In London, Michelangelo Is World Cup Competition

The British Museum's Stephanie Gannon-Malcolm views the Renaissance master's
The British Museum's Stephanie Gannon-Malcolm views the Renaissance master's "Portrait of Andrea Quaratesi." (By Ian Nicholson -- Associated Press)
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 23, 2006

LONDON -- The night was dark outside the British Museum. The streets around it were empty. But inside one wing, well after closing time, the Michelangelo exhibit was mobbed.

Youths in black carried their skateboards, iPods playing the British rave band Arctic Monkeys shoved into pockets. Elderly people leaned on their canes. In the dim light, thousands stood in silence to focus on the artist's 90 drawings, ranging from Annunciations to Crucifixions to male figure studies. One man sheepishly tried to copy a drawing on his own sketchpad. A child marveled at the mastery Michelangelo displayed 500 years ago.

In its final days, the exhibit has remained such a sensation, even during World Cup matches, that the museum has extended its hours for the first time in its history. Crowds have packed the gallery each night this week until 10. Tomorrow, the place is open until midnight.

"If I didn't see this I would have kicked myself afterwards," said Steven Solomon, 36, who creates special effects for films.

Tuesday night, Solomon couldn't keep his eyes off his favorite: the Study for "The Erythraean Sibyl."

"Look at the detail! The crosshatching, the washing!" he said, marveling how Michelangelo used his strokes to create such startlingly realistic folds in draped cloth.

Even though the British Museum, which owns most of the drawings, allows students, scholars and others access to individual pieces, the last time a similar exhibit was mounted was 1975. "It might not happen again for 20 or 30 more years. I had to get a ticket," Solomon said, expressing a key reason why so many have rushed to see the three-month show.

Londoner Angela Gibb, 32, said she was hooked the first time she saw the 17-foot marble David sculpture in Florence. "My kids know Michelangelo as one of the Ninja Turtles," she said, shaking her head. But Gibb promised she would enlighten her small children about the master behind the pizza-eating turtle's name.

At Tuesday's late-night opening, there were only a handful of children. It was a school night and match night -- England vs. Sweden. But Nekaylan Naidoo, 11, on vacation in London with his parents from South Africa, said he was impressed: "He was quite a professional when he was only 16."

Anthony Durham spent an hour silently gazing before walking serenely out into the late night, his visit made sweeter, he said, because it allowed him to miss the hard-drinking hoopla around the latest Cup game.

"I went on purpose at game time," said Durham, 28, who insisted he couldn't care less that England was battling Sweden while he savored the Florentine master's red chalk sketches. "The whole football fanaticism is not what I call civilized." An insurance executive, he preferred the purity and perfection of the art.

Harvey Cohen was simply enthralled. Cohen, 70, a law professor who draws for a hobby, stood in front of a sketch of one of the naked male torsos and tried to copy it on his pad of paper. "It takes a bit of courage to stand here in front of Michelangelo and draw," he said, lauding the "motion and emotion" the artist created with chalk and paper.

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