The Michelangelo code

    How did I come to touch the naked Adam high up on the Sistine ceiling? Well, a couple of decades ago the ceiling was being cleaned in a huge restoration campaign that lasted many years and cost many zillions of yen. Why yen? Because the cleaning was being paid for by a Japanese television station. How did a Japanese television station get involved? That’s a long story. Basically, the Japanese were charmed out of their money by the last pope, the one before Uncle Fester. While planting kisses on the airport tarmacs of the world, the Polish pope fetched up in Japan, where he met the wife of the owner of a local cable-television station who happened to be a Catholic. Japan has a tiny but fierce Catholic population left over from the days of St Francis Xavier, the apostle of the Indies. The owner’s wife was 
    one of those. She pestered her husband, a Buddhist, until finally, in the name of eternal peace, he agreed to fund the entire Sistine restoration.

    As it happens, I had some projects on the go at the time with the same television station, and with a bit of ruthless wheedling of my own was able to persuade the man at the Vatican who was in charge of Japanese TV access to let me climb the scaffold while the cleaning was in progress.

    I sneaked up there a few times. And under the bright, unforgiving lights of television, I was able to encounter the real Michelangelo. I was so close to him I could see the bristles from his brushes caught in the paint; and the mucky thumbprints he’d left along his margins.

    The first thing that impressed me was his speed. Michelangelo worked at Schumacher pace. Adam’s famous little penis was captured with a single brushstroke: a flick of the wrist, and the first man had his manhood. I also enjoyed his sense of humour, which, from close up, turned out to be refreshingly puerile. If you look closely at the angels who attend the scary prophetess on the Sistine ceiling known as the Cumaean Sibyl, you will see that one of them has stuck his thumb between his fingers in that mysteriously obscene gesture that visiting fans are still treated to today at Italian football matches. It means something along the lines of: how would you like this inserted into your rectum, ragazzo?

    Another figure I touched while the restorers’ backs were turned was a biblical character called Booz, who appears in the Old Testament as a kindly Jew who marries a much younger woman, Ruth, from a different tribe.

    Michelangelo didn’t see Booz as kindly. Michelangelo saw him as stupid and senile. His Booz has escaped from an episode of Steptoe and Son where he played the dad. With his Jimmy Hill chin and a nose like a bottle opener, this ’orrible little man gibbers away at a miniature version of himself stuck onto the end of a stick. It’s a seriously rude piece of characterisation.

    I remember all this now because a chance to know the real Michelangelo better is also heading your way. Opening soon at the British Museum is the largest Michelangelo exhibition of recent years: an extravagant selection of his drawings. Getting close to Michelangelo is tricky because so little of what he did is portable. You obviously cannot move the Sistine ceiling, or the giant David, or that thunderous Moses embedded in the tomb of Julius II in Rome. The extra-large scale of a typical Michelangelo commission makes it terribly difficult to put him into exhibitions. Unless you feature his drawings. Britain is lucky to possess lots of them. The Queen owns some choice ones. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has a funny little sketchbook for the Sistine Chapel. But the biggest depository of all is the British Museum, which is sitting on a basement full of Michelangelo sketches. Something like 600 pages of his drawings have survived, and about 100 of these are going on show in London. These drawings won’t only emphasise his thrilling skill as a draughtsman – although God knows they’ll do that; they will also reveal how his mind works. Which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Because as his letters home to his family make hilariously clear, the divine Michelangelo could be devilishly mean, grumpy, possessive, sneaky, suspicious and paranoid.

    The creator of this show is a jolly British Museum scholar called Hugo Chapman, who used to work at Christie’s, and who has about him that pleasingly crumpled air that you get with English eccentrics who are too busy thinking great things to worry about the stains on their tie.

    I met with Hugo in the bowels of Hogwarts – sorry, I meant in the staff corridors of the British Museum – and he led me down into the cellars, where there’s a vault in which the Michelangelo drawings are stashed. Hugo pulled out one after another and we examined them at our leisure. It was just the two of us in there.

    When you go to see this show, one of the first things you’ll notice is that it is not packed with obvious masterpieces. Rather, it’s full of scraps, fragments, quick ideas. Most of the sheets came directly from Michelangelo’s studio. The Buonarotti family kept them together after his death for 300 years, and only began dispersing them in the 19th century, when the art market soared to the first of its crazy peaks. Michelangelo used these drawings to work out his ideas for bigger works – there’s a stupendous sequence of studies for the figures on the Sistine ceiling – or sometimes as teaching aids for his students.

