- Museum number
The Fall of Phaeton; the four horses and chariot tumbling, with Jupiter above, and four nude figures below. 1531-33
Black chalk, over some stylus underdrawing
- Production date
Height: 312 millimetres
Width: 215 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- The autograph lines at the foot of this sheet attest to Michelangelo's authorship and the purpose of this drawing. Most likely written with the same black chalk used for the study, the lines are a message for Tommaso de' Cavalieri, whom the artist had met in the winter of 1532, offering to finish the drawing if he likes it, in which case he should return it, or to draw him another version if he does not. The composition is, in keeping with its purpose as a presentation drawing, carefully drawn. There are relatively few pentimenti, in part because Michelangelo erased his alterations: an erased hoof, for example, is visible to the r. of the tail of the horse to the far right.
The drawing represents the Fall of Phaeton as recounted in Ovid's 'Metamorphoses' (I, 750 ff.): Phaeton demanded to drive the chariot of the sun after his father Apollo had offered to grant him any wish; Phaeton lost control of the chariot and, to save the earth from incineration, Jupiter destroyed him with a thunderbolt whilst his mourning sisters, the Heliades, were transformed into Poplars (their punishment for having harnessed the horses) and his relation, Cycnus, into a swan. A 2nd century Roman sarcophagus relief recorded from the early XVIc as located outside S.Maria in Aracoeli, Rome c. 1500 (now in the Uffizi, Florence; P.P. Bober and R. Rubinstein, 'Renaissance Artists and Antique Sculpture', London and Oxford, 1986, p. 70, fig. 27), near where Cavalieri lived, offered Michelangelo a classical source. Bober and Rubinstein (1986) consider that Michelangelo may have had in mind instead another Phaeton sarcophagus, also known in the XVIc, now in the Louvre (Bober and Rubinstein illustrate a drawn copy of this as fig. 27b). A vernacular edition of Metamorphoses published in Venice in 1522, containing a woodcut representing Phaeton's fall (reproduced in de Tolnay, 1948, fig. 297), demonstrates the contemporary popularity of Ovidian themes. Michelangelo's representation is innovative in showing the three key events: Jupiter's launching of the bolt that will destroy Phaeton, the falling Phaeton, and the metamorphosis of Phaeton's lamenting sisters. Cycnus is placed inconspicuously on a plane behind the sisters, his metamorphosis complete. The river god to the bottom l. represents the river Eridanus into which the flaming Phaeton fell. Most commentators, including Wilde (1949), consider the subject of this and the other drawings presented to Cavalieri, a Ganymede and a Tityus, to be vehicles for the symbolic expression of the artist's feelings for the nobleman. The Fall of Phaeton would thus represent Michelangelo's temerity and presumptuousness in venturing to love him. Michelangelo's love poetry of the period frequently equates love with fire and burning.
When Michelangelo wrote the note to Tommaso he felt the drawing which he calls a 'scizzo' ('sketch') to be incomplete. Wilde judges the drawing to be complete, in which case Cavalieri must have returned the drawing. Hirst (1988, New Haven and London) considers it to be unfinished, a view supported by the fact that Michelangelo did not erase his note. In either case, W55 functioned as a draft for the finished version at Windsor, drawn to a larger scale and treated with 'almost the precision of an engraving' (Wilde): the sisters have yet begun to turn into poplars, the swan is brought forward and the river god is worked into the foreground composition. The Windsor composition was much admired by Michelangelo's contemporaries and copied in many media. W55 was also copied, the crystal engraving commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito de' Medici from Giovanni Bernardi (now Walters Art Gallery, Baltimoreill. in Joannides, 1996), combining elements from both the Windsor and BM drawings. This fact, Joannides notes, means that Cavalieri probably kept W55 in his possession strengthening the view that Michelangelo did not finish the drawing. Significantly, the hierarchical arrangement of the Phaeton composition anticipates that of the 'Last Judgement' frescoed on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel: Jupiter, the 'causa efficiens' (de Tolnay), of Phaeton's fall, is the equivalent of Christ (indeed, as Wilde notes, see W53-4, Michelangelo made use of two studies for the Risen Christ in the Casa Buonarroti [de Tolnay 261-2] for the figure of Phaeton), whilst the falling Phaeton anticipates the Last Judgement's damned souls.
