Michelangelo bronzes discovered

February 2 2015

Video; BBC, Pictures: Guardian

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has announced (and put on display) the discovery of Michelangelo's only known surviving bronze sculptures. The  museum 'firmly believes' they are early works by the artist. The two allegorical male figures astride panthers were bought in 2002 at Sotheby's in London for £1.65m as 'Florentine School', and have since been subjected to various tests, as well as some more traditional art historical sleuthing. 

The key discovery was made last year by Professor Paul Joannides of Cambridge University, who found the below drawing in the Musée Fabre in France. The drawing is not by Michelangelo, but is thought to be 'a faithful copy' of one of his drawings, made by an unknown student, and it is, according to the Fitzwilliam;

[...] drawn in the abrupt, forceful manner that Michelangelo employed in designs for sculpture. This suggests that Michelangelo was working up this very unusual theme for a work in three dimensions.

Dr Victoria Avery of the Fitzwilliam says (in the above video on the BBC) that the drawing shows 'precisely this composition'. Sharp-eyed readers will see that it doesn't, in fact; the beast's head is lowered, the figure is more twisted, and the arm is placed differently. Also, while the drawing shows a finely feline, poised creature, the scrawny bronze beasts appear somewhat caricatural, and even dog-like, by comparison. Still, the Fabre drawing seems to be enough to show that Michelangelo was working on this subject.

The bronzes were also tested by 'neutron scan x-rays', which showed that they were made in either the late 15th Century, or early 16th Century. 

There is no pre-19th Century provenance for the pieces - when they were in the Rothschild collection. The earliest recorded attribution is to Michelangelo.

Another piece of evidence released by the Fitzwilliam is analysis of the anatomy carried out by (reports the Guardian):

[...] clinical anatomist Professor Peter Abrahams, from the University of Warwick, [which] suggested every detail in the bronzes was textbook perfect Michelangelo – from the six packs to the belly buttons, which are as artist portrayed them on his marble statue of David.

“Even a peroneal tendon is visible, as is the transverse arch of the foot,” Abrahams writes in the book that accompanies the discovery.

Avery said: “Whoever made them clearly had a profound interest in the male body … the anatomy is perfect.”

Of course, we must all wait to read the full evidence on the attribution (which is in a new book), but I must say I find the involvement of a 'clinical anatomist' slightly alarming. Is it really necessary? I've no doubt that Professor Abrahams is a leading authority in his field. But my experience of 'cross-over' analysis like this is that it's sometimes hopelessly misplaced; science most certainly has a role to play in making attributions, but it has to be done from within art historical confines, by people who absolutely understand the artistic point of view. But here, science is being used not to prove whether a material is of a certain date, or whether the technique of the casting is demonstrably that of Michelangelo, but whether a work of art is 'good' or not. And I'm sorry, but you just cannot judge artistic genius and human creativity on the basis of binary, yes-or-no scientific analysis. Indeed, while there's no doubting Michelangelo's gift for drawing the human figure (or, as we must call it here, 'anatomy') was amongst the finest in art history, I defy anyone to look at his Sibyls in the Sistine Chapel, and say, 'here is the perfect anatomy of a woman, it must therefore be by Michelangelo'. As one of the studies shows, the anatomy is sometimes that of a bloke.

Anyway, this is just me nit-picking. The most important evidence when assessing these sculptures must be the overall quality - are they good enough to be by Michelangelo? I haven't seen them, and I'm no Michelangelo scholar, but they are certainly very fine things. It's hard to disagree with Professor David Ekserdjian's initial view in Apollo Magazine:

This is neither the place nor the time to pass judgment on the matter, not least since the various contributions to a not insubstantial book presenting the case in favour of Michelangelo’s authorship will need to be digested thoroughly, but it is tempting to surmise that much will hinge on what people make of the connection between the bronzes and a drawing in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, which is generally agreed to be a copy of a lost early sheet of studies by Michelangelo, and certainly features spidery pen sketches of men on big cats. Whether posterity comes to the conclusion that the bronzes are by big M or not, they are unquestionably works of extraordinary quality.

You can see more images here, and while the 2002 Sotheby's catalogue is no longer online it seems, you can see their catalogue images here.  The pair were estimated at £100,000-£150,000, and sold for £1.65m.

Update - a reader writes:

Clearly much hinges on the drawing but also surely, in that context, whether other artists are known to have taken 'men astride big cats' as their subject matter? It does strike me as a very particular form and if nobody else took it up then this must add considerably more weight to the Michelangelo attribution.

