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Michelangelo Buonarroti (Caprese 1475-Rome 1564)

Archers shooting at a Herm c.1530

Red chalk (two shades) | 21.9 x 32.3 cm (sheet of paper) | RCIN 912778

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  • A red chalk drawing of a group of archers without bows shooting arrows at a target hung on a herm to the right. Amor sleeps on the ground, at lower right; to the left, other putti blow on a fire. On the verso, inscribed in pen and ink by a later hand: 'D. Giulio Clovio copia di/Michiel Angelo'; an iscription in a darker ink: ‘andrea quaratesi venne qui a di / 12 ap(r)ile 1530 ed ebbe a 10 p(er) ma(n) / dare a suo padre a pisa’. Engraved by Francesco Bartolozzi in a crayon manner (RCIN 854054).

    The inscription on the reverse led some to suggest that the drawing was once part of the collections of Giulio Clovio (1498-1578), who might have copied it after Michelangelo. He may have known Michelangelo when they were both in Rome before the city was sacked in 1527, but a much closer relationship developed after Clovio returned to the service of Michelangelo’s patron Cardinal Alessandro Farnese in 1540. A number of finely drawn copies of Michelangelo’s compositions are known, such as The Flagellation and Ganymede at Windsor (RCINs 913036, 990418). The present drawing is instead an autograph by Michelangelo and indeed one of the master’s masterpieces of disegno.

    The scene is an indeterminate rocky platform upon which a group of figures, male and female, are posed as if firing arrows at a shield fixed to a herm (a freestanding column with the upper half in human form). Some of the figures, most clearly the woman at the back of the group, are airborne, and most do not bear bows, though arrows are seen stuck into the target and elsewhere on the herm – their aim has been conspicuously awry. At the front of the group two figures sprawl on the ground, and two infants can be seen among the main group. In the right foreground a winged Cupid, god of love, is sleeping with his bow and arrows, while to the far left two children blow on a fire (with arrows protruding from its base) and feed it with bundles of sticks.

    Michelangelo plays with the contrast between the high polish of the central group and the looser finish of the sleeping Cupid and the herm. But their spatial relationships are unclear or even contradictory, and there is an awkward misalignment between the archers and the herm, which seem to be seen from different angles – Michelangelo’s pursuit of spatial variety over spatial integrity led to an unresolved disharmony.

    The conceits depicted here – the flames of passion, the arrows of desire – were commonplace in the Renaissance, as they still are, and thus while no direct literary source has been identified, the meaning is plain. As with the pairing of Ganymede and Tityus, Michelangelo distinguishes between two forms of love: base physical desire, and divine love through the contemplation of beauty. The winged Cupid is sleeping and thus unable to guide the archers, for only with love can one achieve one’s target, the soul’s ascent through beauty to the divine sphere. Instead the archers are frenetically impelled by the flames of passion, and their arrows are thus unable to hit their mark. The two infants among the group have no interest in firing at the target; a little comically, the old man at upper left is unable even to string his bow (his resemblance to Michelangelo – bearded and with a deformed nose – is probably, but not certainly, unintentional).

    On the verso, a ricordo, dated April 12, 1530, refers to a series of payments made by Michelangelo through Andrea Quaratesi to his father in Pisa. This dates the Archers on the recto to the end of the siege of Florence or shortly thereafter, which accords with the drawing technique. Another note on the verso, 'D. Giulio Clouio copia di/Michiel Angelo', is possibly by a late sixteenth-century hand.

    Text adapted from M. Clayton and K. Perov, Bill Viola | Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth, London 2019, no. 14.
    Provenance

    Don Giulio Clovio; Cardinal Alessandro Farnese; listed in George III's 'Inventory A', c. 1800-20, p. 45, 'Mich: Angelo Buonaroti' / Tom. II (c. 1802): '2. Men and Women suspended in the Air and shooting Arrows at a / Target fixed on a Term. Cupid a sleep and two Boys / burning his Arrows.- This Emblematical subject is / painted in a {the} Villa {^Orgiati} call'd Raphael's near the Wall of Rome….Red Chalk. {Engraved by Bartolozzio}'

  • Medium and techniques

    Red chalk (two shades)

    Measurements

    21.9 x 32.3 cm (sheet of paper)

    Markings

    crossbow in circle, close but not identical with Roberts Crossbow D (watermark)