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Michelangelo Buonarroti (Caprese 1475-Rome 1564)

Recto: The Fall of Phaethon. Verso: a woman and a study for an ear 1533

Black chalk; red chalk on the verso | 41.3 x 23.4 cm (sheet of paper) | RCIN 912766

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  • Recto: a black chalk drawing depicting the fall of Phaethon and his chariot, hit by a thunderbolt launched by Jupiter who is seated on an eagle. At the bottom are several mourning figures and a recumbent bearded man. On the verso, a sketch in red chalk of a half-length figure of a woman and a study for a left ear.


    The story of Phaethon is told at length in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Apollo, the sun god, offered his son Phaethon the granting of a wish, to prove that he was his father. Phaethon asked to drive the chariot of the sun for one day: Apollo begged him not to demand that, but the youth would not relent. He soon lost control of the chariot – the horses pulled it too high and the earth froze, then too low and the land was scorched and the oceans boiled. To save the earth, Jupiter struck Phaethon and his chariot from the heavens with a bolt of lightning. Michelangelo presents the episode in three distinct groups. Above, a youthful Jupiter sits astride his eagle, twisting his body as he prepares to hurl his lightning. At the centre, Phaethon, his chariot (looking more like a farm cart) and his four contorted horses plummet to earth. Below, Phaethon’s three sisters, the Heliads, lament his fate; they were soon to be transformed into poplar trees, and alongside, a cousin, Cycnus, has already been turned into a swan. Reclining at the left is the god of the River Eridanus, into which Phaethon fell, with an attendant water-bearer.

    Michelangelo made the drawing in Florence in the summer of 1533 for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, who stated in a letter to the artist of 6 September: ‘perhaps three days ago I received my Phaethon, very well done, and it was seen by the Pope, Cardinal de’ Medici, and everyone’. This is the most highly finished and probably the last of three versions drawn by Michelangelo; the other two, in the British Museum in London and the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, each bear notes from the artist to Cavalieri asking for his approval of the composition. The subject is a warning of the dangers of hubris, and in the context of Michelangelo’s relationship with Cavalieri, it can be read either as paternal advice to a young man starting his journey through life, or (more likely) as a confession of Michelangelo’s feelings of unworthiness in his devotion – his letters and poems for Cavalieri speak of his presumptuousness in daring to love him.

    The tripartite, tiered arrangement on a strict vertical axis gives an inexorable, pitiless quality to the composition and broadens its significance. It is organised in the same manner as the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, which Michelangelo was beginning to devise in the same year: a divine upper zone (and the pose of Jupiter is close to that of Christ in sketches towards the Last Judgement), an aerial middle zone and an earthbound lower zone. The drawing thus alludes not just to the particular circumstances of Michelangelo’s relationship with Cavalieri, but more generally to the terrors of fate and the irreversible consequences of our actions.

    On the verso, the Bust of a Woman in red chalk has been generally attributed to Michelangelo’s pupil Antonio Mini (1506-34/36), who would have had to execute the drawing before he left Florence for France in autumn 1531. She holds her twisted hair in one hand, and a mirror in the other, probably as a symbol of Truth. The detail of her left ear is sketched above.

    Text adapted from M. Clayton and K. Perov, Bill Viola | Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth, London 2019, no. 12.


    Tommaso de' Cavalieri; Emilio de' Cavalieri, from 1587; Cardinal Odoardo Farnese, by 1602; listed in George III's 'Inventory A', c. 1800-20, p. 45, 'Mich: Angelo Buonaroti' / Tom. II (c. 1802): '7. 'Fall of Phaeton...[Black Chalk]'

  • Medium and techniques

    Black chalk; red chalk on the verso


    41.3 x 23.4 cm (sheet of paper)