In old age, Michelangelo made a bonfire of most of his drawings. He had always hated showing them. Few had been intended for public display: as studies, they revealed laborious preparation for his famous works that, in his virtuoso pride, he was reluctant to acknowledge. When he died in 1564, just 600 sheets remained from among many thousands. These have been prized ever since but, because of their delicacy and fragility, rarely displayed. At the British Museum, a hundred of the finest now form a sublime exhibition, Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master. For me, the show makes the artist known even during his lifetime as “the divine Michelangelo” poignantly, achingly, deeply human in all his brilliance, passion, doubt and terror, for the first time.

His reputation, godlike and unchanging, has towered for five centuries. His work is so truly iconic – Florence’s statue “David”, Rome’s “Pietà”, the Sistine Chapel’s “Creation of Adam” – that although each masterpiece announces the individual hand of the artist, above all his obsessive exploration of male beauty, we tend also to see each as having sprung fully formed from his protean mind. Contemporaries observed how in his hands the marble block appeared to release figures that had always been there. These and his painted muscular bodies twisting across immensely grand designs seemed to rival, in their finished perfection, the perfection of nature’s own creation. That was how the artist wanted it. “Michelangelo was wont to say,” recounted Giovanni Gelli, “that only those figures were good from which one had removed the effortful labour, that is, produced with such skill that they appeared the result of nature rather than art”.

But of course they were all underpinned by drawing, the
single genre that unites Michelangelo’s activities as sculptor, painter and architect, and the one that most movingly unravels the story of his life. In all sizes, styles, subjects, those at the British Museum speak to us with extreme directness. The hazily outlined, gravely introspective Virgin in the smoky black chalk “Epiphania” cartoon, made of 26 sheets of paper glued together, looms majestically above us. The swirling red chalk male nude, intensely shaded and hatched, modelled for a figure in the fresco “The Separation of the Waters”, looks alive in its polished metallic gleam and chromatic richness. In a rare secular portrait, the smoothly finished, melancholy “Andrea Quaratesi”, a Florentine nobleman – a love of Michelangelo’s? – gazes beyond us with an anxious, watchful air, suggesting both Florence’s un-certain political future in the 1530s and the middle-aged artist’s musing on the fleeting charm of youth.

There are repeated studies for sharply bent legs, kneecaps and shoulders, and throw-away sheets of heads or animals that Michelangelo prepared for his untalented pupils to copy, dotted with instructions in his florid, gorgeous hand (“Draw Antonio draw Antonio, draw and don’t waste time”). Some are complex, some pared down to bare essentials; all shrink the centuries between the Italian Renaissance and now. For connoisseurs, here are the germs from which world-famous figures – “Adam”, “Day” – developed. For aesthetes, there are no more beautiful depictions of the human form anywhere. But even for those who would not normally dream of visiting an exhibition of Renaissance drawings, this show is a must-see sensation for the way it quietly traces the arc of a triumphant yet tormented life in which genius and everyday humanity went hand in hand.

The British Museum installation is thoughtful, simple and dramatically effective. Well-spaced works are hung in chronological groups in subtly lit interlocking sections; on the walls around them scholarly explanations, reproductions of masterpieces to which the drawings relate, intrude as little or as much as each visitor wishes. An overhead screen allows you to see the Sistine Chapel ceiling as it would have looked to Michelangelo, perched on scaffolding to paint it. Differences between Rome and Florence, as far apart in terms of style and travelling distance as continents are today, are explored, but from the start the show roots Michelangelo in Florence, where he grew up and whose republicanism he fervently supported.

He studied there from the age of 12, and early comparisons tell how quickly he outstripped his teacher Ghirlandaio. By the age of 25, he had made his name as a sculptor in Rome with the St Peter’s Pietà and, lured back to Florence by rumours of a huge slab of Carrara marble, won the commission for the colossal “David” – the first monumental marble sculpture made in Europe for more than a millennium. At the same time, he shifted between Florentine workshops for different projects, reflected in drawings of breathtakingly expressive and dramatic range. A single sheet contains both a rough pen and brown ink sketch for the Bruges “Madonna and Child”, the infant solemnly slipping free of his mother to take his first steps, and a black chalk group of three frenziedly energetic nudes who are models for the Florentine soldiers in the “Bathers”, Michelangelo’s massive, unfinished patriotic project to depict the Battle of Cascina.

Shape and density of muscle and bone, described through swelling contours and diversely weighted and directed strokes; the use of light, shade and smudgy surfaces for emphasis; lively touches of white lead to suggest a glistening sheen of sweat: these straining, explosively dynamic figures have a tactile physical presence that is still powerful now and exerted an inestimable influence on the portrayal of the nude. Among few drawings displayed in Michel-angelo’s lifetime, the Cascina cartoon was, according to the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, “a school for all the world”. These figures and the languorous red chalk Adam, among the greatest of all Michelangelo’s creations, are high points in a sensual glorification of the idealised beauty of the male form. In both, drawing from a model did not prevent Michel-angelo adjusting the forms for artistic effect; Adam’s stretching motion is so persuasive because of the naturalness of the observation, but in fact it depends on an entirely contrived dislocation of the upper body.

An unrivalled skill at blurring boundaries between artifice and the realities of the human frame, and at placing his subjects in theatrically enthralling compositions, creates the heightened expressiveness that makes this show such a rich emotional experience. In a spiralling, diagonal motion, the struggling, acutely foreshortened red chalk Haman stretches his arms desperately at us, as if he would leap off the paper in fear. In “The Lamentation”, Mary turns away, unable to bear the sight, while a crowd of contorted figures rush headlong at the corpse. In a tremulous “Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John”, drawn when the aged Michelangelo’s control of line was so weak that he constructed the cross with a ruler, Mary presses her face and hands to her son’s body, conveying universal desolation and loss.

Shortly after he had drawn these searing figures, the 88-year-old Michelangelo was found wandering alone outside his house in Rome in pouring rain by a pupil, who meekly asked why. “And what would you rather have me doing? I am ill and can find peace nowhere,” the artist replied, waving his arms wildly. Three late Crucifixions hang here in a final room, flanked only by a Michelangelo sonnet: “My life’s journey has finally arrived/after a stormy sea, in a fragile boat/at a common port, through which all must pass …So I now fully recognise how my fond imagination/which made art for me an idol and a tyrant/was laden with error …Neither painting nor sculpture can any longer quieten/my soul …” In the extremes of Christian iconography, from the blistering freshness of newly created Adam to the collapsing body of Jesus on the cross, Michelangelo found a visual language for human hope, desire and despair. We have long lost that language, but in these drawings we recover it, in all its immediacy and pathos, through the haunted imagination of one of the greatest artists of all time, who was also one of us.

‘Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master’ is at the British Museum, London, until June 25. Tel 20 7323 8181

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