Back in Oxford and at the Ashmolean Print Room, wearing white gloves, writing in pencil. I have been studying some drawings by Michelangelo, trying to get a sense of his ductus, his style, his hand, in order to better understand the particular drawing I came here to see: the verso of Cat 39, Outline Sketch for the Ceiling of the Reading Room of the Laurentian Library (opposite).

Here are the notes I wrote in pencil as I looked.

In Cat 13 (opposite) figures seem to be coaxed into being, with something, if not love, pleasure, then trust, then care, and yes—a sense that he is feeling his way, not across the page exactly or across the form of the model, but feeling his way through the composition of each figure as it dawns. The study of the seated woman in the upper centre of the page seems to have taken place in a very interior way. The hunched back and bent neck and absorption in the object in her hands seems to me to describe the attitude, the absorption of the artist as he drew. I imagine these were not drawn from life. There are too many figures, too quickly drawn, too diverse. The ease with which the limbs and torsos are put on the page come not from the eye’s travelling back and forth from object to page, but from the artist's familiarity with the human form and the ease with which he puts it down on the page. From mind to hand to page without needing to look up, without even thinking of looking up, I imagine.

The thing about the Laurentian sketch is that there's no such interest in the appearance of the lines—neither in the way they look, nor in the way they (come into) appear(ance). The two sketches are to different ends, of course. One is a plan for a layout, one is a plan for a painting. The layout will be realised in architecture; the painting, to begin with, in more drawing. So the lines mean differently in each. It’s worth caring—or rather the whole task is to care—in the particular lines of the human forms, in their particular arrangement on paper, in a way that's be unnecessary in an architectural sketch that will finally be realised against air not paper, without drawn lines at all. Perhaps without his hand at all.

But what struck me about this sketch in the first place is how unfamiliar it looks to itself. How uncomfortable it looks. It seems to have been drawn almost entirely looking up from the page. Barely looking down at all. Certainly it’s a work from the mind rather than from observation—this was prospective, there was nothing yet there to observe, but not prospective in the way of the Sistine sketch, which plans a future painting but refers back to the stock of human forms in the artist's mind. The shapes in the Laurentian sketch are simple, flat shapes, topological, perhaps they didn’t deserve care. Because although they were drawn just from the mind, I don’t think he was hunched, absorbed, in love with the line as he drew.

On the contrary I think he was opened out, uncomfortable, exposed. The lowest horizontals have an upward curve, biased to the left, the upper horizontals slant down to the left, the black chalk is scratchy and blunt. Was he on his feet? Half-turned away from the page? The central round is what gets me. Drawn in halves, in a couple of curves (just as the rectangles are each composed of two distinct ‘L’s) and what I cannot ignore is the horizontal dash left in the circle’s centre. This kind of dash isn’t really a dash at all, it’s the end of the stylus touching the page at the peak of an indicative gesture. “This,” I imagine him saying, “would be a roundel.” “From here,” I imagine him saying, “there'll be more of these formations, like this”. When I look at this drawing I see an audience, the artist speaking, presenting—mostly speaking, making a case, giving detail, elaborating, making the image wrought. He has charcoal in hand, but his hands are really there to speak with rather than to draw.

I don't know anything about the real conditions in which the Laurentian sketch was created, and there are scant clues in the catalogue notes. But regardless of what might or might not be true, the fact is that when I first saw the sketch I thought of the times I've written or sketched or doodled with somebody else there, looking at the marks as I put them on the page. When I look back through these notebooks I can spot where I had company because the handwriting isn't quite right, because the doodles aren't quite unconscious, because the sketches are showing themselves at the same time as working things out. I'm always struck by how much extra information the page is able to hold, to carry over into another time.

The idea that the page which holds the Laurentian sketch has also been holding, through the centuries, evidence of an encounter, a conversation, words spoken and emphasized with the jabbing of a stick of chalk—is a powerful one. It's often observed that drawings hold this kind of evidence in a way that paintings and other more 'finished' mediums do not, or that drawings yield this kind of evidence more readily to the viewer. But a sketch like this one, in which the strangeness, haste, unfamiliarity of Michelangelo's line only makes sense to me if I imagine that it was born out of words—it brings this latent quality of drawing right to the surface: so close to the surface that it brims the page and hovers in the space above it, in the space of the hands, the words, the spitting mouths, the questions and the hand-wrought elaborations.

print room 1000
Michelangelo Sistine 1000
Michelangelo Laurentian b 1000

Cat 13 (recto) Sketches for Parts of the Sistine Ceiling and Lunettes.
Cat 39 (verso) Outline Sketch for the Ceiling of the Reading Room of the Laurentian Library.