Another writes:

[...] about the “Michelangelo” sculptures exhibited at the Fitzwilliam, you are very cautiously right (!), strange way to “attribute” such an important discovery. They look definitely more Venetian than Florentine…

Update II - a sculptor writes:

The nude 'bacchic' figures of bearded men astride panthers, formerly in the Rothschild Collection were clearly made by an artist with an exceptional knowledge of male anatomy. The wonderful  feet and the musculature of the chests and backs of both figures are certainly in a very Michelangelesque style. I wouldn't be surprised if he knew Michelangelo's drawings first hand as he was clearly very influenced by them, and his finished murals.

The heads are not however in the style of Michelangelo at all, apart from the twist of the neck, familiar from Lorenzo de Medici's tomb effigy and the great David. 

The give away is the hair.

The hair and the beards have curls deliniated and emphasised by deep curved, quite crude, parallel lines; something that Michelangelo never did in drawings or sculptures.

Look at the hair of the  early 'Angel with candelstick', the infant Jesus in the 'Bruges Madonna', the head of the David'. The hair is always built up from a series of interlocking domed shapes. The direction of the hair is indicating by a series of radiating (rather than parallel) arabesque lines. The impression of volume in the hair is further enhanced by hollows creating shadows.

Secondly,  the curves of the  lower eyelids are again too parallel and do not sufficiently radiate from the tear duct. 

These are marvellous 'mannerist' decorative bronzes but are not on the same level of artistry as any of Michelangelo's surviving sculptures.

Update III - Alastair Sooke in The Telegraph has this overview of 'lost art', and what else might turn up:

One of the things I love about art history is that its grand narrative is never set in stone. When I was studying at the Courtauld Institute of Art, seeking out obscure journals interred within mouldering book stacks, it sometimes felt as though everything that it was possible to say about the great art of the past had already been recorded. In triplicate.

But then along comes a news story like the announcement that the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has “found” two bronze sculptures by Michelangelo, when previously none was thought to have survived.

If the attribution proves to be correct, then at a stroke countless “definitive” tomes about the Italian genius will need to be rewritten. Isn’t that exciting? And tantalising when you consider what else is yet to be discovered?

He also, very kindly, quotes me in the piece.

Update IV - US artist Matthew Best has also revealed, on Twitter, two Michelangelo discoveries of his own:

In with a chance, I'd say...

Update V - The Art Newspaper has more on the team behind the new attribution, and what they did:

The Michelangelo attribution was made by Paul Joannides, the emeritus professor of history of art at Cambridge. His study of a sheet of drawings of around 1508 by a student of Michelangelo in the Musée Fabre, Montpellier, showed a composition remarkably similar to the bronzes, not to mention the highly unusual bacchic subject matter. This triggered further art-historical research by Joannides along with Victoria Avery, keeper of applied arts at the Fitzwilliam, two conservation experts at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Robert van Langh and Arie Pappot, and Peter Abrahams, the professor of clinical anatomy at Warwick University Medical School. The team was assisted by Charles Avery, the art historian, Andrew Butterfield, an Old Master dealer and Verrocchio specialist, and Martin Gayford, the art critic. 

Scientists at Oxford University’s laboratories that specialise in researching authenticity questions used thermoluminescence dating and determined that the bronzes were cast between 300 and 500 years ago, while conservators at the Rijksmuseum subjected samples from the statues’ cores to neutron imaging, establishing that the method of casting fits completely with what is known of contemporary Florentine practices. 

A minutely detailed anatomical examination of the nude male figures not only proved their exact correspondence with features (for example, belly-buttons, posterior back grooves, exaggerated abs) of other of Michelangelo’s male sculptures, but showed that their observation of musculature and torsion was anatomically correct in every way, a characteristic particularly of Michelangelo.

Update VI - another reader writes:

Far from the same cat.

The drawing has a cat with ears on the side of its head and weight leaning forward as if to move rather than the upright cats in the bronzes - also a wonderful long tail.

These could have been a commission for a particular purpose, but one might expect some written comment about them from their first three centuries.

Update VII - here they are in situ in the Fitzwilliam, as spied by the Simon Dickinson Twitter account:

Update VIII - another reader takes issue:

The expertise involved in the attribution is very impressive, and I am no expert on Michelangelo at all, just a fascinated amateur.  Yet the cats do seem underwhelming, and to my eyes the postures of the two men are oddly unstable and unconvincing, especially (in both aspects) compared to the drawing.  A great deal of the attribution seems to rest on the musculature: so was Michelangelo really the only Cinquecento sculptor capable of that, among those who might have had access to his drawings?

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