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  • In London, Michelangelo Is World Cup Competition
    24.06.2006 LONDON.
    By Mary Jordan, Washington Post Foreign Service

    The British Museum's Stephanie Gannon-Malcolm views the Renaissance master's "Portrait of Andrea Quaratesi." (By Ian Nicholson -- Associated Press)

    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.

    Cohen said he had gone to Rome and craned his neck to see the Sistine Chapel. Now, he said, he relished standing inches away from sketches that led to two of the chapel's classic frescoes, "The Creation of Adam" and "The Last Judgment."

    Like many Londoners, Cohen is a regular museum-goer, visiting museums about twice a month. A recent government study estimated that 43 percent of the British population had visited at least one museum within the past year. The grand British Museum, which has one of the world's most extensive collections of historical and cultural artifacts, including the Rosetta Stone, tops the list with 4.5 million visitors a year.

    "Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master" is one of the museum's most successful exhibits. Record numbers of people bought advance tickets; 150,000 have paid the equivalent of $18.50 to see it.

    "We could have sold this show three times over," said curator Hugo Chapman, who added that the draw was, "in a word: Michelangelo. Everybody has heard of him. He is somebody we are intrigued to know more about."

    From the 1,400 letters written by or to Michelangelo, the world has gained "an incredibly strong sense of his personality," said Chapman. Along with being a supremely gifted artist, he was "suspicious, solitary, touchy, jealous," delightful, too, but also "an all-around prickly character."

    Although he was recognized as a genius in his own time, Michelangelo still obviously hoped for something more.

    "I have finished the chapel I have been painting; the Pope is very well satisfied," he wrote to his father in an intriguing 1512 letter also on exhibit, referring to the Sistine Chapel as nonchalantly as a farmer might describe painting his barn. "But other things have not turned out for me as I'd hoped. For this I blame the times, which are very unfavorable to our art."

    The master did not specify what else had not turned out well, but presumably he wasn't talking about his David or Pieta, two of the world's foremost sculpture masterpieces, or the dome of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, which he designed.

    Before he died in 1564 at the age of 88, Michelangelo burned hundreds of his sketches; whether to shield them from copying or his own embarrassment remains unclear. But the act added historical value and interest in these fragile drawings that escaped the pyre.

    Next week, Chapman oversees the drawings being packed away in boxes, some returned to the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford and the Teylers Museum in Haarlem, the Netherlands, and the rest returned to the vast British Museum reserves. An expert in pre-1800 Italian drawings, Chapman has a special reverence for Michelangelo.

    But priorities are priorities. And Tuesday night, as devotees marveled at the strokes Michelangelo made with chalk and pen half a millennium ago, Chapman was glued to the television watching England try to overcome Sweden's stubborn defense.

    Stephen Monck, a museum staffer, finished his shift in the final minutes of the match and hustled over to the Plough, a pub near the museum's front gate. From the contemplative atmosphere of the exhibit, he walked into a raucous, elbow-rubbing crowd lifting pints and muttering "rubbish" and "useless" when England failed to beat the Swedes.

    "The guy could obviously use a pencil," Monck, 48, said of Michelangelo. But betraying an English heart, Monck praised soccer as a "different art form," even when Sweden scored dramatically in the dying seconds of the game, holding England to a 2-2 tie.