This enigmatic and diaphanous composition, on which the present engraving is based, was drawn in black chalk by Michelangelo around 1533. It is probably one of the presentation drawings given by the artist to the object of his passionate and enduring love, the young Roman nobleman Tommaso de' Cavalieri. The rather vague common title Il Sogno(‘The Dream’) was given to the drawing by Vasari in 1568, but it’s meaning has been the subject of discussion for centuries. Today, Erwin Panofsky’s interpretation of this composition as a moral allegory of the human soul, awakened from vice to virtue, appears to be generally accepted.
At the centre of the composition is a half-reclining male nude, in his pose not unlike that of Adam in the vault of the Sistine Chapel and also of Lazarus being raised from the grave. The figure is awakened by an winged genius or angel with a trumpet hovering in the air above him. He sits on a box, open at the front and revealing a collection of theatrical masks. In a position that is highly unstable, he rests with his arms and side against a sphere.
In the background is a multitude of interlaced figures, surrounding the central figure in a semi-circular ‘halo’: amorous couples, a drinker, a figure roasting a goose, and a couple of disembodied phalluses at left; several fighting figures, a crouching man, and two hands holding a money bag (a detail not without sexual innuendo either) at right. These figments of the dreamer’s imagination presumably represent the deadly sins, while the masks in the box are symbols of worldly illusion and deception. The sphere can undoubtedly be read as a metaphor for the uncertainty and fragility of human life.
According to Michael Bury (2010) 'a variety of different engravers, working for different publishers and probably (...) motivated by different objectives, were responsible' for engraving Michelangelo’s compositions after his drawings. He argues that they were 'well known and accessible, either directly or indirectly through reasonably accurate copies'. Bury believes that the first engraved version of Il Sogno, published by Michele Greco (or Lucchese) before 1545, was made by an anonymous printmaker. He also considers the present version, until recently attributed to Nicolas Beatrizet, as the work of an anonymous engraver, active in the circle of the publisher Antonio Salamanca whose address was added to the plate in the second state. Both engraved versions show some additional elements in the foreground not present in Michelangelo’s drawing, indicating that either one was derived from the other or that both are based on a slightly altered, now lost copy of the original composition.
See M. Bury, Michelangelo's Dream and Prints, in S. Buck, Michelangelo's Dream, 2010, London, p. 66-73 and 167-70, cat. 14.
In the catalogue of the Davidsohn sale, the present impression was erroneously catalogued as a first state, before all addresses.