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Michelangelo Buonarroti (Caprese 1475-Rome 1564)

Recto: The punishment of Tityus. Verso: The Risen Christ 1532

Black chalk; charcoal on the verso | 19.0 x 33.0 cm (sheet of paper) | RCIN 912771

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  • A black chalk drawing of the punishment of Tityus, tied to a rock, as a vulture tears at his liver; on the right, a screaming soul trapped in a tree. On the verso, in charcoal, a sketch of the Risen Christ traced through from the drawing on the recto and a fragmented lighter sketch of another Christ emerging from the tomb.

    The drawing of Tityus was inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In the myth, the giant Tityus was punished for attempting to rape Lato, mother of Apollo and Diana, by being chained to a rock in Hades. Every day a vulture would rip out his liver, the seat of lust; every night the liver would grow back, for the torment to be repeated the next day, for all eternity. Another source may have been Dante’s Comedy: Tityus is briefly mentioned in Inferno XXXI (v. 124) as one of the giants punished for their violence, and the screaming face in the tree trunk at the right may allude to the suicides imprisoned in trees in Inferno XIII. The sheet has been cut down by an earlier collector, separating a branch from the trunk.

    Though the scene is one of damnation and degradation, Michelangelo drew the vulture with a form as noble as that of an eagle, and the degenerate giant with an expression of fortitude rather than agony, hardly struggling against his inadequate bondage – at first glance he might instead be the hero Prometheus. The vulture’s beak has not yet pierced Tityus’ skin, and thus his heroically proportioned torso is undefiled. To the right, a tree houses the screaming mask of another soul trapped in the underworld, although what seems to be a small figure fleeing from that mask is in fact a branch of the tree – the sheet has been cut down by an earlier collector, separating the branch from the trunk. Michelangelo presented two drawings, most probably the Tityus and a now-lost Ganymede, to Tommaso de’ Cavalieri in late 1532. The Ganymede depicted the beautiful young shepherd abducted and carried heavenwards by Jupiter in the form of an eagle, and the drawings thus represent the twin poles of love: carnal lust prompted by our base nature that condemns us to torture in the deepest pit, and spiritual love inspired by beauty that sees our souls elevated. These two states of being can be extended to human life in general – the benighted state of the merely material, contrasted with the enlightened state of the presence of the divine.

    On the verso, Michelangelo made the tracing of the recto figure to create a Christ emerging from the tomb, later developed in one of his most expressive and passionate Resurrection drawings, the Risen Christ (RCIN 912768). The remarkable and unparalleled presence of a tracing on the verso of a finished presentation drawing suggests Michelangelo’s incessant inspiration and creativity. A further truncated sketch on the right, shows an alternative version of the resurrected Christ, may have been an initial thought for The Resurrection (RCIN 912767).

    Text adapted from M. Clayton and K. Perov, Bill Viola | Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth, London 2019, no. 11.


    Tommaso de' Cavalieri; Emilio de' Cavalieri, from 1587; Cardinal Odoardo Farnese, by 1602; listed in George III's 'Inventory A', c. 1810, p. 45, ‘Mich: Angelo Buonaroti' / Tom. II (c. 1802): '6. 'Prometheus….D°'

  • Medium and techniques

    Black chalk; charcoal on the verso


    19.0 x 33.0 cm (sheet of paper)