Michelangelo's drawings at the Courtauld gallery are intimate encounter with an artist in love

In one room, this sensational exhibition shows the greatest drawings that survive from Michelangelo's hand

The Courtauld gallery, that sombre, academic institution, dares to go where Irving Stone never went in his bestselling novel about Michelangelo, The Agony and the Ecstasy. It refutes, with all the authority at its command, centuries of bowdlerisation that have left the nude saints in Michelangelo's painting The Last Judgment still – in 2010 – emasculated by prudish drapes. It gives us the unmade movie Michelangelo in Love, pouring out his soul in art and verse to a handsome youth whose beauty crystallised all the longings inherent in Michelangelo's art ever since he carved his teenage masterpiece The Battle of the Centaurs, with its vision of life as a tumult of wrestling male bodies.

This is a sensational exhibition in more ways than one. It is the most intimate encounter with Michelangelo yet staged by a British gallery but, if you come for the story, you will stay for the art, for here in one room are the greatest drawings that survive from his hand. Most of Michelangelo's surviving sketches are just that, sketches for the sculptures, paintings and buildings that awe visitors to Italy: only a handful of his drawings were intended to be enjoyed as works of art in their own right, and he made most of these as love gifts for Tommaso de' Cavalieri. They are brought together here to release you soaring among winged, ascending and falling beings in the strange and wonderful atmosphere of Michelangelo's "chaste desire", as he described his passion for Tommaso.

Michelangelo's devotion is right there to see, in an amazingly slavish note he scribbled on a drawing of the hubristic Phaeton falling from the sky after he tried to drive the sun god's chariot: "Master Tommaso, if this sketch does not please you, say so …" It must truly have been an overpowering love to reduce Michelangelo, who refused to take orders from popes, to such servility. And what a drawing it is: horses sculpted in delicate black chalk fall in a nightmarish vortex towards twisting mourners whose grief is literally rooting them to the spot. Beside it his finished drawing of the same tragedy, presumably completed after listening to Tommaso's comments, portrays Jupiter high in the heavens hurling a thunderbolt from the back of an eagle. Images of eagles keep recurring, as if in a sex dream scripted by Freud. Michelangelo's most explicit present for Tommaso portrays the classical myth of Ganymede, the beautiful boy carried away by lustful Jupiter who has taken the form of an eagle to achieve his rapture; imagine being young Cavalieri and getting this gift from your famous, older admirer.

Love was in the air in Renaissance Italy, and Michelangelo's drawings compete with the heterosexual hedonism of Titian's paintings: his wonderful red chalk Bacchanal responds to Titian's Children's Bacchanal. But Michelangelo's drawings for Cavalieri are more personal and confessional than any other Renaissance renderings of saucy Roman myth, and what you are left with, as you contemplate the Courtauld's magnificent possession The Dream, which sums up all existence as a striving of bodies and a yearning of souls, is an immense love for this most courageous and human of artists.

Jonathan Jones's book about Michelangelo is published by Simon and Schuster in April.

Contributor

Jonathan Jones

The GuardianTramp

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