    Hugo Chapman, who giggles a lot, likes particularly to giggle at the notion that Michelangelo was a very bad teacher. Some of the most fascinating pages in the exhibition show Michelangelo correcting the work of his pupils, and it’s immediately clear that his main teaching technique was to outshine them at every stage in order to make them feel feeble and inadequate. To prove this, Hugo picks out a sheet with lots of staring eyes on it, in which the various weak hands having a go at drawing an eye are shown up by the two eyes Michelangelo adds. Why were all of Michelangelo’s pupils mediocrities? Because that’s how he preferred it. Read his letters, and you’ll see this same thunderous insecurity and meanness of spirit being directed at his family.

    The puerile streak that I had noticed on the Sistine ceiling is also in evidence in the drawings. Peep into the corner of a sheet covered with heroic warriors’ heads and you’ll find a cheerful little chappie, as Hugo puts it, “having a dump”. Michelangelo hasn’t only captured perfectly the contentment on his happy little face, but also the fresh curl of his excretions, brought to a point like ice cream in a cone.

    Because he was so parsimonious, the great man would invariably draw on both sides of the paper, or in the margins, or over the top of other things. Some of the drawings have poems worked out on them, or drafts of his notoriously grumpy letters, or even his expenses. They convey a fantastic sense of a real and busy life, and have none of that unshakable sense of purpose to them that distinguishes the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. One sheet from Oxford has a song on it, a skull, a horse, a rider, a vase, a ladder, a pyramid, and finally another little chap in the corner with his legs around his neck, showing you his tackle. What are those phallic-shaped knobs and balls further up the page? Why, they’re knobs and balls.

    Among the most striking of the drawings is the famous portrait of Andrea Quaratesi, with whom the ageing Michelangelo is said to have fallen in love. It’s such a beautiful thing – a black chalk head-and-shoulders of a pretty boy made noble and deep by the introspection in his eyes. Whatever did or didn’t happen between them, Michelangelo in his drawing has given Andrea the ultimate lover’s gift: an immortal presence. Andrea was one of the great man’s most useless pupils, and seems to have been responsible for some of the most cack-handed efforts preserved in the show. “Andrea abbi patientia,” writes Michelangelo in his lovely script beneath the many bad attempts to draw an eye. “Andrea, have patience.”

    All this is fascinating. It brings a genius to life, and makes him human, and tangible. But that’s not why you need to see this show. You need to see this show because it will take your breath away again and again. Around the time he was painting the Sistine ceiling, Michelangelo also began drawing with red chalk, and with this gorgeous medium, with its heightened tinge of drama, he produced some of his most stunning figure studies. There’s one here for Adam, the familiar reclining pose so naturally achieved, even though, if you try it, it’s impossible to do.

    Red chalk is particularly suited to the evocation of naked flesh, and it is in the suite of male nudes, stretching, rearing, gliding, that Michelangelo’s genius is most clearly revealed. The whole show is a love song to the masculine muscle. Thighs, torsos, six-packs, pecs – those are the bits of the body that thrilled him most. But tear your eyes away, if you can, from these red chalk masterworks, and other aspects of his genius become easier to spot. He had an instinctive ability to see a pose in three dimensions. It’s a sculptor’s talent. Very few artists have it. The other day at Kenwood House I was looking at a wonderful Turner of some fishermen pulling their catch from a boat. Everything about this fine painting – the rough sea, the sense of climate, the moist atmospherics – was perfectly done. But the fishermen weren’t really leaning, or pulling. The figure in motion was beyond Turner. But it’s never beyond Michelangelo.

    Although he complained ceaselessly about the scrounging of his family, it was from these Buonarottis that he received his most precious inheritance: the constitution of a horse. The 89 years Michelangelo spent on Earth were a lot more than most artists of his times were granted. This unusually long life enabled him to have many phases, all of which are recorded in the drawings. Near the end of his life he produced a series of crucifixions. I held the most moving of them up to the light and saw immediately that the man who drew this could barely hold his quill. His hands were shaking. He couldn’t finish a straight line. So he broke the cardinal artistic rule and used a ruler for Christ’s cross. But the shadowy Jesus that this old man was trying to draw is one of the most moving sights in Michelangelo’s art. What love there is in this shaky effort. What fire. What sadness.