Even in his last days, fading, nearing 90, Michelangelo placed his faith in strength. He hammered the hardest marble. Instead of pouting when his apprentices displeased him, he beat them up. His statues never rest, for he saw in knotted muscles, in straining male bodies, an aspect of God's Glory.

He was fearless and proud. In competing for commissions, he went one-on-one with Raphael and with Leonardo, certain he could take them. He argued with the Medici, he walked out on the pope.

There is in his life-and in the twisting demigods he carved-that quality the Florentines called "terribilita."

The first Michelangelo exhibit ever mounted in America is now offering New Yorkers a whisper of his power.

The David is not here, the Tombs are still in Florence, and the Moses stayed in Rome. "Michelangelo and His World: With Drawings from the British Museum," at the Pierpont Morgan Library, does not, despite its splendors, do the titan justice. This show is made of paper, but Michelangelo reserves one carved in stone.

The library has borrowed 41 drawings (on 24 sheets) and has augmented that loan with autographs and letters, works by other draftsmen, and manuscripts and books from its own collection. But Michelangelo Buonarotti was above all else a carver. There are no sculptures in this show.

He died on Feb. 18, 1564. "Shortly before his death," reports his friend Vasari, "he burnt a great number of sketches, studies and cartoons, so that no one should ever know the extent to which he had struggled to achieve perfection."

One flinches at the thought of those destroying flames. His drawings show no weakness. Some are free, some highly finished, but even in the sketchiest we see his strong hand moving with absolute authority.

He is struggling toward the spiritual. The drawings here are prayers, prayers not prayed with words but with the forearms, thighs and muscled backs of the male nude.

The women that he carved often looked like Amazons. The have the strength of weightlifters. The breasts of Night, of thick-thighed Dawn, are ridiculous appendages. A man posed for his Leda.

But Michelangelo's love is not a sensualist's, and Freudians who note that his mother died when he was 6, and that he never married, may misconstrue his passion. He thought the male body godlike. The nudes now at the Morgan-the Christ upon the Cross, the bathing soldier, the famous red chalk study for the Sistine Chapel's Adam-will never evoke titters. "They are," writes Kenneth Clark, "both poignant and commanding." They mediate between the fleshy and the spiritual. They belong to a realm higher than our own.

They are the opposite of prissy, yet their splendor has about it, as does the Mona Lisa's, an aura of androgyny. Unlike Botticelli's Venus, or the statues of the Greeks, the men of Michelangelo do not begin to offer us a norm of human beauty. Their muscles bulge, their waists are far too thick. If they came to life, his twisting, writhing athletes would seem monstrous and disproportionate. Yet they have moved men deeply for 400 years.

Perhaps that is because their dense-yet-flowing volumes achieve a restless balance, a concentrated harmony, that no other Western sculptor has begun to match. Perhaps it is their sense of huge God-serving power; perhaps it's the emotions, the heroic, poignant feelings that they manage to express. The genius of Michelangelo is not easily dissected, but it is felt, it's there.

Michelangelo may well be a better sculptor than draftsman, a better draftsman than painter. Leonardo da Vinci, who knew him and disliked him, thought the painter's art the highest and sneered at those who worked with stone.

"The sculptor in creating his work does so by the strength of his arm," wrote Leonardo, "and this is done by the most mechanical exercise, often accompanied by great sweat, which mixes with the marble dust and forms a kind of mud daubed all over his face. The marble dust flours him all over so that he looks like a baker, and his house is made filthy by the flakes and dust of stone. The exact over so that he looks like a baker . . . (who) sits before his work, perfectly at his ease and well dressed."

Michelangelo was no more at ease than are his straining figures. There is a letter at the Morgan, dated 1512, in which he writes that "I live meanly . . . with the greatest toil and a thousand worries. It has now been 15 years since I had a happy hour." Nor was he well dressed. "As he grew old," Vasari notes, "he took to wearing buskins of dog skin on his legs, next to the skin; he went for months at a time without taking them off; then when he removed the buskins, often his skin came off as well."

All his life he labored. Alone he did the frescoes on the Sistline Chapel's ceiling; he painted the last Judgment, he carved the David and the Moses, the tombs in Rome and Florence, the Vatican's Pieta; he designed St. Peter's Dome.

The drawings at the Morgan, some of them mere sketches, are but traces of his monuments. At first the show seems small. Only when one ponders the hand and mind that worked these sheets of yellowed paper does this exhibition loom.

Florence was a town of some 40,000 souls, yet nonetheless it produced Giotto, Donatello, Dante, Petrarch, Botticelli, Cellini, Leonardo and the Medici, and not least, Michelangelo.

Outside the Morgan Library are skyscrapers and cars and millions of New Yorkers, yet the Florence this show brings to mind seems at least as grand. The show remains on view through July 28. CAPTION: Picture 1, A presentation portrait of Andrea Quartatesi; Picture 2, Study for Adam in "The Creation of Adam," 1511