Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
Archers shooting at a herm
The handful of 'presentation drawings' that Michelangelo produced during the latter half of his life, and especially around 1530, stand at the very pinnacle of European draughtsmanship. Made as gifts for his closest friends, they were painstakingly worked and often imbued with personal meaning, the nature and full extent of which are not always clear to us. Despite their intimate nature, most were soon famous through reproduction in engravings, copy drawings, paintings, relief sculpture and carved crystals. The Royal Collection holds five of these magnificent sheets: Tityus, the Fall of Phaeton, the Bacchanal of Children, Three Labours of Hercules and the present drawing. All may have passed through the Farnese collection in Rome, but the circumstances of their acquisition, probably for George III, are not known.
No literary source has been identified for the subject of the Archers, but its neoplatonic meaning is so clear that it has no need of a specific source. A group of nude youths, both male and female, some hovering in the air, fire arrows (from non-existent bows) towards a target fixed to a herm. These arrows strike the herm and its base, and the edges of the target, but not its centre. Below, a winged cupid sleeps, his bow resting in his lap; to the left two putti kindle a fire. Thus mere striving - the frenetic actions of the archers, impelled by the burning flames of passion below - cannot achieve its aim. Only that which is guided by love will succeed; the winged cupid sleeps, and so the arrows miss their mark. The most curious element of the composition, the omission of most of the bows, may simply have been intended to simplify the composition and maintain the horizontal surge of the figures.
Inscribed: "D. Giulio Clovio copia di/Michiel Angelo"; etc.
Catalogue entry from Royal Treasures, A Golden Jubilee Celebration, London 2002