In a letter of 5 September 1533, sent from Rome to Florence where Michelangelo had recently returned, Cavalieri thanks Michelangelo for a drawing, very probably the Windsor version, and recounts that the Pope Clement VII had also seen the drawing a suggestive fact considering the Pope's imminent commission for the Sistine chapel. The execution of a third version, unfinished and in poor condition (Accademia, Venice, de Tolnay 342), is often considered (Dussler and de Tolnay) to fall between the execution of the BM and Windsor versions. Wilde in 1953, changing his opinion of 1948, considered the drawing to post date the other versions. Hirst (Milan, 1988) argues for Wilde's interpretation on both formal and iconographic grounds, its being the least faithful to the antique prototype: Jupiter, without a supporting eagle, is even closer to the Sistine Christ, whilst Phaeton's precipitous fall evokes panic and the raised arms of the sisters and the river god. Hirst was able to exhibit the three Phaeton sheets together in 1988 (see below).
Like W55, the Accademia sheet contains a message for Cavalieri, of difficult transcription: 'l o ritracto el meglio ch(e) o saputo ... vi rimando il vostro p[er]ch[e] ne son servo vostro che lo ritraga un altra volta' ('I've drawn it as well as I can ... I return yours ...'). Following Wilde's and Hirst's view, it would mean that Michelangelo desired to give Cavalieri more than one presentation drawing of the same subject. Joannides (1996) entertains Wilde's and Hirst's view but observes, nevertheless, that 'for Michelangelo to have repeated both subject and message, after a two year interval, following the 'definitive' Windsor drawing would be a strange duplication'. Perrig attributes the Accademia sheet to Cavalieri, considering the message to be from Cavalieri to Michelangelo. De Tolnay places a red chalk drawing at Haarlem (de Tolnay 341) within the sequence of Phaeton drawings; Wilde only considers the drawing in relation to W51, noting its affinity to the figures of the startled soldiers in the Resurrection series of 1532 (see W52 4). Hirst (1989) records that small studies for the 'Last Judgement' are contained under the backing paper of the Accademia sheet.
The BM drawing dates from the beginning of Michelangelo's passionate friendship with the beautiful Tommaso de' Cavalieri who remained thereafter in the artist's inner circle to the extent that he stood vigil at his deathbed in 1564. Tomasso was extremely well connected in Roman society as his father was an Orsini, the most prominent aristocratic family in the city, who had taken the Cavalieri name to inherit from his mother (Tommaso's grandmother) Giovanna, see M. Ruvoldt, 'Tommaso de'Cavalieri, formerly Orsini: Michelangelo muse and Medici cousin', "The Burlington Magazine", Auguest 2015, pp. 530-2. Ruvoldt reveals how Tomasso's Orsini connections meant that he was related to the two most important Florentine families, the Medici (to whom Michelangelo was also more distantly related through his maternal grandmother Bonda Rucellai) and the Strozzi.
Lit.: J.C. Robinson, 'Descriptive Catalogue of Drawings by the Old Masters, forming the Collection of John Malcolm of Poltalloch, Esq.', London, 1876, no. 79* (the asterix denoting it was bought after the end of Robinson's involvement with the Malcolm collection);E. Panofsky, 'Studies in Iconology', New York, 1939, pp. 218ff; C. de Tolnay, 'Michelangelo III. The Medici Chapel', Princeton, 1948; A.E. Popham and J. Wilde (entries on the Michelangelo drawings by the latter), 'The Italian Drawings of the XV and XVI Centuries in the Collection of His Majesty the King at Windsor Castle', London, 1949, under no. 430 (= de Tolnay 343), pp. 253-4; L. Goldscheider, 'Michelangelo Drawings', London, 1951, no. 94, pp. 50 1; J. Wilde, 'Italian Drawings in the BM, Michelangelo and his Studio', London, 1953, no. 55, pp. 91-3 (with further literature); L. Dussler, 'Die Zeichnungen des Michelangelo', Berlin, 1959, no. 177, pp. 109-10 and under no. 234 (= de Tolnay 342), p. 142, and under 238 (= de Tolnay 343), pp. 144-5; J.A. Gere and N. Turner, in exhib. cat., London, BM, 'Drawings by Michelangelo', 1975, no. 125, p. 106; C. de Tolnay, 'Corpus dei disegni di