down blowing a trumpet towards his forehead. In the background are representations of the seven deadly sins. Clockwise from lower left, they are Gluttony, Lust, Avarice, Envy, Wrath, and Sloth. Only the sin of Pride cannot be connected with a particular image. The murkiness suggests the sins take place in the dark realm of dreams. Masks express the illusory nature of dreams and mortal life; they are also connected with night and death in the funerary sculpture for Michelangelo’s Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo, Florence. The youth is not asleep but being animated or awoken from a dream and roused from the illusions and vices of the earthly realm to a new spiritual life. The composition seems to concern the potential of man to achieve perfection, to awaken from mortal life into eternal life in harmony with the will and likeness of God himself.
Michelangelo’s poems to Cavalieri express his spiritual longing and his passionate desire. In the Neoplatonic philosophy of the Renaissance, exceptional human beauty was regarded as a glimpse of the divine world of ideas. ‘The Dream’ appears to explore these contemporary ideas about the ascent of the soul to the divine aided by beauty.
The young Cavalieri understood the enormous importance of the gift he had been given and he remained a friend of Michelangelo’s till the end. He was present 30 years later at Michelangelo’s deathbed, and Vasari wrote of the drawings that ‘in truth he rightly treasures them as relics’.
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