Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
The Fall of Phaethon
Recto: a drawing depicting the fall of Phaeton and his chariot, hit by a thunderbolt launched by his father, Jupiter who stands on clouds at the top. At the bottom are several mourning figures and a half-lying bearded man. Verso: a sketch of a half-length figure of a woman.
Michelangelo befriended the young nobleman Tommaso de’ Cavalieri in 1532. Over the next year he made four highly finished drawings as gifts for Cavalieri. This sheet depicts the myth of Phaeton, who begged his father Apollo to be allowed to drive the sun-chariot for a day. Phaeton lost control of the chariot, and had to be knocked from the sky by a thunderbolt from Jupiter.
The Fall of Phaeton is one of a set of four highly finished drawings that Michelangelo gave to Tommaso de’Cavalieri. The artist first met the young Roman nobleman in late 1532, and formed an immediate friendship that lasted until the Michelangelo’s death. As well as the drawings he also sent Cavalieri letters and poems. These ‘presentation drawings’ are perhaps the highest achievement of Michelangelo’s graphic output, and rank among the greatest drawings in Western art.
The first drawings that Michelangelo gave to Cavalieri, by 1 January 1533, were a Punishment of Tityus (Royal Collection) and a Rape of Ganymede. The following summer Michelangelo worked on a third drawing, the Fall of Phaeton, whose receipt Cavalieri acknowledged in a letter of 6 September 1533, writing that he had been visited by the Pope, by Cardinal Ippolito de’ Medici, and by ‘everyone’, all of whom wished to see the drawing. The Cardinal subsequently borrowed the Phaeton and the earlier two drawings to have them reproduced in carved crystals by Giovanni Bernardi da Castel Bolognese. During 1533 Michelangelo also drew the Children’s bacchanal (Royal Collection) for Cavalieri, and the four presentation drawings were acquired after Cavalieri’s death in 1587 by the great collector Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. The drawings seem to have left the Farnese collections around the middle of the seventeenth century, though as they were so celebrated in their day, reproduced in engravings, drawn copies and other media, it is puzzling that we have no record of their whereabouts until the Tityus was engraved by Francesco Bartolozzi in the Royal Library, Windsor towards the end of the eighteenth century.
Michelangelo followed Ovid’s account of the story of Phaeton, who begged his father Apollo to be allowed to drive the sun-chariot for a day. But he could not control the quadriga - it careered too high and the earth froze, too low and it was scorched, until the gods pleaded for the intervention of Jupiter, who with a thunderbolt knocked Phaeton from the sky. He plunged into the river Eridanus (represented here by a recumbent river-god), to be mourned by his sisters and his brother Cycnus, who was transformed into a swan. The story is an illustration of the consequences of hubris, and the drawing has been interpreted as an expression of Michelangelo’s feelings of Platonic love for the young Cavalieri, though the subject may simply have been a piece of moral guidance from the mature artist to the 13-year-old youth.
Though the composition is held together by a conventional pyramidal layout with a strong vertical axis, it is formed of three distinct, powerfully modelled figure groups, each of which is set against a separate and much more diffuse background. The effect is deliberately that of relief sculpture, with the figures as if in high relief and the backgrounds in low relief against the plane of the paper. The absence of a defined illusionistic space distils the event to a relentless chain of cause and effect, capturing the inevitability of Ovid’s tale.
Two other black chalk drawings of the subject by Michelangelo survive. A smaller sheet in the British Museum, probably drawn in June 1533, also arranges the composition in three tiers, though it lacks the vertical axis that is so insistent here. A sheet in the Accademia, Venice, is by contrast almost symmetrical, with the plunging figure of Phaeton flanked by two pairs of intertwined horses, and the reclining Eridanus, now at the centre of the lower group, throwing his hands up at the terrible sight falling towards him.
The London drawing bears a note from the artist to Cavalieri, offering to finish it if Cavalieri likes it, or if not, to draw another version; the Venice version bears a partially illegible message which reads ‘I have drawn it as well as I could; however, I am returning yours to you’. Which drawing Michelangelo meant by ‘yours’ is unclear, but this note might suggest that he essayed both the rigorously symmetrical Venice version and the more laterally spread London version before arriving at the subtleties of the Windsor composition. However, the Venice sheet bears on its verso studies for the Last Judgement, which would seem to date it to c.1534-5, and the more axial composition of that drawing could be seen as a development of the Windsor composition rather than a sketch rejected as too uncompromising.
Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007