Michelangelo', Novara, 1976, II, no. 340; J.A. Gere and N. Turner, in exhib. cat., New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, 'Drawings by Michelangelo from the BM', 1979, no.16, pp.79- 80; P P. Bober and R. Rubinstein, 'Renaissance Artists and Antique Sculpture: a Handbook of Sources', Oxford, 1986, under no. 27, p. 70; M. Hirst, 'Michelangelo and His Drawings', New Haven and London, 1988, pp.113-14; M. Hirst, in exhib. cat., Washington, National Gallery of Art and Paris, Louvre, 'Michelangelo Draftsman', 1988, no. 44 and under nos. 45 and 46 (de Tolnay 343 and 342 respectively), pp. 107-12; M. Collareta, 'Michelangelo e la statua antiche: un probabile intervento di restauro', "Prospettiva", 43, 1985, p. 54, fig. 5; P.P. Bober and R. Rubinstein, 'Renaissance Artists and Anitique Sculpture', London, 1986, under no. 27, p. 70; A. Perrig, 'Michelangelo's drawings: the science of attribution', New Haven and London, 1991, fig. 23, pp. 21, 24, 39, 65-6; P. Joannides, in exhib. cat., Washington, National Gallery of Art and London, Queen's Gallery, 'Michelangelo and his Influence, Drawings from Windsor Castle',1996, under no. 9 (= de Tolnay 343), pp. 56-7, fig. 48; M. Marongiu and M. Wellington Gahtan, in exhib. cat. (L. Bardeschi Ciulich and P. Ragionieri eds), Florence, Casa Buonarroti, 'Vita di Michelangelo', 2001, under nos. 59 (= M. Lucchese, engraving after de Tolnay 343), pp. 94-5, and 60 (= crystal medallion after W55 and de Tolnay 343), pp. 96-7; L. Syson and D. Thornton, 'Objects of Virtue: Art in Renaissance Italy', London, 2001, pp. 174-81; M. Chiarini, A.P. Darr, C. Giannini eds, in exhib. cat., Florence, Palazzo Strozzi, 'L'ombra del genio. Michelangelo e l'arte a Firenze 1537-1631', 2002, under no. 190 (= de Tolnay 342), pp. 323-4; P. Joannides, 'Inventaire général des dessins italiens, Musée du Louvre, Cabinet des Dessins: Michel-Ange, élèves et copistes', Paris, 2003, under nos. 116 (copy of W55, Francisco de Hollanda?), 117 (= copy of W55, Gherardi), 118 (copy after W55, Italian School, 16thC?), pp. 259-60; H. Chapman, in exhib. cat., BM, 'Michelangelo Drawings: closer to the master', 2005, no. 81, pp. 224, 226-7; C.C. Bambach, in exhib. cat., New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, ‘Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer’, 2017, no. 127, p. 302.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1879 May-Jun, Paris, École des Beaux-Arts, 'Des Dessins de Maîtres Anciens', no. 71
1964 BM, Michelangelo, no. 36
1975 Feb-Apr, BM, Drawings by Michelangelo, no. 125
1979 April-Jul, New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, Drawings by Michelangelo from the BM, no. 16
1988 Oct-Dec, Washington, NG of Art, 'Michelangelo Draughtsman', no. 44
1989 May-July, Paris, Musée du Louvre, 'Michelangelo dessinateur', no. 44
2005/6 Oct-Jan, Haarlem, Teylers Museum, 'Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master'
2006 Mar-June, BM, 'Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master'
2010 Feb-May, London, Courtauld Galleries, Michelangelo's Dream
2017-18 Nov-Feb, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 'Michelangelo Divine Draftsman and Designer'
- Previous owner
Previous owner/ex-collection: Moselli
Previous owner/ex-collection: Pierre Crozat
Previous owner/ex-collection: Pierre Jean Mariette (L.2097)
Previous owner/ex-collection: Marquis de Lagoy (L.1710)
Previous owner/ex-collection: Thomas Dimsdale (L.2426)
Previous owner/ex-collection: Sir Thomas Lawrence (L.2445)
Previous owner/ex-collection: Samuel Woodburn (Christie's, 4.vi.1860/138 as Michelangelo 'THE FALL OF PHAETON. AN ADMIRABLE STUDY FOR THE CELEBRATED PICTURE, KNOWN TO THE AMATEUR, FROM THE ENGRAVING BY N. BEATRICIT. From an inscription at bottom, in the handwriting of Michael Angelo, it appears to have been a present from the Artist to his friend Tomasso di Cavallieri [sic]. It is executed in black chalk, and varies considerably from the engraving. From the Collections of Crozat, Marietti [sic], Legoy, and Dimsdale' bt Clement £45-3-0)
Previous owner/ex-collection: Émile Galichon (Paris, Clement, 10.v.1875/15)
Previous owner/ex-collection: John Malcolm of Poltalloch
- Acquisition date
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number