Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Fall of Phaeton, a drawing

Italy, AD 1533

From Ovid's Metamorphoses

This classical myth is taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses. At the top of the sheet, Jupiter sits on his eagle and hurls a thunderbolt at Phaethon, son of Apollo, who plunges from a horse-drawn chariot. Phaethon had asked to drive the chariot of the sun, but he lost control and to save the earth Jupiter destroyed him. Underneath, his sisters, the weeping Heliades, are changed into poplar trees while another relation, Cycnus, has become a swan. The reclining male figure is the river god, Eridanus into whose river (the River Po in Italy) Phaethon fell.

At the very bottom is a message in Michelangelo's handwriting addressed to the recipient of this 'presentation drawing', the young Florentine nobleman, Tommaso Cavalieri. The message states that if Cavalieri does not like this unfinished drawing, Michelangelo will draw another the next evening or, if he does, the artist will finish it. As the drawing is finished, Tommaso must have liked it.

The specific meaning of the composition for both Michelangelo and Cavalieri is not known. On a general level, it may refer to the dangers of pride as a moral warning from an older man to a youth. Michelangelo also drew a lost portrait of Tommaso and gave him several other 'presentation drawings' with allegorical and narrative themes. The creation of such works reflects the growing appreciation in the Renaissance for the intimate medium of drawing, particularly those created by the most advanced artists of the period.

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More information


M. Hirst, Michelangelo and his drawings (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1988)

J. Wilde, Italian drawings in the Depa-2 (London, The British Museum Press, 1953)

J.A. Gere and N. Turner, Drawings by Michelangelo in th, exh. cat. (London, The British Museum Press, 1975)


Height: 312.000 mm
Width: 215.000 mm

Museum number

PD 1895-9-15-517



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