But questions of what came first arise here too, centered on a marble sculpture called the “Young Archer.” For many years, this figure of a nude youth had stood, barely noticed, in the Cultural Services of the French Embassy on Fifth Avenue, across the street from the Met. Then in 1996, an art historian identified it as a Michelangelo. The call was hotly debated, but the attribution has stood. And the “circa 1496-97” date now attached to the work makes it altogether possible that Michelangelo carved the figure at age 21, making him the prodigy he claimed to be.
With this sculpture, he had found what would be his favorite subject, and the one that would make his name: the heroic male body. Approximately a decade after the “Young Archer” came the colossal “David,” and with that Michelangelo was a star, a Medici darling, and on his way to becoming the new kind of public celebrity he aimed to be: not just a highly skilled maker of things, but a multitasking, miracle-working aristocrat of creativity called a genius. If Michelangelo didn’t coin the term, he (with a reluctant nod to Leonardo da Vinci) coined the type.
Prestigious commissions, in painting, sculpture and architecture, piled up. In 1504, he was asked to do a fresco for the Council Chamber of the Palazzo della Signoria, the seat of the Florentine government. Leonardo, more than 30 years his senior, and no friend, was assigned the opposite wall. The idea was that they both would paint a historic battle, Michelangelo’s being one in which a troop of 14th-century Florentine soldiers interrupted a swim in the Arno to take an enemy by surprise.
He turned the scene into a polyphonic chorale of pumped bodies: abs, pecs, lats, glutes, buns. We know the image well, though the fresco — thanks to the first of what would be endless Medici interventions — never got beyond the full-scale cartoon stage. Ink and chalk sketches on paper of the individual figures exist. So does a drawing of the whole composition, now so smudged it looks like a puff of smoke. The most vivid piece of evidence is a large 1540 oil painting here by Bastiano da Sangallo, who saw the finished cartoon before it was whitewashed out.
All of this material, now scattered among museums — the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Albertina in Vienna — has been brought together at the Met. This is how the exhibition, organized by Carmen C. Bambach, a curator in the museum’s department of drawings and prints, works. It ingeniously reconstructs Michelangelo projects by assembling related designs in dense, connect-the-dots clusters.
This is, of course, the only way to present architecturally scaled art, or long-vanished things. The show is as close as we can now get to seeing the massive sculptural tomb of Pope Julius II in its many aborted iterations; it was this “urgent” commission (years before Julius’s death) that pulled Michelangelo off the battle fresco. And a selection of plans — scribbled on paper scraps, spread across pasted-together sheets — for the facade of the Medici parish church of San Lorenzo adds up to a beguiling archive of thinking-in-progress. Rarely has architectural design felt more expressively personal, moody, painterly, calligraphic.
Part of Ms. Bambach’s goal, and one that she pursues in her labor-of-love catalog, is to revisit the original Renaissance concept of design — disegno — as a theoretical category, an aesthetic and ethical end in itself. A basic idea was that just as the physical world represented, in every shade and contour, divine labor so, on a human level, did (or could) art. Michelangelo benefited mightily from this elevation of the artist from workshop drone to deity (and brand). In his later megastar years, people actually referred to him as God. The Sistine Chapel ceiling is a work of disegno in excelsis: the story of the Creation told through superhuman craft.
The exhibition’s long central gallery is given over to the ceiling, a project so complex that Michelangelo gave up organizing a production team and did most of the job himself. You can see him plugging away at it, on scaffolding just under the ceiling, in a self-caricature drawn in the margin of a handwritten sonnet. “I’ve already grown a goiter at this drudgery,” he grouses. “My brush, above me all the time, drips paint, turning my face into a perfect drop cloth.”
In the Sistine paintings — the male body — and nearly all the bodies are male — are muscle on top of muscle, Arnold Schwarzenegger circa 1975. The Classical ideal — balance, just-rightness — has been pumped out of existence. Mannerist too-muchness — the 21st century knows a lot about this — rules. Neither the ceiling, nor the later, nightmarish “Last Judgment,” is art you’re invited to love. It aims to overpower you, make you feel small, crushed by cosmic history. Some viewers find the experience a thrill. I’ve always found it off-putting.
It’s in drawings that I start to feel close to this art and its maker. One chalk-sketched titan has an oddly lumpy, imperfect, maybe-not-young body; and he’s sleeping. Clearly, he’s a studio assistant who’s been roped into posing at the end of a day. And while the mood of the “Last Judgment” fresco is full-orchestra cataclysmic, ink sketches for it can be light, almost tender. In one, the resurrected dead float in space, speck-like and weightless, like birds lifting off from a foggy lake.
And then there are drawings generated by tenderness itself. This is true of a gallery devoted to fanciful “divine heads,” including one of a doleful Cleopatra, that the middle-aged artist made as gifts for young male aristocrats — Gherardo Perini, Andrea Quaratesi, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri — on whom he had developed crushes. His black chalk portrait of Quaratesi, who was 37 years his junior, as a somber dreamboat with plush lips and faraway eyes is here and it’s an eye-stopper. So are several discretely erotic mythological drawings he gave as Valentines to Cavalieri who, whatever the sexual nature of their bond, became a lifelong friend. He was at the artist’s bedside when he died at 88 in Rome in 1564.